I want to introduce the camera’s eye immediately. Let there be no question that I am watching from a distance. I am adamant that this new woman not be made uncomfortable, that she stays, largely, out of this. Allow her to be the undisturbed point I write around. She looks, from what I can tell, like Selma Blair, a dark pageboy and pale skin. She takes her time with her questions, her thinking. She defers to her partner from time to time, to ask him about the placement of a table, a lamp, though she would be living here on her own. I don’t want to make much of her at all, except to draw the parallel between us. She is in my space, I was once her—asked her same questions, nodded of course as my landlord offered anecdote and definition.
At the core of this is a lease. Services provided, rules agreed to—the look around the room and the sigh of resigning oneself to living far beneath the bounds of not only the imagination, but of expectation and comfort, and often enough, beneath the bounds of dignity.
The lease: a set of boundaries for which a person is willing to pay. Boundaries of space and time and effort. These boundaries vary by state and landlord. For Sterling, which is not this landlord’s real name, the line between one thing and the other bled. He owned the place. I rented the place. Who owned the atmosphere? Whose peace of mind should be preserved? The boundary between doing good and wrongdoing is nothing but terms twisted into barbed wire. So many feral gestures, unchecked deeds, pass through. A person who feels he can do what he wants and then does it. Is he an American success story, or an ass—a freethinker, or a criminal? He is all of these, of course. And let me pause to spread these labels liberally, including many, including myself.
In response to Sterling’s lease, I bought a Canary—a small, unassuming security camera. It could hide in a row of books, or pass for a speaker. For the last year, I have known when lightening struck outside the window, when the floodlight was switched on, when a mouse or a bat had been on top of my writing desk, when Sterling brought strangers in during the day or the night, when Sterling let workers in, when the dust coating my belongings was asbestos, when he sat down and broke into my router. I knew what Sterling thought of my decorating, what Sterling thought about me.
The Canary switched on when he brought this woman and her partner in to look at the apartment. I was leaving the university. She was joining the university. This was a rare occasion—perhaps the one occasion—when he told me he would enter. It made me proud, that he seemed to have learned to write, to call, ahead of time—first, two weeks, then a week, a day in advance—without my saying a thing. There was once a two-month span during the winter when I didn’t see him at all, heard no comment on my legs, no guesses about my sex life, didn’t hear him whistling into the doorway and up the staircase. During this time, I asked my neighbor whether he was still alive. He still cashes the rent, doesn’t he? For months, friends had been insisting I report him to the police. For what? Suspicions about cameras, petty Internet theft, trespassing, making me uncomfortable with his encompassing presence? Unless it was with my looks, my body language, I said nothing to him. Meaning, I did not say stop. Meaning, I tried to laugh at his jokes, but would more often sigh and look away, to where I’d been trying to go before he caught me in the hallway, the yard. When he stood outside my door at night and said, Are you in there?, no knock was necessary. He owns the door and holds the keys.
There’s a pause in the text as I consider whether to go on, and how. The division in my thinking is the division between past and present.
He hasn’t said or done anything any other man hasn’t said or done. A paraphrase from the news. They ask a woman in a Midwestern bar about a 2016 presidential candidate. She is a brunette in leather. She looks like my cousin. I think, That’s true. Then, Get out of there. I want to tell her to leave that bar, that town. There are other ways to live, I want to say, ways of living where this is not true.
On the other hand, there is this piece I won’t write. It’s titled, “Trump Impersonations.” In it, I would detail all of the times a man who identifies as a progressive idealist, etc. has complained about America’s surge in misogyny, etc. since the 2016 election, lampooned the victor, discussed ways to counter the rhetoric—and then dealt it.
One man asks the other, Can she handle it? The other man says she can. The first man tells the woman he’s saved her a seat. Right here: he waggles his tongue between his fingers.
Or switch out both the characters and the actions—One liberal asks the other, one student asks the other, one teammate asks the other, one of her friends asks the other, one of his coworkers asks the other. What does the question mean: Can he/she/they handle it, whatever it is, and what if it is violent?
I used to handle it very well. In my rural hometown, handling it was a necessary social grace. There is a triangle shaded light to dark and the triangle is made of three points: Continued Existence, Refusal to Weep, Ability to Find Charm. Handling it finds a space within those points. Handling it exists on a spectrum. Sometimes, it is flirtation. In the right circumstances, it can be a compliment. This is so rare, it can’t go unquestioned.
For instance, at sixteen, I stood in a high school gym after a basketball game. Someone older than me by five or six years told friends he’d like to pound me—a phrase I’ve modified to sound more genteel, less vulgar. (Am I asserting control over the story, or am I afraid to claim the rhetoric? Am I censoring him—now a dear friend, and one of my oldest—for his sake? And if so, how many times have I done this with how many others? In truth, we sometimes laugh about this moment, and that is the only way we think of it. But even this gives me pause now. At what, exactly, are we laughing—our youth? Or the way I’d been conditioned to respond, how “girlish” I was then?) When his words worked around the gym, I blushed. What a compliment, I thought. I can remember the striped sweater I wore that night—cable knit and thick. I had worried it was unflattering.
It is a joke, it is a compliment, it is locker room banter, it is something neither of us wants to have associated with us anymore, because it is not a joke, a compliment, or banter. And what right do I have, someone who once responded genuinely to—who welcomed—tasteless remarks from a then-stranger (and from others, many times over, until, as one man said, I broke), what right do I have to be angry when my landlord talks about my legs and trespasses on his own property?
At a dinner with a writer visiting the university, we begin to talk about Sterling. The department chair says, “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have taken care of it.”
I say, “I’m from the Midwest. I can deal with it. He just doesn’t understand the things he does.”
The chair says, “Spoken like a true victim.”
Let me pause to say there isn’t paper enough to list what occupies the darkest corner of the triangle, especially as its color bleeds into the lightest corner. There is no fixed point at which suggestion becomes threat, where threat becomes violation. They exist in a state of becoming.
For months, Sterling did not make me angry. But I was poised to be enraged.
I began to watch footage from my Canary whenever I was out. There were entrances that weren’t being reported, for which I didn’t get notifications. Perhaps this was due to lighting, or Sterling moving too slowly. I began to look for violations beyond the obvious. I began to look for something that felt worse than discomfort and wariness. Many times after I left the apartment, the Canary reported that he came in five to ten minutes after I had exited. How closely was I being monitored, I wondered, and how? Did he knock before he entered, or did he simply tell the door he was coming in?
I did not tell many people about Sterling, but the few I did tell were certain the apartment was filled with cameras. A female friend told me that I was enabling Sterling, that I was complicit in a larger narrative of abuse. My brother-in-law told me that if I didn’t report Sterling to the police, I was subjecting a long line of women—Sterling rents to only women—to whatever it is I have been subjected to, and likely worse.
(Is my searching what bothers me? The fact that I was perched, in one of the oldest metaphors, for my prey? Would it bother me more or less if I knew my camera was the only camera in the apartment—that I was the only one watching every move? Sometimes, it seemed Sterling called only to chat. To tell me he had just finished doing squats in the makeshift basement gym below, or to wish me happy holidays. He told me, twice, that he had put his dog down—same dog, two tellings. Will you allow this behavior to be both endearing and bizarre?)
With each new notification from the Canary, my goodwill was struck down.
At the end of my year as visiting faculty, over drinks, I tell the department chair that it had not been a good year for me to be there.
The chair says, “She really wanted that place.” He is talking about my apartment, and about the woman who had come to look at it, the one who might look like Selma Blair.
I want to move into the idea of wanting. That year, I wanted to leave. The idea was vague and urgent.
The Canary recorded a bat swooping through my apartment and I returned days later ready to bag it. Instead, I opened the screen door to find the bat dead, wrapped in its own wings. It had crawled under my apartment door, along the hallway, down a curving staircase, and under a door, only to die at the screen. The bat had also wanted to leave.
I followed suit. I was tired of looking for cameras and Sterling’s hallway whistling, but I did not want to be any particular place. I left on weekends and existed elsewhere. Spent my time. The wanting to leave the apartment bled into the town, the university. I began to read Sterling into most male motives. I threw the majority of that year’s life into the trash. I regret much of that throwing.
I have always been compelled to perform, as though the performance’s end was a desire. The performance (eagerness, helpfulness) has landed me in relationships, activities, cities that I had not wanted. Was this, too, part of handling it? Was the impulse to act related to want or to prevention? To desire or the fear of retaliation? Perhaps, even, the fear of indifference, of being treated indifferently? And what happens when the impulse vanishes? When the self is at odds with the life it has built, with the life it has told itself?
Over the phone, I tell a friend I’ve made too much of this situation. She doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Then I remember that many people don’t know. I was afraid Sterling would overhear me talking about him.
I sat in my office at the university when my phone chirped with a notification from the Canary. I watched Sterling show the apartment to this woman and to her partner. Sterling called my office when she left. He mentioned this woman was joining the English department. I shook. I rushed down the hall. I told the department chair to warn her off. Off what? I wondered as I spoke.
“Or just let her know,” I said. “She might be fine with it.”
“Most people aren’t fine with being recorded.”
“I just don’t know if that’s happening. It could all be fine. It really hasn’t been that bad.” I said some of this out loud and some in my head as I made my way back down the hall. I had been going to the chair’s office a lot. I needed input, assistance on a situation, and he had rounded up the university’s forces to help. A male student had developed an obsession with a female student. The obsession had taken to disrupting the class in loud, extravagant bursts. At the time, it was not clear that the bursts were part of an obsession. There were also emails, and out-of-class activities—discovered much later. It started with general nervousness from the male student, and what I assumed were long bathroom breaks. In the end, it was recommended that the female student finish her classwork independently. For the rest of the term, the class said exclusively kind things to the male student and offered little critique of his work. This meant I interrupted his monologues, which were often vague and off-topic and always passionate, very gently. The students behaved this way automatically, as if a switch had been flipped. You should be reading this and thinking that it is backwards. That this is recommended behavior for a hostage situation, and not a classroom. And not an apartment. And still. Some reactions are automatic.
The chair knocks on my door. During the worst of it, he offers to come to class with me.
I never take him up on this. Instead, in class, I keep his number and the number for campus security on speed dial, and keep my phone in my pocket.
I cannot help myself—I still take a healthy delight on being complimented while wearing a striped shirt.
Sterling’s Final Sentiments
1) “I’ll miss you. If you need a recommendation, put me down. I’ll tell them about all the loud sex parties you had, all the nights with multiple partners.”
2) “That woman, she was strange. I’m really pretty glad she didn’t move in. She wanted to know which rooms the sun hit and when. Fussy stuff. When I bring someone in, I want it to be easy. I don’t want it to be a whole lot of work. You’ve been great. Really easy. I’m gonna miss you.”
1. I’ll start with the petty: the spelling, the grammar, the incorrect dates, etc. I was not sure whether it would ever hold up in court. I asked him if he didn’t want to at least correct the spelling of my name. He said it was fine. The DMV wouldn’t accept it for a number of reasons, which led to other complications. He told me many times that he was unable to spell because he had once been a lifeguard.
While a lifeguard, he used flag semaphore—a way of spelling words across long distances. He had abbreviated too much. And no one wore pants around that town, beach town—then or now. When would I learn that? I don’t remember whether he told the woman this when she visited, or not. He brought it up with me following most written communication. I have kept no tape from her visit.
2. Keeping the premises in good order. I did what I could. The bathroom walls were made of an old cardboard variant that must have once looked like veined marble, but now looked like old cheese. A previous tenant had dyed her hair, and there were splatters of brown dye surrounding the sink. The kitchen walls, which were papered with pineapples and Christmas wreaths, had what looked like fist holes in them, and I covered these with a calendar and a set of drapes. I knew I could not have people over unless they had known me during other times. Meaning, I had one guest. There were two dark burn circles on the counter from someone setting down a pan. The woman noticed these and Sterling acted as though he had not seen them before. (As I watched, I dared him to go through my cupboards to find a pan that matched the rings.) He called me a real pig, and then laughed. I still don’t know whether or not this was a joke, but I know it should have been.
3. He kept a gym down there. Olympic-style rings and a bench press. He often invited me to use it.
4. It seemed he used the hallways for his own storage, or for things left behind by other tenants. Outside my door, there was a microwave and a desk. On the staircase to my left were brooms, bleach, paint rollers, buckets, and so on. Whoever went up there had to pick through a medley of home improvement goods. There were two staircases that reached my apartment, and the other was repainted while I lived there. I avoided it so that, each night, I wouldn’t have to see that someone had left the door unlocked and open. One night, the police came in that way, knocked on my apartment door, and asked whether I had stolen a car.
5. The security deposit was returned with no problems, and with nine cents interest. He gave a reference while I looked for a new place to live.
6. No pets were allowed, but residents often had pets. When I had my visitor, Sterling allowed him to bring his dog. I asked each time, and got it in writing. Selma Blair planned to get two dogs. “Do you know how to take care of them?” Sterling asked. “What kind do you want to get? Have you thought of getting smaller dogs? Do you know they’re a big responsibility?” I thought again of the gray space between the things he said and the things he wrote in the lease. How the gray space turns the renter into a child, saying please for so many things.
7. Another: Houseguests are not permitted. The woman gestured to her partner and asked Sterling, “But would it be possible to have others visit occasionally? Could, say, he visit me?” I had asked the same thing. Hearing this woman echo the same question the same way—tentative, almost oversweet—the eldest von Trapp child asking for a taste of champagne—the thought of this intelligent woman signing her social and sex life over to Sterling. If the questions about the dog were not enough, this question was. Sterling said, “Of course he can visit sometimes, but if he gives me any trouble, I can take care of him.”
8. The right to enter at any time. I had asked him if this meant what it said. I have in writing from him that it didn’t, doesn’t. And yet. It is possible—it is perhaps the case—that I signed my privacy away. That his trespassing was not trespassing. Do emails count as legal amendments? Text messages and conversations? Would the lease cover the many other people who walked through unannounced, with or without Sterling, doing things in rooms the Canary couldn’t see? I don’t remember whether this woman asked him about this. I think perhaps she did, and that he said, “If the windows are open when the heat is on, I’ll come in. That’s it.” And that she likely said, “Yes, of course.” Do I want to call this a trick or a lie? Or does he just not know any better? And, how could I not know any better?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katherine Zlabek’s work has appeared in Boulevard, The Kenyon Review and The Literary Review, as well as other journals. In 2012, she won an AWP Intro Journals Award. Ricochet Editions published her chapbook, LET THE RIVERS CLAP THEIR HANDS in 2015. Her novel-in-stories LOVE ME, AND THE WORLD IS MINE has been a finalist in a number of competitions, including the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. She earned her MFA from Western Michigan University and her PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she was a Taft Dissertation Fellow.