Living With Strangers

For the last four months of 2001, I sublet a room in a quiet neighborhood on the Durham-Chapel Hill border. This decision was questionable from the start. But they wanted $400 per month and I was poor and desperate – two things you shouldn’t be when looking for housing.

On my initial tour of the premises, my future landlord greeted me with a flashlight. “Before you see the inside,” he said without introducing himself, “I want to show you the mangos.” So he walked me out to a makeshift garden and showed me the mangos. I was not impressed but faked it.

“The next thing you need to see is the workout room.” The workout room consisted of a punching bag in an otherwise-empty screened-in porch. He proceeded to demonstrate, kicking it furiously. I now knew never to be late with rent. He offered me a turn but I declined.

This man’s name was Hector.* He called himself the homeowner, though I had my doubts. He rivaled me in age (22) and showed no signs of employment. His back windshield alleged an affiliation with Durham County Technical College, a school whose existence I could never verify. On various occasions, he said he was on the cusp of “joining the CIA,” “heading to law school” and “opening a salon, for men.“ His cousin, Joy, was a fellow roommate. A month after I moved in, they started sleeping together. We all handled the Anthrax scare differently.

He was filled with intrigue, as was his house.

One October Sunday, he woke us at 8:30 for the first (and only) “House Meeting,” held outside. This was shocking but not a complete surprise. The Wednesday before, he’d left a crude agenda under my door; I’m sure the date and time were on there somewhere. That was the same day I received a letter rejecting my BP gas card application – the low point of a low period.

In any event, as a member of the house, my presence at this meeting was insisted upon. We were five strong; our patio set was one short. Not to worry. Hector had a plan. This plan consisted of us relocating two 300-pound basement couches to the backyard. Up a flight of stairs. Through the kitchen and living room and out into the yard – all the while negotiating tricky turns and tiny doorways. When I asked why we needed both, he said he was planning to bring them up anyway (“To get them some sun.”) I’ve never witnessed another couch owner demonstrate this practice, and can’t imagine it’s something normal people do. Regardless, it’s not something I was about to try before nine on a Sunday. Hector eventually retrieved a dining room chair.

When Hector called the meeting to order, we half-heartedly debated whether to cancel HBO and Cinemax (No), discussed what we wanted to recycle (Nothing), and wrangled over the prospect of Hector’s brother parking in our driveway while he vacationed in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (Whatever).

He asked if any neighbors had approached us. This question made sense, because I’m sure my sublet was completely illegal. An old man had once asked me when I was going to cut the (“god damn”) grass. But I wasn’t compelled to offer up this anecdote. The story could have led either to my eviction or my lawn-mowing, two of the more frightening possibilities at that point in my life.

One question didn’t come up: why was our kitchen wall adorned with an 8×10 photo of baby Hector being breastfed by his mother? I considered mentioning this during the “House Issues & Concerns” segment, but thought better of prolonging the episode. Besides, people’s disbelief of the picture was the only reason anyone ever came to visit.

I haven’t mentioned Marion & Costanza yet, German graduate students studying Biology at Duke. They were marginal characters I knew little about, like Phil and Paul on Cheers. At this meeting, they seemed equally disinterested. Costanza communicated this with frequent shakes of her head, while Marion gave voice to her irritation (“You are wasting my time, Hector.”) With that, she stood up and walked back into the house. The rest of us soon followed.

Hector caught me in the hallway, just feet from my bed. “Do you know where the blender is?”

Interpreting this as an accusation, I took offense and declined knowledge.

“Well,” he added, “that’s why you need the tour.”

This wasn’t on the agenda.

“You need to know where everything is in the kitchen.”

I don’t know on what this was based. I’d understand if this came in response to a frustrating series of incidents, in which I constantly peppered him with questions regarding the whereabouts of mango splitters and colanders and wooden spoons. But that never happened.

“In the cabinet under my mom’s picture, we keep not only the baking pans, but the egg-beater and cheese-grater…”

This went on for ten minutes before a ringing phone gave me the 30-second interruption I’d been craving. Escape replaced sleep as my top priority. I grabbed my keys and jogged through the tall weeds towards my car. I pulled away just as Hector came running out the door. I ignored him, but his voice carried all the way down our street.

“Jason! Jason! Come back! What about the couches?”

*Not really his name.

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