It was the spring of my Junior year, and I had just signed my first lease. I called home to celebrate.
My dad picked up. His voice conveyed markedly less “YEAH!” and notably more “Yeah???”
“Does it have a doorman?” he asked, before I could even get to the part about four girls sharing a converted one-bedroom.
“Does it at least have all the smoke detectors?” he followed, just as I was getting to the bit about inking the deal sight-unseen.
Things got worse when I allowed my parents to move me in that summer.
We pulled up to my place on a blistering Chicago afternoon. It was the kind of day that made Death Valley seem like a delight.
Mom spotted a beautiful little colonial on her side of the car and smiled. I redirected her gaze to the building across the street, and her lips flopped.
We jimmied our way into the three-story, ever-so-slightly leaning building. The doorman was permanently out to lunch, and from the looks of it, so were the health inspector, locksmith, building manager and trash collector.
Twenty-seven stairs led us to my new front door. Each step revealed a fascinating new stain and tattered Chinese takeout menu. One shapeless loafer lingered on the landing. My parents’ silence cut through the distinctly unique odor of vinegar and spit up dunked in mildew.
We made it through the front door and six steps into the living room before my mom’s high pitched cry hit the paint chipped windows. I was impressed she made it that far.
A cursory inspection revealed a host of quaint features.
The toilet flushed courtesy of a duct tape rope connected to the window lock. I’d have preferred to bathe in a major metropolitan puddle than in the tub.
The screened-in porch sunk toward the middle and listed toward the backyard. Its walls also doubled as a waterfall when it rained, but we’d have to wait until the first heavy storm to uncover that charming addition.
I teetered toward the porch windows and spotted red beer cups tumbling through the crab grass. The only flowers in the garden were stitched onto a broken couch.
All the while, my mom spun a slow, small circle in the kitchen. Her eyes clung to the electric blue walls, as her feet conducted a hybrid squeak-stick. It appeared an overly caffeinated bear had soiled himself as he tore across the linoleum floor.
“My daughter cannot live like this,” my mother whispered to herself, as if to say she might be ok with all of this if instead her son were legally bound to the joint.
I discovered my father perched on a ladder in my “bedroom,” wielding a measuring tape with a contractor’s precision.
He stood inside a vampire’s wet dream. A previous tenant had painted the walls in what I call “Slit Your Wrists Green” but Benjamin Moore might dub, “Midnight Forest.” At just six feet wide, the room felt about as spacious as a the bumper lane at a bowling alley, and I had to put the longer side of my mattress against the wall, otherwise it touched both sides of the room. I’d be sleeping on a day bed floating in the middle of glorified closet. The tree-lined view was lovely though.
“Just needs a bright coat of paint. Don’t worry,” my dad said. Apparently, my emotional elephant consumed the whole room.
So, we loaded back into our Expedition and hightailed it to the Home Depot. Mom filled her basket with enough cleaning supplies to open a meth lab. Dad swept the place like an old pro. I bought a wave-shaped mirror. Because, clearly, that would fix everything.
Twelve hours later, the apartment looked suited for one drunk bum instead of six, ham-handed heroin addicts. In college terms, I was now living in a high-class establishment. My bedroom looked almost brand new – the old green paint only peaked through six fresh yellow coats if you squinted at the crooked crown molding the wrong way. Where a tar pit once rolled across the kitchen, Magic Eraser revealed a “well-loved” black and white checker. The bathroom. Well, it would do.
One-by-one, my roommates, who also happened to be my coolest college friends, arrived. And the quirks just kept on coming.
Jess announced that the wall between our bedrooms was just a thin piece of sheetrock. Should have known when I could hear her slipping on a shirt in morning. A curtain would have been more sound-proof. And definitely more charming.
Abby found some bongo drums and a couple of mardi gras masks left for dead years ago. Those things became living room regulars. It wasn’t unusual to find someone perched on our salvaged couches, pounding out half a rhythm and shaking the tail feathers on their face.
And together we discovered that running more than one appliance at once blew all the fuses. Which sounds manageable, unless you’re four girls all attempting to blow your hair dry and microwave Hot Pockets before going out.
And, of course, there was the morning six husky Russian men burst into our apartment.
Although, in retrospect, I guess we brought that one ourselves.
The first week we moved in, we asked the landlord for windows that opened. You know, for breathing purposes. No answer. So the next week, we demanded. And when that failed, we threatened with a lawyer we didn’t have and definitely couldn’t afford.
Still, we heard nothing. Until exactly 6:59AM one quiet October morning, when a husky voice bellowed through our plank front door. It sounded a little like “FEEX VINDOW. NOWWWWWWWWWWW,” and a lot like the start of a 48 Hours special.
I stumbled to the door in nothing but an oversized shirt emblazoned with a cigar-smoking bulldog. Before I could even exchange pleasantries, the sweatiest of the pack shouted, “FEEEX VINDOH. NOWWWWWW” again and burst into the living room. The group took to frantically dismantling our window frames. Somehow, one of these mystery men had infiltrated a back bedroom and was now standing directly over Alex’s bed, still screaming, “FEEEX VINDOH. NOWWWWWW.” Of course, this was the one night she had chosen to wear ear plugs and an eye mask. So when she finally came to, all she could make out was a very large, very angry man flapping his lips in the pre-dawn light, all-the-while perspiring onto her Marimekko sheet set. Alex catapulted out of bed and onto our shedding living room carpet. We stood there, she in terror, I in exposed polkadot underpants, and watched in complete shock.
It took twenty minutes of bold hand gestures and unnecessarily slow English pronunciation to piece together why these men seemed to be converting our apartment into a covered patio. Our Landlord had finally heeded our request for 21st century windows. However, he’d failed to tell us he’d be sending over a team of ex-cons to do the job. It’s the little details. But, we should have known from the state of his property that subtly wasn’t his strength.
This should have been the worst year of my life. After all, it featured home invasion, a smidge of black mold, and the occasional indoor flood…oh, and an electric shock so bad it lead to an unannounced kitchen renovation that felt a lot like a four-month dust storm. But that story will have to wait until Alex recovers from the emotional trauma of writhing on the floor like one of those balloons at a car dealership. Which I’m told is approximately never.
Somehow though, against all odds, nothing has topped my lap around the sun at 1103 Simpson.
I spent twelve months learning how to find belly-aching humor in complete disaster. And I got to do it while holding hands, sometimes literally and oftentimes in random costumes, with some of the coolest chicks I may ever know. Those 700 square feet dragged us through total crap, but it minted lifetime friendship membership cards for us too.
So I guess I owe our little pit a thank you for proving that cliches sometimes really are true – with one addendum: Home really is where the heart is…as long as you have a Costco-supply of Lysol.