Her landlord thought she was nuts. Or minimally, just super annoying. Her fear of complaining was reaffirmed by the small white note that appeared in the mailbox the very same day of the complaint. It was a polite notification that the rent would be increasing by $100 in the next month. She had lived there for two years, and never anything like this, until this single day when she had to say something. But how could she not? It was a feat of strength, and a struggle, every single time the key went into lock. It was a game of probability. There was a 0.3 probability that it would not turn the bolt to the left. Then another 0.3 that it wouldn’t come out, or even turn at all. That under 10% chance occurrence happened on the morning of the complaint, or better stated, the morning of the meek text message that started it all. This time, however, the sheer force of exerting her entire 121 pounds on the key made the inside of her inner knuckles bleed. Are complaints justified if they draw blood? The note was followed by silence. Sometimes great mistakes can be undone if you pretend they never happened at all. But it’s called “wishful thinking” for a reason. The silence after a storm is not convincing that the storm never happened at all, but rather, that damage caused and a call for reflection can cohabitate in the same moment. Such combination is a recipe for contemplation and forgiveness. But she worried in this case it was an eerie foreshadowing of proactive action and manipulation.
Her landlord was on, she thought, a strategic mission to be rid of her. Did these things work like most relationships, in that one party gets bored and wants to change things up? The landlord had asked twice in the afternoon when she visited about how many years were left in the PhD. The second asking was rationalized with an abrasive comment about being short of hearing, but it was a passive aggressive statement that cut into her, sharp and suffocating as she imagined it would be for a sumo wrestler modeling an elastic bikini. Actually, about half of what the landlord said, the girl didn’t understand at all. She was a petite Asian woman, fiery and commanding despite her small stature, usually dressed in a flowered shirt that was a cross between a nurse’s scrub and a sweet smelling pajama. Her eyes were beady, so that there was no possible way to look deeply into them and infer if understanding or empathy was instilled. She had clearly worked hard her entire life, made no excuses, and demanded respect. But these qualities also made her extremely hard to read, meaning that trying to sift through her actions to uncover true intentions was about as easy as bringing a strainer to sand and maple syrup. A pancake of worry started to roll up in her mind. Was she not the ideal tenant she imagined herself to be? In the middle of the night she had taken to blending ice drinks to ward away the dank heat. She did not pay for utilities, but every so often turned on a fan hidden in the window to flush the hot air out of the apartment. She responded to a gas leak by not asking for replacement pipes, but by unplugging the stove and using it as a glorified laundry organizer. Finally, she regularly placed recyclables in the trash bin, mostly out of sheer laziness and a “collective action failure” frame of mind that her single instances of defaulting on recycling wouldn’t make any difference toward planetary well being. Recycling wouldn’t have been so terrifying if the bins and dumpster didn’t evoke the backyard scene from the 1990’s movie “The Sandlot,” the night-time smoothies wouldn’t be necessary if she wasn’t so darn thirsty all the time, and the fan wouldn’t be needed if she wasn’t so highly allergic to every airborne pollen, mold, and dust mite. If only her immune system had more strength than a lethargic cat. Perhaps her landlord had picked up on these details and the evidence was now too far stacked against her favor to pull herself out of the hole that she had slowly dug with a plastic spoon.
There was a sudden knock at the door, and she responded immediately. It was her neighbor across the street, an older Indian man, one that she had only seen briefly on walks, and he would always cross the street immediately to avoid the dire possibility of crossing within awkward feet of her on the same sidewalk. Or maybe it was her that did that. He seemed to have knocked at the door and was yelling at her, dressed in his usual faded blues, from across the street. How did he move so quickly? But then she woke up, and it was clear that her neighborly interaction was just the tail end of a dream. Her dreams were always vivid, visually more distinct than reality itself, and sometimes a more interesting place to be. It was immediately apparent that something was burning. She looked down at the mattress next to her hot pink pillow: her small space heater had fallen over and was face-planted on the mattress like a toddler that had fallen over and lacked the arm strength to do anything about it. She recovered him, Delonghi was his name, and was immediately grateful to her dream neighbor’s warning. The last dream she had that related to real life was back when she was 8 years old. She dreamed of swimming in a green river, getting painfully bitten by an alligator-thing in the foot, and waking up immediately having fallen out of bed with a twisted ankle. At least this time she caught the hazard before Smokey the bear-thing showed up in her dream to roast marshmallows.
It was pitch black. Maybe she should make a smoothie, why was it so hot? The nightingale was still singing, maybe he wanted a smoothie too. She went to the bathroom quickly to resolve the prior two hours of waking up and drinking a small ocean, and then went to sit at her desk. Her mind was busy at work, and she tucked her knees up under her chin to support her massive head. And then she saw the spot on her left knee, just a hair and a freckle to the bottom right of her knee cap. Actually, a “freckle” is quite the appropriate metric of distance, because this spot used to be one. And then possibly the world’s first insight inspired by a freckle came to be. A cascade of warm, pink joy started to creep into her toes, all the way up to her knees, down again to her base, up through her torso, and then slipping out at the corners of her lips. The emergence of this smile was due to the realization that everything must change. Her angst wasn’t about the lock, or the landlord, but the same fear of uncertainty and change that made her cling to routine. There was a certain comfort in knowing the intricacies and details of her world, a foundation made of smoke and glass. For 28 years she had garnished a birth mark in that spot. It was real, certain, tangible. Then one day, it was just gone, and as silly as it seems, she learned to appreciate her new knee without its identifying mark. Her knee spot formerly-known-as-freckle reminded her that tiny details were a form of mental blankie, providing comfort in not changing, but in reality being rather inconsequential. What is true for freckles is also true for more important things. Some amount of digital money that gets buzzed from one account to another, represented as a slightly different rendering of pixels on a screen, was exactly that. It could make her feel in or out of control depending on how she decided to feel about it. And thus we stumble on the strength that comes from making choices. She felt a sudden appreciation and understanding for her landlord, and for all the freckles that never were, and used to be.