The Landlady

This is a true story that happened to me and my wife, back in our young, blissfully stupid days. Names have been changed to protect identities.
At the time, my living conditions were somewhat strained. I and my lovely girlfriend Kate had just moved in together, or rather, she had moved herself into my minuscule room. Being a boy, I had something like three possessions, but Kate brought with her a small department store’s worth of clothing, which quickly devolved into a messy heap that sat beside my bed. Half of my room suddenly became inaccessible, confining all our activities to the bed itself. Not such a terrible thing, but occasionally uncomfortable when it came to things like smoking and eating.

Adding to our discomfort was my neurotic roommate, Clinton. Clinton was a hipster masquerading as a laid-back guitarist, but really, he was stuffy, conservative, and borderline obsessive-compulsive. Clinton required the house to be Ikea showroom clean, at all times. The slightest sign of our apartment being lived-in would give him an anxiety attack which he would relieve with an oversized bottle of wine. Once, the morning after a wild house party, he repainted our walls and furniture completely white, sternly warning us never to do such an irresponsible thing again. Don’t get me wrong – he was a nice guy, but he was difficult.

After a couple of weeks, relations inevitably began to sour. To be fair, living with a couple is deeply annoying, and we were as annoying as they come. And although we weren’t excessively messy people, neither were we particularly clean; certainly not Clinton clean. So he began to leave irritating little post-it notes requesting clean-up. If he was feeling confrontational, the note would be in capital letters. The tension eventually became reached boiling point and I told Clinton I was going to move out as soon as I found somewhere. He enthusiastically agreed, unable to keep the smile off his face.

Thus began the hunt for a decent apartment, available at the very last-minute. I searched solidly for a couple weeks, but the students had taken the good ones, because they presumably had their lives in order. Growing desperate, I went to view a one-bedroom in a run-down street near a trendy neighborhood. It was a dusty old house with three floors, the middle for rent and the other two occupied. It looked like a shitehole, from the outside at least. I knocked on the door and Lucy, the landlady, opened it.

Lucy was a middle-aged rock chick with a morbidly obese pet puggle. She showed me around the room – it really was one room – followed by her puggle, panting like he was on the brink of collapse. The floor was open-plan with the kitchen, living room and bedroom all part of one large area. The bathroom, mercifully, was separated by a sliding door. I looked around at the faded curtains, chipped paint, and piles of dog hair. I inhaled the odor, reminiscent of a bonfire fueled by stale cigarettes. It was awful.

“Any questions?” Lucy asked.

“When I can move in?” I replied.

A week later, Lucy kindly helped us move our meager possessions with her pick-up truck. We arrived at the house and smoked a joint together. She seemed cool. A little eccentric, but cool. Me and Kate were happy; as small and shitty as the place was, at least it was ours. We had some semblance of privacy, compared with what we were used to. Lucy and her husband David lived in the basement below us and an elderly American hippy, Tim, lived on the top floor above us. It was a slightly intimate living situation but the thing that made it downright weird was the door leading down to Lucy’s basement, directly facing our bed. It was never used, but it just felt … wrong. I’d never slept in front of a neighbor’s door before. Plus, it perfectly amplified all the sound from the basement into our room. All the sound. Sometimes we could hear her eating cereal.

Lucy would watch TV all night, every night, and the sound would blast directly onto our bed like a nightclub speaker. We would lay awake for hours, listening to reruns of South Park, interrupted by Lucy’s drunken laughter. It was tough, but we endured. We were deeply happy, in love, and we finally had our own place.

We woke up one afternoon in a stoned stupor, a slammed door having noisily awoken us. Lucy’s voice, shrill and cracked, blasted through the walls.

“WE’RE GETTING A FUCKING DIVORCE!!!”

Thus, it began. Lucy and David would argue pretty much every day, or rather, Lucy would argue with him. We started to know more intimate details about our landlady’s marriage than any other tenant in history. David had a child from a previous marriage and therefore needed to maintain a civil relationship with his ex-wife, and met with her to pick up his child about once a week. Lucy appeared spitefully, insanely jealous of this arrangement, and did everything in her power to make him regret his former marriage, and poor life choices in general.

Eventually, we grew used to the deranged yelling streaming constantly from below. Having grown up in a household where screaming argument was considered background noise, I felt perfectly at home, even slightly nostalgic. Kate on the other hand, was very uncomfortable with the situation, not least because Lucy kept attempting to hang out with her at every opportunity and divulge additional highly personal information about her toxic marriage.

Lucy had decided that Kate was young and trendy, therefore they were going to be best friends, whether Kate liked it or not. Occasionally I would wake up and Lucy would be in our living room, sharing a cigarette with Kate, talking incessantly. I always found it difficult to hide my displeasure at such occasions and she would eventually make an exit after a prolonged, forced goodbye hug. She knew I didn’t like her. But she was, once we got to know her, profoundly unlikable.

Lucy was the type of person to stop and give money to every homeless person she walked past, as long as somebody else was with her to bear witness to the good deed. Her puggle was a rescue dog and she never let us forget it. She projected to the world a kind and saintly image, while just below the surface lay a highly selfish, unstable woman with a love of drama, and addiction to attention. And drugs. She really loved drugs.

One day, me and Kate foolishly decided to purchase a couch we found in a cheap catalog, without seeing the actual product in person. It was cheap and it was leather, so we figured, why not? Delivery day came and the couch was unceremoniously dumped in front of our house. It was not leather. It was hard to discern what material it was, but it was black and shiny. I called my younger brother over to assist me move the thing, assuming it would only take a couple minutes. He grudgingly arrived and we lifted it up and pushed it through the door, where it instantly jammed tight, at the thickest part of the couch. It wouldn’t budge. We scratched our heads and unsure what action to take, rolled a joint.

The next two hours were a nightmarish haze, with me and my brother shoving with all our might and seemingly making progress, only to look again and see the couch was still there, jammed in the exact same spot. It was like one of those endless tasks of ancient Greek legend, like filling a bottomless barrel full of sand, or rolling a heavy rock up a hill only to watch it fall. The problem was that the hallway became steadily narrower the further you got, so the couch was slowly making progress, but also, becoming more jammed with every inch. In our weed-induced fog, we failed to see it was impossible and resolved to persevere. We pushed and pushed, taking time out occasionally to smoke more weed. My brother took a break to make sandwiches, twice.

Eventually, long after the point when it stopped being funny, Kate knocked on Lucy’s door and asked for David’s help. Reluctantly, he agreed. It seemed a little awkward. I knew every detail of the poor man’s strenuous marriage and this was the first time I’d laid eyes on him. He was a giant of a man, muscular and fit, but had a certain weariness about him, a stoop to the shoulders. He was far more relaxed than I anticipated, patient and understanding of our irredeemably idiotic situation. After much discussion and multiple attempts, we all agreed the couch would never fit in the front or back door, ever, and would be left in the back garden until we thought of something better to do with it. It stayed there for a long time.

Lucy took the opportunity to invite us for a drink, so we sat and chatted with them. They were both pretty drunk; Lucy hyperactive, David slurry and calm. She berated David playfully, with an undercurrent of malice behind every word. David sat and accepted it, occasionally even agreeing. I felt sad for him, seemingly stuck in this screaming match of a relationship. We said our goodbyes and went to bed, exhausted from our ridiculous ordeal.

The next morning, I took Lucy’s clinically obese puggle for a quick walk, then let him back in her basement. I called Lucy to let her know he was taken care of. Then, she asked me a strange question.

“David’s not answering his phone, can you check on him?”

I wasn’t sure what exactly she meant.

“Just walk into his room and see if he’s still asleep.”

This seemed like an invasion of privacy way beyond eavesdropping on his domestic disputes. Instead, I resolved to knock on their front door, hard, and call his name. No answer.

“Could you just go check on him and see if he’s breathing?”

At this point, I was genuinely confused and asked Lucy why on earth she was asking me to do this. She laughed.

“Just ‘cos I work in a hospital and I get really paranoid sometimes. Plus he’s not answering his phone. Just let me know if he’s still breathing.”

I hung up the phone and stood at the doorway, debating with myself. I tried to imagine my reaction if David entered my bedroom and checked my breathing. I decided not to. So I texted Lucy saying I heard him breathing and that he’d probably call her eventually.

I quickly forgot about the weirdness of the morning, as Kate and I took a trip to Ikea to look for furniture that would fit through our tiny hallway. On the way there, Lucy texted us both relentlessly, repeatedly requesting that we wake David up. We decided to ignore her.

Arriving at Ikea, Kate and I immediately started arguing, like all couples foolish enough to go to Ikea together. In the midst of a disagreement about pillowcase patterns or something, my phone starting ringing. It was Lucy. Rolling my eyes, I picked up, and asked, what’s up? Between sobs, she yelled,

“DAVID DIED IN THE BASEMENT THIS MORNING!”

My heart practically stopped. Nothing could have prepared me for this moment. I didn’t know what the hell to say, so I stuttered an, “oh my God” and, “I’m sorry.” She told me the police were at the house, waiting to talk to us, then she hung up. I pocketed my phone and looked at Kate. Suddenly the color of our pillowcases didn’t seem to matter.

The first thought to enter my head was guilt. Why didn’t I check on him? Why did I pretend I heard him breathing? Then Kate voiced a different concern.

“How did Lucy know?”

I thought about it for a moment. Why the hell did she ask me to check on his breathing? She didn’t mention a medical condition. She attributed it to her own random paranoia. It was almost like she was hiding something.

During the ride home our theory of what happened to David had evolved into a full-blown murder mystery. We deduced that Lucy had murdered her husband by spiking his whiskey with drugs she stole from the hospital, taking care to choose substances that would be untraceable in a police autopsy. With absolutely zero evidence, however, we decided to keep our theories to ourselves while taking to the police. Their questions were pretty basic: did they argue a lot, what they they argue about, etc, etc. We were able to give them more information than they needed.

Over the next few days, we learned that David had died in his sleep through heart failure and had been discovered by Tim, the old hippy who lived upstairs. Lucy asked him to check on David after I pretended that he was fine. David was found dead at the scene, having passed away several hours earlier. The cause of his heart failure was never known.

Our living situation had descended from merely uncomfortable, into a full-blown fever nightmare. The blaring TV at night was now accompanied by Lucy’s ghoulish weeping. She started to drunkenly call Kate at random times of night, requesting her presence downstairs. About a week later, she started seriously partying, blaring music, yelling, and having loud sex with random guys. When she wasn’t doing any of these things, she would be weeping. But her crying sessions sounded bizarrely theatrical. She once cried out,

“WHY God? WHY?! I’m only 39 years old and I’m a widow!”

Kate turned to me and said,

“She told me she was 42.”

Lying to God about your age is a sign that things aren’t quite right. We avoided Lucy like the plague and tried to avoid thinking about murder conspiracies, especially while lying in bed, facing the door that led downstairs to her “murder” house. More than once I had a nightmare about her breaking in, brandishing a knife. As much as we tried not to view her as a scheming murderess, she played the part very well. She would brag to Kate about how much money she had inherited from David, and seemed to love the attention and sympathy bestowed upon her. Her grief was always pantomime wailing, never a quiet tear. Maybe we were smoking too much weed at the time, but she really creeped us out. For my brother, she had become a deathly figure out of a horror film. On his way out, he would ask me to accompany him to the front door, seemingly afraid she would attack him in the hallway or something.

Lucy’s behavior grew steadily more erratic. She became aggressive towards us, to the neighbors, to David’s family. She changed the locks twice, claiming David’s ex-wife was after her. Eventually, she told us she was going to Costa Rica for a while, to get away from it all.

We grew used to the silence in her absence, so when she returned, the parties and the manic shrieking seemed so much worse. The final straw came when I chased the cat around the house one night and she called Kate, screamed down the phone about how we were making too much noise, accused us of “not being there for her,” then chucked a shoe against our door and yelled,

“FUCK.”

We decided it was time to leave. We frantically searched Craigslist and found a place within a few weeks, a beautiful loft, with a gym, sauna and no insane woman living beneath us screaming obscenities. The intense relief when arriving at our new place was indescribable, and the first night’s sleep, undisturbed bliss.

As the horror of the last few months faded to memory, and our excessive marijuana consumption slowed to a halt, we looked back on the situation with renewed clarity. I thought about David’s mysterious death and Lucy’s unexplained foresight. I reckoned that David had most likely died during his sleep, drunk, maybe coked up, after a frustrating night helping two dumbasses move a couch. I suspect Lucy may have known he was dead the morning after, but went to work anyway, hoping that he was OK, calling me and Tim to make sure, perhaps not wanting to deal with the reality of calling the police to come collect her dead husband. But it’s hard to say.

Her erratic and suspicious behavior might just have been the way she dealt with the situation. After all, she’d just lost her partner of the last ten years, and she was used to a life of constant sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Who the hell were we to judge her grieving process?

The whole thing made me reflect on the limited amount of time we have to spend on this earth before we suddenly vanish, forever. David spent his last few years in a turbulent relationship, being torn in half by two women, numbing himself with drugs and drink, before going to bed one day, unaware that he’d never wake up again.

The lesson I took from it was this: don’t waste your precious time staying in poisonous relationships, romantic or otherwise. Toxic relationships drag you down, into an endless spiral of unsolvable conflict, until before you know it, your last day on Earth is over, and you spent it helping two stoners push a couch through a doorway, that, in retrospect, was obviously way too small.

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