by Pamela York Klainer
That the new lease arrived in a bulky envelope requiring extra postage was an ominous sign. Rose extracted the lease, fighting an early sense of foreboding. She had, after all, been close to a model tenant these past ten years. What new landlord would not value a quiet, mature single adult who paid the rent on time and did little things like put a seasonal wreath on her door to spruce up the hallways? Surely even someone who introduced himself as “the new investor-owner” would want tenants who treated the property well and planned to stay on.
The actual lease was behind the curt letter of introduction. Rose put the letter aside, not being so sure what an “investor-owner” was, and began to read. Effective with the next month’s check, her rent would increase by twenty-five dollars a month. The new owner would be separating the meters for each apartment, so tenants would be billed directly for their heat, gas and electric, and water usage. Tenants would pay a pro-rata share of the building’s taxes, exterior maintenance, and winter snow removal. Tenants would be individually responsible for basic repairs and maintenance of their units. A tenant who violated any provision of the lease would forfeit the entire security deposit and incur responsibility for the landlord’s legal fees, including those leading to the eviction of said tenant. The lease went on for almost ten pages, with the print unbearably small.
The Rose who began to read was a woman secure in her surroundings. She had a large living room. Sun streamed through the big center window, creating light and warmth for the cat who rose only to greet Rose coming through the door. The slightly smaller kitchen overflowed with plants and baskets. Rose grew fresh herbs all year round, enough to create a gourmet meal for an army although Rose almost always ate alone. The bedroom was the tiniest room in the place, but Rose had managed to squeeze in a fine chiffarobe she’d bought for a steal at an antique sale because nobody wanted that old dark wood anymore. Rose’s single bed had flat storage underneath. This was comfortable space, serene and familiar. Rose sat in her chair and read on.
The Rose who raised her eyes from the last crisp legal paragraph was a stranger, an interloper, a guest in a space no longer hers. She had expected a modest rent increase. She had hoped the nice handyman, he who mowed the lawn and shoveled the walk and fixed things for the tenants for free, could be kept on. She had not expected a burden that neither her budget nor her temperament could bear. The cat, perhaps responding to the silent tension in the room, left the front window and began to paw at Rose’s stockings, seeking a response. There was none. Rose, lost in thought, was planning her move.
How hard could it be, after all? Leaving her husband of twenty years had been hard, and their girls still didn’t understand her upending their lives like that. Finding a new place to live couldn’t be hard. Her requirements were modest. She needed a safe neighborhood, because she came and went alone. She wanted three rooms, and at least the living room needed sun. Extra storage space would be nice. She had boxes that she’d brought with her when she left home: her doll collection, a few fine pieces of china that had come down to her from her mother, and the Christmas decorations which her husband had told her he didn’t give a rat’s ass about. None of it had been out of the boxes these last ten years, but Rose had hope that one day she’d have wall space and shelves for at least the dolls. She might never have a house again. In fact she doubted she would, not unless she met a Prince Charming, and who did that at her age? But she might have wall space. People did, even in small apartments.
Rose found her hopes dashed in no time at all. Sunny apartments in safe neighborhoods with wall space and plenty of storage came dear. Trooping in and out of dark, cramped rooms at the fringes of what landlords called “the next urban gentrification” made Rose’s spirits flag. Her requirements, modest though they were, would have to lessen. She would have to parse. None of the apartments, absolutely none, came with room for her boxes. The stuff she had kept with her all these many years would have to go.
Late at night Rose rocked alone in her chair, the darkness broken by a single, soft lamp. Out of habit she stroked the cat. What if the boxes did have to go? Not having her doll collection and the china and the ornaments didn’t mean she’d never get on her feet again. She might. Or she might not, but a different path might open up. She had read about explorers who went around the world with nothing but a backpack. They had a very exciting life, and she was sure they never gave a second thought to any boxes. Rose’s eye wandered to the small framed portrait of the daughter who had barely spoken to her since the divorce. She had a nearly matching frame that held a picture of her other daughter and grandson. The boy was too small to have judgment about Rose’s leaving home, and for that she loved him dearly. Some day she would explain to him what her daughters refused to hear: that the past ten years had been better than any other time in her life because she had been free. Well, better in all but one way. Rose sighed, thinking about her meager resources. Financially things weren’t better. She would never have chosen to be at the mercy of a lease.
Rose rocked on, growing annoyed at herself as the cat slept and snored gently in her lap. Where had she ever gotten the idea that bringing all those boxes from home was a smart thing to do anyway? She might even feel better, lighter, when all of that was gone. Having a place for her things was probably a pipe dream anyway. At least a few of the places she’d looked at would let her bring her cat, and having a live body to greet her when she came in was surely more important than chipped china or musty old dolls.
In a building that housed six tenants Rose’s apartment was remarkably quiet that late at night. Words formed, took shape, forced themselves in front of her half-closed eyes. Is it so much to ask, to have a decent place that I can afford with room for my dolls? Is it so much, just to want that?
The sudden intake of Rose’s own breath startled her. The cat, equally startled, jumped to the floor. Now fully awake, Rose stood, shook her head, smoothed out the folds of her skirt and briskly went to make some tea. Enough of that. The lease had not singled her out, every tenant had received the same document. So be it. Tomorrow’s paper would have new apartment ads, and she was getting better at reading between the lines so she didn’t waste precious time seeing places that could never feel comfortable or safe. Once she had a new place she would find great satisfaction in giving this new investor-owner his notice. Getting rid of her boxes would simply make the move easier and less costly, and she could be off to a nice fresh start.
Rose poured boiling water on the fragrant tea leaves, picked up her cup, and walked to the darkened window. She felt a stab of fear, wondering if all decent apartments now came with stringent leases, and whether all landlords were investor-owners. Again she shook her head, impatient with herself.
The steaming tea kept brewing, growing almost too strong, and the porcelain cup nearly scalded her hands before she remembered to take the first sip. Wanting to wait until the tea cooled a bit Rose placed the cup on the windowsill, folded her arms, and stared into the night.