Just like with everything else, I expect her to take one look at the place and run screaming right back to California, but she steps into the small space and turns in a slow circle. I watch her carefully, waiting for a lone tear to roll down her porcelain cheek. I don’t like watching women cry, but something tells she’s very much in need of a dose of humility.
“Does that shower work?” she asks, pointing to the corner.
I smirk. “Only the finest 68-degree Texas well water.”
“And I’m assuming there’s no A/C?”
Even though it’s shaded by trees, it feels like a hundred degrees in here.
“There’s a breeze at night if you open the windows.”
She nods and takes her lower lip between her teeth. She’s thinking, probably contemplating how far she’s willing to go to stick it to that husband of hers. Surely if she let him know about these living conditions, he’d give her enough cash to rent a room at the nice hotel down on First Street.
Her pale blue gaze shifts from the dingy bed to the bare floor and then finally, she faces me. The expression I see is one part resilience, one part defiance. It’s fuel and flame.
She heaves a sigh and drops her purse at her feet, effectively setting up shop.
“Thank you. I’ll take it.”
I don’t know which problem to address first—I’m drowning in them. Jack left me standing alone in the middle of my new apartment. I’m referring to it as an apartment and not a dilapidated lean-to because I believe in the power of delusion. If I look at this day and this quaint country cottage as an adventure, then it becomes fun and exciting (!) instead of bleak and depressing.
The place is tiny, about the size of my freshman dorm room…except my dorm was outfitted with Pottery Barn decor and a spunky roommate named Janine. This apartment is outfitted with permanently airborne dust and the unmistakable smell of mildew. My only companion is a tiny spider staring down at me from his web. I now know the true meaning of the word inhospitable is a place that might put you in the hospital. There’s a rusty rake leaning against one wall, and a merry band of loose nails scattered about on the threadbare floor.
I feel sense and reason trying to creep back into my brain’s control room, but I shut them out in favor of blind optimism. Sure, the structure should probably be condemned, but it’s nothing I can’t spruce up with a little imagination and a lot of elbow grease.
I decide to start small and turn my attention to the twin bed resting against one of the walls. With a nice place to fall asleep tonight, my entire perspective on life might brighten. Look, I tell myself, it already has a blanket and a pillow. Jeez, is this a shack or the Ritz? I sure can’t tell!
I pick up the blanket and the pillow twitches. I furrow my brow and cock my head to the side, because my entire life thus far has led me to believe that inanimate pillows should not be capable of independent movement. Feeling as if I’m on the brink of a major scientific breakthrough, I slowly reach out and tug on the corner of the pillowcase until I see what’s underneath it.
FUR. BEADY EYES. LONG, HAIRLESS TAILS.
I jump four feet into the air and shriek as a small field mouse followed by the largest rat I’ve ever seen both scurry out from underneath the pillow and through a jagged crack at the base of the wall.
BE OPTIMISTIC, BE OPTIMISTIC, I chant as my heart rate slowly returns to a survivable level.
I suppose it’s sorta beautiful, I think. A mouse and a rat, driven by illicit passion and forbidden romance, risked it all to build a life together in this shack—ahem, apartment. If they can do it, so can I.
I’m smiling in a deranged reverie, thinking sweetly about rodent Romeo and Juliet, when I notice the impressive amount of droppings on the floor.
Just like that, my sunny disposition is doused by despair and an overwhelming desire to give up. Except, there is no giving up. With Helen gone, I have nowhere to go. My mom lives in a retirement community in Boca Raton. No one under the age of 60 is allowed to reside there, ostensibly because limber hips and full-frequency hearing would ignite jealousy amongst the osteoporotic masses. Besides, if I called her, she’d just try to convince me to reconcile with Andrew. Same goes for my dad. They’re blinded by his wealth and reputation, and I haven’t tried hard to convince them of his darker side. Truthfully, we’re not very close, and they have a habit of hearing and believing whatever is most convenient for them.
With my parents and Helen off the table, I’m all out of options. Even more sad, I didn’t really have friends back in California. When you slide right into a life of comfort and luxury when most of your college friends are still crushed under the debt of student loans, you quickly find yourself alienated. Sure, I had women I went to lunch with and met for yoga a few times a week, but they were Andrew’s friends more than mine, wives of his colleagues, and they—like my parents—firmly believe the sun shines out of his ass.
I’m truly on my own.
Everything in my possession sits in my purse on the floor of this dwelling.
I have nine wrinkled dollars.
I have a new boss who already thinks the worst of me.
I have a job that will put my face near men’s toilets every day.
I have a sad little apartment—okay, NO, a sad little shanty shack with mice and spiders and a blanket with an odious yellow stain. At first I was going to overlook it, but it’s like trying to overlook the damn sun.
Before I realize it, I’m marching back across the yard, toward the farmhouse. I’m sure Jack is already long gone, off taming wild mustangs or cutting cattle rustlers off at the pass, but I will sit outside his office and wait for him to return. I will demand that he see reason. Surely he’s playfully hazing me and doesn’t actually expect me to stay in that shack.
I yank open the back door of the house and immediately go on guard, tiptoeing with my shoulders up near my ears. He could be around any corner, sitting in any of the rooms I pass on my way upstairs, but the house is quiet and empty. My stealth is wasted.
On my second journey through, I discover that the farmhouse is extremely nice, new construction. There are hardwood floors, a pleasant pale gray color on the walls, and a lot of family photos and knickknacks. Somehow, it doesn’t feel cluttered. It’s warm and inviting—or at least it would be if there wasn’t a soulless monster lurking somewhere inside.
I hear his voice behind his office door and am grateful I won’t have to march all over the property hunting him down.
I shrug, roll out my neck, and prepare myself. Quickly, I run through my argument so I have all my points in order. I’ll tell him the shack is an employee health hazard and point out that his house is huge—there have got to be at least six bedrooms. I passed a game room, living room, and breakfast nook, and I will happily sleep on the ground in any one of them. I’m not picky.
I know I have a winning defense, but I still can’t work up the courage to knock on his door. My heart is beating so fast, no rhythm, just quick pulses. I’ve turned into a hummingbird. Is this what desperation feels like? It’s wild, like a drug.
I try to remember why I’m here, why I left Andrew in the first place. For the last five years, I was the perfect wife. I studied the news and stayed abreast of current events. I was polite and witty and funny, and when necessary, I was demure and thoughtful. I ate well-portioned meals and worked out every day, lathered myself in night creams and face masks and consequently have the skin and the ass of an eighteen-year-old, and in the end, it wasn’t enough. Nothing was enough.
My mental pep talk works—I’m out for blood. I pound on his office door with the side of my fist then let myself in. Poor Jack. He doesn’t know what hit him. If he’d caught me last week, I would have been gentle and meek. I would have used a sweet tone, an “on-the-phone” voice when I spoke with him, just like Andrew preferred. Now, he gets the unfiltered version, the angry, wild hellion I’ve caged in for too long. I wouldn’t be surprised to find streaks of black war paint under my eyes.
“By all means, barge in whenever you please.”
His words drip with sarcasm. It’s clear he’s angry about the interruption as he glares at me from behind his desk. That look and his annoyed tone shift my perspective, and I remember I don’t feel bad he’s getting the unfiltered version. No, he started this mess by being rude to me: calling me a princess, dragging me away from the all-hands meeting, and then tossing me into that glorified lean-to that gives other respectable shacks a bad name. He thinks I’m a spoiled brat—no doubt the result of Helen’s handiwork—and instead of giving me the benefit of the doubt, he’s done nothing but doubt my benefits. He’s been nothing but brusque and unwelcoming, so no, NO POOR JACK.