SOMETHING STINKS.

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AUGUST HAS BEEN THE CRUELEST MONTH
[posted 08.28.2001]

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THREE OR FOUR MONTHS ago, when I knew my future living situation — that I’d be living alone for the first time in my life, filling an apartment with all my own stuff — I was excited. Frightened, too, by the whole going-home-to-a-dark-apartment factor, but reasonable enough to suck it up and deal: Lots of people live alone; only an unlucky few are followed home — or met there — by burglars, murderers and rapists.

So, on whole, I was enthusiastic, challenged, eager. It’s so exciting, the starting over, the envisioning the new abode you’ll finally arrange, organize and decorate right — or, as I’ve come to accept, closer to right.

I’ve lived in four apartments since 1998, zigzaging across the northern border of Chicago, occasionally taking the same roommates with me, but slowly whittling down from three to two to one to, now, none. Why, I’ve been asked more than once, do you move every year? Why don’t you just find a place and stay there? There were reasons, I’ve replied, my brain at once riddled with numerous concrete examples and none. Because I’m not sure I have or need an answer: Moving’s just what you do, sometimes ‘cause you have to, sometimes ‘cause you want to, always because you’re looking for something better, or just different.

I’ve liked all of my apartments for at least part of the time I lived there. But, with the exception of the first — the one I’d live in still if I could, that I’d like to transport (and afford) no matter where I go — every place has been a site that, by month nine or so, I couldn’t wait to leave. Sometimes it’s the apartment’s fault, sure — my current residence comes to mind — but more often, I realize, it’s the year I spent there, the fights and angst and stagnancy and moments, or months, of obnoxious ennui, that I’m eager to escape.

Last year’s move was mandatory. My then-roommates were venturing out on their own, and I was starting up with a new one. Our search for a place was complicated, however, by the fact that I might be switching jobs and by my desire to live closer to my workplace (wherever it might be). By the time I got the answer I’d been hoping for, most of the good places were gone, and we were left hunting and foraging for a utilities-included two-bedroom with a dining room AND living room, with available parking, near public transportation, in a neighborhood we’d feel safe enough returning to late at night, costing each of us $600 (or preferably less) a month. With two weeks to our preferred moving date, it didn’t look good — and neither did the places we saw.

So when we stumbled — exhausted, delirious and nearly dejected — into a corner apartment at Kenmore and Balmoral and found just about everything we’d said we wanted, we were thrilled — er, happily relieved. Parking in the back! Rent $100 cheaper ‘cause the landlord’s son misquoted! Room for the dining room table! The place had carpeting, which I hate in any rental situation, BUT it was all new and clean. We’d be on the first floor, which neither of us wanted, but it was an elevated first floor. The second door into the building had no glass where a window should be, but that was going to be fixed. And, our friendly landlord told us, the parking lot would soon be paved and gated. We’d have the inconvenience of no back stairs for a few weeks in October, but only so that he could put up a new staircase with individual decks for each apartment! I started envisioning our future parties right then and there.

That was August of 2000. Today the parking lot’s still gravel; I’ve been climbing through that entranceway door all year. And they tore down the rotting old stairs a few weeks ago, just in time to inconvenience my move. For a few months now a big sign on the front of our building has told the neighborhood that beautiful condos are for sale here. Perhaps that’s why we’ve been so neglected?

Just to complicate things a bit further, I spent most of last month nearly paralyzed by suspicions of impending layoffs at the dotcom where I work. Having lived through two rounds already, my remaining coworkers and I could recognize the signs…. So, when I should have been looking at apartments, I was busy worrying that I might not have an income to pay the rent. Should I even sign a lease? Was I about to lose the first post-college job I’ve really enjoyed — and learned from — and wanted to keep past my first anniversary?

No. While a handful of cubicles around me emptied out in a manner of hours, I remained — and lived to worry through a future round of layoffs. Once I climbed out from under all my new responsibilities, I’d even be able to look for an apartment!

A week of 11-hour days, later, I found myself 11 days from moving day. I’d seen a few places already — and been thoroughly depressed — but now the search was serious. Anything reasonable, decent, ready to be moved into, would be fine. I spent a day looking, and stumbled, miraculously, upon something I really actually liked. Something I shouldn’t even be able to get 11 days before I moved in. Ha! After an exhausting summer of work and worries and too many commitments, my biggest remaining concern was alleviated.

I filled out the rental application that night and set out around 11:15 — leaving the lights on, because who wants to come back to a dark place at that hour? — to drop it off at the rental agency, determined to nab the apartment before anyone else. An hour or so later, I parked in my spot and walked around to the front — no back stairs, remember? — and climbed through that same door-window and stepped back in…to a dark apartment. Hadn’t I left the lights on? Surely I had. Eh, maybe not.

My cat rolled and mewed at my feet as if I were her longlost friend — how nice, I felt, to be so appreciated. I still have a job, and now I have a new home. Life isn’t so bad, after all.

As I stepped into the living room, I noticed that all the coins that had been piled on the table were scattered across the floor, as was the empty wallet I’d left on the table. Near them I spied a pile of, well, crap. “Parker,” I asked the cat as I walked closer and marveled at her increase in output, “what did you do?”

Occasional vomit is one thing, but if she’d shat on the floor, she must be sick….

“Did you do this anywhere else?” I grabbed a roll of paper towel and walked to my room, hoping not to find any similar deposits on my bed.

I didn’t find any, but there were trinket boxes and coins knocked to the floor. My normally docile-cum-lethargic cat had, apparently, gone on a rampage. But there was a jewelry box on my bed that I didn’t think I’d moved there earlier, that I knew I hadn’t opened. And, from my suddenly frozen position in the doorway, I could see that the ring boxes inside were opened and haphazard as well.

Had someone been in the apartment?

And just like that I was the heroine — or bit player offed in the opening act — in every scary movie I’d ever caught a few mintues of on cable. I pushed the door all the way to the wall, suddenly fearful that someone was waiting behind it. I tiptoed further into my room and craned my neck to peer — like a defenseless idiot! — into the dark recesses of my very wide closet.

I found no one.

Still somewhat incredulous, I peered into the dark bedroom of my roommate, already moved out. I couldn’t make myself go in, though. The realization was starting to hit.

I walked back to the living room, quietly, not wanting to disturb whoever might be lurking, past a coat closet there was NO WAY IN HELL I was opening, and peered stupidly, again, at a pile of shit I should have known my eight-pound cat was incapable of producing. And as my gaze traveled upward, I saw the three clean cuts in the window screen, forming the outline of a giant staple. Oh, yeah, it was official: Someone had been inside my apartment.

I believe that’s when I started shaking. Still clutching the paper towel, I grabbed the phone and called one friend, then another — courteously attempting to bother only those likely to be up after midnight — and my roommate, of course. No one was answering. The home phone rang and rang. The cell phones went to voicemail.

I was, I knew, supposed to call the cops, but I just couldn’t: What if he, she, they were still inside, and my calling the authorities brought them out of hiding and directly at me?

Finally, I woke the boyfriend of the victim’s roommate [or so he’s identified in the police report]. “Hey, Sam. How are you?”

“Oh, not so good. Somebody just broke into the apartment.”

“Oh! Are you OK? Do you want us to come over?”

“Yes, please.”

“Have you called the police?”

“Not yet.”

“You should call them.”

But I still couldn’t: Not until someone else was there with me, till I felt certain my intruder was gone.

So I waited. Was the shit evidence, or should I clean it up? Would it really matter? I picked it up and dropped it in the nearby wastebasket, realizing as I did so that my unwelcome visitor had pissed on the floor, too. ...How pointed.

It could be worse, I considered then: I could have found a dead cat on the floor, too, which would have sent me into hysterics. Why did she seem so fricking calm?

I considered going to my car — cat, ridiculously enough, in tow — and waiting there. But if the burglar was gone from my place, I certaintly didn’t want to run into him outside. But I didn’t want to meet him inside, either. So I perched on a stool near the door, purse, keys and wallet in hand, and waited.

        • *

The thief didn’t take much: Quarters for a few loads of laundry and the nice jewelry I’d had packed away for special occasions. The pearl necklace my grandfather brought back from Japan for my grandmother, my mother’s garnet ring shaped like a flower that the officer filing my report had some trouble comprehending (“Petals? Garnets? What?”) — just the little things that mattered.

He left a fingerprint on my windowsill, which the evidence cop failed to notice that night and which the beat cop who returned at my request didn’t think enough of to have someone else look at. That irritates but doesn’t surprise me. I don’t expect to find out who pulled himself into my elevated first-floor window, how long he’d been watching the apartment and how certain he was that no one was home (or whether it would have mattered). Is it someone I walked past on the street once or twice — one of the myriad of folks who’ve loitered on the corner outside our windows or on our front steps? I don’t — and won’t — know.

But I am more than ready to leave this place. To run away to my new third-floor apartment, where I can leave a window a quarter open and worry just a little bit less.

I’m packing up my belongings with conviction now more than enthusiasm. I need to leave this place, with its too many rooms to check every few hours, with its noises that now make my heart race, with its screen that’s still not fixed. My friendly landlord, you see, is off in Greece.

Ask me now why I’m moving this time: I’ve got a good, solid reason for you.

I haven’t washed away that fingerprint yet. Even if I had, I’d still be able to see it. It will take more, I know, than a new lease to escape what happened here.

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.