This Too Shall Pass

I return to the US on the last day of November out of necessity. I rent out my condo in order to pay my bills so that I can travel, albeit on a shoestring. Until now this has worked out well, and I’ve had good, responsible tenants. But in early November my current tenants, a married couple in their forties, abruptly stopped paying rent and answering my emails and texts.

They both had good jobs, or so they had told me. Of course I should have done a background check and gotten a credit report for them, but at the time I had had good luck in selecting tenants based on that gut instinct you get when you first meet someone, coupled with the fact that she was grieving for her father who had recently died, and I could relate to her suffering. I was drawn to her in the way that two people recognize each other when they are both carrying what is to everyone else an invisible burden.

I worried something terrible had happened to one or both of them. After I asked a neighbor to check on them I received a series of rambling emails from the husband, telling me, among other things: his wife had moved out; he was a meth addict, though he claimed to no longer be using; that in spite of telling me where she worked when I interviewed them, she hadn’t worked in years; that she was addicted to prescription pain pills. After some back and forth over the next three weeks, it became obvious he/they were no longer going to pay rent.

Thus I approach my condo in early December with a fair degree of trepidation. I had texted, phoned and emailed him to say I’d be arriving and when, but got no reply. I don’t know who will be in my condo or what condition I will find it in. Horror stories fill my head, tales recounted to me by others with one or more bad rental experiences, entailing destruction of property, holes in walls, theft and the like. My worst nightmare is that they will have broken into my son’s room, dead-bolted before I left last spring, and touch something, anything, in a search for whatever; that it won’t be the way I left it.

I encounter him in the yard – littered with bikes, tools, and junk – when I walk up. When I ask why he didn’t return my emails and texts, he replies that he has no computer or phone, she confiscated them both, something to do with retaliating for thinking he had taken her wedding ring. “She’s inside,” he says, “Go talk to her.” Then he abruptly gets in his truck and drives away.

Inside, my tenant, myself, and a woman introduced to me as the sister sit upstairs on the couch. A kitten skitters around underfoot. Did I mention the lease they signed said “No pets”? She tells me her marriage is in disarray, she doesn’t know if her husband is coming or going, and she is terribly stressed out. I tell her I understand and I sympathize with her situation; I’m sorry things are so hard. I tell her if I were wealthy she could stay there until she is back on her feet, but I’m not. On the contrary, I’m broke; things are hard for me too. She says she’s sorry for the inconvenience. I give her/them 15 days written notice to leave, complying with the terms of the lease, and stand up. “Do you have some place to go?” I ask and she tells me yes, she can stay with family. Before I leave I go downstairs to the garage thinking I’ll sort through my clothes and find something warm to wear, but the garage is like the yard, full of their stuff from floor to rafters, and I can’t even get to my belongings. I go into Jackson’s room, where I find enough articles of clothing to make do and trade them for the tired old clothes I’ve been wearing for the past eight months. I leave my helmet, my motorcycle jacket, and my big backpack and put my stuff instead into a smaller backpack, expecting to be back in two weeks. I breathe deeply, smelling Jackson still after all this time, and realize that I am here because I need to be; to resolve this rental situation, but also to be close, once again, to what matters to me. I resolve that any future “tenants” in my condo will be “lodgers”, distinctly different in the eyes of the law, so that I can come and go to my own home freely. This is my home, full of my things and my memories, not just some rental property that I bought as an investment.

Over the next two weeks I go wherever I have people to take me in: my attorney, my father, my brother, my grief mentor. Along the way I receive an email from my tenants stating that they won’t be able to leave in two weeks, and giving me January 5th as their move-out date. They apologize again for the inconvenience. I confirm this date, only to receive another email in early January saying they have yet again changed their plans, that she is waiting for some money to come in, and they will leave when they “are ready.” By now they are almost two months behind with the rent. For the third time they apologize for “the inconvenience.”

Mike drives me up from LA to begin the eviction process, something I was hoping to avoid. We stay in a motel for a couple of days, and I begin the legal paperwork. To distract me from my worries he drives me up the coast on the second day to San Simeon, where we walk out onto the trails along the cliff and watch the sea lions and elephant seals swimming in the surf and sunning themselves on the sand. On the third day he drops me off in my condo complex at the home of a neighbor, an 85 year old man named Jim who has been staying with his son in Santa Maria for a few weeks and generously offered me the couch in his condo while he’s away. I walk Mike out to his car, say goodbye, and watch him drive away.

Over the next couple of days I keep an eye out for activity coming from my condo, a moving truck, anything to indicate they are taking the eviction order to heart. Nothing. On Sunday I walk to my friend Jenn’s house. She has recently moved here with her sweetheart after years of living in a tiny house out in the countryside. They have three dogs now and she was pregnant, so over the summer they opted to trade the ideal location for a bigger place. Their baby was born in early December, and when I enter the house and walk into the nursery where she is changing his diaper, I choke up. This is the first time I’ve seen her since April, and the first time I’ve seen a newborn since Jackson died. When I hold him in my arms, memories wash mercilessly over me, taking me back to that time in my life when I had that same hope that Jenn does now, that light, that energy and that bewildered sense of a miracle happening right under your nose every time you touch those grasping fingers, look into that open gaze, or draw that tiny body to your breast to feel the pull of your life flowing into his.

Since the day Jackson died I have been treating each day as if it were my last, fully expecting it to be. In the beginning I believed I would just die, that it would happen on its own, a natural and direct consequence of his death. After the first year or so, I started wondering if it would happen more indirectly, in the form of a disease brought on by my unwell emotional state, or even suicide when the inevitable day arrived that I would know, finally, I couldn’t live without him any longer. Even now, after three and a half years, I wake up each morning surprised at just that – that I have woken up, that I am still here.

On my way back to Jim’s condo I look over at my own, and think about how wrong it is that I am paying, with money I have to borrow, for squatters to be in my home. I think of how they keep referring to this as a mere inconvenience for me, when in actuality it is way beyond that. By refusing to pay rent and refusing to leave, they are rendering me literally homeless, with no place to live and no money to pay for temporary lodging. I feel betrayed, indignant, cheated, and manipulated.

Then I think about the goodness of Mike driving me up here and, knowing I can’t afford it, paying for our motel in spite of my feeble protests that he shouldn’t; Neighbor-Jim trusting me enough to let me stay in his condo while he’s away; and my father offering to help me with the legal costs that this eviction will incur. Of my friends Pippa (“What’s wrong with people?”) and Mark (“Of all the bloody cheek!”) and Johnny England (“The more I know of people, the more I prefer the company of snakes.”), emailing from across the ocean to check on me and let me know they are pissed off on my behalf. I think of Jenn, of that new life she is nurturing, and I am so happy for her in anticipation of the joy I know awaits her just as I am terrified to know that what happened to me could happen to her. I think of the marine mammals I saw the other day, and of how lucky I am, we all are, to live in a world where we can observe creatures like these in their natural habitats, just doing what they do. Lastly I think of the wisdom in my father’s words, “This too shall pass,” and remind myself that if I can survive the death of my child, this eviction business is peanuts. It can’t touch me by comparison, and in the big picture it is but a blip on the screen of my life.

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