It was 2007 and I was coaching in a small town in South Texas. My apartment cost $500 a month and has wall-to-wall shag carpet and wood panelling. Across the way, someone was raising goats. A bit further down, chickens. It was very rural and very sweet. There were only 8 apartments and they were two story and white brick. Everyone thought it was an old folks home and all the coaches at school would joke about me living there.
My neighbor used to cook and bring me leftovers on a styrofoam plate. I would stack them in my refrigerator to make it look like I wasn’t living off microwave popcorn and coke. The soda. I’m not that cool. I never ate anything she brought. I have a thing about leftovers and about being poisoned. Was it obvious the 83 year old woman living next to me was trying to poison me? No, but if someone was trying to poison me I am of the opinion they wouldn’t be very obvious about it, at all.
Alone in my new apartment, I felt very much a grown up. I was in charge of things. I had a job. People said yes ma’am to me on a daily basis. I was still single and not loving it. But not hating it either. I knew I was going to end up with my husband. I don’t know it if was a matter of knowing it would happen or knowing I would make it happen. I am pretty good at getting things done. As I get older, I’m starting to take a bit more pride in that. I have apologized for a lot of things in my life. Most were good, valid, deserved apologies. Some weren’t. Some were because I was raised to be polite, and as a woman, we say sorry a lot. I recently saw a Dove commercial online with the hashtag #sorrynotsorry. It made me think of all the times I took the blame for something that wasn’t my fault because in some small way that gave me a little control – even if it was of a sinking ship. It made me think of my daughter and of all the things I hope are different for her but some things I know, due to circumstances, wont be. It made me cry. It also made me remember to buy some soap, so good on you there, Dove.
I was such a grown up, I had my own mailbox at the bottom of the stairs where the postman would cram coupons for groceries I never bought and old bank statements from the previous resident. She died in the apartment. This scared the shit out of me. On my third night in the apartment I got up to use the restroom. I walked out of my room and down the hall, very careful not to glance at my couch. I have a very legitimate fear that at some point, in some house, I will turn the corner into a living room and see a giant something sitting on the couch. It will have long fingernails, a very narrow silhouette and sit completely still. I will die instantly of complete and total heart failure. Sometimes people tell me they are jealous of how creative I am. I tell them that story. The conversation usually shifts pretty quickly. Thankfully, I reached the bathroom safely, made potty and headed back to my bedroom. I closed the door and got back in bed. I always close the door because I also have a fear of something walking past an open door à la every-scary-movie-ever. I’m not sure if the cliche is what’s most frightening or the certainty that this will happen to me at some point in my life and again: total and complete heart failure.
I glanced at the clock beside my bed. This was a time before iPhones and I had not yet begun to cuddle with mine on a nightly basis, so I actually had a bedside clock. 3:15 AM. I counted the three hours I’d have left to sleep before work and closed my eyes. A soft brushing noise broke the silence. I froze – evolutionarily determined to blend in with my comforter and listened. I heard it again. A soft brush against paneled wood. I stained my ears to locate the source. It sounded like it was coming from… Suddenly the sound changed. What was a soft brush, almost a whisper, became a hard SCRATCH! I shot straight up in bed and reached for my lamp. I yanked the string and the bulb popped loudly as it went out and I was plunged back into darkness. I sat completely still and waited for my eyes to adjust, entirely grateful for the previous bathroom trip. The sound started again. It was coming from outside my room. From the hall closet.
I took a few moments to consider my choices. I would either die of exhaustion tomorrow, as this was my third night of almost no sleep, or I would be killed by the scratchy-closet-monster in the hallway. I figured there was an upside to death by scratchy-closet-monster as some cultures call death an eternal sleep and I could do that in my pajamas rather than an ill-fitting volleyball shirt. I stood slowly and crossed the threshold. I reached the bedroom door and felt for the knob. I took a deep breathe and turned. The knob shifted slightly and stopped. I tried again. Much harder. It didn’t budge. A new wave of panic began to rise. Obviously, the previous resident’s ghost has shut me in this room to be killed by the scratchy monster trying to escape from the water heater closet! They were in cahoots!
I took my hand from the knob and tried to regroup. In situations such as this, really, the only thing to do is pray and try to reason with the ghost telepathically. I’m not sure of the exact words I used but it involved me promising to respect the premises, be nice to the neighbors and not go through her mail anymore. Satisfied with my mental sacrifice, I pressed, twisted, pushed, pulled and the door swung out.
I sprinted passed the water heater door and into the safety and lamplight of the living room (still not looking at couch in case skinny fingernail guy was in on it, too). I turned on all the lights in the house and stood in the kitchen. I waited for the sound and nothing. I made my way to the closet. I stood in front of the door terrified. Again nothing. I put my hand on the knob and stopped. I decided that since I’d made a pact with the ghost I’d just respect the water heater closet as her own private space. Everyone needs their own spot and this could be hers. It seemed reasonable enough and I didn’t open the door for the next 3 years.
After agreeing not open her closet (or her mail), the ghost didn’t bother me again and I actually began getting my own mail. Later that fall, I got an invitation for a wedding. My first wedding attended as a grown up. I could almost feel the maturity oozing out of me. Consequently, I decided I wouldn’t RSVP until the very last minute. Of all the good things about myself that I am now ready to admit, I am still a giant asshole about RSVP’s, remembering names and being on time. If you still want to be friends, I also have to also make you aware I can only remember 5 birthdays and I am completely booked. Also, I have a habit of giving birthday presents on holidays during the opposite season and usually 8-14months later. And I talk a lot. A LOT.
A few weeks after the invitation arrived my keeper and very best phone friend called to remind me that today was the last day I could send out this RSVP. Jolie and I have been in the same conversation for the last 8 years. It is a string of phone calls, emails and text messages that doesn’t end. I don’t think we have ever said goodbye to each other. Just changed mediums throughout. I have no qualms about texting or calling her early in the morning, and she, none about late at night. I imagine if I die before her, I will still find some way of communicating with her. One, because it will scare the shit out of her, and two, because after the initial fright she will send me screenshots of ridiculous Facebook posts I missed during my transition phase.
I fully intended to send the RSVP card that day. The following Thursday, I sat down to it out. Asshole.
The first line was for number of guests. That was easy. 1. Single. There was a guy I flirted with through email for a few weeks. He was a semi-local sports reporter. Really cute. We had a very awkward and halting conversation about his sister’s cat. He was just my speed on the dating front. We met at a park one day to go for a run. His hair was long and curled out from his cap. Adorable. Unfortunately, when he took off his cap it was very apparent his hairline was receding and this long hair was a feeble attempt to compensate. I would like to tell you I didn’t begin to make fun of it immediately and that if I had, I would have stopped when it became apparent this was not a matter we could joke about. Asshole.
Since I accidentally almost made my one and only potential wedding date cry (there was a deserved apology for this), I just put down the 1. Me. The next line was a bit trickier. It was the letter “M” followed by a line. Just M____________________. I stared at it for quite a while. What the hell did that M stand for? I couldn’t call Jolie because I had assured her I sent out the RSVP card a week ago (lying asshole) and Googling “M line” just gave me a bus schedule. I racked my brain for anything that might give me a hint to this mysterious puzzle solving responsibility my friends had saddled their wedding guests with. Without having any of my own experience to draw from, I thought about movies. I live much of my life in this way – drawing wisdom from movies, made up Pinterest quotes and occasionally rappers. In the movies, there was always some sort of debate about food. What dinner to choose: chicken or fish? This impressive line of thinking led me to the what the M on the RSVP card obviously meant – Meat.
It is strange to me even now how sure I was that this was the answer. “M__________________” should be filled out with the type of meat I would like for dinner. Of course! In your face Jolie! It did strike me as odd they did not give choices. Where was the chicken or fish? Knowing this family well it was more likely to be “chicken or beef?”, but they hadn’t put any choices. Were there going to be unlimited choices? How would I ever decide and why had I waited until the last minute with this clearly deserved some thought? Dammit!
I ended up deciding on chicken because surely everyone has that as an option at their wedding and I didn’t want to come off like a snob by putting lobster. How embarrassing for the couple would it be if I ordered lobster, and because they left me no choices, they would be forced to honor my request. The other guests would surely be jealous and left wondering why I was so special. People would whisper and talk and soon the gossip would spiral out of control into a full-fledged mutiny that would undoubtably ruin the wedding. No, being the ever gracious guest I filled out the card “M Chicken___”. I patted myself on the back for averting disaster for the soon-to-be happy couple, popped a stamp on it and sent it off.
In the 3856th installment of our never ending conversation I told Jolie of my accomplishment.
“It took me forever to figure out what to put on the RSVP card because they didn’t give any choices.”
There was a long pause on Jolie’s end, which rarely happens if one of us is not at a various drive thru and I began to wonder if my logic was faulty.
“Choices?” she said.
Shit. Shit. Shit. People only repeat things like that back to you if they want you to find the mistake. I did a mental recap. “M Line”. Bus schedules. Food. Meat. Not a snob. Chicken. On critical review, it seemed as if I had made a few assumptions when connecting the dots. I tried to be nonchalant When I asked:
“So, what did you put on the line after M?”
“There was a letter “M” followed by a line.”
“The M line.”
“Liza, I don’t know what you are talking about. What did you write on the card?”
I paused long enough for one more recap. Bus schedules. Food. Meat. Not a snob. Chicken.
“On the number of guests line I put a number one.”
“On the M line I put chicken.”
One of the reasons that I have been in a forever conversation with Jolie and remember her birthday is because she can deliver a line deadpan. That is not what happened this time. Instead, she collapsed into a fit of giggles on the phone and I had to wait a full 45 seconds for her to even start breathing again. When we were little and laughed like this my father would say someone turned your gigglebox upside down. I had done it again. I turned her gigglebox upside down and shook it. She eventually gathered herself enough to spit out:
“That line is for names. The M is for Mr. or Ms..”
I let that sink in and said softly:
“But, I put chicken.”
I lost her again for at least another minute. In between breaths she choked out:
“You RSVP’ed that you were coming by yourself and that you are a chicken.”
I guess the worst part is that I really thought I’d figured this out. I was just short of bragging about it. Before you think Jolie is a completely evil friend, she did stop laughing long enough to assure me that she was helping our friend’s fiancee to sort through the RSVPs and she would be happy to toss out mine or at least count it without showing anyone. This turned out to be the best way to salvage the situation, short of me actually showing up to the wedding alone and dressed in a chicken suit.
I did attend the wedding – alone and in a borrowed dress. Jolie held it together well when it was time for the dinner and I selected an entree. Everyone country-danced the night away and I quietly prayed that the DJ didn’t play any line dancing songs, one in particular.
After three years in my small town I gathered up my things to head for the big city. It took an entire week to get everything together. My not-yet husband helped me pack. On the last day we did a final sweep of the apartment and before I could stop him, he opened the water heater closet. He had violated the sanctity of the pact and I had no choice but to look inside. I peered around the door. Inside were feathers, sticks and enough bird poop to warrant the closet having a biohazard sticker on the door. We looked up at the ceiling and through a rather large hole to the clear blue sky. It may be embarrassing to some people to know they have lived in an apartment for three years without noticing a defunct vent turned impromptu skylight. For me, what was more disturbing, was that upon further investigation we found some large brown egg shells and a sizable “mass” of feathers stuck behind the water heater. My not-yet husband toed at a piece of broken shell and said:
“I really don’t think this was a pigeon. This was a big ass bird. Like a…”