Photo by Surv1v4l1st
It was the mid-90s. I had just graduated from college and had no job but wanted to move to Manhattan anyway. I thought I could manage on what I had in my savings account for a few months until I found a job but whatever apartment I got needed to be cheap. I scoured the Village Voice listings (this was pre-internet) and found something; a “sleeping loft” in an apartment that became, during the day, a yoga studio (during which time I would be expected to clear out). There was no kitchen and I would have to share a bathroom with three other girls but it was listed at $400 a month with an address on St. Marks Place and so, it sounded perfect. I was excited.
I went to the open house and found a long line of girls waiting to see the space. There was no “sleeping loft.” What I was shown instead was a dark, windowless cubicle along one wall that was the shape and size of a low-ceilinged closet. The bed was a cot and there was just enough room for a small end table. There was no bureau – I was expected to keep my clothing neatly folded in plastic bins under the cot. There were three other cubicles, all already rented to other girls. It was in a giant room that was very clean and completely free of furniture and had the shiny floors you would expect in a yoga studio.
The owner of the studio was a wiry, little man named Avi who also owned a fresh juice shop in the neighborhood. I was the only one in a suit (I had an interview later that day at a law firm) and this is, I believe, why he offered the cubicle to me. Avi liked that I was looking for a “serious” job and was thinking about law school. When he asked why I wanted to go to law school, I told him I had studied Comparative Literature and Philosophy as an undergrad and now wanted to understand the world from a different perspective.
“You want to understand power.” His eyes glittered. He told me he had served in the Israeli military and so it was something he was interested in also.
Three days later, I moved in and met the other girls that night. All of us were in our early 20s. One was a yoga instructor and had the ropey, veiny body and serene expression that comes from years of self-deprivation, another was a graduate student in social work and the third was an aspiring photographer. She was six-feet tall and big-boned and lived in the cubicle directly above me. We took an instant dislike to each other. It began because of my dot-matrix printer – she hated the ticky-tacky sounds it made. I was still looking for a job and so had my laptop and printer with me and had been printing out resumes and cover letters by the dozen. I began only using the printer when she wasn’t around but, for whatever reason, this did not assuage her. She began to look for other reasons to be pissed off.
“What the fuck? Claudette, can you clean up all that toilet paper you left on the floor in the bathroom?”
“It wasn’t me. I haven’t used the bathroom today.”
“Then who was it?”
“I don’t know, but it wasn’t me.”
A few weeks into my stay, I still did not have a job but I had developed an interest in collecting things from the various flea markets around the city for the new apartment I planned to get when I found my job. It was an escape, a way to aspire. The first things I bought were four beautiful little magnets for my future refrigerator, clothespins carved to look like men and women in Victorian dress.
The next thing I brought home was a many-colored globe made from blown glass. I had meant to give it to my mother as a gift but, when I hung it from a slat on my bunk, it became a sort of pet, a round comfort like a ripe fruit (one that would not rot) or a fat child (one that would not require anything of me).
I brought home other things – some antique, painted tiles from Florence that I planned to use as coasters, a complete set of Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu,” a set of painted Russian nesting dolls, a carved lace mahogany box I planned to use for paper clips and pens.
I really shouldn’t have been using my precious savings to buy things but I couldn’t stop. I grew bolder in my choices. A colorful rug woven by Turkish nomads. A three-legged table with panther feet. One day, on my way home from yet another job interview, I stopped at an antique store down the street. There, in the window, were two giant wrought-iron candelabras, one that came to my shoulders, the other that just cleared my head. I don’t know what came over me. I suppose I must have imagined a future apartment with high ceilings, and maybe a baby grand piano, marble floors and a vampire crypt in the basement. I bought the candelabras and carried them back to my bunk, first the small one, then went back for the bigger one.
I arranged the candelabras at the foot of my cot. I lamented that I did not yet have candles to try them out. The other girls came into my bunk to admire them, except for the photographer who had, by then, for whatever reason, stopped talking to me completely. One night, when I was home sitting on my cot, printing out more resumes and cover letters, I heard a key in the front door lock. It was the photographer. Instead of closing up my computer, as I usually did when she came home, I kept printing. When she came toward me, I looked straight at her. She avoided my look and climbed the five-wrung ladder to her bunk. I kept printing for another hour. I could hear her for awhile typing away on her own computer but then she shut out the light and I heard nothing more that night but the ticky-tacky sounds of my longed-for escape.
Claudette Bakhtiar is a writer and part-time attorney living in Manhattan with her husband and two children. She holds a MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts and her writing has appeared in The L Magazine, Gigantic, Literary New York and Time Out NY.