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Those Cigarettes


At the gym last week, in between doing the rowing machine and the stair climber, Nathalie asked if I was still planning on moving. I had forgotten that at one time, not too long ago, Alan and I had wanted to move. There wasn’t really anything wrong, per se, with the duplex we lived in. There were just annoying aspects that came along with the place. Like how the layout doesn’t allow for good places to put a desk, a coffee table, a side table or a nightstand. Combine this with the fact that it’s even harder to move around with more than one person in the house (let alone with just the awkwardly fitting desk, coffee table, side table and night stand) and you can see why I’m convinced the duplex was made for a family of Barbie dolls. (Not the freakishly unproportional life-sized ones, but the freakishly unproportional small, plastic ones). The poor insulation had failed to protect us from the cold California winter and also seemed to want to roast us alive in the summer.

So in the hopes of finding a bigger place, one with a modern heater not stuck in the ground that is controlled by the turn of a key, we decided to browse around a bit, see where our thousand dollars a month might take us. And as it turned out, not very far. All the places that didn’t have a pink bathroom sink and a permanently blackened tub were way over our price range.

I started answering questionable ads because these were the ones in our range. The ones that always seemed too good to be true were too good to be true. Once I called a lady who promised a “charming, newly renovated cottage” just behind her house. It welcomed in an overwhelming amount of natural sunlight and all utilities were included. And we could have it all for just $900!

When I called to inquire about seeing it, she asked what I was talking about. Then she asked me to read her the details of the ad I was talking about. I was hoping she could tell me a few more details, but I ended up convincing her that it really was just lovely and cozy and perfect for a couple looking for bigger and better things. When I finally sold her on the fact that the cottage really was for rent, she asked what we did. I said I was in marketing for a technology consulting company and that I had even started my own dog walking business when I was 10 (I hadn’t, but I figured that would demonstrate my long history of being responsible). She asked what Alan did. I should have said he took over the dog walking business and has been walking ever since, but instead I said, all in one breath, as nonchalantly as I could, “Oh Alan? Oh, you know, well he has cancer so he’s just, you know, being treated for that and all.” She demanded, “Is he in a wheelchair?” and before I could respond, added, “’cause I don’t want no handicapped lawsuit.” I didn’t want no handicapped lawsuit either, so we never went to go see that one.

We went to see a promising one bedroom on a “charming, quiet” street. As we pulled up, we took notice of the hardware shop on the corner. It looked like it had come straight from the set of a stage production; it oozed charming. Then we looked across the street and noticed the expansive cemetery sprawling in front of us. I started thinking about all the horror movies I’d ever seen — did any of them ever involve a house near a cemetery?? OK, yes, about half the ones I could remember…

I tried remembering how the movies ended, but was interrupted when the landlady showed up. It was hot that day, really hot, and she was wearing a baggy, shapeless dress, a real proper muumuu. She held a white Bic pen in her hand and some papers in the other. As she led us up the stairs and into the apartment, she complained about the heat in a slow, tinny voice.

“I hate the heat,” she said.

“Oh? Do you?” I asked, trying to make pleasant conversation.

“Yeah. It makes me cranky.” And with a yank, she pulled open the door and held it for us. “Well, go on in!” she said impatiently.

We could tell she was a big bundle of kindness and we warmed up to her right away. The apartment was hot and stuffy. I thought it might have been because the doors and windows were all shut, but she said it was usually like that. Then, seeing as how we had built up our camaraderie so well, she added, “I hate coming over here, it’s so hot. Usually I make my husband come show the place, but he’s out of town.” Then she moved her white Bic pen to her mouth. She inhaled and made the tip glow orange. She was “smoking” one of those cigarettes!

Although we probably would have ended up being great friends with her and having her over for dinner all the time, we decided it’d be easier to stay in our hot box than move all our stuff into another, so we didn’t take that place either.

Shortly after that, the quest for a new home ended. Partly because it was tiresome looking for places and partly because it was disheartening to see what all of a $1,000 could get us. But at least the search answered the age old question I’ve had for so long — so people really do buy those products off those carts at the mall, even those fake cigarettes. Alan swears he saw her exhale smoke.

Last modified: January 10, 2019