I am in my illegal apartment. It has a metal shower, the floor of it nearly rusted through, which is across from the kitchen sink and the stove. The toilet is in what looks like a small closet, a step down. Separated by a half wall is the room where I keep my twin bed and my portable plastic closets, and my leaner bookshelf.
The dream always begins like this, with a tour. I lived in this place for six or so years, so its details are etched into my memory. The air conditioner thrust through a wall, which once froze over in 100-degree heat and nearly baked me. The insulation-less windows that didn’t quite latch against the wind. The rent was $300 a month, and I earned $200 per week, so it did the trick as my second place on my own after having moved out at eighteen. The first had been in a basement. This one was at ground level. At least there was that.
I dream of this place frequently. The dream always goes the same. I am the me of today, and I find that I need to go stay at my old apartment, the reason unclear. I get there, disoriented, and the neighborhood has changed, although the apartment remains the same down to the blue carpeting I had installed and once burned in a little patch when I put down a shot of Sambucca, lit it on fire, and accidentally tipped it over. This was the place where I turned 21 years old. I’m now in my forties, and I tell myself I’ll make do. But there’s always some obstacle: I’ve got to go find the keys, the neighbors can’t know I’m there. I’m afraid. Somewhere along the time, I discover there is an empty adjacent apartment and I wonder if the landlord will knock down a wall and give me more room. Where will I put all my things, the accumulation of decades?
It is usually around this point in the dream when two things occur to me. One is: how is it that this place is still rented in my name? Have I been paying the rent and just haven’t noticed the money coming out of my account for twenty-some-odd years? Or have I not been paying the rent and the landlord is looking for me even as we speak? How much will the bill be? This fear – I haven’t been paying rent – keeps me from seeking out the landlord to fix issues or knock down said wall.
The second thing that occurs to me is, “I have a house. Where has my house gone? When can I get back there?” It is at this point that the dream becomes mournful, like half a lifetime of struggling and striving and feathering the nest has been wiped away, and I’m right back where I started. There is no running away from the illegal apartment.
I happen to know the apartment is not really there anymore. My slumlord landlord, one of two identical attorney twins who told me that if I wanted a replacement for the rusted-floor shower, I should buy it myself, long knocked it down and built a bigger building, with a larger footprint, and presumably more acceptable plumbing. Or maybe they sold it and the next owner did that. I don’t know. All I know is that I once drove by it, both in relief of my escape and in nostalgia for my early twenties, and found a bland, white building where the old, odd L-shaped overgrown house used to be. It was all gone, razed. Gone was the room in front of my illegal apartment which had once been rented to an evangelical church. The man who ran it had had eerie green eyes that would stare at me whenever I came in and out of my apartment. He’d once so unnerved me that I’d locked my keys in my old Fiero in my haste to get into my place. When I called the police to ask for help getting it open, the cop that showed up to help told me he’d be getting off work soon and did I want him to come hang out afterwards. I pointed to his wedding ring and he smiled sheepishly.
There was always a sense of being prey back then, of the world pressing in, of the fragility of everything. So it’s unremarkable that that’s the place my mind conjures when it wants to wring its hands. Have we really come that far? What would it take to land back there, in the proverbial illegal apartment where anything could happen?
There is no unknowing what’s lived. My dream tries to make me, tries to fool me into thinking we’re back there. But the intervening years crowd back – my business, my children, my house, my book, my marriage, my divorce – to remind me it will never be the same. It may not always be like this, but this has happened, and I’m different because of it.
Do you have a place you’re afraid to go? And, if so, do you realize that even if you do and it’s the same, you’re the one who is different?