My neighbor died the day I moved into my apartment. This I learned from another neighbor, Dillan, who lives three doors down. She’d went by Charlie, he said, and added that she’d been very old, nearly ninety, and in poor health.
She’d had a cat. This I learned not from Dillan but surmised myself from the trash that sat outside her door for days after her death. Among the garbage bags had been a box of Tidy Cat and busted scratch post. She was likely gay, too, judging from the rainbow welcome mat that laid askew at her door. These insignificant facts were all I knew of Charlie. Her life passed without my noticing. Days later when a crew came to collect the old woman’s remains, I would watch them load the body bag into the back of a van as matter-of-factly as loading groceries into a car, and I would wonder whether it was an omen that my neighbor should have died on my first day as a free person, or whether her death were a harbinger of new beginnings.
I was discharged from the halfway house at six the morning Charlie died. A Sunday. My father’s car, when he came to collect me, was so tightly packed with my old belongings that the back window was obscured. Each box was labeled in my mother’s precise hand—BOOKS, DISHES, GLASSWARE—and behind the passenger seat was a crate of canned beans, olive oil, herbal teas, and dried pastas. There was also a small coffee machine and several cartons of coffee. Dad said these were my mother’s doing. “She bought you some staples to get you started.”
My brother Paul met us at the apartment with the key, which he’d collected beforehand from the landlord. After wrestling with the sticky door knob, I let us inside.
I’d visited the place only once before. The old tenant had yet to move out and the 400-square-foot efficiency had been crammed with furniture and bric-a-brac. With the tenant and his belongings now gone, the neglect and disrepair became apparent. Dirt collected in the corners of the room like black snow drifts. Cockroach husks littered the cupboards. A brown scale as thick and hard as a toe nail covered the bottom of the bathtub, and gray fuzz carpeted the ceiling fan, the bulbs of which had all burned out making the tiny space oppressively dark, even more so since the apartment’s sole window was opaque with grime.
My brother and father offered polite assessments. It’s only temporary, they said. It won’t be half-bad once it’s cleaned up.
The old tenant had left behind a few of his things, and Paul set about picking up the floor while Dad emptied the fridge. They moved with violent exuberance purging the room of broken clothes hangers, orphaned charger cords, and furry cheese. The wet crack of a jelly jar hitting the bottom of a trash bag startled me. “You don’t have to do that,” I said. In truth I would have preferred to have done the cleaning myself. I’d have made a ceremony of it, sat cross-legged on the floor, weighed every empty cologne bottle and chipped glass. I had been a free person for no more than an hour and already decisions were being taken from me.
While standing aside to watch them work my hand had come to rest on one of the boxes brought up earlier from the car, and inside I caught glimpse of an nubbly orange paw. Vaguely, I recalled a long-ago date with Jamie. It would have been at the beginning of our courtship, while still in college. The stuffed bear had been a prize, the kind won at a fair for shooting rubber ducks or toppling pins, but I couldn’t remember now the exact game or who had won. Beside the prize bear laid more fragments of a life half-remembered: an empty cookie tin from a bakery in New York, a miniature Eiffel Tower picked up at an airport in France, a glass paperweight containing a preserved scorpion given to me by my mother as a young boy.
A pressure began to build at the center of my chest, and I pressed the box flaps firmly closed.
After we’d cleaned for a bit, Paul left and my father took me to pick up groceries. He drove us to a small supermarket I’d shopped at in the past and where not much had changed save for the registers which had been replaced entirely with self-checkout stations. In the produce section, Dad trailed behind me leaning heavily on a shopping cart while I drifted among pyramids of grapefruits, plums, and nectarines. So much choice. So unlike the prison commissary with its two flavors of ramen and single brand of potato chips. I remembered reading somewhere that the brain can only efficiently process up to seven choices at one time. Or was it five? Under the circumstances, even two choices might have overwhelmed me.
My first time grocery shopping as a young adult had been a deeply liberating experience. It seemed a mark of adulthood and independence to wander the aisles indulging in whatever sticky, salty, boozy pleasures one fancied. But I felt none of that old thrill now. Instead I felt anxious, paralyzed by indecision. The choice was not liberating but burdensome. The fluorescent lights seemed surgically harsh, the colorful fruits garish and scribbled outside their lines. Sensing my hesitation, my father said to me from behind, “We can always come back if you forget something.”
Tentatively I approached the Roma tomatoes, the red oblong fruits like small bleeding hearts. I dropped one in a sack and then five more before realizing that six tomatoes was entirely too many. Surely they’d spoil before I got around to eating them all. Beside me a man whose path I’d been blocking for some time politely pretended to consider the red onions. I stepped aside to let him pass and in doing so nearly bumped into a woman picking through the peaches. It seemed I was in everyone’s way, the fool who couldn’t decide how many tomatoes he needed. I felt again that pressure building behind my sternum, a slow tearing that threatened to become a hole.
I turned to my father, who looked frightened. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said.
Eventually I settled on three of everything; it seemed like a safe, almost mystical number: three tomatoes, three lemons, three pears. Back at the apartment my father, moving slower than I remembered in the past, helped put away the groceries and the staples my mother had given me. Dad said she’d bought everything I’d need to make my favorite dish, pasta puttanesca. And so she had. From the crate I pulled jars of capers, tins of anchovies, kalamata olives, and heads of fresh garlic. “You can make yourself a nice supper when you come home from work tonight,” Dad said.
Only it was well past midnight when Paul picked me up at the restaurant and dropped me off at my apartment, and I was too exhausted to do any more cooking. For a while I only stood at the threshold of my new home, not entering but only looking in. The porch light over what I would later come to know as Charlie’s door illuminated the space with yellow moth-eaten light, and the packed boxes cast long violet shadows over the dusty floor. A naked spot on the wall where a headboard had once leaned glowed like a fresh bruise. The room had a pleasantly lonesome feel.
I stepped inside, set my keys on the kitchen counter and smiled at the thought of staking out future junk drawers, spice shelves, and cubby holes. After bathing and emptying into the tub the pales of water I’d placed beneath the leaky AC, I settled down on the floor on the inflatable mattress Paul had brought over. Lying there, staring at the ceiling, I felt a sense of having come to rest after a long and arduous run, which was almost the literal truth of it. I would have liked to have laid there forever, savoring the tingle in my muscles, the unfurling of my limbs, but I fell asleep quickly and dreamed of nothing.
I awoke early the next morning to clear and sunny weather that seemed intended especially for me. I decided to take a walk. How strange it was to move about without aim or direction, without obstruction by fences or razor wire or red OUT OF BOUNDS signs. Abruptly, almost rudely, the world had no bounds.
I passed a dive bar, taqueria, pizza parlor, and twenty-four hour pharmacy. Farther still, for I had no need or desire to stop, I passed a bank, donut shop, and several car lots. My neighborhood, I thought. At a Starbucks I stopped and ordered an iced chai latte, my old standard. Not much had changed about the chain, which was a comfort. The only exceptions I could see were a new, larger drink size, the trente, and the addition of mobile pickups which reminded me of the self-checkout stations I’d seen at the grocery store. In this new world it was possible to purchase one’s groceries and order one’s coffee without interacting with a single person. This, it had been decided, was progress.
Across the street I entered a home improvement store, the spacious and tidy aisles promising there was no stuck door that couldn’t be planed or crevice that couldn’t be filled. In the paint department I bought two gallons of “Agreeable Gray,” and then, on a whim, selected an unexceptional houseplant from the garden section. I walked back to my apartment, houseplant tucked beneath one arm, the plastic shopping bags cutting deliciously into my fingers.
In the weeks that followed I threw myself into fixing up the apartment, trekking out to the home improvement store sometimes twice a day for paint rollers, sand paper, mops, and strong cleansers. There wasn’t an inch of the place that didn’t need tending. I painted the walls, ceiling, trim, and cabinetry; replaced the leaky central air with a window unit; unclogged and calked the bathroom sink; hung a shower rod and matching towel holders; replaced dead light bulbs and the rusting vanity mirror; scrubbed the floor by hand, tile by title, working around the stacks of boxes I had yet to unpack.
I hung shelves, coat pegs, and artwork, including a painted portrait of my Italian great grandparents, an illustrated map of Sheepshead Bay that hung for years in the family restaurant, and a framed menu from the restaurant, circa 1932, the prices quaintly cheap: eggplant parmesan for $2.25, linguini with clam sauce for $1.75, lasagna for $3.25.
Furniture soon arrived, first a bed and mattress, then a round copper coffee table, a tailored love seat in oatmeal and Mid-century modern armchair in inky blue. There came wool rugs, marble end tables with matching lamps, and a leather desk chair to pair with my father’s old drafting table. The place began to come together and neighbors often stopped me at the mailbox to pay me compliments, having spied the makeover through the apartment window. One afternoon a couple interested in buying Charlie’s condo stopped by my open door to offer their praise. “Sorry to intrude,” said the woman, “but we couldn’t help but notice how lovely— Oh! Would you look at those kitchen shelves, Tom, and see where he’s put the bed? Why, it looks like something out of a magazine.”
The couple passed on Charlie’s place. It needed too much work. And so the unit sat as she’d left it the day she died, a wooden cane on the window sill, a desiccated houseplant clutching the wall, an open can of Bud on the coffee table.
It was good to be consumed by a project. I kept myself so busy painting and cleaning that I had no time to notice the unhappiness that had settled over me like a low-grade fever. I only became aware of it two weeks out of the halfway house when I was made to take a battery of psychological evaluations during my intake for sex offender treatment. One test had me rate a given statement according to how strongly it coincided with my own thoughts: “It seems I cause nothing but disappointment,” read one such statement, and, “Lately, I’ve been feeling like I can’t do anything right.”
At first the opaqueness of the test made me snicker. Then the words began to shimmer on the computer screen like heat off asphalt, and I had to work quickly to regain my composure before the therapist returned.
The unhappiness manifested itself in a number of ways, often as panicked indecisiveness, as when in the mornings after having awakened I would wonder what to do with myself. Should I make my bed and shower? Should I shower first and then make my bed? Should I brush my teeth before or after having my coffee? Hadn’t I read somewhere that the teeth’s enamel is softest and most vulnerable to wear from brushing after drinking acidic coffee? The smallest decisions seemed fraught with unforeseen consequences.
Obsessiveness was another symptom of my discontent. I arranged and rearranged furniture, threw away perfectly serviceable but mismatched clothes hangers, made minute adjustments to throw pillows and accoutrements. Like those neatly stacked pallets at the home improvement store, its rows of bins for every screw and drawer pull, I craved order, perfection. I believed if I could reign in the outside world—if I could achieve a tidy apartment, an organized pantry, a perfectly made bed—then I might be able to reign in my mind, which had become overwhelmed.
And yet it seemed impossible to create order in a world that struck me as far more complicated than the one I’d left a decade ago. I imagined the free world as a circular track strewn with hurtles set at unnecessarily high and unfair heights. Finding a place to live as a sex offender had been by far the steepest hurtle. But it was the everyday disappointments that ground me down the most. So consistent was my sorry luck that I came to see even the smallest setback as a personal affront, evidence of a conspiring world. There was the indefinite closure of the apartment’s pool, the debit card that got lost in the mail and whose replacement was promptly eaten by an ATM, the restaurant that offered only a digital menu, which I couldn’t access because I had no smartphone.
“Was life always this difficult?” I asked a friend. I had just related to him how the DMV had refused to renew my driver license because the letter from my bank, which I’d offered as proof of residency, was not technically a bank statement and was therefore invalid. “What bank sends statements in the mail anymore?” I said. “They’re all on the Internet, which I’m not allowed to access.”
In my darkest moments I could convince myself that whatever misfortunes befell me were not the designs of a scheming world but evidence of my own vast ineptitude. Every minor misstep—every scorched wok at the restaurant, every misaligned picture frame on the apartment wall, every spilled drop of paint—seemed an unpardonable failure. One day I bought a small trash can for the kitchen only to discover that it didn’t fit the nook beside the refrigerator as I’d intended. Its diameter was an inch too wide. Why hadn’t I thought to bring a tape measure to the store? I sat down on the floor with my back against the fridge feeling tired suddenly. Looking around, my eyes came to settle on the empty shopping bag lying at my feet, and a thought occurred to me as distinct and clear as if it were whispered in my ear:
Why don’t you just put the bag over your head?
My eyes welled. Aloud I said to no one, “Why are you so mean to me?”
I saw no good reason why I should be so unhappy, which made me feel all the more miserable. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t appreciate what I had? I’d found a comfortable place to live and a job which, while not glamorous or lucrative, was honest and obliging to my criminal past. I had a large and loyal support system of family and friends. I should have been content if only to not be locked in a six-by-eight cell. Everyone said so: “Oh, you must be so happy to be out of prison!” Only I wasn’t happy. And the presumption that others should know how I ought to feel annoyed me. As did the demands they placed on my time—the endless invitations to coffees, luncheons, and dinners. There wasn’t a block of my time that someone didn’t insist on claiming. I felt harried, hunted. I stopped returning phone calls and text messages. I called home less and less. I lied to Paul, told him I couldn’t meet him for drinks because I had to work. The voicemails and unanswered texts began to pile up, which only increased my anxiety and guilt and further fueled my malaise.
One day, a month after moving into my apartment, I set out for a can of touchup paint and detoured through a car lot. A saleswoman found me, bared her teeth at me and asked if I were interested in purchasing a car. I told her I’d just gotten out of prison, thinking she might show me mercy, but she was ruthless. In her office she grilled me on the particulars of what I wanted: a hatchback, white. She returned with a black sedan.
“Are you ready for a test drive?” I waved the proffered keys away. With the exception of my recent driving test, I hadn’t driven a car in ten years. I insisted she drive. Down the city’s main drag she sped, foot punching the accelerator. Meanwhile her hand not occupied by the wheel flapped about the cabin like a trapped bird, pointing out the various amenities—the sunroof, the heated seats, the touchscreen display. Two hours later I eased the car into afternoon traffic, myself behind the wheel. At ten miles below the speed limit I drove to the Starbucks on the corner and ordered a chai latte from the drive thru, then proceeded to the home improvement store, my reason for having ventured out in the first place. I pulled into a space farthest from any other cars, put the car in Park, and called my father.
“Dad, don’t be mad. I bought a car.”
“You what! I thought we agreed I would take you car shopping this weekend. Why didn’t you wait for me?”
I couldn’t have said why I didn’t wait for his help. Maybe I didn’t want anyone’s help. Maybe I wanted to make a decision on my own, even if it was the wrong one.
He didn’t wait for an answer but continued shooting questions: What kind of warranty did I buy? What was the interest rate? What was my monthly payment? How much did the car cost? I couldn’t answer any of those questions either.
“Dad, look, the reason I called is I have a question.”
“How do I turn this car off?” For it had a push-button ignition, and those hadn’t been around when I was locked up.
Back at the apartment I shed my paint cans at the door and set the car key in a dish beside my bed. It was early evening and gray light trickled in through the room’s only window giving the furniture a crouched, wooly look. It seemed no matter how much I cleaned, the apartment looked dingy. I flipped on all the lights, including those in the bathroom, and set about rummaging in the fridge for supper. On the door I spotted the jar of capers and tin of anchovies my mother had bought me for making puttanesca.
I set a pot of water on the stove to boil and in a sauce pan poured a generous amount of olive oil. To the hot oil I added a pinch of pepper flakes and several cloves of crushed garlic. I looked around. “Now where are my tongs?”
In a corner of the apartment sat the boxes of belongings I had yet to unpack. In a box labeled KITCHEN I found a spatula, cheese grater, colander, and pepper mill, but no tongs. I knew I’d owned a pair. I could picture them, even after all these years—the sturdy steel arms and scalloped hands. Suddenly I smelled something acrid and turned to find the garlic beginning to scorch.
I tossed the pan in the sink where it sputtered and hissed like an accusation.
I gave up on the tongs and added a handful of linguini to the pot of water, which had begun to boil. I wiped out the sauce pan with a paper towel and began again, adding to the garlic the anchovies, the bones like knuckle hairs. Next went in the capers, olives, and plum tomatoes whose meat I tore apart with my bare hands. At the back of the refrigerator in a dry mason jar I found a bunch of parsley turning black and crunchy. I suspected, without opening the crisper drawer, more spoilage afoot: the three sweet potatoes going soft in their jackets, the three lemons turning ashen like exhausted charcoal briquets. Such waste. It was the food I’d purchased the month before with my father when I’d had my breakdown over the Roma tomatoes, the first of many inexplicable breakdowns, for it happened every time I went out for food. At first I thought it was the store itself and the memories of having shopped there in better times that caused me to tear up. So I tried other grocers, stores at which I’d never shopped, but I’d fall apart just the same, the aching swell rising in my chest, in the produce section, in the bakery, at the deli counter. I would keep my head down, pretending to survey the Boarshead, until I could collect myself.
I tore from the parsley plant a few still-green leaves and added them to the sauce along with the drained pasta. I ate standing over the stove.
“Too much tomato,” I said finally, setting the empty plate in the sink.
Lately I’ve been feeling like I can’t do anything right.
I regarded the stacks of boxes beside the love seat. I’d emptied one while searching for the tongs and figured I ought to finish the job. I set to work unpacking a box labeled BOOKS, and then another labeled GLASSWARE. My resolve grew with each freshly emptied box, and I pressed on, unearthing coasters, bookends, a glass vase, chess pieces, and water pitchers. The physicality of the task invigorated me. The wrenching of packing tape and crumpling of newspaper and bubble wrap quickened my blood. I paused only once, to haul a stack of flattened cardboard to the Dumpster in the alley. In returning to the apartment I spared a glance at Charlie’s place. A lone floor lamp in the living room glowed like a vigil candle. The stale beer lay on the coffee table like an offering.
Back inside I pulled back the flaps on a box marked MISC and was revisited by two extended orange paws and black glass eyes. I buried the bear in the coffee table and kept moving. High school year books, compact discs and movie stubs, a Ziplock bag containing jewelry that once belonged to my grandfather. Inside was the charm he kept around his neck, a gold cornicello or small horn like a crooked pepper said to ward off the evil eye. I slipped the chain over my head. I could use the protection.
Macaroni Christmas ornaments, Playbills, a dried-up pen engraved with my name, a small picture frame with a yellow butterfly trapped beneath the glass, a drawstring bag of seashells collected at a beach. I’d nearly reached the bottom of the last box when I touched something that clinked.
From a bundle of newspapers I unwrapped several framed photos taken nearly two decades ago at the Monahans Sandhills in West Texas. Jamie and I had spent the weekend camping there, trekking through the desert, sledding down the sand dunes, making love beneath a starry sky on my father’s boyhood sleeping bag, the one with the geese on the inner lining. In the mornings we’d wake to find coyote tracks like rain patter in the sand encircling our tent. In one photo we stood squinty-eyed at the base of a derelict windmill, Jamie shirtless, bronzed, and handsome, and me looking impossibly young, my face rounder and softer, like an unfinished bust.
I’d been sitting on the floor, the pictures lying in my lap, when the pressure that had been building for weeks in my chest finally tore loose. The frames slid to the floor as I smashed my hands to my face, trying to plug the hole that had opened there. Yet as hard as I pressed I could not stop the animal sobs from escaping beneath my palms, the spit and tears from seeping through my fingers.
My father, when he answered his phone, grew panicked when I tried and failed to make words.
“Please, Son” he begged. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
I took in as much air as my broken body would allow and said to him as I’d said over the Roma tomatoes, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”