The building’s old. Decrepit. Unremarkable in every sense of the word. And yet - something about it makes me wistful. Nostalgic, even. But I can’t quite place what that something is.
We walk through the doors and into the lobby, my backpack slung over my shoulder, suitcase trailing behind me, the broken wheel making a click-clack sound as it jostles around on its hinge. I glance over at Thomas. His face is passive, his eyes pointed down towards the carpet that might have been white once, but I know him - I can tell that he hates the place from the slump of his shoulders and slight quirk of his eyebrows. Well, there goes the hope that he might like it here.
I get our key from a balding, red-faced man sitting at the clerk’s desk. “Fourth floor,” he says tiredly. “Apartment E. Stairs are through there.” He gestures towards a metal door speckled with rust.
“No elevator?” mutters Thomas under his breath. I shoot him a dirty look that he pretends not to notice and walk through the door. The stairwell’s dark, damp, and smells like broken dreams. I like it.
We lug our suitcases up the four flights of stairs. Thomas stops a few times to catch his breath, but I keep going, anxious to see our new place.
When we finally reach the fourth floor, I open the door leading off the stairwell landing and enter a narrow hallway lit dimly by deep-set lights in the ceiling. I fumble in my sweatshirt pocket for the key, open the door engraved with the characters ‘4E’, and turn on the light.
The apartment is empty and dusty. The yellowish-tan wallpaper is peeling at the corners, and the windows are covered with dirt. The distinct smell of mildew hangs heavy in the air. But, somehow, I feel like I could belong here.
And it’s then that I realize why this place fills me with longing: it reminds me of my childhood. It reminds me of how it feels to be home.
The apartment’s horrible, even worse than that sorry excuse for a lobby. I can’t look in any direction without seeing something wrong with it - peeling wallpaper, grimy countertops, dust-covered window sills. I look over at Harlow, though, and she’s walking around in a sort of trance, like this is some luxurious penthouse or something. I just don’t understand what she sees in this dump.
It’s true, I grew up pretty well off, and although she doesn’t mention it much, I know she wasn’t exactly wealthy as a kid. Maybe this is what she’s used to or something. But - this place? This is the apartment she’d found for us? Sure, it was cheap, but it isn’t even worth the small amount we paid for it. I’ve already told her my parents would buy us a nice place if we asked them, and we could pay them back once we started our jobs. She wouldn’t hear it. Well, she’s always been the independent type. It’s one of the things I love about her.
We set our bags down and walk around the apartment. There’s four rooms: a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and living room. Not much, but enough. It would’ve been fine, if the place wasn’t so gross.
“So, Harlie,” I say cautiously. She can have a bit of a temper, and I don’t want to test it by telling her outright that I hate it here. “Where’d you find this place?”
“Some website,” she says absentmindedly, running her hand along the bedroom wall. “Why?”
She sighs. “C’mon, Tom, I’m not stupid. I know you hate it. But can you just try? Please? We’ve already bought it and everything.”
“I don’t hate-”
“Yeah, you do,” she says, folding her arms with a smirk.
“No, I don’t.” I say, setting my jaw. Sometimes I think we’re both too stubborn for our own good.
“Yeah, you- you know what, I’m not gonna argue about this.” She turns and walks back into the living room.
We’re going to go shopping for furniture and supplies tomorrow, but tonight we’ll have to sleep in sleeping bags. We order pizza and eat it on the floor, relishing the greasy-fingered feeling that we hadn’t been able to find in the college cafeteria. We eat in silence for a while, until Harlow says, “We’ll clean the apartment up tomorrow. Okay? It’ll be better after that.”
“M’kay,” I say thickly, my mouth full of pizza. She gives me a small smile.
Afterwards, we watch a movie on my laptop, huddled together against the wall under a blanket, the computer halfway on each of our laps. It’s nice, just being alone together. We didn’t get that very often at NYU.
When the credits start rolling around 10:00, Harlow turns her head towards me. “Let’s get some sleep, okay?”
“It’s still pretty early,” I tell her with raised eyebrows.
“Trust me,” she says with a rough laugh, “you want to be well-rested for tomorrow. We’ve got some hard-core cleaning to do.”
“If ya say so.”
“I do say so.”
I smile and kiss her on the cheek.
Later, when we’ve brushed our teeth and are tucked into our sleeping bags, I decide to ask her one last time. “Harlow, I know I already mentioned it, but you know my parents could buy us another place, right? Until we make some of our own money.”
“Thomas, no. We talked about this.” I can almost hear her scowling.
“Yeah, but . . . c’mon, Harlie. Look at this place. Could you just tell me why you won’t ask them for help?”
“I think this place is great,” she says angrily. “And I’m not going to have your parents taking care of us like we’re still kids. We’re not kids, Thomas. We haven’t been for a long time.”
“I know that,” I say. I realize it’s no use arguing with her. She’s made up her mind. I turn over and, eventually, get pulled under by the heavy tug of sleep.
I wake up to a loud shout. I sit up straight and look over at Thomas. He’s sitting up too, his back rigid with fear, waving his hands violently in front of his face. “What?” I say, panicked. “What’s wrong?”
His face wild with fear, he points to a tiny spider I hadn’t noticed, crawling across the floor. “That thing- that thing landed on me!”
I can’t help it. I burst out laughing, so hard that I almost fall over. He stares at me. “It’s not funny!”
“You should’ve seen yourself!” I say, wiping my eyes. “The look on your face-” I dissolve into laughter again.
He scowls, but I can see that he’s not really angry. “You’re not being very mature,” he says, running his hand through his dark, sleep-tousled hair.
“Eh, screw maturity,” I say, standing up to get ready for the day.
While I’m brushing my teeth, Thomas comes into the bathroom. There’s a hard look in his gray-blue eyes that scares me a little. When he looks like this, there’s really no stopping him from getting whatever it is that he wants.
“Harlow,” he says.
I stop brushing. “Yeah?” I say through a mouthful of toothpaste.
“I just went into the kitchen. And it’s crawling. With. Ants.” His voice is as hard and stiff as a board.
I shrug and go back to brushing. “So we’ll buy some ant traps at the store.”
“You don’t understand, Harlow,” he says in a low voice. “They’re everywhere. We’re infested. We need to leave.”
“Since when are you so afraid of bugs? The spider, and now these ants- what’s up with you, Tom?”
“What is up with me is that this place is disgusting, Harlow. You know it is. And I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it again, but if you would just let my parents buy us a place-”
I spit the toothpaste into the sink and glare at him in the mirror. “Thomas,” I say warningly. He usually stops when I say his name like that, but this time he keeps going.
“No, Harlow. We’re leaving. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to get help or feel like a little kid or whatever, because this isn’t just about you, okay? I get a say in this, too. And I say we’re leaving. I don’t get why it’s so hard for you!”
“No, Thomas!” I’m shouting now, but I don’t care. I’d rather do anything than become someone like that. Someone like his parents. Someone like him - although he’s mostly different. But I can’t tell him that. I can’t tell him the truth, but I can tell him to stop asking for it. “We are not leaving. End of story! I don’t care if you’re afraid of some stupid ants. We. Are. Not. Leaving.” I turn and storm out of the bathroom, not staying to hear his response. And I don’t stop - I leave the apartment and walk down the hallway into the stairwell. I lean my back against the wall and sink to the ground, throat burning from shouting, heart aching from refusing to tell him the truth.
But I don’t know how I could possibly do that.
I stand there in the bathroom, still staring at the place where she was brushing her teeth a couple minutes ago. What’s wrong with her? Why is she so against my parents helping us? What could she possibly see in this place? I run my hands bewilderedly through my hair and stay in the same spot for a while before going after her.
I find her in the damp, smelly stairway, sitting with her back against the wall. “Hey,” I say, helping her up and taking her face in my hands. She doesn’t avoid my gaze - she looks straight at me, and in her dark eyes I see an intense sort of fire, something I’ve never seen there before. It makes her look wilder. Freer. Beautiful. “What is it? You know you can tell me anything, right?”
“I know,” she says.
“So what’s wrong?” I ask her.
She shakes her head and backs out of my grasp like a stray dog trying not to be captured. “I just can’t do it.”
“Get help from them. Live in their world. Your world, I guess. I can’t do it. I can’t.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Of course you don’t. You grew up like that. Always having whatever you wanted, whatever you needed. I didn’t grow up that way. And I can’t pretend to be like them when I’m not. What I’m saying is I can’t be a rich person, okay? I can’t be one of them. And your parents hate me Thomas. You know they do.”
“They don’t hate you, Har. And we don’t have to be like them.”
“Yeah, we do. If I ask for help from them, I’ll get used to luxury like that. I’ll lose everything that makes me myself. I’ll become one of them. I can’t do that. It’s the worst thing that could happen to me.”
And it’s in that moment that I realize everything she’s been going through. Horrified at the idea of asking them for help, not because she’s stubborn, but because she’s terrified to lose her identity.
I can’t pretend to know what that’s like. But I can try to understand.
When I finally tell him the truth, I can see the understanding in his eyes. It’s like he’s seeing me for the first time. I can tell that he gets it.
And he steps forward to wrap his arms around me, holding me tight in the stairwell of broken dreams.