I lived with my parents for the fourth time in my late 30s for three years while chipping away at my credit card balance. As a debt-free woman of 40, I figured it was probably a good idea to move out again. I was excited by the prospect of living alone, with my own space and my own furniture, with no roommates to mess up the kitchen, take over the TV, or dirty up the bathroom.
My friend found a tiny back house while in her pajamas walking her dog last November early in the morning. The “for rent” sign had just been posted. The house has its own lemon tree, sits upstairs above a laundry room and a garage, behind a two-story duplex in a quaint neighborhood that circles grassy parks with tall trees, where people convene after work for puppy parties—a park my toddler nephew has now claimed; he runs in circles trying to climb the largest tree trunk.
To an outsider, this neighborhood is Pleasantville in color. Everyone knows everyone. People smile and wave from across the street. Homeowners pull trash bins back in the second the trash truck empties them. Yards are well kept. Porches are well swept. The next door neighbor brought me fresh eggs from his chickens when I moved in. The chickens don’t cluck until everyone is awake—usually. It’s like living next to a farm, instead of the middle of Long Beach, California. At first it was endearing.
When my neighbor brought over the eggs, he gave me his card.
“Let me know if you need anything or hear anything any time,” he said.
More tasty eggs would be good, I thought later.
He hasn’t offered more.
The first time I saw my house, I thought, “It’s so cute!” My next thought was, “It’s so small!” I can’t remember the exact square footage, but let’s just say I’ve seen NYU dorm rooms larger. It’s a split level studio with a dividing wall. The wall that separates the studio in two has an open window in the middle of the room, and there is barely any wall space because of all the windows to the outside. The house is swimming in natural light, and has a green and yellow stained glass window. There are no curtains, just cheap blinds that cover one-and-a-half walls. Translation: no privacy.
The bathroom is miniscule, with one cupboard below the sink, a shower stall—that is now leaking—and a vanity cabinet; to look in the mirror, I have to straddle the toilet next to the sink. I’ve bruised my arms more than once knocking them against the toilet paper holder because the space is so small.
Did I mention I’m 41 now?
The back patio over the garage—that I don’t get to use—is next to the neighbor’s chicken coop, which may well be bigger than my studio. My patio is almost as large as my house, but it’s on a severe slant, and flies swarm me if I try to eat outside because the trash cans for four houses are directly below.
Before I knew all this, I took a few photos of the empty space and the inviting sunset from the patio. Then I walked to my cousin’s house. I was trying to decide if I should fill out the application or not. The same thoughts kept alternating in my head: “It’s so cute! It’s so small!”
I showed my cousin’s wife the photos.
“How much is the rent again?”
When I told her, her eyes got wide.
“You’re not going to find anything with a better location for that price. Make it work.”
I took her advice and moved in. On moving day, my landlord looked into the full U-Haul truck and said, “How are you going to fit everything?”
“Good question,” I said.
I didn’t have a bed or a dresser when I moved in, and I made my parents take one of my two bookshelves home with them. Even so, my books, photos and other memorabilia, files of paperwork, clothes, desk, girly bathroom shit, and a kitchen table I’d just stripped all took up more space than I imagined. My tiny back house was piled floor to ceiling with stacks of my belongings that I was somehow going to have to put away with little to no storage space. It didn’t add up.
The second my family left me alone with my belongings, it hit me: This isn’t where I’m supposed to be. This was not part of the plan. I don’t want to be alone.
But I did what my cousin’s wife told me to do: I made it work. It took a month to put everything away—aside from extra plates, which are stacked in a giant blue plastic bin that still sits on my patio. How I managed to find a place for everything else still baffles me. It was like putting together a puzzle with extra pieces. I caved and bought a college-size black dresser from IKEA and built it myself. I bought a day bed and baskets to store sweaters and towels underneath it. I shoved my books and albums in tightly together in the one bookshelf I kept. I made the “bedroom” an office and the “living room” a bedroom.
I started going out on the town with my friend who first found my back house. Two wine bars are within walking distance; two cool coffee houses vie for my loyalty on afternoon breaks; countless bars and restaurants are a short cab or bus ride away, and the beach with its long bike trail is four blocks. It’s a terrific location! Things were coming together! Verizon even fixed the hole they drilled into the middle of my wall to set up my TV.
For a couple months, my only complaint was the parking situation. On street sweeping nights, it’s best not to get home after 10:00 PM. One night I circled a one-mile radius for an hour-and-a-half, had to stop for gas, and then parked over a mile from my house. Another night, I found a parking spot that barely fit my car. As I bent over to admire my supreme parking skills, looking at how the back of my car edged right up next to the red line on the curb, a strange man swung open the front screen door on the house next to me. He didn’t leave the front step and cross his yard to assess the situation. Instead, he yelled at me at top volume. It was 1:00 AM on a school night.
“Tell me something! How am I supposed to get out of my driveway tomorrow morning?”
I looked around, perplexed.
“That driveway?” I pointed to the driveway next to his house. Nothing was blocking it. “I’m in a legit spot. It’s not even red.”
“Cops are really good about giving tickets here, so good luck with that!” he screamed.
“But I’m not blocking your driveway,” I said.
He slammed the screen door as I tried to explain myself. I set my alarm the next morning to move my car before the psycho keyed my car on his way to work.
Welcome to the neighborhood.
When I grow up, I want my own driveway.
One night soon after the parking incident, I heard an animal rummaging around in my bathroom at 4:00 AM. My bathroom door is about eight feet from my bed. I awoke in a panic and strained my neck to listen. I heard scurrying feet and sharp teeth picking at the wall. I immediately threw on my flip flops and grabbed my keys. I spent the next two hours shivering inside my car in my pajamas, lying in the backseat. In my haste, I didn’t think to bring a blanket. I didn’t go back to sleep. At the first sign of daylight, I called my landlord. She sent over her jack-of-all-trades, very-much-master-of-none who’d already fixed my bathroom sink leak and a lock on my storage room outside.
I don’t like him. While fixing the lock on my door, he wouldn’t stop talking. I was trying to work—I’m a telecommuter—and he made it impossible. He asked me if I wanted to go for a ride on his motorcycle because his wife had moved to Germany.
My Valentine’s Day plans were all dialed in.
“Motorcycles aren’t my thing,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked.
He went on to explain why motorcycles are safe. He was pushy and unnecessarily flirty, and I wanted him to go away.
The morning of the first animal incident, he came over and checked my bathroom for large rodents, squirrels, or man-eating possums. He found nothing, but left a trail of black scuff marks from his boots on my linoleum.
The next night, and the night after that, and the night after that, the nocturnal creatures were back. They were rats. I knew because I could hear them diligently building a nest underneath my shower.
When I said I didn’t want to be alone anymore, this is not what I had in mind.
I took to wearing ear plugs that would hurt by daybreak, but half the time, I could hear my new rodent roommates anyway. It was creepy. My anxiety rose every night when I went to bed. I knew I’d be aroused from sleep between the hours of midnight and 4:00 AM. The unsettling noise wore me down.
“At least you don’t have cockroaches,” my sister said. “Those are the worst.”
The next day I pulled a basket of clean towels from underneath my bed. A large brown cockroach was underneath them inside the basket.
“You jinxed it,” I texted my sister.
I took the basket outside and closed my front door. I turned the basket over and dumped the critter onto my deck. It scurried toward my front door and crawled through a small hole underneath it and back into my house. I had to smash the bastard before it got away, and I wasn’t wearing shoes.
My landlord had smarmy Fix-It Guy close holes in the garage ceiling downstairs and put out poison for the rats. It didn’t work. I didn’t tell her about the cockroach.
“I told you to stop feeding them,” the handyman joked when I told him the rats were still driving me nuts. “Why are you afraid of them?”
“I’m not afraid of them. I just can’t sleep!”
His buddy, a roofer who was helping him rebuild the front porch on the big house, asked me to buy steel wool and insulation in a can. I traded him a coffee drink for the labor it would take to seal up all the smaller spaces in the laundry room and garage where the pipes led to my toilet, my shower, and my kitchen sink.
He also pointed out the laundry room holding up my house was riddled with termites, and everything would eventually fall down. Awesome.
“The rats won’t get in now,” he said. “If you hear them again, it means they’re trapped up there.”
That night and the night after, the rats were at it again. A week later, the sickening smell of dead rodent flesh set in.
If they’re under my shower, how the hell are we going to get them out? I thought.
We weren’t. My landlord was still calling the situation my “mice” problem.
“They’re not mice. They’re rats,” I kept saying.
“We’ve never had this problem before,” she said more than once, as if I was lying or I’d invited the rats into the walls to curb the loneliness and despair that was getting worse by the day.
Before my neighbor in the big house on our property who’d lived there for nine years moved, she said, “They’ve had rats in your toilet twice.”
I wasn’t having any of that.
The smell got worse. Soon I knew it would be unbearable, so I turned to Google.
I searched “how to get rid of rat smell,” and scrolled through a bunch of comments all asking the same thing. Then I found one comment with a resolution: cut-up onions and put them in a bowl of water.
That’s some hocus-pocus bullshit right there.
But I was desperate, so I tried it.
You won’t believe this, but it fucking worked. I put a bowl of water and sliced red onions inside my shower. Within a day, the rat smell dissipated to merely the faintest hint of death. But then the house smelled like onions. Two days later, the onion smell was nauseating, so I dumped them.
The weather got hotter. The rat smell returned, but not nearly as strong.
Then I heard new rats. No joke. For a couple nights, I heard the latest batch knocking around under the shower, picking at the walls, bumping into each other. Then, for no discernible reason, they disappeared. I imagined they’d run into the skeletal remains of their forebears and thought, “Oh shit! They’re dead! Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
After about a month, the smell was gone, and those little fuckers haven’t returned. Yet.
But other shit started happening in my seemingly picturesque neighborhood. Chicken Man next door hired workers to build a new fence. That was months ago. They’re still working on it. Nearly every day in the beginning of summer, I had to work with the ongoing sound of an electric buzz saw outside my window. It was torture.
“Do you want some tomatoes?” my neighbor asked the other day, inviting me into his lush garden. I was beginning to realize his edible offerings were an attempt to appease me for all the noise he was causing on his property, where he proudly hangs American and Marine flags, parks his shiny Mercedes, and repeatedly tosses a rubber ball for his scary dog under the window next to my bed at 6:00 AM each morning.
Once, he was out of town and his 23-year-old son had an obnoxious party that went on well past 1:30 AM. I debated how to handle it, as the racket of his annoying friends playing beer pong and their dumb music filled my bedroom/living room. I thought about going outside in my pajamas and yelling at them, “Hey, some people are trying to sleep around here!” but I didn’t think it would work; I don’t have a very authoritative voice, and I was outnumbered.
As I reached for my cell phone to call the police, it dawned on me: Oh my god. I’m THAT person now. The old person. The enemy of fun. Get off my lawn!
I put my phone down and resolved I’d call the police if it ever happened again. It hasn’t. Yet.
Then one weekend afternoon, I heard blood-curdling screams from a young woman outside. I froze in my bedroom/living room to listen. It sounded as if she was being chased by an axe-wielding murderer in broad daylight.
Someone is getting killed right now, I thought.
I was really scared.
“Where’s that coming from?” I yelled to my landlord, who happened to be visiting the property next to mine.
I realized the sounds of terror were coming from Chicken Man’s house. I peered over the fence and watched as two petite Asian women tore each other apart. They were latched onto each other's long black hair, writhing back and forth like Ultimate Fighting champs.
“Ridiculous,” my landlord said. “We don’t live in the ghetto.”
You don’t live here at all, I thought.
The girls tried to take each other down, but instead took down the screen door on the back of the house; they ripped it clean off its hinges as they fought their way into the kitchen.
The neighborhood had officially turned into a shit show.
The police showed up. I’ve seen them talking to Chicken Man on three separate occasions now. I’m not sure what else has prompted their visits, but my landlord says he donates money to them. I bet.
A week later, one of the Asian ladies knocked on my door at 9:00 PM with the intent of tracking down witnesses.
“Did you hear me crying for help?” she asked meekly, batting her eyelashes.
“I didn’t hear anyone yelling for help. I just heard screaming.”
She said she was attacked. I couldn’t even recall which of the women she was.
“Would you be willing to be a witness for me?” she asked.
“I can talk to the police if that’s what you mean,” I said. I wasn’t buying her “poor me” victim routine. That was a mutual fight if I ever saw one.
I haven’t heard from her since.
Then, another night, I was aroused from sleep by the sound of the squeaky washing machine directly below my bed. I looked at the clock. 2:30 AM.
Who the hell does laundry at 2:30 AM?
The culprit slammed the laundry room door as hard as he could because the knob is busted. My whole house shook.
I live here! I thought.
At 4:00 AM, the squeaking machine stopped.
“SLAM!” the door went again.
I looked outside. The neighbor who lives in the upstairs duplex in front of me was walking up his stairs carrying an armload of work shirts.
Are you kidding me?
Then, last week when I was eating lunch, I heard a rooster crow twice from Chicken Man’s yard.
Oh hell no, I thought.
I turned to my trusty go-to resource again: Google. I looked up rooster laws in Long Beach and found municipal code stating no one is allowed to own a “crowling fowl” for any reason inside the city limits. I braced for the next morning and waited.
Sure enough, the next day at 5:00 AM, the rooster crowed with all its might within pebble-throwing distance from my back patio. He didn’t let up for 20 minutes, and then started up again an hour later.
This time I called the police.
The cop giggled and told me to call the ASPCA. I called my landlord. She called Chicken Man.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “One of the workers at my house brought the rooster here yesterday and forgot to take it home.”
Because people leave their pet roosters at other people’s houses all the time? I thought.
“It’s going home today,” my landlord said.
On Sunday morning at 7:50 AM, I was awakened to the sound of a young woman’s loud voice through my kitchen window. She was standing in the driveway of our property, the driveway I’m not allowed to use.
“Oh look! There’s a patio!” she said into her cell phone, as she looked at the back side of the big house my landlord still has up for rent.
Who the fuck house hunts before 8:00 AM on a Sunday? I thought.
People see my upstairs box of a house and think it’s part of the garage or the laundry room—because technically it is. I’m the forgotten one who can vacuum her entire abode in fewer than 10 minutes. I want to put a sign outside that reads, “Someone lives here. Please shut up.”
Last night at 2:30 AM on a Tuesday, I heard (at least) two women screaming again. This time the banshees were down the street. Their voices echoed off my kitchen walls. The chick fight woke me up from a dead sleep, and the yelling didn’t stop for over an hour. No one intervened.
It’s official. I fucking hate my neighborhood.
“You better get in the fucking car, bitch,” I heard one of them shriek.
Right now I actually miss living in Orange County. I didn’t think I’d feel that way. When I first moved here, I thought, These are my people. This town is so diverse. There are so many cool things to do.
Now I just want some uninterrupted sleep, and I don’t care where. I can live with the nightly ghetto birds circling, drowning out the sound on my TV, but I can’t take the middle of the night and early morning nonsense anymore. I’ve had it. I’m too old for this shit.
This was not part of the plan. I want a real house. I want a husband. I wanted kids.
Instead I got rats, girl fights, an inconsiderate neighbor with a chicken coop, and a very loud rooster that thankfully went home after one day. Thank goodness for small miracles.
I’ve decided this situation has to be temporary, and I don’t just mean the tiny back house. I mean all of it.