The Burrower: Part I
by Crystal Vagnier
Before Hurricane Sandy, your boss at the University predicted that one day you would resort to sleeping in the office. “Why bother driving the two hours to Long Island when you have to come back in the morning? You may as well sleep here.” A month into the job, your boss handed you a secret set of keys: one for a storage room, located in the subbasement; the other for the office that you worked out of, on the sixth floor. “I trust you, not that there’s anything valuable here, but, now you have some options of where to go after hours while you’re waiting for traffic to end,” he said. “For the most part, you should know that you’re allowed to do whatever you think is best for yourself. I don’t need to know about it.”
To keep costs low, you lived with relatives rent-free on the South Shore in Suffolk County. As a graduate student working part-time, it was more cost-effective to commute to an abandon parking lot in Long Island City and take a subway into Manhattan than it was to rent your own place or purchase a monthly LIRR ticket. You’ve always had goals to establish your own dwelling, but the idea of spending over a thousand dollars a month for a small room with no change in commute time seemed financially unwise. Your money could be used for better experiences, like a plane ticket to a new country or a gym membership.
Your relatives were unfazed by the media’s warnings about Sandy. “They said the same thing about Irene and did anything happen? They just want us to freak out and buy a lot of things we don’t need,” your uncle said. “We’re on top of a hill! For the last sixty years this house has never flooded once. You think it’s going to start now?”
You spent the afternoon of the hurricane in your bedroom and listened as the wind picked up speed. When the power finally cut out you left your room to check in with your relatives. By morning your house had a boat in the living room, a missing roof, and over three feet of stagnant salt water. Any means of transportation, bicycles or cars, had corroded or washed away. Your family moved the boat from the living room back into the canal and equipped it with a generator. You all moved into the boat. It was only supposed to be a temporary home for a few days.
“You can’t stay out here forever,” your uncle said. “This was my mistake and it’s going to take a long time to fix it. Months. Maybe a year. What you need to do is go back to the city and return to work and school. Go back to your life. We’ll be okay out here.”
So you did what any person would do in that situation. You moved into your office.
When you first lug bags of your life into the Storage Room, you are struck by how small and dirty the space is. There are over eighty years’ worth of yearbooks stacked haphazardly in displaced oak armoires, a computer, and bottles of Night Train Express hidden in drawer. You see potential. With a little reorganizing of the 1957 and 2009 yearbooks, you could claim your own space.
Dusting and clearing off the bottom shelf of one of the armoires you have a place for some of your toiletries, clothes, and blankets. You find rolled-up yoga mats and repurpose them as a platform to sleep on. There are layers upon layers of lint and debris. Using your winter coat as a pillow, you crawl into your sleeping bag and crash on top of the yoga mats.
There is a deadbolt on the inside that nobody has the key for, so you know it’s impossible for anybody to enter as long as it’s locked. Still, you worry. You have yet to create a back-up plan in case anybody were to kick you out in the middle of the night. But you once knew how to live in the wilderness in Eastern Europe; why can’t you handle New York City?
The Storage Room is too small and there is no hiding. You crave privacy but you can’t shake the anticipation of the door opening and having to face whoever it is from five feet away. The days that you begin to relax are the days when you get caught, but not in the way you had feared, because nobody has the imagination to assume you’re a squatter. Some days it’s an apologetic photographer picking up equipment. Other days it’s a student asking where the new yearbooks are. On screwball days it’s a random person in the room sitting in the only chair by the computer staring at you with crazy-eyes because you’ve rushed into the room like a storm with wet hair wearing cocktail party attire. You realize it’s true that if you pretend you belong somewhere, nobody will doubt you.
You fall asleep in the dark and wake up in the dark. You make a note to Google how long it takes for rickets to develop in an adult. It’s time for you to move out and into a better room. But the trains to Long Island are overcrowded and inconsistent; your commute would be over three and a half hours one-way and you can’t afford to take a train every day. It’s been a few months and construction on the house has been slow. You test your luck with the office on the sixth floor where there are floor-to-ceiling windows. You dub it the Meta-Office because within M.O. are three smaller offices. Room C is the office you work in during the day. You’re a modern-day Goldilocks testing out all of your options for the perfect place to sleep. You try the Meta-Office first because they have the fancy chairs with cushions, but you quickly discover that a cushiony chair does not equate to a comfortable bed. At three a.m. you find yourself slinking towards the floor through the crack of two chairs pushed together. You notice for the first time security cameras in the corners of the Meta-Office and wonder if somebody somewhere is watching you. You determine when the janitor likes to clean the Meta-Office so you know when you need to be dressed by, but she can be inconsistent. Unlike the Storage Room, the Meta-Office is large and too open. There aren’t enough places to hide.
Still, you’re not sure why it took you so long to move from the Storage Room up to the sixth floor. Perhaps you were trying hard to separate work from home. Room C has its own locked door (with only one other pair belonging to the security guard) and eight large windows with light-filtering solar shades. The shaded windows allow for a perfect amount of privacy from potential Peeping Toms across the street at the library and the right amount of sunlight to seep through in the morning. This is your moment of silence before the staff piles in at ten a.m. You and your new bedroom are drenched in sunlight for less than ten minutes and you feel golden.
You sleep on an air mattress donated by an ex-lover. All the duct tape in the world, unfortunately, can’t fix the pinhole-of-despair. You give up on inflating the mattress and sleep on the hard tiled floors. You have the schedule of the janitor down, and you know that she doesn’t have the keys to Room C, so if you stay quiet you can catch a few extra minutes of sleep while she mops and cleans the Meta-Office. Only once does a security guard open the door to Room C to find you lying on the floor in your pajamas: a new janitor was starting that day and as a courtesy the security guard was unlocking every door.
Without your glasses, you couldn’t make out his expression. “Oh! Hi! I was just taking a nap before getting a head start on the day,” you said. You wondered if he would report you. If you were fired, would your boss be fired as well since he was the one who gave you the keys? Surprised and confused, the security guard apologized, and left. You never saw him again. More importantly, your boss never mentioned the incident so you assumed it went unnoticed and that your secret was still safe.
You know that there are mice and cockroaches in the office, but once you officially moved in they were nowhere to be found. For months while you were sleeping on the floor it had never occurred to you to consider the prospects of night crawlers — until one evening, when the sounds of them scampering over your plastic bags full of socks and underwear woke you up. You used to scoff at those who were left immobilized by the sight of a cockroach. Now you’re the one in frustrated tears when you realize your home is being used for a cockroach soiree and you weren’t even invited.
You consider pitching your one-man tent (which you obtained as a back-up plan in case you ever needed to hit the streets) as a blockade between you and them, but the time involved in assembling and disassembling proves to be unfavorable for your on-the-go-pack-it-in-in-under-ten-minutes lifestyle. There are nights where you cry out loud in defeat when you find them on the desk that you eat from, on your bookbag full of toiletries, on the cardboard boxes in which you hide your clothes and sleeping bag. You’ve become startled by any slight movement you see out of the corner of your eye. You lie awake at night wondering if there are any trapped cockroaches at the bottom of your sleeping bag. You tell yourself to Google what cockroach eggs look like and if it’s possible for them to hatch within a human orifice.
The cockroaches remind you of the reality that you’re squatting in your office. You can’t control when they arrive or leave and it’s that feeling of helplessness that overwhelms you. Like a stray cat, you can make a home with anybody anywhere, so you’re well aware that your definition of normal or comfort is different from what it may mean for others, but good lord, what the fuck are you doing with yourself? It’s been five months and you haven’t had a restful night’s sleep. Nothing feels like home, not the office, not a friend’s couch, not the temporary housing on Long Island with your relatives.
You take a deep breath. You know that deep down even if you had the ability to pay the extraordinary amount of rent for a space the same size of Room C that you wouldn’t. It would go against your principles knowing that each month the same amount of money could have been spent on a new faraway destination. You just can’t buy into this lifestyle where people spend more than half of their monthly earnings for a space to live to barely occupy because they’re so busy working to pay for their space. But there is something to be said about a stabilized mind and perhaps an expensive room of your own would provide that for you. Eh. Your situation isn’t that bad. At least your commute is short and you’re always on time.
TO BE CONTINUED
Crystal Vagnier is an MFA candidate at the City College of New York, where her collection of travel short stories won the The David Dortort Prize in Non-Fiction and The Henry Roth Memorial Scholarship. You may follow her conversations at @CrystalJVagnier.