You came out of the antique shop where you were “loading up on provisions,” conspicuously empty-handed — no bags, no devices, and no keys, as far as I could tell. And I would remember you by how animated you became when you spoke — by the way you used not just your hands, but your arms as extensions of your deepest thoughts. This seemed to help when articulating one of those dreams that was, “like, you know, watching some crazy adaptation of what’s actually happening to you.”
You worked for the housing authority. “I’m basically a leasing agent slash caseworker slash dungeon master,” you said looking up, extending your thumb, index and middle fingers consecutively. “I open up doors, show people around, tell them what to expect,” you explained, counting again with your fingers. “Utility companies, landlords, tenants, the police, relatives.” I inquired about relatives. “Yeah,” you said matter-of-factly, like the order of those five things was intentional. “People die.”
There was a lot of “hand-holding,” for tenants who were “in transition,” but especially for “people you can tell are going to be permanent.” Actually, some of these people needed more than a hand to hold. You clasped your right fist with your left hand. “They need one they can grip.”
* * *
This one “permanent’s” aunt back home in Haiti felt she had about a week to live. You fussed with her over the departure date. You didn’t want the cost of her trip to prohibit her rent, but she wouldn’t budge. She told you, “‘My aunt’s never been wrong about anything in her life.’” So that month, it was either pay the rent or fly home. “She wasn’t asking. She was telling. And she knew family meant a lot to me.” You caved. “I didn’t hide anything I was doing.” You told your boss how much the tenant had to spend on rent that month, and your boss ok’d it. You explained how it worked — that federal dollars would fill in the rest. “I know, I know. But there are worse things our government spends money on.” Her aunt died the day after she got there.
I was wondering if I had to ask how this changed you. You said, “Now,” in an I’m just getting started kind of way.
While she was in Haiti, “Her husband came in and put the rent check on my desk, face down.” He just stood there staring at it. “I was like Yeah?, but he just turned around and walked out. “I was like ok, what was that?” You hadn’t hit it off with this guy in the past, and you learned to go through his wife instead. As you were telling me this, you leaned forward, running your hands through your hair and rubbing your face, covering your eyes like you were dealing with this all over again. “The check was blank.” You rolled your head over to me, sedated-looking. “Dude, it was the last day to pay.”
He wouldn’t answer his phone. Eventually, it just went straight to voicemail. “So because of him, they missed the rent, and I definitely wasn’t going to do that,” you said about writing the check for him. You left several voicemails, each of which was more impatient and urgent than the last.
The following day you called from a different number. “Dude answers,” you said playfully, making a phone with your hand. You said hello and he sighed, “a deep, angsty sigh.” You told him, “I’m sorry. We couldn’t run your check.” He said, “But I gave it to you.” You felt like you needed to scold him for putting you in this situation. “It was a blank. You can’t do that!” You ended up talking over each other. He began stuttering. “That’s not how the world works,” you told him. “I’m just trying to do my job, you know. What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know how to just write your name and put down a number?” He shouted, “No, I don’t!”
This changed you, “on like a genetic level.” You didn’t just stop taking literacy for granted. You didn’t just take your time getting to know clients better. And you didn’t simply become more patient with everyone, even going out of your way for them. It was deeper and more encompassing change than all of that.
In your dream the night before we met, you got lost in an underground network of tunnels which connected all the public housing units in the galaxy. “It’s all public housing on Mars, you know.” In a tunnel, you ran into a man who had his spleen on a leash. Then you saw others with other organs on their own leashes. “There was this guy toting lungs that floated in the air.” Another was dragging her kidneys in a bucket. You felt like you were being pulled, too. There were blue doors all along the dark gray tunnel walls. “I tried reaching for them, but it was useless. I didn’t have —” You hesitated and looked down, searched for the right words, arms outstretched in the air in front of you. “I wanted to reach for every door and find my way out.” But it wasn’t up to you. You noticed there was a person in front of you. “It looked like me from behind. But I barely caught a glimpse.” And then you saw a pair of hands crawling, being pulled along on a leash, “in that creepy way you observe yourself in dreams.”
We arrived at our destination, a used bookstore, where you were buying some things for a few tenants. Before you left, I asked what you were getting at the antique shop earlier. You pulled out of your pocket a tiny bag of old-fashioned keys. “I’m making bookmarks.”