You discover a solution that saves you from the cockroaches: the Chair-Bed. Making the Chair-Bed is so blatantly easy you wonder, Why did it take ten months to reach this solution? To construct the Chair-Bed, you take four arm-less chairs and line them in a row. The back of the first chair serves as your headboard while the backs of the middle two chairs act as a barrier so you don’t roll over onto the floor in the middle of the night. Sure, it can feel like sleeping in an open casket. But the Chair-Bed is situated between your brightly decorated desk and a row of tall file cabinets which provide the perfect amount of freedom and secrecy you so desire. With your sleeping bag, travel-sized pillow and airplane blankets, you now have a bedroom that can be assembled in less than five minutes and stored away in your bottom desk drawer.
You have patience. You have lived in foreign villages without water and have hiked days in the same clothes, so you know you can go weeks without showering. You have no qualms about not having a private bathroom. You quickly learn though that one of the benefits to squatting at a University is that there is no shortage of public restrooms or showers.
At first you use the restroom close to the Storage Room and it proves to be small, inconvenient and embarrassing. Brushing your teeth in the only sink in the bathroom adds to the desperation aesthetic. You find the pool in the subbasement and you know that where there is a pool there is a shower. The shower room is a small space with broken yellow tiles. Its overhead lights give it a dismal mustard-yellow glow. The smell of chlorine is strong and it makes you feel as if maybe you’re on a vacation in a hotel desperately trying to re-live its glory days. You shower on Fridays as a treat to yourself, and your change in attitude, and appearance, is noticed by many in the office. When somebody asks how your morning is going you reply with an enthusiastic “I showered today,” as if it should warrant a trophy. On days when you don’t shower you resort to your endless supply of wet-wipes for a quick “Military Shower,” as your father once dubbed it.
Because you feel like you’re a perpetual camper you believe that you have to look and live like a perpetual camper. You’re worried that if you take too many showers or follow a set routine you’ll raise suspicion.
When you take your once-a-week showers you’re worried that the swim team will notice a trend and ask some questions about your presence. You know nothing about swim teams and you try to remember to later Google how many members are usually on a swim team. You count the number of shower stalls and make sure that the two numbers do not correspond. You wouldn’t want to take somebody else’s shower stall by accident. You consider using the pool in the mornings so you can feel comfortable about actually utilizing the shower stalls, but you quickly discover that early mornings are when the pool hosts swimming lessons for six-year-olds. You now feel really uncomfortable about showering in the shower room. If anybody would raise questions, it would be the parent of a six-year-old. You decide you never liked showering anyway.
You wander the hallways. This is your form of exercise. Because you now live and work here you rarely have to leave the campus. Sometimes you go three days without ever taking a step outside in the real world. You begin to imagine that perhaps you are on a Space Station. Early mornings and late evenings the hallways are empty. The escalators halt their infinite rounds and white-noise hums. The classrooms are dark and abandoned. You sneak out of Room C to sit and listen to the silence. The change from overcrowded, let-me-through, restrooms and hallways to absolute silence is swift. There are moments where you cry to yourself in the bathroom stall, the one to the far left. You search for the moments where you can have a moment to breathe, alone, when you’re not putting up a charade, but when you do achieve that solitude you crave human contact. There’s something unsettling about living in a place that looks like an apocalypse has just happened. And then, like church bells, you hear the keys from a janitor jingle to the rhythm of his sweeping and you feel centered and okay and rush back to Room C before anybody catches you.
But your early morning/night time wandering isn’t fruitless. In your exploration you’ve discovered the mecca of all shower rooms. This shower room reminds you of a surgery room in a hospital. The tiles are porcelain white, the shower curtains are white, and the overhead lights are so very bright white. You can’t be tired or gloomy in a place so bright. The water pressure is straight-up the best that you have ever experienced in all of New York City. It pounds on your back and massages your scalp. Have you not been showering because you’re frightened of water? You spend forty minutes appreciatively motionless in the steamy heat.
You realize that because you happen to live in an unconventional place it shouldn’t mean that you can’t take care of yourself. You can store a bathroom in your bag and transport it with you to the shower room in under ten minutes. And so your routine begins. With your duffel bag full of travel sized soaps, shampoos, towels, blow-dryer, you’re ready to shower whenever you please. You no longer sacrifice your comfort in fear of what it may appear to be to someone else.
Like the cockroaches, you’re trying to survive. You both are secret night scavengers and you have grown to live amongst your cohabitants in peace. There are times where you’re the first person to enter the bathroom. The motion detector lights turn on and you can hear the scattering of cockroaches but they no longer make you cry. Some days you even hold the door for them to exit.
Your diet in the beginning is terrible. The Meta-Office only has a microwave and a mini-fridge so your cuisine options are limited. It’s hard to find real good food on a budget in your current neighborhood. You once ate ramen noodles for a week but then you developed severe chest pains before falling asleep. You don’t often shop at the University’s cafeteria because their prices are on-par with other local boutique delis, but when you do make a visit you slip up and call it the kitchen, like, “I’ll be right back. I’m just going to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.”
Some mornings after you shower, you treat yourself to an egg and cheese on a roll and a black coffee from the Egg Guy on the corner of the street. Some days you aren’t in the mood for your “usual” but you enjoy going outside and having the Egg Guy know what your order is before you have a chance to speak. The Fruit Guy next to the Egg Guy knows to give you a handful of persimmons, which reminds you of the time when you lived near the Black Sea. On some fundamental level this routine is crucial. They only know three details about you: persimmons, egg and cheese, and black coffee. That’s enough for you to feel like you haven’t disappeared.
The Meta-Office occasionally has catered lunches. There are moments when you’re still in Room C when the Meta-Office employees are getting ready to go home. When they enter Room C to ask if you’re planning on working late, you tell them, “Don’t worry about all those sandwiches and salad out there. I’ll clean it up.”
You can now eat free for a week. There are times when you return to the Meta-Office after it has closed to see that another catered lunch was held and most of the food has been thrown away. You’re not embarrassed to admit that you’ve gone rummaging through the trash to salvage wraps, salad, and cake. The trash is clean and the food is only a few hours old. How could you live with yourself if you allowed perfectly good meals to go to waste? You believe that there is still a difference between you and the other people who may go dumpster diving. But where is the difference?
After a year has passed, you finally discover the key that unlocks the right hand drawer of your desk. Options that never existed for you before now open up. You can go shopping for bread or peanut butter or anything (!) and store it all without anybody suspecting. You step it up and keep a collection of spices, mainly cumin and coriander, and you purchase your very own fruit bowl. A kitchen simply isn’t complete without one for persimmons and bananas.
With a hot-plate — along with your compact camping-style pot and pan — you can now fry and boil mostly anything. With your collection of Tupperware you now have a week’s worth of home-cooked meals. It’s astounding how an entire kitchen can fit underneath an office desk.
THE LIVING ROOM
The only person you entertain is a co-worker who is privy to your secret. Some nights you stay up late drinking wine and share dinner. When it’s time for your guest to leave, you walk him to the door, like a good host, because after 7:00 p.m. this isn’t a place of employment anymore, but your home. You exchange thank yous, you’re welcomes, good-nights and see you tomorrows, and lock the door as he departs.
There are short and tall file cabinets in Room C that haven’t been touched or organized in years. Since the employees in the office are part-timers nobody has the time nor wants to have the time to utilize or organize the cabinets. You spend a few nights sifting through years of outdated documents and VHS tapes. You’re able to consolidate all of the material onto one shelf of the tall black file cabinet and this frees up the bottom three shelves. This is now where you store your clothes and shoes. You keep the items you use often like pajamas, socks, scarves and underwear in a cardboard box along the windowsill beside your travel guitar to make it easier to retrieve during working hours. After you realize the cockroaches like to sleep by the windowsill though it becomes unsustainable.
It only takes nine months for you to wise up to the simple solution of plastic containers. You measure the amount of space you have between your desk and the windowsill and the length of your file cabinet-turned-closet. With over a dozen containers of varying sizes you now have your shoes, underwear, pants, shirts, socks, organized and filed away. Looking at your corner space in Room C, one would have no idea that an entire closet of winter and summer clothes were hidden in the file cabinet, that an entire kitchen sat in a tote box underneath the desk, that a bedroom was inside a desk drawer, or that a bathroom lay in a container along the windowsill. It would appear that you were just a very busy and organized worker, obsessed with tote boxes.
You’re a go-getter. This is your home and when something breaks you fix it, or at least you provide a solution. When one of the Styrofoam ceiling tiles above your desk falls apart creating a frigid air draft right on top of you, you tack white-lined paper over the hole. When one of the overhead light panels above your desk quits working, and the University refuses to fix it for over seven months, you get a desk lamp, a lava lamp, candles, and even more Christmas lights so you won’t ever have to work in the dark again.
It’s New York City so there is no yard. But there is Central Park. You spend warm spring days walking out into your gigantic yard in your pajamas to enjoy a cup of coffee on top of your favorite boulder. You make a monthly list of accomplishments to mentally help keep you afloat. You feel uncomfortable at first walking past the snooty very well-dressed New Yorkers but who ever heard of enjoying a cup of early-morning coffee in your yard dressed in confining clothes? You are wearing your pajamas. You walk to your yard in your slippers with the cup of coffee from Egg Man and watch your neighbors from on top of your boulder.
The home on Long Island takes over fourteen months to rebuild. What was once your home does not feel like home anymore. You’re a guest when you go to visit your old stomping grounds. Your home, your town, your family, all feels displaced within your life. You’re in a cycle of “Re”: rebuilding, reconnecting, and returning. The marriage between your uncle and aunt has been strained since the storm and conversations of moving to start over somewhere new are repeated. What was a place of convenience has disappeared and you find yourself missing Room C. You miss the midnight quietude, the smell of sweet lilac air fresheners, and the sound of desks being moved at 3:00 a.m. by insomniac janitors. You miss your new home. You realize now that you have made a home for yourself.
You live in your office and it is no longer a necessity. It is a choice and it is no longer a secret.
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.