NOT EVEN A PET

by Jennifer Shenk

"You'll come visit me, right?"

I peer at my sister over the moving box in my arms. With a half-sympathetic, half-amused look, she says, "Of course."

Moving day. There'd been days similar to this before, but this one held more meaning. I'd decided, finally, that it was time to be on my own. Oh I'd graduated from college and made it through a year with a hellish job, two roommates, and a nagging ex-boyfriend I couldn't quite shake. But now it was time to do more than just pay my own bills and cook my own food, and actually sign an apartment lease that listed me as the sole resident. No one else. Not even a pet.

Laden with boxes, we trudged up and down the flight of stairs to my second-story, tiny one-bedroom apartment that an old friend had recommended right before he moved out of town. The kitchen was just big enough for one person to walk into and make a 360º turn. No counter space. The walls were stark and the linoleum in the entryway was chipped and yellowed. The cabinets in the bathroom were a stylish shade of dark brown, circa 1972--the year I was born.

My enthusiasm began to wane. This place was small. Small and ugly. But, I consoled myself, it was conveniently located near the museum in downtown Austin, where I worked as a public relations assistant. And there appeared to be several young, twenty-something people out by the large pool having fun. More importantly, it was mine.

The significance of this now, I realize, is quite staggering. At the time, however, it just felt like a dumb mistake. 'Why put yourself through this?' I would ask myself. 'It's more expensive this way.' But a small twinge in the back of my mind told me that this was the thing to do.

The first few weeks were lonely. Except for what I am positive was a 400-pound man in the apartment upstairs lumbering from room to room, it was completely quiet. There was no face-to-face conversation with anyone in the building. I talked on the phone a lot. The television was almost always on to keep me company. But suddenly I began to hear noises. Not 400-pound-man noises, but shrieking. It awakened me one night and, being alone, I was frightened. I called the apartment office and stood with the door safely open while the maintenance man poked inside my heating vents.

"Yep," he said, "It's a raccoon." He smiled as if he were impressed with the slyness of the creature that had become so familiar to him. "They come up from the creek out back looking for food."

As it turned out, I had to live with the beast for two weeks. I became accustomed to the nightly screeching, waking up just long enough to move to the sofa in the living room if the beast happened to be right near my bed.

Sometimes it would get quiet and I'd wonder if the beast had fallen asleep. Then the 400 pound man would get up for what I imagined to be a midnight snack and the vibration in my ceiling awakened the critter again. Just about the time I had begun going a little crazy, talking to the beast when it was screeching or rolling around as if it were a pet, the pepper spray applied liberally to the insides of my walls by the maintenance guy encouraged him to find a way out.

Soon after the screeching beast's departure, though, I began a transition. I started making friends with my neighbors who, up until then, had simply greeted me with, "Hey neighbor!" I invited the two young, hip guys that lived across the hallway over to my place for beer. I made friends with my next door neighbor, a young woman my age who drank and smoked a lot, but provided hours of entertaining stories about her escapades.

I bought food for one. I read more. I began to cook more. I started writing a novel I had been meaning to write. I rented movies and sat on my balcony and sipped wine and daydreamed and thought. I began to take notice that on quiet nights, I could hear bands playing in nearby downtown Austin. I took bubble baths and planned and organized. And, most importantly, I became my own best friend.

This wasn't entirely a revelation. I had always been the kind of person who liked herself. But I soon came to realize that this was a pivotal point in my life. I went from living at home to living in a busy dormitory on a college campus to living in a busy apartment with two roommates. This was the first time I had to really decide where I was going and how I planned to get there.

Now, at 26, I am planning my wedding to a wonderful man. Looking back at the time I lived alone, I'm realizing how much easier it is now, because of that experience, to open my life and share it with someone else as opposed to clinging to others for safety and convenience. I made it through fifteen months of the 400 pound man, an enraged raccoon, and other daily obstacles. I made it through and I am fine. More than fine, in fact. Now I will always know that I can make it entirely on my own.

...Jennifer Shenk was married on September 19 in Santa Fe, NM...


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