BY LAURA JANE FAULDS (ILLUSTRATION BY JEN MAY)
"I don't need your jokes to fucking contend with," said Joe Strummer, "If you haven't got something serious to say, piss off."
"What is serious?" asked the reporter.
"You tell me," Joe spat back, "How about life and death?"
I'm not scared of dying for any interesting or meaningful reason, I'm scared of dying because it's the only thing worth being scared of. I'm scared of dying because I'm a person, so I have to be scared of something, and I'm sure as hell not going to waste my time being scared of life.
The first thing I knew of her was her tofu in the refrigerator and that she worked for the National Ballet. I imagined a hippie ballerina with a spunky ponytail, dimples, and a heart-shaped face. I wanted to love her because she lived in the room next door to mine and I would like my life better if I loved the woman who lived in the room next door to mine; I wanted to love her because I want to love everybody. I think it's smart to keep your expectations high: that way, even if it doesn't turn out, at least you got to live inside the hope of it for awhile.
The first time I saw her I thought, "Oh my God, I've never seen a worse-looking human in my life." She looked like a gerbil made of dust, and her voice was like if a terrified mouse hiding under a hedge I'd crouched down to rescue could somehow speak and used its gift to boringly ask me a bunch of whimpery questions about the Internet. She was a dangerously close talker, and her skin was made of crepe paper covered in a thin film of silvery dust. Her teeth were brown and little and one of them stuck out and crossed over the front of the other one; there was darker browner filth crammed into the crevices between them, her lips had receded, she had no lips, her hair was either brown or grey or some weird non-color, drab if you looked it up in the dictionary, whispery and pulled back into the least-spunky ponytail you've ever seen. A few months later I bought a pack of neon pink and green and blue hair elastics and left them scattered all over the bathroom because I'm careless about things like that, and she started stealing them. I'd watch her walk to work in the morning, the glow of neon making such a big deal of itself against her hair the color of nothing, and I was pissed she stole my elastics.
She didn't work at the National Ballet; that was a lie she told my landlords. She exclusively wore splash pants, sighed sighs that sounded like a pigeon cooing, kept her bedroom garbage in oil-stained Krispy Kreme bags which she then threw into the kitchen garbage, and I was pissed I had to look at them. I work so goddamned fucking hard to make my life beautiful, and it wasn't fair, the way she waltzed into my beautiful kitchen stocked with edamame and dried sugar pineapple, ginger tea and Perrier, just to shit all over everything I go so far out of my way to have be lovely with her donut bag full of human hair and applesauce, the half-potato she kept in a soup-bowl of water in the refrigerator for three weeks, as if threatening me: you have to watch this rot.
My initial reaction was one of deep, deep revulsion. To look at her was to confront the absolute worst case scenario of how my life, or anybody's, could turn out.
Erin called me at 9 PM on a Friday and asked me if I wanted to go on an adventure. I had to wake up for work at 6 the next morning, but I was sun-drunk and June-stoned off the first great June day I'd lived this June, bed sounded like the lamest drag ever, and I don't know who I'd be if I was capable of saying no to an adventure, so I said yes. I would never close myself off to the possibility of something cool and interesting happening, just so I could get seven rather than five hours of sleep the night before working some dumb shift I don't care about at my stupid job at Starbucks I'm ashamed of, just because it sounds like too good of an idea, lying in bed for the next three hours having pee-anxiety and death-insomnia-
I'll do anything in the world before I'll sleep. It's too much like dying to be anything I could ever feel okay about.
I named her Litterbox because every time she used the bathroom she left it smelling like a litterbox, which is kind of fascinating from a biological perspective when you consider how kitty litter is mostly gravel. I named her Litterbox because I'm an asshole, and because I'm an asshole I started Tweeting about her, and my Litterbox Tweets went over really well. People on Twitter started asking me why I called her Litterbox, and I told them because "She's just, conceptually, a litterbox."
I found out she was a practicing Buddhist, but, like, a "cult-y Buddhist," I said on Twitter- I'm not really sure if that's true or not. In early December she started to like me, seemed to think of me as something of a confidante, which was awesome in that it gave me lots of great material to Tweet about, but annoying in that in real life, in my actual real life actual everyday life, I had to sit there, and listen. Every time we crossed paths she told me some new weirdly dramatic and obviously fabricated horror story about how she was being tyrannized by:
-all of Toronto's major newspapers
-seemingly every member of our local government
-a gang of "vile Marxists" on Martin Luther King Day
-a vile Dominican lady,
-some vile Colombians,
-a vile Pakistani,
-etc. Vile etc.
She claimed they were all persecuting her for "not being a real Canadian"-
"This vile Jamaican woman said I'm not a real Canadian!" she'd tell me, "She said I don't deserve to live in Canada, that I better... get out of this country! I told her my family has lived in Toronto for two hundred years, I work so hard, I single-handedly take care of my ninety-year-old father..."
Sometimes when I was bored or stoned or drunk I would talk back, try to reason with her- mostly, I guess, to entertain myself, but also because I didn't think she was crazy enough to get away with talking so much vaguely racist smack about anyone, and I can't help myself, I wish I had no ego but I do and it's boisterous- I guess I felt like maybe I could teach her something. Sometimes I'd get really into it, name-drop Martin Luther King so she'd believe me and tell her not to worry about the Toronto Star trying to kick her out of Canada, to transcend the dramz, be a good Buddhist I guess, and in moments I felt a certain affection for her, the same way everybody ended up thinking that "ugliest dog in the world" who used to be all over the Internet was kind of cute. One time she told me "My generation and your generation stand together"- she's kinda old, I can't tell exactly because she looks like such a whisper of a ghost, but probably she's sixty- and I was drunk and thought it was really powerful and I vowed on Twitter to "NEVER speak another word against her again," but then I ran into her on the patio a couple nights later and she started talking in baby-talk to what she thought was a stray cat, who she called Mister Kitty,
"Why do you do that?" I wished I could ask her, "Why do you have to make it so easy for me?"
"It's actually a raccoon," I said, because it was.
She kept a salad bag of rotting compost in the fridge, which became an issue.
"I don't think that's sanitary," I told her.
"I got an A+ on my certificate from the Department of Health and Sanitation!" she contested, and then got herself started on bragging about how she "single-handedly takes care of her ninety-year-old father..." I never had one interaction with Litterbox that didn't involve her telling me about how she "single-handedly" (always "single-handedly") takes care of her ninety-year-old father; it was her delusional justification for everything. She ate up all my food and used up all my shit and, in the eight months I lived with her, only bought toilet paper once, which drove me insane:
"I'm not your toilet paper benefactor!" I screamed, and she told me that she single-handedly takes care of her ninety-year-old father and that a member of Parliament wrote her a letter saying they wanted to take away her right to vote.
"Your right to vote?" I asked, "Like, singularly you?"
"Yes," she said.
I started keeping my toilet paper in my bedroom.
Erin got to my house around as a quarter to ten, and as I ran down the stairs to go meet her, I noticed a piece of looseleaf tacked to the foyer wall ordering Litterbox to move out within 24 hours: she was almost a grand in debt for rent, "THE POLICE HAVE BEEN ALERTED." I'd seen this one coming- back in Feb I'd eavesdropped on a conversation she had with my landlady Natasha, my homegirl, whose back I will always have.
"You have to pay your rent," said Natasha, "Or you go."
Litterbox insisted this wasn't a problem: "I single-handedly take care of my ninety-year-old father!" she explained.
"I don't care!" Natasha yelled, "I'm ninety!"
When Litterbox finally quieted down, I went and sat with Natasha on the stairs for a bit.
"I don't think I like that woman," she whispered.
The next morning, Litterbox from her bedroom heard me stir, and leapt outside to "chat." I wasn't having any of it- I'm the worst person in the world before I've had my coffee, and beyond that, why would you ever try to engage with someone holding a cup of coffee and a pb&j English muffin at 8 o clock in the morning? Like, what the fuck do you think I want to be doing right now? Talking to you? Anyone? In the world? No. I want to be drinking my coffee and eating my fucking breakfast.
She barfed up a bunch of lies about terrible things Natasha'd said to her that Natasha never said to her- I knew it, because I'd been eavesdropping- and I thought of Natasha, her camel coat and her leopard beret, how grateful I am to live her, to have found a beautiful home in a city I was once scared could never be beautiful, and it made me so mad to think that a person actively fucking over a woman I kind of love, interfering with my awesome-looking breakfast growing cold in my hand, could corner me like this in front of my own bedroom door, a beautiful metal door framed in wood, trying to convince me that she was the victim here, that Natasha was somehow wronging her-
To perform an act of selflessness believing you are entitled to receive a reward for performing it is just about the most nauseatingly self-indulgent thing a person can do.
"We all get that you single-handedly take care of your ninety-year-old father," I snapped, making air-quotes around single-handedly take care of your ninety-year-old father, "WE DON'T CARE."
Erin and I walked to Ryan and Chelsea's and got stoned on their stoop. We had the kind of fun you spend all winter trying to recreate but you just can't hit it; it's a summer-specific perfection. We talked a lot about YOLOing it, I could say anything and as much as I wanted about I'm just keeping rock and roll alive you guys, and I did. I asked Ryan his birthday and he said December 9th.
"That's the day after John Lennon's Death Day!" I exclaimed, and he said, "Yeah, I can always tell it's going to be my birthday tomorrow when social media starts going on and on about how John Lennon died," and I loved it, I loved that detail. I thought it was so neat and true, so like life.
I walked home shortly after midnight listening to a playlist called BEST SONGS EVER on shuffle, and I didn't "decide" to make it in oracle; it already was one. I listened to House of Jansch (Sometimes I don't know what I said 'til I did, I want to be the father of your kid), Monolith (The throne of time is a kingly thing), Allure (All the Lauras of the world, I feel your pain), thought deeply about what a "badass motherfucker" I am (I was high!), and then Yer Blues came on.
I thought about John Lennon, how much I used to worship that guy, and I felt like- I feel like- such a jerk, for abandoning him so happily, so wholly, but John Lennon... I don't know, he was just so all over the place; I don't relate to it. Joe Strummer was so focused, so direct, unapologetic, and never defensive, whereas John Lennon was maybe the most defensive guy who ever lived. John Lennon spent his whole life looking for the answer, but Joe Strummer knew it from the start.
I got home and saw that Litterbox had torn down the "THE POLICE HAVE BEEN ALERTED" sign and replaced it with a hokey flyer about Buddhism. I walked upstairs to find her waiting outside my bedroom door, and I decided, "Cool, whatever. YOLO. I'm going to go with this."
I stayed up with her for about an hour, stoned out of my mind, trying to get her to grasp the concept of rent. I didn't say YOLO because she's weird and sixty and probably doesn't understand what that word means, so I told her "You only live once," but she's a Buddhist, so she didn't agree with me. I explained that I wasn't on her side but that I empathized with how shitty of a day she must be having, we bonded over loving Adam Yauch ("Yeah... I guess he probably did a lot for Buddhism, huh?"), and I told her "You're going to wake up tomorrow morning, you're going to talk to Natasha, you're going to figure this out, and you're going to move past it."
"You're so wonderful," she said, and I wanted to tell her that I'm not. I wanted to tell her that I've been making snarky jokes about her on the Internet for the past eight months, that thanks to me, strangers in New York City know who she is and think she sucks. I felt guilty, but also not guilty- it's not my fault she fucked up her entire life because she's scared of it- I've never been able to properly pity her; I don't like her enough. I lost steam and went to bed. It started thunderstorming, and I lay in bed for hours, listening to the rain. I didn't freak out about dying or care about how gross my hair was going to look at work tomorrow- YOLO, I guess.
Eventually I fell asleep, slept, woke up, made coffee, and read the Wikipedia entry for gaslighting while eating Greek yogurt and trail mix. I got dressed in my stupid whipped cream-stained t-shirt with the picture of the stupid siren on it, and stood in the kitchen filling up a Tupperware with almonds and dried papaya to eat on break. Litterbox knocked on the kitchen door but it was a pointless knocking because she knew I was in there and barged in anyway. I massaged the bridge of my nose and told her I had to go to work.
"I wanted to give you this," she said, and handed me her business card. I'm looking at it right now: Thai Massage Practitioner. Ayurvedic Assessment. Yogic, Dance, Meditative Arts.
She passed me a pen and a piece of paper. "Can you write down your phone number?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I can't do that."
At work I wrote CLASH CITY ROCKERS in weirdly good Clash-font up the side of a Grande hot cup. My manager asked me if I was okay, and I told her I didn't think she understood how little I care about "anything that happens behind this counter," which, in retrospect, was kind of a dumb thing to say. On break I walked a couple blocks out of my way to go sit under this tree I'm really into sitting under this June- it's across the street from a strange little house that looks like Josef Albers built it, all wood with only one window, a Doberman more butterscotch than black always chillin' on the porch. I hate it because rich people probably live there, but I love it because it's something. I love it because even if I don't like it, at least it doesn't bore me half to death.
I lit a cigarette, ate some almonds, and drank my strawberry-matcha-banana ice mush. I listened to Straight to Hell, my favorite Clash song, to remind myself that I'm alive.
Three minutes into that song come eighteen seconds of music that are the most perfect bit of music I've ever heard, probably ever will hear, eighteen seconds of music so beautiful and sad that I have to rest my forehead against a tree to properly hear them. Like those eighteen words James Joyce wrote, they never don't work.
I wished I could do something to time to make it so that those eighteen words could last a hundred years, and then I'd go back to work and it would last one second. I saw a very old man wave at a very little baby, and it blew my mind. I made eye contact with the dog. I listened to The Call Up, Sounds of Sinners, Junco Partner, Straight to Hell again. I loved it all so violently; I loved everything violently. It's the only way I ever want to love.
Joe Strummer taught me that life isn't meaningless, it's serious. He taught me to never give up, to never give in. To never be boring, never be bored. He made me realize that I don't write about rock and roll, I write rock and roll. I write for myself and anyone who'll listen, and all the rest of you soulless motherfuckers can go straight to hell for all I care.