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The Spartan Apartment
Ali Liebegott

Who are they? The people that get to feel complete and fearless and free. I 'm so fucking sick of waitressing and all the bullshit that goes with it. I hate all the IHOP rules. Julio yelled at me today because my nurse shoes were dirty on the side of the sole.

"It's a shoe," I said, "shoes get dirty. Shoes touch the ground. "

But I had to go into the bathroom in the middle of my shift, take off my shoes and try to wash the syrup off with a paper towel dipped in the pink soap from the hand dispenser. Jesus Christ.

"Customers don't like filthiness, Francesca," Julio said.

"Shoes get dirty, Julio," I said back.

Julio has the bad habit of walking away from you while you're still speaking. He told me to buy new shoes soon because mine looked old. They're only three months old. I think if you have to wear special shoes for a job than the employer should provide them.

My parents are going to be in town tomorrow. We're supposed to meet for lunch. I feel really nervous about seeing them. I just know something will go wrong. They're going to come over to my apartment and then we're going to eat. They didn't say anything about meeting Irene, so I guess that's not part of the plan. Anyway I don't want to have them meet Irene because that could only end in disaster.


Oh boy, well that was a fucking disaster. My dad seemed properly disgusted with my apartment. He was silent and pacing, and that said it all really. I cleaned up before they came and re-decorated a little, putting all my photographs up on the wall. It's nice, like a black and white montage of sorts. When the buzzer went off, I felt the pit in my stomach deepen. I pushed the talk button on the intercom and out came all the noises from the street below, the wail of sirens, spinning and flowing in circles and I could hear everything, the tall box of steel that meant my father had arrived and the nervous twitching of twigs against smooth cardboard that meant my mother was outside, absorbed in wringing her hands. What I couldn't hear was me, the wounded goose stepping from webbed foot to webbed foot, hopping, trying to dislodge the fishing lure that had threaded through the back of its black webbed heel.

"Come on up," I called back out to the street, after hearing the buzzer.

I felt like crying. I walked back and forth across the length of the apartment, picking up the green oval ashtray and then placing it down again two inches where it had just been. There was a knock at the front door. I felt relieved that the neighbors, who regularly throw each other into the walls and scream at each other, must've been asleep. My father wore a beige tweed blazer, white buttoned shirt and work slacks, and my mother wore a matching navy blue skirt and blazer. They were here on business and we were having lunch. We were getting together for a meal while they were in town for business. We were going to grab a bite to eat. We were not having nervous breakdowns or arguments or feeling guilty or having pangs of remorse in our collective chests for the decisions we'd made as daughter or parents. We were going to eat some egg rolls. We've all made choices and every choice comes with a repercussion and consequence. Con-suh-kwens-iz. The great multi-syllabic word. Who were these people? Who was this daughter the other voices sang? What are they doing dressed like this in my neighborhood? They'll be robbed, shanked, stabbed. Don't they know how to hold themselves in a neighborhood like this? They need to have a chain wrapped around their fist like the landlady who showed me an apartment down the block did. They needed the thick silver chain balled wrapped tightly around their fists.

"I've got this, I've got this," the landlady had said, curling and uncurling her fingers around it when I'd asked her if she felt safe at night walking home alone.

"Well, I've got this, I've got this," I said daily to the giant space around me. I've got new pink slashes that go down each arm like a litany of disappointment.

My father's face, disappointed and angry, as he walked around the tiny apartment, roaming the perimeter like Rilke's panther confined in a cage too small.

"Quite the Spartan apartment," he said, "Quite the Spartan apartment."

"What does that mean, Spartan Apartment?" I said back to him.

"Spartan, like the Spartans. Didn't you learn anything in high school? Didn't you? Didn't you learn a goddamned thing? The Romans. The Spartans," he barked.

"I don't know who they are," I said sullenly.

"The Spartans, The Romans," he repeated, face reddening.

"Just because we didn't learn anything about the Spartans, doesn't mean we didn't learn anything. The Spartans weren't the only people in history." Were they? "God. Who cares about the Spartans?"

My mother the bundle of twigs, collapsed, but remained standing.

"Do you think we're shallowsuperficial people, Francesca?"

Shallowsuperficial was one word.

"I know that you are going to think that we're, or I should speak for myself here, I shouldn't speak for your father," the bundle of twigs continued.

(The tall metal box/ the panther, Rilke's pacing panther, Willy Lowman.)

"Don 't speak for Willy Lowman," I thought, the only other salesman I knew besides my mother and father.

It took about twenty-eight seconds from the time my parents arrived to really get things cooking. Like boiling water at high altitudes, that's my family.

"How, I mean how, can you live in a place like this? How?" said the bundle of twigs.

"What's wrong with it?" I asked.

"Hrumph. What your mother is getting at Francesca, is that there's prostitutes on the corner, on every corner for that matter. I literally had to step over a drunk in a box to come into the building."

"That's Andy," I said.

"You know him?" the nervous bundle of twigs said with the utmost horror and devastation.

"Yeah, I know him," I said.

"Do you talk to him, Francesca? Do you spend time with him?"

"Yeah, I do mom."

"Are you telling me you... you're friends with a homeless alcoholic?"

"Well what if I am friends with a homeless alcoholic? Just because he's homeless doesn't make him a bad person," I said.

"And the prostitutes, am I to assume they're close friends too, Francesca?"

"There's nothing wrong with prostitutes. What do they do that bothers you so much?"

The twigs and the metal box drew in deep breaths at the same time. I lit up a cigarette, and shook one out of the pack in the direction of the nervous bundle of twigs. I smoke the same brand as the mother does.

"Let's drop it, Marlene. Obviously Francesca has shit for brains," said the father who had quit smoking many years before and walked the length of the studio with his hands in his dress pants looking at the photographs I'd taken and stapled hundreds to the entire wall of the apartment. The photographs are mostly of women I've been in love with at one time or another and who I coerced to pose for my "photo assignments". There are pictures that I took of Irene when she was still living in Southern California, teaching at the community college. The father stood in front of an enormous photograph of just her face. I'd planned the photography trip weeks in advance. How was I going to get Irene alone? That was one question, the other one was, if I get her alone how can I keep her alone for a long time? And so I asked her if I could take pictures of her for my photography class. She agreed. The day we went, it was sunny.

"What do you want me to wear?" she said.

"It's black and white film," I said, "it doesn't matter."

And so we went, we went to the cemetery and felt the warm Santa Ana breeze go past us and Irene lay down on top of graves and walked somberly and occasionally touched the granite of a headstone gingerly. I’d been the one who asked her to lay down with her head next to the headstone. Her eyes were closed; I twisted the lens on the zoom camera. I remember how my heart sped up at the chance to photograph her. I would have pictures of Irene to keep after the day was over. Real Pictures. Enlarged pictures of Irene's head. Her face. I 'd be able to count each of the lines under her eyes. Crows feet, she'd called them. Why is it she knows the word for everything -- understands the need to move on warm days through the cemetery solemnly.

Eventually the mother, father and suicidal daughter left the Spartan apartment and went for lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf. That is the tourist area in San Francisco -- I learned that on my first day when Jenny told me about all the different parts of the city. My mother and I chain-smoked while we waited for the food to come, and my father asked me if I had any plans for the future or did I plan to work at the House of Pancakes forever.

"I like being a waitress," I said.

I like gliding through the room with plates stacked all the way up my arms, forcing customers to stop eating, astonished by my grace and dexterity. The nimble waitress, the gazelle. Who cares that I trip over my big nurse shoes almost every hour on the hour, like a defective cuckoo-clock that coughs instead of cuckoos. Who cares that I don't have the experience of Frank or Paul and I can't carry plates all the way up my arms, but instead can only manage three at a time?

"Waitressing leads nowhere," my father said.

Willy Lowman watched the door close shut in front of him, heard the pink slippers of the housewife who hadn't needed a thing he was selling that day, not even a bar of soap, retreat back to her afghan-covered recliner, where she sat before he'd rung her doorbell.

"Waitressing leads nowhere," he repeated.

The only reason he said that was because I hadn't been brave enough to tell him of my desire to be the gazelle.


Where do you live? Not the street and number, but under the feathers of what damaged bird? Later that night Jenny and I walked down Van Ness Street smoking and singing tragic songs to the tune of Christmas songs. Jenny is really good at making up lyrics. We stopped at a cafè and ordered coffee. We sat in the smoking section.

"How was seeing the family, Goaty?" she said.

"God. Jesus Christ. I swear."

I started reaching to light a cigarette without realizing I already had one lit. For a second, I questioned smoking two at once and the ramifications of that act. Would I be able to escape twice as fast, inhale and exhale the moments of fractured understanding and silence? I don't know how to say to Jenny or anyone how I am the goose who's been pierced by a fishing lure, how my mother was the bundle of nervous twigs tied together, how my father is Rilke's panther and the steel box used to contain the panther all at the same time. I looked across the table at Jenny's eyes. It is easy to be with Jenny. I never feel like I have to be anything but what I am. With Irene sometimes I feel like a destroyer of the earth/ foe of the environment/ meat eater/ spiritual leper.

I began to tell her the story about my father pacing and calling the apartment Spartan and asking me why I hadn't learned any history in school. Like if I didn't know the history of the Spartans, then I actually hadn't learned anything at all.



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