You don’t really know a man until you’ve rummaged through his things.

There was this man that, up until four days ago, lived here for about eleven years, or so I was told. The landlord, who does very little maintenance and is never here, visited Monday, letting me know that the uncooperative man who I didn’t really know at all had left most of his possessions in the garage when he left. This was particularly inconvenient for both parties—apparently the man had lost his job and was now going to be living in his car and didn’t have funds for any kind of storage or any friends who could hold onto his things for him. On the flip side, as a rule of thumb when you move, you get your things out and clean up after yourself; in this case, it was on the landlord to dispose of and there was no way to obtain any money for the additional inconvenience.

The landlord has never been particularly friendly so it was surprising to hear the words escape his snarled lips. “If there’s anything in there you want, you’re free to take it.”

The man was an Arab, short and slim with shiny dark hair and dark, piercing eyes, the kind of eyes you would imagine a hypnotist would have, heady with unwielded power. I wasn’t quite sure where he was actually from but his English wasn’t very good and he seemed to have many distorted ideas of ‘the way America should be’ and ‘the way Americans should behave.’

Which probably was the catalyst for the fight that ended up kicking him out on his ass. Vincent had been there that evening, almost a month and a half ago, with one of Camille’s vintage ports listening to some new vinyl he had picked up, what it was now I can’t remember. But the man had company too, which was very unusual to say the least. If I ever did see him, he was throwing garbage out in large quantities. But he was never going out or being social, at least when I was there to see it.

The visitor was a dark skinned fellow too, but of the rich chocolate brown variety. My eyes had fondly followed his large but toned arms and his full head of braided hair as he walked up the stairs and entered the apartment. Vincent had caught me staring and teased me about it for the remainder of the night.

A few hours later, well into the wee hours of the morning, the shouting started. I could only make out bits and pieces of it, and there were multiple languages utilized, but the thin walls made the volume unbearable. At this point Vincent and I had crashed in the living room, head to toe on the couch but nothing would allow us sleep for hours afterwards.

As a rule, I don’t usually call the police for noise complaints considering that from time to time I am the cause of them myself, but this was past five in the am and I had had a long night and genuinely needed to sleep. I was guilty of the annoying downstairs tenant habit that evening however, and to no avail. I used the broom handle to hit the ceiling. I did it several times. But nothing gave. Soon it sounded like a physical altercation had been added to the argument, and I wondered if it would be the right move to call the police. But I knew it wasn’t an emergency at this point and I had forgotten the nonemergency police phone number.

The sun had broken its way into the sky. We were both exhausted, and the fight did not sound even close to over. Vincent found the NyQuil and we downed a few servings of that and tried to muffle the shouting with pillows. Soon enough, it was three o’clock in the afternoon and both of the pillows beneath us were wet with our drool.

When we did leave the apartment, there was a police car in the driveway. Half of me wondered if the Arab man (whose name still eluded me) had murdered the visitor while we chose to consume alcohol-ridden medicine to drown out their voices. I became overcome with guilt then, and remained so until I spoke to the policeman hours later. It turned out that multiple parties had called the police and they had come and removed the visitor.

But after that it was pretty obvious that the Arab wouldn’t be living there anymore. It wasn’t that the landlord was an asshole or unfair per se—it was just that it was very obvious that he had no idea what he was doing. To some, it would seem customary for a three strikes you’re out kind of a deal, but this had merited multiple police phone calls in the dead of night, and he didn’t strike me as a particularly communicative or cooperative tenant in the first place. The thirty day notice was on his door the next day.

So now there I was with the dilemma of the ages. Even though I knew most of the things in the garage were going to be thrown away anyway, did I feel like it was a moral thing to go through the bulk of someone’s personal belongings, things that had taken probably decades acquiring, scouring boxes and shelves for things I could merely loot?

I realized I had just been standing there thinking, not responding. As I was about to speak, he shook his head and forfeited the conversation. “Anyways, it’s open.” And then he walked away. Which honestly, suited me fine.

I spent the bulk of the afternoon lingering on my couch, nursing a mojito. Eventually, my phone rang. It was Johnny, surprisingly, calling to say hello, to see how I’d been doing, if there was anything new and exciting in my life. I told him to come around that evening, if he could get to it. He asked me if something was wrong; I told him no, just that there was something I wanted him to check out. He seemed concerned and pressed for more information, but finally gave up and said he would be coming over in a few hours.

I made my way to the garage just around the time he was pulling up. There wasn’t much room to walk inside; we sort of had to jump over and around boxes and things to get around. He seemed more excited than morally troubled at the idea of what we were doing, so my guilt was dissipating quickly, and my mind began to expand, thinking of all the wondrous things this mean little Arab man had abandoned, treasures that would fall into worthy hands.

Bits of me thought this was more of an activity I should have been doing with Vincent, but in reality he had too many random things as it was; his home was cluttered with knick knacks and antiques and such; I mean, it was quite something to know someone with the collection of oddities he possessed, but enough was enough. His bedroom alone contained a jukebox he still hadn’t gotten around to fixing and an old cigarette machine (which worked, at least). There was a black marble Buddha in his bathroom. Didn’t seem like there was much that he needed.

Besides, Johnny had or was going to move in with the girl scout. And I knew the sorts of items he had held onto through the years and they weren’t exactly practical. A box of yearbooks and photo albums, things from high school. A box of E-Ticket magazines, Disneyland paraphernalia. An Asian dinnerware set I bought for him when we were certain we were going to be moving in together all those years ago, when we were both still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, before the bottom dropped out.

A grumbly ache entered my body as I imagined her using the red bamboo chopsticks, shoveling sweet and sour pork and the like from her plate to her lips, kicking Johnny playfully under the table saying ‘wherever did you get this?’

And he would ponder telling her the truth (if he even remembered, the cad!) and then he would shrug and say ‘I don’t really remember, I think it was a white elephant gift or something.’ And then she would giggle and sip Chardonnay out of her sake cup because she was one of those girls that couldn’t drink; sake made her positively ill!

Johnny had made a discovery. It was a telescope, a really nice one too, something I was surprised the man had left behind. It seemed like one of the only things you would be able to bring with you if you were forced to live in your car, something that perhaps in a financial pinch you could sell, perhaps rent a room for a week, get your dry cleaning done for any interviews you could get.

We set it aside and waded further into the wreckage. Most of what wasn’t furniture was boxes of books. At first glance, it seemed like normal books men would have, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, the Joy of Sex box set. But upon further inspection, we noticed lots of books about Nazis, ‘Evil’ in general, and what was stranger still, a plethora of self-help books such as ‘When Smart People Fail,’ ‘Selling Yourself,’ and ‘How to Find Relationships You Shouldn’t Avoid.’

The books kept coming, and kept getting stranger. It was interesting because I felt like I knew very little about the man upstairs until that very moment, where I now felt like I knew more than I ever wanted to. We deducted that he was racist, sexually driven but perhaps unsure about his sexuality (we found quite a few photos of him in drag), spoke several languages but couldn’t hold a job (or apparently, a relationship) to save his life.

We decided to take a break on the books, as there were very few we were actually interested in, with the exception of a few yoga books I picked up and some Rumi poetry. Johnny stumbled onto a deep fryer which he was excited about, and I found a Dutch oven, something I had wanted for quite a while but never got around to seeking out. My guilt over the moral question had almost completely dissolved because by now I was actually having a good time, visiting with Johnny without the stress or pressure of the alcohol between us, and we were creating this character as we went along that may or may not have been anything close to what the Arab man really was like. And between espresso machines, kitchen appliances and spices, I had become really happy with what I had acquired. And it made me feel good to know that these things weren’t going to be thrown out and wasted, they would circulate like money.

It occurred to me then that Johnny hadn’t known me as the cook I had become. We were kids more or less when we were together, so we thought ourselves serious chefs for mastering the red sauce. Using wine was edgy and innovative, fish was exotic.

I felt his eyes linger on me at my delight over more kitchen stuff (I discovered a few bottles of New Zealand wine and tons of saffron!) and I turned to face him. “I didn’t know you were so into this stuff now,” he said, with a look of slight disappointment.

“There are a lot of things I’m sure you don’t know about me,” I said softly, and I certainly didn’t mean for it to come off as harsh or bitchy, but I think that’s how he received it. He became silent and started going through boxes again, after which I instantly regretted my response.

I found some pots and pans and handed him a boxful. “Here, you’ll need these, I’m sure, and I have plenty.” He went through them, eyeing them like they were art pieces, like he was trying to figure them out. He seemed genuinely impressed with their quality, though they were just basic pots and pans. I smiled. I envisioned him in his youth all over again; even younger than when he was mine, when he was just a brace-faced youngun with bottlecap glasses and a cowlick.

“Thanks,” he said, the warm gaze returning. “These are awesome.”

It had long since been dark. My stomach was grumbling, a sure sign that we had lost track of the time. I wondered if the girl scout was mad that he was out as late as he was, and I was surprised he hadn’t had to check in since he’d gotten there.

He loaded his newfound things into his car while I took mine to the apartment. The only thing that had been left out was the telescope standing between us, and we both went for it, and laughed. “Oh, you think you’re getting this?” I queried, chuckling.

“Well, I didn’t think you would be able to figure out how to use it,” he responded with a familiar smirk. That was typical Johnny; throughout most of our relationship, whenever I purchased anything at all electric or electronic, it would be his job to set it up for me. I was sure he’d spent many hours on his knees, setting up TVs, game systems, computers, CD and DVD players. It was the running gag.

But I hadn’t had Johnny for years. I had since learned how to do the little things that had eluded me in younger years; when you live on your own you have no other option but to adapt. I couldn’t rely on visitors to take care of tasks that were my own.

“Well, let me just see here,” I said, my hands opening and delving into the box, pulling out the lengthy black metal, struggling to separate the legs and set it squarely onto the cement. He could tell I was having trouble with it and he shook his head and laughed.

“I can tell you’ve evolved quite a bit,” he teased, coming over to help me. After a few minutes it was very obvious that even though he had probably never handled a telescope in his life, what he was doing actually looked accurate, and as usual, I was no help at all. It was only slightly embarrassing. I looked at my phone and noticed it was later than I even thought.

I also noticed a text from Drew, asking me if I wanted to watch the star show with him. I said the words aloud for some reason; perhaps to brag about male attention, perhaps to gauge Johnny’s reaction because at the time I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Then it hit Johnny, and it was the strangest thing. We were both standing outside my apartment setting up a telescope for apparently no other reason in the world but bragging rights and technical prowess, the same exact evening the Perseid meteor shower was supposedly hitting its peak. He leaned into the motion sensor light and looked at his watch. “Star show starts in about an hour.”

I grinned. “Want to go try that New Zealand wine?”

I was expecting him to say no, but he surprised me. He followed me in and I retrieved the wine from a wire rack I had also found in the garage. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but it was easy to carry the bottles I was interested in. I unscrewed a bottle of Shiraz and served us in two squatty glasses. Johnny made a nasty comment about the lack of corkage and I eased his mind, assuring him that other countries did make quality screw-top wine, and that it was mostly an American misjudgment. We discussed wine culture, something we both had a significant amount more knowledge of since we were both barely out of high school, sitting on the red carpet in his bedroom, drinking Carlos Rossi out of coffee cups.

The hour passed quickly. We took another bottle and our glasses outside to meet the telescope. It took a few moments but even without gazing into it, we noticed the stars scattering across the sky like a jarful of fireflies. Johnny took another swig, pressed his eye into the glass. He adjusted the knob and positioned the tube to a slightly different angle, then took my hand and led me to the eyepiece.

I don’t know if it was the wine, the warmth of Johnny’s hand or the amazing thing my eye laid on through that stolen glass, but the tears came, and relentlessly. I wiped my eye and looked away in embarrassment; I had fought such feelings before in front of Johnny, but this time I was helpless.

He took the hand I had wiped my eye with and kissed it. “It’s okay.” That was all he said. He opened the next bottle and refilled our glasses with the powerful  crimson that was fueling our nostalgia and familiarity. He didn’t feel like a stranger anymore.

We held hands and took turns looking at eternity, wondering exactly where we fit in.


2 Responses to “You don’t really know a man until you’ve rummaged through his things.”

  1. August 15, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I don’t know wines, but I know a Shiraz. It gives me headaches. Then again, I’m not really a wine person. I do however appreciate the nudge and seeing a new post, Jolie. Hope life is well and good.

  2. 2 DS
    August 16, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Thats an interesting way to learn about someone. After all, the remaining items were those that he valued the least. Should we expect these items to be similar to or very different from the items that he valued more highly? The greater number of items of a similar type one owns, the less someone would be willing to lug along another one. E.g. if you already had four telescopes, you’d be unwilling to take the fifth one. Or, it could just be that this Arab guy had a large library and he didn’t care about Nazis or the Joys of Sex so he left those behind. If that is the case, then it’s likely that the guy was quite different.

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