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Hannah peeled back the plastic wrap that covered the plate of broccoli-mac-and-cheese left uneaten earlier in the evening. She dug in not caring that the food was still cold. Her appetite had returned.
A couple of hours earlier, Hannah had tucked Holly into bed, took a Scarlett O’Hara approach to the lawsuit (“I’ll think about it tomorrow”), then tried to unwind. But as she cleaned the dishes, she recalled and lamented the several broken plates she had to toss when she unpacked a few months earlier. And as she thumbed through the day’s mail, she decided that digital-only magazine subscriptions would be a wiser investment.
She snatched the tv remote control from the coffee table and sat on the sofa, but before settling in popped to her feet again, dropping the remote onto a seat cushion. She rambled around the living room, eyeing books and decorative boxes and other things she had accumulated purposefully over the years, and questioned their utility. She stepped into the dining room, where the only items of consequence were the table and four chairs surrounding it.
This isn’t a dining room. This isn’t a room at all. It’s just the stupid place I decided to put these stupid things that will never fit inside my car.
The humiliation of the eviction, billowing fear of the lawsuit despite her efforts to wall it off until morning, and the daunting prospect of having to move yet again churned until her indignant territoriality asserted itself and refused to cede the evening to the bewildering things of the world. She poured herself an uncharacteristic mid-week glass of wine and looked for a distraction. She wanted to sit by the window and watch how her neighborhood behaved under the dim yellow street lamps, but the idea was followed abruptly by the feeling that the neighborhood wasn’t hers anymore, that she was an interloper. So she took her glass into the backyard and sipped while she swayed gently on a swing, and allowed the wine and the motion to lull her.
It worked. She sipped and swayed and rested her head against one of the chains that suspended the swing from the bar overhead. When her drowsiness was profound enough to tempt her to nap on the chaise lounge, she knew she was ready to call it a night. She retreated to the house and locked the door behind her.
But after lying in bed for over an hour, Hannah’s drowsiness had dissipated like fog under a rising sun. She concluded that sleep was not in her immediate future, and the only way to dispel her nervous energy once and for all was to face her fear and the daunting task head-on. When she had decided she had no choice other than to represent herself in the lawsuit, she didn’t know that the job of preparing for court wouldn’t wait until morning.
She flung aside the covers, sat up on the edge of the bed and swayed, suddenly groggy. Funny how part of your brain insists on sleeping while another part insists there is no time to squander on such luxuries, and the part that makes the stronger case is the one from which you’ve turned your attention.
In slippered feet she shuffled into the living room and to the coffee table, and looked down at the papers that were served on her earlier that evening. Or had it been yesterday evening? She rubbed her eyes. Then, in a single motion, Hannah swept up the papers, turned, and allowed herself to fall into the sofa. She held the pack of stapled pages in front of her and read through them.
As she read Exhibit A, a single sentence buried in the middle of paragraph thirteen on page three of the lease zipped from her eyes to her gut like an electric shock, as if it was the first time she’d read it:
“Tenant may not paint or make any alterations or improvements to the Premises without first obtaining the Landlord’s written consent to the alteration or improvement.”
But the sentences that followed both calmed that spark of panic and stirred hope for victory and staying put:
“However, Tenant may hang pictures and install window treatments in the Premises without Landlord’s consent, provided Tenant removes all such items before the end of the Lease Term and repairs all damage resulting from the removal. Any improvements or alterations to the Premises made by the Tenant shall become Landlord’s property.”
She wondered how installing hardware for the locks was all that different from installing hardware to hang pictures and window treatments. It’s not as if the new locks prevented the landlord from getting inside the house, because he still had keys to all the other doors in the house and she hadn’t changed any of those locks. Plus she had an extra set of keys to the new locks that she would give him if he would just meet and talk with her. And increasing the security of the house was an improvement, unquestionably.
She held the pages in her hands a little while longer, flipping through them as if expecting to find inspiration there and a quieting of the dissonance that hummed in the space between the accusation and the action taken against her.
If I had a lawyer who believed in me, would fight for me, what would my lawyer do? she mulled. An image of Tom Cruise in Navy Service Dress Blue, fist raised, declaring, “I want the truth!” popped into her mind. She smiled.
If I was a lawyer, what would I do?
She recalled the sentence in the summons informing her that she had five days to file a written response. She decided to start there.
Should be easy enough to write a response to this drivel.
She went to the small desk where she kept her computer and the usual household paperwork. She opened the laptop, pressed the power button, and waited a moment for the system to wake up.
She opened a blank page in her word processing program, and raised her hands so that her fingers hovered above the keyboard.
Response … response … response ….
All the myriad retorts and imagined scenes of indignant grandstanding that had pinged abundantly through her mind since her encounter with the process server vaporized the instant she called upon and attempted to gather them.
Where do I begin?
The beginning is as good a place as any.
She lowered her fingers and began tapping out a stream-of-consciousness narrative that would end up looking like a business letter addressed to the judge. An hour later, she concluded the letter with, “And that’s why I should not be evicted. Thank you for reading this.”
The task provided an avenue for Hannah’s nervous energy to dissipate. In its place rose a smug confidence in the rightness of her version and optimistic anticipation for her day in court. Her appetite returned and nudged her gut, so she went to the kitchen to retrieve the cold broccoli-mac-and-cheese from the fridge.
She smiled as she stabbed at the pasta and broccoli, punctuating the imaginings that rolled through her mind:
Judge: Mr. Ricci, do you seriously think I will agree with this stupidity? Your argument is illogical and to be blunt about it, ludicrous. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that you purposely added this monstrous paragraph in your lease just so that you could accuse any tenant you decide you don’t like of some violation just so you can toss them out on a whim.
Ricci: But Your Honor!
Judge: SILENCE! I’ve heard enough out of you! Now I want to hear from Ms. Harris. Ms. Harris, you’ve had to take it upon yourself to make your landlord’s house properly secure, and he repays you by acting in a most despicable way. I can imagine that you’ve lost sleep because of this lawsuit, and maybe even your performance at work has suffered because of the emotional distress over this whole unnecessary conflict. Is there something that Mr. Ricci here can do to make this up to you and put things right?
Harris: I only want him to reimburse me for my out of pocket expenses, and then just leave me alone.
Judge: That’s it? That’s all you want? You, Ma’am, are an angel. The salt of the earth. Because of your goodness and honesty, I’m going to make Mr. Ricci reimburse you for your out of the pocket expenses plus another $5000 to compensate you for putting you through the ringer and to make him think twice before he ever pulls a stunt like this again. Do you want the $5000 in cash or in rent payment waivers?
But each time the scene repeated in her mind, it mutated like aging genes …
Judge: But other than this one time, hasn’t Ms. Harris paid her rent on time and otherwise been a good tenant?
Ricci: Bottom line, Your Honor, is that I would rather have a tenant in my house who I can trust to not go behind my back and do something like this without my permission. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Judge: Personally, I think a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, Marco, but that’s your business. You win. Court is adjourned. (Gavel bang.)
Ricci: We still on for golf on Friday, Judge?
… until her confidence unraveled completely.
Judge: Are you really that dense, Ms. Harris? The concept I am trying to get through your thick skull is that new door locks are nothing at all like curtains on the windows and family photos on the walls. Mr. Ricci could be required to hire a locksmith to be able to access his own house because of what you did. Vertical blinds create no such hindrance.
Harris: But he wouldn’t have to do that because I have the keys right here to give to him!
Judge: Why aren’t you understanding this? Just because you say you wouldn’t do anything untoward doesn’t mean that there isn’t a logical and rational reason to treat locks differently from window treatments in your lease. At this point it doesn’t matter if you get it or not. You violated the terms of the lease and failed to pay rent in full. Judgment for the plaintiff. Ms. Harris, you have three days to vacate the premises.
Her optimism exposed as ephemeral, those earlier questions rose again like smoke through the soil from a smoldering root fire: Why is he doing this? It’s too extreme. It doesn’t make sense. Instinct insisted this was a puzzle to which she was missing a crucial piece, while insecurity turned the food in her gut to stone. She put the dinner plate on the counter and returned her full attention to the computer screen.