Sarah Cavar is a PhD student, writer, and transgender-about-town, and serves as Managing Editor at Stone of Madness Press. Author of two chapbooks, A HOLE WALKED IN (Sword & Kettle Press) and THE DREAM JOURNALS (giallo lit), they have also had work in Electric Literature, The Offing, Bitch Magazine, and elsewhere. Cavar tweets @cavarsarah.
I rent a room in the city. Every morning I wake up to the sun’s tongue at my feet. My paint-chapped, creaking bathroom is private and attached to my room, nooked doorlessly beside my dresser; every morning, I swear I will take to task the dried up Crest confounding my drain, and every evening, I feign illness to myself. If you were to ask me how I know the precise moment when the sun kisses my toes, I would tell you that I do not know. I know only that at the moment of my waking, each nib of toe-cleavage is coated in a thin shine of sweat.
My landlord’s name is Rain, though given our situation, they’re closer to land-middle-management. They rent a two-bedroom, and before me, periodically sublet one to solo travelers from AirBnb. “Only when I needed the cash,” Rain had impressed upon me early on. “Travelers don’t tend to agree with me.”
Rain is tall and thin and a little spidery, less like an arachnid proper and closer to a baby winter tree. A sapling, I remember. A sapling. Or something inchoate, despite –– I assume –– approaching middle age, though who knows? Rain dwells in secrecy.
For instance, there is the subject of their name. Rain is a trans name. I know because I have one, too. While there are several genres of trans names –– you have the biblical ones, the top-of-the-baby-name-book ones, the ones that are the same as someone’s birth name except missing some letters –– it was the common nouns I found most compelling. There was always a story there, a key: why Cedar, why Moss? Why River or Sand? And when I asked, it seemed, I learned not only a name, but a heart; when I was through, oftentimes, I had a friend.
I asked Rain about their name one dinner, early on. Gnocchi and seltzer. I asked and they froze mid-parm. I watched extraneous white flakes fall into the silence that followed.
“How could you ask me a thing like that.” Rain struggled to question; usually they sentenced.
How could I?
Rain kept holding the parm like a Christmas branch above their bowl. I could smell their Eucerin.
“I…I don’t know,” I hedged. “I guess I thought, I don’t know, we share this thing in common.”
“What thing is that,” Rain said, finally moving the parmesan.
“Well, I chose my name, you chose yours. Figured it might be a nice way to, I don’t know––” (I cringed) “–– get to know my roommate.”
This was when I first learned the proper term was landlord.
For most of the time I knew them, Rain was reasonably quiet, working at the nearby College as a writer, adjunct, and “performance artist” of scenes never quite manifest. They would leave for campus at dawn, wheeling down dispossessed bike lanes and remaining gone until dinnertime, leaving me –– whose in-person workday typically concluded in the mid-afternoon –– solitary for several hours.
In that hot and narrow space between three and five I would put on music to feel alone. I took my time in the kitchen, making myself a late lunch of bread, fruit, and cold cuts: two small buns above the gas flame, strawberries and grapes sliced small, the latter, occasionally, even peeled. I would assemble a variety of cheeses, and with provolone at base bouquet them in chunks. When I felt triple-dog-daring, I’d take a heaping spoon of hummus and place it at the very heart of the roll, fold it up like a rice ball, and pop the whole thing into my mouth. Between balls, I gnawed warm bread. Fruit was always the finale.
After eating and washing and stretching along to the aforementioned music, I would linger in the living room beneath a blanket, enjoying, in the winter months, my proximity to the apartment’s only heating vents. I’d read or type on the sofa past nightfall, Rain eventually meandering home to a semi-circular desk of messed papers and computer screens. We’d carry on this way before retiring to our respective rooms, studiously unhearing each others’ nighttime Netflix.
I quickly came to enjoy working from the sofa. Above it hung a handwoven tapestry depicting two women having sex (“I lived in Provincetown for a couple years after college”) approximately the length and width of a first-grader. Rain called them their “ladies.” Each day, before taking my seat below them, as I rise and brush and toilet just across the room, I say a silent hello, how are you? How do you feel about watching over me today?
From my seat below the ladies, I could see almost everything in the apartment: the smoking deck to the right end of the apartment, my room and bathroom beside. Next comes the half-door to the kitchen and second-bathroom. Then, on the right, is Rain’s room, door left perpetually curtained and closed. Then come the myriad babies, whose significance I will explain later.
By design, Rain and I remained relatively absent from each others’ lives, so I was surprised when Rain (for a span of approximately two hours, between untouched plates of wheat spaghetti) admitted their discontent.
“We need to talk about our situation,” They said, sucking a wine glass of grape juice. “About our shared…expectations. When it comes to company.”
I took a counter-sip of carbonated water, swallowing slowly, washing my teeth. I didn’t ever have company over, not, at least, while Rain was home. On the rare occasion that some Tinder Aries arrived at the door, I ensured that they were back outside it long before Rain’s arrival, hardly offering a glass of water for the road.
“You’re making them uncomfortable,” continued Rain. They cracked their knuckles, glancing with disdain at their plate. “I see you sitting constantly on that couch. It’s like you live there."
I plucked several leaves from their tableside parsley plant, arranged them on my noodles.
“I just need privacy. They need privacy. After working all day, the last thing I need is you in the middle of our space. Your computer can move, but my monitors, they’re stuck there.”
So are the babies, I thought.
“So, I’ve devised a schedule. Just to keep things harmonious between us, for the future.” At that time, we’d been living together just two months. “I don’t think artificially prolonging the honeymoon phase does either of us good.”
They paused to take their first bite of spaghetti, first attempting to twirl a forkful against their spoon before encountering resistance from the cool, congealed mass. They frowned and grabbed a handful of parsley.
“So, here’s what I propose. I come home on weekdays at five. You’re home at three. I need to be uninterrupted from at least––” (their eyes unfocused) “––from five to seven, probably eight, but I’ll give you seven, because I’m trying to compromise here. What I’m asking is that you be out of the house until sev— well, okay, we’ll say seven-thirty. And weekends, we’re both off, or working from home. I’d like nine-to-five alone time on Sundays. Perhaps Saturdays, if you can manage it.
“And, um, if I can’t?” I reached for my water before realizing I’d drained it.
“If you must be home, please stick to your room and the kitchen.”
“But the living room is between my room and the kitchen,” I said.
“Yes, so you see, it’s difficult, and I recommend making other arrangements,” they said. “We would appreciate it.” Then they rose with their dish and fled to the babies.
When I first told him all of this, my best friend, Alistair, objected on principle to Rain’s use of the “royal We.” Unfortunately, I had explained, near-jogging to keep pace with his citystrides, there was more than a grain of truth to that particular claim.
“It’s because of the babies, Liss. Remember how I told you about the babies?”
I couldn’t blame him for choosing to forget. The babies were the thing, the event, that perhaps most demanded forgetting, if I was to live sanely under Rain’s roof. This I learned only two nights into our new arrangement, which I had, until that time, approached with tepid optimism (this was before the gaffe with their name). RoommateFinder’d certainly match us, each approaching quiet and tidiness with ironic enthusiasm. We were both trans, both vegetarians. Neither of us particularly enjoyed large gatherings. We both worked in words, broadly construed, yet still felt little need to exchange them in passing. It appeared that we were unlikely people who had by some stroke of luck, nonetheless found in each other a suitable place to call home.
I didn’t mean to claim romantic, let alone sexual feeling between us. At least, not in the capitalized sense. Yet the project of roommateship does, inevitability, feel like something of a romantic endeavor. There is the contract –– whether by informal agreement, shared lease, or (in our case) both –– to respect general, relational rules of engagement. Sides of the cupboard are not so different from sides of the bed, really, especially when the cleanliness of each is mutually-agreed-upon. There is also a sense of faith, unquantifiable beneath a bevy of formal promises, a faith which allows us to lock ourselves inside together, night after night, sharing the tacit knowledge that the threat is Out There. That we are safe together.
When I moved in, the babies came as a betrayal. Lining the entire wall opposite the sofa where I took my lunch was a wall of varnished oak shelves of varying widths and heights. They rose from the floor, bare itself but for one long, greying Persian rug, to the ceiling –– one jailed baby’s clear plastic cell hardly left room for cobwebs. They were arranged roughly by size, the most unwieldy of them nearer to the ceiling. Lower to the ground were the doll-sized babies, variously dressed-and-undressed, still-suckling to ready-for-solids. Near the very bottom, hovering inches above the rug, dangled a series of glass-sealed birdcages, each buttressed by a nail and backboard.
The birdcages contained the largest volume of babies, these all antiques no larger than a Polly Pocket. Each of these old babies was hairless, cream-colored, and somehow-chipping. In the awkward spaces between cages sat peeling pickle jars full of fractional babies. One held nothing but arms; another, legs; another, unfortunately, nothing but heads.
Whenever I looked at them for too long, my stomach hurt. I churned the way I did at family reunions and Thanksgivings. There was an unpleasant surfeit, and I was stuck inside it. Here was the tragic flaw Rain’s quiet countenance belied. They were really full of many whiny things.
“So, yeah, when they mean ‘we,’ they say we,” I said, still panting.
Alistair yanked me from a stroller mom’s line of charge.
“I think you meant it the other way around,” he said, glaring at the mom’s receding form. “But now I remember why I haven’t come over yet. Fucking babies.”
Alistair was the sort of person one might describe as “type-A,” though not about the usual things. He lived alone in his shoebox apartment not out of a need for silence, neatness, or solitude, but simply so that he could operate in precisely the way he chose, all the time, without so much as a witness to potentially disrupt him. He was, in fact, very loud, and entirely comfortable with loud people, so long as they shouted with the knowledge that he and he alone had the power to verbally muzzle them as he saw fit. He enjoyed podcasts. He enjoyed visits in “small doses,” mostly as an excuse to “experiment” with whatever leftovers remained in his refrigerator.
Children were out of the question, of course. Such was his passion that, more than six years post-hysterectomy and nearly two post-phalloplasty, he continued his daily logins to r/childfree, where he would commiserate with a million cisgender thirty-somethings about crotch-goblins and their snot-swallowing perils.
“Well, what are you going to do about it?” He asked. “Two months in, first the babies, then the name, and now you can’t even sit on the sofa.”
“Yes,” I said. “In that order. But they’ve gotten more babies since the beginning, so also, kind of not.”
“What kind of babies are they bringing in now?”
“Well, not the real kind yet, so that’s something.”
Alistair did the thing he’d been doing ever since Movember, running his hand up and down his mustache and beard as if wiping his nose. “I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Jesus.”
Unsure as to whether he was referring to the specter of real babies or my present situation with Rain, I said nothing.
The babies peek through the birdcage slats, black lines that match the centers of their pupils. I feel like they’re waiting for me to do something interesting, but really, I bet they’re just bored. Hungry, maybe, like the orphans in Annie to Rain’s Miss Hannigan. I have never seen Rain add a new one to the collection, but they do multiply every so often; I would attribute this to magic, but among the conditions of our arrangement is the demand I do not look at, speak to, or gesture toward Rain once they arrive home from work, at which time they refuse to be seen even by the babies themselves. From the crack of my bedroom door I watch them winking every plastic eyelid shut, studiously avoiding the open lids of every baby too high for them to reach.
Someday soon, they say, they will order several long privacy curtains, string them round the room’s perimeter, allowing them to obfuscate both the babies and my doorway.
“So, get ready. When it comes time to install them, some studio friends will be coming over to help. Probably overnight. You should be fine in your room.”
“When are they coming?”
“You know, I’m really not obliged to give you my social schedule. Probably in the month, if all aligns.”
All of these probablies made me itch.
“What about when I need to make food?”
“Do you like Lärabars?”
“And then they were like, do you like Lärabars, like a couple of those and suddenly I’m fed, nourished, problem solved.”
Across from me, Alistair nodded and sipped his water. I peeked around his head at all the big loneness of his apartment, crossed and uncrossed my legs. He could afford to live alone only through a penchant for dumpster-diving and active notifications for the local “Buy Nothing” Facebook group, where he was also, evidently, a hit with the middle-aged cislady crowd.
“Do you think it might be a good time to bring up your eating disorder stuff? Like, ‘you confining me to my room is actually dredging up all of this past trauma from when I only ate like, one Lärabar a day, and to make matters worse, the ones in the cupboard are exactly the ones I cut into teeny-tiny segments one dark, lonely night in 2013––” he stopped at the sight of my middle finger.
Honestly, I was at the point with Rain that I didn’t think some visceral, weird-person-to-weird-person appeal to trauma would help in the slightest. Maybe it would even hurt –– I imagined Rain, cardigan’d bird arms folded, lips pulsing inward and then out again, flat to fish to flat. They’d probably say, well, see? You’ve had practice. Now I know you’ll be fine.
I’m not into shrinking metaphors, but every time I see the babies I get smaller. I have no proof, but then again, neither did the lady from Gaslight. All I know is that one day I rose from bed and the sun no longer licked my feet, barely poked them these days. Some days later I realized the sun did not tongue my feet at all, on account of my pajama pants nearly reaching my toes. I flexed them back and forth in bed until the fabric ceded. Light poured between their cracks.
I blinked once. Twice. My legs lengthened, mocking.
Meanwhile, the babies soar, and the living room has acquired a strange odor –– not unpleasant, not-quite incense, but charred, like a bundle of used matches run through a coffee grinder. I believe I just caught Rain bringing their newest addition home, some porcelain peeking from their farmer’s market shoulder-bag. I had to flee the living room too soon to see inside. I took notes on what I saw, trying to produce some evidence of the tower’s seemingly exponential growth, some description of Rain’s miraculous fertility.
“We’re having shakshuka tonight,” Rain now calls through the shut kitchen door. The charred smell mingles with the sweating onions and gurgling tomatoes, vague and hot and sick. I’ve always had a habit of over-frying the bottoms of my eggs, getting a solid brown crust that breaks like an oily chip between my fingers. I’ve only seen Rain eat them boiled or poached.
They are already fondling the parsley plant when I enter the kitchen. At the table, I wait my turn. I pluck several pieces with my index finger and thumb, scatter them carefully over my eggs. Rain is silent as we raise our forks. I peek from beneath my eyebrows to watch Rain in the act of piercing, their fork-tines making four perfect holes across the circumference of a milky yolk; slowly, steadily, the entire apparatus relents to the weight of the fork, and egg juices mingle with tomato in a slurry of red.
I scoop my first mound of tomato and blow excessively. Rain puts down their fork.
“They have nothing to do with you, you know. I don’t know why you’re taking this as a personal offense.”
I return the now-lukewarm hunk of tomato to my dish. “You mean your –– your collection?” It occurs to me now that they never specified what, exactly, I ought to be calling the babies, individually or as a vast desert of uncountables.
“This is part of the issue I raised about your use of the sitting room. I can sense your hostility, always hunched like that, never looking away from your screen. The environment is just so…inhospitable.” Their lips make a tiny popping sound on the “pit.” I stare at my plate.
“This is my house, too, is what I mean,” continues Rain. “Which means that who enters is also, in part, up to me. No one should have to police themself because they’re afraid of bothering you.”
“I’ve never called them a bother,” I manage.
“You asked me to draw the curtains, didn’t you? When it comes to questions like that, you have to wonder, is anything being asked? What are you really saying?” They saw off a corner of their rapidly-congealing shakshuka, spear and swallow it whole. We eat in silence.
The thing about the babies is, they’re retractable. You never know if you’re going to come home to a bare wall of baby eyes or a plain set of curtains, instead, though lately it’s been more of the former. When Rain was only hosting AirBnb guests, they had to make frequent use of the curtain, “beholden,” as they told me, “to the tyranny of the star-rating apparatus.” They put up the curtain when a man came by to steam the carpets, too.
They never did that with me, not even in the “honeymoon phase.” In all fairness, I didn’t think the babies would bother me at first, either: paired with an in-unit washer and drier, they were downright cuddly. I reasoned, at the time, that because they were not in my room, I had little reason to complain and even littler justification. They made no noise, they did not clutter the area or articulate hostility toward me –– not, at least, in any way I could describe. They were as much a part of the apartment’s architecture as a floorboard or window, but unlike floorboards and windows, they seemed immune to inurement, growing only exponentially more conspicuous.
Naturally, then –– and only after extensive conversation with Alistair –– I had scripted myself a request for visual segregation from the babies, at least part of the time. “The floor is turning into eggshells,” I had told Alistair. “I think this was a mistake.”
“In-unit laundry is not a mistake.”
“What if they’re a serial killer?”
“As far as horror goes, this seems like more of a haunting.”
At his apartment, we had rehearsed various alternative outcomes that the conversation may have: Rain is insecure and embarrassed; Rain is enraged; Rain brushes me off; Rain says they’ll do something but then doesn’t. None of these scenarios prepared me for what really happened: initial nonreaction giving way to my daytime banishment, ambivalence making way for the sort of gratuitous hostility usually reserved for those in homeless shelters. They, too, are forbidden from returning “home” during the daytime. They, too, are sheltered in ways vague or explicit in their violence, their disadherence to the homing doctrine of relief.
By not reacting, in some ways, Rain provided every reaction. They practiced their rage with the same bizarre detachment with which they went about most things, giving me no ultimata yet clarifying, on no uncertain terms, that I could either comply or else. Else was big enough to fit a baby.
My bathroom has a paint job likely older than me. In the morning, when the sun is finished with my feet, I rise and meander to examine my acne and the chipping paint job and make use of my nail clippers and do similar, private, careful things. On Sundays, I devote a moment to my stubble, shearing what little testosterone has allowed me and moisturizing the fresh flesh left behind. Today is Tuesday but I can still see hair in tiny bits and clumps in the rounded inner crevices of the sink. I swipe with a wet finger. Swipe again. Run warm faucet water over my finger pads until the hairs slip down the drain; splash round the rim.
I realize I have been hunching and unhunch. My back clicks. The weather outside looks promising, a brief May in March. This will be my first spring in the apartment, my first without the grimy flower boxes my former roommates kept. Unexpectedly, I find myself missing them: three girls, all cis, one still recovering from years of ill-advised white dreadlocks.
Aside from location, age, and alma mater, we had had little in common. One had studied on a basketball scholarship, got a concussion sophomore year of undergrad and never been the same since. One made edibles potent enough to kill a horse. Surprisingly, this was not the one with the dreadlocks, who was in fact a classical cellist. All were reasonable, intelligent, and considerate people, yet we soon grew attuned to the precise ways in which we irritated one another. Yet, eventually, each of us revealed the Bad that hibernated inside us.
Perhaps everyone who knows someone for long enough learns they are a bad person. I can’t say when, exactly, Rain hit that point. But watching a tiny parade of salmon-colored arms traipse from behind my nightstand beneath my bedroom door, I can say firmly that they have beaten it with open palms.
Usually a midmorning-sleeper, it’s unusual to see Rain also up at dawn, seated as they are on the couch with a pastry and paper towel in their lap. Between minuscule bites, they speak into their cell phone, which is cradled precariously between their shoulder and left ear.
I make myself scarce into the kitchen, where I also manage to make and eat two bowls of Frosted Flakes in rapid, nauseating succession, finishing just before I hear footsteps.
“So, I’m sure you’ve noticed we’ve been in need of a few touch-ups around here.” Rain eyes my empty bowl before checking themself for crumbs.
“The house, you mean,” I say, suddenly conscious of the tiny blot of stray milk left on the countertop.
“Of course. A little spring refresh. I bought some big trash bags for spring cleaning. A new mop. We’ll have to replace that couch soon.”
I nod carefully.
“And we’ll recalibrate living arrangements just a tad,” they continue. “The movers –– I just spoke to them –– will likely be coming around in the early morning, which means it would be preferable to have the house to ourselves for a longer period.”
I mentally tack on the or else.
“Don’t worry about the cost, I’m taking care of that,” they say, now turning to exit the kitchen. Money hadn’t crossed my mind.
Alistair grudgingly allows me to sleep on his couch for the two-week duration of the renovation proper, claiming wryly on night one that this is our opportunity to make up for two decades’ worth of missed girl’s nights, marathoning Legally Blonde and getting drunk enough to paint our nails and do our makeup and not feel weird about it. The first night, we do this.
The second, we do the same, but with Clueless.
On the third night I dream I am compelled to walk a grassy, tree-laden corridor. I cannot stop or turn around. I don’t notice at first, but the sky darkens with every step I take, and by the time I do notice, I can hardly see. What is most frightening about the dream isn’t the darkness, nor even the compulsion to walk, but the way the trees arc downward in some kind of Eldrich hug, collapsing above me until I am not in a corridor. Not even a hallway, but a box.
On the sixth night, I approach a dozing Alistair, ask, “where am I going to go?” And before he answers sit on his outstretched right arm, hard, until he groans and sits up.
“Can I say I wish you’d go the fuck to bed?”
“What if I go back and it’s even worse than before? What if they start making me leave at dawn every day? What am I even supposed to do in this situation? Where else do I even go?” I thumb little red marks into my hands.
“Some people with bad roommates get mediators. Or call the cops, if you’re into that shit. You know, I bet they’d eat this up on that new podcast, I think it’s called Asking for a Friend. Plenty of roommate horror stories there. None about baby dolls, though.”
Later that night I scroll through my browser history until I find the recipe. Hold onto those yolks! This one-pan shakshuka is packed with B12, omega-3’s, and more preconception essentials.
I let the screen go black. Mouthed push-out at my reflection.
On the fourteenth day, I leave Alistair’s. I hold the door to the apartment staircase open with my foot, slipping into the dark corridor backpack-first. There is a light switch, but only at the top of the stairs, which are so narrow I struggle to rest my suitcase. I decide I will proceed backward, as quickly as possible, so that if the imbalance between my backpack and suitcase proves problematic, I might fall up the stairs instead of down.
I stumble up each step, breathing hard, one hand gripping the rail and one aching around my suitcase handle. The already-steep stairs seem to have steepened further, and I sense with the sides of my sneakers that with height the creaking flights have only narrowed. I feel abandoned junk –– old shoes, containers, soft drink cups –– brush my ankles, and in my mind see babies.
Fucking gargoyles, I say to myself when I finally reach our door. I study the floor, the gap where the cold sneaks in. No babies, no parts.
Inside, the apartment is empty, clean, and lemon-scented. Neither Rain nor I are messy people, nor are we the sort who balk at stray crumbs or yesterday’s dishes. Now, though, the apartment is spotless, restored to some pre-occupation pallor. Even the parsley plant has been trimmed and repotted, the area cleared of its sheddings.
The living room, too, is unchanged, except in the fact that everything I was used to has gotten brighter. The old couch has become a new couch, identical in size and hue. The ladies frolic, as ever, above, no longer attended by stray dust. To my surprise, the curtains are fully-drawn. The babies –– dolls, I tell myself, the dolls –– no longer peek from their gaps.
Spring Beginnings, reads Rain’s to-do board. Feeling wild, I pick up their marker, writing thank you! :) below. I smile at my smile and realize I am no longer panting.
I write an identical statement on the whiteboard hanging on the door to my room.
I open it to find a single baby in my bed.