When something broke, we accepted it. The cheap knobs on our old stove that liquified when we left the oven open. The decrepit backyard fence that collapsed in a snowstorm. The bathroom sink that cracked from basin to wall.
More and more of the apartment became usable. We wrapped our fingers in dishtowels to twist the stove’s sharp nubs, followed the dog into the yard to make sure she didn’t wander off, brushed our teeth in the kitchen sink. We couldn’t walk directly across the living room because of the broken wooden slat in the floor. My girlfriend said we wouldn’t fall through, but I had my doubts.
I’d never experienced an absentee landlord, but my girlfriend was an old hand. At first I tried. I phoned when the glass in the breakfront shattered. I emailed when the pulleys in the bedroom window snapped. My girlfriend said we should be grateful. The building might be falling apart, but our rent was reasonable. That was the tradeoff. All we had to do, my girlfriend said, was ignore everything wrong.
After a while I stopped contacting the landlord. I accepted the broken lock on our lower door. When one by one the bulbs on the dining room chandelier dimmed, the wiring having worn out, I switched on a lamp. I washed meager armfuls of laundry–the dryer couldn’t handle a full load. If any of this bothered my girlfriend, she didn’t mention it. She liked to say her strength was acceptance. “You can’t ask another person to change,” she said.
In the apartment, I was always cold when I should have been warm; the heaters only kicked on if the temperature dropped below forty. On spring days, down-vest-clad, my feet shoved in Uggs, sometimes I’d wear fingerless gloves to type. Outside, I’d pass women in flip-flops and light cotton dresses, men with suit jackets thrown over one shoulder, as self-consciously I shed a wool scarf.
Once more, I suggested we call the landlord, but my girlfriend hauled up several space heaters from the basement. Abandoned by former tenants, they sputtered and glowed. Even going full blast their warmth seemed conceptual; their mendacious dials, their bright orange grates. I knew they couldn’t fight the cold, but for my girlfriend, the idea of heat sufficed.
The first night in my new studio, I noticed the door buzzer was broken. No matter how I adjusted the temperature, my tiny refrigerator froze milk and carrots and eggs. The bathroom radiator hissed but generated little warmth. I never thought to call the landlord, not until deep winter, when the water in the toilet bowl brittled into ice. My message, when I left it was tentative. “Some things are broken,” I said. “But I’d like them to be fixed.”