Flipping Switches

The more interaction I had with Kurt, the more I wondered about his story. I was beginning to realize that my initial impressions were off, many of them by miles. I remember commenting to Matt that Kurt “just seems like such a nice a kid.” To which my astute husband replied, “You do realize that guy’s 38 years old?”

Okay, so I’m not the most observant person in Summit County. In my own defense, I do tend to create images of people based on their application data and background check. Kurt first applied for a room with us in 2018 and I didn’t meet him until he came to get his keys. Any information I had before that came from the rental application…that he completed. And I did not look at his date of birth.

On paper, I saw a guy who was earning a reasonable income driving for Uber with a more than decent little Kia, no criminal or eviction history and only one speeding ticket, ever. His current address was local, and prior to that, he’d lived in Vegas. His emergency contact was a cousin who lived in our area. His car told me he was responsible enough to make payments, his squeaky clean background said he was too young to have made much trouble yet, and his emergency contact indicated he had no spouse or parents in the area. In my head, I made him a twenty-something guy who had fled from Vegas to Ohio, where his cousin lived. Perhaps he was exchanging the party life for a simpler one, and maybe a few classes at Akron U. It was a responsible decision for a young man.

Even I can do a bit of basic math (just not in my head) and things weren’t quite adding up between the Kurt I had created and the Kurt I was now getting to know. Driving for Uber can be great for someone working toward more (like an education) but he wasn’t. And the on-again-off-again thing with Bryn was junior high level lust at best. Not to mention he was borrowing money from his Landlord. (Where was this Emergency Contact Cousin?) There had to be more to this man’s story. So when he came to collect his loan proceeds, I gave him a cigarette and got to picking his brain a bit.

I started with Bryn and their love-hate relationship. His recent texts had been riddled with snippets of a self-centered nag who did nothing but bring him down, so I half expected him to tell me they had–yet again–parted ways. I was surprised when Kurt said they’d been together for two years. Their baby was due in June and they were planning to get married as soon as he got back on his feet. With a child-like grin on his face, he pulled out his phone to show a picture of a frumpy, plump faced girl with thick, brownish hair piled on top her head in a ponytail loop. Not even close to the image I had conjured. (She wasn’t blonde and she was not petite). If I hadn’t known she was pregnant, I would have judged her as overweight. She was caught off guard by the picture, a bulky men’s hoodie unfairly adding to her size. Her eyes held years beyond her age, but there were hints of pretty peeking through them.

Kurt said she lived with her parents (so how old was she?) about 40 minutes away. She’d been sick throughout her four months of pregnancy and wasn’t able to work. (So they both had no income.) Her parents were assholes, he said. Despite having the financial means, they offered no help.

But she was living with them...
And hadn't they just been looking at houses to rent?  

Well yes, but then that whole “blow up argument” thing happened and Bryn’s “pill-popping” mother had physically come at her with accusations that she tried to take money from her purse. He said, “Her parents treat her like shit.” Like the flip of a switch, his face scowled and his chest raised a bit, as he spewed details of how they “do everything” for their other kids but “Bryn gets nothing. She has nothing for the baby and no one will even have a shower for her. Her parents can go fuck themselves.” This was not the talk of a 38 year old man. Then his whole demeanor flipped again. And again, it was like a switch. It was as if he suddenly remembered who his audience was and realized he’d been giving the wrong speech.

These ‘flipping switches’ were a pattern for Kurt, but it would be months before I could recognize it. In the meantime, I bought into everything he said and continued to see him as the sweet, innocent ‘kid’ I had concocted in my head. If I was questioning anything at this point, it was about Bryn. Kurt’s ‘flipping switches’ and nasty rants–about Bryn one minute, and the familial injustices they suffered the next–were red flags. And I rushed right by them to pass judgment on Bryn by deciding she must be the source of Kurt’s problems.

I still can’t define the sense of allegiance I felt toward helping Kurt and, eventually Bryn and their baby. At the time, I was so clearly being led by God to be a light and an example; to give something back in a pay-it-forward sort of way, that I virtually never questioned any of my decisions. Everything I did–physically, financially, emotionally–it all felt like it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. They were in great need and God had blessed me with the time, resources and financial means to meet most of that need. If I didn’t do it, who would? I never stopped to think about why they were in that position to begin with.

Instead, I worked diligently to avoid seeing what I didn’t want to see. And not just about Kurt; but about myself, and my priorities, and my own unhealthy boundaries. But mostly about my drinking. When it was finally clear that Kurt had a deeper problem, it never crossed my mind that alcohol was the source. Not once, until someone else brought it up. And even then, I discarded the thought. I would know if he had a drinking problem.

I would know…Because I had one, too.

Meeting “Chase”

It was obvious from the beginning; what she showed on the outside didn’t mesh well with her internal demons. She tried to appear sweet, and motherly and could even be fairly well-spoken; but her hardness had its way of shining through. She wore it like a badge that she wanted simultaneously to hide and shove hard in your face.

She was conflicted; had been for as long as she could remember. Never feeling capable of being who she should be, she became someone she hated. But now she embraced it, clung to it even, like a child holds onto her favorite blanket. It worked for her, most of the time, allowing her to keep at bay those who were capable of breaking through that nasty, hardened shell to touch the little girl heart she hid so well from the world. The same heart she couldn’t quite hide from herself; until she met Chase.

She didn’t really want to go to the bonfire that night, but she was dragged along by her sister. They were Jen’s friends and Bryn knew how it would go; Jen would be the center of attention and life of the party and Bryn would be left by herself, as usual. But she had nothing better to do and Jen was relentlessly begging. She pulled her hair into a loose ponytail, grabbed a hoodie off the floor and snatched the car keys from Jen’s hand. “I’m driving,” she said, knowing there’d be no argument.

She didn’t mind being at the party, once they got there. Jen’s friends were nice and they seemed genuinely happy that she was there. But after 20 minutes, Bryn grew tired of the conversation and wandered off to smoke a cigarette. It was a new habit for her, a self-declared right of passage that had come with getting her driver’s license that summer. She enjoyed it from the start, unlike most kids her age; didn’t even cough much when she learned to inhale.

She was nursing the burn on her hand when she noticed him approaching. He held out a beer and she shook her head, “No thanks.” With a knowing smile he replied, “It’s for your hand, silly.” He pulled her right hand into his and gently placed the cold can against it. “You know, I can show you how to flick a cigarette without burning yourself.” He had been watching her.

He was handsome and rugged, like Jax from Sons of Anarchy. His dirty blond hair was cut short at the sides, with a perfectly messy spike above blue eyes that seemed to know too much. He wore a diamond stud in his right ear, a smaller one on his chin, almost hidden in a short, thick stubble. Manly and boyish at once, mischievously smiling at her, tipping his head in an attempt to see her eyes. And when he did, he seemed to look right through to her soul; to her heart. Her little girl heart.

Eventually, he would give her the greatest gift of her life. And then he would nearly destroy them both.

Broke and Homeless

Christmas came and went without a peep from Kurt. Not even a card. Or a demeaning text meant for someone else. Assuming he was busy embracing impending fatherhood, I had pretty much forgotten all about him.

January in Ohio can be a tough time for filling vacant rentals. Those who haven’t spent every last dime on Christmas generally don’t want to move in the bitter cold and snow. Anyone who wants to is likely being evicted. Having a handful of vacant units to fill, I jumped into action when Kurt reached out on January 8. He was sleeping in his car and wanted to move in that night. He had $20 to his name, he said. At the time, we only had unfurnished rooms available. It was late in the evening and bitter cold outside, so I offered him an air mattress and told him he could come pick up the keys. I threw some spare sheets and blankets into the washer and waited for Kurt to respond, which he did…six days later. It must have been fate; by then we had another tenant who pulled a Kurt, moving out without notice from a furnished room at Roselawn. I asked him, “When do you want to pick up the keys?” Once again, I waited.

Most people would be irritated at this point. But I had a feeling there was more going on with Kurt; I was thinking mental illness and I was concerned for him and for his pregnant girlfriend. If my hunch was right, they needed some time apart. I tend to overthink. I also tend to think I can save the world, or at least some of us who live in it. So I reached out to Kurt the next day around 11:00 am. To my surprise, he said his girlfriend’s parents were helping them look for houses to rent so they could “live together as a family”. Great! I was encouraged to know he and his girlfriend had the support of her family; it gave Kurt and his situation some credibility in my eyes. But by 5:00 that evening, things had, once again…changed. His girlfriend and her parents had a “blow up argument” he said. They were staying with her sister for the night. He threw in that he was “broke” (again) but assured me he had a roof over his head, at least temporarily. Very temporarily, I learned the next day, when–you guessed it–Kurt was again ready to move back in.

This is where things got messy(er). Whether it was from my desire to help a soul in need, or simple desperation to fill a vacant unit (or maybe just be done with this), I’m still not clear. But I bent “The Rules”. I did not run a new background check and I did not verify his employment or income when he told me he was still working at the limo company. Had I done those things, I would have found that he’d been fired from that job in November; right around the time he made his split-second departure from Roselawn. Carelessly, I rented a unit to a tenant with no income and agreed to let him pay the rent and deposit later. When he got paid from the job that I didn’t know he no longer had. Lesson learned. Well, eventually.

Kurt had little money and apparently only the clothes in his car. So, along with his keys, I left a bag on my porch with some canned goods and pasta and a few warm blankets. And $50 of Christmas cash I’d been hoarding. Because I had everything I could ever need and more, and he was just down on his luck.

Perhaps it wasn’t so coincidental that a few days after moving back in to Roselawn, Kurt lost his job. At least that’s what he told me when, instead of contacting me as promised to make payment, he texted me asking to borrow money.

Room for Rent?

I didn’t hear much from Kurt after the incident with Blue Van Tenant, aside from a few texts that were clearly meant for someone else…named Bryn. The texts were nasty and accusatory, laden with profanity and grammatical errors so horrendous that even auto-correct couldn’t make sense of them. But the intentions were clear, even to me. They were meant to demean, hurt and belittle someone. At this point I still had no knowledge of a girlfriend, boyfriend or any other relationship of Kurt’s. As far as I knew, he was still just the hard-working, pleasant college student who had climbed the Uber ladder up to a dispatch job at a local limousine company. Apparently “college student” wasn’t my only false assumption.

Nasty texts aside, things remained pretty quiet at Roselawn, which is why I was caught off guard by Kurt’s “notice to move out thirty minutes ago” text that came at the beginning of November. It was perfectly crafted, detailing how clean and void of “holes or other damage” he had left the room. Not one grammatical error. Even “fiancé” and “pregnant” and “really short on money so please can I have my deposit back even though I’m leaving without a notice and haven’t paid the rent” were all spelled correctly. Four days after he moved out, he started asking to come back.

At first I thought he was following up to see if the room had been rented in hopes of getting some of his deposit back. I felt a little sorry that he hadn’t understood the 30 day notice requirement; many people choose to forget about that when it makes things more convenient for them. I assured him we had the room ready and listed for rent on the same evening he moved out and were actively showing it. “My relationship is pretty fucked (right now). If it doesn’t work out soon, I’ll need to move back in.”

In just four days, Kurt had gone from being the supportive father-to-be who wanted to take care of his family, to being so over his fiance’ and their unborn child that a rented room on Roselawn seemed as appealing as The Marriott. Which, apparently, he thought we were running. But he had been a decent tenant, he needed a place and we had a room. I told him he was welcome to move back in, as soon as he paid November’s rent and late fee. I also encouraged him to work things out with his Baby Mom Fiance’; and then I waited for his response. It must have taken some thought; it was January before I heard from him again.

Meet “Landon”

He was startled awake by the silence. Spider-Man was over; he always fell asleep before the end. In the creepy sliver of light peeking through the curtains, he knew things didn’t look like they should. And it smelled funny, like when his Grandma left his Paw Patrol tee-shirt in the washing machine too long. His bed made a big squeaky noise when he sat up and he knew that he wasn’t in his bedroom. Panic and fear took over and then his thoughts. Scary thoughts that had no place in the head of a four year old. But they stayed there. Like Nick , the mean kid next door who never seemed to know when to go home.

The bed next to him was empty, the covers bunched into a ball on the floor. His Mom was there before, watching Spider-Man with him. But really she was just playing on her phone. His eyes scanned the room, landing in the corner where the light creeped from under the bathroom door. Untangling from the covers, his little feet hit the floor just as a slamming door outside shook the room. Then voices, loud and laughing, passed by the window, making shadows on the wall as they stumbled into the night. He ran to the window and climbed onto the metal humming box; his Mom said it would make the room cool. Peeking through the curtain, he saw the voices, still loud and laughing, getting into a car. His tummy felt wavy and then calmed a little as he realized his Mom wasn’t one of them. He ran to the bathroom door, peered through the crack. His mom spent a lot of time in the bathroom; he probably should have looked there first. He knew better than to bug her by knocking, but if he could just see that she was in there, then maybe he wouldn’t feel so much like crying. His tummy did the twirly thing again; he could see his clothes were still on the floor and now so were the sweatpants his mom was wearing earlier. Gently, he pushed the door open, knowing he’d be scolded for disturbing her. But he was wrong.

He hated crying and being a sissy, but sometimes being brave was extra hard, especially in a weird place like this. The room at the motel was old and tiny. And now he knew that his mom was nowhere in it.

She was more like his sister, really. Landon was born when she was 21 and still trying to find her way in the world. As a child, she struggled to feel okay, never really measuring up to what other people felt was normal. At 18, her vulnerability didn’t go unnoticed by Landon’s father. She was captivated by his rough good looks and bad-boy attitude. He treated her like an adult, introduced her to adult things. Nothing else mattered when they were together, not even Landon. Living with her parents made it easy for her to come and go; to put off parenting until she was ready. She knew that Landon didn’t really mind; but then again, he had never known anything different.

He climbed back onto the box by the window and pulled the curtains open. There was no one out there now, just the eery yellow lights that tried to brighten the parking lot. The road out front was dark; he couldn’t even see the plastic play house that excited him when the man dropped them off at the motel. 45 minutes was a long car ride, and his legs felt like they needed to run. But his mom was in a hurry and promised he could play there tomorrow. Now he didn’t even want to. He just wanted to go home. He wanted his Grandma. And his cat.

Thoughts of his Grandma made the wavy feeling move from his tummy to his chest and into his throat. Grandma never got angry when he went looking for her at home. Most of the time he didn’t even have to. When he couldn’t sleep, he could call her name and she’d appear almost before her name left his lips. She would curl up in his bed sometimes and stroke his hair, singing quietly in her sweet, soft voice until he drifted off to sleep. Even her smell- like cookie dough and coffee- was comforting. Grandma made him feel safe. The wave left his throat and turned into a noise he didn’t recognize, scaring him even more before he realized it was his. He was crying now, giant heavy sobs that made his tiny body shake. He didn’t care if he was a sissy; he knew this was bad. Even at four, he knew that he had never been all alone, and certainly not in a creepy, smelly place like this.

He took a few deep breaths and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his pajamas. He had to find his Grandma.

Because he was certain that she’d never be able to find him.

Meet “Bryn”

She was uncomfortably pregnant, resting her left hand on her belly, chain smoking with her right

She had a large presence; her strong voice could fill a room even at a whisper. She was rough on the surface with large features and a metal stud on either side of her lower lip. Her hair was long, thick and wavy, tossed into a sloppy pony-tail with shocks of natural brown peeking through years of layered box color. Tattoos were plentiful yet not overwhelming and not exactly tasteful. Most were names, some from her past, a few giving nod to current relationships; “Landon” above her heart and “Kurt” encircling her left ring finger. She had scars on her arms. Her face was puffy and her legs were swollen. She wore an oversized black tee-shirt, black leggings and black Addidas sandals that cut into her feet. She was uncomfortably pregnant, resting her left hand on her belly, chain smoking with her right.

Her demeanor was childish, much like a teenager still believing the world revolved around her. She was the star of the show, chattering details of her pregnancy between drags from her Traffic cigarettes. Her baby was due in six weeks, on June 6 and she was having a little girl. She had been “sick” throughout the pregnancy and her blood pressure was elevated, the baby would probably arrive early. And yet she beamed with pride.

She spent most of her time with Kurt at the house on Roselawn, in the small rented room meant for only one person. That was a hard and fast “Landlord Rule” and probably the reason I’d heard so little about her. But they were beginning to disrupt the other tenants; their arguments were getting out of hand, food was coming up missing and they were asking to borrow money on a regular basis. Through conversations with an annoyed tenant, I learned she used to be a heroin addict, was somewhere in her mid-twenties, lived with her parents and had a son who was in elementary school.

Nothing about her fit with clean cut Kurt with the squeaky clean background, who was pinching pennies in a rented room while on the straight and narrow path back to middle class living. Nothing about her impressed me.

Everyone has a story.

Meet “Kurt”

I first met Kurt when he rented a room from us in Akron. For $260 a month he got an 8 x 10 room with a bed, a chair and a storage bin in a house shared with four strangers. Right on the bus line in what once was called the Rubber Capital of the World.

His application showed he was an Uber driver, his emergency contact was a cousin. He had lived in Vegas for several years, at one point becoming successful selling real estate. He was friendly and well spoken on the phone, and his background was spotless. I wondered about his story.

He came to collect his keys wearing the same smile I heard over the phone. He was neatly dressed with dark hair and deep brown eyes and a long slender nose; Slovakian with a slightly receding hairline. Small and thin in stature, built much like a wrestler. He was not stunning to look at; and yet, something about him was quite charming. For six months he was a model tenant.

Then he moved out without notice and sent me a text: “So my life has abruptly changed; my fiance’ is pregnant.”

And yet, something about him was quite charming.