Breaking and Entering

From the Femme Maison series of paintings by Louise Bourgeois; reproduced from Femme Maison – Wikipedia

Decades ago, when I was young and living on the first floor of a cheap Pittsburgh 2-story rental house, I met Ryan. He was a good kid, if a little weird.

Ryan lived in the 2nd-floor apartment of the house, and we shared a basement and yard. I saw the kid a lot, as he gobbled up any scrap of attention I or my partner could spare—he was lonely, living with a mom who had to work all the time to support them, with no friends that I ever saw and a really intense stutter when he spoke. I invited him in often just to hang out, play a game, talk a little, have some company. He’d often come over when I got home from work in the evenings and stay until him mom would get home.

Problem was, Ryan was a sponge for attention—my partner and I were, as far as I could see, the only people who listened quietly and patiently when Ryan talked. Sometimes it took him several minutes to get a single sentence out with all the stutters, which set my innards jangling with impatience. I tried not to let it show outside, because I figured that would probably make the stuttering worse, and it was just plain mean. It was probably pretty painful for him, too. I hoped that being allowed to speak at his own pace would, if not help his stutter, at least make him feel more supported.

Like a starving cat, Ryan haunted my doorstep, and I fed him every time he came by. Which was every day. I didn’t want to hurt him by shooing him off, but man alive, he was hungry for attention all the time. He even seemed to want to fit in with my partner and me—when I first met him, Ryan made “chinky eyes” and other anti-Asian racist jokes he’d probably thought were harmless fun, but after a while he seemed to make the connection that my partner was one of the people he was mocking, and he taught himself to stop.

Ryan was, as I said, a good kid, essentially.

We lived in a molding old house at the very top of a very steep hill. Our front yard was comprised of ivy and a practically vertical set of stairs. The house was on a busy street right across from a bar. The bar crowd was rowdy, drunk, sometimes violent and dangerous-sounding. Our front door did not have a working lock and the landlord wasn’t inclined, on our meager rent, to fix it. On those nights, I thanked my lucky stars that the screaming men on the street would probably not attempt to scale the steep stairs to our house. Probably not, I always thought. Security was a privilege of rich people.

The place had not one locking door or window—it might as well have been a tent. The door from our apartment to the shared basement was in our kitchen and was fastened only by one of those hook-and-eye catches, with a big gap between the door and the jamb. This meant that Ryan could go into the basement, grab his hockey stick and easily open the latch to our kitchen door while my partner and I were both at work. Which he did on a near-daily basis.

I think Ryan just wanted to be in our space—he didn’t seem to be stealing anything or doing any harm. He was probably playing with our cats, breathing our air, maybe hiding. Once I came home and found one of our indoor-only cats (she was brain damaged and we were nervous about letting her roam around cars and other animals) in our postage stamp back yard. I figured that Ryan had broken into our house, left through the back door and allowed the cat to escape without realizing it. Other than that, the B & E was a pretty harmless habit he had, and he was never there when I got home from work, though there would be signs of his presence everywhere (the toilet seat left up, or crumpled gum wrappers on a table, the smell of sweaty kid, the cat on the lawn).

I barely remember what Ryan looked like, or what his voice sounded like, or even exactly how old he was. I think he was somewhere around nine. What has stuck with me for 25 years, though, is that feeling of someone breaking into my space.

When I wrote Luckmonkey, Ryan was on my mind. In the book, the characters are houseless, but concoct a politically-motivated social project in which they break into other houses and businesses to steal one thing and replace it with something else (they might take the coffee maker but leave an exercise bike, for instance) as an anti-private-property act of disruption.

When I told someone about the idea for the book, they asked me, “Have you ever been robbed?” It was a challenge, a way to suggest I wasn’t going to be writing from a place of understanding. I thought of all the ways I’d been robbed, all the ways my safety had been unambiguously challenged. As a queer, fat woman who went to a predominantly male college in the late 1980s, I could compose quite the list of violations on my body, my sexuality, my privacy. But what has stuck with me are not the big soul-crushing violations of that time, but Ryan and his little, harmless break-ins.

That time just after college, when I was living in Pittsburgh, was full of un-safety. I was renting an unlockable house across the street from screaming drunk men, working a series of low-paying crappy jobs at which my hard-earned college degree was not useful, jobs at which I had to put up with all manner of treatment (deliberately locked in a walk-in freezer once, called “that big fat girl” by a colleague on the phone another time, bombarded by a profanity-laced screaming fit by a temp boss for…I’m not exactly sure what reason…so badly that I quit in tears, and him mystified when I did. You get it. I’m sure you’ve probably been there). Suffice it to say, I did not feel an abiding sense of security about anything—my privacy least of all.

So when I lived in that unlockable house on the hill in Pittsburgh, when Ryan used his hockey stick to sneak into my private space, it felt terrifying and awful and familiar. A sinking, slipping feeling. Someone had been in the place I went to be alone, to be unwatched and unevaluated and safe. The world was an awful place, but I had that cruddy little apartment with my partner, and I thought I could depend on that safety. The disturbing thing about Ryan’s break-ins wasn’t that he did anything bad or took anything. It was that I knew he could, and therefore I knew anyone could. As much as a home should make you feel safe, it’s an illusion.

That was the feeling on my mind as I wrote Luckmonkey—and that is precisely the feeling at the heart of the characters’ political break-in project, the Uproots. It’s not to take away property, which can be replaced. It’s to disrupt that sense of safety and power that comes with property. A home should be a place where you can speak, breathe, decide what comes into it (or stays out of it), what happens to it. Your home is like your body. (And here my former film scholar self says, femme-maison, and she is right and you should Google it.)

I realize now that Ryan is all over the pages of Luckmonkey, in the houselessness and displacement, in the Uproots break-ins, in the stories of alienated folks (the first-gen kids, the queer kids, the gender non-conforming kid). All of those elements are versions of Ryan’s break-ins in that they are about rootlessness, the privilege of ownership, how to speak so that people will hear you.

I wonder where Ryan is now. If he’s okay. If he’s found someone to listen as he stutters.

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