In the fall of 2019, L. moved to California for a postdoc. The rent in the Bay Area almost made her turn it down, but she remembered that she had a friend from undergrad who was in a PhD program there. L. emailed the friend and asked for advice. The friend, it turned out, was also looking for an apartment; she had to leave her current place because the owner had died and the building had been sold to a management company. So L. and her friend started looking together.
They were unsuccessful for several weeks, until the friend saw a rental on her department’s email list. It was a two-bedroom house, close to campus, several hundred dollars a month below what others in the area went for. The house wasn’t listed on any of the rental sites; the landlord only rented to people he could trust; the house had been his mother’s, and he was willing to take less than he could if it ensured that his tenants were quiet and respectful. L.’s friend responded to the email immediately, and within a few days, the landlord had set up interviews with them. L. spoke to him on the phone, since she was still in the middle of packing up her apartment in Providence. When she mentioned that she studied literature, the landlord told her about his father, who had taught comp lit and written a book on Thomas Mann. Had she read Mann?, he asked. L. said that she had. The landlord described most of The Magic Mountain to her anyway.
L. and her friend moved into the house on Labor Day. It was smaller than L. had pictured, but she loved its California-ness: lemon-yellow stucco, arched entryway, brown tiled roof. She had driven a carful of her plants from the East Coast, and the landlord showed her which parts of the house got the most sun. He was sometimes insistent—for instance, taking the philodendron from L.’s bedroom, where she had placed it, and into the living room. It would get better light there, he said. L. put it back when he was gone.
The movers damaged L.’s nightstand; the next day, the landlord brought her a spare one from his attic. It was no trouble, he said: he treated his tenants right because he knew that they would do the same for him. If they ever needed anything, the landlord said, they should let him know; he was only a few blocks away.
That weekend, L. made a loaf of banana-bread and walked it over to the landlord’s house, a three-story purple-and-white Victorian; in the yard, there was one of those ubiquitous rainbow-colored signs that said IN THIS HOUSE, WE BELIEVE. . . followed by a series of vaguely progressive platitudes. L. meant to leave the bread on the porch, but the landlord saw her on the Ring camera and opened the door. He introduced her to his wife and son; L. answered his questions about how she was liking the apartment and Berkeley; the landlord recommended a Mexican restaurant on Euclid Avenue. As L. was leaving, the landlord asked about the philodendron: when he dropped off the nightstand, he noticed that she had put the plant back in the bedroom. L. assured him that it was doing well.
That fall, in addition to the teaching and research responsibilities of her postdoc, L. had to organize a panel on governmentality and affect for an upcoming conference in Chicago; edit the online academic journal that she had helped to found in grad school; revise her dissertation chapter on Brecht into an article and submit it to a journal before the next round of applications for tenure-track jobs, postdocs, and VAPs; and maintain a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend in Providence. While these obligations were often depressing—for instance, emailing the prominent person in her field who had agreed to write something for her journal and reminding him, politely, for the third time, that he had promised to send his article by the end of July; or Facetiming with her boyfriend and pretending to masturbate along with him loud enough that he would be convinced but not so loud that her new roommate would hear—L. was happier than she had ever been. Some of it was the mild California weather after eight New England winters, but most of it was the campaign: L. and her roommate phone-banked for Bernie several nights a week and canvased on the weekends. When they were done knocking on doors, they met up with the other volunteers, drank beer, and compared their experiences. They were all impressed by how ready people were for Bernie. His ideas had come to seem commonsense, inevitable.
When she was sitting with the other volunteers and for hours afterward, L. experienced something that she could only compare to standing in the ocean and feeling herself lifted off the sand and carried by an incoming wave. She no longer flinched at cliches like “a better world is possible.” They were cliches, she saw, because they were true. In her academic work, she had written about concepts like solidarity and power, but she had only ever experienced them as a dream. It seemed pretentious to apply them to the organizing that she had done with her grad student union and DSA. But the Bernie campaign was different: this was for real power, for the future of the country. And they could win. L. couldn’t help believing. Hope, she saw, wasn’t a decision you made; it was something that happened to you, sweeping you up along with it.
One evening in November, she and her roommate distributed NOT ME, US signs at a rally in Oakland. As they were handing them out, L. realized that they didn’t have a sign for their house. She and her roommate took one home and placed it in the window of their living room, which faced the street.
The next morning, they received a long text from their landlord in his usual telegraphic style—no punctuation, few verbs. He had just driven past their house and seen the inappropriate sign which was very disappointing because he tried to be careful about his tenants would they please remove it immediately? Before L. could respond, her roommate texted back: what was inappropriate about the sign? Bernie Sanders was racist and sexist, the landlord replied, and his supporters harassed women and people of color online. For the rest of the morning, the landlord and L.’s roommate argued about whether Bernie voters were responsible for Trump winning in 2016 and other, similar topics. L. lay in her bed, following the messages as they came in; after a while, she kicked off her sheets and blanket, but still felt clammy and unwell. She knew that people like this existed on Twitter, but she couldn’t believe that one of them had the key to where she lived.
L. searched her email and found their lease. At her last apartment, there had been a rule against posting signs, but there was nothing in the current lease. She replied to the landlord, telling him that they were within their rights. The landlord said that he wasn’t opposed to people expressing themselves, but he didn’t want hate symbols on his property.
L. spent the afternoon in the library trying to work on her Brecht article. She found herself thinking about the sign; she couldn’t articulate what the stakes of the situation were, exactly, or what the landlord could do, but it made her unpleasantly aware that he had some sort of power over them. As she was making dinner, the landlord texted them again, noting that the sign was still up. L. and her roommate did not respond.
The next day, the landlord sent them an email; a new lease was attached; he asked them to sign and return it immediately. L. opened the document: it was the same as their current lease, except that in the section titled “Other Provisions,” which had previously been blank, the landlord had typed NO SIGN(S). L. and her roommate ignored this too.
They didn’t hear from him for three days. L.’s roommate thought that he had given up. L. wasn’t sure. What else could he do?, said her roommate. There was nothing in the lease; they were in the right. If he signed a contract, he had to honor it: that was how property worked.
L. was leading a class discussion when the landlord texted them. Her phone was on the table; she read it out of the corner of her eye as she talked about Mark Fisher. They were in violation of the lease, the landlord said: section 5, no alteration of premises. If the sign was not removed by the end of the day, he would terminate the lease. L. finished the point she was making about hauntology, put the students into small groups, and googled several variations of the phrase “california tenant law no alterations signs.” The free legal advice sites and Reddit agreed: a sign didn’t constitute alterations to the premises.
After class, she met her roommate at a coffeeshop near campus. Though L. didn’t want to say it in so many words, she was not eager to go back to the house. The roommate called her ex-boyfriend, who taught first-year legal writing. He joined them at the coffeeshop, looked at the landlord’s email and the lease, and pronounced the whole thing ridiculous: the landlord had no right to break the lease, and his harassment probably gave L. and her roommate the right to terminate, if they wanted. The ex-boyfriend helped them write a stern reply to the landlord that cited the relevant sections of the California civil code. L. didn’t doubt the ex-boyfriend’s interpretation of the text, but she wondered how much it mattered. That night, she woke up several times and checked her phone to see if the landlord had responded.
She walked to campus in the morning, taking the long way past the landlord’s house instead of her usual route on College Avenue. She didn’t want to run into him, but she also didn’t want to think that there was somewhere in her own neighborhood that she was afraid to go. The landlord’s driveway was empty; in his yard, there were two new blue-and-yellow signs: PETE 2020. L. couldn’t remember for sure, but she thought she laughed out loud.
In her office, L. worked for three hours on her Brecht article, making more progress than she had in months; she could finally see how to frame the argument outside the context of her dissertation. After lunch, she wandered the campus, which was deserted for Thanksgiving. Something in her seemed to have cleared: the tension in her face and back were gone. She felt a kind of pity for the landlord. His sad little Pete sign would be washed away, soon, by the incoming wave, along with everything else that made him comfortable. She thought about taking down the Bernie sign. It wasn’t like it was going to change anyone’s vote. They could afford to be gracious. But by the time she got back to the house, her pity had faded; the sign stayed up.
For Thanksgiving, L. and her roommate drove down to Santa Cruz, where a friend of L.’s from grad school now lived. The friend and her husband were vegan, so instead of turkey, they had lasagna made with a cashew-tofu ricotta. After dinner, they had some vegan edibles and walked down to Lighthouse Point. When they were close enough to hear the roar of the ocean, L. realized that she had lived in California for three months and was only now seeing the Pacific.
The edibles were stronger than expected, so L.’s friend set up an air mattress, and L. and her roommate drove back to Berkeley in the morning. They noticed immediately, before L. had even shut off the car. Maybe it had just fallen, she thought, knowing it wasn’t true.
The sign was gone; the philodendron was in her bedroom.
Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press). His writing has appeared in Jacobin and Columbia Journal. He lives in Massachusetts. More at ryannapier.net and on Twitter: @ryanlnapier
image: MM Kaufman