Coco, my brindle chihuahua, and I walked from the cavernous house where our loft apartment was down wooded, curvy Sawdust Avenue and past brightly painted houses to a trail that led to the Rosendale Trestle, an iron railway-bridge that soared over a winding, muddy creek. We crossed to the other side of the Trestle, down the trail to the right, scrambled to the creekbank, and swam. On Sundays, we’d continue down the trail to the left, which led to Main Street, full of brightly painted stores in the artsy small town, and go to the library, which lived in a quaint, small stone church with windows shaped like some Arthurian legend sigil.
Sometimes I’d go food shopping at midnight at Stewart’s, the local gas station/convenience store—a candy bar, some pastries—enough to get me through to the real food shopping. My good friend, whom I’ll call Betty and who lived in the apartment below mine, found out and starting leaving plastic bags with healthy snacks and garden vegetables at my door. She texted me when they were there: “Make sure you eat, not just junk.” When I went to retrieve them, Coco would push past my legs and go to Betty’s door to collect butt scratches. Other days, the help was reciprocated: “Can you help me carry something from the car?” “Sure.”
We were late 30s, child-free. Betty watched wrestling all day and had a photo booth business. Betty was disabled, queer, and had three colors—an artful pink, sometimes blue, maybe purple—in her hair. I was a single, professional woman who preferred to focus on a career as a freelance editor and writer. “You’re so different,” people would say to us individually. Betty and I joked about the thinly veiled criticism—people thought we were crazy because we were women who consciously defined ourselves and how we wanted to live our lives. At least, in the house we shared, she on the bottom floor and me on the top, our home was nurturing because we nurtured each other as we were. Our home was a network of care. We were the kind of people who focused on the good kind of crazy.
The landlord, Estella, was an older woman from the deep South who had arrived in New York’s Hudson Valley years before under nebulous circumstances. Her hair was always three colors, but it was a mess: copper box color to cover the gray roots, and the stringy faded brown that was her natural color. She was often dressed in baggy, frumpy pants and a shirt with paint stains and tiny holes. If she stopped by the house, a quick “hi” from me would turn into an hour-long conversation: how she used to make tofu when she lived in Miami, that her good friend who lived in a house down by the creek in town was so sick and she didn’t know what to do about her. I cringed at those conversations—that hour could have been more emails sent. Estella never understood what a professional was—even though I was home, I was working.
Betty had been at the property for five years; I had moved in in the spring. The yard was overgrown and untended, but I didn’t think much of it since it was early in the year. Yard work would come later, surely. Besides, the rent was cheap. The location was desirable. The space was large. And I enjoyed living so close to a dear friend. But after the first couple months of living there, when the yard was still overgrown and untended, I asked Betty about it. I asked her about the critters I heard in the crawlspace at night and complained that my water pressure was only a drip at times. Does Estella fix stuff around the house? Or was she just the type of landlord that didn’t care?
“It’s kind of whatever. Leave her alone, and she’ll leave us alone. Pay the rent and that’s it. I think she’s got a lot of problems, but I don’t ask. Sometimes she gets crazy,” my friend said.
And, resignedly, I understood. We all get crazy, as subjective as that word can be. Besides, they were little things around the house. Wild grass, wild women: I liked the metaphor. I let it be.
Summer came and went, and so did fall, then winter, then spring.
I saw Estella a few weeks into early summer. She had been mostly absent, stopping by only to get the rent checks, but through the small-town talk, I heard “she had a lot going on—she’s a little crazy right now.” I didn’t think much of it.
I was on my way back from a walk with Coco, and I happened upon her as I crossed the street and into the yard of the house I lived in; she was delivering groceries to her daughter Hana, who lived next door in a house she also owned. Hana was reclusive, staying in the basement. Estella told me Hana had gotten rid of the “good-for-nothing guy”—somebody she had been dating, but who had been equally elusive. I nodded politely, shook my head to say What a shame, and kept walking. I thought Estella’s preoccupation with her daughter might have been one of the “things she’s got going on.” I didn’t think too much of it.
One morning a few days later, that second summer, while I was sitting on the porch that opened off of my second-floor apartment, I saw a thin man with gray hair working in the backyard. Alarmed, I texted Betty.
“That’s Mark, Estella’s husband,” she replied. “Strange. I haven’t seen him in a really long time.
I decided that I would introduce myself, and a Coco walk was a perfect cover to mosey and linger outside. I went downstairs and walked past him as he stood in the driveway of the adjacent house. I said hello. He looked up from the wheelbarrow he was pushing, but didn’t say anything. His face was vacant. A cigarette dangled out of his mouth. Coco started to pull away.
“I’m Anastasia,” I said, suddenly feeling nervous and awkward. My creep radar dinged, my stomach twisted. He didn’t say anything, and so to sidestep more awkwardness, I kept on walking, past the brightly colored houses down Sawdust Avenue. Odd. His daughter was having problems, and his wife, well his wife was Estella. They were a weird and anxious family, so much I had gathered. That’s it. I let my gut reaction go. I focused on the houses that flanked the winding road. They had a starker hue that day. I wondered about those neighbors, who I also rarely saw, but then I let it go. Sometimes, in small towns, you just leave the neighbors be, whoever they are.
I was cooking breakfast around noon, enjoying a rare morning free, listening to the sounds of Betty laughing and cheering downstairs. Upstairs, I had YouTube videos playing on the TV over Chromecast—some He-Man in Spanish. The sound of breaking glass took me out of my thoughts. I turned around quickly, wondering if I had bumped something. I didn’t see anything on the ground around me. Another pop of breaking glass—the sound was close. My back-porch door was open, and so were my windows. I quickly went to each of them to look outside. The long green grass lolled in the breeze. The trees swayed gently. The houses visible down the street were quiet.
The sound of breaking glass came faster. I wondered if Betty was okay, so I quickly ran down the stairs and stuck my head out my door, looking left toward her door, but heard more glass breaking. Betty was already standing on the porch.
“What are you doing, Hana?” she pleaded.
I saw what I saw and then stepped back in immediately and reached for my phone. A pit in my stomach formed. Hana’s tiny figure, pixie cut, and bloodshot eyes seethed rage. She was tossing wine bottles, glasses, and mason jars at our house and at my friend. She was rage-gritting her teeth and making guttural sounds.
“Fuck you all!” Hana snarled.
I heard Betty’s door slam—she had gone back inside. I called Betty: “Hana is having a psychotic breakdown. I’m calling the police.”
“No, don’t. I’ll call Estella. I’ll call her mom. Estella doesn’t like the police.”
I grit my teeth hard. “Fine. She has one chance,” I said to my friend, angry. I wasn’t angry at Betty—she was right, having known Estella longer than I had—but the anger that I kept swallowing about Estella’s absentee-landlording spilled over. I saw it in Hana, who for weeks after the vague break-up had been staying by herself in the basement of the cavernous house next door. I went back upstairs to my in-progress breakfast. The sound of laser guns and bursting rocks rang out. Skeletor, the skull-face adversary, was laughing at He-Man, a stock and brutish hypermasculine warrior. I turned off the TV and rubbed my head.
A few minutes later, my phone rang. “She’s coming to get her,” Betty said. “Estella wants to talk to you about what you saw.”
Fifteen minutes later, I heard the loud, eggplant-colored, rusty SUV coming down Sawdust Avenue. There was a loud slam, and I went to my second-floor back porch. I saw Estella and Mark get out of the vehicle and Hana, standing by the side of the house, fuming. Mark was yelling at her. “You’re a fucking scary person! You’re crazy! Get in the car!”
I watched him force her in, watched as the SUV with Hana, Mark, and Estella zoomed off. I immediately called Betty.
“I’m not okay.”
“I know. I’m not, either. That was hard to watch. Let’s talk about it.”
I’m not sure what surprised me more: that Estella had never called to talk about “what I saw” with Hana, or that a month later, Estella showed up to my apartment, unannounced, and offered to sell the house to me.
“My heart’s not in it anymore. And I’m tired of being in debt.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said, knowing what I wanted to do, despite the unexpectedness. This was my home. Betty and I lived here. This house was our home. I needed to mentally breathe, so I changed the subject. “How’s Hana?” I asked, wondering if now was the time to talk about what I had seen.
“She scares me,” Estella said quickly. Her lips trembled. “Somebody has to stay with her all the time. We keep her in a room in the house with us and never let her out.”
“She needs professional help,” I said, biting my tongue. I wanted to say so much more, that her daughter wasn’t like the house that she could just ignore and let fall apart. But “she needs professional help” was all that came out, and I knew it fell on deaf ears, because Estella was a different kind of crazy than Betty or I.
“She won’t go, they won’t take her,” Estella replied.
I found that hard to believe—a second mental shock. I couldn’t respond further.
The very next day, Estella left me a voicemail that she had a buyer for the house and that the buyer was only interested in the upstairs tenant. I immediately told Betty.
“Estella never even told me the house was for sale. And now I’ve got to get out?”
The circumstance stung.
“I’m gonna buy it. We can do this,” I reassured her. “We’ll figure this out. This is our home. Estella is all over the place. Maybe that’s it. So let’s just do this. Let’s be bad bitches and own this house!”
The week was a blur. I called Estella repeatedly, left voicemail after voicemail that I would buy the house, could we please talk. I wanted her to entertain an offer from me as well as the other buyer. A week went by. I called again, and she picked up, claimed she had never gotten the other voicemails. I said it again: “I want to buy this house. But there’s so much work that needs to be done—I’m not offering your asking price.”
“I’ll talk to Mark,” she said, then hung up.
While I waited for Estella to return my call, my younger brother, a contractor, did an unofficial inspection. He pointed out issues about the salability of the house —black mold inside the cabinets inside Betty’s apartment. Trees growing against the foundation. Asbestos. The boiler leaked oil, which was seeping into the ground. He wasn’t sure the house wouldn’t pass inspection, but was sure that it needed a lot of work.
“It’s my home,” I replied. “I will fight to keep it. And then I’ll take care of it.”
Estella didn’t call me back that week.
It was around this time, that second summer at Planet Dust, that Coco started waking up in the middle of the night, growling. She would trot to the top of the stairs, look down, growl, and then sit. I’m not sure how long it took me to realize that lights were on at night in the house next door, but not in the basement where Hana usually stayed. The second floor was lit up.
I called Estella; I called repeatedly until she picked up. I asked her again for more information, and her reply was simply, “I’ll talk to Mark.” I ended that conversation with one more ask about Hana. “How is she? When did she come back?” I was pissed that Estella never told us they brought her back.
“She’s not back,” Estella replied.
The skin on the back of my neck stood up. “Well, then who’s staying in the house next door? The lights are on at night.”
“Oh, right. That’s me. I come every day to turn on the lights. There’s been spishish activity in the neighborhood. I called the police and told them that we’re not around so could they please watch the house.”
The way “suspicious” rolled out of her mouth in her Alabama twang reminded me of a little kid with stuffed cheeks, professing innocence at stealing and eating all the cookies in the cookie jar.
Later that day, I told Betty what Estella said.
“There’s no way that’s true. We would hear her SUV. Do you hear her SUV? Besides—”
“Estella hates the police,” I said, completing her thought.
“Yeah. There’s something not right here.”
“This is crazy,” I whispered. “Estella gets crazy.”
I confirmed with the authorities that Estella had never called them. But that didn’t do any good. Estella and Mark started harassing us. Estella called my mom and told her I was psychotic, that there was no way she would sell the house to me, that she already accepted an offer from the other buyer. Who do you believe? Then came a half hand-written eviction notice blue-taped and thumbtacked to my door—signed and delivered by Estella’s daughter. The paper was crumbled. Betty got one, too. The names were misspelled. Is this even real?
“I knew she got crazy but she was never this bad,” Betty said one day as she was packing.
“I don’t think you can expect things like this,” I said. None of it made sense or had reason. And that caring for mental health was caring for your home. And I realized Estella gets crazy.
And sometimes the way you take care is to walk away. We lost our home. My own mental health suffered greatly. Betty went to stay with family in western New York, and I went to stay with a friend in New York City.
I miss the small-town life.
Betty and I now talk occasionally, but we both needed time on our own to make sense of the explosion that ruptured our home. I’m sleeping better; I wake less often startled and disoriented in the middle of the night, Coco tucked between my curled legs. The nightmares of Mark and Estella and my home they destroyed, their ignoring my phone calls, and their earnestness and willingness to disregard the things they were responsible for—they’re fewer now. The loss of home and the betrayal will get easier to deal with, in time, but I worry about Hana, who I never saw or heard about again—I remember the look of fury in her eyes as she threw glass at us. I think of the grass that is overgrown. I wonder if someone will get her professional help. I wonder if the entire house has fallen down yet. And I’ll never casually call someone crazy again.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.