- Katherine Zlabek
NONFICTION | Sterling's Women
Videos on a Private YouTube Channel
Jesse can send you a link. On the channel, you’ll find videos he’s posted of what happens in my apartment when I’m gone. The videos come from my Canary, a security camera I couldn’t believe I bought. The project has the ring of French New Wave about it:
The Landlord: Sterling enters my apartment with a reusable Whole Foods bag. He takes out his Dell, and opens it on my desk. He reaches under my desk and sets my Internet router on a pile of notes I was afraid he would read. Instead, he has wrinkled them. The production lasts almost five minutes, him pounding at the keyboard when it doesn’t respond, him recording the codes from the router’s side and bottom. He smiles when he closes the laptop.
The Painter: The man who had been painting the hallways comes through the door. It is dark. My apartment was freshly painted four months ago, and not by him. He looks behind him before he goes into my bedroom. The camera cuts off the footage.
The Bat: In the dark, a pale light slices through the air. I hope: a moth. I think: the underside of a bird’s wing. It slices back and again until it skids onto my desk and walks, still recovering its balance, across the wood surface.
The Mouse: Is a comedian, a trickster who has evaded my mousetraps, and perches on my stovetop, runs close to my feet without running up my leg. He mugs in front of the camera, just to let me know he’s alive.
The Thinker: Sterling enters the apartment and looks at my desk. He walks to the window and rests his fingertips on the ledge as though he’s warming his fingers at a fire. He gazes. He turns and walks to my coffee table, stands. He might be reading the titles of the books stacked there, or seeing how far I’ve gotten through my mail. He leaves. This was hours after Jesse and I kicked him off the wireless network. There are others.
Is not his real name. It is the code name Jesse and I use to talk about him, in case he is outside the window or in the hallway or listening through wires. I can hear him come from down the block, and work his way around the house and into the hallways. He whistles. He wears cargo shorts and an orange hunting cap. Whenever I hear him whistling, I make sure I’m not wearing my bathrobe, that I have on a pair of sturdy pants. The name comes from AMC’s Mad Men—the culturally tone-deaf Roger Sterling, played by John Slattery. There is a vague physical resemblance between the two men—the shock of white hair, the tan, the shape of the face. But the real similarities are in attitude. Roger Sterling would grab a married woman’s ass. He says, When God closes a door, he opens a dress.
Things Anna Told Me Halloween Weekend, While Packing Her Car
She was moving out. She’d lived below me. These were her first words to me:
“How do you like living here, with that sexual predator?”
I thought I had misheard. Jesse and I had already checked to see whether or not he was a registered sexual offender. There were fifty living within a mile radius of the house, and this was not a highly populated area.
She said, “When I told him the apartment was freezing, he sent me a message telling me it’d be warmer if I spread my legs. It’s harassment.”
“I have to get out of here by November 1st,” she said, “or he’ll make me his sex slave.”
“We have visitors,” she said. “I wake up at night, and there will be a man standing there with a mustache. He looks like he’s from the 1800s.”
“You’ve heard those footsteps at night?”
I had. There were often loud footsteps upstairs that I couldn’t account for, as no one lived above us. I assumed Sterling came by to rearrange discarded furniture, or to let all of us know that he owned the place. She told me her daughter refused to go upstairs by herself.
“How can you live up there?” she asked. I asked about the person who lived across the hall from me for a day or so—a guy, I said, or a couple of guys.
“Did they sound young?” she asked. I nodded. “No one moved in. Two boys died up there a few years ago from a meth overdose.”
That night, I slept with the light on, expecting a man with a mustache to appear, imagining two dead boys on the floor.
Is divided into four apartments. The paint peels off the wooden siding in long strips and the porch is half-sunk. In the summer, the shelving sprouts black mold. Now, in the cold, the apartment is drafty, the radiators cool to the touch.
Renters from the house next door eat snacks on a plastic bench in the middle of their yard. The bench faces the house and they look up into my apartment.
Sterling keeps a workout room in the basement, which is where the washing machine is. He often invites me to use the rowing machine.
There is a small garden beside the house and I once saw Anna walk behind her skipping daughter, trailing her hand through the leaves of tomato plants. The first night I stayed there, I went into the bathroom and saw her daughter looking up at the window. I lowered the blinds, but heard her say to Anna, “It’s like I embarrassed her with my eyes.”
The apartment was posted on Craigslist. In response to my first email, Sterling wrote:
4 apartments, all single women with JOBS, Laundry in Basement, Clothes line out back as well as dryer. Second Floor. I am repainting now.
I imagined the place like a dollhouse in the dark, each of the four apartments with a lit window in the front. Inside each window, I saw a woman in a sooty pink chemise lingering around an unmade bed, fixing her hair, applying some makeup over a bruised cheekbone. It could have been one of Hopper’s paintings, or some slow sad backdrop for a play about a prostitute.
She’s a Creative Writing Professor at The University. She Has a Boyfriend in DC. That’s Where She Goes on Weekends.
One night, I hear him say this to Anna.
One weekend morning, I hear him say this to the renters next door, while they look into the apartment.
Through the Canary, I hear him say this to a construction worker, a group of AC installers, another man I had thought was a construction worker, a woman and a man—these two visited at night. Others, too. All on different occasions, none of them people I know, or who I can identify, never with a notice from Sterling.
He says this to the locksmith, while I stand there in my bathrobe, caught.
In September of 2015 I drive to teach in DC. That was when I first heard that Donald Trump was running for president, on NPR. That was when I knew he would win. I went into class that day and said, I just realized that Trump will be our next president. They laughed, they booed. This was an all-female school and these were freshmen.
For the rest of the year, I have nightmares about him. Donald Trump is my father, and I have to rush to get married before he knows. Donald Trump won’t let me hold a writing workshop in the classroom when there is this big, beautiful pool where we can meet. There are others. All telling, none brutal.
In a pre-inauguration dream, I wrestle with the sheets while saying, “I’ll get you Trump.” I remember nothing about this dream.
Darren’s Changing Attitude
In July, he does not approve of the Canary. Darren is Jesse’s housemate in DC. He grew up in Chicago, and feels street-smart. Both he and Jesse are lawyers. Awareness, he says, that’s all you need. Know where you are. Know where your doors are. Lock them.
Implied is the belief I shared—that only people in the suburbs fuss with security systems.
By September, he is amused. He laughs, and repeats while laughing, “He’s trespassing on his own property. I want to get him so bad.”
The two men love the idea that they can get someone who also thinks he can get.
In October, Darren officially volunteers. He feels that, because he and Jesse are lawyers and lift weights and are noticeably tattooed, their showing up will be enough to fix Sterling. He sends me an email with links to Maryland’s landlord-tenant laws.
In December and January, I stay at Jesse and Darren’s place almost full-time while school is on break. Jesse and I lounge on the couch and cast footage from my Canary onto their TV like it is movie night. Sometimes we laugh: Sterling has groaned, he has told a bad joke, he has taken off his hat in a certain rakish way. Darren cannot watch for more than a few seconds. He calls down from the upstairs, “How can you laugh? I can’t watch anymore.”
Darren and Jesse have offered to pay for a private investigator to search the apartment for cameras. To time a moving truck to arrive in concert with the police department.
I do not know what to think of the ghosts. Anna was convinced of them. She had seen them many times. Friends who stayed with her had seen them, too. I had assumed the footsteps of ghosts would be soft, and nearly undetectable. I thought they would try to hide themselves behind the door. But, I suppose, why not be a bold ghost? I wondered whether I believed ghosts existed. I reasoned, I believe in God, and that belief seems to allow for ghosts.
But why haven’t I woken to them yet? With this question, I creep back into Midwestern girlhood. Am I, perhaps, not interesting enough for the ghosts? Don’t my habits inspire curiosity? Are they frightened by my mud masks?
I did once feel, before Anna mentioned it and before I bought the Canary, the sense of being watched before getting into the shower.
I’ve since learned that the presence of video cameras—the electrical field they create—can cause this sensation. The feeling that someone is behind you. This was discovered accidentally, while doing an Internet search of ghost sightings in the area. Books have been written on the subject of ghost sightings within an hour’s radius of where I live.
My Brother-in-Law is a Homicide Detective
He is the one who told me I needed a security system, and that he made some calls: I should avoid campus at night.
He lives in a suburb. Daily, he interviews murderers and attends autopsies of children.
I tell him I bought a Canary. “A camera is not the same as a security system,” he says.
“If I had bought a security system, the cops would be over at my place every other day.”
While visiting at Thanksgiving, I mention the footsteps in the attic and the ghosts. He says there are probably cameras in all of the apartments, and that Sterling likely has closed circuit TV to watch what we do at night.
I don’t know what’s worse, ghosts or Sterling.
While visiting at Christmas, I send him a text message that includes one of the latest videos, this one of Sterling and the router. I ask him what he thinks is happening.
He is working a case where a son has killed his mother with a dinner roll.
Two things come to mind. First, you need to F-ing move, and second this video raises a lot of questions and I think the police with this information/video can open an investigation, interview this douchebag and grab his computer for examination. No one here at the office completely understands what he’s doing. This guy seems to be breaking the law by entering your apartment this way, let alone the suspicious shit he’s doing in there. The police need to question this guy…
That night, when he comes home from work, my sister and I are decorating Christmas cookies with the kids. He wanders around the table with his tie undone. There are six little bowls of frosting that have been muddied into peaks with rubber baby knives. Three plates of cookies layered with fluorescent blue snowmen and green sparkling angels. He considers, while sitting, then while pacing, that Sterling could be using my Internet connection to distribute child pornography. My niece and nephew are in a rare mood by the time we finish with the cookies. They are young enough to have a difficult time distinguishing between an apartment and a hotel.
Caught by Canary
Once, I come home and the camera forgets to switch into Home Mode. Both Jesse and I get alerts on our phones with footage of me dropping my work bag, going into my bedroom to change into gym shorts, me lifting the bottoms of my shorts and looking at my legs in the mirror—checking them for beauty or for ugliness. Jesse writes, You wore the new pants to work!
When Sterling has AC units installed, he hires a contractor to cut through the walls, and another to run the electric work. He tells them there is asbestos in the walls. They nod and don’t seem overly concerned. They rarely wear a mask. When I get back to the apartment, I tie a scarf over my face and vacuum and dust.
When Jesse visits, the Canary switches to Night Mode before we go to sleep. The Canary watches us stand from the couch and clear away wine glasses. When we emerge from the kitchen, we embrace, and are then in a complicated dance of smelling one another’s armpits, testing for garlic—whether we eat too much, whether we’re unbearable.
A cricket runs up and down the side of the Canary, and I’m sent blurry footage of antennae.
I come home and the apartment is stuffy, cold. The heat has not kicked on. Again, the Canary hasn’t shut off. I open a window and hear Sterling’s voice. “Too hot in there?” he calls. “Where are you?” I say, and look around. He is underneath the window, looking in.
There is a power surge, and the lamp I keep in the corner blossoms fire before the light is gone, burnt out. This happens twice.
Why Would He Watch Me?
This is what I ask. If he were watching me, he would see someone typing and reading and commenting on papers, all while clothed. Not even the ghosts are interested in watching. Occasionally, I will hula hoop while reading.
The response: That is not the question you should be asking.
The other response: Jesse does a Google video search—“professor hula hoop read.”
He says, “That would really do it for some people.”
“Skinny, You Staying Warm in There?”
A text message Sterling sends. I’m not, but don’t want to give him any reason to come in unannounced. The stove has one working burner and I do not mention this for the same reason.
Fall, heat wave: Sterling is outside mowing the lawn and goes into detail about how I should show off my legs. I have great legs, he says. Why do you cover them up? I am wearing jeans. I say it is a Midwestern holdover. He sits on a stump and lingers over his history as a lifeguard, and what the sex life of a young lifeguard had looked like, and how the Midwestern girls had loved their exciting times visiting the coast.
There are two doors into the apartment. One has no real lock and I ask whether I can put a deadbolt on. In the meantime, I hang goat bells to warn me if someone breaks in. Months later, while getting out of the shower, Sterling calls. He’s here to put the deadbolt on. Don’t worry, he says, he will turn around, he won’t peek. While I stand there in my bathrobe with the locksmith, he tests the lock with his key and says, “See? Now you’ll be safe.”
He sends a text message:
I have no nice way to say this so here we go. I just spent $2000 installing AC in your apartment. I wish you would turn them on and try them out. Thanks.
I write that I am out of town—besides, the summer is over—and the Canary sends video minutes later of Sterling walking through the apartment, closing windows and turning on the AC. Through the weekend, I get video of him adjusting the settings at all times of the day and night.
Before the AC is installed, during the heat waves, he lets me borrow a fan. A small kindness. He had told me there would be AC before I moved in, and told me not to buy a unit. The Canary tells me it is over 100 degrees in the apartment.
He tells me about the neighbors. He has only nice things to say. I can, and frequently do, read these scenes as the lapses and starts of a concerned landlord.
Twice, I come home and my apartment is unlocked, the door wide open.
“Hey,” Sterling asks. “What’s that boyfriend of yours do?” This was after the conversation about my legs. I cannot help myself.
“He’s a top attorney in DC,” I say. Jesse and I are not dating, are, instead, on and off roommates.
“With those tattoos?” he asks.
“Yes, I seem to know a lot of excellent lawyers who have a lot of tattoos,” I say. The phrasing, the airs. Sterling drives me to it—the need to intimidate. Whenever Sterling asks about Jesse, I make him sound brutal and fearless. Sterling comes up from behind me at the public gym while I am on a treadmill. He asks how my boyfriend is. I tell him he is alligator hunting.
“I thought you were a liberal.”
“I am. But he’s great for stories. He’s always doing something unpredictable.”
The next morning, I wake to photos sent via text message. Two dead alligators in a boat. Jesse posing with their mouths held open.
How Is This Not a Problem for You?
People ask. Mostly men. To answer, it is a problem, but I’m not certain what kind of problem. When he whistles in the house, I don’t get work done. When he walks around the upstairs, I don’t sleep. Throughout the year, watching the video, I’ve wanted to say, “He thinks he owns the place”—but he does. When I walk to my car, on my way to class, he will tell me I should be wearing a mini-skirt to teach.
He hasn’t crossed the line.
My brother-in-law says that when he does, it will be too late.
I admit, I do not know much about the line or where it is.
I send an email to the police, with some video, explaining the situation and asking whether
I should be concerned. No response.
The same with me. Watching the videos, I do not have much of a response. Except that I do not want this to be the year when a shady landlord takes over my life. Moving means defeat. Having Sterling arrested for stealing Internet or for showing people how I arrange my bedroom (a lamp beside the bed) is, I feel, beneath me.
He is divorced, a father, and behaves like many men I knew from the Midwest. In high school, the boys would snap the girls’ underwear bands. During peer review in college, an older student told me I was smart enough to work at Shaker’s, the local strip club. The question seemed to be, Should I call the police because he acted like most men? The problem, that I had adjusted to them all.
Using a toilet paper roll and red cellophane, you can make a device that, when paired with a flashlight, is as good as any purchased camera detection system. This is according to the Internet.
In January, Jesse and I journey to my apartment. We are going to find Sterling’s hidden cameras. We will stop at the police department if we have to. But first we stop at the grocery store for red cellophane. Jesse uses the men’s room and puts a spent paper roll in his coat pocket. There is no red cellophane, but there are boxes of Valentine’s candies that are wrapped in red plastic. We buy a box and some gum. We stop for coffee. We consult Darren via text message about the particulars of accessing the internal router system and kicking outside devices off.
But before we get to the grocery store, Jesse tells me I need to call the police either way, cameras or not.
I tell him he doesn’t understand what it means to be a woman. “If I call this guy out, he will retaliate.”
“He wouldn’t be in the right. And then you’d really have evidence.”
“He would have already done something. Meaning, it would be too late.”
“Respect yourself,” Jesse says. “Look, if you don’t do anything, I don’t want to hear about this guy and the things he does anymore. It’s too upsetting.”
Back at the apartment, there are no mice in the traps. Dust has blown in from the gusty windows. No other residents are home. The post office has dropped a bundle of my mail off on the wrong date and my bills and holiday cards are missing. We cut squares of red plastic for the toilet paper roll and for the flashlight. Rubber bands hold the squares in place. While Jesse tests the cellophane roll, I take screenshots of the other devices on my router, which are named MINE and mycomputer. I do this in case I need evidence. I kick the devices off. I change passwords. Jesse tries to get into the rooms upstairs. One of three rooms is open. Inside, nothing but an empty room with a closet where one flannel shirt hangs. No closed-circuit TVs.
Back downstairs, in the bedroom, he begins to look for cameras. It is quiet. He comes out with the red toilet roll held to his eye and the flashlight parallel to it.
He says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
Outside, in the unseasonable warm, the neighbors drink coffee on the bench in their lawn and watch us through the windows. I do not know whether this was anything to write about. No one wants to hear about this guy and the things he does anymore.
Katherine Zlabek’s work has appeared in Boulevard, The Kenyon Review and The Literary Review, among other journals. In 2012, she won an AWP Intro Journals Award. Ricochet Editions published her chapbook, LET THE RIVERS CLAP THEIR HANDS in 2015. She earned her MFA from Western Michigan University and her PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she was a Taft Dissertation Fellow.
Photo by Serhio Magpie.