It was another slow August, and my girlfriend and I wanted to get out of D.C. She’d taken a week off work to visit her family in the Midwest, but decided at the last minute that she didn’t want to spend her paid vacation hiding in her childhood bedroom from her Republican parents, who wanted to have a serious talk about this business of living with a man she wasn’t married to. I hadn’t taken time off, but I didn’t need to, since I didn’t have a job to take time off from. We decided to visit friends in Baltimore.
We took the train to Baltimore and then a taxi to the house where Lana’s childhood friend Aidra was staying. It was a three-story townhouse in a moneyed neighborhood right on the water. The house was owned by Aidra’s aunt, who was traveling around the world that summer, and Aidra said we were free to crash in any of the bedrooms. Aidra seemed a little twitchy, but I figured it was because she’d spent the summer alone in the big empty house.
I dropped my bags off and went to meet my friend Jon, while my girlfriend stayed behind to catch up with her friend. Jon was a student at MICA, the art school, and he lived in a huge warehouse with several other art students. The place was so big that they each had their own prefab shed or gazebo they’d bought at Home Depot, all of them arranged in a rough circle, so it was like a huge indoor Smurf village, only instead of Smurfs it was populated with dudes wearing paint-splattered boots and girls who didn’t shave their armpits.
It looked like a utopia to me. “How much is your rent?” I asked Jon.
He shrugged. “Two hundred a month, but a lot of months we don’t pay. The landlord doesn’t keep track.”
“Someone was killed right outside last week,” he said. “Right on the corner there. I guess he figures no one else would rent the place anyway, so why bother?”
No one had been killed anywhere near my house in D.C., not for a long while, even though I lived just a block from what was supposedly the deadliest intersection in the city, 6th and O. This was before gentrification really picked up, but it was clear the neighborhood wasn’t bad anymore, and our rent had started to reflect that.
The only crime I’d seen was when someone robbed the corner store across the street while I waited in line to buy a 40 ounce with my unemployment check money. He’d flashed a gun, but asked for the money politely, with a smile, and left without even squeezing off any warning shots, which at least would’ve held off that year’s rent increase.
We drove in Jon’s truck to a bar that had dollar beers. Halfway there, he paused at an intersection and pointed down a long, deserted street. Rusted out kitchen appliances were piled across the street to form an impassable barricade.
“No one even cares,” Jon said. “It’s been like that for months.”
Home Sweet Home
Baltimore seemed like the opposite of D.C., like heaven on earth. Dilapidated warehouse villages, Mad Max-style anarchy, murders and municipal indifference to keep rents down. D.C. just seemed so D.C., populated by earnest nonprofit employees and interns in their early 20s who dressed like they were in their early 40s. Rents were steadily climbing, and I knew it was going to get a lot worse, though I had no idea how bad it would eventually get. As we drove, I felt the uneasiness of someone realizing they’d made the wrong decision.
At the bar, I felt self-conscious about being the only one without paint splatters on my clothes. I made a decision then and there; I was going to move to Baltimore. If Lana wasn’t on board, we’d have to break up.
Upon returning to Aidra’s house, we found police cars parked along the street, their lights flashing. Lana was sitting on the front steps of the house, one arm bandaged, as a group of cops tried to calm a raging, purple-faced woman who I suddenly realized was Aidra.
“What happened?” I asked Lana.
“I don’t know. Aidra went off her meds last week, and just came at me.” Lana pointed up at the third floor. “She tried to push me out that window while screaming gibberish. She had me halfway out before I was able to fight her off. The glass cut my arm all up.”
“What should we do? Call her aunt?”
“We’re going home,” Lana said.
A Sinking Feeling
She went into the house as Aidra screamed at her from behind her cordon of police about the hidden microphones and cameras Lana had installed in her house. I stood there thinking that if Lana hadn’t gotten hurt, maybe I’d have gone through with my plan and told her I was staying in Baltimore, but now I felt bad, although that was only part of it.
I also remembered now that my name was on the lease for our apartment, and that I couldn’t just walk away from it. It seemed like an extremely D.C. thing to think, and I realized that even though I’d made the wrong choice, it was maybe too late for a do-over.
Baltimore was twice as cool, at half the price, and was trending in the right direction, or at least not trending in the wrong one. D.C. was all about property values, career advancement and young, white-collar couples pushing Cadillac-style strollers, sipping expensive coffee from cardboard cups. When I told people in D.C. I was on unemployment, they moved away from me like they thought poverty might be contagious.
When Lana came out with our bags, Jon drove us to the train station, and we returned to our life in D.C. — orderly, upwardly mobile, and certain, and at the same time, stifling, sanitized, oppressive, a vaguely Stepfordian dystopia. Every time a neighbor bugged us about our grass being an inch too long, I thought wistfully back to the Baltimore of unpredictability and furor and rusty appliance barricades. A few months later, Lana and I broke up. She immediately moved to Baltimore.