Creative Writing Exercise 6A: Setting & Detail
Write a description of the place you called home when you moved out on your own perhaps for the first time—apartment, rented room, dorm, crash pad, etc.
As you write your description, don’t just list off the basics. Close your eyes and find this place in your mind—feel and smell and touch it, re-inhabit it. Through detail, show your reader this place. Use the senses to describe everything you can remember. Try to convey to your reader the emotions you feel about this place, without necessarily naming those emotions directly. Create a picture that will let your reader feel and experience this place.
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I plopped myself down in the corner of the empty apartment with a bottle of red Cabernet Sauvignon and looked around at my new home in disgust. When I saw this place for the first time several weeks earlier, I walked in and walked right back out. It was stuffy, grimy, and had an odd smelling “old person” odour crawling out of the cracked plaster like ghosts of the past. Its hallway walls and carpets were run down, thread bare and unloved. I hated it.
“Nope” I said to myself and the superintendent.
The wooden floors were marked with the telltale puddles of a cat who wouldn’t use his litterbox. The stains seeped in between the cracks of the parquet hardwood flooring, drying up like a dark syrup. There were so many marks, I wondered if the cat was terminally ill. Nina* quickly mentioned that she had expert floor sanders who would take care of sanding and varnishing the floor. “It will look like new!” she said, “And our painters are excellent. We will brighten this whole place up.”
I nodded uncommittedly.
With the abuse and anger escalating at home, my therapist, family and friends begged me to leave. “Do you want to become another statistic?” they implored. I sighed, and realized I had to close my eyes and just jump in, but to what? A swamp?
The drab, 5-storey brown building was an eyesore inside and out. It shrank away from the street as if to hide, looking sideways to avoid its lack of curb appeal. No amenities were mentioned in the listing. Outdoor parking, shared laundry, and one ancient elevator that stopped several inches above or below your level, if it worked at all.
I negotiated a free parking spot, I signed the lease and handed over the rent cheques. Two weeks later, I picked up two sets of keys, but felt dread rather than excitement. The property manager’s “stellar” paint job left several walls with noticeable bare patches, as if they started in the corners and forgot to complete the wall. The kitchen cupboards were hanging off their hinges, the warped veneer peeling off the corners. The painter slapped a few coats of paint over the rotting doors to hide their sins. It bubbled and chipped within a week. Massive clumps of dust bunnies, fur balls and God only knows what else weren’t cleaned from the bottom of the cabinets, so it was all painted into the kitchen scene permanently like cobwebs.
Inside the cabinet door under the sink, there were 18 old nail and screw holes playing tic tac toe between brown drips of grease and grime. I decided not to hang my garbage bin, since I couldn’t drill new holes in the right spots and needed to sandblast the filth. Decades of decay had crawled into the nooks and crannies and puffed out like angry ghosts when I cleaned. I gagged and heaved repeatedly while spraying Lysol like it was a Ghostbuster weapon.
I never once pulled out the stove or fridge to clean because I was terrified to find what is buried back there besides nightmares. I imagined that someday the appliances would get up and walk right out to fling themselves off the balcony.
The cheap linoleum tile floor was long ago stripped of its protective shine. Stains and pockmarks marred any uniformity in the tile pattern and dulled colours. The black faded and the white darkened with dirty streaks. When I moved in, I got down on my hands and knees to scrub it tile by tile with a magic eraser. The effort wasn’t worth the results. The tiles were so warped, the dirty water would pool on top of them, regardless of how many rinses. It must have seeped up like a tar pond. Yellow rubber caulking used to secure the tile edges had disintegrated and frayed, leaving little rubber tails under the cupboards. I pulled them off. The plaster walls have cracked, chipped and shrank away from the baseboards, leaving more crevices for the dirt and grime to move in.
Every week I sprayed the floor with a bleach cleaner … and stripped it of its dignity further.
I know my ensuite bathroom used to be dark blue because they only painted around the toilet, not behind it. I used a keg of bleach and a sharp knife to dig dirt, slime and hair of the ages out from under the plastic lip around the sink. Little silverfish-like bugs crawled out from under the baseboards to nibble my cotton bathmat. Their little bodies were hard to catch on the drab on brown ceramic tile, but they disintigrated like zombies falling to dust when you squished them.
I vomited again and again.
The water is often off or brown. The hot water is cold. The cold water is tepid warm … you have to run it for at least 5 minutes before it’s cold enough to be fresh. I imagine black slime and grey lead covering the labryinth of old pipes leading up to my apartment.
In the stifling summer heat, I painted the large living room wall on the east side in a vivacious cranberry red. Having enough cranberry paint left, I also painted the east wall of my bedroom. There was no insulation in the roof and I rented a three-bedroom on the top floor facing south. Sweat soaked my tank top and shorts. I sat down on the floor in front of my woefully inefficient fan to drink ice water, more red wine and to survey my paint job. Not bad! I needed to decorate and make this ugly space more hospitable, even if it was magenta lipstick on corpse.
While shopping at HomeSense, my bestie Laura* and I found a perfect mirror for my living room wall. It was one of those ornate floor to ceiling mirrors which lean majestically against the wall.
“We can fit it in my truck!” she said. I usually trusted her judgment but knew there was no way in hell this mirror would fit. And I was right. Bonnie* rescued us with the biggest minivan on the market. I held the 8foot x 5foot mirror on an angle, cursing at every pothole on Highway 2.
“If this mirror breaks, I’ve got 70 years of bad luck coming, not seven!” I grumbled.
Laura, Bonnie, my landlord and I maneuvered the king-sized mirror into the cranky elevator. The ride from Floor 1 to Floor 5 takes about 60 seconds. Laura broke the polite elevator silence by turning to my landlord to boldly ask “So! Can you help Lisa mount this over her bed?”
Bonnie giggled, my eyes and mouth popped open in shock and awe, Laura smiled serenely. My landlord coughed and mumbled something, never again looking at me in the eye …
The three of us got that mirror anchored to the living wall minus a few broken drill bits. It took us a few tries to realize the hallway wall was cement. Once completed, we sat back and clinked our champagne glasses to admire the masterpiece mirror and celebrate the new chapter in my life.
The apartment’s saving grace was that it allowed pets, so we were getting a dog and it was within walking distance to my son’s elementary and high school. And it was mine.
I chose emotional safety and walked away from the illusion of material security. I called the shots. Nine years later, I still do, amidst a delicate balance to the best neighbours and the worst.
The sisterhood sustained me. Both friends were envious of my freedom and autonomy to choose my next step. What do the mirrors in our lives reflect? Just remember that a good bottle of wine with a great bunch of friends can make anything sparkle and shine.
*Name(s) changed to protect the innocent!
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