Always Sign a Contract: A Housing Tragicomedy

You get the call at noon on a Monday, when you should be working on your research paper, but you’re actually reading up on astrology on Twitter. You’ve been here for 3 weeks. On the phone, the woman you’re subletting from, “Alia” for privacy reasons, asks about your day. Something about the accommodating lilt makes you sense something is wrong, but you continue on about your day, oblivious. She switches topics to the apartment, bringing up the broker and the landlord and how they were still complaining. You tell her again that you heeded her requests and didn’t invite friends over to the apartment. Both of you know that the guards will report any guests, male or female, to the broker. You’ve never even spoken to the guards, you tell her.

“I don’t think this is going to work out,” Alia tells you, the same phrase that you yourself have used to break off things with people you couldn’t even justify breaking things off with. The phrase is useful because it doesn’t place the blame on anyone- “this” just isn’t going to work out, as if neither party had any control over what went wrong in the situation. But you never expected to hear it in this context. You paid her a deposit and two month’s rent in cash up front, and she’s in Delhi right now, on her way to a month long holiday. And because you had a “good vibe” about Alia, you thought it wasn’t necessary to draw up a contract.

“What do you mean, it’s not going to work out?”

The gorgeous City Palace in Udaipur to break up the flow of this piece

She explains that the broker has threatened to call the cops if you don’t leave immediately, that she tried to reason with him, that she did everything in her power to let you stay. When you press her as to why exactly he’s kicking you out, she tells you that he agreed to rent the room to only her, not a subletter. You accept this answer at the time, your accommodating nature precluding you from confronting her. You accept what’s on the surface, refusing to question any further.

Your voice starts to crack, as it usually does when you lose your composure, and you try to hide your sniffling so Alia won’t think you’re weak. Your coworker Meredith comes over to you, and you mouth what’s happened. She assures you that you have a place to stay for the night, or however long you might need to find housing for the rest of your time here.

When you hang up the phone, after Alia promises you that she’ll make the calculations and return whatever she owes you, you know something isn’t right. You’ve just been kicked out of your place with 5 hours notice, you have no permanent housing options as of yet, and this girl didn’t even offer to give you a full refund. You’d been blindsided on the phone, but as you’re processing on your way home to pack up your life, you see the situation for what it is. Alia had never gotten permission from her broker to sublet her apartment at all. She took your money in hopes that her broker would just never find out. So you and Meredith begin drafting your manifesto, a FIERY WhatsApp message to Alia with words like “moreover” and “the bottom line is this.” You demand a full refund and threaten legal action, which is laughable in hindsight because you’d already be graduated before your case would even get before a judge. You also never drew up a contract, but you like the thrill of saying “I’ve contacted my family’s lawyer.” Your family doesn’t have a lawyer.

Happier Times Atop Kumbhalgarh Fort

That night, as you pack up your linen pants and tubes of sunscreen, you pick at your acne for the first time since you were thirteen, and you take a selfie to commemorate the day. You schlep your 50lb/23 kg suitcase to Meredith’s house, and you do your best to open it as little as possible as you make your bed on her couch.

You stay with three different friends for the 10 days that you are without housing. Your daily interactions with these friends become a series of apologies- I’m sorry for taking up space! I’m sorry for existing! Don’t mind me! On day 4, you get food poisoning from a lukewarm takeout salad, and you spend the next 12 hours perched on someone else’s toilet, hoping your friends can’t hear anything. Nothing like projectile vomiting to take your friendships to the next level.

Alia sends you an email denying your request for a full refund, and you realize your lawyer scare tactics didn’t work. You’re reminded of line from an Eve Ensler monologue you heard a couple years ago that, just like this tragicomic short story, used the second person so you felt like you were being yelled at the entire time.

“No one can take anything from you if you do not give it to them.”

You always thought this line was incredibly dismissive of anyone who did have something taken from them- dignity, life, space. But you DID give Alia the cash without drawing a contract, you gave her trust that she would clear things with her broker. You’re not a victim here. You’re complicit in this backdoor sublet deal, and you have to own that.

But you refuse to go down without a fight. Verbally, that is. On the 10th day, Alia comes back to Bombay to deliver the cash she still owes you, and you arrange a meeting in a very public, very bougie health food restaurant in your Bandra neighborhood. Alia is a half hour late to your meeting, and by that time, you already have 16 oz of cold brew in your system. You tear into her for kicking you out, for never checking with her broker, for deluding a foreigner who didn’t understand the tenuous nature of Bombay sublets. Both of you start speaking to each other like Real Housewives, cutting the other off and giving a condescending finger wag. The employees stare at the white girl and the Indian girl shouting at each other over a pile of 2,000 Rupee notes. You end up taking the deal, and you get back the full deposit and 1 ½ month’s rent. You wanted everything back as compensation for uprooting your life, but you’re willing to settle just to move on. And technically, if you count words muttered under your breath, you got the last word.

You walk out of Kitchen Garden, your heart racing from the caffeine and confrontation-induced adrenaline. Someday this victory will seem petty, but today, you celebrate. No one took anything.

How I Felt After Walking Out Of That Restaurant

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About Jo Ellen Pellman

Jo Ellen is a junior from Cincinnati, Ohio majoring in Musical Theatre and minoring in Creative Writing. Jo Ellen will be spending two months in Mumbai volunteering for Khula Aasman, a non-profit organization dedicated to blending expressive arts therapies with social change. With the Khula Aasman team, she will be facilitating creative theatre workshops with various communities across Mumbai, including women in incarceration and women in trafficking. Art is a great healer- it offers the opportunity to transcend the boundaries of class, religion, caste and gender. Jo Ellen’s final project will focus on the immediate emotional effects of the workshops on the participants and what forms of art therapy resonated with them the most. Her research will provide Khula Aasman with a correlation between the most effective arts therapy methods for the demographics that they serve in order to tailor workshops to best meet the needs of the Mumbai community.

One thought on “Always Sign a Contract: A Housing Tragicomedy

  1. Ahhh, Jo Ellen! I’ve been thinking of you and this whole shady housing situation. My wallet once “went missing” and I also had to depend on the kindness of others. I’m so glad you have so many people that care about you in Mumbai. Sending hugs and let me know if you need anything!!!

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