The day I realized I was in an abusive relationship with my New York City landlord

I was escaping an abusive home again, so I was in a hurry. Just a mile from the place I was leaving, a realtor showed me a little cave of a garden apartment. It seemed like a good place to hide and decompress after over a year of tiptoeing, hypervigilance, and chest-pounding terror.

But I wasn’t nine, in rural Maine. I was in my 40s, in Brooklyn. Terry wasn’t my father. He was my landlord. He was out of town for the holidays. I had three days to find a place, pack, and move.

Rewind to sixteen months earlier. I didn’t meet Terry, or learn that he occupied the cellar, until the lease signing. The friendly broker spread out three copies. I coveted that apartment. It would be all mine after a slew of shabby sublets and bizarre roommates.

The broker mentioned the building was “owner-occupied,” which she said was a plus. I could see that. I’d heard about slumlords who let their buildings rot, but an on-site owner might care for the property better. I assumed Terry lived in one of the three-story townhouse’s apartments. When I discovered he’d be in the cellar right below my unit, I pushed away a tiny voice that said, “Wait, what?” I signed. People with complex PTSD, like me, often ignore our gut, especially if it would mean speaking up and potentially disappointing or angering someone. We learned to do it to survive. Keep quiet. Don’t cause trouble or upset anyone.

I lay in bed the first night amid my unpacked boxes, my gut’s warning confirmed. Terry’s cigar smoke and booming voice permeated my floorboards, making me feel invaded by his presence. I heard his phone calls from him; even his giant, exaggerated yawns from him.

On game night, he and his friends’ hollers felt terrifying jolts through me. I didn’t connect this to anything other than my desire for a sanctuary and the disappointment that my boisterous landlord was essentially a surprised roommate. The cellar, not built to house anyone, muffled nothing.

I used white noise and earplugs. My lease stipulated no smoking anywhere—surely that went for him too? I called him about the fumes, careful to not even sound like I assumed they came from him. “There’s smoke coming into my apartment and it’s bothering me.” I’d rehearsed the line.

“You tellin’ me what I can’t do in my own home?” I have hung up on me.

While the upper tenants used the main entrance up the front stoop, Terry and I shared the smaller ground-floor side door. Inside, a narrow hallway led to our respective doors. His hands faced mine directly, just a few feet between them. I dreaded our hallway encounters. He blocked me from passing until he’d subjected me to a paranoid complaint or a threatening veiled threat.

“You had a young lady in here this weekend.” I have sounded angry and accusatory.

My stomach did a flip as I wondered what the problem could possibly be. “My friend was cat-sitting.”

“You’re not supposed to make keys. She had brand new keys. You’re supposed to give her your keys.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I protested. “She’d have to be here when I got back. She she does not live nearby. Ella she has a different work schedule.” I felt so bullied that I defended something as innocent as spare keys.

“You better check your lease.”

“I’ve never heard of a rule against spare keys.”

“No extra keys!”

“What about in emergencies?”

“I have spares for emergencies.” He glowered over me. My chest was pounding. I crept past him and ran outside.

With each confrontation, I became more meek and he became more belligerent. When I timidly asked about the heat, which had been out for several winter days, he yelled, “I told you I’m on it, woman!” My fear emboldened him. He started giving my door a few hard thwacks every time he was on his way outside.

My descriptions to friends were revealing: “I can relax when he’s at work.” “I panic when I hear his work boots getting closer.” “I’m afraid if I call the police, he’ll do something worse.” I was in an abusive relationship with my landlord.

I had to break my lease. I had to get out. I loved my apartment — when he wasn’t around. Outside my kitchen windows, blue jays and downy woodpeckers dined at the feeders I kept filled. Occasionally cats passed by. People in the neighborhood cared for the area’s many strays, getting them fixed, vaccinated, and fed. I’d met some of these volunteers at their pet adoption events while I was buying cat food. Through a local workshop, I got certified and joined their ranks. I learned how to handle feral cats, which entitled me to get them free vet services. I was ready to step up and help these creatures.

But Terry would never go for that. I’d overheard him bragging about poisoning raccoons. I knew I couldn’t bring another cat in, even if it was secure in a trap temporarily until it went to the vet. Instead, I prowled at night, my vision adjusting to the felines’ shadowy movements. I snapped pictures of ones that seemed like they needed priority attention, and texted their descriptions and whereabouts to the rescuers I’d met. “Hi Martha. Orange Tom, Decatur and Throop. Looks like an abscess on his neck from him. Worse for wear. Left him food and water.”

Dad made our cats stay out in the cold and stomped a harmless garden snake to death in front of me. I have controlled and manipulated his family with his rage and cruel, arbitrary rules. He’d been dead now for several years, and I barely saw him in the 30 years since the divorce, when I was a preteen. I’d still been afraid of him, and he had made no effort to see me. Terry’s anger in my own home turned me into that small, terrified girl again.

At this new apartment, I asked the realtor where the owner lived. “Queens, I think? He’s very nice.”

“And no one lives in the basement?”

“No. It’s for storage.”

We stood in the backyard, a snow-covered lot bound by chain-link fencing. It wasn’t fancy, but it seemed peaceful. “What’s that?” I saw a hutch at the far corner. It was homemade, cobbled together with Styrofoam, straw, and artificial turf.

“The previous tenants might have left that… maybe for some cats?” Cats who vanish for open houses but return to warm digs later, I imagined. The realtor was pointedly casual, I suspected in case I was someone for whom a feral cat colony was a dealbreaker.

I was not. I had a survivor’s store of empathy. These were a different kind of unannounced roommate. In a flash, I received a prescient, thrilling message. It wordlessly soothed, “I’ll take care of you. You’ll take care of me.”

Terry is a pseudonym

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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