Jason Arment

The Rules We Live By: When Exactly Do Things Become Your Problem?

Jason Arment reminisces on college living while attending Iowa State University and some of the events that ensued while living beneath four coeds. 

 

When I moved to 410 Welch Avenue, I rented the entire bottom floor of the old house’s two stories. City code disallowed my landlords from having more than five people in the place; I found out when I inquired as to the vacancy of a small economy apartment in the basement, by the washer and dryer. Ames was a strange place when it came to the decisions made by those trying to plan its future and, like many other college towns, they didn’t like the idea of a bunch of young folk being stuffed into the same slum. “Blighted” was what they thought of what Ames’ leadership called Campus Town, the college residents who lived in the borough clustered around Welch Avenue, the street that shed academia as it crossed Lincoln Avenue donned furnishings of capitalism driven by young money: bars, tattoo parlors, fast food chains, and some really great restaurants owned and operated by minority families.

“There are four people living upstairs?” I asked in disbelief.

My landlord explained that they had completely remodeled the second floor and rented it to four women attending ISU. They mostly stayed over at their boyfriends, or so they’d told my landlord and so I was told unsolicited.

I was completely smitten with the place, to include the idea of four members of humanity living above me who weren’t knuckle draggers. My place was huge, with hardwood floors, a small chandelier, a porch big enough for me and my friends to people-watch from while we smoked, and a giant display for my comics—which were sold when I fell on hard times later—I was living high on the hog. Ames was at its best for me that year with no roommates, real friends, and plenty of space. When I found the side door kicked in, I didn’t like it. Even though the landlords fixed it posthaste with an explanation that a boyfriend had kicked it in when he couldn’t get anyone to answer.

That made sense, I supposed, and tried not to think much more of it. And although it was when Ames was at its best for me, it was also when I felt most disconnected from the student body. So when doors ended up kicked in, or drunks from the heavily trafficked main thoroughfare tried walking through my front door, I tossed them. But there wasn’t anything I could do about the yelling upstairs—that was what I told myself when it woke me one night.

And while I lay there, I thought about when exactly it would become my problem. Because it seemed something larger, the way that relationships between young, volatile people played out. The seconds ticking by to minutes, kept going until a quarter hour passed and the argument turned to fighting. More than just a heated exchange now, or at least that’s what I would tell the police—I decided this somewhere between choosing to go unarmed and not call for help first. I was worried that if there was a fight, I’d have to kick in the door to stop it and I knew that wouldn’t make my landlord happy. By the time I made it up the twisting staircase, there was little doubt about who was in the right, at least by the sounds of things. I pounded on the door and shouted, taking a step back to plunge forward if no one answered.

“I’m sorry we woke you up.”

Mascara streaked her face. I couldn’t see much else.

“He’s got to go,” I said.

“No, we’re working it out,” she said.

She wasn’t going to let me in to throw him out. I couldn’t trust that my little intrusion would be taken seriously and didn’t like the idea of having to call the police.

“What’s the deal, man?” I asked over her shoulder to the apartment beyond.

“She cheated on me!”

He sounded like he was in the living room. I’d seen it when one of them had fetched me to put out a grease fire in the oven.

“If you don’t want to be here, leave!”

I didn’t mean to shout. I also had no idea how much my ultimatum would upset her. Stricken, she backed away from me shaking and sobbing. The door slammed and I was alone again.

When, months later, I heard a banging on my own door, a force of rhythm preamble to entrance, I didn’t doubt I had to answer. I cracked the door and saw a man outside in the Iowa winter wearing only a shirt and underwear, shaking. I tried asking him something, but he threw his weight onto his shoulder against the door; I stumbled, feet slipping against woodgrain.

I found his pants and sandals on the porch the next day, and then returned his pants and wallet to the Dean of Students Office. Before they could tell me no, I turned around and left. There was only so much I could be responsible for.

I’d shouted after the fleeing half-naked man, running down Welch Avenue in nothing but boxers and a T-shirt in negative twenty degree weather, how he needed to get inside. But it went without saying, I didn’t mean in my house.

Whether or not he ever got his wallet back, or the couple broke up or made up, I’ll never know. I do know the young man didn’t make the paper if he died, so I assume he lived.

My besieged, first-floor utopia ended when I moved out, demolished to make way for corporate apartments. Sometimes, ISU alumnus will remember my old place, say they’ve even been inside. I always regard them with suspicion after that—some of those people didn’t play by the rules.

 

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Jason Arment

Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chai, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Florida Review, and Phoebe. Jason lives in Denver.

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