Even though this seems to be a story about hunting for an apartment, it’s really a story about the cat.
We thought we had an apartment, on the third floor of the very building where the temporary apartment is. It’s a small three-bedroom, and right on top of Middle School 55, which starts its morning exercises precisely at 7:20. We thought the one problem might be the noise in the bedrooms, so we went with the real estate agents this morning at 7:15 to listen to the noise.
I didn’t realize that the landlady’s daughter was sound asleep in the master bedroom, so I opened the door and walked in. Oops. But the landlady said I could stay in there, although Bob couldn’t.
Talk about awkward. I’m standing by the window of the bedroom watching the middle school kids, while a young woman slumbers in the bed. She stirs. Now how am I going to explain this one? I ask myself. But she smiles at me as I apologize and she speaks English. She dresses quickly and leaves the room, while I watch the middle school students (think obedient sixth-graders more than sullen adolescents) play what looks like a giant game of “Simon Says.”
So far, so good. We decide to make it work. The landlady, a somewhat persnickety sort, decides that since there was another tenant also eager for the place, we should put down a deposit NOW to lock in the deal.
Bob runs out to take 6,000 yuan out of the bank – not the full rent but the limit on what he could withdraw each day – as we wait in the apartment. The landlady writes out a laborious contract in Chinese, and then copies it over twice. Her daughter then copies a version into English.
Let’s keep in mind that I have not had coffee, a shower, or anything to eat. There is much discussion in Chinese of matters relating to the contract.
Two hours pass, and we’ve finally at the point where the money was paid, the contract – both Chinese and English versions – signed and hands shaken. And then the landlady asks, “Do you have any cats or dogs?” (I flash back to the moment in “Alice’s Restaurant” where they ask Arlo Guthrie, “Have you ever been arrested?”)
For a split second, I wonder if I should lie. But then I decide it’s not worth the worry. So I say, yes, a small cat, an old cat, who never scratches and hardly comes out from under the bed.
“Can I see her?” she asks (in Chinese).
Sure. We – two real estate agents, the landlady, Bob and I – all traipse upstairs where we find Smudge (unsurprisingly) cowering under the bed. Cute, quiet, harmless.
The landlady announces she needs to think about it all. She goes off, and we find out later that she has consulted her extended family, including her own mother. Now we’ve got three generations of Chinese weighing in on Smudge.
The verdict: no. And when an extended Chinese family gets involved in a decision, there’s no arguing.
But Bob tries, countering with more rent to cover potential cat damages. No go.
So I have to go back to the landlady to get my 6,000 yuan back. I sit down, she hands me the money, which I count out, and I sign a receipt. She leans anxiously towards me.
As I stand to leave, she looks me in the eye and says, “You. Are. My. Friend.”