Ling Ma

Zach Korb, New Law Tenement Building in Brooklyn. Licensed via Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

I hadn’t returned the keys because the landlord hadn’t returned my security deposit. That’s how I remember it, though it’d been a long time since I’d moved out. I came across the keys again when I was rifling through a desk drawer one day, looking for something, batteries maybe. There were three in the set—one for the building entrance, another for the mailbox, and the last for the apartment unit itself.

I would not have recognized the keys if not for the daisy key­chain. I closed the drawer again, not wanting to touch them. The deposit didn’t matter by this point.

A week passed, then another, before I thought to return them. It was the most karmically clean solution. But maybe I just wanted to go back.

where i live and where I used to live aren’t that far apart. The dis­tance is less than a subway stop—if you took the train, you’d over­shoot it. I don’t remember the last time I was there. “There is no time like the present” is something my therapist tells me, although I guess that’s a common adage. It was midday on a Friday. I put on my shoes and took a walk.

My old neighborhood has become gentrified like anywhere else. The assisted living facilities and retirement homes, outdated even when I lived there, have been converted into luxury condos and rentals. The laundromat has been replaced by an eco-friendly dry cleaner. I missed the Indian takeout place that sold, next to the front register, these big samosas under a heat lamp. In the winters, getting off the train from work, I would buy two for $5, before hitting up the liquor store at the corner for a beer on the way home.

Technically I was trespassing, but it didn’t feel like a crime. You can’t trespass into what’s familiar.

The liquor store was still in business, repainted with a selfie-bait mural of animals punching each other in a rainbow boxing ring. Inside, the inventory had been completely revised. There were shelves of celebrity tequilas, and in the fridge section, well­ness drinks replaced the old Mistic juices and Coke varieties, those thick Goya nectars. I took a bottle of mushroom-infused water that was inexplicably $7.99, and when I went to check out, I saw that they still had not taken the banner down. There was a photo of me on it, shaking hands with the owner, as we both looked at the camera. My old bangs, my greasy skin.


Sixty million is Britney Spears’s estimated net worth, I read somewhere, maybe in an article about myself winning the Powerball. The amount was inconceivable to me, but for Britney Spears, it somehow didn’t seem enough. I hoped she would never have to work again if she didn’t want to. I myself have not worked in years.

“There’s a surcharge of 3 percent,” the cashier said. “Our policy for credit card purchases under ten bucks. Is that okay?”

“Sure, that’s fine.” I needed to make a habit of carrying cash. “Can’t get out of surcharges,” I added.

“What’s that?” He looked at me.

“Nothing.” I looked away. It was unlikely he would recognize me from the banner. The girl in the picture had ascended into lottery-winner heaven. She was ziplining through a Colombian jungle, or Birkin shopping in Paris. Or she had joined the fate of most lottery winners and fallen into destitution. When you are struck by the lightning of extreme fortune, there is no middle path forward, only the paths of extremes.

“There’s an ATM in here if you want to do cash,” the clerk said, then remembered something. “But there’d still be a withdrawal fee.”

“It’s fine. Thanks.” Suddenly I wanted to get out of there. There’s a feeling I have sometimes that, having narrowly escaped my life, I am about to be found out. I brace for a blow that never comes. I don’t know why. Being lucky isn’t a crime.

He rang up the water. “You want a bag for this?” He gestured toward a stack of black plastic bags, with a wry smile. “It’s seven cents, but I won’t charge you.”

“No thanks.” I took my water and backed away.

i half-expected the old apartment building to be razed and replaced with new construction. But like the liquor store, it was still there, different and only slightly recognizable. Walking down the block, I almost passed its new brick façade. The building had been repainted a neutral Dilbert gray that covered up its confusing fleshy yellow shade. Someone had planted hedges along the front; only up close could you tell that they were plastic.

I couldn’t find the rental office, where the landlord used to sit at his desk, watching baseball on a small, goofy TV, discarded fast-food wrappers everywhere. When you went in to ask about repairs, he would only half listen, his eyes darting between you and the game. We called him Mr. B. We didn’t know his surname, but it was just as well. He had inherited his family property and had mis­managed it into shambles.

A management firm had mounted a sign with its contact details near the entryway. Mr. B had finally sold the building, I assumed, and the new owner had contracted the firm to maintain it. When I lived here, we heard rumors that Mr. B was going to sell it to a developer and retire—a matter of when rather than if. I thought to call the listed firm to return the keys, but the idea of leaving them with an anonymous company based out in the suburbs held no meaning. It was unlikely that the missing keys had been registered in the sale and transfer of the property.

I stood on the sidewalk, gathering neck sweat. It had gotten hot. I had come out all this way, and I had no one to be accountable to.

At the building entrance, I tried the keys. The door opened eas­ily. I stepped inside. The musty smell of that foyer, the mailroom, the hallways was so familiar—marine air freshener and faint sec­ondhand smoke. Technically I was trespassing, but it didn’t feel like a crime. You can’t trespass into what’s familiar.

I walked up the stairs to the second floor. It was a small studio at the end of the hallway, next to the janitor’s closet. From inside, I always seemed to hear the elevator chiming in the night and early morning. I lived in that place through most of my twenties, work­ing at an insurance brokerage firm the entire time. My supervi­sor was what we would call “abusive” and “toxic” now. When I wasn’t at the office working, I was at home, blanked out, sleeping or watching TV. Those were the only two modes.

The door had been repainted gray, a lighter shade than the building’s exterior. All the doors had been. I recognized the dent along the bottom of my old door, from having kicked it in anger one night. The unit, spelled out on the door, was 205—loser num­bers that I’d incorporated into my Powerball entry as a joke.

When I tried the key, the door opened just as easily as the one downstairs. Someone lived there, it looked like, but no one was home.

that night, lying in bed beside my husband, I couldn’t quite slip into sleep. One trick to relaxing, my therapist advised, is envision­ing a familiar space. You imagine yourself walking around, taking inventory of every detail. As my husband’s breathing deepened into little snores, I thought back to my old studio that, hours ear­lier, I had broken into.

The unit had seen some updates and renovations, a develop­ment probably effected by the management firm, not Mr. B. Aside from the new paint job, it had updated light fixtures, a new fridge. Something else, too. The grime, the general mustiness, had been dispelled. The place was tidy and pleasant, if a bit impersonal with its soft, muted tones—ocher curtains, heather sheets. The framed photos of natural wonders—a cactus palm, a seaside cliff—could have been stock images.

The occupant had organized the space more effectively than I had. I respected that they had opted for a twin-sized bed, which allowed for a desk and sofa within the 300-square-foot space. The American choice would have been to sink a space like this with an extravagantly large mattress, so that all other functions—eating, watching TV, surfing online—would have to be conducted from where one slept. It is not choosing the “big” things that is funda­mentally American but the blind insistence on grandiosity despite the reality of circumstances. It’s not living beyond your means, it’s the unceasing, headless insistence on “the best,” whatever that is.

The biggest compliment my supervisor used to give me was “You’re no American.” It meant that I had a work ethic adapted to what is necessary, that I was not blind to circumstances. My super­visor often told me this in the evenings, when I was staying late at the office at her encouragement, or rather at her demand. It was typical for me to stay two or even three hours after everyone else left, before returning to the studio to collapse into my small, hard bed.

My supervisor was born and raised in the country of my par­ents. I wondered if that was why she had hired me. At times, I con­flated her approval with that of my parents. That may be the reason I stayed at that job for as long as I did, the only full-time job I have ever held in my life. I thought her toughness, her demanding nature, would improve me. The chosen metaphor was of a blade forged by fire, a necessary tempering, when the more fitting one was that of a tree slowly burning to death. Not being American, according to her, was also being able to take suffering.

In our bed, my husband stirred. “Go to sleep,” he murmured groggily. His voice sounded distant, blurred out by the sound of the AC.

It literally took winning the lottery to quit that job. And even then, I stayed another month to ensure a smooth transition. “You’ll never make it,” my supervisor said to me routinely, casually, at unexpected moments. Only toward the end did I question what “it” was. I didn’t have ambitions to climb to the top of the company, and I wasn’t committed to the field of insurance brokerage, which was ugly and corrupt, like all things healthcare-related in the US. What did “it” mean?

When I told my supervisor I had won the lottery, she was con­fused at first. We were in her office. She wanted me to explain how the Powerball system worked, something I didn’t totally under­stand myself. So we looked it up on her desktop. We Googled it. We read guidelines for lottery winners (“Avoid sudden lifestyle changes,” “Diversify your investments”). We pored through the articles for some time. She was both solemn and overzealously congratulatory. But I was tasked to work through her confusion with her. Her continual, now incessant, questioning began to feel exaggerated, pointed: Any good fortune could not have occurred unless she had personally verified it. I began to feel trapped. I had planned to give notice, but it would have to wait until another time. When she asked, “Why you?” I said, “I don’t know.”

the next day was Saturday. Montessori was closed. We did family time—some configuration of stroller walk, coffee shop, farmer’s market, and playground. Maybe a brunch restaurant. A nice, middle-class family doing nice, middle-class activities. Then we returned home, where my son took his nap while I played video games, shooting out tanks and personnel carriers in a DMZ-like setting. My husband read the news in the other room. It began to rain.

In the afternoon, we took our son to the library. In the chil­dren’s area, I read him a picture book about a zoo filled with sad animals, which turned out to be about climate change. We were interrupted by an eerie, synchronized beep—a flash flood warning on everyone’s phones. When we prepared to leave, our kid pro­tested with whimpers, then screams; we had to drag him out. He darted into the parking lot, splashing into a puddle before my hus­band grabbed him, wet and wailing.

On the drive back, my husband fumed. “We’re doing it wrong,” he said, echoing his mother’s stance, which is that it is unnatural for our lives to revolve around entertaining a two-year-old.

“Whatever,” I said. “Drive to the toy store.”

Our son had been placed in the NICU after his birth, and for a while it was very touch and go. His thighs, the only puffins of fat left, were punctured with needles and IVs. I kept a notebook, a narrative of his condition, because I did not believe that the sys­tem, a scattering of nurses and doctors tending to multiple patients, would be able keep it straight. I stood next to him, reciting the nar­rative, making sure they didn’t miss any details. At one point, the doctor said they had done all they could. “It’s up to him now.” Only at this crucial moment did they recognize his agency.

It was winter. I looked around, trying to find something that would tip the scales in favor of living. The paper cups of coffee, the linoleum-tile flooring, the bouquet of spray carnations that had come, questionably, with a white Condolences balloon. My hus­band had taken the balloon out of the room and was looking for somewhere to throw it away. He had been gone for twenty minutes. Outside the window, the hospital parking lot was covered in a por­ridge of gray snow and slush. A cluster of coats waited at the bus station across the street. There was nothing I could convincingly point to.

But I spoke to my son through the plastic. I said that from his vantage point, the world may not seem like an inviting place. But if he was willing to wait, strange, spectacular things happened every day. Like his birth, for one, and everything leading up to it. I said that the chances of winning the lottery were extremely slim, but it had happened, and the money was what had made his concep­tion possible, the fertility treatments and so on. If anything, the extremely narrow odds leading to his existence meant that he was supposed to be here, that he deserved to be here. So I hoped that he would stay.

I was surprised by this line of reasoning as I spoke. But his lit­tle face, closed up like an old fist, seemed to relax at the sound of my voice.

Finally, I said that if he could keep going so we could leave this hospital, I would use the lottery winnings to make his life great.

The biggest compliment my supervisor used to give me was “You’re no American.”

The toy store was closing early when we got there, due to the extreme weather. But the clerk opened it and I managed to grab a Duplo set, along with a mock smartphone that played musical notes and something called a Pop-a-Balls Push & Pop Bulldozer, at the clerk’s recommendation. Rushing out into the rain, I put the shop­ping bag into the back seat instead of the trunk, which was a mistake.

“Wait to open the boxes when we get home,” my husband instructed our son.

“Don’t make a mess!” I chimed in, getting into the passenger seat. “You can hold the toys, but don’t open them yet.”

In the rearview mirror, we watched helplessly as he tore into the boxes. He was surprisingly strong, with fast-growing nails I could barely keep up with trimming. “Yeahhhhhh!” he yelled, waving the toy over his head, like an eighties wrestler. “Yeahhhhh!”

We drove home slowly as our toddler rampaged in the back seat. The streets were eerily empty, and though the rain was heavy, the gutters weren’t overflowing. I didn’t think the conditions warranted this kind of response, but we were all primed for catastrophe now.

“We’re doing it wrong,” my husband repeated, looking straight ahead at the road.

“There is no right way.”

“I might not know what the right way is, but I definitely know we’re doing it wrong.”

“Yeah, you keep saying that.” Outside the window, even the parking lots of box chain stores were deserted.

“Look, if a kid is screaming and being disrespectful, he shouldn’t get rewarded. It’s as simple as that.” He gestured to the back seat. “If he’s throwing a tantrum at the library, we don’t need to take him to the toy store right after. It just encourages bad behavior.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror. “Maybe those are two separate things. We went to the library, and we went to the toy store. Not everything is cause and effect.”

“That’s not how it comes off to him.” My husband turned into our driveway. “He needs to learn about consequences. We need to instill some kind of moral code.” He paused to locate the clicker for the garage door. “We need to teach him that, you know, you don’t just get rewarded for nothing. That’s chaos.”

“Okay,” I said, as we pulled into the garage of our house, a three-story refurbished single-family home with a rooftop deck, dual-zone heating and cooling system, and landscaped bamboo courtyard. “I hear what you’re saying.”

on monday, i received an email from my former supervisor. It read, How are you?

Occasionally, I still get emails from her. They come unpredict­ably, every few months maybe. They are not sent from her work address, which I blocked long ago, but from one of multiple per­sonal addresses. It is always a brief message, often a question or a leading statement. Sometimes it is an inside joke we once shared. A few times, it was a news link asking my thoughts about some­thing related to insurance.

In all cases, I delete the message. The thought crosses my mind that I should keep them as evidence, but evidence for what? I have to get rid of it, or I’ll keep thinking about it.

How are you?

I deleted this. Then I emptied the trash folder. I did this from the comfort of my old studio, which I had snuck into again.

The space was just as clean and tidy as it had been last week. There were no dishes in the sink, no dirty cereal bowls or coffee mugs abandoned before they rushed out the door to catch the train. The white countertops looked smooth and spotless. The bed was made. Who did that? Who kept their apartment that clean on a Monday morning? This time I felt like an intruder. But I didn’t leave.

This time, I had brought an iced coffee and my laptop, which I set up at the desk. I planned to apply to jobs that morning, some­thing I had been procrastinating on for weeks. There was just no urgency when I worked from home.

In my old apartment, I updated my résumé. Mostly, I just refreshed the design; I didn’t have much to add. I constructed a template cover letter, describing my work gap as a decision to spend time at home as a new mother, without any mention of the lottery. If an employer Googled me and figured out who I was, then fine. I looked up various postings and bookmarked a few positions I might have a chance at interviewing for. Most of these were entry-level communications-type jobs. None were in insurance broker­age. I created a LinkedIn page, as advised by job-hunting articles, and sent former coworkers, but not my former supervisor, requests to connect. This was the most productive I had been in months. The longer I stayed, the less I felt like I was intruding. And when I was done, I cleaned up after myself, making sure not to leave any­thing behind, including trash. As I exited the building, a neighbor coming in smiled at me. I almost froze, but I smiled back. “Have a nice day,” I said.

the next few days passed in much the same way. After I dropped off my son at Montessori, I would come to the apartment and work on job applications. On one of those days, I even did my virtual therapy appointment from the studio.

“I’m cat-sitting at a friend’s place,” I explained to my therapist.

“That’s very nice of you,” she said. “But is this something you wanted to do? Walk me through how this request played out.” The previous week, my therapist had given me a chart on the four com­munication styles. We both agreed that I resorted to my default “passive” style too often and needed to practice “assertive” style.

“My friend asked me a while back and I agreed. They live near me, so it’s not a big chore.” I was unprepared to make up more lies on the spot, but I tried to convey that I had not been finagled into this by my passivity. “I just feed the cat and spend time with her. She’s sweet.”

“I thought you were allergic to cats.”

“Not, like, super allergic. I can be around them for a couple of hours.” Then, switching gears, I added, “I’ve been using the time here to start applying to jobs.”

She nodded in approval. Finally, some progress. We had recently come to the conclusion that I should seek out gainful employment again. It was a grounding measure, a way of ordering my days, which had become increasingly slippery and meaningless. “How is that going?”

“I’ve sent out a handful of applications so far.” I chuckled uneas­ily. “It’s been so long since I worked. I don’t know if blind applica­tions are the way to do it anymore.”

“Well, regardless. This is a great first step. I’m proud of you.”

“I’m a little worried because I don’t have a lot of references. And I don’t want to put my former boss’s name down.”

“What do you think would happen if you asked her to be a reference?”

“I don’t know. She might feel that I owed her. I’m afraid that…” I trailed off. It sounded ridiculous to say that I was afraid she might come back.

“Are we dealing in fears or plausibilities?”

“I’d rather not even open that door,” I said. “It’s why I have been applying to entry-level jobs. I’d rather just start over.”

“What would happen if you were to approach her?”

“I don’t know.” I didn’t want to engage in more thought exer­cises. “I think she’s still angry at me.”

“Why does she still feel angry towards you?”

“Because…” I struggled to find the words. “Because I escaped, and by escaping, I upended the order of things. She wielded her power over everyone. Especially me. But suddenly I had an escape hatch out of that whole system.”

“Lots of people quit their jobs.”

“But it was almost as if, by quitting, I was saying that the system, the one in which she reigned, was stupid. That anyone would leave if given the chance.”

My therapist paused. “How do you know she feels this way?”

“I just know.… From working with her for all those years. I know how she thinks.”

“You’ve given a lot of thought as to how she might feel toward you. Tell me how you feel toward her.”

“She was a mean-spirited person who made my life hell in sub­tle ways at first and, as time accrued, more obvious and egregious ways. But by that point I was used to it, and so I just took it.”

“So you feel angry.”

“I feel angry,” I said, then added, “But I’ve been very lucky.”

“You’re minimizing yourself.” She jotted something down. “You don’t have to minimize your anger. The more space you allow yourself to take up, the more this world will accommodate you.” She paused. “And the less angry you will feel.”

I sighed. “That line of thinking seems so American, though. If everyone gets to take up space, it would be…” I searched for the word.

She laughed, a little bit. “Yeah, tell me. What do you think would happen?”

“It would be…annoying.” I wanted to say disgusting.

“News flash,” my therapist said. “You’re an American.”

leaving the studio that day, I saw that the door to the janitor’s closet was open. It emitted a dim, orange light, incongruous with the cool, white lumination of the hallway. Peeping inside, I saw a single bulb dangling low on a string. It was jiggling, as if someone had just turned it on. But there was no one around.

Even when I lived here, I had never seen inside the closet, which was the size of a homey walk-in. There were a few shelves of clean­ing sprays and bottles, some brooms and vacuum cleaners, and a floor sink where the mops were washed out. Nestled amongst these was a little cot with a wrinkled floral sheet spread over it, lilacs against a white backdrop. A McDonald’s burger, unwrapped from its wax paper, had been left on the cot, alongside some fries.

When the elevator pinged, I moved toward the stairway.

the next week, I was in the studio, in the middle of writing an email to follow up on an application, when the door opened. I turned around, bracing myself.

The person at the door was an older man. There was a pause. “Well, you’re not supposed to be in here,” he said, only mildly sur­prised. It was Mr. B. Which was also surprising. I’d assumed he’d retired.

“Oh, hi, Mr. B,” I said, for lack of anything else to say. He looked smaller. He still wore the same thing—white T-shirts, yellowing around the pits, tucked into belted chinos. I’d forgotten about the white tube socks and black Reebok sneakers.

“You’re not supposed to be in here,” he repeated. “There are showings here tonight.”

“Oh, okay.” I tried to recover from how startled I felt. “Are you trying to find a new tenant for this place?”

“No, the showings are not for this unit, they’re in this unit,” he said, impatient. “This one is not for sale. This is the sales model.”

“Oh, really?” I reassessed the studio again. It made too much sense—the sterile tidiness, the framed stock photography, the impersonal décor. I could have figured it out.

“You’re lucky no one lives here.” He chuckled. I did not seem to be in any trouble. “This studio is too small to rent out. Hasn’t been lived in for a couple of years. So they spruced it up as a sample.”

“But I used to live here.” I wondered why they would use the smallest unit as a sales model.

He looked at me, incurious. “Okay, well. That was probably a mistake.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. “I used to live here,” I repeated. “Like, for six years. Back when it was your building.”

“Ah, the good old days.” He squinted as if trying to place me, but I don’t think he remembered. “Why are you here now?”

“I was going to return the keys.” It wasn’t exactly an answer, but I fumbled through my bag. “Here,” I said, holding them out to him. As if I had been waiting to do this all along. “I held on to the keys because I never got the deposit back.”

He did not move to take them. “Did you come back for the deposit, then?” he asked, and I knew that I had remembered cor­rectly, that he had never returned it.

“Don’t worry about it.” I still held out the keys.

“Because if you’re asking for your deposit,” he continued, as if not having heard me, “first of all, there might be a statute on that. I don’t know, I can’t say one way or the other. But you’re going to have to go through management, not me. They own this place now.”

“Do you work for management?”

“I don’t work for anyone,” he bristled, before launching into a long-winded explanation. He had an arrangement with the prop­erty firm to help maintain the building. It sounded like light jani­torial tasks. He swept the front entrance, he made sure no packages were left outside, he tidied up the sales model, et cetera.

“Do you still live in the building?”

“I live in The Fairview. Do you know where that is?”

“Yeah, that’s not far from here.”

“It’s just down the block.” Mr. B was uncommonly proud. “Never thought I’d end up there.”

“I heard it’s really nice.” Fairview was an expensive senior living facility, one of the last in the neighborhood that advertised hotel-quality amenities. There was a well-pruned courtyard and a restau­rant on the first floor. Walking on a winter night, I once spotted, through gauze curtains, white-gloved waiters moving from table to table, ladling soup from a cart.

“We’re doing it wrong,” my husband repeated, looking straight ahead at the road.

“Well, I sold this building for…a tidy sum, you might say.” Propriety prevented him from disclosing the exact amount.

“I thought you’d be fully retired by now.”

“And what would I do all day?” he said, suddenly indignant. “Watch TV?”

I bit my tongue. That was literally all he did when he was the landlord: watch baseball in his office.

He continued, “This building has been in my family for gener­ations. I know it like the back of my hand, and you can’t buy that kind of knowledge. They know that. They’re the ones who keep asking me back!” Sharpened by his irritation, he zoomed in on me. “And now I’m going to have to ask you to leave, please.”

“I’m going, Mr. B.” I had been holding the keys the entire time, keys he hadn’t accepted, and I put them in my bag. “It was nice to see you again.”

He grunted in return, neither confirming nor denying.

In the hallway, the janitor’s closet was open again. I didn’t peep inside this time.

I went down the steps to the foyer, then through the front doors and down the streets of my old neighborhood. I went past the sta­tion where I used to catch the train to go to work and the new bus stop that accommodated an express line going directly downtown. I hadn’t even clocked the new shoe store or the fine jewelry shop. When you come into a big windfall, the impulse is to convert the money into material things. But I think the real trick is to convert money into time.

I walked until I arrived back at my house, new construction that, according to our agent, accrues at a higher rate than most properties in the city. I punched in the security code, and when I opened the front door, the blast of air-conditioning felt bracingly, refreshingly minty. In the foyer and living room, I negotiated the labyrinth of paintings and sculptures, silently accruing value day by day, hour by hour. Also accruing along the hallways were rare first editions entombed inside closed bookcases, titles I have never touched, let alone read.

I climbed the staircase to the master suite, where I found my king-sized bed dressed with sheets the color of pistachio ice cream. Even if I don’t know what to do with time anymore, I still want it. It is mine to waste. I smoothed out the pillowcase. I got under­neath the covers. I closed my eyes and went to sleep.

Ling Ma is the author of the novel Severance and the story collection Bliss Montage. Her books have received the Kirkus Prize, Whiting Award, Story Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. She lives in Chicago.
Originally published:
December 11, 2023


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