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The river I left running through Missoula is exactly as I remember it. For the first month, life is a clumsy commute between living rooms. My friend Karin, from my days in the UM English department, lets me stay in her family’s basement for a week. She tells me that she was homeless too once. She has a gift for making me feel like less of a jerk. I do a few nights on Emily and Emma’s couch, then a night at Zoey’s, then Mackenzie and Carl’s, repeat. I try to space it out so they don’t get sick of me.
My friend Alice drives me from place to place in her pink Oldsmobile. For stretches of the summer she’s moving me every couple of days. We talk about our writing and our shared, singular obsession with finding a true love who we believe will make us whole. We wish we could pay for rent and breakfast with back rubs, but we can’t. I’m writing every day, and sometimes I even get paid for it, but still, I’m spending more than I’m taking in. My bank account suffers a slow drain.
Nestled in the South Hills are two women who say I can live in their house for free in July and August in exchange for watching their dog. It’s a disproportionate exchange and they seem to know it. In the interview I try very hard to be friendly and normal. The dog is part cocker spaniel, part poodle, and it’s the weirdest thing. Usually when I pet an animal, my heart bursts. When I touch their dog, I don’t feel anything. I give them a million references and they call all of them before offering me the gig, but I can’t shake the feeling that these women don’t trust me. As in just about every job opportunity I have with anyone in Missoula, the paranoid thought occurs: How much do they know? I wonder if they’ve read that essay about my enthusiastic drug use, the one that ends with me not learning any lessons. So the email they send a week later, telling me they’ve changed their mind and given the job to someone else, doesn’t come as a surprise so much as a confirmation of my fears of what grown-ups think of me.
There’s a house on Missoula’s south side filled with radicals and secrets. A beautiful, frightening girl with strong arms and a septum piercing says I can rent the laundry room for $100 a month, under the condition that I never write about the house. It stings, but I agree.
The place is a haven for punks, DIY bands on tour, anarchists and travelers. Besides the three bedrooms inside, people sleep on couches, in the garage or in a cargo net suspended from the front porch. They’ve got two cats and a rambunctious puppy. Police are not welcome. Property is bullshit. They don’t write their names on food in the refrigerator. I’m told it’s been this way for years.
I arrive at the house for the first time at night. The yard is littered with beer cans and bicycle parts. There’s a wheelchair tipped on its side, because fucking anarchy, and a naked Ken doll hangs from a noose off the porch.
Some kids have just returned from dumpster diving. I find them sifting through a pile of packaged goods, mostly loaves of bread and candy.
“Do you want some candy?” one asks me.
I’m afraid of the candy and decline.
“Is it because you’re vegan?”
I lie and say, “Yes.”
The pierced girl takes me to the basement and opens the door to the laundry room. There’s a rusted sink filled with mouse poop, but no washer or dryer. Every ounce of floor space is occupied by a single mattress. “Is this it?” I say in a meek, pitiful voice, and straight away I’d give anything to shove the comment back inside of me.
“It’s a room,” she says, shrugging. And really, what was I expecting for three dollars a night? The room is exactly what I need and nothing more. Who cares that I’m way too old to be living with a bunch of 21-year-old punks? Anything’s better than getting a job.