Sweet, Sweet Boy – Published by Coffin Bell

My short story ‘Sweet, Sweet Boy’ was published in Volume 1, Issue 2 of Coffin Bell – a journal of dark literature.  Click here to go directly to the story.  Below is a brief excerpt:

A penis is an ugly thing, especially once it’s been detached from the body. It hangs so limp in your hand, small and soft, flailing around like fat, water-soaked noodle. Despite the terrible thing he’d done, he couldn’t help but note how ridiculous the penis looked rolling towards the hole in the sink, getting caught in the plastic flaps of the garbage disposal. After giving it a nudge and watching it disappear into blackness, he flipped the switch. As the blades pulverized the penis into tiny pieces, he stared at the hole, wishing it was big enough to swallow his head. He tried sticking his thing in there once when he was little, mostly as an experiment. He climbed up on the counter and pulled his shorts down, bending this way and that over the sink, but no matter how much he twisted and turned, jutting his bony hips out or spreading his legs wide, he just couldn’t find the right angle.

To continue reading, click here.  Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below!

Year in Review: Writing in 2017

The past year has been a great one in writing for me.  A few of my stories have found homes with some great journals.  It’s also the first time my work has been nominated for awards.  Below are highlights of things that have been published over the past year.  I’ve included links, so make sure to give my stories a read – and check out all the wonderful journals that have published them!

  • My short story Be a Good Girl was published by Cold Creek Review (Issue 3). I’m happy to report that they’ve nominated the story for a 2018 Pushcart Prize!
  • Oyez Review published my story No Splashing in their Spring 2017 issue. Read the full story here.

This year, I’ve also made significant progress on a novel I’ve been working on.  I’m still writing the first draft, but I’m over 300 pages in and nearing the end.  I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a dark story set in the South. It centers around a group of high school students during their senior year. The story opens with the mysterious death of two of the characters, who are also twin brothers.

A close friend has been reading over another novel I wrote to offer notes and general feedback.  It’s much further along in the drafting process.  This story also takes place in the South, but the narrator is much younger.  I describe it as my Southern Gothic novel that doubles as a coming-of-age story.  No Splashing, the short story mentioned above, is a reworked version of one of the chapters from the book.

I’m always working on various projects, so it’s wonderful to see them reach an audience, big or small.  2017 felt significant in a lot of ways – I hope 2018 is even better!

No Splashing – a short story published by Oyez Review

My short story ‘No Splashing’ was published by Oyez Review (v. 44, Spring 2017).  Please visit their website for information on ordering a copy of the issue.  I’m also presenting the full story here for you to read.  Enjoy!  And please leave a comment to let me know what you think!

No Splashing

by Cameron L. Mitchell

Jake grips the side of the pool with both hands and looks around to make sure no one’s watching.  He spits out twice, trying to get rid of the foul chlorine taste filling his mouth.  Feeling guilty for doing something he shouldn’t, he swipes at the gently undulating water and watches as the white spittle separates until it disappears.  He’s a good swimmer, always keeping his mouth shut when submerged, but water still manages to get in, little by little.  Jake wipes his lips with the back of his hand, but the strong chemical taste remains.

“Hey, look at me!”

He turns around to watch Bobby attempt to land an even better can opener than the one he did less than five minutes ago.  “Ok,” Jake calls out, “I’m watching!”

With a determined look on his face, Bobby takes a deep breath, stares straight ahead, and shakes his arms all around in a kind of nervous ritual before finally making a run for it.  He bounces as hard as he can at the end of the diving board, flying high into the air.  Right before hitting the water, he leans back and grabs his knee with both hands.  Although the resulting splash isn’t the biggest Jake has seen today, it’s really not all that bad.

As soon as his head pops above the surface, Bobby asks, “How was it?”

“Good,” Jake assures him, watching his friend swim over.  “Probably your best one ever.”

“Yeah, but not as good as theirs,” Bobby says, nodding over to the older boys near the lifeguard stand.

“But they’re bigger than you,” Jake says.  “When you get older, I bet your splashes will be way better.”

“Yeah, me too.”  Bobby pushes his wet hair back, smiling.  “You gonna try one?”

“No, I think I’ll just dive.”

“Again?”

“Yeah.”  Jake swims over to the ladder.  Before fully emerging from the water, he tugs at his blue trunks to make sure they’re not sticking to his body.  It’s awful when they get like that, exposing the imprint of his backside and other private areas.  Having to swim around half-naked is bad enough.  Last summer, he often wore a t-shirt in the water.  No one would have said anything if he was one of the fat kids – everyone knows why they swim with a shirt on.  But Jake is as thin as a rail.  It didn’t take long to figure out he was drawing more attention by keeping his shirt on than he would if he just took it off like the other guys.

Jake nears the white cement steps leading up to the diving board but keeps his distance from the two boys already in line.  Over on the other side of the pool, past the floating rope that divides the deep end from the shallow, Jake sees his brother Sampson kicking around.  He’s got his goggles on, the pair Jake used to wear.  He’s getting better at swimming, only because Jake has been giving him lessons.  It was their father’s idea to save money.  When he was around Sampson’s age, Jake had official lessons at this very pool, but, even then, Father thought it was a waste of money.  Take ‘em down to the river and toss ‘em in, he said.  Like my daddy did with me.

Jake would have fared just fine if his father had done that to him, but there’s no way he’s letting anyone throw Sampson into the deep end while hoping for the best.  At the same time, he doesn’t blame his father for not wanting to pay for swimming lessons.  Jake can’t recall ever actually learning to swim from that skinny lifeguard lady who’s long since moved on, probably to a better pool in a bigger town.  He and the other kids spent most of their time splashing around in the shallow end, taking occasional breaks to practice holding their breath underwater; there were also floating exercises, on their backs and stomachs.  Then, one day near the end of the course, they all lined up at the diving board to jump off into the dreaded deep end.  If that was too scary, you could jump off the side of the pool near the ladder instead.  Some kids pinched their noses and dropped down, holding onto the side for safety.  Most of the kids, including Jake, chose the diving board.  Janine, the lifeguard, was right there in the water to rescue you in case you started sinking like a rock.  None of the kids had much trouble, but Jake still thinks it’s odd that he can’t remember a single instance of being taught the mechanics of swimming – nothing about the breaststroke, backstroke, or any stroke at all.

“Ok, it’s your turn,” yells Bobby.

Jake considers trying something flashier to change things up, but right before he bounces at the end of the board, he decides to stick with what he knows best.  Arms extended over his head, he hits the sparkling water at what feels like the perfect angle; he’s not good at most things, but he’s good at this.  Jake stays underwater while swimming back over to Bobby.  If he wanted, he could swim under the rope and all the way to the other end of the pool without coming up for air.  He loves the feeling of total submergence, when every sound is muddled, no voice able to reach him.  A different world exists beneath the water, one that feels more peaceful, somehow.

After returning to the surface, he wipes drops of water from his eyes and looks at his friend.  “How was it?”

“Boring,” Bobby answers.  “Hardly no splash at all.”

“That’s what I was going for,” Jake says.  “The smaller the splash, the better the dive.”

“Mission accomplished.”

“Let’s go see what Sampson is doing.”

“Ok,” Bobby says, “race you there!”

Before Jake can respond, Bobby kicks off from the side of the pool and darts under the floating rope.  Jake takes off after his friend, easily catching up and swerving past him.  He touches the wall at the shallow end and turns around to find that Bobby has already given up on the race.  He’s standing beside Sampson and some other little kid.  “What are you doing to him?” he asks.

“We’re playing baptism,” Sampson answers.  “I can do you next.”

“Yeah, right,” Bobby says.  “What kind of game is baptism?”

“You baptize the person so they don’t burn in H-E-double-L,” Sampson explains.  “It’s really easy.”

“Are you sure your friend wants to be baptized?” Jake asks, joining the spectacle.

“My name’s Ryan,” the boy says, “and I’m ready to meet God.”

“Oh geez,” Jake snickers.

“Alright, hold your nose,” Sampson says.

“Can you believe this?” Bobby asks under his breath.

“It’s my fault,” Jake says.  “I tried to baptize him in the bathtub at home one time.”

“Quiet!” Sampson exclaims in a surprisingly authoritative voice for someone so puny.  He turns Ryan around and places a hand on each shoulder, pushing the boy down towards the water.  “Now, are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” Ryan says.  He sounds funny with his nostrils squeezed shut.

“Take this child!” Sampson yells, pushing Ryan down beneath the water.  “Don’t let him rot in that, um, purg place – what’s it called again?”

“Purgatory,” Jake says.

“That’s it, purr-gahh-tory,” Sampson repeats slowly.  “And let God take this child who’s now clean and ready to be taken.”

Ryan struggles under the water until Sampson finally releases him.  He inhales a desperate gulp of air before turning around to ask if it’s done.

“By the power vest in me, you are saved,” Sampson says.  “Forever and ever, amen.”  He puts his hands together in a praying motion, offering a small bow.  “Anybody else wanna go?”

“No way,” Bobby says.

“It’s the power vested in me,” Jake tells his brother.  “But that’s what they say when you get married, not baptized.”

“It’s the thought that counts.”

“Not really,” Jake says, laughing.  “You’re being silly.”

“I am not!”

“Yes you are.”  Jake splashes water in his brother’s face.

“Am not!”  Sampson yells, splashing Jake back.  Bobby and the newly baptized Ryan join in.  So much water is flying through the air, Jake can’t tell if anyone is really winning.  He quickly tires of all the shenanigans and makes his escape up the ladder, just as the lifeguard blows his whistle and yells at them to knock it off.

“Where are you going?” Bobby asks, out of breath.

“To rest.  I’ll be over with our towels.”

“Wanna get something out of the snack machine?  My mom gave me extra money.”

“Not right now,” Jake says, walking across the hot cement to where they left their stuff.  He digs through the pile of t-shirts, towels, shoes, and socks until he finds what he’s looking for – the big beach towel with the palm trees that he always brings to the pool.  It’s old and frayed at the edges, but it’s the biggest towel they own.  After spreading it out and sitting down, he digs through the pile again to find his sunglasses.  They’re his favorite pair because they look just like the ones Tom Cruise wears in that movie where he dances around in his underwear.  Jake slides them on and leans back against his elbows, keeping his head up so he can casually glance around the pool.  With his eyes hidden, no one will be able to tell he’s watching.

Despite the clear sky and warm weather, the pool isn’t very busy today.  Jake turns his attention to a group of high school kids gathered near the deep end.  The two girls are lying on their backs and seem more interested in sunbathing than taking a dip in the water.  Their bronze skin is shiny and greasy from all the baby oil they keep rubbing on.  Lots of girls come to the pool to work on their tans, never once stepping foot in the water.  Jake’s not sure why they bother since they could lie around just about anywhere else without having to pay an admission fee.  Girls in high school are weird, though.  One day they wake up with boobs and start showing them off every chance they get.  They’re pretty stupid, Jake thinks.

The two older guys are soaking wet and don’t act much differently than Jake and Bobby.  Earlier, Jake noticed them trying to outdo each other by taking turns jumping off the diving board to see who could make the biggest splash.  They really thought it was funny when they caused water to shoot across the deck, hitting the girls.  The shorter one with shaggy dark hair suddenly leans over the girl closest to him and wrings his trunks out, making sure to get her good and wet.  She squeals and tells him to cut it out in a really annoying, high-pitched voice.  He laughs and gives his friend, who’s taller with blonde hair, a loud, smacking high-five.

Jake wonders if the girls and guys are paired off into couples.  It seems everyone in high school is obsessed with finding someone to go steady with – a boyfriend to hang all over, a girlfriend to paw at when no one’s looking.  Jake can’t believe he’s on the cusp of such a strange new world, where going steady and driving and parties are everything – a place where full grown adulthood is the next step.  If he finds it challenging to fit in and act normal now, he can’t imagine how much harder it will be when he’s older.  It’s like there’s this set of rules that he never got a chance to read.  Even when he figures out what he should be doing, it’s usually too late.  When he leaps into the deep end of the pool, nothing pleases him more than landing the perfect dive with little to no splash, which is the exact opposite from all the other boys who aren’t happy unless they’ve soaked innocent bystanders.

If it was just splashing and sports, roughhousing around and making gross sounds with your armpits, Jake figures he could manage.  But other things worry him.  In just about any situation, he’d be better off if he just went against his instincts.  Instead of staring at the high school boys, Jake should be gawking at the girls with their oiled-up skin and budding curves.  He should be waiting in wild anticipation for a bikini top to slip down just enough to reveal a quick glimpse of nipple, like his friend Bobby.  The chests he finds thrilling are always on display here at the pool – he just has to be careful in taking a peek without being noticed.  It’s the guys who excite him, the way they horse around, sometimes even pulling their trunks down to moon each other.  Behind the protected darkness of his shades, he takes in every detail of the boys and their increasingly adult bodies.  Muscles spread and flex across their backs, arms, and naked torsos.  The shorter guy even has hair sprouting across his chest.  For a moment, Jake gets a little too excited and has to shift around, but that quickly dissipates when he stares down at himself.  He has such a flat, narrow chest, not a single hair to be seen.  He’s so scrawny you can actually see the outline of his ribcage, and his limbs are like toothpicks.  Jake feels like such a little kid and worries that his body will never expand and grow or change at all.  He fears he’ll always look the same, trapped inside the body of a child forever.

Jake hears wet feet smacking across the deck and glances over to see his friend Bobby approaching.  “Still resting?”

“Yeah,” Jake answers.  “The sun feels good.”

Bobby agrees, pulling his own towel out.  He snaps it in the air before spreading it out next to Jake and sitting down.

“It’s getting a little hot, though.”

“Here, this will cool you off,” Bobby says, shaking his wet head at Jake.

“Haha, funny.”  Jake removes his shades only long enough to wipe them off with the edge of his towel.

“Hey, you want to spend the night with me this Friday?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jake answers without giving it much thought.  “I’ll have to ask my parents first.”

“It’ll be ok with mine,” Bobby says.  “We can watch a movie in my room if you want.  My dad hooked up a VCR to my TV.  He said it’s so I can watch my stupid cartoon videos and not bother him, but I don’t even watch those anymore.”

“Sure you don’t.”

“I don’t,” Bobby insists.  “We can get a scary movie, maybe.”

“I thought your mom didn’t let you watch R-rated stuff?  If it’s not rated R, you know it’s no good.  Definitely not scary.”

“I think I can get my dad to get us something good,” Bobby says.  “He’s on this movie buying kick lately.  He gets them for cheap somewhere near work.  Come on, it’ll be fun.”

“Alright, I said I’d ask,” Jake says, annoyed with all the nagging.  “Jesus, you don’t let up.”

Bobby looks away.  Jake studies his friend’s body – just as skinny as his, thank God.  But he’s sure Bobby will sprout up before long, his body filling out and bulking up in ways Jake can’t imagine for himself.  Bobby’s the baseball player, the athlete, so it’s only natural that his body will grow and change into something else.  It makes him sad in a way, the idea that the differences between them might one day expand to the point of being insurmountable.

Suddenly, Jake notices that a hushed silence has fallen over the pool.  The high school kids are staring over at the locker rooms.  So is Bobby.  Jake turns to see what’s caught their attention.

It’s a young man making his way around the edge of the pool as he heads to the deep end.  He must not be a regular since Jake has never seen him before.  He looks to be in his mid-twenties or so.  Everyone’s staring because of what he has on: a skimpy pair of tight black shorts that look like bikini bottoms meant for women.  It’s a Speedo, which is fine if you’re on TV or getting ready to swim in the Olympics, but this is real life.  People don’t wear stuff like that around here.

Jake quickly pushes his sunglasses back on and stares at the form walking by, absorbing every detail.  The stretchy material covering his groin leaves very little to the imagination.  He might as well be walking around naked – most underwear Jake has seen reveals less.  It’s obscene the way the curve of his manhood sticks out, hanging down on full display as if begging to be traced by hungry fingers, inch by inch.  His smooth, tanned thighs bulge out, flexing as he walks.  A trace of light brown hair covers his chest, and his arms, while not overly muscular, are well-defined.

The high school boys snicker as the man steps up to the diving board.  For some reason, Jake feels nervous and exposed, like he’s the one in the tiny swimming briefs for the entire world to see.  The man runs down the board, bounces high, and lands a perfectly smooth dive, leaving only the smallest hint of a splash behind.  He comes up for air near the floating rope but quickly darts back underwater beneath it, swimming the length of the pool.  When he reaches the wall at the shallow end, he turns around to swim another lap.  One of the high school boys calls the man a fag.  He doesn’t say it loud enough for the guy to hear and defend himself.  He says it for his friends, who all start laughing.  Coward, Jake thinks.  He looks over at Bobby, thankful that his best friend has never made a fag joke.  “I’m gonna use the bathroom,” he blurts out, hopping off his towel.

“Ok.”

Jake races to the locker room, unsure of what he’s doing.  He noticed the guy in the Speedo didn’t bring a towel or anything else with him to the deck.  He must have left his stuff inside the locker room – and there it is on the bench against the wall, a pile of clothes that must belong to him, close enough to touch.  There’s a dark blue tote bag beneath the bench, along with some tennis shoes that have socks sticking out.  Jake moves closer, sliding down the bench next to the clothes, imagining that the man is still inside them.  He reaches a hand out and touches the acid washed jeans with the tip of his finger – a jolt of electricity shoots through his entire body.  The wild splatter of colors call out to him, the various shades of blue splashed across the bleached out whiteness; he has to feel every inch of the material for himself.  Slowly, he runs his finger along the jeans, up to the jagged teeth of the open zipper and the cold metal surface of the button.  He takes a deep breath, noticing for the first time that the clothes have a light scent of cologne, something masculine and woodsy.  He longs to pull the clothes up to his face to breathe in that alluring smell.  He doesn’t want to forget this moment, delicate and dangerous as it may be.  To reach inside the jeans and get his hands on the man’s underwear – he could do it if he wanted, but he’s scared.  It would be like walking off a cliff.  A single step and down he’ll fall, tumbling into the deepest abyss.

A sound from across the room disrupts his train of thought.  As if withdrawing from a fire, his hand snaps back.  He turns to see a very young boy rounding the corner into the locker room.  The kid looks younger than Sampson – a baby, basically, with his full, round cheeks and pudgy arms and legs.  He flies past Jake, who sits in a stunned silence, his knee barely a centimeter from making contact with the man’s clothes.  Excited to reach the pool, the boy doesn’t acknowledge Jake’s presence at all.  The floor is wet and slippery, and Jake wants to tell him to slow down.  He shouldn’t be running in the first place.  That’s what all the signs say.  It’s dangerous.  He could fall and hurt himself.  By the time he opens his mouth, the boy is gone.

Jake looks back to the jeans and rumpled t-shirt, but the spell has been broken.  He feels ridiculous, like some pervert stealing a lady’s panties off the clothesline behind her house.  Jake jumps off the bench and runs from the locker room, much faster than the young boy.  He’s lucky not to slip and fall.

“Sampson!” he yells at the edge of the shallow end.  “Get out, we’re going home.”

“Come over here,” Sampson calls back in an infuriatingly chipper tone.  He’s leaning over something on the side of the pool.  “Look at this.”

Jake walks around to his brother.  Crawling on the deck below Sampson’s careful gaze is a dark June bug.  “It was drowning, so I rescued it.”

“Ok, whatever,” Jake says.  “Come on, let’s go.”

“Alright,” Sampson says, keeping his eyes trained on the bug.  “First I have to do CPR.”  He reaches a finger out and pins the June bug against the deck.  “There, CPR,” he says, squishing the bug until its guts squirt out.

“That’s gross,” Jake says, looking away from the splattered bug.  “Why do you do stuff like that?”

Sampson shrugs.  “I don’t know.”  He dips his hand beneath the water to wash away the slimy insect guts.  “Help me up.”  He reaches his arms up for Jake to grab.  Once he’s out, they walk over to their pile of stuff, where Bobby still sits.

“You guys leaving?”

“Yeah,” Jake answers.

“I’ll come too.”

“Ok.”

“Ok,” Sampson echoes, pulling his shirt over his head.

“You should have dried off first,” Jake tells his brother.  “Now your shirt is all wet.”

“So what,” he says, sitting down to pull his flip-flops on.  “It’ll dry.”

The boys gather their belongings and head out.  As they walk through the locker room, Jake can’t help but take one last look at the Speedo man’s pile of clothes still sitting on the bench, waiting.  Filled with an aching sense of wonder, he thinks it’s probably best to stay away from the pool for a while.

Daisy May in the Driveway – published by Literary Orphans

My short story ‘Daisy May in the Driveway’ was just published by Literary Orphans (in Issue 31: Harryhausen).  Click this link to read the full story.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

Nobody knew what Daisy May was doing parked in the driveway, sitting perfectly still, her hands gripping the wheel as she stared straight ahead, not looking at our house but just beyond it, to the backyard, the pasture, and the dark woods in the distance.

“I’m calling the sheriff,” my mother said.

“Now, don’t do that,” Daddy told her. “She’ll get bored before long. No use in making a scene.”

Click here to read the full story.  Leave a comment to let me know what you think!

Be a Good Girl – published by Cold Creek Review

My short story “Be a Good Girl” was published by Cold Creek Review in September 2017 (Issue 3).  Click here to read it now.  Below is a brief excerpt from the story:

Kate woke that morning with a start, haunted by a single thought: there are some things you can never take back. Things that happen in the deepest, loneliest part of night, when everything is so perfectly still and quiet that each creaking sound the bed makes is like a gunshot ringing out in the dark. Things you can’t forget, no matter how hard you try – a story untold, trapped in your fingertips.

She jumped out of bed and ran to the crib, looking down at her sleeping child. “No one will ever hurt you,” Kate promised.

Read the full story here.  Feel free to leave a comment to let me know what you think.

‘No Splashing’ – A Short Story of Mine Published by Oyez Review

My short story “No Splashing” was recently published in Oyez Review, volume 44 (Spring 2017).  Visit their website for more information about getting your copy of the issue.  It’s not yet available for purchase at Amazon, but I’ll update this post when it is.

In the meantime, enjoy this excerpt from the story:

Jake wonders if the girls and guys are paired off into couples.  It seems everyone in high school is obsessed with finding someone to go steady with — a boyfriend to hang all over, a girlfriend to paw at when no one’s looking.  Jake can’t believe he’s on the cusp of such a strange new world, where going steady and driving and parties are everything — a place where full grown adulthood is the next step.  If he finds it challenging to fit in and act normal now, he can’t imagine how much harder it will be when he’s older.  It’s like there’s this set of rules he never got a chance to read.  Even when he figures out what he should be doing, it’s usually too late.  When he leaps into the deep end of the pool, nothing pleases him more than landing the perfect dive with little to no splash, which is the exact opposite from all the other boys who aren’t happy unless they’ve soaked innocent bystanders.

Again, visit Oyez Review for more information about getting your copy today!  Enjoy!

A Visit to the Adirondacks in Upstate New York, June 2017

Florence, Italy in Pictures – March 2017 Vacation

“Big Cat Head” – a short story of mine published in Sun Star Review

A short story of mine called “Big Cat Head” has been published in Sun Star Review (Volume 1, Issue #3).  The issue is free to read online, so go check it out!  Here’s a brief excerpt from the story:

While drying off in the bathroom, I heard the strangest noise coming from the living room.  I had just finished showering after one of my regular runs along Riverside Drive and froze in place, listening closely.  It wasn’t a single noise, actually.  A loud whooshing sound erupted first, like a large, extraordinary bird beating its wings against the sky.  Then, the creaking sound of springs, like someone taking a seat on my couch.  It’s an old piece of furniture that cries out as you settle into a comfortable position.  It’s not so much the sounds that were strange in and of themselves, though they were; it’s the fact that they existed at all.  No windows were open, ruling out a gust of wind as the source of the whooshing sound.  And who would be sitting on my couch?  I live alone and never have guests over.  The noises couldn’t have been coming from the television since I rarely turn it on.  I don’t even have cable.  Nothing came to mind that could explain the unexpected disturbance.

Read the full story here – and let me know what you think!

When Your Roommate Rips You Off

Finding housing in New York is never easy.  I’ve called NYC home for almost nine years and have had a variety of experiences with living arrangements.  In late 2015, I had the absolute worst apartment experience ever when I discovered my new roommate was ripping me off.  Finding out that she was illegally overcharging me was only the beginning, however.

First, let’s backtrack – I had to move out of the apartment I’d lived in for years when the owners decided the building would go full co-op.  This is a renter’s nightmare, especially when you like your apartment but aren’t in a position to buy.  So I began the hunt for a new place. I looked at a number of rooms but was having a hard time finding something I liked that was also within my budget.  That’s when I answered an ad on Craig’s List (yes, some people still use this as a way to find apartments/roommates – I’ve had both good and bad experiences with CL).  The apartment in question was within my budget, it was only a couple of blocks from where I work, and the pictures showed what looked like an adequate space.  So I made arrangements to meet with the person advertising the room, a girl I’ll refer to as “H.”

The first thing I discovered upon viewing the space was the fact that it was actually a 1-bedroom apartment.  H used the living room as her bedroom and was renting out the sole bedroom.  With the design of the apartment, this actually worked fine as long as you didn’t mind not having a living room.  The bedroom was on one side of the apartment, and the living room/makeshift bedroom was on the other side; in between was a small kitchen and bathroom.  H’s room had a door that closed as well.  For NYC apartments, this didn’t strike me as too strange.  I mean, when I first moved here, I remember seeing an ad from a woman who was literally renting out her bathroom – serious, no joke!

H seemed fine, although I must say I didn’t warm to her in any way.  Her current roommate was there, who seemed much friendlier – I actually talked with her more than I did with H.  After looking around, I told H I was interested but would have to think about it.  She was offering the room for $900, plus a $900 security deposit.

Lesson 1: Trust Your Instincts: I didn’t have a good feeling about the apartment for some reason.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but my gut was telling me not to take the room.  I felt like I was missing something.  I put off making a final decision as long as possible, hoping something better would turn up.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so I decided to take the room with H.  I wasn’t signing a lease, so I could move out whenever I wanted (giving an appropriate notice, of course).  I had no plans on staying in the apartment long-term but figured it’d be ok for a while, especially since I could actually walk to work from the building.  Unfortunately, I quickly learned what a big mistake I’d made.

I signed a roommate agreement with H, paying $900 for the first month’s rent and $900 for the security deposit.  Fast-forward a couple of months, and I find a slip of paper that’s been shoved under the front door.  It was a rental slip from the building management clearly showing the rent – I was shocked by the amount listed.  The full rent for the apartment was less than $1300, yet H was charging me $900 for my half.  I had a feeling she was overcharging me, but I had no idea it was by so much.

I talked to some residents in the building and discovered that I lived in a rent-stabilized apartment, which is something H never told me.  After doing some initial research on my own, I found that NY housing guidelines are strict when it comes to rent-stabilization.  In a nutshell, tenants are being protected from burdensome, unfair rental increases from their landlords – they’re getting a better deal on the price of their apartment than they would be enjoying in a building that wasn’t rent-stabilized.  However, it’s illegal for tenants to make a profit by overcharging a roommate.  Basically, they’re getting a good deal, so it’s not fair for them to turn around and rip someone else off – makes sense, right?  By law, if the apartment is rent-stabilized, the rent must be divided equally.

In my case, my half of the rent should have been approximately $650, not the $900 H was charging.  I checked with a housing attorney to make sure I understood the law.  He verified that H was violating housing regulations.  He gave me information about filing a complaint against her with the State of New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal‘s Office of Rent Administration, which I did.  (Check out their website for more information.)

Lesson 2: ALWAYS ask for the Details: I was livid and decided not to pay more than $650 in rent from that point forward.  I should have asked to see a copy of the lease before taking the room.  I should have asked if the apartment was rent-stabilized.  Anytime you’re looking for a room, make sure to ask these important questions.  The official lease will show you how much the full rent is.  I understand some people charge whatever they want when renting out a room, but don’t feel bad about asking questions.  If it’s a rent-stabilized apartment, it’s against the law for them to overcharge you.  If it’s not, you should still be aware of exactly how much the rent is and what you’re paying.  When everything is out in the open, problems concerning rent are less likely to come up.  If someone renting a room doesn’t want to show you the lease, that’s a big red flag.

I talked to H via text (our schedules were very different, so I often didn’t see her), telling her I knew how much the rent was and wanted to discuss it.  We met the next day, but it wasn’t much of a discussion.  She went berserk, telling me I had to move out right away.  She wouldn’t admit that she had been overcharging me, nor would she verify how much the full rent was (though she didn’t deny what I’d discovered).  It quickly became obvious there was no reasoning with H.  She wanted me to move by the end of that month (September).  I calmly explained that finding a new place in such a short amount of time was unreasonable.  Also, I had a trip booked to go out of town over the first week of October.  I told her I would start hunting for a new place right away with plans on being out by the end of October.  I didn’t want to stay in the apartment any longer than I had to considering she’d been ripping me off.  She agreed that the end of October was fine.  When I asked her to refund the money she owed me, she adamantly refused.  Since I was familiar with the housing laws, I informed H that I would file a complaint against her if she didn’t willingly refund the money.  Again, she claimed she didn’t owe me anything.

Lesson 3: You have a Right to Feel Safe in Your Apartment:  Things quickly got bizarre.  At first, it was mostly weird stuff, like coming into the kitchen to find my coffee pot and microwave unplugged.  I was in my room one day and heard H talking with someone.  They then knocked, so I opened the door to find some strange man I’d never seen before; H was standing behind him.  I’ll refer to the man as “M” to make things easier.  At first, M was relatively calm.  He started talking about the rental dispute, telling me I needed to go ahead and move out.  I was a little confused – first of all, it was none of his business as far as I was concerned.  Second of all, I had every intention of moving out as soon as possible.

Then, M started telling me that it would be better for everyone if I didn’t take the dispute to court.  His tone got a little more aggressive as he told me I needed to just move out right away.  I decided I didn’t have to talk to this man, which is what I told him.  I also told both him and H that I’d already started filing the complaint.  I knew H wasn’t going to willingly refund the money she owed, after all.  When I told M I was done talking to him, that it was none of his business, he got visibly upset and started yelling at me.  I shut the door, figuring he would go away, but he didn’t.  Instead, he started banging on my door with his fist, screaming obscenities at me.  He screamed that I would move out one way or the other, that he would beat my ass – that he’d make me leave.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but I didn’t like some strange man threatening me.  I knew nothing about this M guy – with the way he was acting, I thought he was a lunatic.  What if it got worse?  I opened my door and told M that I would call the police if he didn’t stop beating on my door and screaming at me.  He laughed, telling me to go ahead and call them.  H was behind him, looking very concerned.  She asked me not to call the police, so I told her to get her friend away from me then.  He got into my face, which is when H reached around him, holding him back.  I shut the door, totally freaked out by this point.  M continued yelling and banging on the door, so I finally called the police.  When he heard me on the phone, he backed away and went into the kitchen with H.

The police soon arrived.  I heard M and H talking to them, telling the police that I was refusing to pay rent and they had simply asked me to move out.  When the policemen came into my room, I summed up what had been going on in regards to the rent, then I told them about how M had threatened me.  They explained to H that any rental dispute we had would have to be taken care of in court.  They also told her that neither she nor any of her guests could come into my room.  They told me they couldn’t make M stay out of the apartment, but it was up to H to make sure he didn’t harass me.  And under no circumstances could he enter my bedroom.

I thanked them for their help.  At first, I wondered if I’d done the right thing by calling the police.  But the situation with M was very unpredictable.  I had no idea how far he’d go.  I also had no idea what H had told him to get him so angry at me.  But, at the end of the day, everyone has the right to feel safe.  H should have never brought someone into the apartment to try to intimidate me.  From what I understood, H couldn’t afford to live in the apartment on her own.  If I wasn’t going to pay the majority of the rent, she would have a hard time making ends meet.  She thought she could get M to scare me into leaving right away so she could then get a new roommate to scam out of money.

The confrontation with M really shook me up.  I took some of the boxes I’d been packing and stacked them up against the door at night while I slept.  I also kept a hammer nearby.  I honestly wasn’t sure what this M guy was capable of, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  He was clearly unstable.

Side note: I talked to H’s previous roommate.  She was going to sell me her air conditioning unit, so I had her number handy.  I told her that I’d discovered H was overcharging me in rent.  When she found out how much the full rent was, she was shocked.  Apparently, H had been overcharging her as well.  She said she was going to look into filing a complaint against H in housing court, though she also said she was mostly relieved to be out of the situation.

H had previously told me she’d lived in her apartment for about 10 years.  My guess is she’s been ripping off roommates from the very beginning.

So anyway, I found a new apartment and made plans to move on October 31.  In the meantime, some other weird things happened.  I saw M a few times, though he never threatened me again.  As I washed dishes, he walked over and put a piece of paper down beside me, saying, “You’ve been served.”  He then went back into H’s room.  I didn’t pick up the paper, but I did notice that it was something H had typed up, telling me I had to vacate the premises ASAP.

I actually got a laugh out of that one – telling someone they’ve been served doesn’t magically make it official.  I did let H know that I’d be moving by the end of October.  I asked her one more time about refunding the money she owed me, but H refused.  She claimed she didn’t owe me any money.  I suggested she confer with a housing attorney to find out more about the relevant laws.  I think she was depending on M to give her advice, and he clearly didn’t know what he was talking about.

On the day I moved out, I saw M one last time.  He approached me – while I was bringing stuff downstairs – and showed me a piece of paper with numbers scribbled on it.  He’d done calculations, trying to convince me that the money H had overcharged me was justifiable.  He said H cleaned the apartment weekly and deserved compensation from me for that.  I just laughed and told him it was over – I was literally on my way out.  M said he thought it’d be best if I didn’t take H to court.  They knew I had a case against H, so they were still trying to convince me to drop it.  I told M that I’d already filed the complaint and looked forward to settling the dispute through official channels.  “Look,” I told M, “I don’t like you, and I have nothing else to say to you.”

And that was that.  Other than a lamp going missing, my move into a new place was very smooth.

Lesson 4: Follow Through: A month or so later, I got a notification from the NY Housing department acknowledging they had received my complaint against H.  About a year later (September 2016), I got more paperwork from the housing department.  They sent me H’s response to my complaint, which she had filled out earlier in the year (it took a while for them to send it to me).  They asked for my response, which I quickly submitted.

In December, I received their judgment.  They found in my favor, saying H had illegally overcharged me in rent.  They said H had 30 days to refund the money she owes me.

So, even though it took over a year, I’m vindicated at last.  If you find yourself in a situation like mine, take the time to file a complaint.  It might take a while, but it’s well worth the wait.  This way, people like H will think twice about ripping off their roommates.  Keep in mind that H’s landlord now has grounds to evict her.  If you live in a rent-stabilized apartment and are found to have illegally overcharged your roommate, the landlord can immediately evict you.

Speaking of landlords – I talked to H’s building management during this ordeal, and they were not happy at all.  They told me H didn’t have permission to have a roommate in the first place.  I’m not sure if they’ve made any move to evict her, but at least they know what she’s been up to in their building.  I really would hate to see anyone else go through what I did with H as a roommate.

Check out the link below to see the “Order Granting Application” I received from the NY Housing division.  I’ve redacted some identifying information.

Order Granting Application