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The unreal power of pretty

“The apartment is yours,” says the man who would become my landlord. “On one condition—that you call me before you go sunbathing in your bikini so I can come over and watch.”

He’s got mottled skin and moves in this way that makes it clear that he’s in an old man’s pain, but he’s got boyish features and occasionally wears overalls, giving him this bizarro-world Peter Pan schtick. His tired Queens accent makes everything he says sound like it’s a low-effort put-on, like he’s playing a bit part as a jokester in a film he doesn’t particularly want to be in.

But he’s willing to rent me a junior one-bedroom with hardwood floors, butter-yellow walls, ample sunlight, and a backyard—a New York backyard, consisting of 90 square feet of concrete and a view of my neighbors’ garbage, but a backyard nonetheless. So when he raises his eyebrows and makes this stupid joke about seeing me in a bikini, I wave it away with a sort of laugh. Everything he says is a put-on, right?

In the weeks that follow, his comments keep coming, and I keep laughing them off like I believe I should. My legs, my hair, how stunning I look when awoken at 8 a.m. for temperature control checks. He frequently mentions how harmless he is, a comment I think is designed to ...