When you choose to live in an apartment complex, you choose to share walls, floors, and ceilings. You choose to share what would have otherwise been your front yard. You choose to share jarring soundbites of your messy life with people you don’t know.
When Courtney and I first timidly peered through the dusty windows of a bright blue condo one lazy Sunday afternoon, we were instantly sold. We were twenty years old, unhappy, and totally ignorant as to why we felt that way. Moving in with Courtney was the only idea that made sense to me now that my life in Massachusetts was a rapidly draining memory. I was dying to move on, stop wallowing, stop remembering, stop feeling homesick for a place that was only my home for four breathless months. I needed a friend. I needed something to ground me. Sunlight streamed gently into the kitchen of the little blue house and illuminated a pink flowered wallpaper that anyone’s grandmother might have chosen. I said to myself, “Welcome home.”
Sometimes, we received mail meant for our neighbors. I remember the first time I received Sharon’s mail. Although our unit shared a kitchen and bedroom wall with Sharon’s unit, we never heard a peep from her end. I often forgot anyone lived next door, except for the occasional blip of embarrassment that flashed across my mind if I blasted loud jazz music while cooking dinner. When I rang Sharon’s doorbell, there was a slightly audible rustling from some unknown location in the house. Empty cardboard boxes caged me in on her patio. One minute passed. Then three. Five. I rang the doorbell again.
“What is it?!”
She screeched it like an injured owl. More rustling, then a door was swinging open furiously and a severely irked elderly woman was practically nose to nose with me.
“I…got some of your mail by mistake – “
She frantically snatched the parcels from my unsure hands, broke eye contact as soon as she possibly could, and slammed the door in my face with such force that I was left wondering if an earthquake had just taken place simultaneously.
I can count on one hand the number of times I saw Sharon for the one and a half years I lived in the little blue house. Once, she was being loaded onto a stretcher into an ambulance. I wondered if anyone knew, if anyone was going to meet her at the hospital. I hoped.
I moved 20 feet across the complex to a darker, older, smellier, and much more cockroach-infested unit as a favor to my landlord. She wanted to move her senile mother into my home because it was her best apartment. I remember saying yes when I meant no. That unit was everything that held me together. I had a beautiful view of the mountains. The rooms all filled with just the right amount of sunlight every day. My room had ugly nail holes in the wall that I had lovingly patched and reoriented countless times.
But the landlord guilted me into it, and I wasn’t yet old enough to know I could stand my ground. To be fair, Courtney had moved to a new city, and I was now living with a random girl I regrettably found on Craigslist. I thought change might do me some good.
In many ways, it did not.
But one day, I heard a cacophonous banging from behind the living room wall I shared with my new neighbors. It sounded like someone had just bought a new drum set and was attacking the heads with every heavy household object they could possibly think up, and possibly their own body to boot. I remember furrowing my brow and putting in some headphones to try and drown out the mysterious onslaught of noise. Minutes later, though, the unsettling roar of a power drill was added to the mix, and I lost my cool. I angrily twisted open the front blinds to see if I could spot any clues as to what was going on.
The sight that awaited me beyond the window threw me off more than I could have ever dreamed. At least 5 people were now exiting the unit next door with hula hoops around their waists. These people proceeded to lay blankets on the dirt parking lot. I watched in both admiration and something close to confused horror as they began to perform yoga moves that seamlessly incorporated their hula hoops.
The relentless banging and buzzing ceased.
I watched at least 15 different people regularly enter and exit this unit for the next eight months, all of them usually sporting hula hoops. I never did find out they were doing, who they all were, or what their motivations were. I wish I had been the person I am today when all of this was unfurling before my front door. I might have confidently marched right up with a hula hoop of my own and said, “Count me in.”
“You’re a whore.”
“You’re a goddamn bitch.”
“Stupid fucking kid.”
“I hate you. I wouldn’t care if you died.”
“Get out of my life. Nobody loves you. I don’t love you.”
I heard these words float eerily down from the unit above me almost every day for one and a half years. In my eyes, this man was evil. He was too explosive to be good.
I remember feeling the weight of morality suffocate me every time I overheard these verbal attacks. The woman, the mother of his child – she always yelled back. She didn’t seem afraid. But I was afraid. My ex boyfriend, who lived with me at the time, was afraid. We lived under a maniac. But I never quite knew what to do. He didn’t seem to be physically hurting anyone, but who knew for sure? He never yelled for too long, but his words were surely cutting enough to leave a gouge for days. But I couldn’t read her mind. I couldn’t know what it was like to live upstairs in her shoes. She seemed to walk through her everyday life confidently, proudly. She waltzed her son down the stairs every morning with his hair combed back and his shirt nicely tucked in. I wondered how much a person could be abused before they broke down.
One day, there was a knock at our door. It was the woman and her son. Ana was her name, and she was locked out of her apartment. Her son needed water. I brought her two cups and stood outside with them. It was hot and muggy. I asked her when she’d be able to get back inside her home.
“Probably never,” she said with an eyeroll. “I got kicked out.”
I felt a stab of forced intimacy in this exchange. On one hand, I felt empathy for this woman based on all of the awful fights I’d accidentally overhead. On the other hand, I wasn’t ready to start digging a hole deep into the complicated, painful life of a stranger. Not that day.
Ana and her son eventually came inside because I was weak to her suffering. I was also afraid to tell her no because she knew where I lived and could hunt me down if I really pissed her off. Even in my spineless wavering, I remained overly cautious and untrusting.
She told me the gritty details of her nonexistent relationship with the evil man upstairs. I listened silently for hours as she sat on our floor. She bought my ex boyfriend and I pizza as a gesture of gratitude for our five hour stint of unexpected hospitality. Her son played with one of my old stuffed animals. He rolled all over my bed. He found my scissors in a drawer and Ana became enraged at me for not having a more childproof home. All my boundaries had disappeared. Everything was blurry.
The sun had set long ago, and she finally decided to go upstairs and break into the man’s apartment window. I refused to help her – perhaps my one and only stroke of sensibility that day. I remember feeling like I’d just been sucked into a whirlpool when she left. Everything felt liquefied and I was in a haze. Our worlds had just intertwined, and I was exhausted.
Weeks later, Ana ran up to me in the parking lot.
“I got my own place.”
I was strangely happy for her. She asked me to help her move her stuff, and I rejected her as politely as I could. Something felt so painful about our interactions. I felt too close to her broken life. I felt hopelessly caught in her quicksand when she stood this near to me.
She asked if my boyfriend was around. I said no. I remember her mischievous half smile as she leaned in a little closer and,
“Just remember. Men get tired of the same woman after a while. They’ll lie. They’ll cheat. They don’t care. Watch yourself.”
I laughed. I laughed in her face, I laughed by myself in the car on the way to the store, I laughed to my ex boyfriend about it later that night over dinner. What a bitter sentiment. What a sad way to walk through life.
What a tragedy that she somehow foreshadowed the end was coming before I could have even joked about it.
While I was hearing her life waste away through the ceiling, she was hearing mine waste away through the floor.
For the past seven nights, I thought I was dreaming a sad dream, but I think I was actually awake. I must have been, because today my neighbor’s balcony is a ghost town. The patio furniture is all gone. The nightly waft of cigarette smoke is nowhere to be tasted. I sit in a lonely column now.
When I first began practicing metta, or lovingkindness meditation as a form of mindfulness, I was instructed to think of a person I felt neutral about and wish them well over and over again. The first and only neutral person who ever came to mind was my neighbor downstairs, a middle-aged blonde woman with a loud Wisconsin accent who seemed to be perpetually glued to her blue camping chair, inevitably complaining to someone over the phone. I had no feelings about her that were positive or negative. I was slightly amused by her thick Midwestern accent that made me nostalgic for time with my family, but other than that, I was entirely detached from her. It felt furtive, to wish her health, happiness, and freedom from suffering almost every day in my head and then merely wave to her as I rushed to get to work on time. Still, I started to genuinely want her to live a good life. I guess that was the point of the meditation.
I awoke groggily one night to the distorted yelling. Somewhere in the limbo between consciousness and fantasy, I remembered I had left my window open because spring was coming way too fast, and even in darkness, warmth was already creeping into every crevice of my apartment. Because only a screen separated my bed from the outside world, the angry Midwestern accent sounded like it was right next to my ear as it snarled in pain and desperation. The woman’s harsh tone struck a dissonant chord within me. A man’s cold and resentful voice overpowered hers.
I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I would barely understand any of it for the entire week. But it happened again and again, always at around 2 or 3 in the morning, always echoing through the unforgiving night air like a static-filled radio show about to lose signal. Every so often, I would catch orphaned words or short phrases that were especially emphasized. “U-Haul.” “Love.” “Insurance.” “Never again.” I always tried to stitch the words together into some sort of poetic tapestry for my own comprehension, but I couldn’t help but drift back to sleep as the heated, headless words outside became rhythmic enough to soothe me.
Last night, the final sound that pierced my slumber was wailing. Raw, unfiltered emotion poured all over the rooftops. I wanted to cry, too, but I in the end I just felt back asleep because I’m only as strong as my basic instincts will allow, and what’s more, I have already been the neighbor who wails herself to sleep. I have passed that role on to someone else, and I know how the story ends. She survives.
And then this morning it was all over. It was as if she never existed, as if I’d never gotten home from work and smelled her baking chicken nuggets in her oven, or overheard her telling a friend a highly dramatic account of an especially taxing Costco run. She used to be a fixture in my definition of home, and now she has flown away. May she be well, may she be happy, may she be free from suffering.