by a contributor
Third place winner of Treehouse’s contest!
“I stayed in town with my sister Sophie last night,” said Miss Goering, “and this morning I was standing in front of the window drinking a cup of coffee. The building next to Sophie’s home is being torn down… From my window I could see into the rooms of this building, as the wall opposite me had already been torn down. The rooms were still partially furnished, and I stood looking at them, watching the rain splatter the wallpaper. The wallpaper was flowered and already covered with dark spots, which were growing larger.”
“How amusing,” said Mrs. Copperfield, “or perhaps it was depressing.”
—from “Two Serious Ladies” by Jane Bowles
High-density urban living means so many lives are lived side by side. I imagine all of us crammed so close but separate, boxed into our honeycomb homes. Loves and losses, coffee made and showers taken in parallel. Each person in the honeycomb has as much going on inside as I do, worries as much, loves as much, sometimes leaves the stove on. But I can’t think about all that. If I do, the empathy becomes too big to manage.
When I was twenty-four, I had my first and most graphic experience of hearing other people have sex through a too-thin wall. I learned a good deal about my next-door neighbor this way—or at least I imagined a story for him that made sense to me. He was in a long-distance relationship, I concluded, because I only ever heard those noises over holiday weekends. He’s better at love than I am, I concluded, when my long-distance relationship sputtered and failed and his carried on.
I think of the modernists, stream-of-consciousness expressing interiority, a mind laid out on the page. Novels take the front off of the house and let us peer in. After I read something really good, everyone on the subway platform is suddenly a little more alive, and I feel a deep well of compassion for all that humanity, even amid the lock-jawed rush-hour glares and the urine smell and the life of the city ongoing.
While Miss Goering watched the façade-less house, a man appeared in one of the rooms. He had apparently returned for something he left behind. He walked around the room aimlessly for a bit, she says, and then stood at the edge of the room looking down, arms akimbo. She could tell he was an artist. Miss Goring was afraid he would jump.
I was wrong about my neighbor. Or at least, what I imagined didn’t stay true. Later that year, the whole seventh floor began to reek of dying animals and the building sent a team in to clean his apartment, where garbage and undone dishes had festered for months. That’s how I found out that his girlfriend had dumped him. Building speculation had it that she’d gotten tired of the mess. I was relieved that the cockroaches that had begun to populate my cabinets were overflow from his horrifying infestation, and not really my problem. The worst bits of his life had permeated my walls along with those other better moments I’d caught.
In novels, details are hand-picked for us. We get to know a character in deliberate ways. In life, especially urban life, we don’t get to choose the pieces of each other’s worlds that we brush up against.
In my next apartment, a voice often floated up through the bathroom vent. A man whose wife, I later learned, lived elsewhere. Sometimes, the voice was cheery. I once heard him improvise a song about dumplings. But usually I heard him speaking to his wife, reciting a desperate refrain. “You don’t want to talk to me!” he would wail, sounding as though he were standing in my kitchen. I would freeze, stop whatever I was doing, unable to unhear. He accused her of not listening. Even I could tell that she was pulling away. I could feel his frustration as he yelled across however many miles, the same threads that connect us all stretching too thin to reach her. Should I have felt guilty about my accidental intrusion? I didn’t. But I felt sorry for them both.
“Did he jump, Miss Goering?” Mrs. Copperfield asked with feeling.
“No, he remained there for quite awhile looking down into the courtyard with an expression of pleasant curiosity on his face.”
Rebecca Worby is an MFA candidate at Columbia University. She is working on a book about atomic legacy and the complicated relationship between people and land in Moab, Utah. Follow @bworbs for musings about books, the desert, and grocery shopping.