It was late afternoon and I was at my desk, as usual, trying to get some last bits of work done. The light coming through the narrow windows was an overbearing yellow, hard and clear. The kind of light that made everything seem more real than it actually was.
I was working a little at a time on several reports, hoping to get just one done and filed by the end of the day. I knew it didn't really matter—whether I got them done or not, I mean.
My habit has always been to work several days ahead. Partly this was so that if things came up, I would have the flexibility to deal with them. Someone who knew me well might see something else in it, though. My wife, for example, might say that it was easier for me to deal with tomorrow than today—a fault that had led to my industrious work habits. To me, it was different. I was simply going about my day the way I always went about my day.
What happened next was also typical of my workday. The upstairs neighbors came home. First one and then the other, maybe twelve minutes apart. I could hear their car doors bang shut, the heavy thud of all those feet going up the stairs. I could hear them going this way and then that. The way they seemed to run from room to room above my head, at full tilt. It was as if they were frantically seeking something, rushing to uncover it first one place and then another.
As far as I could tell, they never found what they were looking for.
In case it isn't clear, I work from home, though unlike some people you may have heard about, my schedule resembles that of the typical workday. I have actual hours that I must follow and despite the great temptation I feel to, say, go outside on nice days or drive to a bookstore on rainy days to browse the endless stacks, I tend to stay at my desk working for the entirety of my shift.
Exceptions arise, sure.
When we first moved into this place—which is the first floor of a condo planted in a development of other condos—my wife asked me, "Will this be okay? We're pretty far from things and I know how you can get."
"It's fine," I said. I looked at the walls. They appeared to have been freshly painted the heady color of fresh cream. "What do you mean?"
"Just that I know you have a tendency to go a little buggy."
"In what way?" After five years of marriage, I was often amazed at how little my wife seemed to know me. But wasn't that my fault? I looked at her carefully, fully, trying to take her all in. I lingered over the light spray of freckles high on her left cheek, directly under her eye.
On our fourth date, I asked her if there was a name for a grouping of freckles like that. "Like how it's called a brace of ducks. Or a convocation of eagles."
"Ah," she had said to me then. "It's a flourish."
"Forget I said anything," she said.
So we moved in—my wife and I. The upstairs neighbors didn't move in until later.
How did I get here?
It's the kind of question you can't answer. You can spend time, as I do, tracing the path of your life backwards. The problem is that we never know enough about ourselves to really understand the important spots, the currents that compelled you in a different direction. If it were as easy as looking back over your shoulder and seeing the map of it all laid out, then it would be easy to translate that knowledge. Then we could look ahead and plot a better course.
But instead the connections and links remain obscure. I take a box of pasta out of the cupboard where I keep the boxes of pasta. I put some water on to boil and, after it starts up, I open the box and slide the dry pasta in. I lean my head over the pot and let the steam hit me. And then I look back and can't say what I'm doing, even right now in the moment in which I am doing it.
How could anyone expect me to understand things?
Later that night, my wife and I are in the living room. We've eaten the pasta I cooked and it was delicious. I may use boxed pasta but I make my own sauce with tomatoes and herbs from a garden I planted in one corner of our very small yard.
It's only vanity, maybe, that makes me think I can grow vegetables. You put seeds in the ground and wait.
My wife and I are doing what we always do. I'm on the couch reading. My wife is working, catching up on something or other that she couldn't get to during her normal workday. If you saw us at night like this, you would think that she was the one who worked from home. She never leaves her job behind. Me, I have no trouble clicking the computer off and thinking I'm someone else until morning, someone without any reports to work on.
The upstairs neighbors are at it again. Stomping fast from one end of their place to another, dropping things. Moving furniture around, maybe. But that's not what bothers me. You expect to hear your neighbors through the walls and ceiling. What bothers me isn't that I can hear everything but that there is so much to hear. She hasn't taken her shoes off from work and is moving around, each step a hard thwack against the cheap tile floor. He's opening one cabinet after another. I can hear her click the television on. I can feel the whisper of air from the cushions on their couch when she falls into it and I hate that their lives are louder than my own. They never stop.
I closed the book I was reading, probably too abruptly, too loudly, because I was looking for a reaction. I started to fidget around to draw attention to myself. I wanted my wife to ask me what was on my mind so I wouldn't have to announce it on my own.
Finally, though, I said, "Can you believe this?" She turned to me with a quizzical look, one that said she was capable of believing a great many things, actually, but needed a little more to go on before she would commit in this particular instance. I jerked my thumb upwards, at the ceiling. In my mind, that thumb shot straight up through the plaster and insulation to indicate the upstairs neighbors themselves.
"So," she said with a shrug. "They're talking. Or arguing." She shifted in her chair to face me, as if to show that I had her undivided attention. "This is nothing new. This is a typical evening. Right?" She kept her pen in her hand.
I didn't have a response to that. My wife was right. This night wasn't really different from any other night. She would come home from work and I would already be quietly working in the kitchen—maybe chopping up some vegetables, for example. After a little while, we'd eat dinner and catch each other up on the general happenings of our days. After dinner we might have a beer or something and that was usually around the time that the neighbors would get home. They'd stomp across the floor like ogres, dropping armfuls of books or shoes or wooden pins. Who knows? I had no idea, really, what they did up there. All I had to go on was the noise of it all.
"I think your problem," my wife was saying, "is that you let it bother you. You can make a choice, you know, to block it out. Not so that you don't hear, but so that you don't pay attention to hearing it."
My wife has many special abilities but the one I am most in awe of is this ability to pretend things that are happening are not actually happening.
She tells me that I have control over my reactions. That, in this instance, I can choose not to let the noise from upstairs infiltrate me. But I would prefer to have her hidden power. She's not making a choice. She is able to disavow the evidence of the world all around her. For her, it's not that she has chosen to hear or unhear the neighbors. For her, the world is quiet. There are no neighbors.
She set her pen down and turned around to look at me. "You're acting peculiar tonight," she said.
"I know," I said with a smile. "I'm the strangest man for hundreds of miles."
My wife laughed, a short and almost involuntary outburst, then turned back around.
I told her I was going to get a beer and asked if she wanted one. She muttered something which sounded like "No." Instead of getting a beer for myself, however, I walked toward the front door.
I went outside, taking the front steps carefully, and then kept going out into the yard. There was a hushed quality to the evening all around me, soundless skies.
It wasn't dark out yet but it seemed as if the day's light was fading, fading from a high brightness to a lingering stain of blue and purple across the face of the world. And, for all of that, it was still relatively warm. In fact, as I walked out into the yard, I felt as if I was fighting my way through wet gauze. I imagined I was pushing aside a heavy curtain, struggling to see what lay beyond. But what I was hoping to get a glimpse of I could not say.
I took a few more steps and then turned back to look at the condo. There was the ground floor, where I lived with my wife, windows blazing with the peculiar tinge of artificial light that no shade can soften. I could see right into the living room, and into the kitchen. I could see my wife there at her desk. She held a pen in her fingers, the point of it resting in the side of her mouth.
As a kid I would buy this brand of gum where something like ten or twelve sticks, all in different flavors, came in one pack. I liked it partly because I didn't have to make a choice. I didn't have to commit to one single flavor.
But instead of taking them out one at a time, pacing it out over different days or even a week, I would gorge. I would take a stick out, unwrap it to see the powdery color of it, and put it in my mouth. Then I would take another stick and do the same thing until I had the whole pack—every stick of gum—in my mouth all at once.
And all of those pieces would get mashed together in a sweet glob, none of the flavors or colors standing out more than any other. That's how I feel looking back at my life now.
All of those different experiences and emotions, all of the people I knew. Moments of trembling sadness and paralyzing happiness all compressed and unrecognizable.
Except I know that unlike the gum I didn't take it all in at once. There should be some way to separate the things that I'm feeling. But this is all that I am left with.
Upstairs, the neighbors' place, there was only one window that wasn't covered up by curtains or blinds, only one window I could see into. And, because it was a second floor window, I couldn't really see in at all. Just the presence of light and shapes of darkness moving back and forth. Out here in the yard, I couldn't even hear them—not their voices and not their feet ceaselessly tracking across the floor.
But I wanted to get some kind of view. I was overcome with the desire to see what they were doing.
I walked further from the house to try to fix my angle and get a better view into their lives. The night was alive all around me. It wasn't the cool passive dark you might expect of a developed area where condos covered the earth. There was the rough humming and vibrations of crickets and treehoppers in the air. There was the electrified sound of the streetlights. Further off, I could hear the steady thrum of traffic.
Something caught my eye, some movement in the night behind me. I scanned the sky but whatever it was had disappeared. But as I was watching I saw it again, a dark shape darting through the air. Not toward me, exactly, but near me, in a tight arc. Finally I got a good look at the thing.
"A bat," I said to myself to make it real. But where did it live? I wondered. Why had I never seen one before? I couldn't see where it flew from or where it flew to either. I only saw it for those few seconds while it was in flight, and then only if I caught it at the right angle. It would remain a mystery.
And a distraction. When I looked back up, my neighbors' window had gone dark. I had missed my chance to see what was going on inside.
It was a week later when I saw one of my upstairs neighbors, the man. It was late afternoon and I was getting home from a quick trip to the grocery store where I had picked up some odds and ends for dinner.
Though my wife and I usually plan our meals together, and do so far in advance, there are times when a recipe will catch my eye, or I'll get a taste for something that I can't fight. So on those days, like today, the meal plan goes out the window and I pick up whatever extra ingredients I might need.
The upstairs neighbor was already sitting in his car when he saw me pull up, as if getting ready to leave. But he waited behind the wheel of his car and then after I got out and started unloading bags, he jumped out of his own car. "Hey!" he shouted, "Neighbor!"
His hair was a mess and it was clear he hadn't shaved in a few days. Despite that, he looked relaxed, friendly. He came right up to me, grinning widely.
"Do you have a minute," he asked. I nodded, probably a little too tersely. "I didn't know," he continued, pointing at the grocery bags on the front seat of my car, "if you had anything that was going to spoil. Something that might melt."
"No," I said, growing a little annoyed that this person I did not really know, this person who, as far as I knew, I did not actually like, was taking up my time. But I thought that it might be a good idea to play along. That maybe something he said would shed some light. "Just some vegetables." I held up one of the bags as if he could see through it. "Carrots and turnips. Very hardy."
The upstairs neighbor laughed. "Well," he said, "I don't quite know how to bring this up. It's a little sensitive I guess." He looked around searchingly, as if what he had wanted to say was written on a piece of paper and he had dropped it. "Are you sure you don't need a hand bringing those in?"
"I'm sure," I said. We were silent for a second. I said, "Look, whatever it is, it's better to be direct, right?"
That seemed to decide something for him. "Right," he said. "Well, it's like this."
The upstairs neighbor proceeded to describe how, on a nightly basis, he and his girlfriend could hear my wife and I have sex.
"Which is fine," he said, smiling. "You know? Good for you." He got a confused look on his face. "But every night? And so loud?"
"But," I said, stumblingly, taken aback. "That can't be."
"I don't get it either. The bed, all that breathing. I can't believe we can hear it. And, I'm sorry – it's so loud! It's as if we had a television on right there in the room with us. No picture of course." He winked.
"No. What I mean is . . ." I trailed off. I wanted to tell him that he had to be imagining things. Because my wife and I don't have sex every night. Weekly, maybe, if the stars align. But nothing like what he was describing. However, I realized I couldn't tell him that. "It's just impossible."
"Okay, right," the upstairs neighbor said. "I get it. I don't hear anything. Right." He stopped himself and looked at me, seriously. "I just thought, you know, for the sake of your wife, you'd want to know. For propriety."
I was more than a little stunned. All of the things I had wanted to ask the upstairs neighbors, all of the accusations I had formed, disappeared like steam rising from the street. Here I was defending myself to him! And I knew that I couldn't very well start asking him about his life and the noises. It would seem petty.
"Anyway, it doesn't matter. That girl I live with—she's driving me crazy. We're done, as far as I'm concerned. She doesn't know that yet. But I do. I can see it the way you see a ship on the horizon. Getting closer, you know? One of these days I just won't come home and that'll be it."
"What do you mean?" I was on automatic pilot, carrying on a conversation I wasn't really part of.
"It's your fault," he smiled. "Well, no. Not really. But it's part of it. I mean, you two downstairs seem so happy. So," he paused, searching for the word, "close to each other. We just don't have that connection."
He drove off and left me standing in the driveway. My head felt clouded. Something in how he said it made it so that I could not doubt him: one day he wouldn't come home. I thought about him driving through a darkness that never let up. I grabbed my groceries and walked to the front of the house, to the front door that would lead me back into my life.
I paused on the front porch and saw the bright winking of headlights in the distance. His? Or my wife's, coming home? The sky itself seemed alive with thousands of hushed pinpricks of light, pronouncing themselves and then vanishing again. I felt myself pulling towards them, wanting to dart after them. But I didn't move so I didn't catch anything and nothing really changed.