Only one wall separates us. In my Lower East Side apartment, I can hear his every move as if we are in the same room. Three taps on a table, and I know that he is packing his cigarettes. There is the clanking of silverware, the banging of drawers, the soothing rush of water shooting from the showerhead. I’m amazed at the intimacy of these noises.
It’s 3:00 a.m., and his engineer boots are heavy on the wood floor. His footsteps are followed by the click-clack of a woman’s heels. Her giggle is raspy and loud, and then there is silence. I hold onto my three-year-old, Starr, cradling her little body, trying hard not to squeeze her too tightly. Lately, it’s as though I want to crush her until there is no risk of the world getting near her. Clenching my jaw, desperate for sleep, I count in my head . . . one-one thousand, two-one thousand . . . why the hell is he always bringing women home? What void is he filling?
The sound of two bodies slapping against each other seeps through the wall. Their moans seem to push through my skin until I can do nothing but hold my breath, crushing Starr into my arms even tighter. Her arm shoots up and then drops gently onto her pillow. Hovering over her, I can’t help taking in the loveliness of her eyelids, milky and petal-soft, the thin pink veins swimming over them. I stuff my nose into her neck, inhaling its scent, bakery-sweet, savoring its texture, soft and warm and new—skin that hasn’t yet been touched by dirt, by filth, by life.
The woman is crying out now, her screams like calls of agony. My neighbor grunts, and once again there is silence. Starr turns onto her stomach and throws her bunny-pajama clad leg over my hip. She hasn’t been able to sleep alone in months. I gave her the bedroom and painted pale pink little pigs on the walls; I even bought her a canopy princess bed. But she’d rather sleep with me on the pull-out sofa in the living room. Will we still live here when she is old enough to suspect the meaning of these moans and grunts?
The click-clack of the woman’s heels, followed by the slamming of my neighbor’s door, jolts Starr awake. “Mommy,” she screeches. The desperation in her voice makes me want to engulf her in my arms, push her through my skin and into my body, hiding her behind my heart so that no one can touch her. Instead, I reassure her, “I’m right here, sweetie.” I gently pull her down, and her body relaxes in my arms. Limpness creeps through me, too, and finally, there is the comfort of my shallow breathing.
The next day’s afternoon light is waning; it’s getting darker earlier now. The sky is gray and orange with the anticipation of dusk. Two years after I separated from her father, Starr is now my partner. She walks down the two flights with me, her hand on my wrist, and together we swing the black garbage bag into the bin in the basement. The tiny, colored bangles Starr’s babysitter brought back from India jingle on her wrist, making her giggle. I scoop her up and set her on my hip for the upward hike. She has taken to wearing long, gypsy skirts and scarves in her hair, like me. A little me—I pray not. She is only three.
On the way up, we bump into my neighbor. He is holding a full garbage bag that smells of ashtrays and beer. He is shirtless; his chest is inked with the images of swirling dragons, the ribs pushing through his skin. He pulls the bag up for a better grip, its weight making pale, blue veins swell on his forearms.
“Hello,” he says, smiling at Starr. She immediately buries her face in my neck.
“Hi,” I nod. He smiles at me through eyes that are hazel and glassy. The sound of his grunting last night comes back to me, forcing me to hold my breath as we pass each other.
That evening, as I pack Starr’s bag, she cooks me a toy pancake on her kitchen stove. She hands it to me on a little green plastic plate, and I pretend to gobble it up. “Mmm . . . delicious!”
“Do you want another one, Mommy?”
“I’d love another.”
Just as I throw Starr’s favorite panties into her overnight bag, the buzzer sounds.
“Daddy?” Starr asks.
“Yes, it’s Daddy.” She is always unsure how to feel in this moment. The nervous smile on her face reveals her discomfort. She wants to see him, but not alone, not without me. She has already seen the darkness in him, his hands on me like weapons.
“You wait for me, Mommy, right?”
“Of course,” I reassure her. “I’ll be waiting for you to come home. I promise.” I kiss her all over her face, wishing I could swallow her, make her invisible to him.
When I unlock the door, he is standing in the doorway in his crisp suit, looking, as always, like a knight from Wall Street. Before he greets Starr, he comes so close to me that I can see the vein pulsing in his forehead, smell his warm breath, potent with the remnants of tequila.
“I will take her away from you if I find out you’re sleeping with someone.” Another empty threat with no relevance, but its harshness shifts the balance in our space, causing Starr to cry. She wraps her arms around my leg.
“Please,” I whisper. “Not in front of her.” I still cower when he is near. After all this time, I still shrink inside myself.
He reprimands me with his stare, then bends down to be eye level with Starr, suddenly morphing into honey. “Oh sweetie, why are you crying? You love to see Daddy.”
My neighbor peeks his head out of his own door, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, drum sticks in his right hand. He looks at my ex, who is too immersed in winning back Starr’s affections to notice him, and then at me, his hazel eyes still glassy.
“You okay?” he mouths. I nod, and he goes back into his apartment.
The gesture leaves me stunned.
That night, my apartment is dark, except for music video reflections that flicker over the white walls, and the light blue glow of my laptop. Roland Barthe’s A Lover’s Discourse sits on my lap. It’s a tattered copy, a devoured book. I’ve read it over and over, fascinated by Barthe’s concept of immersing oneself in a lover so deeply as to lose one’s soul, one’s direction. How destructive it all is—this love thing.
My cell phone keeps ringing. Friends continue to invite me to parties and dinners, proposing men they think I’d adore; men who, they claim, are kind. I do not answer any of these calls, and instead pick up a framed picture of Starr. In it she is wearing a ballet tutu and cowboy boots, and her pale hair is matted and wild. She is holding a magic wand in the air—she is my magic wand. Alone and crying, hugging Starr’s framed picture to my chest, I’m suddenly distracted by the slamming of my neighbor’s door. He’s going out. It slams again, and his engineer boots are heavier on his floor than usual. He’s back.
How is it that I’m standing here, my ear now against his wall like some stalker? Is this how women like me spend Friday nights? And yet, I am more interested in my neighbor than in anything outside my window on Ludlow Street, where the noise of drunken bar-hounds and laughter should consume me, or at least distract me. He is talking into his phone, but his words reach me mumbled and incoherent. I hear the heavy scratch of a match, and then the sound of him sucking in his cigarette.
Quickly, I grab the garbage bag that is barely full, knot it, and walk out into the hall. Pale light and cigarette smoke seep out from under his door. Quietly, feeling crazy, I open my door again, put the garbage back into my apartment, and then pull my hair into a tight knot. Looking down, I realize that I’m barefoot, my long black skirt dragging on the floor. My white tank top is see-through. I knock anyway.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hey,” he responds. His lips are fuller than I remembered. He eyes me kindly, but with a tinge of curiosity.
“I just wanted to thank you. You know, for this afternoon?”
“Yeah, no problem. Ex, huh?” he asks.
“Yeah, he’s a prick.” I smile, as if my response is funny, and suddenly feel stupid for smiling.
“Most exes are.”
What the hell am I doing, I wonder?
“Umm . . . ” I manage as he stares down at me in his Ramones T-shirt.
“Okay, well, that’s it. Sorry to bother you.” I turn to walk away.
“No, no, I’m just hanging out. Want a glass of wine or something?”
“Sure, okay.” I accept his offer, surprising even myself.
His apartment smells of cigarettes and oranges. “Sit,” he says, walking into the kitchen. Plopping down onto the sofa, I look around. There is a mattress on the floor in one corner of the room and a wooden dresser in the other. His coffee table is scattered with clean ashtrays and music magazines.
He hands me a glass of red wine and sits on the sofa, leaning into the corner opposite me. “Cigarette?” He holds out an open pack.
“Sure.” I grab one, even though I quit six years ago.
He leans into me with the lighter, and I hold up my hand as if I’m in the wind.
“Are you a musician?” Of course he is. What am I doing here? I wonder. He is older than I thought. Maybe 35, or maybe his skin is rough from the sort of life guys like him live.
“Yeah, sort of. I used to be. Now I work for a label.”
I’m not even music savvy enough to ask him what label. The wine is numbing my body, and the cigarette has made me dizzy.
“Do you like it? Working for a label, instead of the musician thing?”
“I guess we’re always wishing for something else,” I blurt out, knowing I sound ridiculous.
“You have a beautiful daughter. That’s pretty much the ultimate, isn’t it? I mean, what more could you want?”
“Yeah. She is the ultimate, isn’t she?” I feel myself smiling at nothing in particular, thinking of my Starr, and then my gaze turns back to him.
He holds me with his eyes, sad eyes, forever glassy, and it’s not a look that’s unfamiliar, but it’s a look I remember only from my past. When he grabs my hand, I let him guide me over to his mattress and roughly throw me down on it, because this is not about love, or depth, or meaning; it’s about something more, and it’s about nothing at all.
In the dull lights I kiss the tattooed dragons on his chest, images with no significance for me. He may never tell me what they mean to him, and somehow that’s comforting, knowing I’ll never know him. I notice the scars, red and crooked and raised, running up his inner arms. I kiss them, suck on them, breath all over them. I understand the soothing effect affection can have on scars. When he slides up my gypsy skirt, I let him, giving into this man who I will never love. I will never love him, and that is such a relief.
When I go home, two hours later, my apartment is just as I left it. I crawl into my pull-out sofa bed, breathing in the smell Starr has left on the pillows and in the blankets. My body is still buzzing. Sentiments of deep satisfaction don’t come often lately, but right now they reverberate through me. Drifting, I feel the warmth of my daughter in my arms, even though she’s not here, and I breathe in a warm heaviness that feels like hope. Images of the the future fill my mind: Starr in seven years, still a small girl, her gaze reflecting a wisdom I already see in her, the quiet acceptance of experience, along with the pride of achievement. Perhaps by then she’ll be able to look into her father’s eyes, forcing him to blink in self-recognition, something I have never been able to do. As sleep begins to claim me, I envision this future Starr dancing gracefully across our living room, in a much larger home, one filled with sunlight and the smells of fresh soap and new paint. There, in that safe place, we’ll no longer hear the cries of strangers through the walls at night. Instead, we’ll listen to the laughter of other families.
Smiling now, however faintly, I swallow the strange, lingering taste of my neighbor. Is this vision of safety possible? My body grows limp, wondering.