I like to pretend this isn’t me on the other side of the mirror, listening to my neighbor unclasping the lid from a jar of face cream. After all, isn’t this a pastime reserved for serial killers, serial creeps? The sort of thing someone without a meaningful life would do?
Today she cleans her cabinet. There’s rattling, clattering, plastic clacking against plastic—a spill, a scream-hiss, and an “Ugh!” She stomps off onto the carpeted floor as my limbs reanimate. I sigh. Apply more lipstick. I wonder if she hears me when I talk to my mother on the phone.
Obviously it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t be interesting to anyone. I tell myself this when I find I’m contemplating the sources of her various sounds. Most are not mysterious. When she laughs, or when something else in her apartment falls or smashes. Despite the limited space, she always runs. But, somehow still, I listen. I collapse my hand holding a book. Pause with my fork in the air. I surrender to her awful loudness often, and over and over again. I’m that person who eavesdrops on her neighbors, I think.
Perhaps I secretly like that everything I assume about her appears to be true. Of course that is the smell of pot every night, from 5 to 7. Bad pot. Extra smelly. Predictable, that she’d use her entire lung capacity to sing Disney songs as she marches past every window, from the garage to her apartment. And no, she will never shut the garage door. Why should I expect her to?
Other things are harder to correlate. The inspirational quotes on her marker board, by the window, are surprisingly thoughtful. On another occasion, I caught sight of a cast iron teapot and wondered if it was a gift. What if she really is a very spiritual person? I muse. What if—within the wildness of her whole, vibrating being—there lays a profound and tranquil pebble of a soul? I imagine this until another stray yell pierces the air. The thunder of a stampede, as she moves from her living room to her bedroom.
I entertain breaking a glass against the wall to illustrate how sound appears.
Meanwhile, my husband returns home. We exchange stories about our days. I show him my work, my paintings. He tells me about his patients and describes how sick people can become. We pour wine. Eat. During television commercials, I ask him about noise.
Are we loud? I say. Audible, if we argue? Do you think we bother our neighbors?
Then comes the night when I wake with a start. I think I hear a child in the alley behind our bedroom. A low cry that grows into a wail, and it terrifies me. Before I can throw back the sheets, it dawns on me that it’s a cat. A cat, sitting on a fence outside our window, howling mournfully. Unremittingly. I am at a loss for what to do about it when the cat suddenly stops. Another sound has interrupted it. A “Ts! Ts! Ts!” A “Tch! Tch! Tch!” A whistle. The cat attempts another moan before getting cut off again. “Ay! Tst! Tst! Ay!” And I catch the register of a familiar voice. Short, she is probably on her tiptoes, with her face pressed up against the window screen.
Instinctive and wholly unselfconscious, my neighbor is hissing back at the cat in the alley. Her hands shaped like parenthesis around her lips. She scolds the cat in its language. Persuades it to leave. And it is in this moment that I realize there are other notes in her sounds. I hear the comfort in her timbre. Deep into the night, I listen.