Don’t get mad, I’m trying to explain something to you. I know you think I should leave the subject alone, respect his silence, but how do you interpret his behavior? I’ve gone over and over every second we’ve spent with this guy, the mystery neighbor who won’t open his mouth, looking for some perspective. You dropped a dinner invitation in his mailbox asking him to reply to us by phone or email, and he waited more than a week, only two days till the date, before sending an email that said Y. You took this to mean Yes, though I thought it could be short for Why, but now I think he may have meant to suggest both. He didn’t add a question mark, true, and it turned out he did show up at our door on time with a bottle of wine in hand. That still surprises me, the wine doesn’t seem to fit with the bigger picture, but maybe he saw it as a substitute for a facial expression because he did not bring one of those. I went to the door, greeted him warmly, he extended the wine to me, I thanked him and invited him in. The Chihuahuas were behind me barking, his eyes resting on them, and it was clear he wouldn’t take a step into our house until the Chihuahuas had been removed. So I set the wine down and picked up a dog in each arm and carried them to our bedroom and shut the door. He hadn’t stirred from the doorway when I returned, nothing moving but his eyes. I again invited him to enter and he took a long step, as if over a chasm stretching between the outside and inside. I urged him to keep going, but he waited until I’d closed the front door and walked past him.
In the den, he didn’t speak to the Halls, didn’t seem to know they were there, though I think I remember that you rated a glimpse. He sat like a statue all through drinks, not touching his water or the appetizers, and at dinner his mouth never moved except to eat his vegetables. Unfortunately, he didn’t tell us beforehand that he doesn’t eat meat. And soon after dinner he stood, gave me a nod and then vanished into the night. That may sound dramatic for a man who embodies the absence of drama, but those are the exact words that came to mind when I opened the door and released him. The Halls didn’t say anything about him after he left, but I’d bet that on their way home they commented on his apparent lack of interest in other people.
Against my wishes, you invited him to a second dinner party, only two months after the first one, though we received no thank you for the first dinner. You said he smiled at you, barely, one day when you saw him in his driveway and you chose to see this so-called smile as a form of gratitude. You emailed him and, as you know, close to a week later you got another Y from him. It annoyed me to see how happy you were that he’d exerted himself enough to send us one letter. Again I wondered if the letter implied a question, but as you predicted he made another appearance with another bottle of wine, the Chihuahuas barking at him from behind our bedroom door.
He repeated himself almost perfectly that second night, all the way down to wearing the same clothes, but I’m not sure if he wore the same socks. Not a word came out of his mouth, not a smile, nothing showing in his face, until at dinner I asked him about his painting.
What can you tell us about your work? I asked, but right away I could tell he wasn’t inclined to respond. I’ve looked you up on a search engine, and I was puzzled by the level of abstraction in what I read and the images I looked at.
I admit that I wanted to disrupt the purity of his silence and to force my way into him. I was sick of him sitting there eating our food and refusing to even look down at us from his self-created pedestal. I know you don’t want to see it that way, and yes I am at least making an effort to see it from his side. You think he could be a nice guy and doesn’t know how to show it, but where’s the evidence of that? I think you’re dreaming up an inner person for this guy because you think he’s interesting, an artist and all that, and you think he’s good looking and he probably thinks you’re good looking, but what does that have to do with what kind of person he is and whether he thinks we’re beneath him, small people living in a tiny, unexceptional world that can’t compare with the layered world of abstraction and significance he thinks he lives in?
Anyway, what was his answer to my question? He came out with one word, you’ll remember. Complex, he said in a quiet voice and then he was done, implying in my opinion that if he were to discuss his work further we’d be incapable of understanding him. He let me go on staring at him waiting for more, over-chewing his next bite, making it impossible for him to speak until he’d swallowed without breaking decorum, as if he gave a flick about decorum. Wouldn’t you think he’d speak at a dinner party if he cared about decorum? I can’t imagine, and neither can you, going to two dinner parties in a row without addressing the hosts or anyone else who happened to be there. You can’t deny that, can you?
I’m not through, just hold on, I’m going to say what I want. After cleaning up we went to bed tired and without a thank you from the painter. I started to talk about him, but you cut me off and said you were tired of hearing it. You insisted that I could have no idea why he refused to speak and you wanted me to shut up about him. Outwardly I respected your wishes, but inside I went on talking and thrashing, burrowing into his silence, asking what was inside it. The more I thought about his radical nothingness, which seemed to be directed at us, the more upset I got, and as I lay awake I hit upon the idea of confronting him. I’d go to his house and knock on his door and stand there looking at him, seeing if he’d invite me in. But what if he didn’t? He might slam the door in my face or simply stare back at me, waiting for me to speak. I got so wound up in my thoughts that I couldn’t get to sleep. I felt judged, and of course this was all in my mind, but isn’t some judgment of us implicit in his attitude? The longer I saw myself languishing in front of him at his door the more foolish I felt. There could be no pretense of a connection between us, the thought of it was laughable, and my silence seemed pathetic and embarrassing while his seemed somehow majestic, almost God-like. You’ll say I made myself feel this way and you’d be right, but you have thoughts about people that make you feel good or bad about yourself, don’t you? Is that all your own doing? Aren’t we entitled to a semblance of respect from him?
I got out of bed feeling like an idiot but clinging to the idea of going to his door, humiliating myself in all versions I could imagine but determined to provoke a response from him. It was a Sunday morning, huge newspaper, and I read in the arts section about a gallery show, abstract painter, decent review, perfect, something our wonderful friend might be interested in. I chewed the hell out of my cereal, imagining walking between our houses with my section of newspaper and asking him if he’d seen the article, just a pretext, but I needed more than a stupid look on my face and nowhere to go from there. At around ten I grabbed the arts section and didn’t say anything to you about what I planned to do. I knew you’d be against it, and you would have been right to discourage me, I’m not blind to that point, but I felt driven to do this thing that in some way I knew was a bad idea.
I knocked on his door, no answer, and then I rang the bell. After a minute or so I heard his footsteps and he must have peered at me through his peephole. He opened the door and looked at me with what could have been a hint of surprise. I don’t want to overstate and make you think he had much of a reaction, but he did seem to expect me to explain myself. I said hello and he did not reply. I let the pause hang for a moment, hoping he’d weaken and mutter a greeting, but he didn’t. I held up the arts section and pointed to the review of the art show. Had he seen the article? His head moved, less than half a nod, end of pretext, and he moved the door slightly toward me, already wanting to cover me up, suggesting we were finished unless I had something to add. I stared into his eyes, and though I resented his blank face staring back at me I was strangely conscious of my hypocrisy, using my stare to try to know what was inside him and what he saw when he looked at me yet not wanting him to imply anything with the indifference of his stare. I imagined lunging at him, grabbing him by the head, taking him down. I know you don’t like hearing this, but listen. Did he think I was nothing? Is that what he saw in me? That’s the way he acted and always has. Not that it makes what I did or wanted to do right, but it seemed he’d put these self-demeaning thoughts in my head. I felt demoralized by his presence and unworthy of the response I craved. I asked myself why he would want to invite me in. What would we have said to each other? It was painfully true that neither of us would have spoken a meaningful word. Would that have been because of me? I turned and walked away from him, and his door was closed and locked before I could take a step off his porch.
I can still see his face, its failure to acknowledge me except as a rudimentary object occupying what he’d have preferred to be an empty space. I’ve thought about this, trying to understand, and here’s what I’ve come up with. What I see when he looks at me is my own thoughts. It’s me looking down from his face. I put my thoughts there or, more precisely, created the illusion that they were there, but only because he wanted me to. He wouldn’t take the time or trouble to actively disrespect or judge me. He wouldn’t bother to indulge in that level of destructive intimacy. What he’s done is much less than that and therefore more deviously and complexly insulting. He’s led me to see myself in the reduced and pathetic form that I imagined he saw me and he must have done it with obliterating intent. Why else would he come to our house for dinner and not speak? But his end of the unspoken conversation, through the walls of its silence, tells us more. Do you understand what I’m saying? Am I getting through to you? This is the way he wants it, or as he would think of it, doesn’t want it. If he spoke, this would be his final word. He doesn’t want to know us and doesn’t want us to know the first thing about his existence and he’d probably prefer that we didn’t know he exists at all. It’s so obvious, I can’t see it any other way.