I’d crossed my next-door neighbor’s path in the hallway a number of times, but I’d never gotten a syllable out of him and the only look he’d ever given me was to make sure we weren’t about to collide. He’d turn his body sideways and avert his eyes if I passed him getting into or out of the elevator, and I could detect an intake of breath, implying that my proximity was oppressive to him. To what did I owe his antipathy? I’d never seen or heard anyone but him go into his apartment, so perhaps his aversion extended to many others. I’d once glimpsed his place when he was leaving and saw shoulder-high stacks of newspapers covering the walls, but he closed the door quickly, as if my eyes would spread some contagion through his hoard.
I began to ask myself, somewhat repetitively, why I should have to put up with this treatment. Why didn’t he see me as worthy of at least some perfunctory civility? Why should he be excluded from showing a fellow human being a simple show of respect? My failure to answer these questions fed my curiosity about his way of life and thinking, the man behind the stacks of newspapers, the man inside the filing cabinets. What could he be collecting or hiding, what motivated him to seclude himself, to deny himself the natural urge to reach out to others? What dream world that he’d contrived allowed him to believe that he belonged in some separate and exclusive category of being?
Hearing his voice through our common wall fed my curiosity since I knew he could be addressing no one but himself. I put my ear to the wall but couldn’t make out the words. At times I heard him curse in a somewhat louder voice, a limited outburst possibly brought on by the pressure of his extreme isolation. Could he be dangerous? Could he be plotting something I might later wish I’d known more about? Did he spend long hours viewing websites that fed an ever-expanding paranoia?
I wanted answers, and I came up with an idea. Due to our nearness, I became aware of some of his habits. He liked to stay in his apartment, but he had to buy provisions occasionally and he left every Tuesday at a certain time to tote his garbage down. I could see him through my peephole, walking to the elevator, trash bag in hand, and I imagined over and over that I’d go into his place after he left and hide myself somewhere. The aggressive aspect of it was unnerving, but I grew determined, despite fearing how he’d react if he discovered me.
I chose a Tuesday and made preparations. I ate something, used the bathroom, put a small notebook and felt-tip pen in my pocket, and waited at the peephole. When he came out, I watched him press the button for the elevator, his legs jittery and his lips moving until the elevator appeared. As soon as he stepped into it and the elevator started down I popped out and tried his door. He hadn’t bothered to lock it since he’d only be gone for a couple of minutes, and I entered his apartment, hurrying to find a hiding place before he got back.
As I’d seen, the entryway was lined with newspapers stacked as high as he could comfortably reach. I passed the bathroom and kitchen, and stuck my head into his bedroom on the left. Single bed, rumpled bedclothes, filing cabinets along the walls, cluttered bedside table. L-shaped desk in the living area, computer and printer, spiral notebook open, handwriting slanted forty-five degrees to the left, more newspaper and rows of filing cabinets with belongings and years of spiral notebooks jumbled on top, pages filled with words, shades down in every room, desk lamp on, the only light on in the apartment. To the right, mass of stacked newspapers, a corridor around the back with a nook in the middle for access. I came to rest in the nook, and within a minute he returned. I heard him go to the kitchen and wash his hands, talking to himself over the running water and as he walked into the living area and sat at his desk.
I didn’t have to wait long before I heard him writing in the spiral, his voice rising out of him. “Not speaking leaves the words trapped inside, struggling against the will to suppress them, even during sleep.” He paused and repeated the line, and I scribbled the words in my pad. “Restraint is exhausting. Words are often more notable for what they don’t say than for what they do say.” He continued to write, but he whispered the words and I couldn’t hear them. After a while he got up and paced, talking under his breath in anger, raising his voice briefly when he cursed, but I couldn’t tell what he was angry at. At one point I thought he approached our common wall and let loose an outburst that lasted only seconds. Was he picturing me there? “I haven’t uttered a word I shouldn’t have,” he said, his footsteps somehow coordinated with the cadence of his voice, “and in some ways I regret that.” Did his words suggest a suppressed desire to do me harm?
I needed to adjust my position, and I stretched myself out. I heard his pacing stop and wondered if he’d heard me shift and if he would come toward me and unleash a tirade at the sight of me; but he returned to his desk and resumed his narrative or notes, repeating to himself in a low voice: “Veneer worn thin, veneer worn thin.” A relatively quiet period followed, and eventually he left the room. I was tempted to crawl down the corridor and peek around a corner, but if I moved I risked discovery and what did I hope to see?
He soon came back to his desk and I heard him at the keyboard, exclaiming at what he read. “Idiots, human nature at its finest.” An hour went by before I again heard him speak. “I couldn’t remember that he’d ever glanced at me for a second, even when I tried to engage him in conversation. He had me pegged, I suspected, as a man concerned only with my own orbit.” Could I have been the “I” in these lines? “I sat in the front window, rotating the warm cup in my hand, noticing heads sticking up in parked cars. I watched the faces of passersby, asking myself if any of them might know more about him than I did.” Where was his imagination taking us? If I found out, would I regret knowing?
He wrote awhile longer, until he finally heaved a sigh and went to his kitchen. He opened cabinets and the refrigerator, groaning as he searched for something. He rushed out the door, I supposed for a missing ingredient.
I’d had enough and I needed to pee, but I wanted a look at his desk. I quickly flipped through his spiral notebook, but his slanted handwriting was almost illegible and the thought of him returning distracted me. I put the notebook at the angle I’d found it and went through the corridor of newspapers to the door, using the thumbturn to unlock it. As I stepped through the doorway the neighbor on the other side of the elevator, a young woman with shoulder-length dark purple hair, opened her door and saw me, and her eyes fixed on my face. She hadn’t lived in her place long and didn’t know me, but she must have been thinking I did not belong in our neighbor’s apartment and that she may have caught me in some illegal activity. I turned away from her, eager to put my door between us.
I went straight to the toilet and relieved myself, then washed my hands and arms and face. I was drinking water in the kitchen when I heard a knock. Checking the peephole, I saw the young woman looking toward our neighbor’s apartment, the tattoo on the nape of her neck showing through her purple hair. I opened up.
“Well, well, well. The mysterious intruder.”
She gazed at me, and my mind’s eye scanned my apartment, bed made, kitchen not too bad, no noticeable odor, no one else had been inside for months, not used to viewing it through other people’s eyes. I invited her in, thinking she expected it. I led her into the living area and she took a seat in a chair. I sat on the sofa, facing her. Her neck tattoo continued under her top, narrative tattoos around both forearms, and I could only imagine how many others were covered by her clothing. I estimated that I was thirty years older than she was.
“So you have an interest in our neighbor.”
“I’ve been curious about him.”
“You broke in or walked in, am I right? That’s intriguing.” She watched me taking her in, the ease of her manner putting me on edge. “Would you like to pour me some wine? I prefer red.”
I hesitated but went to the kitchen, wondering what I could be letting myself in for. I imagined her getting to her feet and looking around the room. Would she find anything I didn’t want her to see? I picked up a red wine with a twist top and opened it, grabbed two glasses and hurried back, catching my breath on the way. I found her seated, no air of movement about her. I set the glasses down and poured and handed her a glass. We both tasted the wine, and she clucked her tongue on the roof of her mouth.
“I think it’s creepy you’d go in there. Why do you care what he does? When I go to bed at night, should I check under it to see if you’re there?”
“Aren’t you curious about me? Enough to mount another invasion?”
Why had I let her in? Did I think I deserved this?
“I’m a curious person too, but I feel torn between my curiosity and respecting his privacy. I have an uncle who lives alone and almost never comes out of his apartment. He surrounds himself with old newspapers and filing cabinets, and I hear he’s reluctant to turn on a light. He doesn’t even want to see relatives or talk to us on the phone or send us messages over the computer. He claims he has nothing to report, but we feel abandoned by him. He wouldn’t recognize me anymore because he hasn’t seen me since I was a little girl, but I still feel protective of him and worry about his isolation and vulnerability. My mother, my uncle’s sister, told me a story about him. He wanted to meet with a lawyer but didn’t want to leave his apartment, so he asked the lawyer to come to him. When he arrived, my uncle opened the door to let him in but immediately turned his back. He told the lawyer to stand at the closed door until my uncle called out to him and then to walk between the stacks of newspapers to the back room. He should sit in the chair in front of the desk but face away from the desk and not ever look behind him. He followed my uncle’s instructions, and after he’d seated himself in the chair my uncle rose from under the desk and sat and talked with the lawyer until he was satisfied he wanted to hire him. He told him they had an agreement, and the lawyer stood and walked straight ahead and out the front door without ever seeing my uncle and without my uncle seeing his face.”
Her story hung in the silence. Was it true? Where would her mother have heard it? Her eyes were pegged on me, and I suspected she wanted me to ask if our neighbor was her uncle. But if I asked she might laugh and deny it even if it was true. She refilled her wine glass and took a swallow.
“Do you have any feeling that you’ve violated his privacy?” she asked. “No answer? Then tell me, what does he do when he’s alone? Did you learn anything that enriches your life or explains why he is the way he is? Did you experience the glow of conquest? Don’t you want to talk to me, or do you just want to look?”
She drank down the rest of her wine and stood and set the glass on the table beside me. She leaned down, her face close to my face but just above it, nearly touching, her hair on my cheek.
“You want to get a shower, don’t you?”
I guessed she’d sized me up before coming in, older than she was, slight build, wispy gray hair. She figured she was fit enough to take me if she needed to, and she could have a knife or some other weapon concealed on her somewhere. She moved closer, her mouth at my ear.
“Surprised you’re so gutless, afraid to move or speak. Are you going back in? Don’t worry, I won’t tell him. Better if it’s between us, don’t you think? I’ll see you inside your head, or wherever.”
She walked out, but her aura stirred around me. I took a sip of wine, coughing as it went down. Despite what she’d said, I feared she’d rat me out and what they’d do to me if he wanted to get even. They could enter my place and tear it apart or torment me in ways I couldn’t imagine. She’d enjoyed watching me squirm and might want to see more. Did she have an uncle? Did she want me thinking this way? Did she want me to go back in?
“Veneer worn thin,” I muttered. “Veneer worn thin.”