Sunday Pages: "The Neighbor"
A quarantine short story by Diana Spechler
As I write this, the CDC has given us double-vaxxed individuals the go-ahead to take off our masks outside. In the great city of New York, on the verge of opening back up, this means that we can once again see the scowls on the faces of the passerby we accidentally bump into on sidewalks made narrow by outdoor seating pods and lines of phone-distracted New Yorkers waiting impatiently for bagels. Also, the faint whiff of urine is unfiltered by the mask.
Normalcy, slowly but surely, is returning.
A few months ago, I asked my friend Diana Spechler, whose literary genius will soon be evident, to send me something for “Sunday Pages.” We’d met ten years ago, at a literary event at HarperCollins; we both had novels out at the same time. Later, she would be one of the first contributors to The Weeklings—and one of the best.
I thought she’d send me a chapter from one of her two excellent novels: Who By Fire or Skinny. Instead she offered up “The Neighbor,” a piece that had run originally in the Evergreen Review, as part of a series called “COVID-69: Personal Protective Erotica.”
I was waiting for the right moment to run this. That moment, happily, has come.
When he knocks, I freeze on the hardwood, my nightgown tangling my legs.
You all right? he asks.
He is the neighbor who shares my wall. He has never before addressed me. Perhaps he’s talking to himself or a friend on the phone or a resident of the building that faces our windows. Whenever something good happens, my brain says, you’re hallucinating.
Did you fall? he asks, and I wonder (I’ve often wondered) if my neighbor could give me happiness. Not the occasional manias that lead me to purchase slutty corsets, but the rich, high-thread-count happiness wealthy men describe at their retirement parties, a happiness connected to their yachts and their grandchildren and the quality of their scotch.
I clear my throat. The last time I spoke aloud was long ago and accidental: caught in a dream, I woke myself up shouting, Where have you been?
I did fall, I say.
Normally I resent interruptions to my acting because the flow is fragile. Threats to the flow include questions from strangers, my own sudden self-consciousness, meals, and other people’s anxiety. But I effortlessly shift my priorities: I will protect not the flow but the voice of my neighbor.
Do you need…
We aren’t allowed to offer help anymore. Help is a hazard, like hugs. Without documents to prove our antibodies, we aren’t even permitted to look at each other. Looking could lead to breathing.
Would you like me to call someone?
My heart rattles its cage. Yes, I say. I recite my phone number.
The walls are thin. Everyone in this city laments the thinness of their walls, but ours are so thin they violate building codes. In this city, no one cares about building codes. If you called a number and said, I would like to report a building code violation, the operator would think you were a nerd. The wall between my neighbor and me is textured-gray and blank like the brain of an infant. I have heard my neighbor inhale. I have heard him swallow coffee. I have smelled every ingredient he’s ever sautéed. When a truck passes below, the wall rumbles.
Before the disease, I also saw my neighbor sometimes. He looks like an American Olympian. Relentlessly refreshed. Strong hair. Eyes like polished spoons. If you saw him, you would be proud of him. Jiggling key in keyhole, bagel clamped between teeth. Or just-shampooed, crossed out by gym bag strap. Or poking hand into mail slot. My neighbor is a man who regularly receives mail.
Turns out, talking on the phone with my neighbor is irritating. We hear each other through the wall first and then through the phone like an afterthought. So we hang up and embark on a wall-talking relationship.
My neighbor says he’s never seen me.
Are you the one who wears all the eyeliner?
No. She lives above us.
I’ve always been curious about her.
I don’t tell him that that’s the point of eyeliner. I don’t want to sound jealous.
Are you the girl magician?
Do you wear a long braid?
Yes. I quickly braid my hair all the way to my hip.
What color is it?
I often wear wigs, I admit, but they feel unsafe now. Have you noticed that safe things now feel unsafe?
He likely assumes wig-wearers are bald, but I have plenty of silky hair. I am also pretty with symmetrical freckles, but my body language doesn’t suit people. That’s why I was alone long before the disease rendered everyone alone, and why I have several times been hired based on my pictures and fired an hour into my shift. They say people judge one another’s looks, but that’s imprecise; it’s the language of the body that makes strangers think, I am better off not knowing her. We all hold this truth in our nervous systems. That’s why cell phones were invented: the human craving for safe uniformity. Now each person sits in the agreed-upon body language, hand cupped, spine slumped like a dehydrated flower. Finally at peace.
Are you still dating that woman? I ask.
Dating! He laughs. There’s a throwback. Before the disease, I saw them together a few times, his fingertips gentle on her tailbone, her nose ring the tiniest silver speck. Which woman?
The woman who once yelled at you that you were going to lose her.
I remember knowing right away that she had made the wrong threat. He would never feel her absence as loss. Deep down, all three of us knew it.
Once a week, we snake prisoner-woven ropes out our windows all the way to the sidewalk. An alleged person in a hazmat suit ties the base of the rope around a package. We pull up our groceries like fishermen. The groceries are leftovers the wealthy don’t want, but Mayor News—the network critics call propaganda and defenders call the news—insists that the foods are in fact home-cooked by the mayor’s wife and then, to comfort us, lovingly repackaged as the same canned goods and boxed snacks we’ve known since childhood. There are millions of us and only one mayor’s wife, but the mayor’s defenders aren’t daunted by logic. Today we get Saltines, to which I’m allergic.
I can leave my Saltines in the hall for you, I offer.
Come here, says my neighbor.
I’m wedged between the refrigerator’s lit-up insides and open door. I watch the wall from a distance. I tuck the tiny ketchup bottle into the side pocket. I close the door. Wash my hands.
I’m waiting, he says.
My skin aches like an empty stomach. I go to him. I press the cool gray wall with my palms and my cheek and the bottoms of my bare toes. I don’t tell him I’ve done this before, once when I heard him sing Johnny Cash in the shower, once when he received bad news by telephone. I can hear your heartbeat, I say. I’m touching it. I push all points of my body against the hard surface. Heat courses through it and into me and I wobble a little, then apply more pressure.
Feel my pulse, he says.
I slide my hand up. It’s the steadiest rhythm I’ve known in ages.
The secret to a convincing fall is the roll. By rolling upon impact, you drag the fall out, make it look violent. If you can take a loud object down with you—a trash can, an end table—all the better. To roll safely, you must put your weight on your side, not on your spine. My love handles feel bruised, as though someone’s been squeezing them.
My neighbor says, I keep wondering if I’ve seen you in anything.
I don’t know how to respond to that. My jobs in the old days were acting-adjacent. Kissing booth kisser. Dinner theater hostess. Fairy dust sprinkler at little girls’ tea parties. Acting is not my job in the Capitalist sense. But I have an excellent French accent. I wear red lipstick and petticoats and call the mixologist “barkeep.” Or I wear a short-haired wig and sit with my legs spread, snapping my suspenders.
You’ve never even seen me in our hallway, I point out.
It would be cool if I’d watched you on Netflix while you were right next door.
I would have knocked on the wall and told you, I say. I wouldn’t have been able to help it.
I receive only a couple of hints that our brains aren’t in sync. Once in the middle of a conversation, he sighs heavily and I imagine him rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. He says, it’s nice to talk to someone. I say nothing. I think, who’s someone?
Another time, he says, I would have preferred to meet when things didn’t suck, and I flinch as though he’s punched the wall.
I’m so happy, I tell him. Aren’t you happy? I don’t ask the question aloud.
We outgrow our beds emotionally, shed them like shells. At night we lie on the hardwood, our bodies up against the wall. As we shiver from cold, the wall shivers. When he speaks, I locate his lips and draw them right onto the wall with a pencil. Once I’ve drawn the lips, I can fill in the rest of his head. His shoulders. I ease my whole body onto his. We breathe into each other’s mouths.
Tell me something I wouldn’t guess about you, he says.
I hate coziness. Whenever someone describes a place as cozy, I feel sad.
But tell me something you don’t want me to know.
I’ve never had a best friend.
Once I almost stabbed someone, he says.
What stopped you?
I guess it felt unfair. People have always been kind to me.
I tell him, Normally my hearing isn’t the best, but I hear you perfectly.
He wants to know what it’s like, not hearing things properly. His senses are all quite sharp.
It gets worse when I’m nervous. If I worry about not hearing, I won’t hear. Then if someone says icicle, I hear popsicle.
Icicle and popsicle are basically the same thing.
Bicycle, he says, and the vibration of the B, the hard consonant popping open, buzzes through the wall against my lips, fizzes down my neck, over my belly, runs down my thighs.
The other secret to a good fall: you must commit. The more elaborate the fall, the more important the commitment. If you shoot an enemy and then execute a front flip, you have to simultaneously land on your back and shoot him again from the ground. If you flinch mid-air, you’re screwed.
I do not flinch. I fall like a pro. I could fall with the big boys. I have just completed a flawless fall when he says, I’m going out there.
I stay sprawled on my back, catching my breath. What do you mean?
I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take it. I’m going crazy.
So you’re leaving?
I have to.
I try not to use words like forever.
They’ll arrest you.
He doesn’t answer me right away. When he does, his voice is flat: It almost sounds like you want that to happen.
The accusation slices me because it’s true. I want him to be stopped. I don’t admit that, though. I don’t tell him a thing.
Come with me, he says, once the silent treatment has worked.
On TV, if a man says, come with me, the woman says she has to think about it. Then she says she can’t join him because of her career. But later she is offered an even better job wherever he is, or he is offered a better job wherever she is, and she gets to have it all: her career, love, vacations in Costa Rica, children born into bodies that speak the socially sanctioned language.
It would be different, I say.
You wouldn’t feel the same.
Sure I would, he says. I leave in four days.
I think, what are days?
The sun out the window is white-yellow, the cloudless blue sky a Sears portrait backdrop. Below, two women wearing signs around their necks pass a joint back and forth. The formerly diseased wear government-issued signs that read, I have antibodies! because the mayor says positivity is the backbone of the economy.
On Mayor News, the newscasters say, Finally we’ve returned to the basics! When the disease is gone, let’s preserve these old traditions that have been restored to our great neighborhoods! Sitting at our windows, waving to families, clapping for those who need a little clapping. We have returned to the days of mothers with moustaches. Mayor News is nostalgic for all the wrong things.
That doesn’t even look appealing, my neighbor says, watching the antibody-fortified stoners. He’s standing at his window, too, so he steps left and I step right and we meet in the corner. I’m never getting high or drunk again. The intimacy between us is so casual, I think he’s forgotten about leaving. I think we’ll freeze like this, his fingertips grazing his side of the wall, my fingertips grazing mine. I’m going to live with the clearest head in the world, he says. And I’m never coming back inside.
That last bit fills me with fear. I thought you don’t like words like that, I say. Forever. Never.
Desperate times, he says. What will you do first? When this is over.
I’ll go to the city center and execute a fall. Been wanting to try one out in public. I’ll really commit. I’ll accept a stretcher. An ambulance ride.
I don’t mean it. I just want him to feel the possibility of losing me. I want him to fear that I’ll go to jail for hogging an ambulance when I’m not even hurt. I don’t feel bad for him that he misses outside. I find his restlessness privileged. Welcome to my world! is what I think. Sorry you’re alone and talking to a wall. For some of us, that’s called life!
How about you? I ask.
I’ll come right over, he says. You’ll be wearing a bikini.
I look down at my body. I have dressed it in an old green sweater that falls to my knees. Whoever knit my sweater was tasked with clothing the extremely tall. I feel sad for her, all the work she put into this sweater, all she imagined it accomplishing.
We’ll be standing on our feet, he says.
I press my ear into that corner as though it’s a seashell. He breathes a whooshing sound. I see that he thinks I’m a regular girl, a girl with a drawer full of bikinis who says, let’s hit the beach!, who competes in beach volleyball games, jumping into the air to smack the ball, arching like a dolphin. He thinks I’m a teammate. He thinks other girls in bikinis high-five me and guys in swim trunks perch me on their shoulders. Those are the types of people he knows. That’s what he understands the world to be. What kind of monster would steal that from him?
I’ll rip that bikini off with my teeth. I’ll have you up against a wall. Not this one, though. Your other wall. The one I can’t get to yet.
I drop to my knees at the drawing of his body. Against my lips, the wall tenses. Then it quakes as if two blocks of earth have slipped past each other.
Beginnings are seismic, but endings are quiet. I try to be alert to them, a shot fired, a trunk slammed with a note of finality, but I can rarely name them until after they’ve passed. With my neighbor, I watch the ending gallop toward me. I engineer its success. I hide in the corner farthest from him. I barely breathe. I let him call out. I let him blink against the wall, his eyelashes making a sad scratching sound. He tells me he knows I’m there. I ignore the grocery delivery, leaving my rope coiled beneath the bed, remembering a night when I followed his instructions and tied my wrists together at the small of my back while he spoke to my ear and the wall nearly burned me. I hear him pack a duffel. The sound of the zipper scratches my throat. To distract myself, I plan my next hours: I’ll learn a new fall. I’ll make it good. Problem is, I haven’t been falling lately. The real secret to falling is to never stop falling. Stay up for too long and you lose your agility. A return to falling is bound to hurt now that my body has learned to live vertically. A door opens. A door closes. The silence pools at my ankles, rises up my legs to my ribs, to my chin, in the middle of the world’s loudest city, where no one stops the dogs from barking or the newscasters from enthusing or the sirens from whining or the walls from decaying. At the window, my arms, who don’t speak the language of arms, must find a way to cry, wait.
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who By Fire (Harper Perennial, 2008) and Skinny (Harper Perennial, 2011), and of the New York Times Opinion series Going Off. She has written for The Guardian, GQ, Washington Post, Esquire, New York, Paris Review Daily, The Wall Street Journal, Glimmer Train Stories, Texas Monthly, The Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Harper’s, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, Boston Globe, National Geographic Traveler, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House Open Bar, BBC Travel, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Ploughshares, and many other publications. Her work has been included in a number of anthologies, including Indelible In The Hippocampus (McSweeney’s 2019). She is also a seven-time Moth StorySLAM winner and has been featured on The Moth Radio Hour, The Moth podcast, and NPR. She teaches writing for Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.
Photo credit: A bridge in Brooklyn, May 15, 2021.