To the young beautiful woman with tears in her eyes who lives above me: now I know why you run in the apartment for hours backandforth backandforth. I know why you don't talk in the hallway. I know because the building is old and my ceiling is thin. I heard the furniture thunder last night and I heard him - the guy who pouts and steams outside on the fence smoking cigarettes with a rippled back - I heard him scream, not shout, not yell, scream at you and I heard you leap like a cat across the apartment and I had to come up. I waited outside your door - after all I am your neighbor.
You came out tears streaming hands covering your face. I asked if you wanted me to call someone you said he just went crazy. I said I know I heard. Come down to my place. And you came because you were done. And exhausted. I told you my name and said stay with me. You went outside to get air. And I heard that beast upstairs call the cops on you! He knew exactly what to do - he called the cops and blamed it on you. Five cops came thirty minutes later and you all stood in the hall and that guy said he was protecting himself from you - you at 5'2" and he had to protect himself standing 6'3" all muscle - sure sure easy bullshit – let’s just see who the cops believe when they check out the holes in the wall. It doesn't matter about the cops or the screaming - or the truth or the tears - the young woman upstairs doesn't think she has a choice or a chance or the strength - she does. I did. What a mess. And I haven't heard a footstep today.
A note. She slipped a note under my door. She thanked me for coming upstairs. For inviting her into my apartment. She wrote how she had threatened to leave him and how he flipped out. They have been living upstairs from me for four years she wrote, and no one in the building has spoken to her before. She signed her name and that was it.
He’s still there, three months later. She didn’t kick him out. He turns and stares at me in the hallway: gets a good look at me. Go ahead, look. I’m not going anywhere. And if you touch me I will do your girlfriend and myself a favor and throw your ass in jail for assault – do something I dare you. That’s how I look back at him. He smiles, and says, “Just wanted to see who lives there.” I do. I do. You saw me the night the cops surrounded you. You saw me outside the door of B4 talking to your sobbing girlfriend. You see me when you’re outside sulking and smoking. We take the same train. I live here. You rattle my ceiling.
I used to work at women’s crisis center. I have been trained in crisis intervention. I know this about the precipitators of domestic violence: it is usually the woman and I know the act of physical abuse is most likely done by the man. I know she will make excuses for him and he will say, “I’m sorry.” I know all will be forgiven and it will happen again. I know how to cause a brief interruption, i.e. knock on the door, offer a safe place, a gawd damn possible solution. I know she will tell herself and everyone who intervenes a lifetime’s worth of “he’ll change” – he won’t. I know there’s a little girl up there. I know that is the absolute worst part and I know if he puts his hands on an adult woman like that, then the way he puts his hands on a child is like a machine crushing ribs – too hard – too hard and too out of control to think about.
So what is my part as a neighbor? A neighbor who doesn’t know his last name? Because now it’s not about a love struck girlfriend who is ok with being smacked from time to time, it’s about a child whose father has some whacked out anger issues. That little girl who waits for that steaming, smoking, ripple-backed monster to cool off on the chain link fence before walking her to the subway. He doesn’t know I follow them. I walk right behind the two of them. That girl. With her pigtail braids and her backpack, she looks up at that man and he is her father. She watches him. He is where she is going, not the sidewalk under her light-up Nikes, his eyes are her map, his feet, his rough growling voice is her guide to the world.»
Photo by by Alisha Vargas
If you interrupt a system that is somebody’s version of life deemed acceptable, even if they cried to you one night, what’s your obligation as a neighbor? Maybe just to listen. I can’t help but listen, they are so loud. Mostly with the things he picks up and throws - free-weights it turns out - sounds like cinderblocks about to come through my ceiling. The little girl overflowed their toilet with shoes and Barbie dolls. My bathroom walls began to leak and finally the plumbing rotted a massive hole in my ceiling so big I thought the child herself would fall through. In a weird way I think the damage to the plumbing has kept her from coming to the building as much as she used to. Or the cops, or the yelling, or all of it combined.
Before the night of the screaming and crying and tossing and throwing I thought the woman in B4 was a flight attendant. I couldn’t figure out what all the noise was about. The rustling and dragging and what sounded like packing bags on wheels, all the slamming at all hours and exhausting squabbling and door banging crap. I’d lay awake at night trying to figure what job required such odd hours and hostile debating between two people, and after all we do live near LaGuardia.
She never spoke to the neighbors. Flying in and out of the building, no eye contact, didn’t hold the door. I figured she had to a flight to catch. It would be nice if she had a flight to catch to a different city, in a different state, in a different time zone. Different building. New neighbors. She could meet a different guy who doesn’t toss free weights and doesn’t scream or smoke. It’d be nice for a while until he rippled his back and turned into the same guy she left behind because just like here, she’d accept him.
She accepts being with a monster; thinks she deserves nothing better. I can’t be her neighbor for a lifetime, to whisper in her ear “you do deserve better," a pigeon deserves better. I’m moving and I am going to give her some furniture and offer her whatever she wants from my place. I’m going to offer her my place. A little space from that guy could give her some perspective, but that seems to be as much as I can do. The noise is too much and my ceiling is caving in around me. So I’m getting out. That’s what adults do. Decide what is unacceptable and change their situation. Trying to get someone else to change his or her own situation is like dragging June into February – impossible. Neighbors are good at holding doors, asking, “How are you?” and sometimes even buzzing in other peoples’ packages. We live on top of one another and we are all doing the best we can.
Abigail A. Frankfurt’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Minneapolis Observer, Lost and Found: Stories from New York, and on this website since 2000. She has read on NPR's Savvy Traveler, and is currently living in Astoria.