Next Door

by

02/01/2002

390 Mercer St, New York, NY 10013

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

About a week after the WTC attack we began to hear weeping from the apartment next door. It came to us in the middle of the night, while we were sleeping, a small, very private sound that forced its way into my thoughts until I found myself lying awake listening to it. Its volume rose and fell, as weeping usually does, going from a muffled sob into loud, agonized weeping. “Oh God. Oh God. I can’t take it. I can’t take this!”

It was not the first time we had heard our neighbor. Like most New York City apartment dwellers we have occasionally found ourselves unwilling witnesses to the sex lives of those around us. In our next door neighbor’s case, that meant loud and active vocalizations, usually delivered in the small hours of the morning. Her volume and range on those occasions was operatic. One night she woke me from a sound sleep with her moaning, which in my dreams I had taken to be issuing from a woman in my own bed. I woke to find my wife stirring sleepily in the darkness. “God, listen to her….”

The design of our high-rise building, which is L-shaped, may have contributed to the sound, as the unit she occupies is just across the inner angle from ours, and all those yards of bare brick may have an amplifying effect. But still, even taking that into account, this woman was impressive. I was impressed, anyway. One startled houseguest, a woman in her late thirties, swore our neighbor was faking it. “Let me tell you something, honey: that’s not real. No woman sounds like that, for that long. Not without a couple double A batteries helping her out.”

With time my wife and I developed a certain curiosity about our next door neighbor, who she was, what she looked like. But as close as she lived to us, getting a good look at her was not easy. Her Venetian blinds were always down, disclosing at most a candle on the sill, or a wall in the background, painted red. We never ran into her by the mailboxes in the lobby, where she could have been definitely identified. We had to make our guesses from among the people waiting with us for the elevator. Whenever a woman got off on our floor, we’d loiter a bit to see if she went down the other corridor of the L, and if she did we’d listen for the sound of her unlocking door, trying to tell if it was the closest apartment or not.

We never identified her for sure, but we had our guesses. Our leading candidate was a girl in her early twenties, pretty, with long brown hair and intense, greenish-brown eyes. We only saw her alone, but that wasn’t surprising, given what we knew of the intermittency of her sex life. I liked to think it was her, in any case.

In my mind I saw her face again as I lay in the darkness, listening to her weep. The loud, horrible sobbing was being torn out of her in groans. Who was she crying for? For a week now the faces of the Missing had looked out at me from every lamppost and bare wall I passed in the street. If you see him, please call… Was our neighbor one of those people, waiting for the phone to ring?

“Do you hear it?” My wife was awake beside me. In the darkness, with the blinds drawn, we could not see each other’s faces. “Yeah,” I said. “How long have you been up?” “A long time, I don’t know, a half hour.” “Has she been crying all that time?” “Uh huh. She woke me up.”

We lay there listening. “It’s terrible,” said my wife. Earlier that evening, as we did every night that week, we had walked to Union Square, to be with the people gathered there, to look at the candles crowded on the sidewalks, the concrete steps, the pedestals of the statues. A sense of community, that most out-dated feeling, comforted us there. Never before had I been so convinced of the fundamental decency, the goodness, of my fellow New Yorkers.

But now it was the middle of the night, and we were alone. And the weeping continued, quiet and insistent, from the other side of our wall. It sounded like it would never end. “It’s terrible,” said my wife again, as I took her in my arms.

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