03 January, 2019


My mother's apartment, where I can allege to have lived in my tempestuous mid-teens, was in a six-unit walkup. It was nice enough, just old and not as well maintained as it deserved to be. Cherry wood floors and accents couldn't compensate for a structural problem that made half of my bedroom look to be gradually splitting away from the rest of the building. On the south wall, a crack ran from ceiling to floor, like a vertical canyon. The plaster patch job was sub-par and had to be hidden behind an abstract charcoal artwork seven feet high.

Those richly textured walls were flimsier than they looked. There were many afternoons when I had to turn up my stereo, even when I wasn't in the mood for music. It was the only way to drown out that damned Cranberries album the next-door neighbor liked so much. The vocals he contributed to Zombie were hard to overpower. That guy had enthusiasm.

The floors insulated no better. Downstairs lived a couple, an artist and a musician, with no idea how much of their private lives telegraphed upward: indistinct conversations, arguments, moans of pleasure from biweekly love acts. My own day-to-day constituted a string of inconceivable conditions that were, at least on the home front, less sonically varied. If the couple heard anything of me, it was all heel-clops on hardwood, some melancholic music, the rolling of my desk chair, the connection-establishing screeches of dialup Internet. My mother probably made even less noise than I did. I don't know. At that age, I stayed on the move. Home was for computing, for eating, for bathing, for sleep. Mum had a boyfriend and was sometimes out. I didn't entertain guests.

By contrast, the couple downstairs always seemed to have company, gaggles of creative types spilling out their back door and onto the building's wide wooden landing. Coming home sometimes meant apologizing my way through those crowds. Their smiles were enviously easy, lubricated by Coronas and Heinekens. Social groups were tough for me. I clammed up in a crowd, overwhelmed by stimuli. I believed that a normal person might stop by and say hello, Ned Flanders-like. "Hi-diddly-ho, neighborinos!" Then he'd stay a while and gab. Well, okay, even I knew that normal people would consider the friendliness of the Simpsons' cheery neighbor unacceptable.

Coming in late was my habit. I had another, worse habit then as well, which confused my hours of waking and sleeping, and left me bedraggled after days of high flying. With feet safely back on terra firma, I'd undress and shower in the dark. I never bothered turning on lights. Nighttimes were nice. Meditative. Solitary. Recuperative.

Bathed and dried, I'd shrug into my robe and swing open the bathroom door. I loved how the apartment's cool dry air would swirl in, pimpling my follicles as the chill passed through me. It always felt like a renewal.

On one night that I recall particularly well, along with the chill that poured in was noise — the muted, bassy sounds of the party below. Quite suddenly, I very much wanted to be down there, in the company of people I'd never met. Of course, I couldn't possibly bring myself to go and introduce myself. I'd be the odd man out, on so many levels. I stood there, listening, for a full minute before an idea came to me.

Where had I seen it done before — a bad '80s comedy, some black-and-white suspense film? Barefoot, I took a flat-bottomed glass from the kitchen cabinet and padded to the dining room. Beside the table I knelt and set the mouth of the glass against the floorboards. While my knees said no to the unforgiving wood, my palms said yes, meeting its surface and relishing its coolness. Much like my mind, my body was not in accord with itself. My ear touched the base of the glass. The cold shock of it made me rear back. I set my ear down again, this time better prepared, and strained to hear.

The sound dispirited me terribly: the thwump-thwump of my own elevated heartbeat, imparting secrets I already knew.

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