Better Living

So, I have this neighbor.

He lives in the apartment below me. He has a penchant for heavy metal and the volume on his stereo is set permanently to 11. The preferred hour for his head-banging parties is approximately 3:30 in the morning, two or three nights a week.

This, I can live with.

He also has a yelling problem. And by a 'yelling problem' I mean that I don't believe he's spoken a sentence in his life that was not shouted as if from the edge of a cliff. He yells morning, noon, and night. From the window, from the balcony, from the comfort of his bed. The man lives to yell.

But this, this I can live with.

He also owns a bullhorn. It has several settings, one of which can only be labeled 'Olde Time Jalopy Horn' and which he uses more often than even the manufacturer could have hoped. When the weather's nice, he can while away an afternoon shouting through the bullhorn at passersby on the street. "He's got poop in his underpants!" he'll yell one minute. Moments later, he may simply shout: "Fart."

The man is in his 50's, in case that wasn't clear.

But this, too, I can live with.

What I can't live with, or rather can but wish I didn't have to, is this: this man, this heavy-metal-blasting, four-AM-screaming, bullhorn-toting man, has the most sensitive, virginal fucking ears in the Upper Midwest. If I so much as tip-toe barefoot across my kitchen floor-- and believe me, I wouldn't dare make a sound louder than that-- he will scream obscenities that would make a prison guard blush. He will pound the floor and shout like I'm the goddamn Barnum & Bailey circus waking him at dawn with an elephant stampede.

It. Is. Horrible.

I've lived here now for nearly two years, the longest I've lived anywhere in my adult life, and I'm still not hardened to it. Every time he screams at me, I freeze, I cringe, and then I cry. I've stopped having friends over almost entirely, I never wear shoes in the house, I only clean when I know he's at work, and I'll sometimes go to bed thirsty because I can't bear to tip-toe back to the kitchen and risk being bellowed to smithereens.

It's no way to live and I know that. I've discussed it with friends, coworkers, even my therapist. Everyone has a suggestion, none of which is something they'd likely do themselves. I've shouted back at him once or twice, and one particularly awful night I called the police, but quickly called them back and begged them not to come. The most common suggestion is to tell my landlord, but he knows, and there's nothing to be done. The man's a menace, but apparently a rent-paying one. Case closed.

I've found a few strategies that seem to help. Loud fans. Padded socks. Breathing exercises. It's no way to live, and I know that. I could move, and some day I will, but for now, I have my reasons to stay.

With winter comes an early night, and with early night, comes me-never-cleaning-my-house. I can only clean by sunlight, and on weekends my neighbor is home, and the soft swooshing of the swiffer is simply too much for his ears.

But this weekend, it had gone too far. Every surface of my apartment was not merely cluttered, but filthy. It needed a deep and detailed scrubbing and I was tired of putting it off. I collected a bushel of soaps and sponges, sunlight pouring through the windows, and for the first time in awhile, I felt strong and happy and good. I put on my apron and my Playtex gloves and I set about to work.

I wasn't five minutes into the job when I gently set a plastic bottle of countertop cleaner on the kitchen floor and--

"GET A FUCKING RUG!" he roared up through the floor like a lion. I jumped. I didn't even realize he was home. It was nearly noon on a Saturday morning and I'd set a plastic bottle on the floor. I was stunned, frozen. I spent half a minute trying to think of a comeback, but all I could think was, "no YOU get a fucking rug," which didn't even make any sense.

And suddenly, I'm crying, standing over the sink, Playtex gloves and an apron at my waist, and I feel so tired and alone. And I'm doing this sort of dainty housewife cry and suddenly I start to laugh, because I look like such a cliche: apron at my waist and my Playtex gloves, crying at the kitchen sink. And suddenly I feel warmed by the long line of women before me who have cried at their kitchen sinks for holier reasons than this; my own mother, I'm sure, and her mother before her. Millions of women, and men too for that matter, because who is exempt from feeling alone? Even the jackass downstairs probably cries sometimes.

I forget sometimes that this is part of it, the pain and the loss. I'm always searching for that happy plateau where everything just works out. It doesn't exist, I'm finding. If one thing is happy, another is sad, and that's just the way it goes. There is no plateau, there is only this: my Playtex gloves and the apron at my waist, the man shouting curses downstairs. The sunbeam on the counter, the grace we are shown, the hope that beats on in our hearts.

I sigh. I pick up the bottle. I clean.

This, I can live with.