I hear them on the other side of the wall and invent stories to fit the bumps and yelps. There are lives occurring just a few feet away, and I am simultaneously closer to and farther away than anyone else. We hear each other’s voices, smell the food being cooked, and feel every door that slams or locks. But the doors separate us into our own worlds that almost but never, ever, touch.
This house used to be whole at one time, but the realtors gobbled it up and shoved walls inside to divide it into apartments. They maximized the space by cramming as many bodies, as they could legally, inside and then jacking up the rent as soon as they got cozy enough. Right down the street is the university, which attracts mobs of students to these tired homes on Jackson Street. The old houses open up their doors and take a beating year in and year out, and 1924 W. Jackson is no exception to this tiring tradition.
Some details of the once grand house still shine through: beautiful brick work hidden under thick layers of paint, and wooden cabinets fashioned in a long gone era. The modern appliances look uncomfortable in their spots, a disturbing mash of past and present colliding in design and function until the resulting product is an enigma of a dwelling that no longer remembers what it was supposed to be. Some of the doors don’t quite fit their frames, the wood bulging and warped, forcing us to slam our bodies against them to gain entry. Drafts whistle through the hallways, slamming windows shut of their own accord and killing any flies that were unfortunate enough to be resting on their sills.
The house has weathered too many decades of college kids and lonely bachelors to even be considered handsome. Looking at the outside, it’s hard to tell what color originally was slathered on. It could have been white, gray, maybe even a nice beige, but the Indiana winters and summers have dulled and withered the color down to a dingy in-between shade of brown.
Every thunderstorm strips away a little more, a layer of shingles, a section of the gutter, leaving the shreds on the grass like discarded toys.
I am apartment four. A nice and even number written in gold on a plain white door. My life inside is ordered, and the carpet has fresh vacuum marks because OCD demands that my dog’s fur never touch the carpet for more than a moment before being cleaned away. The puppy-like beast we named Bram grew up here, and he defends the house like a fortress. He sleeps in his kennel, nose twitching in his dreams, and can awaken in an instant if he senses something; he makes me feel safe and loved, and his snores sound just like a baby’s. He is my constant friend and fiend, stealing washcloths, socks, and any human food he can snatch with his oversized teeth that fill his growing mouth like dentures. He paces the hall, sensing the bodies behind them and uses his nose to investigate before running back to our door, to safety.
My love is here too, tapping the keys of her keyboard until she finds the right way to arrange her words. She is soft and comforting, cheeks like calla lily petals and kisses that taste like thistle tea. Her voice sounds like a patchwork blanket of her Scottish heritage, years of British boarding school, and California vernacular as she calls to me asking for more toilet paper or to scratch her back. We found each other online; two women looking for memes, finding love instead.
Our apartment smells of us and our habits. Of cabbage, candles, the dog, sex, and smoke. It’s a heady blend that only exists in our oasis, and I wish I could bottle it like a perfumed memory. Though I scrub the stains with a fervor, and suck up the crumbs, this scent always clings to the air, as much a fixture in the house as we are. When it’s dinnertime in the house, the smells from all the apartments mix together in a dizzying fashion. If only we could coordinate our cooking schedules to avoid the mingling of tacos, mashed potatoes, curry, and Chinese take-out. But none compares to the sharp, rotting smell that appears like a ghost in the summer. Whiffs of the mystery scent attack your nose as you try to leave, and though you call the landlord again and again, the source can never be found.
Chelsea and Samir are in apartment three, our door knobs just an arm’s length away. Behind their door is a yappy dog named Sofia, the edge of a black couch, and beyond that is a mystery to me. They’re an innocuous looking couple on the outside, and it’s very clear to us that their honeymoon period is over; we hear the fights they have and the lamps they throw as Sofia barks. I hear Chelsea’s soft sobs and pleads for understanding, like a child begging for someone to listen. Samir’s booming, baritone voice rises with anger as hers shrinks while they battle to find some semblance of middle ground in their one bedroom apartment.
She’s blonde and thick like a good meal, and he’s tall and lanky with skin the color of chai tea. He tells me they met their freshman year, and the rest is history. She tells me that he was the first one she opened up to after a bad break-up, and the rest is just fact.
They are both still students at the university, the very same one I graduated from myself, but have become trapped in the never-ending cycle of class registrations and ever changing policies. Both of them lug their backpacks to campus each day, looking like battle weary soldiers heading off into another war. When they get home, the struggle continues. It could be something small, like Sofia’s nasally barking that signifies the cannon strike, or something more piercing like the sound of yet another glass or plate shattering.
We exchange friendly words and hold the door for each other as we go out, but there is only so much we can glean from those three minute interactions. I hoard the facts like a magpie, and try to put them together with the muted sounds from behind their door, convinced if I look at the pieces in just the right way I’ll figure out exactly why they are together.
Bert is in apartment eight, above my bedroom and kitchen, like a monster in the attic. He smokes too many cheap cigarettes and hits his girlfriend. Her cries are soft and hiccup-like, her tears drip from my ceiling forming stalactites of sadness. I avoid him in the halls, and thank my stars I have a gun and knife on my side of the door. His lecherous gaze and tongue wagged in my fiancée’s direction once, his eyes groping her legs, and I won’t let my anger go. I sit underneath him, imagining that he can feel my hatred through the ceiling as I hear him slam around like a wild animal in a cage.
Bert’s parents kicked him out and moved him here in one fell swoop, disposing of him like an unwanted package. He broods and sulks, walking around loudly as if each step he takes is somehow important, boldly ignoring all of the bright red NO SMOKING ALLOWED signs posted around the building. He once asked for the WiFi password, as if we would even give him the time of day. My fiancée posed herself solidly in the door frame defending our router, and I stood behind clutching the kitchen knife. As two gay girls, we do not have the luxury of taking chances with such men. We wonder if he thinks we are friends. The idea that we could be “together” much less in love, doesn’t seem like one he encounters much in real life. Though from the sounds of what comes through his speakers, I’d say his online habits mark him a pornographic expert in lesbians.
The fat man and his mom live in number one, below me like trolls under a bridge. He leaves his trash outside his door and stares at me for too long when I get into my car. His mother speaks loudly and yells at him like a child. We can hear it through the vents. The second hand embarrassment she makes me feel is like a cold and slimy jelly on a sandwich I didn’t make but now have to eat. Every few weeks like clockwork, the fat man leaves and stands on the street corner by the church with his phone in hand. A black car pulls up and he slides his hulking mass inside for just a moment, then exits and returns to his lair. Living in a college town means drug deals here are done quickly, efficiently, and in broad daylight. We all hold our tongues and mind our own illicit substances we have stashed away in sock drawers and ball jars.
We take bets on what it is he pushes. My fiancée guesses it’s Adderall, and I bet that she’s right. I used to think it was coke, but after hearing him in a shouting match with his mother, I formulated my own theory. When they argue, he can’t keep his mind on a topic long enough to plead his case. His logic bounces off the walls and ricochets, hitting him a few minutes later as he scrambles to put together all the pieces of his brain before his mother fries it up. ADD or ADHD, I think. Cut-and-dry case of someone hocking their own meds, at least from my narrow view. But his mother didn’t always live here and antagonize him, she used to live in a land far, far away, two houses down. But I suppose no distance was too much, as she took the long walk over here to yell at him almost daily. I’d hear the back door slam, her defiant knock on his door, and then the shouting would begin. But eventually, she decided to expedite the process and move in for convenience. Now their shouting matches can begin at a moment’s notice, and sometimes their voices meld with Chelsea and Samir’s to create an angry symphony in which my fiancée and I are the unwitting audience.
I wonder if the mother has put together that her son deals drugs. I wonder if he, a full grown man, will ever stand up to her and kick her out, and I wonder why the hell he even let her in. I wonder if Bert will stop hitting his girlfriend, or if she will leave him. I wonder if Samir and Chelsea will make it, but in my heart I feel as though I already know the answer. But as I daydream and try to put together the small clues, like a piece of junk mail casually discarded, or a door slammed a little too hard and a little too late, I wonder what they think of us and what they hear.
The smell of corned beef and cabbage, the barks from our dog when ambulances and motorcycles blaze past, what do our neighbors do with the clues we leave? I know what they see. I know what people in small towns in Indiana think of people like us. We continually correct the people that call us “friends” or “roommates,” and ignore the looks we get when we hold hands. I’m sure that our fellow housemates have plenty of thoughts and opinions on us, and they probably aren’t all glowing admiration. But it doesn’t matter in the end. Because for all of us, we’re just living in a glorified bus station. This is not a forever home, just a place to sit for a while until something better comes along. It’s not the Barbie Dream House, it’s just A House. Our leases tick tock down to our moves like a pre-planned vacation, and then we will take our things and disappear. Take the furniture, and vacuum away the hair and fur, destroying the evidence of our existence. Load up the car, say good-bye and good riddance to the place where we laid our heads.
Then more will move in and take our place, boxes will shuffle and new voices will echo off the tiles. They will use the very same key we carried in our purses, shit on the same toilet, and fuck in the same bedroom. These total strangers will live where we lived, and the others before us, and never know our names. Slowly any trace of us will fade, the mailman will forget our faces, our stray fingerprints will wipe away, and the process will continue. Forever doomed, the house will be a terminal until its tracks break down and the rails split in two. Then they will knock her down, salvage her foundations, and build on top of her bones again and again.
Then what of us? What of Samir and Chelsea? What of Bert? In this moment, we occupy a house together, but soon enough we will be ripped apart and settle into new homes. What happens to these temporary relationships? Like with all people, eventually the memories of us will fade down to the most defining characteristics, and we become relegated to a passing mention when telling old stories. Our house, this house, the home of two fighting lovers, a son and his mother, a monster, and two gay girls.