Joyland

Toronto |

The Neighbor

by Deepa Shankaran

edited by Kathryn Mockler

No one knows that I lost my job, except the neighbors. They see me in my pajamas on the fire escape, or on the front walk in the afternoon. Or maybe they hear me shuffling from one end of the apartment to the other all day long.

My place has three windows along the length of one wall, one in the living room, the kitchen, and the bedroom. They face north, so even when the sun is at its peak the light is somber, tinted blue. They also face the house next door, a glorious old Victorian home, renovated, to be sure, with a glorious backyard where a chubby blond-haired girl comes out to examine the worms after a rain, or carries trays of pink chicken to her father at the barbecue. I peek down at them from the fire escape, where I go out to smoke a few times a day. I try to keep my ash from falling on their hyacinths.

The other wall is shared with my neighbor. I don’t know him, beyond his name, which is Jerry. He holds the front door when he sees me coming up the walkway, keeps it open for me even when I’m far behind. We’re the only two on the second floor. There’s a balcony at the end of the hall with a small wooden shelf and a clay pot filled with dirt, and it connects to his apartment. Some nights, I sneak out there to smoke when the raccoons are using my fire escape as a latrine. The after-dark hours belong to them.

In the hallway, there is a heavy glass door that opens onto my neighbor’s apartment and mine, and when we happen to be in that little vestibule at the same time, I offer my pleasantries with one arm sticking out to prop it open, so the space doesn’t feel too tight around us. Sometimes when I’m on the landing and he’s climbing up the stairs to our floor, it feels like he’d been hoping to find me there, or I’d been waiting for him to come home.

When I was growing up, my parents and I would always see each other to the door; even if someone was just going to the mailbox or the grocery store, we’d hover around as they put on their shoes. If it was an important person, like an out-of-town visitor, we’d follow them onto the driveway and look on as the car backed up and rumbled out of sight. Part of me hated it, all this holding on like we had nothing else to do. But when I hear my neighbor clinking his keys and locking up, I want to peep out into the hall and see him off.

I calculate the contours of our building and decide that his apartment is smaller than mine. In my mind, it’s always empty, a receptacle for little hints about my day. I imagine by now he’s gathered a few details about me. He would know, for instance, that I used to have a job; he would have heard me leaving promptly in the mornings and coming home by 6 p.m. From April to mid-September, he would have heard Steve knocking on my door a few evenings a week and leaving after midnight—he preferred his own bed. In the last few weeks, though, I doubt my neighbor has heard anything at all. Most days, I stay home. I write in my journal and read what I’ve written. I reheat my coffee and sit in front of it until it’s cold again, so if anything he catches the microwave beeping over and over.

If he had asked a month ago what I did for a living, I would have said I was a copy editor at an online cycling enthusiast magazine, Bike-atcha!—though it might have been nice to have something else to say. I wouldn’t have told him that although the job itself wasn’t terrible, I couldn’t stay put in my cubicle long enough to get anything done, even the Deals on Wheels postings, which is all they could trust me with in the end. I wouldn’t have admitted that I spent all my time smoking in the alley behind the office building, wishing for something else to do but I didn’t know what. Truth be told, it was only a matter of time.

Last week, I ran into my neighbor as I was leaving for the gym and he was coming up the front walk. An hour later, I ran into him again when I was coming home from the gym and he was heading out.

“We’re in sync,” he told me.

I smiled. My cheeks were still flushed from running.

He asked, “Do you have a day job that you go to? I hear you sometimes in the afternoons.” 

“I’m taking time off.” I said quickly. “ I want to focus on writing.”

He looked at me with a kind of recognition, and just then, it didn’t feel like a lie.

Since that day, I’ve been choosing my music more carefully. I’ve also been answering my phone again, and I bet he can hear me when I’m laughing or telling a story to my mother. If I can sense him out there in the vestibule, my voice might get a little sing-songy. Most days by noon, I’ve brushed my hair and changed out of my pajamas, if he should knock to apologize for something or inquire about the CD I have on, although this hasn’t happened yet.

Down at the mailboxes, I learn his last name. I look him up online and find out what he does for a living. He is an artist. That much I knew. He keeps his fresh works on the balcony, a mess of red and blue spray paint and LED lights. I wonder if he might paint my back room for me, do up one or two of the walls in graffiti so I can stop using it as a storage space and set up a writing den, with a desk and notebooks and a cupful of pens. According to the internet, my neighbor is quite the up-and-comer. I never imagined he’d be up to such things right next door—and that too in a smaller apartment. One article says that he does mostly installations, though these never appear on the balcony. His latest will be featured in a new exhibit at the Breton gallery next Wednesday. There will be cocktails on opening night. 

***

It’s a simple gallery, glassy and small. I’ve brought a friend along for the event, Tina, a graphic designer and former colleague from Bike-atcha! Tina has hot pink hair, a septum piercing and sleeve tattoos. Having a free spirit like her on the other side of the cubicle wall had made the office bearable, at least for a short time. When I told her that I’d quit the job so I could pursue my writing passion, she seemed to believe me.

“That’s fucking amazing,” she even said.

In the center of the room, my neighbor is wrapping up an interview with a reporter from City News. He answers a question about his plans for a winter-long exhibit, and just a few feet away, half a dozen people are waiting to speak with him. In the camera light, he seems more attractive than I’ve ever noticed. He’s wearing a maroon cardigan over a T-shirt, and his jeans are worn and paint-streaked, as though he’d been too engrossed in his art to consider his appearance. Of course he is too busy to notice me, or he doesn’t recognize me. It’s not often that he’s seen me dressed like this.

This is the first time in a month that I’ve been out for the evening, and I’ve chosen a short black sweater dress and black tights, a black scarf too with silver thread work. In the glass display case, I can make myself out; my hair is sleek, and my eye makeup is smoky, even mysterious. Beyond my reflection, the display features a ceramic cherub holding what looks like a Star Wars light sabre. I look down at the piece for a long time, not sure what I’m supposed to understand. 

Later this night, as I make my way to bed, I press my ear up to the wall for the first time. It doesn’t seem right to do this, but in any case, his apartment is silent until the next morning, which I think is when he came home.

I tune in a few times a day now, my cheek against the cold plaster wall while I’m waiting for the microwave to beep. I hear his boots stomping to the door and wonder where he’s off to, who he’s going to meet, or what new piece he’s crafting in the afternoons when his feet are padding lightly around his apartment.

One evening, I hover by the living room window, watching the autumn darkness settle. Outside in the alley, the dry leaves are floating and aimless, then suddenly spinning with purpose like a dog chasing its tail. This is when I let myself dream about him. I dream about leading him down the hall to my bedroom, though it’s too dark at that end to see what happens. I land us in that room like you’d throw an anchor into the deep, to stop the boat from drifting.

Moments later I’m sitting at my desk. I open the bottom drawer and pull out a folder labeled “Intro to Creative Writing,” a non-credit course I took at a community college last year. I shuffle through the papers for a handout with opening lines from classic short stories, and I tear the page up into four neat pieces. The words are loose now and might belong to anyone.

I choose the scrap with the most poignant phrases—about divers, hospitals, cities at night—and I flip it over and begin.

“I happened to be at the gallery last week,” I write. “It was a wonderful exhibit.” The next part I suspect is too forward, but still I put it down. “Drop by for a tea sometime. It would be nice to get to know you.” I fold the note in half and slip outside to tape it to my neighbor’s door.

When I peek into the hall the next morning, I see the note is gone.

Hours pass. I can sense him moving around in there, like a fish that refuses to startle though you’re tapping on the glass. When two full days go by without a response, I have no choice but to pretend that it never happened. The note is just another thing that I’d contemplated deeply and then neglected to do.

On the third afternoon, as I’m returning from a coffee shop where I’ve spent hours writing about the grains of sugar on my table, the small dry spot on the back of my hand, I run into my neighbor, who is locking up his apartment. We smile and say hello; I look at his shoulder and not into his eyes. He is accompanied by a short woman with a short black ponytail. She has round glasses and behind them, a plain, mousy face. I stare at her for a moment with a mixture of resentment and relief.

On the way into my place, I snatch up the square of paper stuck to my door. It’s a small flyer publicizing the exhibit.

“Thanks for coming,” he’s written on the back. “Tea next week.” 

***

As we make arrangements, more notes go from door to door. 

The days move slowly. I look up the properties of different kinds of tea and take long walks around the city, collecting loose leaf bundles from various charming shops.

On the morning of the visit, I heave my small desk into the back room and wedge it between the drywall and the wooden beams. I pile my journals high on the bright pine surface of the desk and scatter a pack of new ball point pens. The look is sparse and studious. I go back through the apartment and turn on the radio so my neighbor doesn’t hear me scouring the kitchen tiles, scrubbing down the counters, pushing the broom around.

I choose a pair of blue jeans, a vintage T-shirt and a thin summer cardigan, which is flattering but not enough against the draft from the windows. In the yard next door, the blond girl’s small plastic watering can is lying on its side, fused to the mud by the foot of the deck. We’ve already had snow flurries this year. My neighbor’s windows face west and south, so even in the bitter winter days to come, the sun will find a way in. 

When he knocks on my door, I greet him warmly. He lays his shoes down next to mine, and they seem enormous on my welcome mat. I hadn’t expected him to be wearing shoes at all—it’s such a short distance to cover. With one step, you could go from his threshold to mine.

“You keep a clean house!” he says.

For today, it’s true. I scan the room, noting the omissions. From the bookshelf, I’d pulled down the self-help guides that I collect but never manage to read. The kitchen table is gleaming, cleared of the employment insurance forms that had been scattered there for weeks. And my yard sale loveseat is wrapped in a cream-colored sheet to hide the pink floral pattern beneath.

“Tea?” I ask. 

“Sure,” he says, following me into the kitchen.

“This is the kitchen. That was the living room.”

He looks down the hall. “And there’s your bedroom.”

“Yes,” I say, clutching the handle of the kettle. It doesn’t feel right to lead him to my room yet, but then how will I show him the writing den, which is beyond it? “How is your apartment laid out?” I ask quickly.

He says a few things to give me the map of it, but I’m not really listening. I’m looking at the way he’s standing in the center of my kitchen. He seems to fill up the whole room.       

“So I guess it’s a bit bigger than yours,” he concludes.

It stings a little to have my estimate dismissed, but when the kettle sings, I remember myself and offer him the wicker tray where I’d arranged the bundles of tea: blueberry rooibos, cardamom, ginger, lemon balm, Moroccan mint, oolong, ginkgo and catnip, which I bought as a joke, but it’s said to be calming.

He chooses ginger, and I choose the same. A few moments later, we carry our steaming mugs to the living room. He sits down in the center of the loveseat, and there’s no question of squeezing in next to him. I take the rocking chair.

“Tell me about yourself,” he says. 

I search the room for some way to begin, then shake my head, no. “You first.”

“Well, I’m a self-taught artist,” he says. “Been at it for six or seven years now. Just recently, I’ve been getting some good press.”

“I’ve seen.” 

“I’m trying to do it full time, but there’s not much money. I still have to bike everywhere to deliver paintings. It’s easier when the weather is better. I can ride with a canvas tucked under my arm. Do you bike much?”

I shake my head slightly and blow into my cup.

“I bike everywhere. I tend to bike fast. Did you ever have the feeling, when you were little, that you were the fastest, strongest kid alive? I’d do a long jump and wonder if it was the farthest anyone had ever gone.” He laughs, and I laugh with him, and he watches me expectantly. When he leans back on the loveseat, its cover shifts and the original upholstery peeks out, faded and dismal. “Tell me about your writing. What do you write about?”

I shrug modestly, thinking about the stack of journals in the smallest room, each one bought in a fit of hope and eventually filled with a stream of vague longings, like for the winter not to come. I remember the latest book, where I’d lodged the few notes my neighbor had left on my door.

Breaking the long silence, he asks, “Do you want to see some of my new installations?”

I jump up, thinking he is going to take me over to his apartment, where the late afternoon sun is likely smooth and ripe.

“Here,” he says, angling his phone towards me. He shifts to one side of the loveseat and I take the spot next to him, edging in close, hoping to see our faces together in the reflection on his screen. Instead, what he shows me is a series of sculptures, his new collection. I’m alarmed at their complexity, and that he carefully crafted each one in his home, just on the other side of the wall. I recognize the cherub, still wielding the blue sabre that is enormous by comparison, and what I feel is a sense of futility, like these two things are laughably mismatched.

He checks his watch and the show is suddenly over. 

“I have to get going. I have a meeting at the gallery.” He stands up and walks over to the door, then puts on his shoes and takes his keys out of his pocket. “Thanks for the tea.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Feel free to use my balcony anytime,” he says, stepping into the hallway. “You can keep an ashtray out there if you like.” 

I let go of the door and let it drift closed, wondering if it’s out of laziness that I’ve just been flicking my ash over the railing. It always flakes apart before it reaches the ground, though lately, I’ve been trying to keep the path of it in sight, to find the dark hints of it in the snow.