The woman across the hall from me is dying. She has Alzheimer’s, and at least once a day, I can hear her moan. It’s a creaky note held for an uncomfortable length of time: Aaaaaaghh. I can’t describe it better than that. I hate that the woman is dying, and my transcription looks like a thought bubble next to a cartoon skeleton’s head, like a Monty Python joke. Aaaaaaghh.
I moved into this apartment a year and a half ago. It was an under-market, one-bedroom railroad in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a ginormous kitchen and a bedroom view of the bridge. I’d just moved here from Texas, and I was so ecstatic to find a place with space—room for an office and a couch—that I forgot the questions any sensible renter would ask. Like: Is there a bathtub? (There isn’t.) Like: Can I really afford this place? (Not really.) Even with my best consumer game face, I would not have asked if the woman across the hall from me was dying. But I would have taken the place anyway. The first night, a friend came over to help me unpack. “You’re never moving,” she insisted, walking from room to room. “You can’t.”
Back then, the woman across the hall wasn’t moaning. In fact, for months and months, no sound (or people) came from her apartment, ever. You’d think this would strike me as weird, but there was a creepy shroud of mystery surrounding everyone in the eight-unit complex. I’ve had some unfriendly neighbors, but nothing like these folks, who walked up the stairs ducking their heads like they were avoiding paparazzi. Was this a New York thing? After all, I was still getting sideways stares whenever I smiled at strangers on the subway, and so I played along with this bizarre charade, never making eye contact as I shuffled up the stairs. After a while, I began to feel as though these weren’t people so much as extras paid to fill space, to shuffle back and forth like pawns in a video game.
Perhaps that’s why I started getting a little sloppy in my apartment etiquette—chain-smoking out my kitchen window, clomping up the stairs in my high-heeled boots, blasting My Chemical Romance songs at 4 a.m. This didn’t happen often, but it happened. One night, drunk and munchy at 2 a.m., I ordered a pizza. When the guy arrived an hour later, he didn’t have my unit number, so the bastard started hitting the buzzers of everyone in the building.
“We’ve gotten noise complaints about you,” the landlord’s daughter told me the next day.
About me? About Sarah Hepola?
The landlord herself was a 60-something Puerto Rican woman who spoke no English, so all communication came through her 30-something spinster daughter. “Running up and down the stairs at night,” she continued, “blasting your music.”
This really pissed me off. Even if it were true, it could still piss me off, right? Because 99% of the time, I was quiet and lovely and sweet as a summer peach. And had we even discussed how the guy upstairs from me had band practice on Tuesday nights till midnight? How he played Coldplay on repeat? (Coldplay!) Had we talked about the fact that the landlords had jacked up my rent unexpectedly, how my shower door had been broken for weeks despite my (gentle, polite) complaints?
I tried to look defiant. I probably looked sunburned.
“My grandma lives across from you,” the landlord’s daughter continued, “and she’s pretty sick. She has Alzheimer’s. She’s pretty much dying.”
I painted my walls a dramatic red and threw shaggy Urban Outfitters rugs in every room. Her walls are covered with peeling floral wallpaper; the room is bare save for a stripped, stained mattress shoved in a corner.I’d like to say I immediately softened. I’d like to say that, upon discovering the woman across the hall from me was grappling for life, I admitted my mistakes and apologized. This is not what happened.
“If she has fucking Alzheimer’s,” I complained to my friend that night, “how can she remember it’s ME making the noise?”
It took a while to shake off this defensiveness. In all my life, I have never been called out for being a bad tenant. Wait, that’s not true—but back in college, I really WAS a bad tenant. We threw keggers and splashed red wine on our new carpet and puked in the bushes. These days, I spent most nights reading in bed, the cat curled beside me.
That’s how the cat and I were one night when there was a startling metallic clatter, like something falling down the staircase. Shouting, heavy footfalls. I didn’t feel scared, I felt vindicated. See? I told you. I’m not the only one making noise in this complex.
Out of the peephole of my front door I could see people shuffling outside the old woman’s apartment. It was hard to make anything out in the commotion except for the oxygen mask on her face as the EMTs maneuvered the gurney down the stairs.
That’s when the nurses started coming and going. There was a morning nurse and an evening nurse, and sometimes, as they were leaving, I caught glimpses into the old woman’s place. Our apartments have the same layout, but they look nothing alike: I painted my walls a dramatic red and threw shaggy Urban Outfitters rugs in every room. Her walls are covered with peeling floral wallpaper; the room is bare save for a stripped, stained mattress shoved in a corner. I rarely think of myself as a person of privilege—because I grew up the most middle-class kid in a rich school, because I spent my 20s as a journalist, earning scraps and loving it—but I wondered what the landlords thought when they walked into my apartment and saw the Ikea furniture, the custom-made blond wood cabinet, the luxury hotel bedding. Is it stupid to say I was embarrassed? Because I was. Or guilty. Or, I don’t know. Sad.
There is an old woman dying across the hall from me. I stopped playing my music after 10 p.m. I tiptoed up the stairs, even on those nights when I had to squint and fumble before finding the keyhole. I actually felt so bad that I considered buying the woman a plant and placing it by her door, a gesture of truce and neighborly goodwill. A fern, perhaps? But then I realized I would have to write the note in Spanish. I don’t know why this was the dealbreaker; I actually know a little Spanish. Maybe I was just looking for any reason not to bother. It scared me to make contact with her. It made me nervous to even think about her. I wish this were one of those stories where I bought the plant anyway. Where we met eventually and became friends and the lights fade as I sit by her bedside reading aloud from Gabriel García Márquez. But it’s not that kind of story. I’ve never met the old woman, and I suspect I never will.
Instead, I became exceedingly polite to the nurses. When I saw one of them coming down the stairs, I would scramble to the front door and hold it open like a doorman. If I saw one hauling in bags of groceries, I would pick up a handful and carry them before anyone could stop me. I was hoping my kindness might somehow transfer to the old woman. Or that they might say to her, while changing the bedsheets one morning, “That girl across the hall, she is sooo nice.”
Contrite, I stopped ignoring my other neighbors and began greeting them whenever our paths crossed. Is that your bike? Did you see the full moon tonight? How was your day? I think I freaked some of them out. They maybe thought I was hitting on them. But better minor embarrassment than total invisibility. Living alone in New York is a scary thing. What if I died in my apartment? How long would it take before anyone knew? And when they wheeled my body out on the rickety gurney, as it stumbled awkwardly down the stairs, what would the neighbors say? “That was the girl who chain-smoked out her window and played My Chemical Romance in the middle of the night?” At least now, some of them knew my name.
I tried to be more friendly to my landlords, too, but they were having none of it. The aging Puerto Rican mother who owns the place is a tight-lipped woman with starkly dyed black hair who responds to any question, including “How’s the weather?” with the phrase, “Fine. How ahh joo?” She nods curtly and when she smiles at me, it appears to hurt her. I think she hates me. And I can’t take this personally, because I think she hates most of the white people who live in her building. The white people who tear down bodegas and erect boutique stores and vegan restaurants. The white people who forget to recycle their imported beer and Pabst blue ribbon, who forget to pick up their Netflix from the mail room for weeks on end, who pay their exorbitant rent with their daddy’s checking account, who drink $4 cappuccinos and drop off their laundry so that tiny Puerto Rican women can do it for them. In my neighborhood, there is a new business every week—a laundromat turned into a high-end gym, a barbershop turned into a coffee shop with wi-fi. If I had lived here all my life, and raised my family here, and had to watch as every plot of land was gobbled up by yuppie stores and glassy waterfront condos, I would hate me, too.
I stopped and wondered what I would want if it were my grandma dying. If it were me. Would I want someone to ignore me? Or would I maybe want someone to listen? Maybe I should have spoken Spanish to her. Would it have made a difference? I spent four months in South America, and though I’m pretty shy about it, I can bust out full sentences. Noun, verb, direct object. Maybe if I spoke her language she wouldn’t think of me as an enemy. Maybe if I spoke her language she’d see that I was a kind person, that at least I tried. I overhear the other tenants sometimes, busting out their pidgin Spanish to complain about some leak in the floor, and I think, “Why didn’t I do this?” Because I didn’t want to insult her by assuming she couldn’t speak English? Because I didn’t want to embarrass myself? Because I wanted the upper hand? I don’t even remember, but now that I only speak English to the daughter, it seems irreversible. I know it isn’t, but that’s how it feels. What can I say? Welcome to my life.
And then the moaning began. Every afternoon, as I sat typing at my kitchen breakfast table, I could hear it—a low moan, like air creaking out of her lungs. Aaaaaagh. Sometimes there was a second moan, louder and sharper this time, but usually just that one. At first, I imagined her losing her mind, screaming at shadows and pulling out tufts of crinkly white hair, but now I think it’s just some kind of physical therapy. Because the moans have a cadence sometimes, like when you’re sighing and you hit your own belly. So then it’s like, Agh-agh-agh-agh-agh-agh. But a few weeks ago, it got so bad that I couldn’t concentrate. I had to blast the radio just to drown her out. And I actually felt bad about that. I actually stopped and wondered what I would want if it were my grandma dying. If it were me. Would I want someone to ignore me? Or would I maybe want someone to listen?
At least she has nurses. Imagine how I’d feel if there were no one else around, and I were the only witness to those strange, strangled cries. It would be like witnessing some horrible act of domestic violence—which has also happened here, by the way, though not inside the building. A man grabbed this woman by the hair on the street below my bedroom window, and screamed about how he was going to rip off her fucking head. By the time it occurred to me to call 911, they had hopped back into their car and swerved off into the night.
It might surprise you to learn that when my lease came up three months later, I decided to renew. What can I say? I love this place. My cat loves this place. I love nothing more than lying with him on my bed as I stare out the window at the Williamsburg Bridge. When the weather is nice, the curtains billow in the breeze. It’s nicer than any place I ever imagined, which is both overselling the place by a mile and telling you something about my own rotten expectations.
Last Saturday, I came home at noon. I’d been out till 6 a.m., and hadn’t slept in my own bed. I was probably still drunk when I climbed the stairs. I stripped off my clothes and buried myself under the covers. My cat padded into place beside me. It’s hard for me to nap when I’m hung over, which is one of the minor agonies of my adult life. The only thing between me and an addiction to sleeping pills is a trip to a Matamoros pharmacy. Anyway, that’s when the moaning began. Louder than usual, and more frequent. Goddammit, I thought, flopping a pillow over my pounding head: Lady, can’t you shut up for one day?
The pillow muffled nothing, of course, and eventually, I heard female voices singing. At least three of them, running through “Jesus Loves Me” in Spanish, over and over. Next came “Kum Ba Yah” and a song I didn’t recognize. Oh God, she’s dying today. She’s really dying. And she wasn’t dying, because she’s still alive as I’m writing this. But it felt weird to be there. To be hearing that. I didn’t want her to die, and I didn’t want her to stay in this agonized limbo, either.
But I couldn’t think about it too long. I was so exhausted that morning. I was so comfortable, finally snuggled in my own bed. I was so happy to be there. And after only a few more minutes, they’d sung me to sleep.