The broker didn’t have to tell us, but he did.
“The last tenant killed himself,” he said as he drove me and my boyfriend to see a one-bedroom rental in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.
“Oh,” I said. “In the apartment?”
“In the apartment.”
I turned to Joel and we both raised our eyebrows, then shrugged. Kind of creepy, but after nearly a month of looking at tiny apartments in questionable neighborhoods, nixing a well-priced place just off the park because of something that had nothing to do with us seemed silly.
“Let’s just see it and see what we think,” I said.
I was hoping I wouldn’t like the place, but I did. We both did. It was flooded with light, had high ceilings, wood floors, and a remarkably spacious floor plan. The bathroom and kitchen had been gutted, meaning that we’d move into a place with brand-new appliances and fixtures—unheard of for just $1,250 a month.
After giving the broker a cash deposit, Joel and I went out for brunch to celebrate.
“To our ‘killer’ apartment,” he said, as we raised our mimosas.
As the move-in date got closer, I started to get nervous. I’ve never seen or even sensed a ghost, but I suspect they probably exist. It occurred to me that we were walking into a horror film plot: young couple thinks they’ve found the perfect apartment, only to find the place haunted by an angry ex-tenant who makes blood pour from the taps and ghoulish images appear in the mirrors.
I started grilling Joel about his late hours. One night, about a week before the move, I broke down while talking about whether he’d be home for dinner most nights.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “You’ve never had a problem with my schedule before.”
“I’m afraid of the apartment, okay? I don’t want to go to sleep alone in there.”
When I went to sign the lease, I learned a little more. The gaunt Hassidic landlord shook his head as he remembered.
“He was very sick,” he said. “He stopped taking his medication. His family was devastated.”
We moved in the day after Halloween, which seemed both appropriate and portentous. As I unpacked, I found myself looking around wondering, where did he do it? And, of course, how did he do it? We’d decided not to ask the broker or super for details, but I couldn’t help wondering. I peered at corners looking for blood splatter. I examined the shower rod for signs someone had hung a noose on it. I picked at the grout around the bathroom, imagining maybe he’d slit his wrist in the tub and the red water had stained the tiles.
One morning, a few weeks after we moved in, two women standing outside the building stopped me as I was leaving.
“Did you just move in?” said one, sucking on a cigarette.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m in D20.”
“Is that John’s old apartment?” said the other.
“No,” said the smoker, lowering her voice. “That’s where David lived.”
“Oh!” said the older woman. They both looked at me silently until I finally said goodbye.
“Well,” she said, “they did a good job cleaning up.”
At night, I listened for noises. I watched my cat; if anyone could sense a spirit, I reasoned, it would be her. Every time she pulled her ears back and crouched in pre-pounce I looked where she was looking, and saw nothing.
After a couple of weeks, the couple next door introduced themselves.
“So, did you know the guy who used to live here?” I asked.
Valerie nodded. “He was really nice. He was a teacher.”
I told her I didn’t think I wanted to know too much about how he died.
“It was pretty bad,” she said. “We were here for all of it.”
She peered in and looked up and down the hallway.
“Well,” she said, “they did a good job cleaning up.”
Valerie told me a different story than the landlord had. She said David had been married with children, living a traditional orthodox Jewish existence in nearby Kensington, but there had been a problem: He was gay.
“His family abandoned him,” she told me. “He wasn’t sick. He was just sad.”
In early December, I got a letter addressed to him. It was postmarked from Spain, and was obviously personal correspondence, probably from a woman, judging by the handwriting.
I told Valerie and she suggested I give it to Margaret, who I’d since learned was the smoking woman I met outside. Apparently, Margaret was perhaps his only friend. Valerie said that it was she, not his family, who cleaned out his apartment.
When I saw Margaret the next day in the lobby, I showed her the letter.
“He had a friend in Spain,” said Margaret. “I don’t think she knows.”
I was curious what his friend had to say, of course, but decided quickly that to open it would be a violation of his privacy. I put the letter aside; maybe I’d contact his family, give it to them. Maybe getting his mail would soften their hearts. But I knew that such an adventure would be, on my part, more selfish than not. I was thinking like a writer: thrilled at the opportunity to see into another world.
A few weeks later, another piece of mail came. This time it was not a letter, but a postcard advertising a performance by Dixon Place, an experimental theater company on the Lower East Side. The postcard had a black-and-white photo of a man wearing lipstick and smoking a cigarette. A few weeks after that, David got something official from the Teacher’s Retirement System of the City of New York.
From these pieces of mail I began to form opinions about him. Or rather, not opinions, but a portrait. I saw him before a classroom of students who call him “weird” after class. I saw him attending oddball performances in black-box theaters, reaching out to the gay arts community, but coming home, each night, alone. More postcards, one from an optometrist reminding him to have his eyes checked, and another, a calendar of “Support Groups, Special Events and Blood Drives” from New York Methodist, made me think about his health. I pictured him walking through the revolving glass entrance door to the hospital at the corner of 7th Avenue and 6th Street in Park Slope, scanning the first floor directory for “Mental Health,” flipping through old Newsweeks in the waiting room.
One night I googled “someone committed suicide in my apartment.” Hit number four was a something about feng shui. I clicked, and scrolled through, reading that “the spirits of those who commit suicide are often angry and territorial.” Apparently, if I didn’t perform an exorcism, I’d never find “true peace.”
Sometime in the spring, Margaret stopped me as I was leaving the building. In the months since we moved in, I learned a little more about Margaret. She’s probably in her forties but looks over fifty. She lives on the first floor and fancies herself a kind of building den mother. There is a broken washing machine on her landing and she paces the lobby smoking cigarettes day and night. She is married to a black man with waist-length dreadlocks, and has at least one child, a dumpy, but polite pre-teen son who wears ill-fitting glasses. We keep our distance, for the most part; she has, on occasion, asked me for money. Judging by her social skills and apparent insomnia, I get the sense that she may be battling her own mental illness, which would explain her bond with David.
“So, how’s that apartment?” she asked.
“Great,” I said.
She lowered her voice. “Let me ask you something. Do you think it’s haunted?”
I feel as if I’ve come to an understanding with David, an understanding that can perhaps be best described as respect.
I paused before answering, surprised, and somehow pleased that she’d broached the subject. Joel takes a don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude toward David. He figures that if we haven’t seen anything to indicate paranormal activity, why even consider it? His response is rational, but I’ve always had a tendency toward magical thinking, and David’s presence seems so utterly possible that it’s pointless for me to pretend I could put it out of my mind. Still, after six months in the apartment, though I’ve lay in bed at night listening for a telltale heart (or footstep or moan), I’ve sensed absolutely nothing.
“No,” I finally answered, “but if it is, I think maybe it’s a friendly ghost.”
She smiled, a genuine grin I’d never before seen on her usually drawn face. “I think so, too. I said that. I said it must be a nice ghost. Because he was such a nice man. I was in there, afterward, cleaning out his things, and I was in the living room and all of a sudden the bedroom door slammed shut. I said, ‘David, if you’re trying to say something to me, just say it.’ But then nothing happened.”
She said that near the end, when he was having trouble with his medication, he’d asked her to take his mezuzah. He didn’t want it anymore.
“Do you want it?” she asked. I said yes, but didn’t mention it again. Neither did she.
A few weeks ago, we had friends over for dinner, and Valerie and her husband stopped by. We talked about our rent—they were in the process of moving to Manhattan—and I remarked that Joel and I pay $50 less a month than they do. We looked at each other knowingly.
“Fifty bucks,” she said. “For…”
“What?” asked Anna, who doesn’t know about David.
“For…” I didn’t know how to put it. I’ve told quite a few people, and I usually get a little thrill at the shock (or fear, or revulsion, or fascination) they display in response. But this is different. We are inside the apartment. David’s apartment.
“Our apartment has a bit of history,” I said. “The man who lived here before us killed himself.”
Anna’s eyes widened. “In the apartment?”
I nodded, and she started asking for details.
“Oh, we were here,” said Valerie. She’d had a couple glasses of wine and let words tumble out with less caution than she might otherwise have. “We smelled him. It was like a month after we moved in. The people downstairs, their ceiling started rotting. He’d been there two weeks…”
“Whoa,” I said, my voice a few decibels louder than it needed to be. “You can stop there.” I gesture widely at the room. “In this apartment, we respect the memory of the former tenant.”
Valerie and Anna looked both puzzled and disappointed. I’d considered asking Valerie about the details myself, thinking it was an itch I’d eventually have to scratch, but I’d recently come to the decision that I didn’t need to know. I tend to ruminate, and I know myself well enough to know that I’d never be able to get the image of his death out of my head; I’d walk through the place differently, scurrying past—or, who knows, perhaps lingering at “the spot.”
But it’s more than that. After nearly a year, walking over the same floor, standing in his tub, slipping his mail into a folder, and joking that my cat had befriended his spirit, I feel as if I’ve come to an understanding with David, an understanding that can perhaps be best described as respect. There has been great sadness in this apartment, and though I like to think that Joel and I have brought a measure of joy to the space, the fact of his suicide is a delicate, inescapable reality. I’d never felt particularly uneasy in the apartment, but in that moment when Valerie began to gossip about the messy aftermath of his death, I suddenly felt frightened. It was one thing to chat casually about our “killer” apartment with friends in a bar, but turning him into a spooky parlor trick in the very rooms where he drew his last breath seemed blasphemous.
“I still get his mail,” I say, trying to steer the subject away from the physical. “Really?” asks Anna. “What do you do with it?”
“I’m keeping it.”
“Do you open it?” asks Valerie.
“No, I just keep it. I used to think I might try to find his family. Give it to them in person.”
“I’d open it,” says Valerie. Anna agrees.
“No way,” I say, thinking that if he keeps my apartment unhaunted, I can certainly keep his mail unopened.