By Maura Lee Bee
When my neighbor first moved into apartment 12A, he was small. Meek. He came with a woman two inches shorter, yet still towered over him like snowy owls stare down their prey. My voisin, he spoke very little, went up the stairs and down the stairs as quickly and quietly as he moved in that late August afternoon. I stood from the balcony and stared down at him, struggling and insisting with cardboard boxes. There was a cat that meowed through the walls. Le chat, she cried like an infant between the fights they had. The summer did not last.
She whined at five in the morning, and he would curse her at 5:05. The walls were always thin. I sipped my tea and paid no mind. I need to buy milk today, I would think, and maybe some bread too. It was never my business. The boy, he struggled with the groceries when he brought them up alone. He dropped his keys at least eight times against the desk each day. Sometimes the kitten would whimper for food. I was never sure if it was her or him with their heart broken in the middle of the night.
And when la lune shone down, I would hear it, the never-ending churn of the city. The breathing of the empty streets. Like him, I could not pretend this was Paris. Cannes. The people below would yell every hour. One night there was a coup de feu, maybe four of them, and he knocked and asked if I was all right. I nodded and offered him bread or soup. The frost on the windows clung on like leaves. He wrapped his arms around him like he was cold, or hiding something. He said no and shut the door.
A lot of people came in and out. Friends sometimes, lovers others. One was a dark-skinned girl with cheveux bouclés. Her smile reminded me of the store windows my father would decorate. She was careful, except when she spoke. Cheveux would knock against the wall to get the snow off her shoes, but always tracked snow in the flat. The boy used to sing, and then when she came along, the music stopped. The walls were always too thin. I imagined taping mattresses to the wall to keep my ears from listening. My father always told me not to stare at his displays too long. He would say, if you stare too long, they’ll come to life.
Then there was la fille de verre. Her glasses were thick and she was so small, so much smaller than the boy. There was always silence then. When snow started to melt, she would come in soaking wet. Her hair was like tree bark after a forest fire. She did not come much, and for that I remember her as being invisible. My only notice of her was when she broke the lock on his door. The boy dragged his feet forever. The silence lasted too long. Le chat was crying again, sometimes for days.
But my favorite was le râleur. Her hands were small against the doorknob. She snuck cigarettes on their balcony, and the smoke would drift around the corner. The kitten never cried. I would hear both of them through the walls at all hours. I need to buy ear plugs, I would think, stuffing cotton in my ears, yes I will need those to sleep tonight. When she arrived in the mornings, she would leave my paper in front of my door. The walls rattled when she screamed his name. Her voice carved yes on the walls a hundred times. My voisin, he grew three inches when she was around. Her smile was crooked, and she fiddled with the door when she couldn’t get in. She was often covered in paint. Music soaked through the walls, and I felt like I was in a symphonic bathtub. Le soleil made everything in the apartment warm as it fell through the window pane.
When the leaves fell, she disappeared. Shadows got longer, doubled and took over even when it didn’t rain. L’homme en noir sat on the steps, particularly loud when he slammed the door. His key stuck to the skin of his hands. My father told me when I was a little boy, Anyone who keeps their hands closed around something that small is embarrassed by it. My father worked in Paris for years, and dealt with many méchants. His senses made me a better judge of others. The silence was unbearable.
I pictured 12A with one hundred candles burned out. The quiet had grown wild; the chaos of it was unbearable. When I played my violin, there was no cushioning. There wasn’t music again. Le chat’s bell jingling was the only stirring on our floor. When I went to work, I would drop the paper on his welcome mat; the papers piled up for five days. The landlord finally kicked them away.
And I asked myself what happened to le râleur. Her eyes were golden blueberries, not yet ripe, but still have a sweetness to them. She struggled to say Bonjour, and he tugged her like a stuck blanket into his home. My father had told me the best advice he was ever give was from his mother. You can always trust a small mouth, she would say, but only if it can roar loud enough.
I wasn’t quite sure what he went by, so I wrote Voisin on the letter that I sent. There was one page with many cross outs, but it worked nicely. The message squeezed itself into its envelope house. It was unclear he’d read it at all, but still I spoke:
Although it is quiet, I can feel the cold stiffness that has befallen your home. My
earplugs are without a job, and I wonder if they will be commissioned once more.
You are very young, voisin, and I am very old. Too old, as they say, to live on my
own. English does not come naturally. Please understand. I want to tell you
something my father, and your father too perhaps, always told me:
Sometimes the best silence comes from your mind,
but only when your heart is speaking.
When I sealed the note, I wasn’t sure what would happen, but ever since then, the door has not stopped opening. My instrument is embraced by a bass. The kitten’s bell is drowned out. And my voisin, I haven’t heard from him, but it is always hard to hear through his name swirling in the air, and through two cotton balls.
Maura is a queer writer based out of New York City. Her work has been published in the How We See It, More Views of Our World book series, as well as Utopia Parkway, and All in Your Head. Her work has received awards such as the David B. Feinberg Fellowship. She even met Neil gaiman once outside of a library. When she isn’t busy dismantling an otherwise oppressive system, she enjoys receiving coffee in an IV, baking pies, drinking gin, and meeting new dogs. You can also find her work on Medium and Twitter.