The lady upstairs is yelling at her kids. I mean, really yelling. The high whine of these kids’ voices and the pitter-patter lightness of their footsteps suggest the oldest can’t be older than ten—or at least not heavier than seventy pounds. You should never call a kid that age a “cunt,” but she sure is doing that.
I’d say something, or call someone, but I’m living down here in the basement unit for free, and I need that lady to be up there and feeling okay about me in order for this situation to maintain itself. Back in May, my old roommate Evangeline and I got a court order for the landlord, Bradley, to bring the apartment up to code, but he never corrected all the violations of city housing regulations, so we stopped paying rent. The building has shared meters for electricity and gas, meaning per-floor expenses can’t be determined, so the landlord holds responsibility for those bills. That lady’s apartment and mine are the only ones occupied in the building, and without her upstairs paying rent to the illiquid Bradley, who has several more violations to atone for with the city, he won’t be able to keep up with payments for the utilities, which will go out again, just like the heat did in March. Without heat and electricity, I can’t stay here for free and by myself, drinking wine and eating ice cream and touching myself.
And then there’s the rat problem. They’re launching a full-scale assault, and I can only stay if they remain at a tolerable level. With my and Evangeline’s outstanding case against Bradley, we can’t be in legal contact with him or the super, so Simone, who has them up there on the second floor, too, has to be the one to make arrangements for the exterminator to come. Or else I’d have to pay for it. Simone will not cooperate with me on the rats if I call the police on her—a laughable action. It will be obvious any complaint came from me, because I’m the only other person here.
Simone and her kids moved in months after Evangeline and I stopped paying rent; without the revenue from us, Bradley needed to rent the floor above us. I’d first known they were there when I came home from work and let out a fart and heard the children giggle upstairs in response—that’s how well sound travels through the building. I could tell from their laughing they were cute kids.
Simone and I first met in September when I was cutting my buzz with a smoke at the top of the stairs leading down to the basement entrance and she came down to take out her trash. I worried about setting a precedent for us talking when we saw each other on the stoop in the future, but I had an inch of my cigarette left, so I gave a cautious hello, careful not to slur my words, and we got to talking, each following the script of a conversation between new neighbors. I was uneasy to begin, naturally, and she was polite and saccharine and by no measure sincere: How long had I lived in the apartment for? (Nine months.) What did I do for work? (No.) Excuse me? (No.) Huh.
Thinking it would be good practice to continue the conversation, and this being before the shouting had begun upstairs, I asked her, “You’ve got kids up there?” She made a face, and I could see her teeth.
She asked me where the good places to eat were around here, and I thought for a moment and then told her about Ice Cream House, the kosher place on Bedford.
“One thing,” I say, “is that the people who run it sometimes want people like you and me to keep our arms and ankles covered, even in the summer, when we want ice cream the most.” I tossed my cigarette butt and tried to smile, and when she paused and looked toward her front door, I told her the ice cream was mostly freezer burned anyway. “Say,” I said, changing the subject, and explained my situation in the basement unit. I still can’t say why I told her what I told her or why I said anything at all, but sometimes we human beings don’t need a purpose to say anything besides to take up airspace, sometimes we don’t use a voice for any better reason than that we have one. And regardless: I left out the fact that Bradley lacks occupancy permits, something that would let Simone know that her lease was invalid, too, and could mean she could also stop paying rent.
Now, when Simone and I text about getting the exterminator to set out replacement glue traps and poison, she calls me “honey,” but if those sweet kids are cunts, most certainly so am I. There exist more than a few reasons I’m here all on my own. We all might share what we don’t need to, but we can still choose to leave out the most damning stuff.
Tonight, the shouting is so loud that I have to turn my white-noise machine up all the way.
In October, we get notices that Bradley has fallen behind on his Con Ed bill and that the electricity will be turned off if he doesn’t pay by Halloween. Simone complains to Bradley and soon texts me that he’s made a payment plan with the company. Bradley wouldn’t let the bills go if he didn’t have Simone to keep happy and paying rent.
And Simone is hard to keep happy, because she is a witch, a bull, an ogre. She is screaming, always screaming, at those tiny children. The sound of their feet above me is like the scuttling of crabs before a dragon.
It doesn’t seem she wants them to do better in any way, and I hear nothing about their grades, chores, or appearances. She is not a demanding parent—only an infuriated and mercurial one. She resents their very existence, their shutting down of her life’s possibilities; she might just want to be left alone, like me, and the children won’t allow it.
The Child Protective Services site tells me how easy and imperative it is to report, how you can do so and remain anonymous. But I pause and ask, “Where’s the other parent in this situation, huh? What would even happen to these kids if I reported?” and I spend some time reading articles about how broken Foster Care is.
If a situation is so complicated that you don’t know what would happen if you intervened, I say it’s better not to act. Take this Syria mess for example—no good options there. Or, I heard that at Three Mile Island the automatic safety mechanisms would have done their job and everything would have been fine, but people saw all the flashing lights and heard the alarms and thought, “We have to do something,” and just started yanking levers and pounding buttons, and that’s where the real trouble started.
I’d say physical violence is my red line here. I certainly wouldn’t call that home safe, but I don’t think she hits the kids. It is only Simone’s voice that gets more aggressive; it has that particular crescendo with every syllable in “shut the fuck up.” It doesn’t sound so bad if I cover my ears.
These rats, on the other hand, are a whiskered emergency. I see at least three a day, and they have become increasingly emboldened. They used to stare at me from the holes in the wall, and now they stare at me from the middle of the kitchen floor. Their backs hunch, and their paws go up like little pugilists’ gloves and together in prayer when they have something to rotate and gnaw at. They show me the inverted Vs of their mouths as they joust the air with their noses. Their scampering has slowed down to sauntering, when they even feel the need to move for my sake at all. The one comfort is that it is as if to them, it does not matter that I am here.
My last boyfriend, Ronald, got me a pet rat for my last birthday. It was different than a sewer rat in that it was black and white. We named it Elmo. When we came up with the name, it was an epiphany, for Ronald. We kept it under the bed for want of space, and it nibbled on my dangling blanket, making holes the width of the space between the bars on its cage. When we separated last fall, Ronald took the rat, and I took care of it when he traveled. The breakup must have been hard on it: it began chomping fingers when held and did battle with people’s shoelaces when let out onto the floor. When we both moved again (me in with Evangeline this past January and Ronald away from New York), I pretended this new apartment didn’t allow pets, which had been the same excuse he used, and his parents’ dog’s groomer ended up taking it. Without coordination about Elmo to keep us in contact, Ronald and I stopped talking, and I know not how that rat is now, or even whether it’s alive. Maybe it never made it to the groomer, was released into the world, and will reveal itself one day among the others in the siege on this apartment—a piebald surprise, with that pink, wormish tail slithering behind; a slightly healthier coat among all the matted gray rat backs.
When Evangeline moved out in August, I declined to look for another roommate. Our lawyer advised I stay on the right side of the law and not have someone not on the lease stay in the apartment, no matter how bogus that lease was. And he also said it wouldn’t be “right” to charge someone rent when I myself was not paying it. But the most important thing for me was that I’d rather live alone.
I don’t really need the money I’m saving. I already have plenty of it. I didn’t even need my position at that startup that would never start up—or it wouldn’t matter if I got fired. When I stopped going, my boss called and I mumbled something half-hearted about capitalism, about being in service to Moloch, about the futility and immorality of our work. “But, Dahlia,” he protested, “all we’re doing is working on an app.” The main thing for him is not where the road goes but rather that it should simply be going. I want to go nowhere: I have no ambitions, no perverse lusts, no fantasies, no roving eye. “You’ll never want anything,” Ronald told me, after he gave me that rat and saw the look on my face. Almost true: I want only to replicate in each day, if possible, the quiet neutralities of the day before.
Last year, before Elmo, back when I spent time with people, when I still dated Ronald and shared all his friends, we’d talk about what we’d do if we didn’t have to worry about money. Evangeline, who was one of those shared friends and the only one who stood by me, used to say she would get her degree and do criminal defense, maybe for capital cases. I used to say I’d travel, see the world. It was something I said to seem a certain way, not because I would’ve liked to be or feel a certain way. In reality, I had no idea what I would do if I came into the kind of money I was about to come into; you never know what you’re going to do until you do it.
Now, in arranging my little life here, I’ve given in to my base desires and really figured out who I am, and it’s nothing much more than passive and impulsive. This place is salt to my being; it makes me taste even more like myself.
Earlier in the year, when National Grid had seized the meter and the gas was turned off, I went and stayed in a hotel, with the loss of heat as an excuse to be alone, and Evangeline stayed in the apartment. She texted me photos of her hand outstretched toward the open microwave oven and a bad joke about cold showers and her libido. I texted her to do what I’d do, and was doing, and drink to stay warm.
After days without heat in the apartment and no response from the super, Evangeline sent me an email quoting New York tenants rights: “Multiple Dwelling Law § 79; Multiple Residence Law § 173; NYC Admin. Code § 27-2029: ‘Heat must be supplied from October 1 through May 31 to tenants in multiple dwellings…’ Multiple Dwelling Law § 75; Multiple Residence Law § 170; NYC Admin. Code § 27-2031: ‘Landlords must provide all tenants of multiple dwellings with both hot and cold water…’ And here’s the important part. ‘Real Property Law § 235-a; Public Service Law § 33: ‘If a landlord of a multiple dwelling fails to pay a utility bill and service is discontinued, landlords may be liable for compensatory and punitive damages.’”
“You’re not doing much to help out here,” she added two days later when I still hadn’t replied.
I had figured that the whole situation wasn’t my fault, so it would follow that it couldn’t be my responsibility.
Evangeline found a lawyer, who advised us to get an inspector from Housing Preservation & Development to register the substandard conditions in the building in addition to the lack of heat and hot water. “Exaggerate your distress,” he told us, and I was pleased to do so.
When the leverage from the inspection worked and Bradley paid enough of the outstanding bill, National Grid workers came to reinstall the meter. I kindly asked them whether I could get them anything—maybe a glass of cold water.
When the water still wouldn’t run warm, Evangeline and I looked up how to relight the pilot light online. “Scary!” I said, and went back to the hotel. Upon my final return to the apartment, the building had not blown up. “You were right,” Evangeline told me, running a finger along where one of her eyebrows used to be. “It sure was scary.”
Given my hotel stay, Evangeline wanted to know where my secret money came from. “Did you murder someone?” she asked, almost seriously. I didn’t, but someone did need to die for me to get it. Someone whose funeral I didn’t even go to. I so do not want to address this matter that I will share everything else to avoid it. Maybe this person was my lover before Ronald and I wish not to think of that time.
I didn’t know much about Evangeline. I wasn’t quite sure what she did when we first moved in, and it eventually became too late to ask her. The few times people asked her in front of me, she said things like “I kill bad guys” or “I collect trash.”
When she got accepted to law school and knew she would be leaving in the fall, she said we should have a little chat. I avoid any kind of chat and especially hate little chats, but she is an excellent chef and volunteered to cook dinner.
“You are about to lose me,” she told me at our kitchen table, over food she had prepared from raw ingredients. “And I feel something like the last stand-in for society for you, aside from your stupid work. Or like the last thing you bounce off as you slide downhill.”
I shrugged and tried to act smooth while my eyes filled with tears over the food on my plate. I forget what the dish was, but it was hot and nourishing, and those were the things that moved me then.
“I met your parents,” said Evangeline, gesturing for me to begin eating, “and they were pleasant enough. Always holding hands, saying ‘I love you’ but not for show. Hardly bad or odd enough to explain this shift in you. Something has changed, for some reason besides Ronald. I mean, I knew the guy, with the hypochondria and the ant farms. There’s a reason I’ve stayed friends with you instead of him. He can’t be an explanation for all this either.”
“I abhor change as much as anyone,” I said, and brandished my fork like a sword. Evangeline parried a poke and gently pressed my utensil-wielding hand down to the table.
“I don’t quite understand you,” she said. She wore a reaper’s expression to match the occasion, but moonbeams still shone through her eyes and mouth; it was as if she could not help but glow. “I know you want to seem like you loathe yourself, but you are also so proud, so arrogant,” she continued. “You don’t do anything, and you share nothing with anyone. You say nothing that doesn’t reproduce the badnesses of the world we all already know about. You offer no solutions, nothing productive. But I do know at least that you are lonely. I know, because for a long time I was very lonely myself. I hated people, I didn’t want to see anyone. If someone had asked me if I wanted to be born, I think I would have said no. I was not where I was by my own will, and neither did the things that happened to me happen through my own will. But no one did ask me whether I wanted to be born, so at some point I asked myself, ‘Why torment yourself? Why not just take life as it comes? You have the right to. You are not one of the guilty ones. You have the right to be as happy as you can be.’ Now, I prefer to be as I am. I wouldn’t want to be one of the guilty ones. And now I go out a lot. I force myself to. I have a lot of friends. I am never alone. I am much happier.”
“That sounds very simple,” I said, beginning to eat. “I’ll have to try it after you leave.”
Once Evangeline left, I got going with the ice cream, perhaps out of spite. I began a rotation of the bodegas in my neighborhood, maybe as a way to preserve a certain urban anonymity and prevent the individual shopkeepers from discerning my habit. That in itself, though, was a habit: the sense of shame. I felt it because I felt I was supposed to feel it. Even if I was going to any given bodega once every few days instead of once every few hours, each owner came to recognize me. After the first ten or twenty times I came into their respective shops with the tinkling alert so many of their doors have, they stopped calling me “boss” and started calling me by my first name, which I gave them when they asked. I know where to say “shukran” and where to say “gracias,” and I know where they like me and where they don’t. These transactions of cash for frozen lactose treats are the closest things I have to relationships these days.
I suppose I could buy in bulk tubs at Associated or Key Foods instead of going to the bodegas. But if I didn’t go out three times a day to put down $6.50 per pint, I’d hardly go out at all. Plus, this way I can pretend I could stop if I wanted to. Each time I buy, it’s a choice.
My clothes and bras have ceased to fit comfortably. My acne flares into pustules on my chin from all the sugar. On the whole, I feel awful, but I won’t go to a doctor anytime soon: if they can’t examine me, I can’t be sick.
Ice cream tastes best when it has melted enough so that it doesn’t numb your taste buds. When I’m patient, the frost on the carton dissolves into my lap and the ice cream becomes soupy goo. Mostly though, I just eat it as fast as I can; I tilt the last dregs into my mouth and regret not savoring it. In these cases, I toss out the empty carton of coffee-flavored ice cream I’ve chosen for breakfast and move on to the second pint I otherwise would’ve saved for lunch, which by that time is sufficiently melty.
For me, drinking as much wine as I ate ice cream would be… cliché. Like with a rock star whose mounting royalties prevent him from bottoming out and really kicking his addiction. But ice cream seems a distinct choice. If I didn’t ask to be born, I can do whatever. I can act as if I never left the womb in the first place. Or as if I have only just left and all I do is shit and eat ice cream instead of drinking mother’s milk.
I don’t feel guilty about living like this. I’ve always thought that that was a silly way to conceive of something bad for yourself, something that doesn’t hurt other people.
Outside, they are everywhere—people. Since Evangeline left and after a brief period of failed attempts at adjustment and my eventual untethering, every time I have exited the apartment and seen a person, they have demonstrated how unworthy of saving humankind is. The fancier ones carry their radiant heads so gaily and lightly, and seem to swing themselves through life as through a ballroom. There is no sorrow in a single look of theirs I meet, no burden on any shoulder—perhaps not even a clouded thought, not a little hidden pain in any of these happy souls. They carry themselves with straight posture past my crooked frame; I am a shoddy imitation of a person like other people. Their aggressive health is an insult. I want them to go to hell. I would sell the whole world for a penny; it is unbearably burdensome that it is there at all. I long for peace, to be left alone underground, just not to be bothered.
Even alone outside on empty late weeknights, I cannot conceal myself. The dark free-standing homes below Eastern Parkway loom over me like monsters. If you have company in your life, houses are just houses with steps and a front door—friendly houses where you ring the bell and the door opens and somebody meets you, smiling. If you are secure, they know, and they stand back respectfully. Then when I come, the poor devil without any friends, the waiting houses step forward to frown and crush. No hospitable doors—just frowning darkness, one house after another. Tall black cubes, the two eyes lit at the top in order to frown. And they know whom to frown at.
Inside my own building, where no one can look at me and where I can do no one any harm, I feel something like a hikikomori, something like the opposite of a flaneur; my eyes skirt only about my kitchen and fall upon the microwave with the timer stopped at thirty-six seconds, leftover from an easy minute for softening a pint, at the dry-rack tray going moldy, at the flecks of garlic skin flattened onto laminate from Evangeline’s last home-cooked meal… Up from the boiler by my bedroom comes heat, hot water; down past me flushes Simone’s wastewater. A near-cat-sized mother rat emerges from the trash, an ice-cream carton for a hat. I’d squash the trailing column of pups, but then I’d have to clean them up, and with what dustpan? One of them looked like Elmo anyway. I let the walls reabsorb their mischief, and jam an old bra into the hole behind them. As long as I can keep this place secure, I’ll never need an upgrade.
I attach no particular sentiment to this place, but maybe the setup is hard to leave and comes with its own little bit of fun. How I came to live here for free is an okay story, or at least an anecdote, even if I have no one left to tell it to. It would take too much energy to move. If I moved, people might spot me, and I feel I am hiding something in these walls, evidence of some indignity of mine I might forget and leave behind. Seals to prevent intrusion also prevent escape, and I am willing to make this tradeoff.
I seldom set my jelly-jar wine glass down long enough for the liquid’s surface to go still, but when I do, Simone’s bellowing makes it ripple. The volume exceeds what would otherwise allow me to pretend I never heard it. Because I never leave, I must hear her every time. I choose to suffer; the children do not choose to suffer but do suffer. I do less than the least I can do. I’ll never not be wrong for delaying, but my window for sympathy and action hasn’t closed entirely.
But who am I to break up this family, to infringe on their sovereignty? Emil Cioran writes as if specifically to me: “Who, with the exact vision of his nullity, would try to be effective and to turn himself into a savior? The ideally lucid, hence ideally normal, man should have no recourse beyond the nothing that is in him.” He uses the word “man” but still makes me feel so fine. He is my one true friend.
I stare at the ceiling and masturbate mechanically to memories of Ronald and others, making love to me but averting their eyes from my face. I let out a sound when I finish and wonder whether it is easier to hear what happens on a floor above than to hear what happens on a floor below. Simone’s howls punctuate the despair that drones like a pedal tone beneath all I do and do not do. No matter how hard I try to make my hermetic seal airtight, drafts from the outside world get in. They’re all I have with which to construct a picture of the rest of the world with, and when they come from the children’s crying, which they almost exclusively do, it comes across as a brutal and unforgiving place.
I start to hear in Simone’s heavy footfalls the clack of nails, of claws on the floor. She has become a literal monster. Her roars contain no words.
The children are stragglers soaked in rain and pounding on the door of my ark as I shove off and forsake humanity. They break through my ceiling, their floor. They fill the room with something alive besides me. I don’t have enough things in my head to crowd them out.
“We are more than just plot devices,” they say, in unison. They are twins, and unsettling.
“I suppose I know that,” I say.
“We are children,” they say. “Care about us automatically.”
I think for a minute. “I at least feel pity for you,” I say.
“So then what? Will you help us?”
“No,” I say. “You’re hardly real if I can’t see you.”
“You can see us now,” they say. Their faces are all mouth as they wail. Their wounds are unspeakable.
“You’re imaginary,” I say.
“Yes, but we’re not imaginary in real life,” they say. “In real life we’re real.”
“I’m the phantom,” I say. “That’s my role. You don’t get to play it.”
“We’re only helpless if we go without your help. Will you help us?”
“No,” I say. “I still won’t.”
“Why not?” they demand. “Tell the truth.”
I think about it, for once, and my indifference and uninterest, my apathy, my lacking emotions—they all surge. My amorphous self-reproach and rationalization assemble into a straight and unbreaking arrow of wrongs, and I admit: “I just don’t feel like it.”
And that’s when Elmo reveals himself. Abandoned once; splendiferous and several times my size now. His teeth are a-chatter, long like knives, and coming for me…
The room returns to its proper order before his jaws close, and I commence my bedtime routine—a symbolic gesture toward a brushing of the teeth, a passing consideration of changing into pajamas.
“Something must be done,” I conclude, and shut my eyes.
But in the morning, my hangover seems to serve as restitution for the children’s suffering. It is enough, and I am content once more.
Four days later, on the first Monday in November, foreclosure notices land on the building’s steps—a dozen reams of printer paper wrapped in something like Tyvek, one to notify each conceivable occupant. A concerned, clipboarded man from the Brownstone Society of Bed-Stuy stops by with an informational brochure for Bradley. Foreclosure could take six months to a year, he says, and I won’t have to worry about being evicted without a buyout before the lease is up.
Still, it seems the foreclosure has led Bradley to give up on staying solvent, because two weeks later, the power goes out in the night. I know it does, because my white-noise machine goes silent and I wake up, having gone to bed early out of boredom and drunkenness. Simone and the children are still awake, and I hear them bump into one another. At first, it is accidental tussling, and then there come the reverberations of a slap and then a punch and then something worse and then especially loud shrieks. I think of Saturn devouring his son—the titan crazy-eyed and ravenous in the enveloping darkness. My red line has been crossed.
I know I can’t stay without power, so I’m down one excuse, and the abuse has taken on a new dimension, so there’s one more reason. Still, I do nothing.
I cannot leave the apartment but head toward the roof to escape the yowls and pleas, putting the empty top floor between us. The sounds get louder before they get softer, as I haul myself up the rattling fire escape and pass the upstairs back window gone black.
Tar paper beneath my feet, I breathe hard and look out across the East River to the ragged skyline of Manhattan, where I used to work. The red light on top of Freedom Tower blinks obscenely. I watch, waiting for the distant beacon to align with another blinking red light on a radio tower in the Brooklyn foreground. I used to do the same kind of thing when I waited at long stoplights, back when I drove; I would wait for my blinker and the blinker of the car in front of me to line up. One morning, in the early days following Evangeline’s departure and before I quit, it did happen, and I pretended—or maybe I really believed—that it was a divine signal of fateful connection between me and the other driver. I had labored three hours before leaving the apartment to choose an outfit, to make myself look like everybody else. And even with all this, I knew I didn’t succeed. How hard I tried and how seldom I dared. That morning, I decided that I would not grimace and pose before these people any longer and that I would lunge for connection. I undid my seatbelt and got out, intending to knock on that other car’s driver-side window and ask them to skip work and go get a drink or ice cream and have sex or something. But by the time I reached the back tires, the light had changed and that other car—a silver PT Cruiser, I remember its ugly back end well—took off, and I was left standing on the Atlantic Avenue median, passing cars driving around my own parked vehicle and beeping at me like the pariah I was.
I wait, but these lights never sync.
So many people have left that I hardly have anyone to let down now. With Ronald, I was self-pitying and he was condescending. He left when he realized all we had in common was that we both pitied me. Evangeline leaving had nothing to do with me, which was offensive. Same with that someone who died. But with each departure, I was left a little bit more alone, and any remaining inclination to become someone went away. I wanted only to be alone, because it’s the first step toward disappearing myself.
Back downstairs, I sit up in the dark, and with no new input besides the howls from above, my mind consumes itself, like a starved body dipping into fat, then muscle.
Ronald used to tell me that I depreciated myself absolutely so that I wouldn’t have to examine myself at all, that I overcompensated for not knowing the nuances of my faults by presenting myself as a fault in totality. But he didn’t know that I do know a little bit about me: that I’ve been an inconsiderate lover, a gross roommate, a moochy party guest, an ill-informed voter, an inactive bystander, a languid yawn-stifler, a lingerer on the skirts of conversational circles—dawdling and tardy, slow to reach for my wallet when the check comes. Did I ever say any of this aloud? Of course I didn’t. I hardly even thought it. The thing is that I fear myself—everything all inky inside. I also fear all that is not myself, and it encroaches on me, presses from every which way, up to the point of my skin, nails, mucous membranes. Being bombarded is my normal condition. Perhaps all I can accept is the surface of things, that place of flux and interface between outside and inside.
Even if I had the time and faith left to change myself into something different, I probably would not wish to change. And even if I did wish it, I would still not do anything, because in fact there is nothing to change into. Not only is there nothing to do to change, but there is simply nothing to do at all, and I apologize.
Jackson Saul lives in Alabama.
read next: Brian Tierney, “Hearses“
“The Rat Problem” appeared in TLR: Contents May Shift (Summer, 2020)