This has become something of a routine now, waking up in the middle of the night–the very early morning really–to make myself tea. I mostly do it because I like the way the heat radiating through the mug soothes my joints. I used to be able to sleep for nine hours every night, my mother so impressed with the way I would fall asleep promptly at 8:30 and wake up the following morning at 5:30. My late husband, too, would wake up next to me many mornings, his eyes burning with insomnia and jealousy, but now I’m lucky if I can get five hours. An unexpected and unwelcome result of aging.
Part of the reason I like waking up and sitting in my kitchen is to eavesdrop on the apartment next to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but what better place to do so than in this diary which no one will ever read? I sit with my tea, watching the stove blink 3:29 and the microwave above it blink 3:31 (I’ve never been sure which is right), settling into my chair. The wall between my apartment and the next is particularly thin, and I strongly believe that this was actually one normal-sized apartment before being sloppily bisected by this wall. It’s not much effort to eavesdrop is the point I’m getting at. In fact, it would be harder not to, and on days when I feel I’m being intrusive, I’ll click my hearing aids off.
The people that used to live next to me were a nice man and his not-so-nice husband who, as far as I know, divorced and moved out, neither wanting to bear the burden of the memories the small apartment held, I suppose. Many early mornings I would sip my tea and listen to their routine: the rustling of their clothes, the percolating of their coffee, the washing of their dishes. And I would listen to the many arguments this would entail: too pretentious, too bitter, too wasteful. They’ve been gone nearly a year now, and only about a week ago were they replaced by a mother and daughter.
This morning, I was surprised to hear a crash next to me. Surprised because I wouldn’t expect to hear them up so early. I’ve only seen them a few times, the daughter looks to be about three years old, the mother perpetually tired. What were they doing up at this time?
Listening offered no answers. After the crash I heard the mother’s voice, weary but arch. “Do you think we did it wrong, Nanner?”
Instead of a reply I heard nothing. I’ve grown used to a small amount of feedback at all times from the hearing aid, not really being able to afford to get them checked at this point, but they cut out completely. Usually this is accompanied by a horrendous screeching in my ear. This time, however, I was suddenly plunged into a gelatinous silence. I have no idea whether the daughter, Nanner, responded. The silence only lasted a few seconds, but it was disquieting. I still don’t know what caused it. When sound returned, I felt strangely disoriented, as if waking up from a forgotten nightmare. The sounds of chores being done next door seemed to be happening to someone else, picked up by a different ear than my own.
I think this a good stopping point. My hand is cramping, my joints burning, the heat of my tea only able to help so much, so I think I’ll call it a day for now. I’ll pick it up later.
The mother next door, Dez, is more interesting than I thought.
I was sitting outside, enjoying the November sun and watching cars come and go from the parking lot that my balcony overlooks. At some point, the neighbor must have stepped out, though I have no idea when exactly. I never heard her balcony door open, but there she was, leaning over the railings and watching the parking lot with me.
She noticed me notice her; turned her head to look at me. The bags under her eyes scrunched with a smile.
“Howdy, neighbor.” She slipped through the railing that divided our connected balconies. It doesn’t reach the wall, so it wasn’t much effort for her. “Martha was it?”
Now, I’m not quite sure where she got this name from. It certainly isn’t my name. Maybe I should be insulted that she would think I look like a Martha, a name that was considered reserved for old ladies when I was her age, but for whatever reason I only nodded.
“And you are?”
She held out her hand, her nails chewed to the quick. “Desiree. But please just call me Dez.”
I took her hand, her grip painfully strong. She then pulled out a pack of cigarettes, the brand of which I didn’t recognize. “You mind?”
I shook my head, though I didn’t have an ashtray, but she walked away into her apartment, returning with a hard plastic cereal bowl. I watched as the ash accumulated on the tip of the cigarette before she tapped it into the bowl, covering the cartoon character at the bottom. She turned her head as far from my face as she could every time she blew out a plume of smoke.
“You retired?” she asked, breaking the silence before pulling out another cigarette.
“Yes. I am. I’ve been living–barely–off pension for the last seven years,” I replied. “How about you? Are you retired?”
She barked a laugh, loud and unabashed. “No. No, I’m not. I wish I was, but no. I work a lot of nights lately.” She took a moment to take a long drag. “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not a stripper.”
I could feel myself blush, heat rising from my collarbones up my neck and burning my ears. I think I stammered something about how I wouldn’t assume and that there’s nothing wrong with that and so on. She laughed again, not unkindly.
“Don’t worry, I get it a lot. Especially with a name like Desiree–thanks for that, Ma. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a stripper, I guess. I’m in IT.”
“You have to work nights for that?”
“I have to work twice as hard as the guys at the job. You know how it is, I’m sure. It doesn’t help that I had to take a few months off when Nanner was born,” she shook her head bitterly. “And now Ma can’t watch her for me anymore, so I’ve been working from home, and–” Her voice caught in her throat. She turned her head again, but didn’t exhale anything but a shaky breath. “Sorry. Don’t know why I’m telling you all this..”
I awkwardly looked down at my knotted hand then, the skin littered with a few liver spots. My mother used to have so many, a constellation of skin damage, and I remember one day as a teenager mocking her for them. I still wince when I recall this, the callousness with which I called out their ugliness. And the pride that superseded the hurt in my mother’s eyes as she told me that her own mother told her that you got a new one every time you did a kindness for another. Perhaps it was because of this recollection that I told Dez that I would watch her daughter for her if she ever needed a day to herself.
I hate that I have to stop so frequently while writing. There was more I wanted to say about my meeting with the neighbor, but my hands hurt too much to continue. We shared a few more words before she went back into her apartment, leaving me alone on the balcony. None of it must have been particularly important, because I can’t remember it. I think we talked a bit about how pleasant the weather was and how unpleasant the apartments are.
The left side of her head was shaved, the other side trailing past her shoulder. I wonder if she felt as excited shaving her head as I did when I decided to cut my hair short. Before that I always kept my hair long, easily as long as the unshaved half of Dez’s hair. I would tie it up in a braid (or two, if I was feeling playful for whatever reason) every morning before cycling to school or the university. And after arthritis made that impossible to do, my husband tried his best to learn how to do it himself, heading to the library himself to read how to in books, enlisting the help of the hairdresser–Ray–who lived down the hall, quizzing me constantly on my supposedly unassailable technique. We all cheered–my husband, Ray, and myself–at that first loose braid that didn’t immediately fall apart.
Ray was the one to cut my hair close-cropped after my love died. I sat in a chair in his kitchen, draped in a towel from his bathroom. He recently had to move out, new management at the apartment complex no longer allowing his beloved dachshund in the apartment. I don’t know what to do about my hair now, I haven’t left the apartment in about two years at this point and I can’t imagine myself doing so for a haircut.
The young man who lives kitty corner to me brings me the few groceries I need once a week, so I don’t even need to leave for that reason. His name is Alex. Whenever he makes a trip to the bookstore, he brings me a book or two, always a romance and never one I’ve read before. He must keep a list of the novels he’s already bought for me. A few days ago he brought me this diary, my atrocious script now marring its pages.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing all this down. I had said I wanted to talk more about my meeting with Dez yesterday, yet here I am talking almost entirely about myself and the people I used to know. I think that despite the pain of writing, both physical and otherwise, I want to preserve what little life I have left. No children left behind to remember me, my students grown and troubled with their own lives, most of the neighbors on which I used to rely moved out or moved on, myself isolated in this tiny apartment, equal parts my domain and my cell. Even as the tears stuck in my lashes blur my vision, I feel like I have to take on this otiose task or risk my life fading into pointlessness.
My husband used to say that these difficult, seemingly pointless tasks were like trying to grab jello off a cafeteria table. For a long time I had assumed that this was just his variation on the phrase “trying to nail jello to the wall.” But while he was lying on what turned out to be his deathbed, after dropping some jello onto his food tray, he revealed that this had actually happened to him. That while he was in his twenties, he had been eating in the cafeteria with his boss of one week and had dropped jello on the plastic table there. He spent 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 minutes (the number went up every time he told the story) trying in vain to pick it up, before finally leaning down and sucking it up off the table, his boss reconsidering her decision to hire him. I think he was trying to say that despite seeming impossible and pointless, he was still able to eat his jello. He laughed for the first time in months seeing my disgust.
I have yet to fill the silence he left behind.
Nanner is so loud for someone so young.
I felt gawky and awkward next to Dez when she brought her daughter over. I hadn’t realized how short she was until I had to crane my neck to talk to her.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” she asked more than once, in spite of my many assurances. “This isn’t an imposition or anything?”
“It’ll be a welcome break. It’s not like I have anything to do anyway,” I assured her once again. “Are you meeting someone?”
She laughed, I think at my hushed tone of my question. “Do you see how I’m dressed? No, I’m just going to walk around the neighborhood a bit. Get to know it better. Do you have any suggestions?”
I shook my head. Too embarrassed to tell her that I hadn’t left the apartment in so long, I added, “Does Nanner need any help with math or anything? You know I used to teach.”
“I can’t afford pre-K at the moment, but if you could teach anything along those lines it’d be super helpful. Just so she isn’t left behind in kindergarten.”
“So like long division or multiplication?”
She paused a moment, giving me a strange look. “No. Like what numbers are mostly. Counting and stuff. She doesn’t realize that there are any numbers bigger than ten.”
It seemed too late to tell her that the math I taught was at a postgraduate level. My research, constantly overlooked by the men on the committee, was on manifolds and more general topological spaces. Not that I could do half the analysis I could then. My proofs, strewn across the floor courtesy of Nanner, are foreign to me now. Their fastidious methodologies and handwriting belonging to someone else. “Oh,” I said.
“Well, here’s my number if you need anything while I’m out,” she said. She turned to her daughter. “Try not to have too much fun while I’m gone, okay? See you soon, Nanner.”
I don’t know if it’s too much, but Nanner is certainly having fun. Although shaky on the names, we were able to get past ten. She thought I was lying at first, so firmly affixed was the belief that ten was the biggest possible number. I taught her how to count the spaces between her knuckles rather than her fingers, her eyes widening when she got to the second knuckle of her index finger. We weren’t able to get to the bandage-wrapped end of the finger, but I was eventually able to get her to say “evlevlen” passably. After that, she held a skein of yarn of me, though I was only able to crochet half a row of the blanket I’ve been slowly making progress on for the last four years before my fingers were frozen with pain. I downed two aspirin but they still ache, and I probably shouldn’t be writing. While we worked, I listened to the apartment next to us by habit. Apparently Dez decided not to go out, as I could hear the gentle snapping sounds I’ve learned to associate with the folding of clothes. I could respect her needing some time alone to get these chores done, but I’m not sure why she wouldn’t just tell me.
Nanner is currently occupying herself by drawing on all my proofs, using crayons she had hidden in the pockets of her overalls. Occasionally I’ll call out a question to her:
“What number comes after ten?”
“What’s Nanner short for, Nanner?”
“Banana!” she screamed across the room. I was only a couple feet away from her, sitting at my wobbly table.
“Banana? Your real name is Banana?”
She nodded so enthusiastically that her entire torso was involved, hair flying across her face and a green crayon falling from her chest pocket.
“What’s your favorite color, Ms. Banana?”
“Hmmm,” she stopped her drawing to screw up her face in thought. “All of them! Except for red, because it’s icky.” This last word she screamed so loud that my left hearing aid protested. How have I never heard her before from the other apartment? Curiously, everything she’s drawn so far has been red. I’m currently writing around one (I had handed over this notebook before deciding to let her use my now useless proofs), its red body rotund, its stick arms sickly-seeming, its placid face somehow more unsettling than if it were glaring and toothy.
“What are you drawing, Nanner?”
“Ma’s helper. It’s goopy and it does the dishes and it’s always quiet.”
I didn’t ask her any more questions about it.
“She told you her real name is Banana?” Dez sputtered. “Her name is Nina.”
My routine before meeting Dez and Nanner was simple. I would wake up each morning after a dreamless sleep before the sun, and, after washing my face and brushing my teeth and downing three aspirin, would make myself tea. As the water heated in its kettle, I would add two teaspoons of looseleaf black tea to my teapot, a gift from a student long ago. I only relatively recently started making tea for myself, the clay pot forgotten in the back of a cabinet. Before the water fully boiled, I would take it off the coil, and pour it into the pot. I would watch the leaves swirl, no divination ever appearing to me, and let the tea steep for two minutes, watching the time on the microwave or the oven, depending on my mood. On good days watching the oven, bad the microwave. On most mornings I would watch the microwave’s time. When the tea finished, I would pour it into the mug that was once my husband’s. Hideous, detailed fish adorn its side. And I would sit. And I would listen. And my life, always accelerating, would hurtle to wherever it is lives hurtle to.
But I no longer know how my day-to-day after my mornings will look. Some days I’ll be asked to watch Nanner, some days Dez will appear on my balcony asking to crochet together. She expressed interest after picking up her daughter, saying her mom used to do it and that it always seemed so calming. I’ve been teaching her for the past couple weeks, Nanner holding the loosening skein, Dez building on my work, and me giving direction. Once we finished the last stitch, I was the one to cut the pearlescent thread and knot it. The afghan’s weight is pleasant and warm over my shoulders, the air outside cooling, the leaves falling from their branches.
Today I left my apartment for the first time in two years. Dez treated me to lunch in a spot she had found on one of her walks around the neighborhood as a thank you for watching Nanner and for teaching her crochet. We had decent ramen, which is, as Dez repeatedly told me, a sort of Japanese noodle soup. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had eaten it many times before, in Osaka no less, while at conferences a decade or two ago. The restaurant we went to used to be a diner my husband and I went to often, the owners good friends of ours. I hadn’t realized it had closed until we sat down, the trendy veneer barely covering the diner’s old bones.
Nanner sat contented in front of her coloring book, her soup uneaten. Over and over again she drew her helper, its redness covering the cartoon character on the page.
“You know, you remind me a lot of Ma, Martha,” Dez said. I could barely hear her over the gentle din of the restaurant.
She shrugged. “Well, the crocheting for one thing, I guess. She watched Nanner the same way you do, too.”
I’ve long learned to speak as little as necessary, and said nothing.
“She seemed like her friend and mentor more than anything,” she continued. “The only time I ever, ever got mad at Ma was over Nanner. She thought it would be best if Nanner went somewhere else while I got my life settled.”
“Did you listen to her?”
Dez shot me a glare, but I noticed a sheen in her eyes. “Of course not. I’m her mom. If I ever go along with such a thing, you know for sure I’m not myself. Or things are really bad. Or both.”
It lasted significantly longer than the first time, at least long enough for my tea to steep. It’s strange, the sounds you don’t realize are there until they’re gone. The creaking of joints, dripping of saliva, rush of blood. Even stranger, how long it takes you to notice they aren’t there.
Nanner has been so quiet for someone so loud.
It is worrisome. She doesn’t scream at me anymore, doesn’t play. She lies on my couch, stares into nothing. It’s making it difficult to write, as if her silence is pulling the words out of me and suspending them in air.
“What number comes after ten, Nanner?”
“Eleven,” she said, barely loud enough for me to hear over the hearing aids’ feedback.
“And after that?”
“Twelve.” Listless, almost sad.
“I don’t know.” She turned her back to me then.
My husband was like that in his last days. He was as vivacious and unique—though maybe not as loud—as Nanner, but that all drained away in his last couple months. It hurt so much to see him like that, quiet and solemn. Like he was attending his own funeral.
“I did something,” she said, leaning over the railing that divided us. I couldn’t tell whether her face was flushed from drink or the setting sun.
“You did something?” I was not expecting to see Dez outside, not often coming out past afternoon as that was, as I learned, when she got most of her work done.
“I brought something into my house. Sorry, my apartment,” she laughed. For the first time I noticed an edge of derision in it.
I didn’t say anything in response.
“I just wanted some help, you know? Around the house,” she continued. “Around the apartment. Is that so wrong? I found out about it from the, uh, the internet.”
I could tell she was keeping it as simple as possible for my benefit, believing I would barely know what the internet was, but I found myself annoyed more than anything.
“It just needed some blood. Wanted some blood. That’s all. But it won’t leave.”
“Your helper?” I shuddered at the thought of the portly imaginary friend Nanner had drawn a month or so ago. I just turned the pages to look at its expressionless face. Where did Nanner learn to draw this thing? And why was Dez telling me about it now?
She blanched. “Yes. My helper.” Dez patted herself down then, apparently remembering that she was outside and not smoking. Her face was briefly illuminated in the light of her lighter. The ash accumulated at the end of the cigarette, but she didn’t tap it off. Gravity pulled it to the concrete on my side of the railing, the same wind blowing half her hair across her face carrying the ash away.
“It’s never there when you look for it, it’s always just on the edge of your vision. Its face always different but somehow the same. Sometimes it even looks like Ma’s back. Doing the dishes, the laundry, the cooking. It’s kind of like a lava lamp. Like, uh, parts of it are flying off but it never goes away.” She took a moment to turn her head and blow smoke out of her nose. “It never goes away. No matter how hard I try.”
I was scared, I’ll admit it. But even more than that I was worried for her and her daughter. What was going on in their apartment that I couldn’t hear?
“It even watches over Nanner. Keeps her quiet, occupied. But,” she lit another cigarette. Her eyes, glittering in the lighter’s sphere of light, were filled with tears. “But. But a couple nights ago it took her face. It took Nanner’s face, and it’s all my fault. I brought it into our house. I walked into our room, and my goddamned helper was sitting on her chest. And it took her face and it replaced it with its own.”
“Why are you telling me these things?” I asked.
“My helper turned to me then, Martha. And you know what I saw? I saw Nanner’s face looking back at me.” She shook her head, “it can only get you if it knows your real name, though. So there’s that. I just wish I could get Nina out of the house somehow. If only Ma was still around.”
She left unceremoniously.
I’m sitting outside, snow blooming on the pages I write on.
CPS came today. It was a long process to get them to consider my case, and even longer to convince myself that this was the right thing to do. It would mean relegating myself to isolation again, but I still made the call. I see no reason to write the whole thing down, the pain too much to bear.
Snow blankets the world, stealing its sound. I’m only now realizing that it’s unnatural. A car driving over the ice silently. The feedback from my hearing aids gone. My hands don’t hurt as much anymore, the snowflakes landing on them numbing them.
I turned my head, noticing Dez notice me from her balcony.
“Thank you,” she mouthed.
Larry Glines was born and raised in Las Vegas, NV. He moved to Gainesville, FL to study Physics at University of Florida. He currently lives in Denver with his wife and their bratty dog, Poncho. Larry’s favorite thing to bake is cookies (the secret ingredient is white miso and brown butter).