Like the flu, rainy weekends, or tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, the sounds of a neighbor’s lovemaking through the ceiling must be endured.
You can break up a party: make like a sitcom housewife and bang on the ceiling with a broom, then walk upstairs in your bathrobe, and say, “listen, I don’t mean to be a bitch, but it’s 3 a.m.” If all else fails, you can call the police. They won’t show up for an hour or more, but at least you’ll feel you’re taking action.
An orgasm, however, is a different matter, an entitlement with which you cannot interfere. These are the truths I pondered last May as I lay beneath a 4 a.m. sex marathon that earplugs wouldn’t block out. I knew because I was wearing some.
The man cried, “oh yeah, baby. Like that, baby.” Shoes clomped. Springs clink-clanked. The girl let out shrieks the likes of which I hadn’t heard since I lived under the same roof as a Moluccan cockatoo back in Miami. I thought about the bird as I drifted back to sleep: the way she raised her crest and danced back and forth on the perch, screaming, “Ah, ah, ah, ah,” as the sun came up every morning.
New York City apartment living is a lesson in lowered expectations. My first Brooklyn residence featured new wood floors, shiny porcelain doorknobs and a view of the Chrysler building.
It also sat 50 feet from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where semis lumbered by, shaking the walls and the water in our glasses, all night long. The day we moved in, I opened a closet and one of the doorknobs shattered, cutting my hand.
The guy below us worked as a DJ and practiced spinning late into the night. The boys next door threw Tuesday night dance parties. Sometimes the cold water shut off in the middle of our showers, so that a scalding torrent rushed out onto our shoulders before we could move out of the way.
Our second apartment was situated upstairs from the Graham Avenue stop on the L line and within blocks of prime Italian Williamsburg shopping. It was half the price of the first, and the building itself was quiet. The hot and cold water were plentiful. The closets had slatted, wooden folding doors.
But our street, Metropolitan Avenue, lay along one of the main commercial garbage truck routes through the city. There was a bus stop on the corner. Buses and trucks idled beneath our bedroom windows throughout the night. Because it was a commercial thoroughfare, all jackhammer work on the street took place between midnight and 5 a.m. The drop ceiling in the living room was old. Sometimes particles from the acoustic tiles filtered down on our sofa and heads as the jackhammers were going.
The landlords forbade us to pull up the filthy carpet unless we replaced it with more carpet. We weren’t allowed to use curtains, only horizontal blinds. A few months after we took up residence, construction commenced on the storefront downstairs and we were overrun with giant roaches.
We relocated to our current Greenpoint apartment a year and a half ago, in March. Dazzled by the garden, we failed to notice that the place was smaller by at least a third than our last one. We overlooked the tiny roach carcasses on the windowsills and in the shower.
When we moved in, we had to toss out most of our bookcases because they wouldn’t fit. We set the cat bowls out on the floor that night and an army of fingernail-sized roaches marched toward them from all directions.
But things began to come together. A friend pointed out the high ceilings and built ten-foot shelves for our books and CDs. She constructed a platform for our bed with storage space beneath it. And an exterminator appeared one Saturday, introducing himself and promising to spray once a month.
On a few weekend afternoons that spring it was warm enough for us to sit in the backyard and enjoy it. Daffodils bloomed, and then tulips, red and yellow ones.
A couple of actors lived upstairs. They both looked like Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, circa 1985. They walked softly and smiled in the hallways and occasionally played New Order on weekend mornings. The day they moved out, in the middle of May, I heard one of them singing along with “True Faith”: “When I was a very small boy/Very small boys talked to me/Now that we’ve grown up together/They’re afraid of what they see . . .”
A few minutes later, they climbed into a moving van and drove away.
The current neighbors moved in the following week, while we were out of town. The night we returned, the sex fiesta began.
My husband slept through it. The earplugs we both learned to wear during the street constuction at the second apartment served him well. For me, they only amplified the sex play, filtering out the background noise and highlighting her shrieks, his grunting, the clomping on the floor.
“Oh, baby, I love your boots,” he yelled one night.
“You like these? You like it when I do that?”
This exchange went a long way toward explaining why it always sounded like they were fucking and square dancing simultaneously.
When I saw them in the halls, I tried not to contemplate their coupling. They were the same height, maybe 5’10”. She was big-boned and brassy, a hard glint in her eye and a dye job the color of your average No. 2 pencil. You could tell she was in her twenties, but the blotchy spots on her face and the beginning of veins near her nose suggested she could age ten years overnight and be unrecognizable the next morning.
He looked about forty, if not older, despite his heroin-chic physique. With his wispy hair and blue eyes, he might be considered handsome, assuming a chin and the ability to remain standing in a strong wind weren’t among your criteria.
One night, after about a month, things turned sour. I woke to what sounded like metal balls rolling, or heavy chains being dragged, across the floor. “Fuck,” the man yelled. There was a furious clattering before he yelled it again three more times. Then there was the sound of someone kicking something. And then he was crying — weeping, in fact — and moaning.
“I’m your fucking wife now,” she screamed. “You motherfucker.”
This fight was a harbinger of things to come. The screaming matches became a nightly occurrence, and I began to look back fondly upon the 2 a.m. sexcapades.
Things clanged. Doors slammed. More metal balls rolled. Feet or hands or other blunt, fleshy appendages hit the walls. And there was music, like the soundtrack of a porn video (clacka clacka clacka, tcha tcha tcha), that started up around 10 p.m. and played into the wee hours.
One night, battling a migraine, I decided I’d had enough of the music. I knocked on their door at midnight. The man opened the door just wide enough for me to see his face and striped, mostly unbuttoned shirtfront. He leaned down toward me, his jaw clenched, his eyes narrowed. “Yes?”
I introduced myself.
“Yes?” he said again, his expression unchanging. I couldn’t place his accent. English, maybe?
He narrowed his eyes further, until I wasn’t sure how he could see. I raised my voice and stopped smiling. I asked him to turn the music down.
Suddenly he was all apologies. “Oh, certainly,” he said. “I’m so sorry, Maud.”
He didn’t introduce himself.
Three nights later, a buzzing awoke me at 4 a.m. The noise went on and on. I could hear it through my earplugs. Then there was a man’s voice, drunkenly yelling in an English accent, “Wake up, Kate. Wake up, you stupid twat! I’m not fucking sleeping on the bloody sidewalk.”
Again and again he buzzed the doorbell and with increasingly creative curses demanded to be let in. He kicked the building.
Finally he banged on our window and called my name. “Excuse me, Maud?” he called, quietly.
I didn’t answer.
“Bloody fucking bullshit!” he screamed, pounding on the door again.
I considered calling the police. Instead I lay on the bed, worried that he’d break through the window, reach over our headboard, and wring my “bloody neck,” as he threatened there on the sidewalk to do to Kate.
At last some police cruisers pulled onto the block, sirens going, lights flashing. The officers shone a flashlight in his face. They asked him to explain himself.
Emboldened by the presence of uniformed men, I peeked through the curtains as he tried to sweet-talk them. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he slouched and looked sorry for the trouble he’d caused. He assumed the posture of a victim.
The sweet neighbor from across the hall, a stoner transplanted from L.A., emerged from the building. “Sorry, dude,” he told the slouching Englishman. “I didn’t recognize you. You scared the fuck out of me, screaming and kicking the building like that.”
Two days later I sat in the backyard, digging in the garden, when the man ventured out on the fire escape in his bathrobe. I accidentally made eye contact with him, and he waved. “Oh, hello,” he said, in a jolly tone, smiling as though we often met in this way.
I returned his wave but said nothing.
After a few minutes, he went back inside. An hour later I could hear him weeping. “I don’t know what to do,” he yelled, through his sobs. “I don’t want to leave my home.”
To be continued . . .