Photograph by Jacqueline Feldman.
One spring evening I pulled in and saw my neighbor Stefanie was sitting on her car, which has the next spot over, with a friend. It was possible to worry for a second that I’d hit her.
“Hi, my neighbor,” I said as Stefanie hopped down. She and I had a project to one day go in on compost pickup.
We had something else in common, we realized that evening. Neither of us had been told about apartment four.
And the vacancy had filled so quickly. We both may have had reasons for considering a move—mine being I have mold—and that apartment, I happened to know, was a two-bedroom, with a bay window, beautiful gold-and-cream striped wallpaper, and decoratively ribbed molding that pooled, at the corners, in concentric circles. It was not, however, perfect. “It’s really loud in there,” I said to Stefanie. “That’s why Alex”—my ex-boyfriend—“had to leave.” I had started seeing Alex during the pandemic in 2020, a month or two after my arrival in the Northampton, Massachusetts, building. He was there already.
I had been aware that he paid more in rent than I did. But my thoughts, as I left Stefanie and made my way inside, turned instead to the way I’d had of judging Alex, privately, for giving up his lease on what was truly a nice place … so that it only later occurred to me to investigate my feeling that out of all of us in the building, a converted Victorian that has eight units, each neighbor had a different curiosity, or jealousy: an opinion about which apartment is the best. Or worst—built out of the irregularly shaped old house, they are all different.
I called Vernon, my downstairs neighbor.
For Vernon, a cellist born in Nebraska and raised in Richmond, Virginia, a curiosity about the contents of the other apartments, and about the people they contained, was much on his mind; this had led him to investigate, one day. “There was a woman,” he said, “who worked at UMass, I’m forgetting her name now, and she never went out, she only went out to teach her class and come back. She was very fair-skinned, blond and fair-skinned, and she actually had a witch hat. And she was kind of attractive in a strange way. From far away she wasn’t, but up close. And I thought that was mysterious, too.
“That one that Alex had,” he went on, “I’ve been in there, long before your time. I saw that. And I’ve seen yours because I was checking out the plants, doing the plant thing. But that one on the very top floor—when the woman moved out and they were working on it, I went and looked.”
Visiting her apartment, my apartment, or apartment four had not made Vernon jealous—on the contrary. “In some ways, because of the layout and the windows, I kind of fantasize that mine is one of the better apartments,” he tactfully explained. I had my opening to let him know the one that had been Alex’s had a dishwasher.
But there was a lot of noise from the street, I added. “I feel like he was getting hung up on it,” I said.
“You have to wonder,” said Vernon delicately. “He might have been getting hung up on it, or he had other reasons for wanting to leave and he was thinking, I’m focusing on the traffic now.”
Next I called up Allie, my shy neighbor who’d taken the time to show me a third pilot light, all the way at the back of the stove, when I first moved in. She did not need to be told about any dishwasher. “Hank’s and apartment four are good,” she said, “because they both have dishwashers.”
Allie used to live in a first-floor unit; Chris, that unit’s current occupant, recalled having had the opportunity, before moving in, to view still another on “one of the upper floors”—too big for just him. “That’s apartment four,” I said, as Chris began his description; a garage space that went with it had been of special interest. Ben, who lives on the third floor but used to have my unit, on top of his other preferences—like the one, with its bitter meaning for me, that that move had signaled—ventured that apartment four, though too expensive, was the best. (“I felt more secure in my situation, it’s just a nicer apartment, sorry,” he said. “I will tell you that when I moved upstairs my allergies suddenly got a whole lot better.”)
Which left only Megan—our most recent arrival. Though I asked her repeatedly, the current tenant of apartment four said she didn’t feel “any desire to live in any other than the one I’m in,” saying, “I like mine.”
There is, just inside the front door of our house, a black-and-white photo that shows the house. The image, mentioned by several of these tenants, is easy to love, I think for its suggestion of infinity. One day, before another move, I had the bright idea to “journal” about each “chapter” (“epoch”? “era”?) of my time where I’d been living: rooms I rented, my young men, every factor that gave texture to that period of my development. This was interesting as an idea, a good “idea” and not a “good idea,” not an idea that lent itself to execution. Still, if I were to do one of those for here—the Massachusetts town where I moved to be a student—I would be sure to make a note of the woman I saw approaching on foot, very close, where, at the side of my building, I happened to find her. I asked if I could help her. She was holding and all at once, with a flick of the wrist, liberated a brief length of already peeling blue-green paint. “Pretty color,” she said.
So there I was another evening, out on the porch with Vernon, my friend even if, as we discovered recently, each of us has long harbored in parallel, but paradoxically, a suspicion the other’s apartment is smaller; he called mine one of “the tinier ones.” A spring rain articulated smells of soil, wilted azaleas just outside the porch light’s focus barely lavender as dark fell. We were going to drink the last of the pastis I’d brought him the previous summer—a thank you for watering my plants—but it was cool and rainy and Vernon provided, instead, Pinot Noir. That sunset still was visible, in flashes, in Hank’s windows. “These are pretty solid plaster walls,” Hank, when I’d interviewed him, said; as he spoke I’d heard, loud and clear just over my left shoulder, Hank’s grandfather clock—like a plucked bow, not a plucked string, tolling some hour.
So it was that later, playing back the tape I’d made of Vernon describing a sort of distance that housemates did well, he thought, to calibrate in forming friendships—“to protect ourselves”—I was, strangely enough, surprised to hear a real roar of passing cars. I knew how loud the road could be where we all lived. I guess I had been able to forget.
Why had Alex moved away? I couldn’t ask him now.
But this was more or less what some of us did like about our building—in Megan’s words, “the intimacy of being around people without sharing deep knowledge of them.”
Jacqueline Feldman, a writer living in Massachusetts, is moving out.
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