Beyond These Walls
There is a faint sound of a beautiful song
The woman standing in front of me is my neighbor but she doesn’t know it.
She lives in the unit on the other side of my flat’s northwestern corner wall. And as much as I'd like it, we may not actually share a wall at all, just the empty space in between plywood sheets where mice and rat droppings—and hopefully no snakes—might be found.
Every night before bed I see them in my mind’s eye sneaking about inside the dark walls behind me, somehow making their way underneath her wooden floors. Would explain all the little sounds. I hear the little rodents talking to each other sometimes, talking about me, talking about her, talking about all of us in building 10.
I'm sick of constantly imagining holes in between our walls about three inches wide and just as tall. The holes are fashioned entirely using the rodents’ obnoxiously large teeth, naturally, as I doubt the builders conveniently and generously built a tunnel system in for them. Vile intelligent creatures they are; the thought of them living amongst us in secret sends shivers up my spine.
Some nights, depending on how much beer I had before bed, I’d dream of being small enough to fit inside the holes between our walls. Shrouded in the darkness—the smell of wood chips surrounding me—my bare feet submerged in a combination of dried and fresh rodent droppings—a beckoning soft amber light emanates from beyond the hole, but I could never get past it.
I just wanted to see, to know what she was doing. I wanted to see for myself what she wore to bed or how clean her flat was compared to mine. I wanted to see what sort of food she kept in her fridge and whether any of it was expired. Everything she has and owns must be delicate, sweet, intoxicating, and delicious—just like her and each wavy strand of hair on her head or… her socks.
Like Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam, no parts or corners of our worlds touched but a gnawing feeling inside of me insists that they should. She’s beautiful. And weird. I like weird.
Sometimes she showers early in the morning, sometimes really late at night. She doesn't have a routine. She just does whatever she wants when she wants. Sometimes, when she cooks, smoke fills her apartment and the alarm goes off. I imagine her panic stricken face as she fans the wailing smoke alarm with a towel or pillow like a mad woman being attacked by a swarm of killer bees.
Her taste in music is vast and dynamic. One day she's into classical, the next, rap. And she's either celibate or fucks very quietly. Hopefully the former.
“Hang on, did I tell you I wanted oat milk instead?” she asks, a confused look on her glossy, frustrated face. “I don’t remember if I mentioned it…”
“Yep, you did,” I respond, giving her my best nonchalant Mona Lisa smile. She smiles back and walks over to the pick-up window.
“Hey! Miss!” I call, leaning forward the counter.
“Yea?” she looks back, puzzled. Her long, wavy hair rests softly on her glistening shoulders.
“What's your name? For the order?”
“Oh… “ she hesitates, as if she can’t remember her own name. Like her mind is elsewhere. “Amelia.”
“Amelia. Gotcha. It’ll be right up,” I say, as if I don’t fantasize about her nearly every night. I wonder what she thinks of me? Does she find me attractive? Let's be honest, probably not. My hair’s constantly a mess and I’ve come to accept the fact that it will likely always be.
Arctic Monkeys “Do I Wanna Know?” plays in the background. Swaying slightly with her arms crossed and gently bobbing her head, she nervously waits for her drink.
Tom is making it. He’s a great barista, a great maker of drinks (especially alcoholic ones). If I could pick who makes my drinks it would be Tom every time. A master at knowing how much of anything to put, he’s never gotten a single complaint. I, on the other hand, have had at least five. As much I want to be making her drink, if I want to see her again this up close, it’s probably for the best he did.
“Lavender oat latte for... Amelia,” Tom called out in his deep, chronic smoker voice, enunciating the ‘me’ part of her name.
Amelia looks up from the floor and grabs her drink, smiling sweetly at him. “Thank you,” she says and walks out the door.
A four-eyed male customer steals a glance at the skin closest to the hem of her lightly frayed jean shorts. I shudder at what I know he wanted to do to her in that moment—what he was thinking. He was sizing her up, estimating how soft it would feel if he had the chance to touch her, how many she's been with… It’s what we all think of. We can’t help it. Like lint and Christmas sweaters, our eyes are drawn to a woman’s ass.
I watch her place her drink on top of her faded turquoise Beetle, reach for her keys in her fanny pack, and unlock the door. With her drink still on top, she slams the door and starts the car.
Moving quickly, I slide open the to-go order window and stick my head out.
“Hey, Amelia!” I call out to her. She looks around, wondering if she heard someone call her or was just imagining it. I wave my arm frantically and call her name again. "Hey, Amelia!"
We lock eyes. She rolls down her window, revealing her baby-soft face. “Uh… what's up?” she asks, startled.
“Is your drink supposed to be there?” I ask her, pointing to the roof of her vehicle.
“That would not have been fun to clean up in the middle of the highway,” she says as she shakes her head, chuckling. Like mine, I think her cheeks are turning a warm pink.
She opens her door and on the cracked pavement, a single foot in white flip-flops steps out. Her little toes are freshly painted a light pink almost white color. Her feet look strong but lovely and delicate, like a lone pregnant cow laying on the greenest of pastures amongst wildflowers during spring when it isn’t too hot or cold.
“Thanks for the heads up, Cam,” grabbing her drink, she smiles at me. “You saved my latte's life. See ya.”
My cheeks turn a warmer pink. She knows my name. Given she probably saw it on my name tag—but still—I thought she seemed aloof. A tiny rosebud grows in the center of my chest; pleasant and profound, something finally feels possible. Is something possible here?
That was my neighbor. I guess his name is… Cam. Short for Cameron maybe? I don’t know much about him, just that he lives in the same building, drives a black Jeep, and likes to take his garbage out at precisely 7 in the morning.
Sometimes I wonder which unit he lives in. I imagine all sorts of stories in my head about him, and the others too. Is he a simple guy? Does he have a girlfriend? Is he the one I hear playing guitar at around 8 P.M.?
Every night, someone in my building plays guitar around or by 8 in the evening. And whoever is living in the unit next to my bedroom, behind the wall I have my headboard against, showers very late at night—at around 2 AM. The sound of rushing water through pipes and faint humming wakes me up every time. It’s a male voice.
I’ve figured Cam either lives in the unit opposite of mine or in the unit diagonal to my bedroom. I could be wrong but the music comes from that general direction. Since he’s the only neighbor I’ve noticed who has a routine I figure he’s one of the two: The insomniac or… the fingerpicker. Could they be the same person? Also, he’s kind of cute up close.
I always imagined him having a bit of a broody, serious, depressed energy but today changed that. The sight of his mustard beanie’d head sticking out of that small window, waving his arm in the air, was pretty fucking adorable. Seeing his face up close today showed me a different side of him—one that seems more cheerful and a little dorky—a nice surprise on an especially shitty day.
Funds are running low again which means I have to pause the project and do the thing I hate to do again. It sucks the soul out of me. Every single time I give in I feel lesser and lesser than… but what else can I do? I’m terrified. I’m terrified of everything—of going out, buying groceries, talking to people. Cam has been a nice distraction from it all but let’s be real… I won’t be making any moves.
What I could do, however, is go back to the coffee shop where I now know he works. A girl needs her coffee after all so it's not like I'm a stalker. Just... you know… getting my daily dose of caffeine.
Laughter comes from underneath my feet. Miss curly hair downstairs has her camper-van-friend over again. It’s the same dude from two days ago; his deep, buttery voice reminds me of the same rainy night sipping hot chocolate by the window, making bets on which raindrop makes it fastest to the bottom, as the smell of Gram’s cookies emanates from the kitchen. I'm waiting for mom to come home, like always. And when she finally does, she kisses me soaking wet and we laugh like we used to, before dad left her for a newer model.
I wonder if Amelia can hear them too.
I honestly wish these walls were thinner. I’m a pretty quiet guy anyway given that no magic has happened in my bed in over a year but the tv gets boring. The movies that came out don’t interest me at all. Nothing interests me anymore. Only she does.
She was singing along to a Dave Matthews Band song last night. It goes… You and me together we could do anything, baby... Good song. The problem is, she never sings, at least not when I’m home. Someone else must be putting her in the singing mood. Bummer.
Is it weird, to hum along quietly while he plays? I guess it is weird if it isn’t him who is actually playing and I’m just thinking it is. It’s pretty much the only thing I look forward to these days. I take the pictures and videos, edit them, post, get changed, and then contemplate my entire existence until 8 comes around. By that time I’ve prepared myself a bowl of ramen and I’m sitting on my favorite chair, working on my project. And then, when the concert starts, I listen. It’s like an exclusive show that only people in building 10 have admittance to.
The faint sound of the guitar cues my break. The plucking and picking of the strings prompt my body to completely relax and release everything I’m scared shitless of. What a treat, I think. It's a live performance, a massage, and a therapy session all at once. Does anybody else hear the music—is anybody else paying attention?
I’m transported to a small-ish concert hall and he’s already there, sitting at the edge of the platform with his guitar resting on his lap. He warms up with a gentle tune, one that enchants and lulls me awake.
Wearing black jeans and a white cotton tee, he’s comfortable, like he’s been here before. Like we're at a small college or school that nobody else knows about; the question is, is it mine or his? Nevertheless, I look out of place in my ramen-stained gray tank top and plum elephant rayon pajama pants but I don’t mind too much since we're alone and besides, I’m comfy.
Finally, he looks up—a surprised look on his face. He recognizes me from the coffee shop. He smiles at me, nods, and then fixes his gaze on the neck of the guitar, positioning his fingers to play G major.
A phone rings. He stops playing. I can’t hear anything.
The last of my stuff is now in the trusty hands of a big, bald, tall black guy named Ant and a short, chubby Mexican named Oscar from The New Moving Company. The most delicate things are still in the apartment since those are riding with me in the Jeep. I am in fact going to securely fasten my darling Beth in as I make the very long drive back up north.
It’s a bittersweet thing to be leaving everyone. By everyone I mostly mean Tom, who is now going to be promoted to manager at my leaving, but also her and listening for her. It was finally getting somewhere. I thought maybe I wouldn't have to turn into a rodent to be able to get to know her more, but life had other plans. Ma needs me right now. She’s got nobody else. I’m the only one she’s got left, so I’m going.
As I walk up the stairs to the parking lot, I think of knocking on her door and confessing everything. She opens the door in nothing but an old Jurassic Park shirt and lavender-colored lace underwear, her eyes smudged with remnants of last night’s black eyeliner. Still sleepy, she looks confused and annoyed and calls me a creep before she slams the door on my face. She was just like the rest of them and all the hours I spent laying in bed thinking about her was nothing but a waste.
Her blinds are still closed shut. Sometimes they’re open at this hour and I can see her vague figure in the kitchen fixing up something hot to drink but she must still be asleep. The thought of nuzzling next to her under her warm bedsheets and her welcoming me in an embrace like she’d been waiting for me, fills me with the same heart-sinking feeling I’ve experienced so many times before. No matter how much I want it, how much I care, somehow it just never works out. It’s probably better if she didn’t know.
I consider leaving her a note.
He isn’t carrying a black trash bag today. In its place, a bulging backpack he’s placing on the floor of the passenger’s side of his Jeep. Dressed in black basketball shorts, a black shirt, and earth-green flip-flops, is he going on a camping trip with friends?
I dash to the mirror and check how I look. Ah yes—without make-up, like a 12 year old child. I look boring and uninteresting and what if he doesn't recognize me? Besides, what could I possibly say to him? I just took my garbage out a couple of days ago so that can’t be my excuse. I could pretend to get my mail!… No—I’m not that desperate. If it’s meant to be, we’ll cross paths again. I really did like that coffee shop so I could just go back when he’s working.
My hair isn't brushed nor are my teeth, around my eyes are smudged remnants of black eyeliner and mascara, plus, I'm still in my pajamas. I look way too gross to go outside like this.
As he nears my door, he stops and looks straight at me. My heart sinks to my stomach.
Blood rushes to every nook and cranny of my body, especially to my face and ears. I know he can’t see me through the peephole, but why does it feel like he can? I hold my breath, absolutely terrified of being found out.
Withdrawn and lost in thought like he may have forgotten something, he just stands there. Even if he can see my eye through the hole I don’t think he would notice. What's on his mind?
In his hand, he reads something written on a yellow post-it. A checklist for his camping trip, maybe. Whatever it is, it's to be taken seriously. He looks worried and a little confused. Is that why he stopped playing guitar?
The worst-case scenario is she calls the cops on me. That, or I never hear from her. Then, there's the possibility of her posting it on social media for everyone to laugh at. I just hope it doesn't go viral—I can handle, at most, twenty people laughing at my pain. The best-case scenario is she calls me and tells me she wants to meet my mom and have my babies. But, if all I get is a "hey it's me", I'd honestly be satisfied.
I could leave this note on her door now but I question if the sticky part is strong enough to hold if it gets windy later. I’m pretty sure I have tape in my toolbox, though, which would definitely hold. Or I could just put it under the windshield wipers of her car...
The plan is to leave the note on her door, run to my apartment to get Beth, strap her in, and drive off like a coward before Amelia sees me. Plan B is to get Beth, strap her in, get the tape, stick the post-it on either her door or car, and then drive off like a coward before she sees me. Plan C is to knock and confess everything, which I am not gonna do. One, because I don’t want to wake her up, and two, because that’s creepy.
I really didn’t think this through.
The sound of footsteps. The sound of familiar footsteps. The sound of the same footsteps I’ve been listening out for in the last six or so months now. He’s coming back up.
I quickly and quietly place my teacup on the table and tiptoe to the door. I can see him emerging from the bottom of the stairs holding something big in a burgundy case. In his left hand is the same yellow post-it note from before.
As he nears my door, my heart skips a beat as my fantasies are confirmed. He is the guitarist. He’s carrying a guitar! A grin forms on my lips. What a relief to know that for once, my imagination was telling the truth and I wasn't just crazy. I knew it… I knew it was him.
I went with the first plan. But as I was about to pass her door, I remembered over-hearing the cute waitress at Kabuki all those years ago—who I summoned all my courage to give my number to—making fun of me with her coworker as I was taking a piss in the bathroom. The feelings of humiliation and shame came flooding right back as if it happened all over again.
I crumpled up the note.
On a particularly windy day in Hope, Arkansas, at a gas station along Interstate 30, a man fills his tank with gas. It will cost him nearly $70 for a full tank.
As he waits, he opens the driver’s side door of his Jeep and begins to dust sea salt and vinegar potato chip crumbs off the seat. He takes all the used tissues, crumpled receipts, and empty protein bar wrappers stuffed in the center console cup holders and jams them in the already overflowing garbage bin next to the pump. Realizing he has a thousand miles left to go, he stretches his legs and reaches up to the sky, bending his back. He will go to sleep at a motel tonight after a long day of driving.
The gas nozzle clicks, signifying that his tank is full. After returning the nozzle, he drives away, headed up north to assume care of his mother, who recently got into a serious accident at work that broke her hip and her left foot.
The wind picks up in Hope, Arkansas, knocking trash off from the brimming garbage bin by pump #3. Empty plastic bottles and chip bags, straws, aluminum cans, coffee-stained paper cups, plastic bags, tissues, and receipts are strewn across the station, drumming the cement as they are lifted by the gale and then dropped back to the ground. Among them, about the size of a date, is a crumpled neon-yellow piece of paper.