Yennie Cheung holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside-Palm Desert. Her work has been published in such places as The Los Angeles Times and Word Riot. A native of Southern California, she is currently working on a book about Downtown Los Angeles, due out November 2015.
The walls of your apartment are as thin as the girl next door. She’s nineteen and a model from Slovakia or Slovenia or some other European country you couldn’t place on a map. The two of you don’t talk, and you tell people it’s because she doesn’t speak much English, which is true. But you suspect the bigger problem is that you don’t speak a word of Versace.
Your roommate, Sunny, is fluent in Louis Vuitton, but they don’t talk much, either. Sunny is offended that the girl never smiles, never even nods a greeting when they pass each other on the stairs. Comparatively, you and model girl are best friends. Once, when you saw her by the mailboxes, you smiled and said hello. She covered her eyes with her oversized sunglasses and mumbled what you assumed was a greeting but to your ears sounded vaguely like, “Rutabaga.”
You always know when the neighbor is at home because, as Sunny puts it, she marks her territory like an anorexic greyhound. On evenings when she smokes on her balcony, you smell it through the windows, and the scent lingers on your Ikea drapes. On afternoons, you hear her through the air conditioning vents, usually laughing over the phone and saying things that sound like “Machu Picchu” or “Dostoyevsky.” Sunny assures you the girl has heard of neither.
On weekends, the neighbor turns up her aerobics DVD, and the walls tremble like a big rig in your blind spot. The first time it happened, you ducked under a table for fear of the bookshelves toppling over.
“I don’t understand,” you said. “She weighs, like, nothing.”
Sunny sniffed. “Runway models. All they ever do is stomp.”
The neighbor does more than runways, though. You know this because you saw her in a magazine once. She was sitting with her back to the camera, wearing nothing but an expensive silver watch, her head turned demurely to the side and her lips slightly parted. Your first reaction was to wonder what a naked teenager had to do with selling watches.
But when you looked more carefully, your breath caught, because the curve of her hips and the downward glance of her eye were somehow exquisite. Earnest. As if she were incapable of disguising herself. You told yourself that she was Photoshopped or something. That it seemed impossible for these sensuous hips to be the same flat, brittle things you’d seen stalking up the stairwell in platform heels and skinny jeans. That this couldn’t be the same eye that once took in the dirt on your sneakers and the thickness of your thighs and turned away.
Tonight, as you arrive home from work, you hear a deep, trembling bray coming from her apartment. You assume that she is on the phone, laughing, but as you slide your key into the lock you stop. You hear her choke. You hear her sob. She strains for composure but moans so terribly that you’re both heartbroken for her pain and ashamed for being fascinated by it.
You turn the deadbolt to your door slowly so she can’t hear you coming home. She is louder inside your apartment, her voice tinny through the air vents. As you curl onto the couch and listen, you realize that you know this sound—that you’ve seen this pain. It is your father sprawled over your mother’s casket. It is your roommate, watching a tsunami destroy her homeland. It is you, watching that gold band slide across the coffee table as the love of your life said, “I can’t do this. Not anymore.”
Now, with your curiosity defeated, you pull your knees to your chest. You wrap your arms around them as if you are holding your neighbor’s bony shoulders. It would be easy to walk next door and perform this small act of consolation in person, but you can’t. You shouldn’t. You won’t. You know that what she’s doing is more personal than the contours of her body, as intimate as sex. Who are you to intrude on this moment? You are just a neighbor—a stranger. Who are you to understand her sorrow, as if it were that commonplace, that pedestrian? You can’t do that to her. So you will let her grieve. She has the right to feel that this pain is singular—that this is a language no one else can speak.