It was the most abhorred sound to the ear: A combination of pain and anguish, layered on top of a man’s hysteria. It seemed to have come from down below, from the streets. Perhaps, not unusual for the streets of Manhattan, but it’s been years since I had left. I had wanted space — and space I had received. Miles of it, with dozens of different cities crammed into one. And the distance between each other was at times too significant to mend with compassion.
“Fucking spoilt! Some people don’t have anything… (mumble, mumble, hmmmm). Why are you like this…” (Here, I thought he called her by her name.) “YEAH! YEAH, YOU ARE! SO FUCKING SPOILT!”
I looked out of the window. The end of spring hadn’t yet burnt off the green from the hills. I studied the bits of lawns, visible in between the rooftops of my street. The next street over had a more monochromatic look to it, with a row of two-storied, eggshell-colored buildings with those thin metallic windowpanes, painted white, only strong enough to withstand the climate of Southern Cal. The screens of bathroom widows were narrow and dusty. An Armenian looking woman, with a hairnet stretched over her auburn perm, was unloading the trunk of her son’s SUV, in the uncovered parking spot of the building below. The son, with one leg on the ground, the other — still under the steering wheel — was staring at the screen of his mobile phone.
“YOU! YOU! YOU took all of it!… (mumble, mumble, pain). And now, I don’t have a savings account!” (He must’ve said her name, again). “I’ve sacrificed everything! FOR WHAT?!”
The voice of the screaming man appeared to have no effect on the son or the mother, both consumed by their business in the parking lot. I unlatched the sliding doors of my patio. The accumulated dust had discolored the doormat underneath my feet. It felt grainy. The rains of this past winter had marked the pink, uneven floor with circular stains, with jagged edges. I should really make a habit of sitting out here more. But the work! The work. It consumed every bit of presence in a day; until half a day’s sunlight passed and my desire to find myself amidst other humans — completely burnt away. And the slowness of an aware mind would be gone, gone, gone, into the daze of exhaustion.
The man by now was screaming. Just screaming:
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH. (Inhale.) AAAAAGGGGHHHH. AAAAAGGGGHHHH.”
Angst. One uninterrupted, unidentifiable sound, leaving a mouth crooked with pain so immense, I imagined, it had to seem impossible to survive. But he would land on the other end of it, most likely. Because even if one reached the edge, the threshold, the limit — too far, unthinkable for a human heart — one would have to go on living.
The mother, who had begun hanging the beige plastic bags onto her bent forearm, like unshapely lanterns, looked up. She’d heard it too.
“You said, I don’t fucking love you anymore! YOU! YOU SAID THAT! This, morning… (Mumble. Moan. Name?) And then you went to work!” (A squeeze of empathy made me brace myself. I had begun disliking detours from my earned tranquility, even if it disguised itself as apathy.) “Now, you have to live with that! You said that! YES! YES, YOU DID. And now, you live with it!”
The mother had to have said something to her son; because now, he too looked up. Unready to confront humanity, I scurried off inside. Quickly, I slid the door. It thumped against the frame, too loudly.
I walked along the outer edges of my place. I learned my ear against each of the four walls. One of the walls vibrated with another, “AAAAGGGGHHH!” The sound was happening next door, and I could now make out the words.
“Go try it, Lena! Go! Go see for yourself how other people live!” He looked so young the last time I saw him. In time, such loss shaves off years. With most people though — it compiles them. “But if you think I’m going to walk away in silence…” His voice cracked then. He stopped. I think he broke down.
I stood against the wall. In a short while, it was a woman that began speaking. She had been silent until now. “Mumble, mumble,” I could hear. “Mumble, mumble, mumble, hmmmm.”
I could remember her: A tall Russian girl with that particular face that looked majestic in photographs but slightly off in person. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and slightly timid, she suffered from an awkwardness in how she moved her body. I’d met her in the lobby once. We shared a giggle in an uncomfortable closeness while getting our mail, from our neighboring mailboxes.
“I hearrd,” she finally spoke, “zat you verre Rrussian to.” Her accent stumped me. After two decades of living here, I had acquired the arrogance of a native. She waited for my answer, locked her mailbox and leaned her back against the wall. Her legs outstretched in front of her, for meters and meters, as it seemed. And when she saw my sizing up the distances before her, she pulled them back. Her face blushed with a sheepish smile.
“Yes,” I spoke looking at her lips. I wanted to decipher how she spoke. “Yes. It’s been years though.”
“Oh,” she ran her fingers through the hair behind her ear. “Verre… um… you frrom?”
This would’ve been the perfect time to switch to our native tongue.
“I am from the West Coast,” I said in my second tongue, catching myself pronouncing things slower, directly to her mouth. Something was off there, definitely, besides the accent. I thought it could’ve been the structure of her jaw.
“Oh,” she said again. “I sought you verre frrom Moscow. Zat’s verre I’m from.”
“Go, Lena… Go back home, if you want…” The man was sobbing now. Un-peeling myself from the wall, I stood deciding how much space this tragedy demanded. Too many witnesses increase the shame.
I wondered how many days it would take each of them to find their way back. Or had they lost the sight of it for good? When bearings are lost along the way, it’s harder to recover. I looked out of the window again. The mother was gone. So was her son’s SUV. I sat back down and returned to work.