Two Mondays ago, at 2:30am, I awoke to the sound of deep, guttural retching in the apartment below, the sound of someone desperately trying to vacate their stomach. There was cartoonishly loud spitting, then three hard, blunt slams against the wall, so forceful that my bed shook. I rolled over to look at the clock and groaned. My downstairs neighbors had been waking me with their blaring TV or screaming matches at 2:30am like clockwork for the past two months, but this already seemed much more serious than normal. I slid out of bed and quietly, oh so quietly pressed my ear to the floor. “What the hell? What the hell?” my downstairs neighbor shrieked. “You boys,” she said in a motherly tone, then began wailing in a high, oddly tranquil melodious voice. And so it continued—powerful retching, spitting, a series of wall-shaking poundings, and snippets of incoherent babbling—for three more hours.
The saga of my downstairs neighbors began the second week in January. My apartment building had been remarkably quiet before, so much so that my parents marveled at it every time they visited. “I can’t believe it’s so calm around here. I expected a lot more noise, living in the city!” After 13 months of peace that I didn’t even know was a blessing, the shouting began, so loud that I could hear it through my floorboards. At first, it was only the woman who shouted, the only person legally allowed to live in the apartment. I could hear parts of her conversation as if she were standing in my bedroom—”I’m sorry, Aaron!” and “You need to be more tolerant!” and “You can’t control yourself!” Other parts of the conversation, the parts that took place in other areas of their apartment, were more mumbled, but the tone was clear: tense, provocative, dangerous. Then, days after, I could hear both parties shouting. At first, I did nothing. I’d never been in this situation before; I didn’t even know what steps to take. Then, when the fighting became more frequent and the cursing more intense, I called my landlord. He issued a warning and things quieted down for a bit. A week later, their throbbing TV kept me awake again, the bass pulsating in my floor and in my head as I tried to fall asleep.
“Are you sure your apartments aren’t connected somehow?” my boyfriend asked, more than once. “How would our apartments be connected?” I asked. “Maybe there’s a microphone in your floor,” he’d say in jest. Then, more seriously, “Maybe your sinks are connected and sound just travels through there. I don’t know. It’s just…bizarre.”
Bizarre. That was the only way to describe it. I never heard my next door neighbors, yet I could hear my downstairs neighbors as clear and sharp as a violin chord in a silent room. And they weren’t always fighting or shouting. Sometimes they were just talking, about friends, about their days, about their beliefs, albeit strange beliefs about reincarnation and powers from another planet. I pressed my ear to the floor, trying to gauge the true volume of their movements and conversations. Were they really that loud or was I being too sensitive? Is my floor abnormally thin? If I can hear everything they say, can they hear everything I say? This went on for months. Fighting and not, floor vibrating along with their TV or not, odd noises in the middle of the night or not. After months of this, I was tired, crazy, worn raw.
Then the retching happened. I sat in my bed, unmoving. I was scared, and somehow doing nothing seemed like the best option. I desperately did not want to call the police, although my landlord had advised me to do so after multiple nights of noise led to repeated calls to his office. Despite the wall-shaking bangings below, it didn’t seem as if anyone was being hurt. Or maybe that’s what I wanted to believe in the strange darkness of the morning. Finally, after dozing and waking once more to a shaking apartment, I called the police. It was 4:45 am—an unforgivable amount of time after the incident began. Immediately afterwards, I called my boyfriend. He picked up after two rings and was on his way to my house 10 minutes later. He patiently listened to me complain and fret as I packed my things for the week. He let me lay my head on his lap and cry about how tired I was. Then we both got in a cab and I moved to his house for a while.
Sleep deprived and disturbed, I walked into a challenging work week. Every day was grueling, and I finished out the week feeling awful about myself and terrible about my work. I cried no less than three times throughout the course of five days. All in all, it was an atrocious week at the end of three increasingly horrible months.
Yet, despite the onslaught of awfulness, my week was abnormally full of wonderful moments of calm and, more than anything, profound gratitude:
- V. and I talking about our work days while cooking in his tiny kitchen.
- A long and adventurous run through the Lincoln Park zoo.
- Nights full of Chopped marathons.
- A quiet morning spent sipping coffee and catching up on the long list of essays I’ve been trying to read for months.
- Listening to seagulls crying from the nearby lake, their calls echoing in a city not quite yet awake.
- V. making me stir-fry at 7am on Monday morning and packing it up for our lunches.
Ironically, the same Monday that started with awful retching ended with the greatest moment of calm: a leisurely walk, hand-in-hand with V., as the wind of Chicago’s first 70-degree day lightly caressed our skin. As we strolled, we talked about the dark and terrible thing consuming my downstairs neighbor—whether it be drug abuse, domestic abuse, or heartbreak—the peace and safety we both want for her, and how grateful we are to have each other. Then, at 9pm, I changed into my pajamas, crawled between soft sheets, and slept for 9 uninterrupted, quiet hours.