Betty and Earl. They must be in their mid 80s. Maybe low 90s. They are the picture perfect elderly-something-year old couple. Their patio furniture stays under the plastic and bricks all summer long. They smile a lot, and nod even more.
When we meet in the hallway or laundry room, Betty can’t hear a word I say. “What?” When I tell her I think the baby likes her, “What?” she says again, putting her hand to her ear as if it will create a speaker to suck in the sound.
Once, I was out of milk for the baby, and I knocked on the door. Earl yelled “Who is it?” then let me in and gave me the rest of an expired carton.
Their house was meticulous. Betty knows what she’s doing. She’s raised two girls; she has lived three of my lives. But for the most part, I see them, walking down the hall together; totally with it, totally nailing this thing called life.
On any given afternoon, you will see their two pairs of shoes lined up outside their door. Worn brown dockers and old white New Balances, laces open as proof of the life that lives inside. And at night, there is no place that makes me feel more at peace with my soul than laying in bed listening them rip each other a new asshole.
“Well did you or didn’t you?” Betty yells. Earl’s voice is lower, but meaner. “Would you just leave..me…alone?”
I text my husband. “It’s Betty vs. Earl, round 8 million. Wtf could they be fighting about??? The coasters?”
There is something about apartment living that saves my life. And I think it’s this. It’s Betty asking Earl why the hell he didn’t use a coaster. It’s the noise of something outside myself that reminds me of the simultaneity of our existence. How easy it is to get caught up in yourself; your world becomes THE world, and the weight of that can be exhausting.
For me, it’s heaviest at night, after my children are asleep. The dishwasher hums among the silence, erasing any evidence of the chaos that swallowed me less than 15 minutes before. The world is a kindergarten application, the construction on the Kosciosko bridge that ruins a commute, my father’s cancer, my husbands kidney disease.
It is the excess of papers sharing tired magnets on the refrigerator, the semi-clogged bathtub. It’s the car payment, a tired-out teaching career, the to-do list that has dusted and fallen behind the counter, a hairline planning its retreat. And I am the only character, the leading role. Everything that was ever anything is beaming down onto me, squeezing and pulling my mind while pressing my soul into the ground.
Then Israel from upstairs drags a splintery stool across the floor. Boom. My world expands, back into THE world. I shrink; I can breathe. I picture him, curious what he’s reaching for on top of his musky closet; wonder about the color of his walls, the condition of his floors…and of his life. Earl calls Betty an asshole, and just like that, I’ve been saved.
Maybe that’s what New York has done for me all these years; It makes me small. Each day I grow into the bubble of my egocentricity, and each night, I’m punctured and deflated again, relieved.
It’s forced me to become Waldo in the book of my own life, if Waldo didn’t repeat, and the pages were endless. When I become smaller, so do my problems. So does my pain. I owe it to this city; it hides me among all these people, all their anger, their anxiety, their love. Their coasters lying unused on a table, next to a ring of condensation, and a rainbow of resentment.
My walls talk; my ceilings whisper. There is so much life beyond your own. They caught me, thinking I was the center of it all.
I text my husband, “I hope we can live long enough to be fighting about coasters, too.”