My friends all warned me about first-floor apartments. They told me nightmare stories about thundering footsteps and stereo noise from above, wailing babies, squeaky bedsprings. But as soon as I saw the street-level studio in Park Slope, I was a goner. The apartment, at the rear of a small, saggy building, had a tiny deck and a little fenced-in square of mud that the management-company rep called a garden.I could already see the beds of marigolds that I would plant, the morning glories that would wind up the fence posts and the neat little lawn I’d trim with my Kmart weed whacker.
Still, I carefully quizzed the rep about the people who lived upstairs. Did they have any small children? Large pets? Were they, by any chance, sex addicts?
”Relax,” the rep said. ”Old buildings like this, they all have brick laid between the floors. Superquiet. You won’t hear a thing.” I wrote her a check for first, last and security.
I noticed, when we entered the apartment, another door off the hallway right next to mine. ”Oh,” the rep said, ”Dorinda won’t bother you. She’s a data-entry clerk at a legal firm. She works the late-night shift. By the time she gets home, you’ll be asleep. You’ll never know she’s there.”
It took me an entire evening to lug in all my stuff. Around 2 in the morning, I sank onto my bed, noting with satisfaction that I hadn’t heard a single footstep from above all day.
I had just begun to doze when I was roused by the sound of clacking heels in the hall, followed by the metallic scrape of a key in the lock next door. Dorinda. She dumped what sounded like several bags onto the floor and kicked off her shoes. A few seconds later I shot into a sitting position when a stereophonic blast of funky R & B erupted through the wall.
The music wasn’t bad, but it was, well, sort of lively for 2 A.M. Dorinda began padding around her apartment, opening cabinets and slamming them shut in time with the music. I pulled a pillow onto my head just as she started to sing.
Over the next few weeks, it became obvious that, brickwork aside, the wall between us was about as soundproof as a bedsheet. Every night I was awakened by her stereo or her television, or the whiny answering-machine monologues of her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Chris.
When she hung her clothes, I heard the tinny clatter of hangers. I heard the little touch-tone beeps every time she dialed her phone. It got so that I could differentiate the tsh-tsh sounds as she brushed her front teeth from the och-ochs as she worked back toward her molars.
I had still never seen Dorinda. As I tended my square of dirt out back, I sometimes peered through the latticework fence that separated my ”garden” from hers. But she never seemed to venture outside, and her mauve Venetian blinds were always closed.
Sometimes I thought about knocking on her door to say something about the noise. But I didn’t. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to putter in her kitchen or yak on the phone to wind down after work? I did the same things, too.
I was also starting to like Dorinda — her Latin-inflected accent, her musical laugh, the way she sassed her good-for-nothing boyfriend. An image of her had developed in my mind: pretty and caramel-skinned, a little plump, sort of big hair. When she kicked off her shoes at night, I pictured her sliding her feet into pink chenille slippers.
One Sunday evening I sat on my bed and listened as she and Chris waged a full-scale battle.
”You understand me?” Dorinda shouted. ”I am tired of your disrespect!” I pictured her standing with one hip thrust out. ”You come here and make calls on my phone and sleep in my bed — and then I don’t hear from you for two weeks?”
”Baby, no — it ain’t like that,” came Chris’s wheedling voice.
”Don’t you ‘baby’ me!” Dorinda yelled. ”I am so sick of your lies I can’t even look at you! Get out of my house!”
I heard the shuffle of Chris’s sneakers as he made his way to the door. Both Dorinda and I waited while his footsteps receded down the hall and out the front entrance.
Then in a startlingly clear voice, as if she was standing only a few inches from her side of the wall, Dorinda spoke.
There was no question — she was speaking to me. I slid off my bed and walked over to the wall between us.
”No problem,” I said. And suddenly it was true — I had no problems with Dorinda.
After a few seconds of silence, I heard her walk over to her stereo, and then her music came on — softly. I stooped to slip my shoes on and went out to give her some privacy.