For the last two decades, we have always owned our own home. Our last home was an expansive one on a lake-six bedrooms, a full basement, three bathrooms and a full walk-up attic that hid everything from various holiday decorations to unused furniture. It was a lot of room but more importantly there were no sounds except for the occasional fox rustling through the leaves, singing bullfrog or a fish jumping to capture their evening dinner. At some point, we wanted to retire and downsize. My husband was already retired and I was counting the days until I could claim the same status. We had this long-term plan of selling the house and moving into an apartment in the city. Living our best lives having wine with our neighbors and dining out, shopping for clothes and fine smelling soaps rather than new roofs and furnaces. On a whim, we decided to list the house. It had been on the market over a year when we purchased so we figured we would put some feelers out with plenty of time to change our minds. However, it sold in less than two hours of the listing going live. And the buyers wanted in. Fast. So here we go. Dreams realized.
We spent the next few weeks giving away most of our things as if we were going to live on Mars and fantasizing about our future. As if any tiny cocktail fork or butter dish would be an imposition on our new lifestyle. We scaled down from 3500 sq feet to 1100 sq feet and we were elated to do so. Our kids received all their childhood memorabilia and photographs-any reminder that we raised five children. We were essentially cutting ties from parenthood and moving gracefully into retirement symbolized by the small two-bedroom two bath apartment in a large complex with all the amenities one could imagine.
We handed the lake house keys to the new owners, mutually excited about the future. We quickly settled into the apartment in the city locked into a 12-month lease. No lawn and snow removal responsibilities. No unexpected repairs or home improvement projects. Freedom! Pictures went up on the wall, things perfectly and sometimes strategically placed to make this new lifestyle work for us. We had done it! We had thrown caution to the wind and found paradise.
We had prepared for everything or at least we tried. Even the actual mental toll of communal living. We read one story after another of all the bad neighbor experiences in hopes of an easier transition. On the first night, we lie awake hearing every sound through walls that were thin enough to see through. We heard every passing motorist and every conversation around us. Would we ever hear silence again? We complained to each other but only half-heartedly since we were proud to be among the group that could complain about city living.
Before too long, we adapted to the noises of everyone else living their lives. Until one day, we heard the most terrifying sound imaginable. Outside the apartment, some woman (which we now know as the downstairs neighbor) was running throughout the grounds screaming “Help me! Somebody help me!” with the urgency of someone who may get murdered any second. Did our bad luck instantly import us to the pre-cursor to the next Dateline mystery? We tried to see her and yelled for her to call out so we could answer her plea. Sounds came and went with no way to triangulate on her location. She was running but from what? Screaming over and over, this dark, urgent request. In our panic, we were unable to locate this cry for help and for the first time in my life, I called the police. The 911 operator talked us through every important question. As the police arrived, guns drawn, shielding themselves behind our vehicles in the driveway, pointing at the apartment below us. Fearing a stray bullet in the certain gun fight, we tried to find hiding spots hardened by walls, unsure if they were bordering the mayhem. Stepping out the shared floor guessing which sections may be vulnerable to violent, breakthrough bullets.
But then the screaming suddenly stopped. Certainly, she had met her fate. Certainly, we were too late. Why didn’t we call sooner? Why did we try to locate her first instead of calling for the experts to help neutralize whatever nightmare threat was chasing this woman? It just stopped. I watched out my window sick to my stomach waiting for crime scene tape and the coroner to drive up. And yet nothing. Within 15 minutes, guns were holstered, police cars exited with nothing more than a passing wave. What the hell just happened? I am not a nosey person. I like to keep to myself, and I like others to do the same. But this bizarre scene deserved some explanation which went unasked and unanswered.
The next day we passed each other in the parking lot. She wouldn’t look at me, but I am quickly surveying her for what is certain to be obvious bruises and cuts and other life-threatening injuries. None. I tried to say hi, but was met with an ignored response. Maybe she was embarrassed? Maybe she couldn’t look at me because she was being held captive in some agonizing stockholm syndrome. I repeat my greeting to let her know I am here for her for whatever she needs. This time I recognize the response. Hostility toward the good samaritan who was trying to help her with her own desperate request. But in this moment, I quickly realize, she was mad, and I was the problem.
Several days passed with the normal noises of dogs barking and babies crying but no more murderous screams. Relief. Maybe it was one bad day or moment. We settle in and I start working from home which was my normal working status. I have an office in the loft of the apartment which meant everything I said flowed down to the living room and vice versa. But my retired husband was keeping busy, and the apartment was working out nicely. Until it happened again. Up until now, I remained incredibly suspicious of the husband since the incident. But this time (and most of the future events), no one was home but her.
Screaming louder and louder. Hair raising screams. Under me and around me. In my living room. In my bathroom. In my kitchen. Screaming. Crying. Urgent pleas for help. Resisting the urge to call 911 again. Worried I would draw even more ire from the people downstairs. Only to pass each other later or the next day like nothing was happening. This is all part of the experience, I thought. Just another story to share among all of the wine-drinking neighbors we haven’t met yet.
We have an “office” to raise concerns but after the reaction when we called the police, I didn’t want to aggravate things any further. So, we just learned to deal with it. We knew exactly what time she awoke and went to bed, and we found solace in the quiet hours of her sleep schedule. We went about our days and nights adjusting to this bizarre situation. Apartment living, am I right?
Months went by and something transformed our brains. If someone was truly calling for help, it would have literally fallen on deaf ears. Visiting guests appeared to notice what we have now become accustomed to. They don’t comment, they just look around as if they are hearing things. They have always known us to be reasonable, normal people. So, they looked confused because we don’t even notice. And we simply go about our business as if someone isn’t screaming for their life. We laugh about the latest meme on Facebook and talk about mundane things occasionally raising our voice over the sounds of terror.
One day a co-worker on a conference call tried to challenge our new existence and asked about the screaming woman in the background of all my calls. Is everything okay? Does someone need a doctor? I politely explain that we live in an apartment thinking this would explain it all. When she didn’t back down, I just assumed she owned a home with no shared walls and floors and tried to continue with our work-related conversation. She wouldn’t understand. She was not one of us.
“I have lived in an apartment for years and this isn't normal” she proclaimed. There isn’t anything I can do though. 12 month lease. Besides we are getting used to it. We eventually end the conversation about the terrifying background sounds and move to more productive work at a little louder decibel and with a more awkward pace than it was when we started.
Then one day, logic finally broke through. About 8 months into our lease, I received a call from “the office”. I had never talked to them and was curious when I saw the number appear on my phone. Apparently, there was a complaint from the apartment below that our TV was too loud sometimes which bothered her. I suddenly snapped out of my docile, don’t-bother-anyone-and-they-won’t-bother-you mentality and unleashed on this poor woman who had the unlucky job of calling me that day. I explained everything. The screaming, the police, the guests, the work calls. Everything laid out neatly and efficiently amid my release. As if my mind was regurgitating 8 months of some sort of cognitive journal. When I paused to take a breath, I was met with silence on the other end for a very long time.
“Why didn’t you say anything sooner?”, she finally inquires. Thinking I now sounded a bit deranged; I explain that we were under the impression this was normal apartment living. She seemed slightly shocked at our naivety and asked for details. I gave them. Many of them. She was apologetic explaining others had complained. What? People complained? Weren’t we all in this together? Despite the original reason for calling me, she explained they were “in the process of addressing it”. She offered up a solution. Move… to another apartment in the complex.
We were given several options. Close to us. Further out. We scoped out our potential new neighbors like a private detective. At all hours of the day and night, we stalked the pending neighbors listening for similarities to our current living situation. Why go to all the trouble of moving again if it was going to be the same situation? We remained unconvinced that this is not normal. But to our surprise not one plea for help. Not one blood curdling scream. Not one heart racing event where I imagine a gruesome murder scene. Quiet.
So, we chose our next home and packed up our belongings to the now familiar and weirdly comforting sound of the devil we know. Wondering about the new neighbors despite our thorough reconnaissance. Some part of me is disappointed that our experience is unique. That we can’t wear our apartment dweller war wounds with the rest of the crowd. We are no longer in a class that becomes aloof city dwellers. This wasn’t a typical experience that we will laugh about someday. Wherever things land, though, we will always be grateful for our first apartment experience. The experience left us entirely immune to the random noises and sounds from the walls and floors. We are fully and completely adjusted. This experience accelerated all learning curves and understanding of shared spaces. I wish nothing but the best for the former neighbor and hope she finds her way to peace. As strange as it sounds, some part of me feels like I am abandoning her. Our journey are now separated just as quickly as we came together. But there is still this constant, nagging worry that some news outlet will eventually answer our many questions about this woman and her demons, real or imagined.