Mike’s off-key singing from upstairs had been going on for a week now.
Mike and I are neighbours in an apartment block. We know of and are on cordial “hi and bye” terms with each other, though we have not had much opportunity to hang out due to work commitments. I work irregular hours, sometimes sleeping in the day in preparation for night shifts. As far as I know, Mike works a regular office schedule.
It never used to bother me that Mike has a regular habit of belting out show tunes and movie soundtracks, as more often than not I am not around to hear his one-man karaoke sessions.
Until now. It is slowly driving me bonkers.
And yes, his name is Mike. How very apt indeed.
I had unfortunately sustained a fractured ankle and am quite literally “off my feet” for the next few weeks, as per doctor’s advice. I am not complaining though; my idea of a break from work (pardon the pun) is relaxing at home with a good wine and book. Even though the injury was an unexpected factor to my staycation plans, I am managing quite nicely in my tiny, ground floor apartment. I also have crutches to hobble around on and thank goodness for online ordering and delivery services. Besides, with the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown period I doubt I am able to travel for a holiday even if I had full mobility anyway.
But there is only so much of Mike’s singing one can handle.
Grabbing my crutches, I pulled myself up carefully. The doctor said to be “non-weight bearing” on my injured side. But I take it that balancing on my other leg is reasonable, so long as I have adequate support with my crutches and maybe some furniture to coast along. I feel like a baby just learning to unsteadily take his first steps.
I limped towards the side door, which opens towards an enclosed porch. Mike’s balcony is directly above my porch. And I believe his sliding door must be wide open, because as soon as I stepped out my ears were suddenly and painfully assaulted by Mike’s passionate rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. How in the world does a man hit those high notes?
I extended one of my crutches upwards to tap on the metal bars of his balcony railing, while leaning as far back as I could over my porch without toppling over into the street. The singing continued. I tapped a bit harder and heard a cough, splutter and heavy footsteps making their way towards the balcony edge before a flushed scowling face peered over at me.
“Can I help you?” Mike mumbled with a frown, glancing at my ankle cast.
“Hey Mike, Jack here, how’s it going…” I hesitated as I took in Mike’s blotchy face and red-rimmed swollen eyes. And far out, when was the last time this bloke had a shave? My request of turning down his concert volume died in my throat.
Mike raised an eyebrow in question.
“Look, mate, just checking up on you…I mean erm, you’ve been singing way more often and loudly than usual and…” I felt my cheeks getting warmer as I struggled to conduct a spontaneous welfare check as tactfully as I could. This pandemic is doing nothing for my social awkwardness. “Like, actually…how are you really going?”
Mike looked like he would clobber me with my crutches if it were not for the ceiling separating us. Then he seemed to deflate with a sigh.
“Not good.” He finally said, with fresh tears welling in his eyes. Then to my horror, Mike started sobbing.
Oh dear. My question has opened the floodgates.
“Alright. Hey, hey Mike…” I waved my crutch to catch his attention. “Would you like to have a beer and a chat? I would invite myself over or vice versa, but that’s probably not the wisest idea given the lockdown regulations and me with a bad leg. But let’s just do it over the balcony, yeah? Whaddya say?”
Mike sniffled and rubbed his nose with his sleeve before nodding vigorously in agreement.
“Okay, give me a moment while I set up…” I had a garden chair I could push against the porch railing. Some cushions and a blanket would make it more comfortable too.
“I’ve run out of beer…”
“No stress, I can get you one-”
“Nah as in, I don’t want any alcohol. I’ve…had enough of it. You got any hot chocolate?”
“Let me see…”
Normally, I am the kind of guy who appreciates a beer with the bros. But I think having hot chocolate with Mike is a good way to build rapport.
Making two mugs of hot chocolate was the easy part. I contemplated leaving Mike’s mug outside and asking him to do a contactless pick up when I saw a small wicker basket suspended by raffia string dangling in mid-air outside my porch.
“Unbelievable.” I chuckled as I hobbled out with the drinks. Placing his mug carefully in the basket, I craned my neck upwards and gave Mike a thumbs-up. “Wicked DIY skills you have going. Or should I say…wicker-ed.”
Mike rolled his eyes and pulled up the basket. “My Nan dropped off some baked goods earlier this year, couldn’t return her basket in time before lockdown.”
“Yum, baked treats by Nan sound delectable.” I remarked, easing myself into the chair with drink in hand and crutches propped on either side of my seat. Mike was leaning against the balcony railing, sipping on piping hot cocoa.
“Do you always talk like that?”
“Like…with random puns and old-fashioned words. Like a book character. Or my dad.”
I snorted into my mug, triggering a coughing fit. Mike stuck his tongue out at me. “Oh for crying out loud, don’t choke, spit it out! I haven’t even told you my sad story yet.”
“Pardon me. Tickle in the throat. And no more hot chocolate for you if you keep making me aspirate with your comments! Which frankly weren’t too funny anyway.” I cleared my throat as Mike roared with laughter.
I noticed that Mike looked gaunter, with dark circles around his eyes and cheekbones more prominent than what I remembered. He was probably about my age, but could pass off as an older homeless tramp with his uncombed brown hair and messy facial hair. I would not be surprised if he had not showered for an extended period of time, hence secretly I was grateful for the physical distance his balcony provided. And even though he was smiling now, I sensed that there was a deeper sadness he had been hiding until now.
I do not want to pry, but since we have got some decent banter going, this might be a good opportunity to get to know Mike a bit better.
Mike’s shoulders slumped and he sighed heavily. “I don’t know where to begin. Feel a bit silly, to be honest…”
“Mate, you broke down in tears in front of a relative stranger. Something significant has happened to you.”
Mike nodded his head slowly. I gulped down some more hot chocolate while waiting for his reply.
“My girlfriend broke up with me.”
“Ah.” I sighed. It was the age-old heartbroken lover situation we were dealing with here.
I winced. Now that was the sucker punch. “Mike, I’m so sorry.”
Mike stared into his mug and sighed. I wondered if he had resumed crying. But then he started talking.
He rambled about how wonderful his ex Cicely (he called her CeeCee) was with a list of attributes and qualities enough to make any girl jealous, but they had been arguing over increasingly minute matters and he was trying to salvage the relationship with the right communication, negotiation, discussion. Sadly she was not having a bar of it and it appeared that she became tired of his attempts at reconciliation.
I could only listen as Mike started crying again, responding with the appropriate “Mm” and “Oh mate that’s rough” and “So sorry” intermittently. I wondered if I was the first person to physically sit with him as he verbally processed all his post-breakup anguish and sorrow.
“I asked her for two weeks.” Mike said abruptly.
“Two weeks? What for?” My brows furrowed suspiciously.
“To just love her.”
“I’m sorry, what do you mean by that?”
“I want two weeks to do all the things to show CeeCee how much I care for her. Everything wholesome that I would do as a boyfriend, all condensed in two weeks. And then I will be good. Two weeks to get it out of my system, if you know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t…” I thought to myself with a silent groan as I readjusted my cushions. I was beginning to realise what a hopeless romantic my upstairs neighbour was. Maybe that explained the Whitney Houston on replay.
“And how is having two weeks going to help you process the breakup?” I probed further.
Mike’s eyes were shining with excitement as if he had planned the biggest scheme yet. Clasping his hands tighter around his mug, he gazed into the empty street with a faraway look. “I mean, it has helped in the past with my previous ex…?” His voice tinged with cautious optimism.
“Your previous ex? And what outcome did that method achieve?” I had to keep my tone from falling flat. Be sympathetic, Jack.
Mike shrugged his shoulders. “I managed to move on better in that relationship. She later asked if we could get back together again.”
I could not believe where this conversation was going. “But you didn’t date her again.”
“Oh no. But she was cool with it. We’re still friends.”
“Mike, I’m not so sure if the two weeks will be healthy for you or CeeCee. Well,” I held up my hands in surrender. “It might have worked to your advantage in the past. But from what you have told me about CeeCee, I don’t think she will appreciate having to see you again if she’s already made it clear that the relationship is over and she doesn’t want anything to do with you. Does that make sense?”
Mike now looked as if I had clobbered him with my crutches. His stunned expression was comical, but I think my crutch of reason has knocked some sense into his head as the realisation dawned on him that his seemingly romantic breakup coping mechanism was most likely driven by an ulterior motive, albeit a more selfish one. Or at least, I hope that was what registered in his lovey-dovey mind.
“You’re passionate for the woman you love, hey? I suppose the final act of love you can do for her would be to…let her go.”
Mike rubbed his nose noisily against his sleeve. “Man, breakups suck.”
“Oh definitely. The pain is unbearable, but it will pass eventually. You just have to give yourself time to recover.”
Mike gave a half smile. “What are you, a love expert? You’ve been giving a lot of sound advice on relationships.”
“Ah no, only because I’m an independent third party, so I see your situation a bit more objectively than you do.”
Mike nodded in understanding. “Thanks man, really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. And for hot chocolate.”
“No worries at all. Happy to be a listening ear. Breaks the humdrum of hopping around with a dodgy ankle.”
“I’ll wash the mug before returning it to you.”
“Cheers. I might go inside now, it’s getting cold out here.” As I slowly rose to stand I heard Mike call my name.
“So…we’re balcony bros now?” He asked.
The corners of my mouth lifted into a smile.
“Yes, I suppose we are.”