Neighbors, legs, strangers, & feelings
It’s a beautiful day with a high in the 70s. One of the few days a year you’ll see women’s bare legs about town at 10am. As I type, I can see out my bedroom window two long legs sitting on a stoop across the street, the rest of the body hidden by a bus stop.
One time I was at a neighborhood bar talking to the bartender who was plotting an early retirement to Costa Rica. He was going to open up a surf shop and never wear shoes again. He said, “If I see one more woman walk by in a hoodie I’m going to shoot myself.” Which I thought was obnoxious and misogynistic — as if women should dress attractively to please some random asshole on the street — but, I also saw his point. A hot San Francisco day bursts out from the fog unexpectedly and often dissolves back into wind before you have a chance to shave your legs. In another part of the conversation, the bartender told me I was too old (at 28 or whatever I was) not to have started a career. It would take 10 years to get good at anything and by then it would be too late to have children. I thought that was also obnoxious. And I also saw his point.
Today is Sunday. On Friday night at 1am my roommate Omid and I were hanging out in the living room looking at photos of ourselves, per usual, when we heard yelling. We followed the sound to the bathroom window and listened to two young women fighting in the apartment below us. The one was screaming at the other to let her go: “I don’t feel safe here! Let me leave!”
It had been a while since we last heard neighbors fighting. Some years ago, there was couple living downstairs that would scream at each other all the time. It was part of the rhythm of their relationship. The boyfriend was an artist, the girlfriend was hot tempered, and despite the fighting, they always seemed happy. Their yelling became a natural extension of our apartment. You could sit on the toilet or wash your face and listen to the gentle threats and ultimatums of the downstairs neighbors. Living in a city where you live so close to other people and yet interact so little, the familiarity of their fighting made me feel more human. Besides threatening to call the cops during a couple of our parties, we got along great. A bottle of apology wine would smooth things over. And I liked that the fierce-tempered girlfriend always kept an aggressive eye out for intruders and the property managers on speed dial. Less responsibility for me.
Our relationship with them only really strained when they got pregnant and our friend Katiana moved in and began practicing drums in the living room. The girlfriend would storm upstairs: “Our entire fucking apartment is SHAKING. Shit is FALLING OFF the fucking SHELVES!” Katiana, who claimed she was playing very quietly and with blankets to deaden the sound, would counter with, “Drumming is my craft! Music is part of who I am!” Who could deny someone a part of themselves? Shortly after the baby was born, the neighbors moved to the Outer Sunset and Katiana moved to Brazil.
The people who used to live upstairs also used to fight. My old roommate Jenevieve could hear them from her bedroom and it scared her. The couple was a large man and a petite woman. There would be yelling and then loud thumping sounds, like furniture hitting the ground, and it would keep her awake at night. I occasionally heard sounds, too, but never yelling, so it was hard to know what to do.
What is our responsibility to our neighbors in these cases? Who all is our neighbor? I think about this all the time when walking through San Francisco. In a crowded city, it’s hard to find a quiet space where strangers won’t involve themselves in your business (like a bar where you can get a drink without a bartender telling you what’s wrong with your life). I can only imagine it’s worse when you’re going through something hard, like an argument with a loved one. No one wants to feel judged or shamed. None of us want to intrude. I often pass by strangers who appear to be in distress and wonder, does this stranger need help or do they need space? I once saw a man masturbating on the corner of Church and Market. The sidewalk might have been his home. If we can’t afford to provide him privacy, surely we can’t judge him for making do without.
Exactly a week ago I passed a man pulling a precariously overflowing trunk in one hand and holding a pile of stuff in the other, including the trunk lid. I said hello and he said, “How ya doin’, love?” As we crossed the street, a 3-foot metal bar fell out of the trunk. I picked it up, carried it to the other side, and wedged it back in beneath some dirty blankets. He said, “Thanks, love. Just put it anywhere.” It was dark out but I could see the trunk had a colorful pattern, maybe of camels and pyramids or other exotic locales. I told him it was nice. He said, “Thanks so much. It’s heavy, but it’s my home. You know how it is.” I really don’t. I walked ahead but when I turned back, he was crossing the next street to go north and I watched as a pillow and blanket tumbled out into the middle of the road. A man and his scattered home.
When riding BART you often go to sit down and find that the seat you’re aiming for is filled with someone stretched out sleeping. I always assume they’d like to be left alone. It might be their safest, warmest option for a bed and you’re in their bedroom. So even though I somewhat expect the unexpected, I was thrown for a loop last Thursday when my coworker Katelyn and I boarded BART and the seat back-to-back with our seat only had legs. Just a pair of legs, from the knee down, propped up on the bench. No torso to be seen. His body must have been on the floor, contorted beneath the seat, but even when I leaned over I couldn’t see beyond the knees. The shoe twitched. I worried he might be having some kind of medical crisis. Maybe he doesn’t want to be on the floor. Maybe he can’t get up. Should I get down there, too, crawl under the seat in search of a head and ask, “Everything alright down here?” I hoped he was taking a nap or experiencing an intense high and wanted some privacy, a little space beneath a BART seat to call his own where no one would bother him. So Katelyn and I sat down behind the disembodied legs and continued our conversation about whether or not we were happy or sad or in the right job, and about how talking about depression can be helpful but doesn’t help you feel less depressed, etc. Maybe the body attached to the legs was right beneath us listening. Maybe he also didn’t know whether he was happy or sad. Maybe he was also processing loss and regret and uncertainty. Or maybe he needed a doctor or some water or not to be ignored. I wondered if his hands would shoot out and grab our ankles.
One day Jenevieve and I both heard the loud thumping sound coming from upstairs at the same time and decided we should just go upstairs and knock. If we’re concerned about whether or not someone is okay, we should check. It was the middle of the afternoon. We tepidly knocked on the door and the large man answered. We were awkward: “Um, we, uh, live downstairs and heard a really loud sound and, uh, just wanted to make sure everyone — I mean everything — was okay.” It sounded dumb when we said it out loud. He gave us a queer look. “Oh. I’m exercising and the TV fell off the stand.” We said, “Ah, okay. Well, uh, nice seeing you.” He smiled. Or maybe smirked. “Thanks for checking,” he said. “It’s nice to have concerned neighbors.” But I don’t think he meant it. We must have seemed so nosey. It made me feel young and childish. I wondered if he could tell we were scared of him and if he’s used to that, to people being scared of him and having to pretend like he doesn’t notice. What a heartbreaking thought. I wondered if it was embarrassing or frustrating not to be able to exercise without knocking over a television. I also wondered why he does so much exercising at 1am while his girlfriend yells.
All these neighbors moved out years ago, as our building has now almost completely transformed into a revolving door of 20-somethings who work in tech. It seems like boxes and bedsprings are constantly moving up and down the stairs. Ripped garbage bags of abandoned belongings pile up next to the city trashcan on the sidewalk. Piles of belongings that are not people’s homes. I used to know the names of most people in our 8-unit building, but now I just know a few. It’s my fault more than anything else. When I first moved in, I worked at a cafe and would go door-to-door handing out leftover pastries. Now I work in tech just like everyone else. I used to throw parties that the neighbors could either come to or threaten to call the cops on. Now I don’t like cleaning up spilled drinks or scraping gum off the carpet.
So Omid and I didn’t recognize the voices of the young women wafting up from the first floor. One of the girls was doing most of the yelling. Mostly along the lines of: “Let me go! I don’t want to be here! Let me leave! I don’t feel safe here!” With the other girl interjecting, “No, you’re not leaving! I’m not letting you leave!”
Initially, we worried one girl was trapping the other. Maybe they were a couple going through a breakup. Maybe one was abusive. I flashed forward to me calling the police. But as we listened, the story quickly shifted.
Girl #1: “I just want to sleep in my car! It’s my right to sleep in my car! Why won’t you let me leeeaaaave?!”
Girl #2: “Because you’re druuunk!”
Girl #1: “You think I’m drunk but I’m noooot!”
Girl #2: “You had more beers than meeee!”
Girl #1: “I’m bigger than youuuu!”
Girl #2: “Then why are you cryiiiing??”
Girl #1: “Because I’m SAD! It’s okay to be sad! Mom and dad don’t know me! You don’t know meeee!”
So they were sisters. Omid and I made some assumptions: The one crying was the younger one. It was the older one’s apartment. The older one was thinner. The younger one probably didn’t feel as beautiful. The younger one clearly didn’t feel seen.
Younger sister: “I don’t feel safe here! This isn’t a safe space for me! You don’t know meee!”
Older sister: “You’re right, I don’t know you.”
Younger sister: “I just want to be alone! Let me be alone! I like being aloooone!”
Older sister: “I know you better than anyone!”
Younger sister: “I don’t feel safe here! I want to sleep in my caaarrr!”
Older sister: “I don’t care what you want!”
Younger sister: “That’s privilege! You’re so privileged! You go around and you don’t care about anything! I’m crying because I’m sad! Because I can’t take what’s happening in the world! I need to be alone! You don’t even know! Damage isn’t only physical!”
Older sister: “Then why did you come here?!”
Younger sister: “Because I didn’t know you’d be so mean! You’re so rude! It’s not just tonight! You’re always so mean to me! Fuck you! I hate you!”
Both sisters elongated the vowels at the ends of their sentences: “I want to be alooooooooone!” “Noooooo. You’re druuunk. You’re not leaviiiiiiiiiing.” And sometimes they would switch into Spanish, which I couldn’t understand except for: “¡Me gusta ser solaaa! ¡Me gusta ser solaaaaa!” Periodically the yelling would subside into bouts of physical scuffling, but then they would return to the same exhausted cries. I imagined the older sister wedged between the younger sister and the front door. Hands pressed against either wall. But, more than anything else, it was just the younger sister stating over and over and over — and over — again that she wanted to sleep in her car: “I want to sleep in my caaaaaaaarrrrr! I want to sleep in my caaaaaaaarrrrr!” And the older sister occasionally telling her she didn’t care.
Omid & I checked in every once in awhile, but it got annoyiiiiing and repetitive pretty quickly. I don’t think intervention from the neighbors would have done any good. “Um, we live upstairs and heard some noise. Everything okay? Oh, just 18 or so years of feeling misunderstood and alienated by your older sister who makes you feel like shit but from whom, deep down, you desperately want respect and approval? Nothing two strangers and a spot of tea won’t fix!”
Eventually they both offered, what seemed to us, pretty reasonable compromises. The older sister said the younger one could sleep in her room and she would sleep on the couch and not bother her. The younger one said she would give her older sister her car keys if she would just let her sleep in her car. Neither budged. The fight went on for a long time.
Omid shrugged. “I’m sure there’s a lot of background we don’t know.” “Yeah,” I said, “I’m sure it’s really complicated.”
We both paused.
Was it that complicated? Or, was it actually really simple? The basic human experience of feeling things. Of being a fragile human in relationship with other fragile humans. Of having loved ones disappoint you. Of not knowing why you’re sad. Of being — dare I say it —a Jan in a world of Marcias. “Marciaaaaaa! I want to sleep in my caaaaarrrr!”
The younger sister was clearly feeling so much. Her words were a wail. I remember crying in front of my mom in middle school and her being exasperated: “Why are you crying?!” And all I could say through the tears was, “I don’t knooow!!” I think I both did and didn’t know. I think I knew that what I was feeling was so deep, so personal, there were no words to express it. If I tried to use words it would betray the chasm between my deep feeling and the shallow justification I had for it. “I feel sad” never feels like enough.
I wondered if the younger sister’s references to privilege and safe spaces and the general problems of the world were interchangeable with the elongated vowels. Attempts to express ineffable feelings. Ways to give verbal weight to what was weighing so heavily on her heart. Not that I want to undermine the younger sister’s emotions or intellect, because I think safe spaces are really important and privilege is real and I have no doubt that everything “happening in the world” is affecting her badly because what’s happening in the world is bad, but she sounded like a college student who’s starting to find words and concepts to describe the pain she sees around her and so the pain of the world conflates with the pain she feels deep down and buzzwords get thrown like grenades but they don’t detonate the way you hope. They blow your mind when you first hear them because they help you understand the world (“This is why everything’s terrible!” Insert postcolonial hegemony. Insert neoliberalism. Insert heteronormative patriarchy.), but then when you try to use them in a sentence, let alone a yelling match with an older sister who thinks you’re drunk, it’s like throwing all your weight behind a balloon you think is full of water but turns out only to be full of air. It just flutters for a moment before falling at your feet, leaving you spent. When you want your words to wound, “this isn’t a safe space for me!” probably only elicits an eye roll from an older sister.
I have no idea what traumas the younger sister’s experienced and it breaks my heart to think of how much she was hurting. There could be a dark and complicated history behind what she was feeling. But I can’t help but suspect that the root of it is probably something simpler. Something so simple it’s hard to recognize, let alone admit. That you simply feel disappointed. Or ashamed. Or jealous. Or embarrassed. That you’re drunk and you’re feeling things. And you don’t want to feel alone, but you want to be alone, because your sister is judging you and you’re afraid that what she thinks of you is as bad as what you think of yourself. Which doesn’t make any of the feelings less valid, just harder to admit, because they’re the ones you can’t rationalize away.
I don’t have a sister, but I relate to feeling ashamed of my emotions and wanting to be alone. I often wish I had a cave or a car or the underneath side of a BART seat to hide away in so I can just feel what I’m feeling without having to explain myself. I try coming up with complicated justifications for my emotions that will shift responsibility onto something beyond my control, but it never works. The blame always falls back to me. For instance, I wish I had a career, but I don’t, and I feel embarrassed, because it’s my fault. I waste time. I have no discipline. I’ll only live once and I’m doing it all wrong. I like being alone so I can feel sorry for myself without having to feel other people feeling sorry for me. So I usually cry by myself in my room. I admire people like the younger sister who can wail.
I admire the older sister, too, who I probably relate to even more. She didn’t have any of the right words to say, and yet, she held her ground. She said she didn’t care, but I think what she meant to say was that she didn’t know how. It’s terrifying to not know what to do for someone who is hurting. To stand in front of the depths of someone else’s darkness and have no idea what to say, where to reach, how to wedge yourself between them and the door. Asking a loved one what they need can be as hard as asking a stranger. You have no idea if what they’ll ask of you is something you can give. It might be that all they want is words and you won’t have the right ones.
After some time, we heard the front gate open and peered out the windows on the opposite side of the apartment to see two girls leaving. Both were petite. The one in front was curvier. She had on a backpack. The one behind was thinner. She was carrying the car keys. They walked down the sidewalk and turned the corner.
I finally left the house at 7pm. The wind had picked up, but some women were still wearing shorts. There was one group of loud, college-aged women wearing very short shorts who sat down amidst the purple and pink foxgloves at the Conservatory of Flowers and wrapped their bare legs in blankets. There was another group of women wearing winter jackets and earmuffs. There were mothers in headscarves with daughters in leggings doing cartwheels and handsprings. There were two little girls in dresses wearing underwear on their heads.
One thing I’ve been trying to remind myself over the past year or so is that we can feel multiple things at the same time. More than one thing can be true at the same time. Things can be simple and also complicated. It can be heartbreaking to walk through a city of heartbroken people and have no idea what anyone needs from you. The not knowing doesn’t get easier the longer you live there. Everything is okay and not okay at all. You keep walking.
I like how the older sister said, “I don’t know you. I know you better than anyone.”
If I could, I would tell the younger sister that her older sister is right. No one will ever know her as well she knows herself and it will still not feel like enough. She will still feel alone. She won’t know how to express her feelings when she wants to and she won’t know what to say when standing in front of someone in pain. But, I think a small grace is that we get to know aspects of ourselves over time. And all that time we are getting to know ourselves, we are changing, and so we can find small joys in getting to know ourselves all over again. We might find words that help us for a while and then we’ll have to find new words. And I can’t imagine what joy there would be in life at all without new things to discover about ourselves and our families and our neighbors.