We had a town house, but we weren’t allowed to touch it. I had to be
lifted up by the armpits to peer inside. The brick façade appeared to be
cut from a single sheet, but, if you looked closely, you could see how
my father had smeared cement onto miniature bricks with a butter knife.
The town house was electric, too, modelled after its nineteen-twenties
counterpart and outfitted with stained-glass lamps and micro-editions of
“Moby-Dick” and “Jane Eyre.” There were even lights on the outside,
brass sconces that framed the doorway and cast shadows on the
perennially green hedges below.
The house I grew up in is not like this. It’s compact and boxy, built on
a cement slab and encased in vinyl siding. On the Tim Burton Sliding
Architectural Scale, it’s less “Beetlejuice,” more “Edward
Scissorhands.” Ours is one of two models of homes on the street. It’s as
if an architect approached the neighborhood the way you approach a child
at mealtime. You’re not supposed to ask a child to conjure an ideal
dinner out of thin air; you’re supposed to say “Chicken or spaghetti?”
or all hell breaks loose. The neighborhood itself is shaped like a
ladle, with four lines of streets cutting across the middle and one long
one, which bends like a handle before merging into some woods. My
parents live in the soup, surrounded by neighbors making an effort with
My whole life, my parents refused to do the decent thing and pretend
they couldn’t hear every step I took. I have never been trapped in a
bunker or a submarine, but I have to assume there’s an understanding in
these situations. These people would never survive. If I picked up the
phone in the kitchen, my father’s voice would come booming from the
basement, asking who I was calling. If I unfolded a blanket in the den,
my mother would shout down from the top floor, offering me another one.
If I passed their bedroom door, they would demand to know what I was up
to. Seems harmless enough until you know that the only room after theirs
was the bathroom.
Thus, the town house became my platonic ideal of a house. It was always
grand and peaceful. It stood in the corner of the living room, covered
with a tarp, like a birdcage. Light from the television would be visible
to any tiny people living inside. They would be able to hear my parents’
cries of “What are you watching?” as I changed the channel. But there
were no tiny people beneath the tarp. No eyes to see or ears to hear. No
one to tell me that I would one day live in Manhattan, where, if someone
follows you around, asking you who you’re calling, you can have that
A couple of decades later, I was living in a railroad apartment in
Chelsea, illegally subletting from a friend’s sister. The sister
lived in Los Angeles and I never met her, despite repeated offers to
meet whenever I happened to be in L.A. This was for her benefit,
not mine. If it were me, I’d want to vet me. But I never heard back from
her. I never heard from her at all, actually. One time the peephole fell
out, a thing I did not realize peepholes could do—just dislodge
themselves and come thudding onto the floor like a car part. I wrote to
her, explaining what had happened. No response. Eventually, I taped the
receipt for a new peephole to my reduced rent check, which she cashed
without a—well, you know. The second I saw her name appear on my phone,
I knew I was getting evicted.
Not wanting to stray too far from home, I paid a broker to find me a
place nearby. In the easiest gig of that guy’s already unchallenging
career, we walked nine blocks south, to a prewar building, the kind with
a name engraved above the awning, but none of the residents could tell
you what it was. The broker unlocked the door to a
six-hundred-square-foot one-bedroom on the second floor that had been
recently occupied by a boy (the clothes pole in the closet was missing).
But the moldings were thick enough to double as bookshelves, and the
view was unreal. Tulip trees shaded a row of the private back yards of
town houses. Cherry-blossom detritus drizzled in the wind. A blue jay
landed on the fire escape. It was the first apartment I saw, I could
barely afford it, and I took it immediately.
The West Village is a ridiculous place to call home. People with
unseemly bank accounts spend thousands of dollars freshening the
flowerpots on their stoops. Rosebushes, hydrangeas, pansies, and
zinnias—all casually exposed to marauding vagrants. Except there are no
vagrants, not even marauding ones. It’s a generationally diverse area,
but otherwise it’s as removed from reality as a movie set. Celebrities’
kids skip along the pavement, backpacks twice their size bobbing up and
down. One of the houses visible from my apartment is owned by an elderly
couple. The woman likes to tell guests how Hilary Swank used to climb a
fence and exit through their house in order to avoid the paparazzi.
Down the block and around the clock, people take photos of the façade of
Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment in “Sex and the City.” Submitting to their
fate, the real owners have installed a donation box on behalf of a local
animal shelter, to collect a contribution for every photo taken. These
tourists’ heads would explode like a bomb full of nicotine patches if
they knew that Sarah Jessica Parker herself lives around the corner. I
can’t help but wonder what she feels when she walks past Carrie’s
building. It must be like driving past your high school—at once
everything and nothing.
I only cared about the celebrities the way all New Yorkers care about
celebrities: I ignored them or, if they were especially famous,
congratulated myself for ignoring them. The real draw of the
neighborhood was the quiet. And not just any kind of quiet. Here, in the
heart of Manhattan, was a pod of that suburban silence that had eluded
me as a child. You could hear a pin drop in my bedroom—on the bed. Early
mornings, I listened to the heckling of seagulls that had strayed inland
from the Hudson River. On warm evenings, a cellist sat on the street
corner with his case open. When it rained, water pelted the leaves
outside my enchanted tree house.
And then one day the leaves dropped and Jared came out. Jared lived in
the town house directly behind my apartment. He must have been on summer
vacation or touring Europe by colonial rickshaw when I moved in. Jared
was between fifteen and eighteen years old. It was impossible to tell. I
could never get a good read on his height, as his resting state was
slouched in a lawn chair, watching viral videos on his phone at full
volume. And I never heard him say stuff like “Looks like I can be
legally tried as an adult now” despite being someone for whom the
distinction was clearly relevant.
How do I begin to explain my relationship with this creature? Is it a
relationship if you’ve never met? Certainly this is an acceptable
dynamic online, but played out in real life it’s called stalking. All
five of the windows in my apartment faced Jared’s house. And, for as
many years, I heard every word this kid said. I would like to tell you
that his woes were typical of his age bracket: unrequited crushes,
parental oppression, social strife. But Jared had no woes. Plato advised
us to be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, but I am
here to tell you that I have witnessed Plato’s exception. Jared’s
battles centered around selecting the right surfboard (for show or for
use at a beach house, both equally abhorrent) and the occasional
obligation to come inside and set the table. And that he didn’t have to do, so long as he ignored the sound of his own name. Jewish guilt is
no match for teen-age entitlement.
I rarely saw the father, who was probably off somewhere devaluing my
401(k). The little sister was shy and kept to herself. The mother was an
upscale fashion photographer. She had a Susan Sontag streak in her hair
and doled out advice like “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Occasionally, she would pace in the back yard, phone in hand, all puffed
up about some dead-eyed model. But for the most part the yard was
Jared’s domain—a place to smoke cigarettes, molest a guitar, and throw
Lest you think I don’t know what I signed up for by living on the most
densely populated slip of land in America, rest assured that I do. There
are sounds one learns to accept, even to be lulled by on occasion.
Jackhammers that emerge seasonally and peck at the concrete like
oversized woodpeckers. Screaming matches that make you grateful you’re
not one of the two people in that relationship. I have lived over d.j.s,
newborn babies, sheet-metal sculptors, and Ping-Pong patios. In Chelsea,
I lived above a piano player who practiced scales. When I could stand it
no longer, I sheepishly knocked on his door. He apologized and vowed
never to practice scales in the house again. Which is how I wound up
listening to “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” every day for a year.
But Jared’s noise was different. It did not disrupt me, because
disruption implies separation of activity, the intervening of outside
elements. Rather, Jared’s world became my world. I was paying rent like
a single person but living with an entire family in what amounted to an
inaccessible wing of my apartment. Every afternoon, Jared and his
friends returned home from whatever educational womb they attended and
clunked down the back-yard steps, blaring music and demonstrating
familiarity with one another’s last names. Jared was quick to laugh,
which would have been his best quality were it not for the laugh’s
resemblance to a hyena being choked to death by bubble wrap. His cackle
was like one of those purposefully ugly sculptures, the kind of art that
considers your irritation an accomplishment. Really, I can’t say enough
bad things about it.
Smell is reportedly the strongest trigger of memory, but let us not
underestimate the bone-chilling power of sound. The sound of cigarettes
being packed against a table. The sound of tracks being skipped. The
sound of a porch door banging. These were the harbingers, the sounds of
my torturers clearing their throats. Sometimes Jared would leave the
music on after he left, a tactic generally employed by war criminals.
But mostly he and his friends stayed put, multiplying like gremlins.
Does it seem like I was spying? I was and I wasn’t. This was not so much
a “Rear Window” situation as it was a window situation. If I was home, I
was on an involuntary stakeout. If I was out, some perverse part of me
hoped they would be in the yard when I returned, because then I could
stop worrying about them being in the yard. Anthropologically, I was
fascinated. Never in my life have I had a social circle as wide or as
regular as Jared’s. Then again, I also have never lived in a five-story
town house. It’s hard to say how much the house itself factored into
Jared’s popularity. Surely his cohorts—preppy boys with laughs that died
in their throats, and coltish girls with sea-level self-esteem—slumbered
in comparable accommodations.
Very occasionally it was just Jared, alone in the back yard, pouring out
the decibels. The mother would appear at the top of the stairs, mumbling
something about homework. And he’d tell her to fuck off, which she fully
deserved. Jared was a menace, true, but who had let him get that way? I
remember with a haunting clarity lying in bed one night, being kept
conscious by Biggie Smalls, when the mother screamed Jared’s name. My
heart fluttered. Finally. An adult. An authority figure. A savior with
her finger on the allowance button.
“Jared!” she shrieked. “Where’d you put the corkscrew?”
Of course I did. Of course I asked them to be quiet. Hey, guys, sorry
to be a buzzkill, but can you keep it down? Hey, guys, can you take it
inside your mansion, because I have nowhere to run? To which they
apologized in a tone that suggested “sorry” was more of a password than
a feeling. So I bought a white-noise machine and fancy headphones. I
slept on my side to deafen one chosen ear. None of it worked. Finally, I
bit the bullet and called 311, a placebo service for cranks on the
brink. Operators forward complaints to local police precincts, at which
point the police have eight hours to take action, assuming they’re done
mocking you. Also: An eight-hour window? Even Jared didn’t party from
midnight until 8 A.M. He lived in a town house, not a warehouse.
I pretended to write down my service-request number because, for some
reason, it’s impossible to admit you don’t want your service-request
number. Alas, help was never sent—a bad sign for me, a worse one for my
fellow-citizens who actually needed it.
I resented Jared for turning me into a curmudgeon before my time. I was
not old enough to be so angry, to delude myself into thinking I would be
the one to teach these pesky kids a lesson. But the feeling of
powerlessness was all-consuming. They were like cicadas without the
bonus years of dormancy. The whole family worked in shifts. Between 7
and 8 A.M., their yapping terrier was released so that it could give
every stick of lawn furniture a piece of its mind. Before noon, a
housekeeper came to collect the previous night’s beer bottles, tossing
them in a garbage bag. Then Jared and his friends would emerge, well
rested, recapping the night while the sister sat worshipfully at their
feet. Later that afternoon, she practiced her dance routines. I couldn’t
One day, I decided to cut out the middleman. I marched into the local
police station myself. I made an errand out of it: grocery shopping,
check. Laundry, check. Quick narc run, check. A sympathetic cop
scribbled her direct extension on the back of a blank parking ticket. It
felt electric in my hand. When Jared threw a party the next night, I
unfolded the ticket.
“They might be the worst people of their generation,” I told her,
gilding the pity lily.
After a mere hour, I peered out the window to see the cop standing in
Jared’s doorway. The floor-to-ceiling windows on either side of the house
meant that I could see straight through it, to the glossy doors of more
town houses. Jared, stripped of his bravado by a woman in uniform,
slumped his shoulders and shut the door. The music stopped. The chatter
ceased. I flipped my pillow to the cooler side.
I woke several hours later to the choral opening of “You Can’t Always
Get What You Want.” My subconscious had tried to incorporate this second
wave of the party into my dreams. But my subconscious had done all it
could. It was time to deliver me unto reality.
Weeks turned into months. I started keeping a notebook by my bed:
Jared spits grapes into the air and tries to catch them in his mouth.
Jared feels like he’s seen some pictures of your dick from the eighth
Jared has decided tequila gives you diarrhea. Jared thinks this is some
Cheech and Chong shit. Jared has discovered jazz.
By documenting his activities, I thought perhaps I could trick myself
into thinking I had signed up for this. Like a scientist observing a
nocturnal creature. Or I’d try to offset the hot rage coursing through
my veins by envisioning scenarios in which Jared’s existence served to
bolster mine. You know what I need? I need to Windex every surface of my
apartment at 4 A.M. Thanks, Jared, for saving me the trouble of setting
an alarm or buying drugs of my own.
The woman who lived in the apartment next to mine did not have the box
seats I did, but she did have a four-month-old baby. I asked her if the
people in the back ever bothered her.
“Oh, you mean Jared?” she groaned. “When we moved in, he was still a
little kid. I thought he was so cute, playing in the back yard. But you
know what they say about tiger cubs.”
“What do they say?”
“Don’t adopt tiger cubs.”
I felt the pulse of their lives steadily behind me. Not just physically
behind me but in time. I was watching them go through their formative
years. (Some had lost their virginity, some were just pretending.) I was
waiting for them to grow up, desperate for the glue to set, for the clay
to dry, for the inexorable metamorphosis that would bring about their
conscious selves. But I couldn’t keep waiting without getting older
myself. Their very existence highlighted my own aging in a way that
jarred me. Before Jared, only events in my own life—a friend’s marriage,
a sick parent, the twentieth anniversary of a seminal movie—had
triggered ruminations on the passage of time. Which meant that, despite
the stresses of aging, I had always had a manageable view of it. I
reflected at will. But after Jared my own mortality could smack me in
the face at random. If I was in a good mood when I heard him, I found
myself eager to learn something from his youth and to be reminded of my
own. If I was in a bad mood, I never wanted to hear from a person so
much as a day younger than me so long as I lived.
Holding on to resentment is like letting someone take up space in your
brain rent-free, and my rent was pretty high as it was. But I couldn’t
help it. I talked about Jared to strangers, to editors, to physicians,
to hairdressers and bus drivers. O.K., one bus driver. But I think we
can all agree that’s one too many. I talked about Jared with people I
admired—people who I meant to tell how much I loved their work but all
that came out was Jared vomit. I talked about him at book fairs, in
towns and cities across the land. I went on “CBS This Morning” to
discuss an Op-Ed I had written, but Jared had kept me up the night
before, teaching himself to play “Go On with Your Bad Self” on the
guitar. So I talked about him with Charlie Rose.
Out of helpfulness or exasperation, friends floated suggestions. “Why
“Shoot them?” I interrupted. “I can’t shoot them—”
It hadn’t occurred to me. Rather, it had occurred to me that murder was
more of an option than moving—a true test of a New Yorker if there ever
was one. I was fully aware there were other apartments I could live in,
other boroughs I could go to. But to live in New York is to weigh your
traumas, and moving is a formidable one. Plus, while I might not have
been here first, I was here truest. I respected my apartment. I did not
litter it with beer cans and try to set the furniture on fire. Instead,
I begged for mercy. Please be quiet. Please please please. I did this
sparingly, concerned about its diminishing effects but mostly concerned
about something utterly mortifying: Jared’s impression of me.
Jared was cool. He just was. What’s worse, he plugged into some residual
teen-age part of me that wanted to be cool, too. At first I dismissed
him as “high-school cool.” Naturally, other teen-agers laughed at his
lewd jokes—their bars were just as low. But signs of Jared’s enduring
cool were emerging. For starters, the kid had great taste in music. You
know what they say: if I can Shazam you, you’re too close. Yet, even as
I wanted to destroy him, I would nonchalantly reach my phone into the
air. The Velvet Underground. Nina Simone. The Black Angels. Townes van
Zandt. Charlotte Gainsbourg (who lived across the street). He had access
to every hot spot in the city and would make plans to patronize places I
had only seen in passing. Meanwhile, he started to diversify his
friends. The milquetoast-looking blonds in Irish fisherman sweaters
still appeared, but so did black guys with white sneakers, Hispanic
girls with red sneakers, and one guy with a Mohawk. They were like the
American Dream come to life, friends united by a force stronger than
acceptance: money. And their banter improved. They had heated political
debates. The girls doted on the younger sister, offering to stylize her.
They teased a friend who had been in a commercial about his “bullshit
Whom would they listen to now? Who could reason with them? I’d fantasize
about morphing into Chris Rock or Karlie Kloss. I’ll tell you what: if
Karlie Kloss lifted my window wearing boy shorts and a tank top and
asked them to be quiet, they’d shut up right quick. Once, and this was a
real low point, I dressed up to tell them to be quiet. I let my hair
down and put on bright lipstick and a V-neck top, markers of
authoritative attractiveness meant to be seen from a distance, pathetic
signals that I knew from chill, that my threshold for fun was high. But
by the time I opened the window they had vanished. I leaned out into the
open air. Had my dreams of their alien abduction come true? I raised my
head to see the whole group had migrated to the kitchen, at least seven
of them. Silhouettes of branches framed the picture. They were dancing,
arms up, hips pinballing back and forth, hair swaying. Jared entered
with a bag of ice, put the ice on the kitchen island, and spun one of
the girls, dipping her below my sight line.
She came up, laughing. And for a full minute I was so in love with all
of them, I almost couldn’t stand it.
Around this time, I began dating a younger and emotionally unavailable
man who was completely wrong for me in every way but anatomically. So I
fell for him. This fellow had been smacked in the face by the lucky
stick, whereas I was pretty sure I felt it go whizzing past my ear once.
Like Jared, he had grown up in Manhattan, though the upper part. He had
Jared’s surface-level deference that passed for manners, the sort of
verbal salve that kept you from ever calling him an asshole because he
did things like pick you up at your door. Like Jared, he was raised in a
bubble of privilege. There’s a bench in Central Park with his name on
it, a baby gift. But, unlike Jared, he had the years and the sense to
try to pop the bubble with duct-tape-repaired furniture and self-funded
travel to war zones. He winced at the suggestion that the universe had
conspired to make his life easier, which was a huge tell— people less
privileged are comfortable with acknowledging when they’ve had luck,
because of all the times they haven’t.
One evening, after I failed to properly close my bedroom blinds, Jared
and his friends caught a glimpse of us naked.
“What’s the relationship?” he shouted up, making a megaphone of his
“You have to admit,” the emotionally unavailable man said, “that’s some
Staying low, I opened the window farther. “Shut up, Jared!” I snapped.
Jared’s friends snorted and slapped the table.
“Oh, shit, man,” one of them said. “She knows your name!”
It was the first time I’d used his name, a treat I had been saving for
myself. I lay on my back and grinned at the ceiling. The emotionally
unavailable man had already gotten dressed. He was paparazzi-sensitive,
having twice caught ex-girlfriends taking pictures of his aggressively
pretty face when they thought he was asleep.
“Jared thinks the streets of London are paved with ‘Harry Potter’ jizz,”
“What?” I asked, propping myself up on my elbows.
He had my notebook in his hands. I dismissed it as “notes” and he
shrugged, incurious. If he had flipped the page he would have seen,
written “Redrum” style: “Jared: Why won’t you graduate?” I had begun
monitoring Jared’s conversation for words like “application” and “early
decision.” Clearly, he was old enough to have friends who had graduated.
Recently, a girl had come over for dinner, and Jared’s mother asked how
she was liking college.
“It’s O.K.,” the girl said. “I just haven’t found my friend group yet.”
Good, I thought. You’re learning. You are not prepared for a world
beyond Jared’s back yard. You will inevitably seek shelter in others who
are exactly like you, who know everything you know and nothing you
don’t, but I pray, for your sake, you never find them.
“Welp,” the mother assured her. “Keep at it. You guys are our future.”
That night, she hosted a birthday party for her assistant. Adult voices
flooded the yard. Motown bumped against my walls.
At midnight, the wife half of the old couple leaned over their shared
fence and asked the mother if she wouldn’t mind keeping it down.
“It’s our property, Carol,” the mother shot back. “We can do what we
I decided to write them a letter. I didn’t write the d.j. or the pianist
or the newborn baby a letter. But for all my disgust I still believed we
were made of the same fundamental stuff. I had seen the mother
grocery-shopping, and she didn’t cut the line or snap at anyone. She
exchanged pleasantries with the cashier and left. Be kind, I thought,
for some of the people you meet are using the same organic dishwashing
liquid. I believed that if they understood the impact of their actions,
if they really understood, we could live in something like harmony.
I edited the letter for typos and insanity and crept around the block. I
stood, looking at their gold mail slot, double-checking to be sure I
hadn’t flubbed the geography. The letter hated to bother them. The
letter suggested that, due to acoustics, it was possible that the
residents of my building heard their music better than they did. An easy
thing not to realize! The letter wanted to make them aware of the
situation, lest they accidentally recite their bank-account numbers. Ha!
The letter emphasized that it had never been written before. The letter
signed off on behalf of the residents of my entire building. This was
quite weaselly of the letter.
I returned to my apartment just in time for Jared and his mother to
arrive home from taking the dog for a walk. What a stroke of luck, I
thought, to be able to witness them open it, to see the distraught looks
on their faces. The mother held a dog leash in one hand and the letter
in the other. Jared read over her shoulder. Both our windows were
closed, so I could not hear the peals of their laughter.
“What if he goes to N.Y.U.?” the emotionally unavailable man asked. “Or
We were standing at my living-room window. Jared’s parents had covered
the yard in grass earlier that day. When Jared got home from school, he
sprawled out like a Middle Eastern child who has never seen snow. A
group of his peers, whom Jared referred to as “the cavalry,” had come
over to admire the grass.
“Maybe he won’t get in,” I said.
It was too horrible to contemplate. Besides, Jared never seemed to study
or demonstrate flares of brilliance.
“You realize that’s irrelevant.”
Takes one to know one, I thought.
“Looks like fun,” he said.
“No, it doesn’t,” I replied, even though it did, it looked very fun.
“I don’t think this is going to work out,” the emotionally unavailable
man, his back to the window, said. He broke up with me that night,
moving from emotionally unavailable to regular unavailable. Even at the
height of our romance, I knew it would end like this. I could sense that
I was a novelty, one of the many life experiences he was collecting en
route to something else. But knowing didn’t soften the blow. If
anything, it made things worse. In my grief, I started hating Jared on a
heretofore untold level. Jared was the raw, unadulterated version of
this person who had hurt my feelings. These were people with too many
escape valves built into their lives. There would always be another
party, another school, another house, another country, another woman. I
felt the moral responsibility of a time traveller. If I could just stop
Jared from being the person he is now, I thought, he could become a
better person later. Sure, he might break a heart or two, nobody’s
fault, but maybe he would be more torn up about it.
Armed with this larger sense of purpose, I became less preoccupied with
cajoling Jared into silence. This was a good thing. But I also became
vengeful, which was a bad thing. I’d figure out what song he was playing
and play the same song twice as loud on a three-second delay. I’d
pretend to be an emergency-room doctor, lifting my window and announcing
that I had to be at the hospital in two hours. They were putting other
people’s lives in danger. Once I egged his house after he went to bed.
“Maturity” and “legality” were abstract notions behind my threadbare
eyelids. A couple of the eggs landed on lawn-chair cushions without
cracking. If only I could be more like those eggs.
As Jared barrelled toward graduation, he somehow got worse. The
neighbors on his side of the street chimed in, their fuses growing
shorter as well. The chastising was more effective coming from people
who didn’t have to shout from a different tax bracket. But these
temporary silences could no longer satiate me. I wanted more. I wanted
dark things. I wanted the parents to lose their jobs and sell the house.
I wanted the kids to go to military school. I wanted to tase the dog in
the throat. I wanted monsters to rise up from the earth and munch on
Jared is not keeping me from my work. Jared is my work.
Sensing I was not, in the classic sense, “hinged,” my friend Charlotte
attempted to cheer me up. I assured her that I was not as torn up over
the emotionally unavailable man as I appeared to be. She didn’t believe
me. I was a wreck. Just look at me. I shouldn’t lose a wink of sleep
over some immature guy. She was more right than she knew.
She insisted I accompany her to an opening at an art gallery, where I
didn’t know many people and I didn’t feel like meeting anyone. Which led
me to drink. Which led me to spend a whole three minutes contemplating a
sculpture that turned out to be a folding chair. Maybe I really should
move, I thought. It was an emergency option, but what do you call this?
My tree house had become haunted with teen-age ghouls and heartache
And that’s when I saw them. Flanking the floor of the gallery was a row
of massive spotlights. I approached them slowly and crouched down.
Mesmerized, I touched the hot rim of one, following its path up the
wall. The light stretched all the way to the ceiling.
“What are you doing?” Charlotte asked, smiling tightly at an approaching
I looked up at her, pivoting on my toes until my knees were parallel
with her legs.
“Hi,” I said.
“Why are you grinning like that?”
“Grinning like what?” I asked, having lost all control of my face.
A product description for a six-hundred-watt halogen light:
This light can be set on the ground or a rooftop and aimed in the
direction of the workspace. This light can also be used to powerfully
illuminate a campground or construction site. Ideal for when you need
to finish off a project.
“What do you have,” the hardware-store cashier asked, “a possum?”
I smiled and cocked my head. This was a very specific guess. But he took
one look at a non-unionized woman in a sundress, sporting a canvas tote,
and went straight to “possum.” In return, I explained the Jared
situation—the cashier threw in an on-off switch for free.
“You got an outlet by your bed?”
“O.K.,” he said, conspiratorially, “plug the extension cord into this,
and you plug this into the outlet and flick the switch. So you don’t
have to get up. You can just roll over and fuck ’em.”
I never thought I would be so pleased to hear those words from a man.
I rushed home, high on revenge, exhilarated by the prospect of a new
medium. Jared didn’t deserve to hear the sound of my voice. I put one
light outside on the fire escape, running the cord under my
bedroom-window screen, and a second one on a stool in my kitchen. Then I
got into bed and waited. I checked the time. He should be home any
minute now. But that night I fell asleep to the sound of the breeze
rustling through the trees. Same thing happened the next night. And the
next, and the next. Screw you, breeze. What have you done with my
I left town for work, planning to take the lights down when I returned.
In theory, I should have been grateful. My long night of terror had
ended with a whimper—but at least it had ended. That should have been
good enough. But my life at that moment was populated by men who had
hurt me, and my vigilante streak wanted to take just one of them out.
Walking up my stairs, sifting through a week’s worth of catalogues, I
ran into my neighbor. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her baby was wailing.
“I might have to kill them all,” she said, her voice cracking. “He’s
back?” I asked, trying to temper my glee.
“No,” she said. “Not him—her.”
My dreams of Jared going off to college had, unceremoniously, come to
pass. Or perhaps there had been a ceremony. Perhaps a graduation rager
had taken place, and I hadn’t been home for it. It didn’t matter. The
sister had ascended the throne of torment with gusto. Years of
watching Jared and his friends had taught her everything she needed to
know. The sister’s friends—younger, wilder, louder—made Jared’s look
like a prayer circle. They had inherited Jared’s playlist, but beyond
that it was just a sea of ill-formed estrogen. The sister’s cavalry was
into shit like daring one another to throw bottles against the house and
setting off fireworks. Clumps of girls spread out on the grass, taking
selfies, contemplating future tattoos, failing to have seen the movie
“For Valentine’s Day, my mom got my dad strippers,” the sister bragged.
“They did flaming shots out of their assholes, and now my mom is, like,
best friends with the strippers.”
I closed my eyes and felt the corners of my lips curl. I washed my face
and brushed my teeth. I flossed. Then I got into bed, rolled over, and
Their yard lit up as if a helicopter were preparing to land on it.
“What the hell?!” they cried, confused and squinting.
“Turn that off!” they cried.
“That’s annoying us!” they cried.
One of them called me a cunt, which I did not think they had in them. It
takes a certain kind of girl to bypass “bitch.” Because they were
animals, they threw rocks, and because they were drunk, they missed. The
sister tried to reclaim her authority by deploying the only logic in her
“It’s our property!” she shouted. “We can do what we want!”
I yawned. In the months to come, I would reward good behavior with
darkness, but that night I left the lights on, even after they admitted
defeat and went inside.
There was a pleasant, almost celestial glow that illuminated my
apartment. This was the light bouncing off their windows and into mine.
I thought of the evening I saw Jared and his friends dancing in their
kitchen, of how gorgeously happy they all looked. I tried mustering some
of that old generosity of spirit, but whatever heartstrings had tied my
world to theirs had gone slack. Questions drifted through my fading
consciousness: Would the sister call her brother at college and tell him
about this? Would he be impressed by the enemy’s tactics? And, really,
who cared? I couldn’t be bothered to worry about what people like that
thought of me anymore. Their lives were out there, and mine was in here.
They were forever behind me in time, as unable to catch up as I was to
wait for them. All around me the shadows of tree branches stretched
across the walls—branches that lived only because they were connected to
a trunk in Jared’s yard.
This essay is taken from “Look Alive Out There: Essays by Sloane Crosley,” to be published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, next month.