Forum — From the August 2013 issue

Neighbors

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Maximilian in the basement watched TV every night. I lay on a mattress on the floor in the apartment above him. He’d turn on the news around ten, fall asleep, and leave it going all night.

Once, I visited a couple who lived next door to a circus. It was loud, but even so, a whole circus — animals, ringleader, crowd — was quieter than Maximilian’s thundering TV. And yet, his apartment had no electricity. This was Albany Park, Chicago, 1999: broken windows, broken doorbells, balky hot water, apartments partitioned in two, apartments formed in unfinished, unwired spaces. Maximilian powered his TV by an extension cord that ran up the basement stairs into the entryway and attached to a light. When I’d had enough, I’d go down and unplug it. He’d wake, shout in confusion, then fall back asleep. If this is the worst it gets, I thought, well, I can handle it. Then Maximilian’s girlfriend came back, and it got much, much worse.

I went down to unplug the TV and the cord was gone. After that, the TV roared on all night, every night.

I’d moved back to Chicago that year full of hope, but nothing was working out. I was broke and tired all the time. I had several part-time jobs that I hated. My family told me over and over that I was wasting my life. I couldn’t understand where Dorothy and Maximilian were getting electricity all of a sudden.

Then they started fighting. I understood pretty quickly that they’d been through this before, because when you fight with someone you’ve never fought with, you start small — a bang on the table, a single shout, a slammed door. You have to work up to sustained screaming.

Sleeplessness can do a number on you: it’s not just the agony and boredom of lying there all night. It’s the daytime weariness that follows, that self-protective, energy-conserving posture you assume in daylight. It goes on too long and that posture becomes your personality.

I don’t know if I can even describe the sound of Dorothy’s screaming. She sounded like a black-metal band with no band, just the shrieking lead singer, that awful, throat-tearing, exorcist scream; a scream that opens a hole in your brain that seems to fill and overflow with a white liquid, and you can feel it spreading and coating and killing. She could scream like that for hours, while Maximilian whined and pleaded. I tugged my mattress from one end of the apartment to the other — they never fought in the day — trying to get away.

I saw Maximilian on the stairs.

“Maximilian,” I said, “that was too much noise last night.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

I don’t know why he called me ma’am. I hated it, and I hated him: scrawny fellow, strung out, misspent, shaking.

“Maximilian,” I said, “do you think you are making good choices or bad choices?”

“Bad choices, ma’am,” he said.

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is the author, most recently, of the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt).

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