Love your neighbor as yourself.
— Matthew 22:39
IT WAS snowing that morning as we left for church, the white sky spitting flakes, enough to dust the car but not enough to cover the dirty snow at the side of the road, the bare patches of dead lawn. It was January in Ames, Iowa, when snow no longer has its fluffy Christmas novelty and simply becomes another cold, hard fact of life.
To get from the front door of our apartment building — a converted house built in 1900 — to the parking lot in the back, you had to cut through the lawn beneath the cypress trees that were the last remnant of what had once been a locally famous garden. That morning as my husband, Ben, and I walked by the side of the house, I happened to look up at the second story and notice that our neighbors’ kitchen window was open. The window was dark. A filmy white curtain flitted in and out of it.
In the two months since they’d moved in, our new neighbors in Apartment 5 had often kept their window open, even in the cold, because they were smokers and it was a nonsmoking building. They’d taken out the screen and would sit on the sill and throw the crushed butts onto the lawn below. We shared three thin walls with them, which meant we also shared the sounds of lovemaking and music, the clatter of pots and pans, and the smell of their cigarettes. Ben and I kept meaning to complain to Caitlin, our property manager, about the smoke, but we never got around to it. We didn’t like to make trouble in general, and we didn’t like her in particular.
It was not unusual for the window to be open when our neighbors were home, but our neighbors weren’t home that morning, or else they were still asleep. I knew this because, while our morning coffee had been brewing, I’d pressed my ear against one of our shared walls and listened. And so I was surprised when I saw the open window, dark and empty like a gaping mouth.
They left the window open, I thought, but I did not say anything. Ben already had our car warmed up and was waiting for me. We went to church. We got on with our day.
That window haunts me now — the wind blowing snow into the apartment, the fluttering white curtain. It was still open that evening after the police had come and gone. It stayed open for days.
MAYBE THINGS would have turned out differently if Bachmeier Financial, the company that owned our building, hadn’t hired Caitlin in the first place. For the longest time Ben and I didn’t even know what she looked like. We used to bring our rent to Pam, Bachmeier’s sweet receptionist, who’d put our check in her desk drawer and ask us how our grad studies were going or when we were going to have kids, and how about those Cyclones? Then one day we received a formal notice informing us that the property would now be managed by Caitlin, and we were to send our rent to a downtown address that turned out to be a payday-loan place, where she was the manager. In the six months that followed, we never actually saw Caitlin, who didn’t seem to visit the property except to secretly post terse memos on everyone’s door, on letterhead and full of typos, about thermostats and bicycles. Pam had never cared where we kept our bikes.
The other reason Ben and I didn’t like Caitlin was because of a particular memo she’d posted on our door, accusing us of not having paid rent one month and threatening to begin eviction proceedings. In fact, Bachmeier had cashed our check the day before it had been due. The next morning Ben and I had left a copy of the canceled check with an employee at the loan store, and even then, instead of apologizing for her error, Caitlin had called to ask in a condescending tone that we pay our rent after the due date so she wouldn’t get confused.
And maybe things would have turned out differently if the woman in Apartment 5 hadn’t been so rude and unfriendly. We’d never seen the man who lived there, just his fiancée, a skinny brunette in black business attire who never once returned my greeting when we passed on the stairs. This is not acceptable behavior in Iowa, where strangers still say hello when they pass each other on the street. The couple next door also hosted frequent loud parties on weeknights. In Iowa people warn their neighbors when they’re going to have a party, and most of the time they invite them over.
About a month after she and her fiancé had moved in, the woman next door got into a huge fight with our downstairs neighbor, Deb. I was partial to Deb and her husband, Tim, in no small part because they had adorable twin babies for me to coo over. After the twins had been born, Deb and Tim had taken to parking in the only spot close to the front door. This spot had traditionally been reserved for the resident who’d lived in the building the longest. So, theoretically, it belonged to Ben and me, but we were happy to let them park there. It was winter, and they had two tiny infants in car seats to ferry into the house. Who wouldn’t have let them have that parking spot? Our new neighbor in Apartment 5, it turned out. She pounded on Deb’s door one snowy night to tell her to move her car. When Deb wouldn’t, the woman screamed so loud that we could hear her upstairs, “You fucking bitch, that’s my spot! That’s my spot!”
If you’d asked me, she was a bitch. Maybe things would have turned out differently if I hadn’t thought of her that way. But her behavior seemed inexcusable, especially coming from someone we knew to be a mother herself; every other week a young girl who called her “Mom” came to stay with her.
The day after the argument, a memo from Caitlin appeared on everyone’s door: “The parking spot at the front is reserved for Bachmeier personnel only.”
And maybe that’s when we should have realized that Caitlin and our new neighbor were actually one and the same person. But we didn’t, and Caitlin didn’t say anything — not even the night we called her to tell her that the man in Apartment 5 was ripping the place apart.
IT STARTED around eight at night with one of their usual parties: groups of people hammering on the front door of the building, clomping up and down the stairs, leaning on their doorbell, ringing ours by mistake. The kitchen window was open, and the smell of smoke — tobacco and the other kind — wafted into our apartment. Women in low-cut tops sat on the landing outside our door to text and gossip. It was a typical party for Apartment 5, until it ended abruptly around 10. Two tipsy women walked down the stairs in their high heels, their voices echoing through the building.
“He’s such a dick when he’s like this.”
The front door opened, then closed behind them. The building was silent.
“I guess it’s over?” I said to Ben. But the quiet didn’t last long.
“WHAT THE FUCK?” the man in Apartment 5 suddenly roared. We heard him open his door and shout into the empty stairwell, “FUCK YOU!”
Then came the sound of something heavy hitting a wall or a floor. Ben and I looked at each other.
There was another crash, a thump, and the shatter of glass. Our walls shook. The dishes rattled, and a candle fell from our bathroom shelf. Our dachshund ran into his crate to hide.
We listened as our neighbor pulled stacks of dishes from his shelves and threw them to the floor: a percussive pop, then the sharp tinkle of ceramic shards.
We wondered if we should call the cops. We pressed our ears against the walls to make sure his fiancée and her little girl weren’t home. We didn’t hear them. We would have called the police if we had.
I’m pretty sure I was the one who said, “A man’s got a right to tear up his own house, right? He’s not hurting anyone.”
We thought of knocking on his door to check on him, but then something smashed against it.
There had been other dramatic events in our building, including a lovers’ quarrel that had culminated in a kicked-down door. (We had called the police for that one.) But there had never been anything quite like this. Ben and I listened to our neighbor rage the way we might listen to a thunderstorm coming across the plains.
The sounds moved from left to right across the apartment and back again. Crash! Thump! “God! Fuck! FUCK!”
I called Deb. Tim picked up. They were listening to it, too. We debated whether to call 911, but we all agreed: a man had a right to tear up his own apartment.
Finally we decided to call Caitlin. After all, Bachmeier’s property was being damaged, too.
Even her hello sounded vaguely hostile. There was another crash from next door. I asked her if I should call the cops.
“No. Don’t call the police. I’ll take care of it.”
She hung up before I could say thank you.
She didn’t take care of it. The noises continued, long after you’d have thought there was nothing left in a small apartment to break. Finally there was one loud crash. Then silence.
“Do you know what a gunshot sounds like?” I asked Ben.
“No,” he said.
That question continues to bother me, four years later. The noise hadn’t been that different from the other sounds we’d heard. Maybe it was just a little louder. Yet I’d immediately thought: gunshot. On some unconscious level the thought had crossed my mind. It had occurred to me that our neighbor — I didn’t even know his name — might kill himself that night.
THE NEXT morning, as we got ready for church, I pressed my ear against the wall one last time. Nothing stirred. Outside, I saw that open window, the white curtain against the dark interior.
I had my phone silenced during church, so I didn’t hear Deb’s call when it came. She left a message in a shaky voice: something bad had happened with the man in Apartment 5, but she didn’t say what.
“I think our neighbor killed himself,” I told Ben when I hung up. “We should have called 911.”
There were two police cars on the street when we got home. A minivan, unremarkable except for its tinted windows and Coroner’s Department painted on the side, was parked in the spot by the front door.
As we made our way toward the building, an officer came out. He was tall, ginger-haired, younger than I was. He interviewed us on the sidewalk, taking notes on a steno pad as the cold seeped around my scarf and down my shirt. His silver badge distracted me. So did the gun holstered at his hip. So did the two men wheeling out a black body bag on a stretcher.
“If I’d called the police,” I asked at the end of the interview, my bare hands balled into fists in my coat pockets, “do you think that would have made a difference?”
The officer seemed to weigh his words carefully. I would notice people doing this a lot over the next few days before they decided to tell me that it hadn’t been my fault. It is the standard thing we say to those left behind by a suicide — loved ones, colleagues, neighbors. But I stopped believing it that afternoon, standing in the icy wind.
The policeman finally spoke, putting away his notebook. “Maybe. Maybe not. But usually if you think you should call the police, you should call. That’s what we’re here for.”
I took that as a yes. Yes, it would have made a difference.
In the building the foyer lightbulb was out, as usual, and the stairwell was dark. We knocked on Deb’s door, but no one answered. The stairs smelled vaguely like a hospital: disinfectant, the iron smell of blood. On one step was the empty plastic packaging from a cotton swab.
I touched the dead man’s door as I passed. There was nothing to suggest the violence that had taken place behind it.
A few minutes later Ben and I walked to the grocery store, where old men with sagging pants were buying canned soup and Swanson’s frozen dinners, and moms wrangled their children down the cereal aisle. I picked out a white rose from a bucket by the register: just one, wrapped in flimsy plastic with a bright-orange price tag on it.
When we got home, I placed it next to the door of Apartment 5.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
THAT EVENING the dead man’s fiancée sat on the porch by our building’s front door. She was the same woman who had passed us haughtily on the stairs, but this time her eyes were red and teary, her face bleached by grief. It was a cold night, and she wore only a thin white T-shirt.
“Thank you for the flower,” she said as I approached. Her voice was much quieter than I’d imagined it would be.
“You’re welcome,” I said, not sure how she knew it was from me. “It was the least we could do. I’m so sorry.”
“No. Thanks,” she said. “It means a lot.” She pushed her brown hair behind her ears.
I hugged her. What else could I do? Her shoulders felt fragile. Why had I hated her?
“I’m sorry,” I said again. And then, “Also, I’m sorry — I don’t even know your name.”
“Caitlin,” she said. And she gave her last name, too.
On my way up the stairs to our apartment, I realized that the grieving fiancée outside was our property manager. I dug through a box of papers later to find the eviction notice, just to be sure. There it was: her full name. Why had she never introduced herself on the stairs?
When I’d called her that night about the noise, and she’d told me she would “take care of it,” she’d been talking about the man she was going to marry. And she had done nothing for him. Although perhaps I’m not being fair; perhaps she tried.
THE NEXT night a diminutive blonde knocked on our door and asked Ben to accompany her into the dead man’s apartment. “I have to get a document for his family?” she said uncertainly, her fingers trembling against our door frame. “I don’t think I can go in there on my own.” She licked her chapped lips.
When Ben returned, he told me how the man had torn the cabinets off the wall, ripped the refrigerator door off its hinges and thrown it into a glass coffee table, upended the couch, driven a highball glass an inch into drywall, broken every mirror and picture frame, smashed every dish, punched holes in every wall. Whole sections of sheetrock had been pulled down. The floor was covered in shattered glass and china. The only thing left unscathed was the new plasma TV on the wall.
A friend of mine who teaches psychology says that uncontrollable rage isn’t an obvious indicator of suicidal thoughts. But surely destroying your own home and destroying your own body aren’t that far apart on whatever scale is used to measure psychic pain. Surely we should have seen it coming. Did I misjudge my neighbor’s situation because I couldn’t stand his fiancée? Four years later I remember the agony in his voice, although, while it was happening, all I heard was fury.
Would I have thought, A man’s got a right to tear up his own apartment, if I’d known my neighbor’s name? Shouldn’t I have known his name?
His name was Michael. I know this because I asked his friend — the one who came to our door with trembling hands and chapped lips.
It was not my fault my neighbor decided to commit suicide; it was my fault I did not try to get him help. If we’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, calling 911 is a pretty minimal form of love. Even if you don’t like your neighbor, you should be able to bring yourself to do that.
IN THE days after Michael’s suicide, Caitlin and her friends and family cleaned the apartment. They stomped up and down the stairs with steam machines and buckets, bottles of bleach and carpet cleaner, heavy-duty trash bags.
“Need any help?” we asked.
“No, we got it,” they answered.
Two men staggered downstairs beneath the weight of a bloodstained mattress wrapped in plastic.
They spent an afternoon nailing pictures over the holes in the wall. At first we thought they were replacing the sheetrock; then we glanced through the open door and saw the haphazardly arranged artwork, the still lifes and seascapes concealing the signs of his rage.
Once they’d finished, Caitlin moved back in. I don’t know whether she slept in the bedroom where it had happened or in the spare room. It’s none of my business, except in the way that living in an apartment building with thin walls makes everything everyone else’s business. Lives bleed into each other. Strangers become intimates without ever ceasing to be strangers.
The night after she’d moved back in, there was another party in Apartment 5. If we hadn’t known that Michael had died, we wouldn’t have known it was a wake. The window was open; smoke drifted into our apartment. Women drank beers outside our door. Some of them must have been at the party the week before. There was thrumming bass and nonstop laughter. Didn’t anyone care about the dead man? I fumed. But, then again, had I?
At two in the morning a man vomited at the top of the stairs. We could hear the retching through our bedroom wall. It sounded like sobbing. The mess remained for a day before Ben and I cleaned it up. The stain was still there when we moved out six months later.
I TOLD all my friends and neighbors about the suicide, the wrecked apartment, the glass embedded in the wall, our bitchy property manager. I told them how Caitlin had said she would take care of it, but she hadn’t. Her own fiancé, I emphasized.
One afternoon, while unloading groceries, I ran into Slash, who lived across the street and always wore jean overalls and listened to conservative talk radio and ranted about abortion-loving feminists and welfare-loving blacks (but who wasn’t a racist, he insisted).
The groceries I was carrying were heavy, and it was cold, but he blocked my path on the narrow walk.
“That was something bad the other night, hey?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
Slash said he knew everything; he had a good friend on the force.
Of course you do, I thought. He was a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, magically on the scene of every crime, fire, or accident five minutes before the police arrived.
“My friend said they found a stash of weapons under his bed.”
I didn’t say anything. The handles of the plastic grocery sacks dug into my hands.
“I knew they were no good.” Slash hooked his thumbs under his overall straps. “All those drug parties they had. Want to know what else my friend said?”
“No,” I said. Hearing Slash’s voice, greedy for gossip, made me regret having told other people what had happened. In his voice, I heard my own.
Slash told me it had been over an abortion: Caitlin had had an abortion, and Michael hadn’t wanted her to.
“It’s none of our business,” I said.
“He was so upset over losing his baby that he killed himself. Bitch.”
I thought of Caitlin seated on the front step, her fragile shoulders underneath the thin white shirt. I thought of Michael’s obituary, which had asked that memorial donations be sent to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“She isn’t a bitch,” I said. “I have to go.”
DURING THE months that followed, Caitlin always said hello to me on the stairs. Occasionally we made awkward small talk. Once I talked to her daughter on the porch for fifteen minutes. She was around eight, with a cute tummy that hadn’t lost its baby fat. She was one of those children who ask questions whose answers they already know, just to keep you around. It was a short conversation, but every time I passed Caitlin on the stairs afterward, she told me how much her daughter “loved” me.
She continued to thank me for the flower, even months later: a cheap rose from the grocery store, purchased out of guilt.
I wish I’d been the kind of person who could have warmed to her attempts at friendliness — in spite of the parties, the vomit on the stairs, the smoke, the suicide. I wish I’d been the kind of neighbor I should have been that night.
BY THE summer it seemed we’d all forgotten about Michael. Caitlin’s brother moved into Apartment 5. The loud parties resumed. My husband got a one-year teaching job in Kansas. We gave our notice to Caitlin.
A few weeks before our moving truck came, the woman who lived in one of the basement apartments stopped me. She was smoking beside the door that led down to the laundry room.
“You’ll never guess what she told me today,” she said, blowing a puff of smoke over her shoulder. (There was no need to ask who “she” was.) “She told me what happened that night.”
It was hot. I cradled a full laundry hamper on my hip. My shirt clung to my back.
“It was weird,” she continued. “We were just talking, and then suddenly she was telling me this stuff.” According to her, Caitlin and Michael had gotten into a fight that evening. Earlier in the day, they’d gone together for her to get the abortion. He’d wanted to keep it, but she hadn’t wanted to be pregnant for the wedding.
“She said she just wanted to get it right this time,” my neighbor continued. “I feel kind of bad for her. You know, finding him.”
She bent over and squashed her cigarette into a coffee can. I went downstairs to do my laundry.
She just wanted to get it right this time. The words that Caitlin may or may not have spoken bothered me. I was and am pro-choice, but at that time in my life I couldn’t understand deciding to abort a child fathered by the man you were going to marry. I’d wanted a baby for a very long time. I didn’t yet understand, as I do now, all the expenses of having a child, the upheaval, the time commitment — things Caitlin understood well and found herself unable to afford.
Now, when I think of those words, I judge Caitlin differently. I just wanted to get it right this time. How many of us haven’t made a mistake we’d like to take back, a mistake that changes the course of our lives or someone else’s? An unplanned pregnancy. An unmade phone call.
Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.