I was washing the last of my breakfast dishes when I heard a gentle knock on my door. I knew who it was, who it always was, and so I pretend I didn’t hear her. I carefully set the glass I’d just cleaned among the heap of dripping dishes. If she couldn’t hear the clink, maybe she’d hear the running water, think I was showering and go away. No such luck. She knocked louder.
I stopped the water and turned to the door. My cell phone was lying on my kitchen table, and I covered it up with a stack of newspaper before I unlocked my door. “Hello Cynthia,” I said before I could even fully see her.
“Hi… do you have a needle and some black thread I can borrow?” she asked.
“No, actually I lent my sewing kit to a friend who was in the hospital and I keep forgetting to get it back. I have a pile of mending I need to get to myself.” This was actually true, and I was grateful to not have to lie to her.
“Oh, okay. I have some real nice black silk nightgowns, and the straps are ripped. And I also need to sew a button on this coat,” she told me, showing where the button should have been on her black leather jacket.
“Sorry, good luck,” I said. I shut and locked the door. As I returned to the last of my dirty dishes, I remind myself that she’ll be gone soon. Then I felt like a neighbor-hating scrooge.
I grew up sort of in the margin between city and country. Because my childhood was full of firefly catching, chicken raising, blackberry picking, and trail blazing, I’d always thought I was a country girl. When I moved to the city for college, I met kids who really did grow up in bumblefuck. The kind of towns in northern Wisconsin where everyone in town knows who the prom king and queen are, and where church is the event of the week. My friends would say, “There’s NOTHING to do where I come from,” and they would mean it. Growing up 30 minutes from Milwaukee meant that besides playing in the fields and woods of Menomonee Falls, I also got to go to the zoo, the domes, and the museums of Milwaukee. I suppose that because I didn’t spend my teenage weekends running from cops through cornfields, I am more of a rural city girl.
But part of my love of that safe bubble of a village that I was raised in stayed with me. Everywhere I moved through Milwaukee’s East Side I worked on knowing my community. Often this meant being friendly with the employees in the neighborhood businesses. The corner of Oakland and Locust was mine for two years, and if I got carded in Gilberts liquor store in that time, I would laugh lightly and say to the cashier, “you must be new.”
I also worked on my relationships with my neighbors. I’d introduce myself when I moved in, and insist they stop by and let us know if our house was too noisy. Better to be hushed by the neighbors than the cops, I figured. One neighbor gave me tomatoes from her garden in the summer, and I shoveled part of her sidewalk through the winter.
One time I needed to use the Internet after the library had closed and I knocked on three neighbor’s doors before having luck on someone being home. When I told my city friends this story, they teased me for approaching the doors of strangers. They said it was weird to do. I shrugged it off, thinking of my days as a kid, rolling down small hill behind the house next door, and running three doors down to George and Edie’s place to borrow brown sugar and eat homemade cookies. I believed my world was a better place when I got to know my neighbors. I believed that until I lived by Cynthia.
I heard about her before I met her. Patrick lived in unit 10, at the end of the hall right next to Cynthia’s place. He was probably the only resident younger than me a 22-year-old Bohemian kind of guy who lived in plaid shorts and tennis shoes. One night when I got off work I’d stopped by his place. It was late, but I was still wired, and I could hear music and voices inside. I thought perhaps he was having a party I could crash. Plus he was cute. He gave me a big drunken hug when he saw me. “Hey, heard voices and was seeing if…” I started to say.
“Do you smoke weed?” he asked, cutting me off. “I’ll meet you in you’re place with some weed.”
“Ah, I was actually just gonna have a beer or something,” I said.
“I’ll bring some beers!” I went home and waited for him. Minutes later he was knocking on my door. I opened the door to see him standing in the hallway holding two beers and a gallon ziplock bag full of weed. He handed me the bag and collapsed on my couch. “Help yourself to whatever. I don’t smoke. Or work.” He giggled.
“Dude, I’m not going to smoke your weed by myself,” I said. “I just wanted a beer.”
I drank my beer and chatted with him. Then I drank his beer, which he hadn’t touched. Eventually he realized he needed to brush his teeth and get to bed, so he got up to leave. “Dude, have you met Cynthia yet?” He asked as he walked out. “She’s CRAZY!” I hadn’t met her, but thought it strange that a guy who walks around with a gallon of weed and no worries would call someone else crazy. He was right though.
The woman who lived next door to me had a purple wreath on her door that smelled like old potpourri. Below the wreath was a big NO SMOKING; OXYGEN IN USE sign. I never saw her. Across the hall from her was Cynthia’s apartment. I first saw Cynthia standing in the hallway between her apartment and the oxygen lady. She was smoking a cigarette. The smell was obnoxious in the confined little hallway, but I didn’t say anything to Cynthia.
Days later, I heard a knock on my door while I was making breakfast. I looked through the peephole and saw her waiting in the hall, smoking. I turned off the stove, ran to my room to throw on a sarong, then I answered the door.
“Hi there,” she said smiling. “I was wondering if I could borrow your phone for a minute.” I grabbed it from the table and handed it to her. She dialed a number and chatted for a minute while standing in my kitchen. I held my breath as her smoke mixed with the smell of my scrambled eggs. “Thank you,” she said when she was done, handing the phone back.
The following week it was the same thing, an unexpected knock, me throwing on clothes and her borrowing my phone. My love of neighborly bonds was disappearing. Couldn’t she just ask to borrow a garlic clove or two and then leave? Why must it always be the phone?
The next time she stopped by it was the same routine. As I opened the door in my sarong, she said, “giiiirl, don’t you ever wear clothes?”
“I haven’t lived alone in a really long time,” I answered. It was true. My undies suited me just fine when I was by myself.
“Well, I was just wondering if I could borrow your phone,” she asked.
“Actually, I’m out of minutes this month. Verizon really screwed me and I’m trying to use the phone less…”
“I hear you. I’m out of minutes too. Well have a nice day, bye!” She left, and I locked my door behind her thinking that maybe I’d solved my problem. But of course, no problem goes away so easily.
The next time she came knocking, she was prepared. “Hi, is there anyway I could borrow your phone? I have some money for you.” The hand that usually held a cigarette was instead pinching a stack of quarters. She held the stack near my face and said, “I just really need to make a call.”
I sighed. Never able to lie on command, I handed my phone to her and took her quarters. “Do you mind if I use this in my apartment? I’ll bring it right back.” I nodded and off she went. I looked into my hand as she left, and saw four quarters. When she came back with the phone, I looked in the call log and saw that she had made four calls. The last time I’d paid a quarter to make a call was on a pay phone in the mid-nineties.
Two months after living in my new apartment Cynthia finally asked my name and introduced herself formally, with a handshake and everything. Just one month before that, I’d gotten to know her much in a much more personal way.
Since I moved out, I’d always had my family over for dinner one time in each place I lived. I had a tendency to move every year, so this annual tradition usually fell on my mom’s birthday. This year was tricky, as this one-bedroom apartment was smaller than my previous flats had been.
The family was coming on a Sunday, which was going to be my cooking day. Saturday I scoured the house, and tucked my unpacked boxes away into closets. Everything was near perfect, except I had to add leaves into the kitchen table. This was the only thing I couldn’t do alone. I decided to ask a neighbor.
I heard someone walking in the hallway, and opened the door hoping to see a friendly face. It was Cynthia, and she seemed to be heading out. She was wearing a puffy winter coat, which seemed unnecessarily heavy for early November weather. And as if in direct contradiction to the coat, her long dark legs were bare and led into high heels. I smiled and waved as she passed me on her way to the front door.
I walked the other direction, past her apartment and knocked on Patrick’s door. No answer. I knocked once more then gave up. The table could wait. After all, it was only noon, so I had hours to find someone to help me. Cynthia was standing by the front door, looking out the window and waiting. She turned to face me just as I reached my apartment. “That’s a cute dress,” she said.
“Oh, thanks,” I said. I was sweaty and smelled like bleach and Windex. “It’s just a sarong that I tie up. I live in these in the summer.”
She walked back to me to get a closer look. She’d seen me in these every time she borrowed my phone. I didn’t know why she had to talk about it now. “Yeah, that’s real nice,” she said, standing across from me. “I got my sexy shoes on.” She kicked forward one foot, holding it out for me too see.
“Oooh, nice…” I said, looking down.
“I got my sexy outfit on too,” she said. I’d thought maybe she was waiting for a ride to take her to a work meeting… at noon on a Saturday… now I was not so sure. “Wanna see?”
“Okay,” I answered, trapped. She had been holding her jacket closed with one hand, and now she opened up both sides of her puffy coat. I was expecting an evening dress. I was greeted with breasts, hanging low, her nipples staring up at me through a sheer black negligee. “Oh, wow…” I said in a high pitched tone, feeling horrified.
She smiled smugly and slowly closed her coat, one side at a time. “My boyfriend’s coming over,” she explained.
Just then, the door across the hall opened up and my jolly gay neighbor Kanan emerged. “Sorry to interrupt you ladies,” he said, locking his door.
“Oh, we was just having girl talk,” Cynthia said.
“Kanan! Do you have a minute to help me put a leaf in my table?” I asked him.
“Sure, sure,” he said, and Cynthia stepped aside to let him pass by.
“Later,” she said as I closed my door.
I didn’t see her for almost a month after that, and I was grateful. And the next time she stopped by, she introduced herself. Now I could officially put a name with the breasts. And she also had stopped by not to use my phone, but to pass along some news.
“I just wanted to let you know I’m going to be moving soon, and I will be getting rid of a lot of my things,” she said.
I tried not to smile. “Where are you going?”
“Arkansas. I got back together with my ex-fiancée, and he lives out there. So I’m gonna be giving away a lot of my things, free of charge. If there’s anything you need, you can stop by and have a look around.”
That’s nice, I thought. “I’m pretty well set myself, I kind of had to downsize from my last place to fit everything in here,” I said.
“Yeah, you do have one of those cluttered homes,” she said, looking over my shoulder. Hmm. Not so nice.
“Well, I’ll ask around and see if I know anyone looking for furniture or anything,” I told her.
One night after work I went to an afterbar with my coworkers. Cody was the afterbar instigator. The idea is that once the bar is shut down, you fill up someone’s house with people and drink anything with alcohol, and there is no closing time at an afterbar. Alex had a 30 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in his fridge. When it comes to beer, I’d always been a self-proclaimed micro-slut. Then I started working with Belgian beers and became more of an import-slut. I never ever order domestic beer. But there are no beer snobs allowed at an afterbar.
We filed into Alex’s apartment building, trying to be quiet but laughing far too much at 3 a.m. Alex was our newest cook at work, and he was also new to Milwaukee. He’d been kicked out of Utah, and had moved to a less Mormon place. He had adjusted quickly to the drinking culture of the Midwest. I was happy we were going to break in his house with him.
I entered and walked through his kitchenette and into the living room. There was one couch, and nothing else. There wasn’t even overhead lighting, or lamps, and so we sat on the floor with the kitchen light filtering onto us. As we played cards and drank Pabst, I was matchmaking. Alex’s empty home, Cynthia’s furniture. It was a match made in heaven.
Cynthia came in the front door one day as I was getting my mail. I told her about Alex. “Can I maybe see what furniture you have so I can let him know?” I asked.
“Sure, come on over,” she said. I followed her to her apartment.
I entered her home and was greeted by the stale smell of smoke, and a friendly black cat. The cat danced between my ankles as I looked around. Cynthia began pointing out items that she didn’t want anymore, along with their flaws. “This T.V. stand has shelves, but this door is missing a hinge. This lamp is wobbly, but it works just fine. This VCR works okay but sometimes you have to pull off the top to take your movie out.” I followed her, nodding, making a mental list. “The coffee table is going to my sister, so that’s about the only thing that’s not available. But the couches I’m selling for $200, which is a great deal compared to what I paid for them. And I’m selling my bedroom set for $400. So if you know anyone looking, let them know it originally cost $2,000.”
I inwardly shuddered at the thought of her bed. I looked at her couches. They were covered with mauve and maroon flowers. Definitely not the style for a boy. Or anyone under the age of 50. “You should try selling them on Craigslist,” I said.
“I know, I just don’t have time to make an account and all that. But these are nice things, it’s just too hard to take them with me.”
“I’ll keep my ears open,” I told her. “And I’m sure my buddy could use the lamps.”
“Great,” she said. “And if does have any money for what he takes, that would be really appreciated.” I bit my tongue and headed for the door. From behind me, she added, “also, if you know anyone who wants a cat…”
I went home, irritated. Just days before, she had told me she was GIVING things away, free of charge. Now she wanted money. Well, I was not her own personal Ebay. And as much as I could understand getting rid of old crap furniture, what kind of person could so easily give up their pet?
The next day was a cleaning day in my home. As I carried out my garbage, Cynthia opened her door. “Oh hey, I thought I heard you.” I frowned. Had the bags brushed along the hallway walls that loudly? “I just wanted to tell you that I talked to my sister, and she said that I should try to get money for the coffee table. So tell your friends that I’m selling it for $150. And that comes with the matching end table too. It’s a really good deal. I paid three times that much when I bought them.”
I set down the garbage bags I was carrying and adjusted my scarf. It was sunny out, so it was probably freezing. Typical shitastic Wisconsin weather. “Hey Cynthia, how are you moving out in winter?” I asked her. It had been on my mind. “I mean, even tenants who are month to month usually aren’t allowed to move out between November and March.”
“Well, Vito was cool about it. He knows I had some money problems,” she said. Go figure. “And we had issues a few months ago. See, my electricity got cut, so I started using the outlet in the hallway.” I looked at the hallway carpet that I was standing on. I had seen the plug and cord in the hallway but had never looked closely. Now I could see that the cord ran below the carpet and across the hall, into Cynthia’s apartment. “I cut the rug to run the cord underneath,” Cynthia explained. “But then he tried to charge me for the electricity in the building. He asked me for $2,000! So anyway, we had our differences, but he’s letting me move out. I wanted to go in December, but now I’m helping him out, and leaving in the middle of January.”
I walked to the dumpsters, following the puffs of my breath. I hadn’t liked my landlord much before this, but now I just felt bad for the guy. Having tenants who paid rent a few days late was probably standard. But how could you ever predict that someone would cut the hallway carpet to steal electricity? I now realized that Cynthia was going to be bugging me about selling her things until the day she moved out. And I didn’t want to tiptoe past her door because of it.
I figured out the solution. I had called Alex to see what things he needed. I then wrote a note. “Cynthia, I talked to my friend. He can use the following: any lamps, the T.V. stand, and the bookshelf. He doesn’t have money, so you should try to sell these things on your own. If you don’t get money for them by the time you move out, then I’ll help take them off your hands. Good luck!”
The end of the year hit in the usual whirl of food, family and hugs. I filled my home with the annual cheesy Christmas knick-knacks, completed with my 12-inch Christmas tree and side by side stockings for me and my cat. A few days after New Years, I packed away all my decorations and locked them away in my storage unit. I was heading back to my holiday-free home, when Cynthia opened her door. “Hey, where’ve you been?” she asked.
I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t seen her for at least two weeks. But suddenly I was grateful for every work shift that had kept me away from home and her knocking hand. “Um, nowhere? I didn’t go out of town or anything. I just have been working and celebrating the holidays, same as everyone. What’s up?”
“I was just letting you know I’m leaving soon. What did you want me to do with the furniture that you’re taking?”
“You can just set it by my door if I’m out,” I said.
A few days later, my boyfriend and I walked in to my apartment building and saw she’d done just that. I set my to-go coffee on the gum-covered top of the bookshelf and unlocked the door. I ran a finger over the dusty top, and held it out for Elliott to see. “Ewww…” I snickered. Just then Cynthia opened her door and hung her head into the hallway. I let my hand drop down. “Thanks for the stuff,” I said, turning the doorknob.
“Hey, can I talk to you?” she asked.
I let go of the handle and faced her. “Sure.”
She waited a few seconds, then nodded her head into her apartment. “In private?” I walked into her place, nearly emptied out. She closed the door behind me. “I was just wondering if you had anything to contribute to my travels…”
I was already shaking my head, “well, my buddy is really broke. That’s why I told you that you should try to sell it before you give it to me.” As if I’d pay for chewed-gum spattered broken furniture anyway.
“Don’t look so upset! I just thought that asking never hurts. I mean, anything? Five dollars?”
I turned away, opened her door and stepped into the hallway. “Sorry,” I said.
The next night Elliott joined me and my coworkers for dinner and a lot of wine. The cab dropped us off at the back door of my building at the end of the night. As we walked past Cynthia’s door, I paused. “I know she’s finally gone…” I said. Elliott had already been mischievous when it came to her. He’d been known to occasionally unplug her cord from the hallway outlet. Now there was only the rip in the carpet and an empty socket. She really was gone.
I touched her doorknob, expecting it to be locked. The knob turned. I pushed the door open and stepped inside. Along one wall in the living room sat orphaned furniture; a T.V. with no remote, a small shelf, and those ugly couches that she’d wanted to sell. Maybe it was just the wine in me, but I felt a little bad for her.
I stepped back out to the hallway and shut her door. As I walked to my home, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take maintenance to paint away the smell of her cigarettes. And I wondered who would be the next person to move in.
(written in 2009)