(This is the very first piece I shared at the very first meeting of the Kenosha Writers’ Guild, more than five years ago.)
In August of 1981, Deb and I began our married life together in the upstairs apartment of an unassuming old house on the corner of 18th Avenue and 45th street. It was in an older neighborhood that thirty five years earlier had been reborn and refreshed with post war optimism. The tasteful, simple, and practical houses that were built, the small fenced in green lawns that were carved out and the tiny saplings that were planted were all symbols of the long awaited peace and prosperity that had been fought for and promised for almost 20 years. In 1981, when we moved in, many of these houses looked small, worn and outdated, but the love and promise with which they were built somehow endured in the warmth they projected. The tiny trees that were hand planted in those early post war years had grown to mature and impressive heights, and even as the houses and backyard brick barbecue pits became anachronistic and out of fashion and the middle class money and influence slowly migrated out to the suburbs and subdivisions, those trees now sheltered the neighborhood from complete decay and within their shade locked in the hope and faith from which they were born, resulting in a charm and dignity that to this day has yet to leave those narrow streets.
It was a great apartment, very small, not a note of pretentiousness to be found. There was a door off the driveway to the side of the house that hid a stairway that lead to a little screened-in landing room at the top, from which you’d enter through a screen door into the kitchen, with old painted white cabinetry, a gas burning stove, and a small table with three chairs. In the center of the apartment past the kitchen was a nice living room that had big windows on the south side that let in plenty of daylight, then a room off to the right that was too small for anything but storage, and to the west of the living room, facing the street, a bedroom just big enough for our bed and headboard to fit in, underneath the windows that looked down on 18th Avenue. The bedroom was lit by a single light bulb in the ceiling with a long string attached to it that came down to the exact midpoint of our bed. Our bed was a double bed that my wife had brought with her from her basement bedroom in her parents’ house, it was already old and rickety; suffice to say, after those first few months of marriage, it was in an accelerated state of collapse, as a very discernable valley in the middle of the bed emerged. To this day my wife and I sleep closely together, the whole night our arms wrapped around the other, and while this is indicative of how deeply in love we remain, it is also indicative of learned behavior from those early months. The fact was that we had worn this valley into the middle of our early marriage bed to the point that if we even tried to sleep on one of the edges, gravity would eventually exert its pull and cause our sleeping bodies to roll to this middle, and we’d wind up pressed against each other anyway.
The house our apartment was in was separated from the corner of 18th Avenue and 45th Street by a small vacant lot butting against 45th street. On the other side of 45th street and a couple of buildings to the east was a biker bar, the LP Lounge. On Saturday evenings the sides of the streets would fill up with parked cars and motorcycles, and we’d witness the migration of bikers and their drinking buddies, their wives or their girlfriends, on their way to the mayhem Saturday night at the LP promised. I remember many Saturday nights Deb and I lying awake in our newly married bed, often times with candles lit on the headboard, laying and listening to the sounds of muffled juke boxes, broken glass, and, at the completion of closing time, the occasional metallic crash of automobiles colliding with parked cars on the narrow street. One night such a collision occurred in the front yard of our house, right below our bedroom window. It all contributed to the wonderful feeling that outside of our little apartment, our home, away from the two of us, the world was an incomprehensible blur of sound and fury; and even when it came loudly crashing in our front yard, just feet away from the thin wall of our fortress, inside that apartment we were safe and secure. As chaotic, random and cold as the outside world was, inside, wrapped up in each other’s arms, everything made sense, everything was warm, everything was calm.
Nothing could shatter that calm until one cold February night, about six or seven months after moving in and shortly after we fell off to sleep, when we were awakened by a loud thump as if something heavy had been thrown in the apartment beneath us. We sat up in bed and promptly heard the sounds of the hard-looking, middle aged woman with the fading red hair who lived below us being beaten by her boyfriend. There was the unmistakable sound of punches connecting, groans, screams from her, angry yelling from him, undoubtedly the thin, short man with the Navy hair cut and tattoos we had recently noticed hanging around. This went on for about five minutes, but it seemed like five hours. Deb and I both sat up in bed, me thinking I should go down there or at least call the cops, but both of us paralyzed by shock and fear. I am ashamed to confess that I did nothing and when the sounds stopped I felt relieved, not as much for the sake of the woman as I should have, rather, more relieved that I had an excuse for continued inaction. We tried to go back to sleep but instead we both laid there, awake and silent, for a long time. Our fortress had been compromised – these were no anonymous drunk bikers loudly and incoherently arguing over crushed fenders in our front yard for our amusement, these were real people, this woman was our neighbor, living and sleeping under the same roof and behind the same walls that shielded Deb and I as we explored the depths of our passion and love for one another. Violence and pain had now penetrated these walls, and their presence would be felt like ghosts for the remainder of our time in the apartment.
Our relationship with the woman downstairs had consisted of “Hi’s” as we passed on our way in or out. Deb stopped and talked with her a few times about her hanging plants, and it seems she may have mentioned a distant divorce, but otherwise, we knew nothing about her, and never stopped to think of the silence of the apartment below us. That night that silence was shattered, and I remember being shocked at how easily we could hear. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that she could probably hear us just as easily as we heard her, and looking back on it, I wonder if she hated us. I picture her alone in bed at night in her apartment, listening to the sounds of my wife and I, and wonder if she was reminded of a long ago honeymoon period of her own, and if the sounds and the memories they conjured up only intensified what had to be the bitter despair of loneliness, a loneliness that eventually brought into her life and home the small navy man who beat her.
We’d noticed him hanging around for a few days before, and thought how nice she had someone to spend time with. Chalk that error in judgment up to ignorance and naiveté. I don’t recall if we saw the man again after that night. I do remember that in the days and weeks afterwards, the passing “Hi’s” became quicker and more impersonal, as all parties involved turned their heads away as quickly as possible, resisting at all costs the shame that eye contact would bring. We were resisting that shame but we were also resisting the truth that there on the corner of 18th Avenue and 45th Street, two opposite worlds had intersected and collided, and the realization that both the upstairs world of happiness, innocence, promise and love, and the downstairs world of loneliness, despair and pain, were simultaneously as real and unreal as the other, and that only a thin layer of fate and circumstance lie between them.