Deena entered our lives at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday our first fall in Manhattan. We were a bit distracted when she rang because our bedroom ceiling was leaking water, and not a small amount of it. My husband had muscled the mattress out into our living room, along with my childhood dresser, and tipped our IKEA bed frame up one side. We had only moved in a week earlier, had just unpacked our final box yesterday morning.
“I’m Deena,” she said, when I opened the door. She wore a red terry cloth bathrobe and faded slippers. Her wiry auburn hair rested on bony shoulders. “What’s happening in there?”
“We have a leak,” I explained.
“Well, I’m not surprised. The renovations they’ve been doing are shoddy and frankly” – she leaned in conspiratorially – “some of them are illegal.”
As she spoke, I tried not to stare at the thin film of saliva coating her yellow teeth, evidence that seemed to suggest she and her toothbrush had had a disagreement many years ago and been unable to resolve it since. Although I hadn’t been in NY long enough to recognize it then, Deena was an example of a particular type of elderly woman living in the city. They aren’t the aged dowagers able to maintain impeccable residences in the fancy parts of the UES. They aren’t the active ones in track suits who glow with vitality or those who project a contented aura of being well-cared for by family members. No, these weathered broads are women on their own. They board the bus with bulging plastic shopping bags and wild hair that looks like it has been styled by the nearest electrical socket. They seem to have overstayed their welcome in this hard city.
“Can I come in?” Deena asked, one foot already over the doorstep.
“Oh, well, sure,” I said, exercising my never-ending inability to say no to people, even when I desperately want to. Deena shimmied over to the bedroom to assess the damage, noting that, funnily enough, the source of the water was her apartment. Appearing pleased with herself for contributing this information, she settled in on our new beige couch, whose bland color I was already starting to resent. Tyler, our fat Beagle, launched his considerable heft up beside her. She stroked his floppy ears. “Your ears are so soft,” she whispered to him. He leaned into her robe. Tyler, you traitor, I thought.
She stayed until midnight, when Martyn announced there was nothing more to be done until the morning and we should get some sleep.
“Sleep where?” Deena said. “I’m afraid that bedroom of yours is a no-go.”
“We have a pull-out,” I told her wearily.
This seemed to satisfy her, and she waded back through our personal belongings and out the door.
In the morning, a team of repair men arrived. Some faulty pipes needed to be attended to
and the job required access to both Deena’s and our apartment. That evening, she rang our bell again. “I can tell you this much,” she said, now fully dressed, sporting a cream sweater with a small brown stain on one breast. “They are only doing the work when I’m home. I don’t want them snooping around. I’m pretty put out, to be honest, because I’ve been living here for twenty years and they haven’t done a stitch of work on my place in over a decade.” They’ve been trying to drive me out of this building for years. We tenants need to stick together.”
I didn’t want to stick with Deena. My husband and I were paying $600 more in rent that we had in Hoboken, NJ, where we had just moved from. Our new apartment was renovated. It had a dishwasher and, miracle of all miracles, a washing machine and dryer. It had an exposed brick wall, something I had coveted ever since discovering it was possible to get brick inside one’s apartment. It was perfect, a symbol that we were moving up in the world, and I didn’t want Deena spoiling it with her talk of the big bad management company. Although I considered myself a hippie at heart, power to the people and all that, when it came to our apartment, I simply didn’t want to hear it.
Because of Deena’s obstinacy, the repairs, which should have taken three days, took ten, and our backs creaked angrily from too many nights on the pull-out. By then, Deena had started complaining about other things: strong cooking smells coming from our place, the inappropriate volume of our television. Soon enough her missives began indicating issues we had nothing to do with, like the front door to the building being left wide open so that any person off the street could just wander in. She grumbled that our music woke her up at 5 a.m. No matter how many times I calmly explained that we weren’t guilty of these particular offenses, the notes kept coming, like she hadn’t heard me at all.
“I’m afraid the outfit you wore the other day quite upset me,” I mocked her in a high-pitched voice to Martyn. “I’m afraid the heels you wore made an awful clacking on the staircase as you came and left the building. I’m afraid you and Martyn might one day have a child who will cry.” I tore up one of her notes for dramatic effect. “That woman is a nutjob.”
“She’s just an old lady,” he reasoned. “She’s got nothing better to do.” It should be noted that my husband is a far nicer person than I am. “Just let it go,” he said. Oh, I hated when he said this because, honestly, if you have to tell someone to let something go she is probably precisely the kind of person who doesn’t know how to do that.
One day, Deena filed a complaint on our behalf to the city of NY, claiming our apartment violated building codes because the window near the fire escape was partially obstructed by the oven. Our super called to reassure me.
“I’m going to look into this fire-escape situation right away,” he said, sounding a bit frantic.
“What fire escape situation?” I asked.
“Your complaint that the fire escape is blocked.”
I knew instantly. Deena.
I’m not entirely sure why the note we received a few days later was the one that sent me over the edge. It was no more or less infuriating than the others, this time requesting: “kindly stop using chemicals in your apartment because I’m afraid they are affecting my asthma.” After five months, it had become painfully obvious that our shiny, new apartment was more like an old woman with a taut face lift, fairly pleasing on the surface, but still housing a decrepit eighty-year old body inside. After the ceiling leak, we discovered that the pipes hadn’t been properly insulated so once winter hit and the heating got turned on, they clanged all night long. The renovations the management company continued in the building as they slowly kicked out every old tenant except Deena unleashed a torrent of dust mites into our living space that destroyed the flesh of both my legs while I slept. These major inconveniences were supplemented by a list of smaller appliance breakages that seemed never to end.
So maybe it was the apartment itself that wore me down, or maybe it was the fact that the only neighbor who actually acknowledged our existence was a raving loon, but the chemical note finally forced me to act. I tore it off the wall and marched upstairs. I banged on Deena’s door, using my fist instead of the knuckles, like I’d seen angry men do in the movies.
“We are NOT using chemicals,” I said, when she appeared. “We are NOT playing loud music. And we are NOT leaving the door open.” Inside her apartment, I glimpsed stacks and stacks of plastic bags, filled with who knew what, occupying every corner of the tiny space. It was where plastic bags went to die, in that apartment. I could see that Deena did not have exposed brick and, I admit, this pleased me. I was willing to bet there was no washing machine tucked away in the corner of the bathroom, either.
“Well, my asthma really gets aggravated by chemicals,” she said. I was used to this by now, her ignoring what I said and simply circling back to her own argument.
“We are NOT using chemicals,” I repeated. “Do? You? Understand?”
“Well, I can smell them.”
“Well, well done, you!” I shouted. “But the fact remains it isn’t us. Here’s the deal, crazy lady. Don’t ring my bell. Don’t leave notes. Don’t call the city. Just get a life and stay the hell out of mine.” With that I stormed back down the stairs and slammed the door. Even though I never play loud music, I turned some on, just this once, just to make my point.
I told Martyn what happened later that night.
“Whoa,” he said, looking at me a little sideways, like he didn’t quite recognize me, his wife who wasn’t even able to return the wrong coffee to a Starbucks barista for fear she might have to argue with him.
“I really lost it,” I said, feeling strangely giddy.
On my way downstairs the next morning, I paused outside the 2nd floor apartment directly below ours, the one that had actually been playing thumping dance music until 5 a.m., using asthma-inducing inhalants, and having who knows what other mysterious and fun-filled adventures behind their closed door.
Stuck to their door was a note on the same flowery paper that Deena used to upbraid us. I tell myself I made a snap decision to read this note not addressed to me, but in reality I took a careful look around the building to make sure no one was present before delicately peeling back the tape, trying not to make a sound as I unfolded the paper: “I’m afraid your music is still too loud and it is keeping me awake. Kindly turn it down or off in the evenings. Deena.”
I should have felt triumphant. Yes, I had gone overboard with the yelling and the stomping and the telling Deena she needed to “get a life” but it had worked. She had found someone else to annoy. But instead sadness welled up in me. Deena had moved on. I had thought we were her reason for getting up in the morning, little old us in apartment #3B who in her mind were waking up each and every morning with some new plan to upset her. But, no, the couple in #2B would do well enough. When they left, which they would, and so would we, eventually, she would make her presence known to the people who took their place, and so on and so on, until she expired, because her apartment was rent-controlled and she was never, ever, ever, ever going to leave. But us, we were replaceable; her outrage could successfully be directed at any interlopers who passed this way. I didn’t like feeling expendable, and there was nowhere to more clearly learn that lesson than in a city like NY, with a neighbor who once felt she knew you well enough to wander into your home at 11 p.m. in nothing more than a bathrobe, but who no longer even meets your eye when you pass her on the stairs.