So I says to the guy…
I have this neighbor who, when I ask her how she’s doing, answers me in gruesome detail. Giant chunks of negativity spewing everywhere until I’m covered in its gooey sludge. If that were not off-putting enough, she delivers all her bad news with an intense, direct gaze and a big, gummy smile, as if to challenge any of us to say she is not brimming with neighborly cheer. I usually find myself trapped in the laundry room with her, backed up against the dryer, listening to “So I says to the guy, ‘You can’t talk to me that way!’ I mean, who does this guy think he is? I don’t think he knew who he was talking to!”
Brooding base notes and harsh snare beats accompany her dark disposition
No, I don’t think he did, and I am at once sorry for him. Negator…she’s an enigma of sorts, everywhere and nowhere; a theme song of brooding base notes and harsh snare beats accompany her dark disposition throughout the building, appearing wherever and whenever she smells life.
One sweltering afternoon last summer, I decided to take a dip in our community pool, a kidney-shaped feeble attempt at “resort-style apartment living.” As I was paddling around, I mused about the ‘Don’t-swim-here-if-you-have-diarrhea’ sign. The management team had gone to a lot of trouble to place this blunt health directive on a decorative poster board featuring a background of subtle water droplets. I wondered, Really – who would want to swim while they had diarrhea? Just then Negator threw open the clanking iron gate to the pool and waved a robust hello at me. I tried to panic-paddle to the side to climb out, but she was already in the pool, her capped head bobbing towards me.
“Hello. Nice day,” I said, grasping for a molecule of positivity.
I mean, I was speaking the truth – it was a really nice day. Above, the sky was an intoxicating shade of blue, wholly committed to offering up its very best while I swam in circles below in a dot of my own blue, centered in the cement jungle that is this building.
Nice day, my ass
“Nice day, my ass,” she began, boring her eyes into me, her upper lip catching on a tooth, giving her signature smile a sinister gangster look. “I saw my doctor today and he says I have to swim every day or my shoulder won’t heal. It’s either this or spend another hundred grand on physical therapy. Who’s got that kind of goddamned money?”
I notice her swim cap is covered in plastic abalone shells and I move in for my self-rescue.
“Cute swim cap!” I dip underwater and kick off the tiles towards the other side. Towards freedom. Her retort muffles and bounces along the top of the water, a skipped rock gone awry. My escape plan is to catapult out of the pool with Olympian-style athleticism and grace, a talent I don’t actually possess, and then out the gate and into a slip n’ slide ride to the elevator, and finally, to the sanctuary of my apartment. When I come up for air, she’s right there next to me. Somehow, she’s made it to the upper end of the kidney with uncanny speed, the kind of speed used in cartoons to imply idiocy, or in horror films to foreshadow malicious intent.
I’m waterlogged, my skort is twisted around my body, and an agitated panic is rising in my chest.
She asks me a question, but I don’t hear her. I feign water in the ears and climb out. She’s behind me on one of the four steps; I can feel her hot breath on my calves. I’m waterlogged, my skort is twisted around my body, and an agitated panic is rising in my chest.
Fuuuuck! I just wanted to experience the summer creature comforts offered by an over-chlorinated kidney-shaped pool. For a mere hour, I wanted to live under the pretense of a “resort-style staycation,” just like all the brochures promised. Similar to the innocuous calm of reading the back of a cereal box, I wanted to quiet the chatter of my mind while reading a warning sign about swimming under the influence of diarrhea. Was that too much to ask?
Pools of water form around me in a kind of fluid graffiti against the hot cement
I cannot afford the luxury of time to dry off. Pools of water form around me in a kind of fluid graffiti against the hot cement, growing, fading, and distorting into curious shapes as I frantically wrap my towel around me. “See you around the hood,” I mumble. “I better get back to work.”
“Nobody has a work ethic these days,” she blurts. “Good for you. You’re always working, or on the way to work, or missing a phone call for work. Strange, because you’re always home.”
“I’m a writer,” I snap. “I work from home.”
“A writer, huh? I don’t know any writers,” she says with a snort and waves me away. Our session is complete. I’ve been dismissed. I have passed the poolside lie detector test. Relieved, I make my exit but I feel uptight. I’ve been robbed of my staycation vibe. I decide that ‘staycation’ is a ridiculous marketing word and will be abolished from my vocabulary. Next summer, I will leave this place and go on a real vacation. I will swim with strangers in a pool made in the shape of a giant Kit Kat bar.
Due to COVID-19 concerns
At the beginning of this summer, a new sign was posted on the pool gate, “Due to COVID-19 concerns, the pool will remain closed until further notice.” There are no designer-style accents to this sign, no muted red Coronavirus spores as an artsy backdrop, just a typed note in bold black typeface, stating the obvious:
Life is on hold until further notice.
About two months into the lockdown, I had a Negator sighting. She and her assistant were at the elevator, masked and gloved, Clorox wipes in one hand, white plastic grocery bags in the other. Her assistant jabbed her elbow at the elevator button and they boarded like a pair of synchronized swimmers. I was out of earshot, but I waved and yelled a hello from behind my mask anyway. The elevator doors shut.
The second time I saw her was at the garbage chute. Her gloved hand gingerly opened the chute door as she threw her garbage bag inside. She then took several steps back, as if she expected it to blow up and send balls of flames hurtling to the surface.
“Well hello, Stranger!” I said. She startled, studying me, searching her memory banks for who these eyes might belong to. I could see that smile take shape under her black mask.
“I know you,” she said. “You’re the writer. You’re not a stranger.”
Sadly, regrettably, I was definitely a stranger.
I nodded and smiled behind my mask.
“How are you doing?” I asked, suddenly welcoming what would undoubtedly be a long and fierce monologue of horrifying details.
“I’m alive,” she said, flatly.
We both nodded in agreement at this statement of fact, this mutual accomplishment. For a moment, I thought we might break protocol and hug, but we both just stood there, staring into each other’s eyes, our masks intact, and the faint stench of garbage wafting up through the chute.
I turned to leave but felt wobbly inside my own body, my heart heavier than it had been in months, the isolation of one hundred days piling up until I couldn’t see over my mask, weighing on me, suffocating me, the quiet of the pool echoing the sound of distant sirens, a city unsure of its place in summer, a woman unsure of her place inside this ‘new normal.’
I was halfway down the hallway when she yelled, “Can you believe the fuckin’ pool isn’t open yet? I called the office. I says to the guy, ‘Get that goddamned pool open. Every pool in the entire city is open, except ours.’ They’re lazy, that’s the problem! No work ethic! I says to him, ‘I gotta keep moving, buddy. I’ve got a bad shoulder!’”
I turned around, tears looming at the corners of my eyes, and leaned in to listen, as socially distanced neighbors do nowadays.