The Reluctant Secret Sharer

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March 20, 2019 by The Citron Review

by Maria Terrone

 

If this were a novel, I’d be sitting by the steam pipe in our living room, that hissing, sputtering spy that climbed five stories in our House of Love, and while reading a book, I’d overhear a murder plot being hatched upstairs. In deep winter, I’d be the unexpected, unhappy recipient of red-hot information, just like James Stewart in the film Rear Window, who witnessed what might have been a murder occurring in the apartment across the way.

But what I heard those many years ago was taking place in real life, not a Hitchcock tale—the speech of a faceless woman who lived directly above me channeling down the pipe like the high-pitched, hollow voice of a distant doll. An angry, overstressed doll in her Doll’s House whose tiny, metallic entreaties—“Stop that, you’re driving me crazy!” and “Get to sleep NOW”—punctuated by even tinier, more distant wails, arrived unbidden into the gloom of my living room, which faced an alley.

Sealed off with drapes to hide the view, that dark place could have been a confessional. But I was no priest, and the lady upstairs didn’t realize what she was revealing to her first-floor neighbor.

I didn’t know her name or even the gender of her child, and I suppose that anonymity was a protection for us both. But it was also a burden for me, an unemployed newlywed living in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Despite my discomfort over being privy to a stranger’s daily struggles, I couldn’t help wondering who could be “the one” among the people I passed in the building courtyard.

Was it the muttering, caped woman with a red balloon swirl painted on each cheek?

Definitely not her. The resident in her forties with a preteen son wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt, scraping a baseball bat along the pavement? He was too old. How about the gaunt woman with uncombed hair in her mid-twenties, just a few years older than I? Her tired-looking eyes darted about nervously as a girl about four years old tugged at her arm. Maybe her. I realized I’d never know for sure, and my solution was to keep my eyes averted from everyone.

The overheard outbursts continued to filter down through the steam pipe. Fighting my own frustration and disappointment at being jobless in a bankrupt city for endless months after graduation, I didn’t want those anguished cries to seep inside me.

During a summer job as a teenager at the Veterans Administration, I typed reports of psychiatrists and social workers on patients who had survived World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Through a Dictaphone earpiece I wore for seven hours each day, the men’s struggles with impotence, alcohol, rage, and depression poured into my head. Only 16, I was the vessel receiving their pain—a secret sharer with suffering men whose first names I knew, but who didn’t know that I existed.

Recently I opened my bedroom closet door and heard the loud, unmistakable grunts of sex in progress. If a voice in that space had called out my name and begun to recite the Gettysburg address, I wouldn’t have been more stunned.

I quickly shut the door. I was Pandora, slamming down the lid of the box a split second after opening it, trying to stop the contents from escaping. I felt weirded out and weighed down, even though I realized that the unidentified source was blissfully unaware of what was happening and that a more typical reaction might be amusement.

Since my husband and I bought our apartment years ago, no bedroom sounds from neighbors reached my ears, perhaps thanks to the thick walls and sturdy 1920s construction.

There was no pipe snorkeling through the closet, no opening in the ceiling or floor as there had been in our first, low-rent apartment. To suddenly hear groans within my own closet was to feel as if it had become the gateway to another dimension.

A memory flashed into my mind: being inside the Gabinetto Segreto (“Secret Cabinet”) in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, with its curtained-off collection of phallocentric erotica from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The exhibit, only recently opened to the adult public, had the feeling of a large, dark closet with an “Entry Forbidden” sign that we all had ignored.

Where could the sounds in my closet be coming from? And then I suddenly remembered that about a half hour earlier, a handsome young man had been buzzed into our building just as I was entering, too. My downstairs neighbor had appeared in the lobby, welcoming his visitor with a kiss on the cheek and then greeting me warmly as he always does.

Like the veterans and “the lady upstairs” whose private lives I came to know, my neighbor will never learn that the boundaries between our lives had inadvertently been crossed. I’m feeling guilty and complicit, thrust once more into the role of reluctant secret sharer.

 

Maria Terrone’s debut essay collection, At Home in the New World (Bordighera Press), was published in November 2018. Her nonfiction has appeared in media including Litro, Witness, Green Mountains Review, The Common, Briar Cliff Review, and Potomac Review. Also a Pushcart-nominated poet with work published in French and Farsi, she is the author of the collections Eye to Eye; A Secret Room in Fall (McGovern Prize, Ashland Poetry Press); The Bodies We Were Loaned, and a chapbook, American Gothic, Take 2.

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