The Nature of Rowhomes

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December 22, 2021 by The Citron Review

by Susan Barr-Toman

 

I sat alone in bed reading a novel about trees, how they are interconnected invisibly, how they send signals and take care of each other, when I heard a rattling, shaking noise to the beat of a cat scratching her ear. Was this the haunting I’d been waiting for? 

But then I recognized the familiar sound, its source a neighbor’s washing machine laboring in spin cycle. The vibrations carried through the hardwood floorboards, under the walls we shared, reminding me I wasn’t alone. 

I’ve been a rowhome dweller since birth, nestled in a block of houses woven together with wood and brick. I’ve never had all my walls to myself. Even in utero, I shared with my twin. So, I understand where sounds go, how they climb walls, seep through seams, and reveal secrets.

The washing machine worked late in the night, an emergency load. With a baby and toddler next door, it could be necessitated by a stomach bug or toilet training. Or maybe the parents remembered at the last minute they needed a specific article of clothing for the next day’s work presentation or travel. The noise of that appliance connected me to my neighbors’ existence, and reminded me of Pauline, our nextdoor neighbor when we lived as newlyweds in the old trinity house with its thin walls. 

One afternoon shortly after we’d moved in, I stood on the slim sidewalk outside our house with Pauline and she introduced the man who lived on the other side of her, Stuart. She explained to me with pride how this forty-something bachelor no longer used his rowing machine after 10pm, because she could hear it. She knew what he was up to and she found it annoying. But she’d put her foot down, refusing to be victim to the rhythmic whirling of Stuart’s cardiovascular efforts. As she spoke he shrugged, perhaps to say that he’d wished this one thing wasn’t the first thing I knew about him. (As it turned out, it was the only thing I ever knew about him.) Pauline had reined him in. But, more so, he shrugged to say it was no big deal. Better to be quiet than to have to listen to her complaints. 

I knew about Pauline’s hearing ability. Already, she’d banged on the bottom of our front door on more than one occasion, standing on the sidewalk, not bothering to climb the three stoop steps to meet us eye-to-eye. Turn that music down, she’d demanded, on weekend afternoons.

With Stuart, she was perhaps presenting him as an example of how neighbors should get along. How nice it was to succumb to her will. 

“I expect to hear things,” I said, as I laughed, wishing Stuart lived next to us.

For Pauline failed to realize I was the veteran of rowhome living, not her. She mistook us for a young couple spending a few years frolicking in the city before retreating back to the suburbs, having all the walls to ourselves as we procreated.

“When the house is quiet,” I said, “I can hear a toilet flush. I can hear a sneeze.” 

My nextdoor neighbor looked at me with shock. All those human noises we shared suddenly apparent. She believed she went unheard. Now, she realized, when we were quiet, we could hear. Our noise covered up her noise. It wasn’t that she had particularly sensitive ears or that she was a more aware individual. She had never considered what we heard in the silence of a quiet afternoon, a peaceful evening, a moonlit night. The sounds of the living living next door.

What I didn’t tell her was that I heard her and her girlfriend in their own tangled cardiovascular efforts after 10pm. What I didn’t tell her was that on a warm October afternoon, the sky bright, the clocks not turned back yet, I heard her weeping through the wall, through the windows, in between the falling leaves, even over the sound of his music playing on the day John Denver died.  

What I didn’t tell her was that sometimes when I heard her, I whispered “bless you.”

 

Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Watershed Review and Long Leaf Review, among others. Visit her at www.susanbarrtoman.com

 

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Sunflower

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. "Sunflower." The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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