She is the kind of person that if you put a piece of coal up her ass after some time it will come out as a diamond. She used to live next to me. We shared the same balcony, divided by a wooden fence, though the view from her part was blocked by the presence of a gigantic oak tree and might be the reason she hated me. She was about five years older than me and worked as a manager in a tiny retirement advice company, though none of the other neighbours in our apartment building knew where. Every morning she would leave at eight, neatly packed in a woman’s tailored suit and her pretty face beaming with annoyance. It could not be a lack of attention from the other sex: at least once a week she had company, and the times it was a good one I could hear her high-pitched screams penetrate my wall. To me it seemed she did not have a clear preference: white, brown, black, short, tall, slim, fat, Caucasian, Asian, African, Latino. A few times there were two, passing my kitchen window one after the other, as if she thought she could hide she did trios.
I moved into the apartment next to hers in early March. After spending the period of my bachelor’s study in different student’s houses and working long late hours in a student’s café the whole time while coming home to a beer-stained floor, messy kitchen, and strangers on the sofa, I thought myself ready for living on my own. From my balcony I could see the first sprouts of the oak tree emerge and down the street snowdrops, crocuses, and the first greens of daffodils jumped up on the lanes of grass along the sidewalk. Within days I settled my collection of herbs and spices in baskets on the rail of my south-facing balcony, filled my living-dining room with all kinds of plants in pots and put my most favourite, a shadow-tolerant shrub ficus, at my front door.
Two weeks after I had moved in my neighbour stood at my door with a complaint. It concerned my dear ficus. According to her, the leaves hung too far on the passage. I nodded and tried turning the pot so that the longest leaves hung against my apartment’s wall. She blurted a high-pitched “thank you” and walked off towards the elevator, her needle heels clicking so loudly I just knew she could not walk on them properly but may think she could as her hips swung from side to side in a confident way. One day later she stood at my door again. If I could remove my plant since it still blocked the way and she did not want to kick it over. I argued, but only a bit. It was something in her eyes, something that seemed invisible when she first approached you, but when you spent more time looking at her oddly symmetrical face, it lingered. Something sharp and heavy that would cut its way into your body and crack you open from the inside. She watched while I carried my ficus inside.
The next day I headed for work. My best friend Rosie and I both worked at café Anjou, a new-age inspired place that entertained its customers with pop songs covered into upbeat, danceable versions, endlessly changing combinations of cups of coffee-latte-chocolate, and beers from foreign country regions I had never heard of. I needed to save money to start my master’s in plant biology; Rosie worked while her Peter was finishing his studies in information sciences. I felt reluctance to tell my best friend about what had happened. Maybe because I knew she would say I should not have obeyed. Rosie never held back her tongue. She would just say whatever came to her mind, whatever bothered her she would make it worldly, whatever she wanted to be changed she would reign the whole process. After work we walked home and I told her. Rosie grinned and said: ‘We should throw a stone through her window.’
That night I stared at a framed picture of Ben and me. The sheets of my bed always seemed colder when he was not around. And he was not around a lot. Already for the fourth time he was sent out to serve. I caught myself replacing the batteries of my vibrator more often than I used to. Maybe it was the sounds coming from the other side of my bedroom’s wall that made me long for the caresses of Ben more than ever before. I discovered more porn websites than I wanted to. It gave me that internal goose-bump experience. Was my fantasy not good enough? Though the visual materials made it a little easier to stay in the mood and finish. I lay breathing heavily and wondered if she had heard me. Actually I did not know how loud I was. I laughed. Maybe I should prepare some little show for Ben. I started to search for ways to surprise your lover. The next time we would be together would be amazing. Though I could never be sure we would together again. My parents said I better chose any other guy but an armed forces sergeant, but then added, ‘My dear Kathy’, and sighed, because they knew I wanted no one else.
For weeks I saw my neighbour only walk by my window, her lips pressed together maybe because her jaws were tired from blowing the tall black guy that visited her on a regular basis. My red hot chili pepper plants were at the point of wilting and I tried cheering them up with water and shade. When the doorbell rang I thought it was Rosie who had managed to sneak out of work early to catch up with me. But no. My neighbour was wearing heels so high she was taller than me. ‘Could you clean your railing too?’ she said while raising her eyebrows. The smell of bleach was so strong on her that for a moment I thought she had to be a ghostly experience. I nodded without thinking. Then I had a look at the rail that runs along our corridor. The part in front of my apartment was a few tones darker than hers, still showing years of dust, exhaust and bird shit, like the rail of my other neighbours. She lifted her nose. ‘Okay, good day.’ I did not reply but slammed the door harder than I intended. Maybe from that moment she really hated me.
I called Rosie. I did not know why I felt so upset. I had wanted to ask questions, maybe. Why did you clean the railing? Wouldn’t the flat management take care of that? Why do you ask me? Do you hate me? Why? I could not think of any reason. Rosie simply said ‘Ignore her’ and I said ‘OK’, but how could I ignore something that would sneak up on me and force me to notice it? ‘When’s Ben coming back?’ Rosie asked, although she always knew exactly when he would be back. ‘Two weeks.’ I stared at my hands that were very busy folding my T-shirt. ‘Hang in, OK?’ she said. Maybe she thought I was just missing Ben and could not manage much longer without him. It felt like that a lot. All the times he was in the country, I would ask him to come over just for watching a movie, invite myself for dinner and prepare it for him, find ways to spend time with him in every little errand by just asking him to go with me. I would lean against him everywhere we sat, hold his hand everywhere we walked, kiss him in public while sometimes we were in places were kissing was not a proper thing to do but I did not care. I wanted him. I clutched him tightly. I was addicted to him.
Ben never complained. He never said much, actually. He would update me on his whereabouts abroad by a general story that contained “early wake-ups, bad food, too much rain, too much sun, playing cards with the guys, some shooting exercise, local bar visits, and not enough sleep”. I tried to notice when he was tired. I guessed that he was never tired, or tired all the time. Some wrinkles had deepened over time, I blamed the desert sands where he had to walk around in for his duties. When we went to bed, I would observe his body. The strong arms that could comfort me with safety. The muscle-thick shoulders, his soft-feeling neck, tanned as if he went on holiday to tropical places five times a year. Well, he did, kind of. I adored his little man-jokes about my fuzzing about him, his almost lazy way of getting up to get himself something from my fridge, the way he wrinkled his nose while he read the newspaper I bought him.
Last time Ben was back he would grab my arm when I cuddled up against him in bed while he was sleeping. Once he grabbed me so tightly that I had bruises for over a week. I was afraid to tell Rosie. She might advise me to quit it.
I wondered often what was going on in Ben. Sometimes I dared to ask whether he ever felt scared being at a war zone. He always shrugged. ‘It’s part of the job. I like being there.’ I could not imagine that he would like being in a huge sand box with the sun blaring at you as if within minutes you would be roasted and ready to be eaten by predators. Or enemies. What was the fun of sneaking through deserted villages grey of dust and death in search of children that might shoot you with guns they found, or were provided with? And what about scanning endless sand roads for men in robes that were as yellow as the sand and had eyes that would not see you, but only the tone of your skin and panic, and gush their blood between the rocks and sparse grasses as if to feed the land, after which the sky would break open and all the sand and blood and the men’s dead bodies would wash away.
All that I knew from the news and the pictures on the Internet. Ben never told me anything about that. Maybe he was protecting me and therefore soothed me with innocent stories. Maybe he was protecting himself by not sharing the things he had witnessed, maybe he would forget they were real memories and focus only on the life home. What was the importance anyway of sending citizens to another country to fight in a stupid war? I did not see the point of my Ben going there while he could be here with me.
The next weekend my neighbour stood again at my door. This time it was my door mat that did not lay parallel to my door. If I could pay attention to lay it neatly. ‘The moment I step on it, it will be skewed again’ I said. ‘Then don’t step on it’, she replied. ‘I don’t want to trip.’ I stared at her. ‘I will try’, I managed to get out and closed the door in her face. For minutes I leaned against my wall and breathed in and out deeply. Maybe she wanted to tell me something, but she could not find the right words. Maybe she wanted to invite me for some erotic experience. She had never seen Ben. She could not know I was loyal to someone who spent almost all his job time overseas.
Ben was back. He had his holiday at my apartment and we visited our parents and his friends and did not separate but for a toilet visit. The first days I could not let go of any thought about touching him. I had to stroke him, kiss his lips, hug him and press my body close to his. Undress him button for button while he stroked all my naked spots. I searched for his eyes, his greyish eyes with the sparks that could see through me. We made love in bed, on the kitchen table, in the park at night, in a changing room at Burberry’s, and on the counter in the kitchen, right when my neighbour walked by. I had not seen her for weeks. Later I heard she went on a holiday. Obviously to a sunny place, because her tan was intense and everywhere. Too soon it was my last night with Ben. We had talked about getting married. He might apply for an office job. I knew he would only do so because he might sense I did not like him being far away risking his live. The morning he had to leave we held each other so close his heart beat pulsed through my rib cage.
Ever since I had taken my ficus in, its leaves were shrivelling, no matter how often I watered it, or nebulized water around it, placed it at another corner of my apartment. It simply was not accustomed to the dry air inside and the average temperature of 20 degrees or more. It ached my bones. Of all my plants this ficus was dearest to my because my Mum had given it to me on my eighteenth birthday. She had said something poetically like: “Have this plant grow tall. One day it may grow taller than you. If that happens, you have cared well for him and probably also for all the others in your life.” The thought of my ficus dying hit me hard. My balcony was facing south; the sun would burn the plant within a week. I could not put it outside at the corridor. Or might I risk placing it there and taking it inside again once my neighbour complained again? I felt weak to confess to myself that I feared that sharpness and heaviness in her eyes. What was the worst she could do? Shout at me? Call the police? They would laugh at her. But then I secretly knew that I wanted to avoid the conflict. I would rather see my ficus die than stand up against that silly whore living next to me.
It was September and I had started my master’s. My days became a blur of lectures, handing in assignments, reading of articles, taking orders, serving drinks, cleaning the bar, talking nonsense to Rosie, sweating at the gym, visiting my parents and eating loads of cake and meat. My Dad’s birthday passed, again without Ben. If this would continue, he would never be present at any of my Dad’s birthdays. A nasty cough had occupied my Dad for years now, which could only be blamed on the pack of cigarettes he smoked every day. I had begged him to stop. I had even threw away his whole stock once. He had sighed at me. I felt I was right. But then he said that I could not take away an old man’s pleasure. ‘You are not old’, I said. ‘You can become an old man if you quit.’ He had smiled, a wryly smile that haunted me sometimes in my dreams. He would never quit. He did not know how.
My Mum never said anything about my Dad’s smoking habits. She would even empty the ash tray while serving coffee and sorting through magazines when my Dad asked for one. Like me, she was found of plants and had decorated every surface with them. She preferred flowering plants, so the living room was full of a heavy blossom scent all year round. Outside, in the garden, my Dad reigned. He terraced the whole length of our six meter garden with greyish red stones and spent a lot of his spare time removing weeds that sprung up between the ridges. My Mum had suggested he put concrete in the ridges, to avoid any more weeds from popping up, while I knew that what she wanted most was using a part of the garden to grow plants, preferably vegetables and fruits and maybe some herbs. But my Mum never complained. She was maybe the softest person I knew, with her round face and rose-red lips, and her round shoulders and hips and feet that were always hidden in thick woollen socks. As far as I can remember, she had never raised her voice. She simply provided food and cleanness in the house where she lived. Before she had met my Dad, she had lived with her parents in a small village in the South and did not know any other world than the world of serving a man. That was what her Mum did. It was probably what her Grandmother did, too.
Rosie said once that it is the sweet people that die first, because they take on all the shit from others. I wish my Mum would stand up for herself more. I wish she had taught me to stand up for myself.
Some days I had occasional meetings with people I knew from my bachelor’s studies, or the student’s houses I had lived. We would talk for hours over a single drink in a lousy café and promise to meet soon again. Some had just returned from spectacular journeys in faraway countries. Some were doing so well they were considering obtaining a PhD. Others were competing in chess, or volleyball, or salsa, or some martial arts I had never heard of before. And I? I skipped over my adventures at Anjou as quick as possible and resumed to crazy stories of past times, where me and the person at the other side of the table crowded the student’s cafés and danced with bright lights searching our faces and beer wetting our T-shirts. It was before I knew Ben. I had met him during one of those crazy stories of past times. He had been observing. He had asked me where I could find the toilet, because I was standing closest to him apparently at the exact same moment he decided to ask for the toilet. Apart from that I do not remember anything worth remembering from those years.
I started to forget about my neighbour. She did not walk past at eight in the morning anymore. She did not bother me anymore on my doorstep. Just sometimes I vaguely heard noises coming from her side of the wall. I could very easily mistake them for television noises, that mix of beats and soft music and voices. I figured she had moved the place of sexual action to the backroom of her apartment, assuming hers was mirrored to mine: at the entrance, there was the kitchen with a small storage room. Further down the hall were two doors, one to my living room, the other to my bedroom, or backroom. Both rooms were connected with a door, too. Some days I felt at ease. I read books from the library and poured all my attention with the water I gave to my plants. Once a week Rosie and I had dinner at my place. She would cook me something deliciously of which she never told me the recipe. ‘You have to keep inviting me’, she would say, at which I only grinned, because I did not fully understand what she meant yet.