TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 5

The Noise

 · Fiction

It woke me in the middle of the night. The noise. At first I thought it might be an ambulance outside our apartment, come to gather a senile or accident-prone neighbor, or maybe a cat being accosted in the alley by a gang of dog-loving teenagers. But after several more seconds of wakefulness, I realized that the noise was, in fact, and quite clearly so, the sound of sexual relations, of lovemaking, if you will, a passionate and brutal exchange of bodily fluids emanating — the noise, that is — from the apartment above ours. It had all the trademark characteristics: the obnoxious squeak of a cheap bed frame, the satisfying slap of skin on skin, the panting, moaning, call and response expressions of pleasure — a high-pitched female voice saying, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck,” answered by a deeper-toned male voice saying “Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.”

I’d like to say I was revolted. I’d like to say that I called the police department and logged a complaint about the noise or threw a book at the ceiling and shouted, “Keep it down.” After all, I did have to work in the morning, and so did my wife, Chloe, who slept soundly next to me, apparently unfazed. I’d like to say that I did anything other than lie there and take in the sound, like someone far more sophisticated than me might take in a symphony, swept up in the rise and fall of each movement, the steady unbroken rhythm that seemed to me, at times, to threaten the stability of our ceiling fan.

For twenty-six minutes they pressed on in this fashion, which seemed like an extraordinarily long time to me. At thirty-four years old, and with a wildly inconsistent sex life, I was happy to last five minutes, and that may even be generous. The guy upstairs was either far younger, far more practiced, or a pornographic film star, which as they crossed the thirty-minute threshold, was becoming my self-conscious speculation of choice.

I didn’t know this guy personally, or the woman, for that matter. In fact, I didn’t know anyone in my building personally. I had, however, about three weeks prior, seen a moving truck parked in front of the building. I had seen a guy in a fitted Yankees baseball cap (an immediate strike against him) hauling some boxes in through the front door. I’d even held the door for him. But for all I knew that might have been someone from a moving company. I’d also noticed a new name on the mailbox right above ours — Chris Sandia — the only person, it’s worth mentioning, who used a full name on their mailbox. I guessed maybe he was afraid that the mailman might confuse him with all the other Sandias living in the building, which by my count was, exactly, none. As for the girl in question, I assumed she was a one-nighter, considering that I’d never heard more than peep from upstairs before that evening. I imagined her as a student, one of those private school girls from a local Catholic college — the girls I often saw online at the burrito shop around the corner — who read American literature by day and watched American Idol by night. My guess was that Big Chris and she had met at some shitty, dark dive bar, and that he’d kept buying her drinks until she went home with him. He’d probably promised her the best night of her life, and thirty-three minutes later, he was more than making good on that promise.

How Chloe was sleeping through all the banging and slamming and screamed encouragement was a mystery to me. She lay on her back, hands folded across her chest. Her face showed no sign of emotion. Her breath hummed. She was a sound sleeper, no question, but this was like sleeping through a missile strike. We’d been married for three mostly happy years at that point, but we’d known each other for eight. It seemed like our time together moved at a furious pace, in part because Chloe insisted on keeping a busy schedule, jumping from one activity to the next, never stopping for a second to catch her breath. It was what had drawn me to her in the first place, her tirelessness, in many ways just the opposite of me. Well, that and her striking looks. Her sharp features. Her flawless skin. The way she was almost always perfectly put together. The way she moved with a precision and grace that seemed almost alien, but in a good, exotic kind of way. On her home planet, apparently, people could sleep soundly regardless of circumstance.

It took everything in my power not to nudge her, not to “accidentally” roll into her. I wanted her to hear what was happening. I wanted her to be disgusted and to let her disgust speak for both of us. I wanted her to remember that we lived in a world where people did occasionally copulate. But I also knew what Chloe was like when woken in the middle of the night, and that was reason aplenty to leave her alone.

At thirty-eight minutes, the session finally arrived at climax. There was a last loud scream from Chris, one last grunt of support for his recently released sperm, and one final shriek from his lady friend that signaled spent satisfaction. It had been a long time since I last experienced that moment, but I remembered it fondly ‑ the moment of triumph, the moment in which I raised my middle finger to mortality.

Silence spread through both apartments then, and in the quiet, I found my heart racing.

*  *  *

Chloe was up before me, slamming dishes, pots and pans into their respective homes. She listened to her iPod while she cooked breakfast every morning and had no clue how loud she was. I couldn’t complain. She was making my oatmeal, complete with unsweetened rice milk, half a banana, seven grapes and if I was lucky, a hint of honey.

It was waiting for me on the counter when I made my way out of bed.

“Morning,” I said.

“Hey,” she said. She sat at the table, the laptop open in front of her, a half-eaten bowl of oatmeal and an untouched mug of green tea within arm’s reach. She was already dressed for work in a gray pinstriped suit and black pumps. Her hair hung loose at her shoulders, yet to be pulled back in the usual fashion. She looked beautiful, and oddly, I had the feeling that I hadn’t seen her in months.

“What’s the latest?” I said, sitting in the chair next to her.

“Julie Taskey had a baby,” she said.

“Who’s Julie Taskey?”

“My friend from college. We went to her wedding together.”

“Oh, that Julie Taskey. The one who married the Canadian mobster, eh?”

She didn’t answer, too busy scrolling through her newsfeed. We weren’t used to talking much in the mornings. Generally, I brought my iPad to the table and bounced through the sports news, checking on my Rockies, Broncos, or Nuggets. Sometimes we sat at the table for half an hour and spoke not one word.

“Speaking of babies,” I said, “did you hear our neighbors going at it last night?” I shoveled another spoonful of oatmeal into my mouth. Chloe wasn’t much of a cook, but she made a mean freaking oatmeal.

“Jennifer Sellman too,” she said. “Twins. How does Jennifer Sellman have kids?”

“Sperm donation?”

“Not funny,” she said. Her eyes traveled back and forth across the screen with impossible agility, like a speed-reader on amphetamines. The computer’s exhaust fan kicked on then, the laptop equivalent of a sigh.

“I think the neighbors may be in line for triplets,” I said.

“What about the neighbors?” Chloe said. She checked the time on her phone. “Shit, I’m totally going to be late for work,” she added. But she didn’t move. She just kept staring at the screen.

*  *  *

Forty-five minutes later, I was staring down my own computer screen at work. I hadn’t turned it on yet and could see my reflection in the dark glass. The person staring back didn’t look much like me. His cheeks were rounder than I remembered. His hair was thinning in places. It was like looking into one of those trick mirrors at an amusement park, or worse, like looking into the future.

I turned on the computer. While it booted, I surveyed my cube. It was about as empty and boring as it had been the day before and the day before that. There was one of those flip calendars with an odd factoid for each day. It was two and a half weeks behind and read: Each year in the United States $203,000,000 is spent on barbed wire. There was a framed postcard that my mother had sent years ago. The Internet is God, it read. There was a picture frame on the desk too, one of those electronic ones that changes the photo out every few seconds.

A picture of Chloe and me at our wedding (three years ago).

A picture of Chloe and me at the top of Pike’s Peak (four years ago).

A picture of Chloe and me on the beach in San Francisco (five years ago).

A picture of my college buddies and me taken just after we’d played a flag football game (thirteen years ago). My hair was giant in that one and I wore a dirt-stained t-shirt. I had an enormous smile on my face.

I pulled the headphones out of my bag, then decided not to put them in. Instead, I leaned back in my chair and took in the soundtrack of the office. The computer purred near my legs, footsteps marched down the long hallway from the elevator, the coffee machine percolated in the break room. There was almost no talking at all, a few vague whispers from some far off place, likely the boss on his phone in the corner office. Mostly, I heard the sound of keyboards pattering and mice clicking, reminders of what I should have been doing. Reminders that I needed to get to work.

I’d never known what I wanted to do with my life, but I certainly never imagined this. In college, I scoffed at business majors, yet there I was — thirty-four years old and working an entry-level position in marketing research. I guess that was what you got for taking a degree in sociology, and thinking you could change the world, and working at a different non-profit every year through most of your twenties. On the positive side, at least this position paid decently. We didn’t need the money (Chloe was a big shot in a cell phone company), but it felt nice to contribute nonetheless. Despite my protests, Chloe’s dad had set me up at this company. He’d convinced my boss, an acquaintance of his, that my degree and “life experience” gave me a good feel for people. I’d been there two and a half years, and supposedly, it wouldn’t be long before I moved up. Until then, I got paid to check out what companies were up to on the web, usually by their top competitors. I analyzed websites for style and functionality. I ran virtual surveys on consumer groups. I spotted trends. I checked email. I took long bathroom breaks. I was pretty good at my job. Plus, I got to wear jeans and sandals to work. All in all, it wasn’t a bad gig.

That day, I couldn’t focus. After a few minutes of mindless surfing, I typed “Chris Sandia” and “Denver” into the search engine. I scanned the results and found a few mentions of Chris Sandia, but none of them linked to Denver. That seemed impossible to me. Everyone left a footprint on the web. Everyone.

Right around then, my cube-mate Jeremy finally arrived (over an hour late, not that anybody was paying attention). He didn’t say a word, just passed behind my desk and tossed his bag onto the floor. He probably figured I was plugged in anyway, as he was. He sat down in his cranky chair and got his computer fired up. He played with his phone while he waited, humming to the tunes in his ears. His music of choice was trance. Heavy bass. Electronic hooks. The occasional wind sweep. He was always going on about how much I would love it if I just gave it a chance. I had. I’d hated it.

Jeremy was six years younger than me and had an odd obsession with denim. His hair looked like it had been cut with safety scissors in the dark. After a few seconds, his IM handle popped on my screen.

>You look like shit today, he wrote.

>Good to see you too.

>Seriously. You look like you were anally violated on your way to the office.

Jeremy had a way with words. That was likely why he worked in marketing research.

>Didn’t sleep well last night.

While I waited for his response, I checked Facebook for Chris Sandia. Nothing. I checked LinkedIn. Nothing. I searched for “Chris Sandia” and “porn star.” It turned out there were quite a few Sandias when it came to porn — Spanish porn in particular. Apparently “sandía” meant watermelon in Spanish. Who knew? Lots of women with big breasts, none of whom were my neighbor.

>I hope whatever you were doing was worth it.

>My neighbors were fucking so loudly I couldn’t sleep.

>That may be the coolest thing you’ve ever said. Did you bang out some competition sex?

>Umm. No.

>Dude. Why the fuck not? Nothing’s better than competition sex. Happens all the time in hotels. One couple gets it going. Then another couple feels the need to prove they can be louder. Pretty soon the whole building is in a frenzy.

>Maybe next time.

>If there is a next time. Fuck. I feel like I need to beat off now.

>Not in the cube, please.

>I’ll save it up for my lunch run.

He wasn’t kidding either. He would tell me all about it, like he had nearly every day since I moved into the cube. I couldn’t complain though. Jeremy was not the person I would handpick from a catalog of potential cube-mates, but he would likely be the only person I communicated with that day. That had to be worth something.

After our brief exchange, I went back to my research. I typed “Chris Sandia” and “world record.” Nothing. I typed “Chris Sandia” and “competition sex.” Still nothing. And finally, when I was pretty well convinced that Chris Sandia didn’t exist, I started in on my work.

*  *  *

I was in the elevator when the idea came to me. I pressed the button for the fourth floor. I’m not sure what I hoped to accomplish, not sure what I was even looking for. I just figured I’d walk past the apartment, and if I got caught, I could say that I’d spaced and gotten off at the wrong stop. It happens more often than you think.

When the doors opened, I noticed two things. One, the fourth floor looked identical to the third — an exact replica, which for whatever reason, freaked me out a little bit — and two, someone was cooking dinner. It smelled fabulous. I walked the length of the hallway, slowing as I approached the appropriate door. It was open a crack, propped with a book, and surprisingly, that was where the smell originated. I even heard the sound of whatever it was — garlic among other things — sizzling in the pan. Apparently, Big Chris could cook as well. Was there anything this guy wasn’t good at? Maybe he was cooking for the girl he’d seduced last night. Maybe she was heading over right now for a second helping.

I probably should have turned around then. I should have gone right back downstairs to my own place. But I couldn’t seem to turn away from that door. The way it was propped open felt like an invitation and I found myself wanting to accept, to peek my head in and introduce myself, to say, hey, I live downstairs and I wanted to shake your hand for what you achieved last night. You are my freaking hero. Congratulations. I actually reached for the knob, but then caught myself. What in the world was I doing? Did I want to get myself killed?

I took the stairs back to my own apartment, where there was no food on the recently polished stovetop, just a note from Chloe that said: At the gym. Be back late.

*  *  *

It was two in the morning when I reached out for Chloe and touched cold metal instead. The laptop lay on the bed between us. Chloe had asked me to put it away just before she fell asleep, and I’d agreed. But in the intervening hours, I’d forgotten to do so, busy as I was listening for sounds from the apartment above ours. There was plenty to listen to: light footsteps and clinking wine glasses and muffled voices that could only be breathy conversations about the nature of existence or the absence of meaning in a godless universe or the likelihood of machines eventually taking over the world. Sadly, I could not actually hear those conversations, but in my mind, I could imagine Chris fetching glass after glass of wine, and circling his lover like a wild animal looking for the right moment to mount. It was not long before he got his chance.

I knew it had commenced when their voices fell silent, and for a while I heard nothing at all, and then, eventually, footsteps fumbling their way to the bed. This time, perhaps because I was fully awake, it sounded at first like someone cleaning a window, the women’s voice squeaking in a kind of wax on, wax off warm up, before slowly evolving to an opera singer practicing scales, and finally pushing into full blown Miss Piggy screams. Chris’s voice joined the chorus as well. After several minutes, they either fell off or intentionally left the mattress in favor of the floor, landing with a thump on the hardwood.

Chloe was unimpressed. She didn’t so much as flinch. Again, she slept board straight, arms folded on her chest, in what one might call the corpse position. Meanwhile, Big Chris was into his fifth position switch upstairs, and I was not going to let this pass without having Chloe bear witness. I tried the earthquake maneuver first, bouncing a few times on the bed so that Chloe would, in turn, bounce. No reaction. Which may be in some part due to the fact that she grew up in California. I went with the wave next, rapidly lifting the covers away from the mattress with a flick of the wrist. Cold air billowed through the bed, but Chloe rode the wave like a surfing champion. She showed no sign of awakening. Above us, Chris was doing his best jackhammer impersonation and the ceiling fan was once again hanging on for dear life. As a last resort, I put my hand on Chloe’s shoulder and shook. Then harder. Finally, she smacked her lips.

“Did you wake me?” she said.

“No,” I said. “It must have been the noise.”

“Who?”

“The noise. The neighbors are fucking like rabbits upstairs.”

She took a breath, like she was going to respond, but then the noise registered. For several seconds, she just listened. “Get a fucking room,” she said.

“I’m guessing they’re already in one. The bedroom, likely.”

“Gross.”

“Does that mean you don’t want to have competition sex?” I said. I tried to make my tone humorous, but secretly hoped she might take me up on the offer. I even reached out and put my hand on her shoulder.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” she said. Then she was reaching over the side of the bed, searching with her hands. She hurled a book toward the ceiling. It struck the fan and ricocheted back down onto the covers, hitting my left knee.

“I’m trying to sleep,” she screamed. But the neighbors, judging from the twenty-plus minutes they jostled around on the floor, did not hear her.

*  *  *

I was late for work the next morning and didn’t care. I hadn’t slept in three days. Jeremy glanced over his shoulder as I entered the cube. Then took a second look. It was the first time in our life together that he’d beaten me to the desk. He was mildly offended, but would get over it.

I plopped down in my chair and leaned as far back as I could go. If the chair had been a La-Z-Boy it would have released its feet. I stared at the drop ceiling, the annoying checkerboard pattern, the vents that people always seemed to be crawling through in action movies, the fluorescent light fixtures where an unfortunate number of insects had gone to their final resting place. I had spent a lot of time staring at ceilings lately.

There was no noise coming from the offices above ours. In fact, there was no sign of human life at all, just a dull humming sound that seemed to lurk behind everything. I’m not sure how long I sat ceiling-gazing, or how long I planned to do so, possibly the rest of eternity, but at some point, I heard Jeremy clear his throat.

I rocked forward. His earbuds were out, which was nothing short of miraculous. He usually only took them out at staff meetings, and then, only some of the time.

“Is everything okay?” he said. His voice sounded odd to me, a little too deep to match his thin frame. It was the first time we’d exchanged real words in months. He fingered one of the buttons on his denim jacket.

“Sure,” I said.

“Then why are you just sitting there?”

“Why not?”

“Are you fucking with me right now?”

“Not at all.”

“Oh,” he said, a touch of disappointment in his voice. “You look like you got beaten with a crow bar.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I didn’t sleep again last night.”

“The fuckers?”

“Yeah,” I said. “And no, I didn’t have competition sex. Not for lack of trying, though.” This comment left Jeremy speechless, so I filled the space. “To make matters worse, Chloe wants to leave a note on their door asking them to be more respectful.”

He sat up in his chair. “She does not.”

“Yup,” I said. “She said she was going to do it this morning, but I convinced her to let me.”

“No fucking way. Can we please trade lives?”

“I’m not sure how Chloe would feel about that.”

“This is fantastic,” he said. He was getting a piece of paper out of his desk, a notepad of some kind, and a pen. He scribbled some words and handed the note to me. It read: I beat off listening to your sex last night. Thank you.

That made me laugh. “I may need to be a little more subtle,” I said. “If he can fight half as well as he can fuck then it’s in my best interest not to start anything.” The truth was that I didn’t know what to write, or frankly, want to write anything at all. I just didn’t want to deal with the consequences of Chloe writing something. Subtlety was not her greatest gift. In the end, I decided not to write. I decided spoken words would be more effective. I decided to tell Chris to his face.

*  *  *

I took the stairs to the fourth floor this time. At the top, I paused to catch my breath. I was actually going to do this. I was going to introduce myself to my neighbor, make some small talk and then, with as much subtlety and courtesy as possible, tell him that my wife was having a freak-out over all the noise they were making at night. Yes, I would blame Chloe completely, and I hoped that Chris and I would share a chuckle over the challenges of dealing with the demands of modern women. He would smile and tell a story of his own. Then he would assure me that they’d keep it down in the future and maybe even suggest that we get together for a beer and a lesson on the finer points of fornication. Of course, he might also tell me that I could go fuck myself. Either way, I was going to put myself out there.

The corridor was quiet. It smelled only of mildew this time around. I wiped my hands on my pants and took the first small steps toward the apartment. Halfway to the door, I heard voices.

“Do you think I’ll need a jacket?” the woman was saying. I thought I might have detected an accent.

“It could be chilly on the walk back,” the man said.

The door swung open and Chris stepped out. He didn’t see me standing there. He was too busy looking back through the open door, tracking the movements of the woman inside, a smile locked on his face. When she was ready, he extended a hand to her and she joined him in the hallway. Leaning forward, she kissed him lightly on the lips and asked if he could hold the keys.

And that’s when she saw me.

“Can I help you with something, sir?” she said. Her voice was clearly foreign, as was her demeanor — even addressing a stranger in the hallway she couldn’t help but be courteous. She was beautiful too. She had dark, curly hair and tan arms. Her sundress was pale yellow. Chris had done well for himself.

I cleared my throat. “Oh, um, you know what,” I said. “Is this your place?”

“Yes,” she said. She readjusted the cloth bag on her shoulder. A bottle of wine peeked out the top of it.

“Um, wow, this is totally embarrassing, but I actually live in the apartment below yours and I just realized, when I saw you coming out, that I got off on the wrong floor.”

Her face relaxed. She smiled. She had dimples that could stop traffic. “Even more embarrassing is when you’ve done it more than once,” she said. It took me a second to realize that she was referring to herself.

“Well, at least I’m in good company,” I said. “I’m Nate, by the way.”

“I’m Chris,” she said.

“You’re Chris?”

“Yes,” she said with a tone that made it pretty certain she knew her own name. “And this is Matthew.”

I shook Matthew’s hand. He wasn’t nearly as attractive as she was. He had a three-day beard and permanent bags under his eyes. He was a circus freak in the sack though. That had to count for something.

“Headed out for the night?” I said.

“Just for a little picnic,” Chris said. Chris Sandia. The woman.

“Gotta take advantage of this beautiful weather,” Matthew said. He put his arm around her. Her smile got even bigger. And I recognized it. I’d seen it on Chloe’s face a long time ago — those first few days we’d spent together, when we’d known something special was happening between us. You can’t fake that kind of smile.

“You know what,” Chris said then. She turned to Matthew. “I forgot the cheese in the fridge.”

He smiled and retrieved the keys from his pocket.

“Enjoy your picnic,” I said, as she unlocked the door.

“It was nice to meet you,” Chris said. She disappeared into the apartment.

“You too,” I said.

“Have a good night,” Matthew said.

“You too, Matthew. And keep up the good work.”

*  *  *

Downstairs, Chloe was cleaning the kitchen. She wiped the counter down with long precise strokes, intermittently pausing to release a mist of cleaning solution from the bottle. There was a rhythm to her movements. Scrub. Spray. Pause. Scrub. Spray. Pause. Rinse. The dishwasher provided percussion, a steady whirring broken at intervals by beeps and pops and clicks. Even Chloe’s high heels tapped in time to the music.

“Hi, hon,” I said. But she didn’t hear me. The music in her iPod was either really loud or she was somewhere else. That happened sometimes when she got into a mood — she became so preoccupied with a task that the rest of the world faded from sight. Now, she scrubbed the sink basin, triceps flexing, before carefully shining the silver faucet. A spotless kitchen was important to Chloe, even though we hardly ate in it. She dried her hands on a towel, then picked up the phone from the window ledge and scrolled through her messages. Her back was still toward me, but I could tell she was typing a text.

When I stepped into the room, she must have felt it. She spun. She yanked the buds from her ears. “Don’t scare me like that,” she said, pressing the phone against her chest. Backlit by the window, she looked as beautiful as ever.

“Let’s take a walk,” I said. “It’s gorgeous outside.”

“A walk?”

“Yeah. We could walk over to the dog park like we used to and then get some dinner or something. What do you think?”

Her phone beeped then. I waited while she checked it. She typed a few words and hit send. “Sorry,” she said.

“So what do you think?” I said.

She exhaled through her nose. “That’s sweet of you, but it’s the second Tuesday of the month.”

“You don’t eat out on second Tuesdays?”

“It’s my girls’ night with Debbie,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Could you ask for a rain check?”

The phone beeped again. She checked it. “She’s already headed to the restaurant.” She held the phone up as if to prove it. I felt like putting the thing in the disposal and listening as it was ground to electric dust. “We only get to see each other once a month,” she added.

“I know, but when was the last time we went out for a nice walk?”

“I’m sorry, honey, but there’s no way I can ditch on her now.”

“Please,” I said. I could hear the desperation in my own voice.

The dishwasher completed its cycle then. Silence filled the room. I stood on one end of the striped area rug. She stood on the other. There was no more than six feet between us.

“What’s gotten in to you today?” she said finally.

But I had no suitable answer.

*  *  *

That night, I waited. For several hours, at least, my eyes were fixed on the ceiling. My ears strained to capture sound, but there was nothing — not the sound of feet, or voices, and especially not sex. I began to wonder if I’d made the whole thing up. Maybe I’d been dreaming. But no, Chloe had heard it as well. After she’d gotten home from drinks with Debbie, she’d asked if I’d had a chance to leave a note for the neighbors. I’d lied and said yes. The lack of sound had given credence to my lie, and Chloe, buzzed from two or three glasses of wine, had fallen asleep shortly thereafter.

But not me. I tried to fight against sleep. I tried to picture Chris and Matthew in bed, entangled with one another. I tried to imagine them drinking tea and playing a board game by candlelight. I couldn’t, but I kept trying. I kept listening for noises. I kept staring at the ceiling until I had no other choice but to bow beneath the weight of silence. I closed my eyes. I fell asleep.


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