Drown it Out

By Katy Finnegan

Since this morning water has been dripping from my ceiling. Drip drip drip. It falls slowly, with a maddening lack of regularity, into the blue enamel mug I have left there to catch the droplets. For minutes at a time, it will stop and I’ll sit at the table to read the paper, only to be greeted by fresh drops falling into the cup in front of me, each plink making me jump.

I’ve heard noises from the apartment above mine: the clip-clop of shoes on the floor late at night; muffled voices and groans invading my tranquil space. And now this.

I’ve lived in this apartment a long time and I’ve never had trouble with any of the neighbors. Sometimes I pass figures on the stairs; two little boys and their burqa-swaddled mother; an old man who takes out his Jack Russell terrier a few times a day; a young woman with a clipped, efficient step.

I think she’s the one who lives above me.

All of us pass one another silently, acknowledging each other’s right to privacy in our business of living. It’s that kind of apartment block. We’re all here for the same reason. 

When I moved here I liked it immediately. The building is utterly nondescript, the stairwell as silent and reverential as a tomb. The carpet in the hallway muffles every footstep, and the buzzer and the letterboxes show only numbers, not names. I’m apartment 3B, and that’s all anybody needs to know.

I think on this as I watch the drips falling slowly, almost sensuously, into the cup. I look at the ceiling and notice the damp patch has gotten bigger since this morning. I sip my afternoon cup of tea anxiously, spilling liquid onto my shirt.

I curse my neighbor.

What could she be doing? I imagine her running a bath, infusing it with oils and scents, luxuriating in the warm watery wetness of it - blissfully unaware of this disastrous leak and my distress. I imagine the ceiling caving in, and the woman landing right here, bathtub and all, on top of my kitchen table.

I know I ought to say something, storm up the stairs and pound on the door. Let her feel inconvenienced, let her feel awkward. But then I see her opening the door, her trim figure sheathed in a towel, her face wearing an expression of annoyance and distaste. And you are…? Only by staying here can I protect myself from such a look.

I'd stand at her door, stammering some nonsense about a leak only for her toss her head in defiance. Call the building superintendent, it’s totally inappropriate for you to call on me at home, she would say.

I couldn’t bear that. I really, really couldn’t.

It wasn’t that she necessarily seemed unfriendly, the few times I passed her. She wore tailored, expensive-looking clothes, moving quickly as if she were on her way to an important rendezvous. She’s probably a career woman, an executive in some glamorous industry. Advertising. Fine art dealership. Lucrative financial services. Maybe she likes this modest building for the same reason I do: it’s a place to disappear.

She does seem to come and go a lot though. Clip clop go those shoes on the stairs. Louboutins with angry red soles, no doubt. She obviously has a busy life, unlike me. I get nervous just running to the bodega late at night to pick up my milk and eggs (and a bottle of vermouth, if it’s one of those kinds of evenings). Every time I leave I worry I’ll be embroiled in something awful. Someone will have a seizure on the street and I’ll be left to call the ambulance and pay the bill when it's discovered they have no insurance. Someone long forgotten might happen upon me, smirking and asking, “How ya been?” when really their eyes are darting over my pasty skin, lank hair, and old clothes wondering, what gutter did you crawl out of?

But that’s not the worst part. When I finally make it back up the stairs, carefully closing the door behind me and pulling the chain, I can’t help but feel the furniture has moved around in my absence. It’s a terrible, disquieting feeling, one that can take hours, even days to fade.

I'm sure Miss 4B never feels like that. She saunters into her elegantly furnished apartment after a long day’s work, flopping onto the couch and enjoying a glass of red wine. Pinot Noir. Maybe she puts on some music to unwind, some Coltrane, maybe, one of my favorites.

After a couple hours mooning around the apartment, I sit back at the table and watch the drops for a while. They’re illuminated as if by a spotlight underneath the kitchen lightbulb, as the rest of the room is quite dark. I don’t know where the daylight went. It does that, sometimes.

 I listen to the plink plink plink as the drops land in the dark blue cup. With every drop, I make up a new fact about Miss 4B. Plink. Her favorite food is sushi. Plink. She’s slept with exactly seventeen men. Plink. She once had a pet cat named Belle.

I grow so absorbed in these facts that I cease to be annoyed by the leak. I cease even to wonder if she’s still in the bath. I focus on the droplets, becoming strangely hypnotized by their irregular falling. I think about Miss 4B. I think about all the ways in which her life is superior to mine. I only shake myself to attention when I notice the mug is full of water and that the drops are starting to run down its side. Carefully I lift the mug up and carry it to the sink. I turn it over to dump out the water and realize with a shock the water is pink. Almost red.

Feeling hot and cold all over I replace the mug as fast as I can. I feel so odd I get right into bed and squeeze my eyes shut. I find it hard to sleep so I invent more facts about Miss 4B. In school her best subject was history. Her father was a dentist. She had two brothers, one older and one younger. I keep listing off fact after fact, until eventually, somehow, I fall asleep.

When I wake in the morning there is a commotion outside. I open my door a crack and peer out. There are men in reflective jackets walking around the landing upstairs. A yellow tape has been pulled across the hall.

I close the door and go into the kitchen. The pink water has overflowed from the cup during the night, soaking my books and my papers, spilling onto the floor and leaving a sheen all over everything. And still, the dripping continues. Maddening. Sinister. I walk the perimeter of the stain and over to my old hi-fi.

Plink. She loved the movie “Thelma and Louise”.

Plink. She went to the theatre once a month.

Plink. She was lonely.

Plink.

Plink.

Plink. 

I put on some John Coltrane and drown it out.