The Scene Behind the Wall

** To respect the privacy of individuals who appear in this piece names have been changed

“You’re entitled to nothing. Nothing. Do you understand that?” The disembodied voice cuts through my sleep. I’m lying on my bed propped up against pillows. I open my eyes to the flickering luminescent light. The voice belongs to my neighbor, John. I can hear him as clearly as if he were sitting next to me. I roll onto my side. The paper spread out around me crunches with my movement. I freeze.

“Right now you deserve nothing.” He didn’t hear me. A female voice tries to interject but John keeps talking. I tug at the paper trapped underneath me and they slide free without a noise. The two voices on the other side of the wall are unaware of me. My spine is beginning to hurt. I sit up as quietly as I can, my back to the wall, and consider making my presence known.

“No. No.  I don’t want to hear your excuses.” He speaks in a tight but controlled voice. Almost monotone. I no longer care if I’m eavesdropping.  I’m irate. I want to knock on the locked wooden door separating our rooms, barge through the door, and tell the girl to leave him.   

I’ve seen John once. It was the Saturday morning I moved in. I had just turned into the hallway, struggling with a bag in each hand. He was walking towards the men’s bathroom with a toothbrush in hand. His hair stuck out in a jet black halo. John is Asian, an inch or two taller than I am, and stocky. As he walked toward me, he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. He stopped in front of me just as I dropped my bags on the floor.

“Ouch, those look heavy,” he joked. “I’m John,” His wide smile revealed small but even teeth.

“Hi Don, it’s nice to meet you.”

“John, with an “J”,” he replied, still smiling. “Anyway, just woke up if you couldn’t tell. But if you need any help, let me know.  You’re living next to me, right?”

I responded that yes, I was living next to him, and that I was almost done but appreciated the offer. We both went on our ways, pleased at the friendly interaction between neighbors.

“John, stop. You can’t talk to me this way.” It is the girl. She realizes this is wrong. “I don’t get what has you so upset.” I pick at the dry skin around my nail.

“You don’t get it? Seriously?” His control is gone, hysteria creeping into his tone. There’s a pause. My room feels stifling. I hear the rushing sound of blood in my ears.

“How about the fact that I pay for everything for you.” His voice sounds tight. “You capitalize on our relationship. You just assume,” he continues. “And, I’m fucking tired of it.” Each word comes out punctuated.  

I feel a slight pain from middle finger. I’ve picked too hard at the skin, and a drop of blood wells up next to my nail.

Psychology professors say that human beings are pack animals. And yet, there is a fundamental need for privacy. This manifests itself in the young child who screams about sharing a room with a sibling or in the young adult who aspires to buy a house one day. There is a basic need to call a space your own, even when the space is only an eight by ten square foot dorm room.

My own eight by ten is molded to my tastes. A Casablanca poster hangs over my bed, a Czech drawing of a female figure graces my walls, and a picture of my two sisters rests on my desk. Christmas light droop from the painted water pipes that cross my room. A miniature oinking pig figurine greets me from the top of my dresser. At the end of my bed a locked dark wooden door is covered with winter coats.

And yet despite my best efforts, nothing I can do can keep the smell of burnt coffee from seeping under it into my room. No volume of music completely disguises the late night conversations about engineering problem sets or the late night Skype calls. Voices carry. My phone calls home feel monitored, and I censor my reactions to the days.

I’m prisoner to the scene behind the wall. I wait for the sound of flesh on flesh. But it never comes.

“Look I can start paying you back.” The girl speaks. “But I’m already paying to come up here--

“No,” John interrupts. “Don’t. Because you won’t even pay me halfway back but you’ll still think that you don’t owe me anything. But you do.” It sounds like the girl is crying. I’m no longer angry. Instead, I feel increasingly guilty.

“You don’t even have a job. You just rely on me. I’ve been paying for you for a year. A fucking year.”

The girl murmurs. Sounds like she’s saying that she can get a job. I wonder if alerting them to my presence is worth the embarrassment the girl would feel.

“But you won’t,” John ends. A long minute passes.

“I don’t get it,” the girl says. “Is this just because of the sandwich?” The question throws me. I have a sudden urge to laugh.

Two hours after I heard the door to his room slam open and shut, I finally leave my room. I close my door and turn to lock it. I notice the new sign on my door with my name and a picture of a Italian villa, a cut out from a travel magazine.

I walk down the hallway to John’s door. His door has a cut out of European bridges. But his old nameplate catches my attention. Unlike the new one, the old one is only his name, printed in Helvetica font with a red line underneath. And floating above the capital “J” of his name, someone has drawn a royal crown in black sharpie.