“Sex is overrated; orgasms are not.”
I feel like there is a semicolon between those two statements. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when my neighbor says it in a deliberately flippant voice, she speaks that semicolon. A period would be too serious; as if “orgasms are not” means something to her beyond the kind of thing a character in Girls would say. No, she is sage, trendy, and worldly, probably. Sex is overrated—in her infinite experience and wisdom—semicolon. Anyway, a comma would be grammatically incorrect, and she doesn’t seem like the type to be grammatically incorrect, particularly since this evening is girls’ night in her room next to mine, with wine and gossip. Maybe an ellipsis? No, she’s too confident, and she isn’t being coy this time.
I fight the urge to ask her through the wall.
I’ve always thought of my room as a sacred space. When I packed for college, my parents and I engaged in very animated debates concerning what to do with my bedroom—I suggested that they install a museum-quality glass sheet across the doorway, so that if they ever felt my absence, my family members could walk past a shrine, preserved exactly as I had left it. Of course, now, when I come home for breaks, I find it increasingly cluttered with my sister’s enormous imitations of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, or the boxes of ski gear my parents wanted out of sight. It smells like dust and turpentine, and it is no longer mine.
We acted out a familiar trope in family dynamics: the oldest child moves out, and by Thanksgiving freshman year, refers to her college dorm as “home.” The problem is, my newest incarnation of “home” has walls about as insulated as paint-covered cardboard.
It’s been a few days since my neighbor hosted girls’ night; I cringe when she is alone with her boyfriend, and he says, “Nobody tells you how to find porn and jerk off. It’s just like… you know.”
I’ve never met the man in question. He seems nice enough—sometimes we nod to each other in the dorm hallway. Once he asked me if the printer downstairs was working. But with his declaration, I suddenly imagine a highlights reel detailing his early body exploration and uncomfortable puberty. How many times did he hurry to clear his browser history on the family computer? Or does he mean that masturbation is one of his natural gifts—knowledge miraculously bestowed thanks to lucky genetics, like perfect vision? His girlfriend clearly doesn’t care.
She yells in response, “Can you not go on Facebook when I’m talking to you? I swear to fucking god you can’t just say something like that and pretend you’re busy checking your newsfeed!”
They go on like this for several hours, transitioning from full-blown fighting to giggling. I look at the clock, and mentally note that it’s 2 a.m., which is when they have sex. It’s always 2 a.m. or 2 p.m. They’re the cuckoo clocks of fucking.
The worst part is, I’m not much better. They’ve had to bang on the wall at 3 a.m. if I’m watching Firefly on full volume; I’ve retaliated to their 2 p.m. sex-a-thons with screechy violin practice. We don’t know each other, but I know when they order food, get naked, go to class, listen to Alt-J (“This song is about, like, Where the Wild Things Are, babe!”).
I congratulate myself when I talk to my hallmate about how much we hate the neighbor couple, and he says, “Those shitfucks? I throw bars of soap at the walls now when she talks.” Well, I think, they’re clearly worse than I am.
It’s no revelation that this campus is small, and we’re often packed together to such an extent that there’s no space to breathe without eavesdropping on someone else’s life. We know each other so well that we can make up “overheards,” and the D will publish them like they’re real. And they could be. It’s easy to guess what absurd thing that girl in line behind you in KAF will say next. You know, the loud girl who always orders a Caesar salad and an iced coffee. She dresses exactly like everyone else—Bean boots, Canada Goose jacket, black leggings—but she stands out to you because her tone of voice hits the back of your neck with perfectly studied nonchalance and a hint of snow-wet wool.
Our walls are too thin.
Sometimes I imagine that my neighbor, too, is leaning against that paint and plaster, praying that I won’t be home, that she can have a moment completely alone. Would I be able to feel the reverberations of her breath through the few layers separating us?
When I can’t stand it anymore, I interact with the outside world via projections—snippets of conversation that would probably never occur. Two men once sat next to me in a coffee shop; my heavy headphones muffled their voices enough that I could conduct a bad lip reading. They probably discussed their workout schedule and how much they hate leg day (they were in athletic gear and gesticulating at their torsos), but I imagined their in-depth conversation about how Batman’s newest batsuit doesn’t have nipples. Boy #1: Points at his pecs. “I just feel like the batsuit sans nipples isn’t as sensual. I like my Batman to be sensual.” Boy #2: Considers the pecs on Boy #1. “Do you think Iron Man’s suit should have nipples? I bet they would look nice.” It’s the kind of conversation I could participate in.
I don’t picture my neighbor thinking about these things. Lately, she’s been busy considering whether her hair would look better cut short or partially dyed red. The boyfriend is uninterested—he’s stressed about a test in his finance class and worries that he’s spending too much time with her.
After their barely-muffled conversation ends, I walk into the bathroom, and she is standing at the mirror, physically realized. I am barefoot on the tile, clothed only in a thin terrycloth robe and brandishing a toothbrush like a marching band conductor. I probably sang to myself as I walked in: the perfect image of a drug-addled hospital escapee. The situation doesn’t get much better when I can only think to mutter to her: “My feet are cold.”
She pretends she doesn’t hear me, finishes washing her hands, and runs out of the bathroom.
I’m alone, and I wish my feet weren’t bare. It’s the final scene of a movie I’ve never watched about a paranoid schizophrenic, pondering her reflection, as she wonders if she only imagined seeing the girl she hears through the walls. My confession is that I like to listen.