The couple in the next room fight all the time. Through paper-thin walls, my husband and I hear the shouting, the insults shot bullet-like back and forth. Invisible weaponry in a largely invisible war.
Usually we have the music on, or the TV, so we can drown it out. But it’s in the silence between songs or when the conversation drops during a movie that the fighting in the next room catches us off guard. A yell. A thud. The sound of a sobbing child. Piercing the solitude in our home, setting our teeth on edge, making us nervous for reasons we can’t quite explain.
At night when my husband switches off the TV and takes me in his arms, the sound of our quick breaths and long sighs fill my head, leaving room for nothing else. But later, when we lie in bed with nothing to distract us, we listen quietly as the shouting continues into the night. I can see worry lines deepen on my husband’s usually smooth forehead when he hears the little boy pleading with his parents to stop, the babyish voice heavy with tears. I jump involuntarily as the sharp sound rings out – a hand striking soft skin. The crying is silenced.
I reach to hold my husband but he turns away and I know he’ll be awake long after I fall asleep. I know he wants to interfere somehow to help the little one in the next room, but he never does. No one interfered for him.
I never see the couple together. They’re always separate, always apart, except for when they fight together in the next room.
Sometimes I pass her in the hallway or climbing up the stairs to our common floor. Bloodless lips stretch tight across her face as she forces a smile for me, her neighbour. I know my smile in return is as artificial. She walks gingerly, as if she is hiding pain beneath the cover of her drab patterened dress.
Once I saw her with a black eye. It was new – it seemed to be blossoming as we stood there staring uncomfortably at each other. She looked guilty, as if she hadn’t been prepared to meet someone on her quick dash to get the milk early morning. The bruise looked almost like ink on a tissue, tinting her skin an ugly, painful grey.
I couldn’t help asking what was wrong or if I could help, trying to comfort her in some small way. And when I involuntarily reached out to touch her shoulder, she jerked back and stepped sideways, an expert reflex move of avoidance. Knuckles white, fists balled defensively at her side, ready to hit, lash, protect. Embarrassed, I dropped my hand, hardly hearing her quick recovery, something about a bad fall. I mumbled useless offers to help as I left, heaving a sigh of relief when I got back to my house, glad to be out of the awkward situation.
I barely see the husband, knowing him mostly by the sounds he makes, apart from the hitting and shouting.
Sometimes, late at night, I hear the distinctive sputter of his pick-up truck as he parks it haphazardly in our lot. I get up, out of bed and watch from the window as he almost falls out of the seat and stumbles to the entrance of our building, blind drunk. I hear the erratic foot falls, heavy on the wooden staircase; then the dragging shuffles as he makes his way down the corridor to his apartment.
I get an unpleasant image in my head of his wife, listening to the sounds of his approach just like I am doing. But whereas I am safe from him – an outside spectator – she is waiting there in that next room, tense, afraid, but resigned. To the surprising strength of the drunk man as he pushes her rudely to a side, on his way to the bottle of brandy in the kitchen; to the foul stink of alcohol on his breath as he rails at her, his mouth millimeters from her face; to the violent, clumsy rape that inevitably follows – an appalling violation, every single time. Another dress to mend tomorrow. Another excuse to invent for the benefit of her little one when she is hurting too much to bend to play with him. He knows she’s lying – children always know – but she does it anyway.
I jump when I hear him bellowing her name, rudely demanding that the door be opened. Silence. When door finally creaks open, I imagine it sounds reluctant, as if she is stalling for time she doesn’t have.
And the one-sided war begins.
I get back into bed, my thoughts upset and confused. I lie there, breathing hard, unable to settle in one position long enough to fall asleep. The sheet suffocates. The air is too still. And that damn shouting just doesn’t stop.
My husband is asleep, the ear plugs we bought the other day having worked their magic. I feel a rush of love for him and his easy personality. He could never hit a woman. Even his anger was quiet and gentle – he would sulk for an hour or two but the smallest thing would be enough to bring that slow, sweet smile back to his face.
I shake him awake, kissing him fiercely almost before he can wake. There is a question in his returned kisses but I don’t explain. Just fill my head up with the sound of our breathing, thanking him silently with a body that has never been touched in anger.
Sometimes I don’t even hear the yelling. Isn’t that terrible?
I’ve got so used to it now, I can just filter it out. Sometimes. Just sometimes.
It’s the little boy that keeps alive the horror of it. I see it in his eyes everyday. And everyday the pain is fresh; new. More.
On my way home from work, I see him playing in the park with his friends. Laughing almost hysterically as he dodges a chasing playmate; hooting boastfully as he swings on the bars of a colourful climbing frame, kicking his legs for momentum. I see how he basks in the affectionate cuddles from his friends’ parents, although he dutifully squirms away from them after a few precious minutes.
I see the transformation when his own mother comes to pick him up. The smile disappears and his face plunges into a shadowy scowl, as if a light has been switched off somewhere inside him. The playful kid is replaced suddenly by a sullen man-child, dragging his feet in his reluctance to go home.
Sometimes he sneaks out of the apartment to play in the corridor and I sit with him, watching while he makes believe. He tells me about his made-up Lego family, how happy they are and the adventures they have together. I smile through my heartbreak.
Invariably though, our play sessions end with a sharp voice calling him inside and once again I see the smile vanish and the dark cloud settle over his sweet features. He gathers up his toys, not caring if he breaks his perfect Lego-constructed life. I can read such a mix of emotions in his jerky movements and I wonder silently how such a small body can take it. Helpless anger. Frustration. Terrible insecurity. Shamed fear.
I ache to prevent him from going into that next room.
But I don’t.
The door opens and the child disappears quickly into blaze of heated words and worse. The door is shut once again, giving me a few moments of temporary silence.
I let myself into my house and exhale shakily, consumed by unnamable grief. And, once again, guiltily close my door on the next room.