I got off on the wrong foot with my downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Kirk. I should say, the wrong feet. I wore clogs back then. Really heavy, wooden ones. Very Hans Brinkerish. Clompity clomp. And of course there were no rugs in my apartment. And I did live on the second floor. And she was elderly and didn’t sleep well. And yes, I should have known better. My only excuse was my age. But also, she should have known better. Her only excuse was her age. And I guess that’s why she phoned our landlady and accused me of operating a whore house.
A slight misunderstanding. I was able to clear it up by explaining to the landlady that there was merely an unfortunate, though easily remedied, proximity between the window lamp and the red burlap curtains. A decorating faux-pas. But certainly not a reason to assume I was a prostitute, advertising my own little red light district at 311 Auburn Street. My landlady agreed not to throw me out on my keister. But she did urge me to try harder to get along with my neighbor.
So I bought Mrs. Kirk a pumpkin. I assumed that was the sort of neighborly thing people in Ithaca did for one another. Although in the Bronx apartment buildings where I grew up, it was considered the height of civility to just mind your own business.
Still, I wanted to do right by my neighbor. I would have carved it for her, but I was afraid of sharp objects. Making a Jack O’Lantern required a certain familiarity with knives that I neither had, nor wished, to acquire. Which is why I simply left the pumpkin, uncut, at her front door. With a note: “Greetings from your upstairs neighbor.” Apparently, this caused offense. Mrs. Kirk called our landlady once again. She claimed I was harassing her.
The landlady phoned me up immediately. “Are you some kind of a nut?” she demanded. I didn’t know how to answer that but I promised I would try harder. I agreed to wear slippers in my apartment instead of clogs. I agreed to take the garbage bins, both mine and Mrs. Kirk’s, from the back shed to the curb and from the curb to the back shed, every week. I agreed to have no visitors after nine p.m. and to play no music after eight. I swore I would not make a peep on Sundays.
I felt especially noble and virtuous. I was doing my bit. And all Mrs. Kirk had to do, for her part, was to refrain from hissing at me whenever our paths crossed.
I messed up. I forgot to lug the trash cans out one week. A short while later I had some friends over for Meatloaf Surprise. (Nobody actually knew what it was; that was the surprise.) They stayed until nearly eleven and when they left, they did not leave quietly. And one Sunday morning I danced around my living room in ecstatic communion with Carole King, thus breaking three good-neighbor commandments all at once: no loud music, no dancing, no nothing on Sunday mornings.
But, most grievous of all: I got a kitten.
This was a mistake on so many levels. I should have known my limitations, from the countless dead goldfish and turtles of my childhood. But anyway, I got a kitten.
I named her Anais, for the writer Anais Nin, whose diaries I was consuming at a feverish pace, but whose name I didn’t know how to pronounce. I called her Anus. Mrs. Kirk could hear every sound I uttered in my apartment. She did not appreciate hearing me call “Anus, Anus,” all day long.
And there is something else. But I really don’t want to tell you. However, I feel I must: I didn’t know that I was supposed to set up a litter box. Poor Anais. Luckily, she was quickly rescued by a friend of mine who gave her a comfortable and appropriate home and changed her name to Lucas. (As it turned out, Anais was a boy.)
Mrs. Kirk was forced to endure my presence for seven more months. When spring arrived, my parents presented me a round-trip ticket to London as my college graduation present. I was meant to stay three weeks but once there, I knew I could never return to Auburn Street and I ended up living in London for the next two years.
My father and sister drove up to Ithaca to give away all my things. Mrs. Kirk took an immediate liking to my father. I would not have believed this was possible but my sister swore it was true.
Dad gave Mrs. Kirk my cutting board and singing tea kettle and five mis-matched mugs. He said she came very close to giving him a hug.
My sister couldn’t understand what I had against my downstairs neighbor. “She’s charming,” Laura told me, during our one and only trans-Atlantic phone call. “Your perceptions about people are not always accurate, you know. Try not to alienate every single person you meet in England."
I had to admit, that was good advice.
So when one new friend asked if I had read the diaries of Anais Nin, I lied and said that I never even heard that name before, but I would look for the books in our local library. She said I was refreshingly open-minded and curious, for an American.
I smiled, humbly. I was determined to try harder.