The first time I saw her, a few days after she moved in,
My neighbor was standing on the landing late at night,
Frozen in the middle of opening her apartment door,
Staring up at the murky sky as if she wanted to scream.
For a few seconds I stood motionless
As the rain came down upon my head.
Then my neighbor lowered her gaze
At the stranger who gawked at her.
As I stared at her vacant, translucent eyes,
I imagined water running over ice floes.
Hers was a face painted on a doll
With nothing behind it except air.
Stunned, I bid her goodnight,
But she nodded in silence,
Let out an exhausted sigh,
Then walked into her apartment.
It started one day that we chatted
As we leaned on the railing of the landing
In front of the doors to our apartments,
While the wind chilled us with sudden gusts.
She wasn’t beautiful like the women on TV,
But she wasn’t at all like other girls.
She was my next door neighbor.
I would have been able to see into her room
If the wall between us were transparent.
My neighbor’s hair, like mine, was dark brown,
But her eyes were dry, hopeless,
As if she had been searching for a long time
Until she gave up.
I shared that I programmed websites,
But she asked me how I’d been feeling,
Alone in my tiny apartment
With only the TV and PC for company.
The loneliness I had bottled up inside myself,
Hidden deep within the folds of my mind,
Seemed suddenly exposed, raw,
And it burned through my skin.
“It is lonely, but I have my own life,”
I said hoarsely as I avoided her gaze.
I wasn’t happy, but the way I was living
Had been working out for me until then.
She waited until I dared to hold her gaze,
Then she offered a weary smile.
“Your bed must be hard and cold.
Do you also lie there and stare at the wall
As you wonder why you exist at all
In a world where everything turns to dust?”
As I returned home from the office,
The air smelled like autumn trees
And leaves yellowing under frosty skies.
Although the wind was blowing hard,
My neighbor looked down at me
From where she sat on the landing,
Her hands tucked into her armpits.
She seemed like a tiny, helpless thing
Trying desperately to conceal her pain.
On a different day, we sat side by side
On the grass of a nearby river embankment.
We watched the boats as they went by.
I could tell we were eager to open up,
But our lives were hard to explain
Even to ourselves.
I never managed to comprehend
That look she gave me from time to time.
I felt that her heart, like those eyes,
Had dried up and turned to stone.
“I’m just an ordinary, unimportant girl
Who is stuck with a dull, empty job.
I don’t think I’ve ever known what love means,
Or really cared about anybody else’s problems,
And we are enduring all of this
For no reason whatsoever.
What do we gain by tiring ourselves out
With so many silly endeavours?”
She could see through the lies and excuses
I told myself everyday to survive.
I tried convincing her she wasn’t alone anymore,
But her body stiffened, and her face went pallid.
“I miss many books on my shelf,
Which I haven’t read since elementary school.”
When, confused, I said I would buy them for her,
She let out a soft laugh that rang strangely loud,
Like the last gasp of some dying animal.
She turned and shuffled toward her home.
Cautiously, I followed her from far enough.
(My neighbor was right, of course.
Nothing in this life makes sense,
No one knows what tomorrow will bring,
Our happiness is short-lived, and so are we.)
After that time, we met almost every day.
We strolled slowly along or sat with a coffee,
And sometimes we watched online videos.
She became indispensable, and it scared me.
She showed me the old books on her shelf,
All worn and well used, stocked haphazardly,
Which she had read dozens of time over.
I borrowed some, and I soon found out
That someone had written them for us.
Many of the stories that my neighbor loved
Back when she was a carefree child growing up,
Those books she would have needed to share,
Most of them she lost along the way,
And many of their titles she forgot,
And a few of them won’t ever return in print,
But the memories remain fresh, bright, alive.
(Please, let these pages never be erased,
Let the memories saved here
We drank beer and talked until late at night.
She told me that she had tried everything
To feel better, but it hadn’t worked yet,
At least not very well.
She looked up at the night sky through the window
As she spoke at length about her loneliness,
How it waited under her skin
For any excuse to surface.
I liked protecting her feelings from the world,
So she wouldn’t feel ashamed nor isolated,
But I couldn’t erase that lonely look
Of someone drowning deep at sea.
We spent an afternoon in the park
Watching the autumn leaves fall
As the sky grew darker with clouds overhead.
My neighbor spoke about her mother,
Who left her by moving to a distant country,
After which her father was never the same again.
I witnessed her tears as they rolled down her cheeks.
Before she wiped them away, I reached out
And brushed them off with my fingertips.
The loneliness and desperation she contained
Were like a gas leak waiting for a match.
I hoped my touch might spark the explosion.
In her catharsis, something beautiful may happen,
Something new and real could come into being,
Just like the words that flowed from her lips,
Like the wind across ice floes on a frozen lake,
Leaving nothing in its wake.
My neighbor’s loneliness hurt more than mine did,
For it was hers that made her needlessly brave,
As if her life depended on facing her pain
And speaking honestly to me of it
Without caring what anyone thought of her.
We both agreed that we had nowhere else to turn,
And we embraced as the cold wind blew against us.
Instead of progressing in life, we were stuck
Pushing the walls of our small world together.
What awaited beyond was so big
That we lacked the strength to break out.
It felt more appropriate to reach
Through the gaps in the books we shared;
That emptiness inside both of us
Couldn’t be filled through our own words.
The walls of our cramped apartments were thin.
I listened to the sounds she made as she slept.
Even the slightest sigh, or breath she drew in,
They felt loud inside me as I lay awake in bed.
Her lips grew chapped, as did my fingers,
And we kept our hands warm inside our pockets.
Sometimes I found myself gazing at her mouth,
But I feared what would happen if we kissed.
We went out for karaoke and we sang softly.
We also ate sandwiches or sipped liquor.
The alcohol allowed us to laugh,
And also to grow much closer.
By now we often smiled in unison
As if our minds were connected by wires.
We could spend hours together
Without ever getting sick of each other.
The next day my neighbor woke up hungover,
And when she exited her apartment,
I was already sitting on the landing
Reading one of the books she had lent me.
I didn’t want to be hurt if I failed her now,
But I knew I couldn’t stand back anymore.
If my heart broke before hers did break,
Maybe it was best that way.
That night, we hid in my neighbor’s home.
Once she took off her faded shirt,
Her back looked almost translucent,
Naked and pale as the paper white sheets,
And I discovered the words written on her skin:
‘This is not a good story’.
(I dream of a woman whose tears are black
As ink spilled on snow white rice paper,
And who carries her burden of loss
Inside her all alone.)
I held her tight as we made love
While we listened to some old record.
Afterward we lay next to each other
And stared at the cracked ceiling.
Our breaths slowly grew shorter, quieter,
Then they seemed to stop entirely.
We remained perfectly still
And silent like stone.
We were floating there like ghosts
Caught somewhere outside of space and time.
She spoke of a black hole inside her heart,
Where everything she cared about had been sucked in,
Leaving only that void to consume her from within,
A hollow emptiness to which no one could give meaning.
I could tell she was crying,
So I hugged her tightly.
Her shoulders trembled
As her tears moistened my neck,
Shedding salty drops onto my collarbone,
Pouring her heart’s sorrow into me.
I held my neighbor’s slender body
Like I had wished to do for months.
I felt the soft, smooth warmth of every curve,
And how her breasts pressed against my chest.
Still, I barely heard her whisper,
“Our lives will end soon enough.
When it finally comes for me,
Please let my self continue
Through your hands and your thoughts.”
We awoke to an overcast, cold day
Like when my dad used to drive me to school.
It seemed so odd, lying beside this girl
While her face was turned towards mine
Instead of facing the wall or looking down
To be alone inside her secret world.
From then on, we slept together most nights,
Sometimes in our beds, and others on her couch.
We spent weekends watching television shows,
Listening to music we didn’t care for very much.
There were times when we had nothing to say
Except for anything related to the past, or work.
(Some days she lacked the strength to get up.
She would lie in bed from morning to night,
And whispered words over and over to no one
Or wept silently until she fell asleep.
Each time the waves of grief swept over her,
I wondered if the tide would take her away.)
We decided to move to a small apartment
With a home office for my job,
And empty space for her father’s stuff.
We found a cheap place in a town close by.
The landlord liked our faces,
So we didn’t have to offer references.
On a Sunday evening, after we exited a movie theater,
My neighbor talked about getting married some day.
(The black hole in her chest
Had continued growing stronger,
And she admitted that she feared
That one day it would swallow her up.)
Her dark hair fluttered lightly behind us
While the rising sunlight reflected off the puddles.
I held on to her hand tightly and I stared up ahead
As the light of a new day spread its glow across us.
All the desires I harbored became so clear
That they overwhelmed me with their beauty,
Transforming this world into an endless mirage
Within which we floated between joy and sadness.
(I wish I could find my old books again,
To take them with me everywhere I go.
Every time I close my eyes at night,
All I can see is her back as she turns away.)
We could spend a whole day
Holding each other like two children might.
I had never felt at home with anyone before,
And I feared that it would collapse if I let go.
I think my neighbor and I became happier
After we got engaged.
We got married in the city hall
In front of ghost guests,
A large crowd.
(Every single morning, when I wake up,
My heart is heavy, my mind foggy with despair,
And I grow even colder whenever I believe
That I can hear her footsteps approaching me.)
My head filled up with dreams to fulfill
In this city that seemed too big,
In a place full of all sorts of new stuff I needed,
In a world in which I now wanted to stay.
I couldn’t take away her look of loneliness,
Of having spent her entire existence,
Since birth, as an isolated creature,
And knowing that her loneliness
Was a natural law.
(Sometimes my body freezes abruptly,
As if a black cloud has descended upon me
To suck out every breath and consume me.
I’m thrown into the water at the edge of a whirlpool.
All the people I care about are swept away
Alongside the debris from the broken shipwrecked hull.
Then I hear my next door neighbor whisper,
“Let us disappear, please.”)
I never got used to the fear
That threatened to overwhelm me
Whenever I got a glimpse
Of the words written on her back.
That sentence would surface and resurface
In the corners of my neighbor’s sight.
Whenever I could read them in her vacant gaze,
She would stare at me,
Or right through me,
As if asking,
“Why are we still this lonely?”
The only way for me to cope was with words,
Or by pretending that I didn’t notice
How she disappeared further inside herself.
To fill that void within her,
We tried to live normal, boring lives,
Drifting along without any particular goal,
Just like our neighbors did.
(If I drown now, it won’t be for long.
The world will stop spinning,
It will stop and it will go dark
Like the ocean does at night
When everything becomes still and silent,
Nothing moving except the surface ripples
Of waves from far away.)
The world around us slowly moved on,
And I can’t describe what went on inside my head.
Maybe I was trying to hold onto a solid ledge,
And everything of which I could make sense.
The last time I saw her, she walked down the hallway,‘This Is Not a Good Story’ by Jon Ureña
And then beyond the entrance of our home.
Her fading footsteps didn’t sound like they belonged
To a young woman anymore.