When I met first my upstairs neighbor, my sister and I were sunning on the back patio of my new apartment building; the pavement was almost too hot to touch.
She walked outside barefoot with her trash, hair gathered into a tousled, messy bun, holding her enormous breasts with the lower half of her free arm. "You must be the new girl," she said, completely nonchalantly. She introduced herself and begged forgiveness for her free-spirited chest, barely contained by her tank top.
She's Cuban; she and her 7-year-old daughter live in the unit directly above me. She calls it her "crib," calls female friends her "girls." Her daughter's father isn't really in the picture anymore. She just started working again and everything's a mess. She spoke so quickly, offered so much information; I retained most of the background but forgot her name as soon as I heard it.
She and her friends — a hair stylist and a nail technician — sat in the stuffy, humid back stairwell, smoking cigarettes and pot, before they retreated to the patio with a bottle of cheap white wine. One offered to do my nails for cheap before she went home to Hungary for a few months to sort her life out. She showed me a rhinestone flower on her big toe, told me I could have one too.
In the past month since I moved in, I've either been traveling or kept mostly to myself, but I see her almost every day I'm at home. One night this week, she offered to share her Internet connection with me if we could split the cost; that night, she brought me a Tupperware full of fresh, homemade Indian food she'd just made. I'd just finished preparing a blue box of macaroni and cheese and borrowed a few tablespoons of milk to finish it off. She wouldn't let me eat it. "That shit's bad for you," she insisted.
I've come a long way in the past month already, what was once the stench of marijuana and tobacco in the stairwell now just…smells like home.
It was storming last night, and my satellite kept cutting out; with little else to do, I hopped upstairs barefoot, wearing pajama pants and a T-shirt, with my laptop, the wireless router and a big glass of red wine.
"You bitch," she said when I walked in. "I'd kill to be able to walk around braless."
I looked down, self-conscious, and shrugged. Always with the breasts.
It must a Cuban thing, this instant familiarity and tendency to overshare. But I love it. As I shuffled plugs around and struggled to keep a baseless torch lamp by the kitchen table upright, she told me all about her day, complete with a trip to the gynecologist. She rifled through file folders full of papers, looking for her account information so I could get the wireless set up. She knew her username was "cubankisses," but she couldn't remember the password.
Comcast's tech support wasn't cooperating; I fiddled with our two computers without the account information but eventually gave up. Her daughter's father was coming over later that night. They're trying to patch things up, adding yet another complication to her crazy life.
Both our lives are like that now, with so much changing in such a short time. I chose it; I thrive on conflict and cataclysmic change. Chaos seems to have sought her out and follows her everywhere.
While I worked, she rushed around her tiny apartment wearing her bra and an orange sarong, bossing her daughter, shuffling things around drawers and complaining about what a disaster everything was. Bossing her beautiful, well-behaved daughter; moving things from one organized drawer to another. She couldn't clean any more if she tried.
She knows I'm in therapy. (Who doesn't know I'm in therapy. Really.) I even gave her my doctor's name when I moved in. But I offered own my opinion when she asked me to diagnose her obsession to organize her space. She wonders why everything was still in total disarray when she looked at it.
This gorgeous, buoyant woman with an endless spirit, who built a makeshift altar on top of her refrigerator, who went to a shaman for a reading, who has an uncanny way of "picking up energy," vibes, on people she's only just met…has no sense of what I can see so plainly. It's not her house that's a mess. It's everything else. And rearranging drawers? That's not going to get anyone anywhere.
I told her to stop cleaning. The apartment is spotless; your daughter is settled in with a movie. Go out into the stairwell. Drink some wine, smoke a little. Just. Stop. Thinking.
It's a lot easier to tell someone else these things, but I'm getting better at telling myself, too. My upstairs neighbor tells me there's a sort of magic in my building. An energy we all feed off of. I can feel it: The tension in my neck and shoulders is easing; I can feel the right changes started to creep over me. There are still boxes to unpack in this new life I've found myself in, but I'm working on rearranging fewer drawers and just letting things unfold. The silverware finds its way into the right places; the pasta will still be somewhere, even if it takes me a little longer to find it.
Life has a way of working itself out.