Thursday, October 14, 2004

I was planning to write about something else, but I'm so mad at one of our friends now that I have to vent and distract myself. The easiest way to explain what I'm so mad about to people who aren't from this part of the world is to have them think of Raymond Carver's short stories and the aftertaste they leave you with. Our friend is being self-destructive on a much larger scale, and it is affecting the people around him, including at least one precious kid. Being self-destructive is nothing unusual, especially here. I know that. But it doesn't mean I shouldn't get mad.

So I was sitting outside our apartment, smoking and trying not to choke on all the anger I feel. And something reminded me of the downstairs neighbors we used to have a year ago here: they used to get drunk all the time, and then they'd scream and fight and sing and throw chairs at each other and break windows till morning. And the police would never come, and when they would, they were helpless. Then someone else bought that apartment downstairs and the drunks disappeared. Everyone in our part of the building is extremely grateful and happy about it. Really.

To have neighbors like this is nothing unusual, especially here, in this part of the world. In Kyiv, our downstairs neighbors were just as horrible. Once, they had a drunken fight and when most fell asleep afterwards, one of them went to the kitchen, turned on the gas and left. Soon enough, one of the sleeping neighbors woke up because of this immense hangover thirst, and he made it to the kitchen to have a glass of tap water, and noticed that the gas was on. We were all extremely lucky that he did wake up and that he didn't light up a cigarette before he reached the kitchen. When I say "we" I mean all the people who live in our building, some 100 apartments and 400-500 people, not just my family upstairs. Thank God, someone bought that apartment a few years ago, and the drunks moved out, and our immediate world is much safer now.

So I was smoking and thinking about all of this, and then I realized that though it's totally normal to have neighbors that make your life hell, there are exceptions: Mishah and I are an exception, as well as the people who live in the two apartments that are closest to ours.

One of our neighbors plays chess, skis, studies Ancient Greek and Finnish, knows German, has a cute little dog that gets hysterical when left alone at night. This neighbor also studies to play the clarinet: she likes to do it around or after midnight, but it doesn't bother us at all because we can only hear her when we step outside to smoke. It's poignant: she's gradually getting better, but still, her clarinet sounds a lot like a breed of an elephant and a soccer fan trying to produce a classical tune. She is a wonderful woman.

Our other neighbors are as sweet. Recently, they've acquired an exercise machine that's too big to fit into their apartment, so they keep it by the staircase. I've been told I'm welcome to use it - and I did use it once but found it too hard to want to try again. They have a cat who always sits on the windowsill and watches me, and I always wave back at her and say good things about her that she can't hear but, I'm sure, understands. When I met her in person for the first time, she didn't run away - she acted as if I were part of her family - and the neighbors were very surprised because their cat is not known to be friendly to strangers - and I explained to them that I wasn't a total stranger to her. When I was having my insomnia this past month, the neighbor - the mother of the family - called me one morning to check if everything's okay: she was worried because the lights were on in my apartment for several nights in a row. I felt guilty for making her worry - and I was so moved by her concern. Not something you'd expect from your neighbors here.

Mishah and I have recently brought out an old carpet and set up a smoking area. Our neighbors' son is welcome to sit and smoke there, too. I use it as my office pretty often: I've even figured out how to make the internet work there. I'm not sure we'll be able to spend more than 10 seconds there when it gets really cold - but for now, it works beautifully.

Our building was built at the end of the 18th century. (I've only learned it recently, from the new downstairs neighbors, the ones who replaced the crazy drunks.) Only God and the building itself know something or all of it about everyone who's ever lived here.

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