Your Neighbor Your Lover
I wrote this piece last spring as a part of my senior undergraduate creative writing thesis, which was a collection of short stories exploring female agency, the conditions of Asian American girlhood and womanhood, and the relationship between intimacy and loneliness. This story is about the ambivalence and consequent inertia of loving someone who wants more from you than you can give. Alternatively, this is a story about catching the ick.
At first you wanted him because he had the wide eyes of a housecat, and you could often hear him lifting pots of water onto the stove or the silver noise of him sorting forks and knives into his kitchen drawer through your shared wall. Later you wanted him because when it rained he left his shoes in the hallway, each stuffed with a neat bundle of that Sunday’s classifieds, and it was a liquid spring. You remember it raining the entire length of your courtship, the tiny globules of drizzle clinging to the wool of his coat collar, the sudden downpours, the occasional, startlingly profound sunshower. But then his socks started turning up in your laundry and once on your way into the building you dropped a bag of oranges in front of him, and the sight of him chasing an orange into the street was so undignified that you looked up at the telephone wires strung across the very gloomy sky and when you looked back down again he had been clipped by a postal worker on a bicycle and was lying on the ground, insisting you take him to the hospital.
He proposed to you in an upscale restaurant on the Upper East Side, pretended to drop a fork and everything for an excuse to get down on one knee beside the table. He was wearing a suit and you an evening dress, and the whole thing had felt romantic until he was looking up at you with the ring in a small silk box. The restaurant was humid and the floor was slick by the door, the coat closet dripping with long plastic coats, the rain outside a flat and incessant drone beneath the din of voices and steak knives and laughter. There was a famous actor sitting in a booth in the corner who looked up along with the rest of the restaurant when he asked you to marry him. An excited hush fell; the bottles of liquor behind the bar glowed in the half-light, the candle on your table extinguished itself with a wet hiss, and a waiter emerging from the kitchen stopped in his tracks, causing the swinging double doors to knock the tray from his hand so that several entrées and their plates fell to the floor.
No, you said, and you meant it, though it came out more forcefully than you would have liked. He got back into his chair and you both ate the rest of your meal as though nothing had happened. On the way out of the restaurant he insisted on asking for a photo with the famous actor; the actor, who was just putting his fork to a slice of tiramisu, acquiesced, though it was evident that he would have asked to be left alone had he not witnessed, just thirty minutes earlier, the spectacle of the turned-down proposal and been moved by a sliver of pity. You took the picture on your phone and seconds before the flash went off the actor said, rather insincerely, You two make a lovely couple, which meant that the reaction this statement evoked was captured, for all eternity, beneath the close-lipped fraud of your lover’s photographed smile.
There was nothing wrong with him, necessarily—he had very straight teeth and a full head of hair; he had a basic understanding of hygiene, and was the rare sort of cologne-wearing man who actually wore the correct amount; he did not have any particularly out-of-pocket beliefs about healthcare or climate change; he was one of the rare white men you had been with who had nothing to say about the color of your labia or the potential future attractiveness of your mixed-race children. He was not the sort of man to get worked up about needless things, such as the length of your pubic hair or how your last ex-boyfriend was still mailing your things back to you, one by one, with priority shipping. He did, however, have an unfortunate habit of insisting that he knew you better than you knew yourself, particularly when it came to sex, and, yes, you knew that this should have been enough for you to end things, but you were sick of the rain and enamored with the promise of dry shoes in the morning, and thus you allowed this to go on, this recurring argument that usually took place in real-time, during foreplay, his fingers beckoning knuckle-deep inside of you. That literally doesn’t feel good, you would say, feeling irritated and looking over his shoulder at the painting of a sunny Machu Picchu on his wall. Or sometimes the argument would take place more theoretically, while walking down the street in a light drizzle, or stopping at the mailboxes in the lobby of your building, and you would feel angry enough to end things—at least, until he’d slip a bundle of that Sunday’s comics into your shoes before going to bed or open an umbrella over your head when it was raining so hard the street looked flooded in silver coins, easy gestures which you mistook for gestures of love, even while you were citing your own body while he posited the bodies of his ex-girlfriends.
He once told you the problem with you was that good days made you suspicious. It was one of the truer things he’d ever said. For example, you had been having a good day prior to the oranges and the postal worker on the bicycle, and you had felt suspicious of its lastingness. On the train to the hospital, there was a woman selling pink umbrella hats. He had his shoulder in a makeshift sling. He could tell you were annoyed, and this made him annoyed; he bought an umbrella hat for two dollars and fifty cents and put it on his head. He said loudly, Are you having fun now? You felt embarrassed for everybody in the subway car and when his name was called in the emergency room you told him you were going to get some coffee and a slice of lemon cake from the café in the lobby but then took the subway home instead. Outside your apartment building there were still oranges in the street, bright against pavement darkened by that day’s rain, which was lukewarm and erratic, soft drizzly spells chased away by a violent torrent which nearly washed the neighbor’s Chihuahua into the gutter as it was lifting its leg against the nearest fire hydrant.
The restaurant proposal would not be the only one he would spring upon you over the course of your time together, which, in the scheme of things, was relatively brief and, in retrospect, would have been much more pleasant had it not been continually marred by these sudden and often very public declarations of love. There was the time in Central Park at midday, his pants’ knee muddy afterwards and two shirtless men nearby halting their slinging of a frisbee back and forth long enough to watch you shake your head. There was the time on the Brooklyn Bridge amidst the most optimistic of sunshowers, when he knelt in the cyclist lane as if he had learned nothing from the incident with the oranges, and a nearby group of tourists, completely misunderstanding the situation, smiled and clapped from beneath their bubble umbrellas when he stood up and closed the silk box with the ring still inside. It got to the point where you began to chew your food more carefully for fear of cracking a molar on the ring and eventually you went to see a psychiatrist in Morningside Heights to find out why you could not stop turning down his proposals, or, at the very least, why a part of you remained convinced that someday you might surprise yourself by saying yes. The psychiatrist was an alarmingly young white man wearing a yellow button-down shirt and checkered socks whose office was above an eyebrow threading salon. He showed you a series of Rorschachs. You’d thought this was an outdated practice, akin to astrology or lobotomy, but he appeared to be dead serious and so you looked at the cards as he held them up. He asked you what you saw and you wanted to tell him that each and every one looked like genitalia, except for one which looked like a monstrous bull with red nostrils, but you had a feeling this might skew the diagnosis in a less than favorable direction. Ultimately the fire alarm in the building went off and seeing this psychiatrist standing on the sidewalk having a conversation, or quite possibly a dick-swinging contest, with a fireman climbing down from his loud red truck sufficiently shattered the illusion that he would be able to tell you anything about yourself that you did not already know, and so you left without paying for the half-session and used some of the money to get the peach fuzz threaded from your upper lip.
Maybe, you thought, if you had never dropped that bag, if you had never had to see him chase that orange into the street like that, things might have been different. And sometimes you even daydreamed what life would be like if you were to knock down the shared wall between your apartments to make a home fit for two. But when you mentioned this casually to your landlord by the mailboxes one morning when you were feeling particularly worn down by the onus of turning down all of these perfectly earnest proposals, she looked rather alarmed and told you, in no uncertain terms, that that wall was load-bearing. What happened in the end was that you were together at another couple’s engagement party when he slipped the ring into your shot glass while you were salting the back of your hand and, already drunk, you took it right down with the salt and the tequila and the lime, your face pinching in the liquor’s aftermath before he even had the chance to get down on one knee, and after the ensuing endoscopy he told you that he had been thinking and perhaps he had gotten a little carried away by things and would need some space to sort things out. You agreed, but neither of your leases were up until the fall and so sometimes, after the rain had lifted and left a strange, sunny city-quiet behind, you could still hear him through the shared wall between your apartments, moving on from you.
Sydney Megan Kim is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, where she earned her BA in psychology and English. She is the 2018 winner of the Wesleyan University Hamilton Prize for Creativity for her short story, “The Driveway.” She currently lives in New York City. This is her first fiction publication. Find her on Instagram @sydneymegankim or Twitter @sydneymkim.