Author’s Note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
Ivana opens the door and flicks the switch. A bare bulb lights a short hallway—my hallway. “That is the bathroom, and you’ll share it with him.” She gestures to the right, and then to my neighbour’s door at the end of the hall.
I click on the bathroom light and wrinkle my nose.
“He was supposed to clean it.”
“It smells,” I say.
“OK, I will clean it with bleach.”
She looks exhausted at the thought. Her coarse, bleached hair matches the no-longer whites of her eyes, and purple bags droop underneath her lower lids. It could just be the Eastern European thing—we all get those bags sooner or later. My grandma has them, my mom has them, and I know they’re coming for me.
Ivana unlocks the first door on the left.
“This is yours.”
Looking at my first apartment, I feel a surge of giddiness. A previous tenant has painted the bedroom dark blue, and there is a layer of dust on all the surfaces. We do a damage deposit inspection, and Ivana ticks off all the little dents and scratches on the walls, of which there are many.
I barely pay attention. Nobody else will eat my food. I can leave my dishes in the sink. At four hundred bucks a month, I can manage just fine with my coffee shop job and music gigs. A shared bathroom is OK, even if it stinks a bit.
When I tell my friends I’m moving into The Ivanhoe, they look concerned, inevitably picturing the scuzziest bar and hotel on Main Street—also named The Ivanhoe.
“It’s not that Ivanhoe,” I keep repeating. “It’s an apartment building up the hill.”
Though in truth, my Ivanhoe is only a marginal upgrade. The neighbourhood is about midway through its eventual gentrification.
Actually, it’s more like our Ivanhoe. My friend and former roommate, Laura, was the first to move into the building. Laura had been an actress since childhood and was used to making thousands of dollars per job. Unfortunately, she never learned to manage her money, and by the time she moved into The Ivanhoe, she owed the government tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes. But she’s kept her fabulous shoes, of which I’m a bit envious.
Next it was Jake, Laura’s friend from high school and a current art school student. Jake has his own challenges at The Ivanhoe. If he forgets to close his windows, pigeons poop on the sills and their feathers float onto his paintings.
Now it’s my turn to move in, and I keep joking that we’re an artist version of the 90’s soap drama, Melrose Place.
The first time I meet my neighbour, he’s coming out of his apartment, shirtless and carrying a mountain bike. My friend and I are moving in the last of my boxes through the cramped hallway, and we have to back up to let him out.
“Hey, I’m Leah, your new neighbour.”
“Hey,” he says, looking us up and down, slowly. “Welcome to the neighbourhood. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
We smile politely as he puts on his sports sunglasses and hoists his bike on his shoulders as if it were light as a backpack. There’s something in the way he won’t look me in the eye. His boxers ruffle above his pants. He would be hot, if he didn’t give me the total creeps.
The first time I ever heard a “murder ballad” was when someone played me Nick Cave’s album, simply titled Murder Ballads. It was not screaming heavy metal with a chainsaw for accompaniment. It was beautiful, moody, and unsettling in the best possible way.
When I joined a band and started playing old-time, Appalachian folk music, I was excited to add traditional murder ballads to our repertoire. The well-worn murder ballad trope is that of a man killing a poor young girl down by the river. It’s a bit disturbing that there are so many songs like this. But to be fair, there are also songs about women killing their children in what might now be considered post-partum psychotic episodes, as well as a few in which women kill men. Our band specializes in the dark stuff.
I now sing “Henry Lee”—a song about a woman who kills her beloved because he loves someone else—with chilling perfection. It feels transgressive to use an “I” pronoun in a song about murder, even through the cloak of tradition. I channel my energy from my memories of one particular still-living ex-boyfriend. Every show, I make him pay in blood for his betrayal.
My new band takes up most of my spare time. We were asked to fill in last minute for the cover story of a national folk magazine, and now the band has a buzz we are scrambling to live up to.
For starters, we hadn’t anticipated all the paperwork. If I’m not practicing guitar and singing or recording demos, I’m mailing CDs to radio stations, sending press kits to festivals, or applying for grants. It all seems a bit overwhelming for my two bandmates, almost ten years older, with families of their own. But I have the energy for it. Though I’m terrified of performing—I have sickening stage fright—I am starting to live my dream of being a full-time musician.
I’m so busy with the band and work that I don’t have a proper housewarming. Instead, a few months later, I decide to throw a Chanukah party. The next time I see my neighbour in the hallway, I invite him to stop by the party—it’s the neighbourly thing to do. He gives me a maybe from underneath his sunglasses.
I’m a little awkward around him now, because lately I’ve heard noises coming from the bathroom. The walls are thin, and the plywood doors don’t mask much.
I try describing the noises to my friends, but it’s hard. He sounds like an animal I’ve never heard before—a mixture of grunts and screeching, but in a lower register.
My friends suggest that he’s masturbating, but I give him the benefit of the doubt, if only because I’m unwilling to entertain that particular thought with its accompanying mental slide show. Whatever it is, it’s unnerving, and I can’t fathom talking to him about it. It doesn’t happen every day, but often enough to be part of my sonic landscape—along with the bass of his electro-industrial music that chugs through our shared wall at 7:00 am. That early, the singer’s growling is almost comical. Maybe he’s sick of my practicing.
The day before the party, I finally clean our bathroom. I stopped cleaning it for awhile, waiting for my neighbour to pick up the slack, but he hasn’t cleaned it once since I moved in.
Early in the evening, on the day of the party, I hear my neighbour leave and slam the door. He doesn’t return until late, after everyone has gone.
After the holidays, the band starts booking summer shows. All the big folk festivals want us this year, and it looks like we’ll be touring for at least six weeks out of the summer. I decide to ask around and see if anyone wants to sublet my place.
Laura’s friend, TJ, is looking for somewhere to crash before going back to his parents’ farm in Saskatchewan for the harvest. We make a deal in which TJ pays one month’s rent, but can stay for six weeks, and I can come back for a few nights here and there between legs of my tour.
TJ is a man of few words and even fewer possessions. All of his clothing consists of several changes of black clothes in the same make and brand, and he wears it every day, like a uniform. In the summer he switches to short-sleeved work shirts and shorts of the same ilk. TJ is vegan, doesn’t drink or do drugs, and is the lead singer of a punk rock band that has a song called “I Hate Cigarettes (But I Love the Hand That Holds Them).” For some reason, I trust him.
I tell my neighbour about the upcoming tour and TJ. He seems cool with it, but it’s hard to tell. He always speaks to me with this weird half smile, and the bathroom noises have been happening more and more. I try to keep the front door open to the main hallway when I see him.
One night I have what I can only describe as a dream, though it feels like an altered state somewhere between sleeping and waking. I’m in my room with the blue walls and someone is standing at the foot of my bed. I try to sit up, but my body is as heavy as a dead thing. When I finally struggle free and come to consciousness, the room is empty. I get up and check my door. It’s still locked. This becomes the first of many dreams like this.
Our building clique continues to grow. Jake’s friends Sonya and Pete have moved in, and my friend Heather is getting an apartment on the third floor next month. Sometimes I walk through the halls in my pyjamas, going to and from my friends’ apartments. These are the glory days, I say to myself. Sometimes I feel as though I am an eighty-year-old woman looking back on her twenties—as if I could project my consciousness 55 years into the future while simultaneously experiencing the present.
Pete, a skateboarding tattoo artist, has recently taken over from Ivana as the building’s caretaker, and we’re all relieved. Pete promises to deal with the pigeons, and he’s full of gossip and gritty stories about the other tenants. There are hoarders, drug addicts, prostitutes and dead old people. There are also bugs, rodents, and a colourful array of fungi.
One evening, I hear the shower going in the bathroom. It continues for an hour, and I start to worry. He doesn’t usually take showers this long. I peek out into our hallway and flick the light switch, but nothing happens. It’s misty and dark and the sound is like a waterfall. Fear floods my limbs, and I quickly shut and lock my door.
My neighbour has turned on the shower and is waiting for me to come into the dark hallway to see what’s going on. Then he’ll grab me.
No. I have to keep my wits about me. The light has simply burned out.
Why has the shower been on for an hour? I realize I have to pee.
I poke my head back out and wait for my eyes to adjust. The door to the bathroom is half open and dark inside.
What the hell? Did he just leave the shower on and go out? The flow of water is steady, like it’s on full blast without a body interfering with the stream.
I leave my apartment door wide open so the light streams out, and it’s then that I see water pouring down from the ceiling.
Oh shit—that’s not the shower.
I call Pete and he comes over right away, opens the front door, rolls his eyes, and swears. The junkies upstairs have probably left the tap on. As a recovered addict, he has little patience for some of the tenants.
Just then, my neighbour opens his door and asks what’s going on. Without making eye contact, I tell him we’ve got a deluge on our hands.
“Why didn’t you knock?”
“I didn’t think you were home.”
Pete runs up to deal with the source of the water, and comes back half an hour later with a mop and bucket.
My neighbour and I stand in our respective doorways, watching the bathroom ceiling drain.
“Geez, what are we supposed to do if there’s a fire?” I wonder out loud.
“I’d save you, don’t worry.”
“Oh… Ha ha. Hopefully it won’t come to that.”
He would save me? Twenty minutes ago I was convinced he was going to grab me and take me down to the river. I don’t know what’s real anymore. Maybe the dreams are getting to me.
Summer is here, and the band’s getting ready to go on tour. TJ moves in, and I leave.
The tour is a bit surreal. I see my own face, huge, on the cover of the Winnipeg weekly paper. People that I don’t know recognize me. The banjo player from one of my favourite bands flirts with me in an elevator and I’m struck dumb.
One night there’s a jam in the lobby of the hotel where all the festival artists are staying. I play and sing until all hours of the night with people whose albums I have memorized—my folk heroes.
At the Calgary Folk Festival, we meet a band from San Francisco that plays a style of music similar to our own. Our bands jam together, and the bandleader approaches me afterwards.
“Hey, I really love your voice.”
“Thanks, yeah, your band is great too.”
“Can we talk later? We’ll be working on a new album soon—maybe we can get you to come down and record.”
“Really? Sure. Yes. I’d love to.” I don’t quite know how to take it all in.
That night I make out with the keyboard player of a funk band at 2:00 am in the hallway of our hotel. I barely sleep and drink way too much free alcohol. When I do sleep, I’m dead to the world, and nobody is standing beside my bed.
My new routine includes signing CDs for fans and doing media interviews. I develop a bit of an ego, though a fragile one. Unfortunately, through all of these unbelievable new experiences, my stage fright remains an unpredictable and debilitating shadow. Sometimes it takes more than a few songs into the set before my hands stop shaking and my voice steadies. I need my bandmates to do the talking between songs, and I am disappointed in myself for being terrified of the one thing I want to do most. I don’t know how to live up to my own hype.
Between festivals, I go home for a few days to a spotless apartment. My clutter is neatly organized in one corner, and TJ’s two pairs of shoes are lined up carefully by the door.
There’s only one bed, and we sleep in it together. TJ wants to cuddle and I am reluctant at first, but then soothed by the feel of a warm body. We stray a little beyond cuddling, but only ever so slightly over the line. It’s obvious to both of us that this is only a cuddle of convenience.
With TJ here, my bad dreams are still on hold. I ask him if he’s seen my neighbour. Here and there, he says. He thinks my neighbour has terrible taste in music and seems angry a lot. And he never cleans the bathroom. TJ has stopped cleaning it in protest, and I can’t really blame him. I ask him if he’s heard any noises, but he hasn’t.
A few days later the noises start up again.
“Hey, he’s doing it again! Listen.”
“Oh yeah… Gross.”
I don’t see my neighbour at all before I leave again, I only hear him through the walls.
Coming back from a summer of festivals is anti-climactic. I go back to my coffee shop job, tired and anonymous. TJ and I overlap by about a week, and the walls of my apartment close in on me. The bathroom is always occupied in the mornings. I’m relieved when TJ heads for Saskatchewan. After he leaves, I clean the bathroom with bleach and let it sit in the bowl for extra long.
I decide that next time, instead of cleaning, I am going to talk to my neighbour. It’s time I learned how to stand up for myself. On stage, I kept reminding myself that bravery is when you’re scared of doing something, but you do it anyway. If I can sing in front of thousands of people, surely I can ask my neighbour to clean our shared bathroom. If I just ask him nicely, it’ll be fine. I don’t know why I feel so uneasy around him.
The next time I see him, I ask if he’s got a minute. He nods and steps into my doorway. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to phrase this. I will be as neutral as possible, I will express my needs, and then I will gently suggest that we set up a cleaning schedule so that we can both enjoy a nice clean bathroom. I say all of this perfectly, but in reply he only stares at me, hard. It is perhaps the first time we have ever made real eye contact.
And then, suddenly, he is shouting at me. I am so surprised that I back into my kitchen, putting a room’s length between us. His words pass through my ears without sticking. I just catch “disgusting,” “sub-letter,” and “don’t you tell me.” I stare at him, wide-eyed, my stomach in my throat.
“I think you’d better go,” I finally manage to squeak.
Thankfully, he does, but not without a final rant and a door slam.
I stand in the same spot in my kitchen for a few minutes, just staring at the door. I’ve never had a fight like this with anyone outside of my family. But I know, from experience, that he’ll calm down. People always do. I remember my many childhood fights with my older sister—how she bullied me to get what she wanted. I’m shaken, but I need to stand my ground this time. I have my own life now, my own apartment—I won’t be pushed around or intimidated anymore. I force myself to breathe, and then quietly leave my apartment to debrief with Heather.
A few days later, I hear my neighbour coughing in the hall outside my door. It sounds like he’s fake coughing, like the kids in my high school did when they were trying to annoy a substitute teacher. He’s coughing to hide the words that he’s saying. I can’t quite make it out, but I’m unnerved by the fact that he’s outside my door.
The next day, he’s there again, coughing, so I tiptoe towards the door.
“Heil Hitler,” he coughs out.
It can’t be. He can’t have just said that. I must have misheard because of the coughing.
“Cough, cough, Heil Hitler, cough.”
I freeze. How does he even know that I’m Jewish? I think back through our many short conversations. Oh yeah, the Chanukah party.
But he couldn’t know that my grandparents were holocaust survivors. The particular way in which those words turn my body into an ice sculpture.
I picture opening the door and confronting him, but my body is as heavy as in one of my dreams. I call a friend who lives up the street, and tell her what’s going on in a whisper. She tells me that I need to leave. But I want to stand up for myself. I won’t let him chase me from my apartment. I won’t let him get away with it. It’s my apartment. She tells me to pack a bag—she’ll be there in ten minutes.
From my friend’s house, I call Pete and explain the situation. He advises me to make a noise complaint to the building’s management company instead of calling the police. It’s more likely to have an effect on my neighbour’s tenancy, and less likely to make my situation worse than it already is.
A few days later I venture back to The Ivanhoe for a change of clothes. There is no sign of my neighbour, so I stay the night. The next day he doesn’t appear either, so I stay put. After a week, I call Pete for news, and he stops by to chat. Apparently my neighbour hasn’t paid his rent in three months. Pete knocks on his door several times, and then opens it with his skeleton key.
The room is empty except for a stained mattress.
The room is empty except for several unopened letters from the building’s management company.
The room is empty except for a few swastikas carved into our shared wall with a knife.
The room is empty except for a page from a machine gun catalogue taped onto the fridge.
The room is empty.