It’s Friday night. Yasmin’s just cranked song one. The knock is so forceful that I’m more shocked to find my tiny neighbor at the door than I am to see that she is naked. Just gauzy, bright orange bikini-style underwear, chipped purple fingernail polish and toe-separating socks that could pull up to her calves, but she’s got them scrunched down as close to her drooping ankle bones as she can get. Her wedding band glints. I’ve heard only one voice recently. Sobs, mostly. If she’s going to complain about the noise from our singalong….
¿Quién es? My friends shout above Ricardo Arjona’s Minutos they’d been belting, each in their own key. Como se dice “naked neighbor I’ve never spoken to in my life?”
I have a very important job at the District Attorney’s office, I’m going to say. Did I pound my fists on your door when you were screaming to your husband back and forth? Not even the third, or three-hundredth time. If I had, though, I would have put some damn clothes on first.
She asks in perfect Spanish if we think it’s too early for certain individuals in our proximity to be sleeping. She’s serious. Her white arms flatten the tiny, empty bags of her white breasts against her chest. Her hair looks shoved around. Has she ever worn makeup? The only bruise I see is on her shin, low like a dishwasher door or bedframe hit her. But there are fat scars on her white belly. Raised. Orange. Not stretch marks. Those she has on her upper thighs and meatless hip bones, so white they’d probably glow under a blacklight.
¿Quién está allí, chica? They all shout over Ricardo in time to the beat. I hear the un-crunching of my blue bean bag chair as someone gets up.
“You better go,” I tell her in English. “We’ll close the music down. Promise.”
“Should I be sleeping?” She asks again in Spanish in the wants permission tense. “Está oscuro afuera,” she says, more like she’s asking if it’s dark out. It’s not perfect Spanish, actually. It’s overenunciated, like her teeth are sticky to her tongue. Like she learned it at la es-cue-la, not in the trenches her parents and their parents and their parents before them were made to dig so the world could roll by straight and narrow.
“What the hell?” Yasmin says in English before I can answer, cocking her head. Our neighbor repeats her question to Yasmin.
“Girl, you sleep whenever your little self wants. Todo está bien.” Yasmin smacks her gum, the same color as our neighbor’s panties, and doesn’t even try not to stare at our neighbor’s white eyes. Una Cuenta de Amor tinkles through Somara’s laptop’s dinky speakers. “We can’t hear you,” Razel yells. “Who’s at the door?”
“More importantly,” Yessica says, “who put this playlist together?”
“Right? Boo, hiss.” The bowl Yasmin made in her beginning pottery class in probably preschool gets bumped and cashews and candy corn patter on the tile. Un Historia dies out and Razel thanks the good Lord for the silence.
“Let’s keep it that way,” I yell into the party.
“Amen.” Razel thinks I share her hatred of one of the most romantic Spanish ballads of all time so she pumps up that hideous Ricky Martin hit from hell. But who am I to say? Maybe Neighbor’s livin’ la vida a little too loca.
By the time I face the door again, Yasmin’s already halfway into our neighbor’s apartment and the neighbor’s already unseen.
I transcribe my boss’s voicemails. Like I almost said: important. This one guy with a ruddy voice calls a few times a week. His messages are getting edgier. The latest, though. “I’m just saying, if you don’t back off, things are going to get a little less safe for you, possibly those you love. No one takes these kinds of cases for a reason, Gina.” In my email summary of her voicemail messages, I highlight this one in red, throw the text into bold and stop by her office.
“Saw your note,” Gina says without looking up. “Don’t worry. He argues by intimidation, every case I’ve ever opposed him on.” She hasn’t quit typing since I popped my head in.
“Seriously,” she says, tilting her head, her fingers still flying on the keyboard.
“I’m sorry. I just, is he right?” Gina raises her eyes to mine without moving her face. “About the reason why so few people take cases like this, I mean?”
“Yeah, but only because there aren’t that many.” She doesn’t stop typing. “Acid burning’s a real ruby.”
The neighbor comes to our door again the night of the hailstorm a week later and asks for Yasmin.
I had waited the storm out staying late at work (praise the good Lord, no voicemails), watching all that durable light shatter in the sky, the pots-and-pans clang of hail drowning out the thunder. The sky looked like a limp scarf by the time the sun started unlocking the bows in the straggling rain.
We hadn’t made a next-time plan, just talked about the neighbor’s body.
“Did you see the barcode on her wrist?” Yasmin asked.
“Did you guys stay up late talking about tattoo designs and where the best parlor is and call them and make appointments to get matching ones?”
“Si, chica.” I couldn’t tell if her smile is she’s happy or she’s trying to goad me.
“Was she naked?”
“Nothing but water for tea on.”
Then we had to get the door.
Neighbor’s hair’s in jagged snakes across her forehead and down her shoulders. She is nude, but with bruise-blue underwear. Asks for Yasmin.
I summon Yasmin in Spanish, who bolts away from the door at first. It sounds like she’s bowling in her bedroom until she bursts out and crinkles her eyes as she passes me on her way to the door with an armful of clothes, some of which look like mine.
She greets Neighbor by pointing to her thigh and asking what that patch that looks like a smashed plum is from.
“Granizo,” she says. Hail.
“You should put some ice on that,” Yasmin says, handing the stack of clothes off to the neighbor, and heads to our fridge, leaving me with our neighbor for the few seconds before I turn to follow Yasmin.
“Did you not even invite her in?” Yasmin pulls out a pack of frozen blueberries.
“That’s for my breakfasts.”
“Have you noticed how her scars look like they’re drawn on by crayon?”
“No,” Yasmin says. She turns on her toes, the arrow of her nose barely missing the knob of mine and heads back to the door with my blueberries. The harvest of a nameless, faceless day laborer’s work in scratchy air, which at least forced them to stay covered, for wages too low to afford the food they were gathering, all for some girl’s hail-struck thigh. Could have been my parents out there. The average lifespan of a farmer worker in this country is 49 years; my parents, repeating “you can be everything you want as long as you keep your head down” till they died, both beat the odds by almost a decade but their healthspan was about average: 25 years. How old Yasmin’s mom was when she had Yasmin. Her only girl but she told Yasmin like she told her brothers: be everything you want.
The blueberry picker’s work deserves honor.
I go after Yasmin but I’m too late again. I get to the door just as Yasmin’s entering the neighbor’s. She’s left our door wide open but carefully closes and locks the neighbor’s door, turning the deadbolt twice. The fuzzy light sharpens on the way out of the slit between the door and the grimy carpet in the hall.
“Did your parents ever work an apple field?” I shout at the oak slat. “What do you know about barcodes?” I yank my alma mater hoodie’s scrunched sleeves down to my wrists, the dark blue fading in patches and bleeding into the wheat gold of the BERKELEY across the chest. It’s tinted all my laundry blue.
I try to wait up for Yasmin but when it’s past midnight, I start to sleep. We won’t talk about it in the morning—I’ll wake up late and have to rush around Yasmin in the kitchen while she makes eggs and I make tea and I will regret that I changed up my usual morning routine order by pulling on the black pinstriped pants and nicest blouse before getting the breakfast because Yasmin will crash into me on her hurry out the door. I’ll have to change into my less comfortable navy pinstripes because my khaki slacks hadn’t dried from last night’s laundry load but at least I take the few extra moments before walking through my door to put on some clothes.
The clothes are one reason I no longer want to be a lawyer, though. You wear your money, your rank in the culture. Yasmin works at a community kitchen, teaching low-income folks in a food desert how to cook and they actually want her to look like a hippie.
“Is she head-scrambled?” I narrow the openings of my eyes, pretending to squint because of the sun. “Nope.”
“How do you know?” The cherry trees blossom in January and the muscular limbs wear the flowers like windbreakers. The thin rain from the sudsy clouds sounds like static on my hood. The whole outside smells like old plumbing.
“Talk to her, chica. That’s all.”
“When did you do that? The night with the blueberries?”
“Took her to the store to get stuff for juicing. She makes burrito bowls just like your mom used to.”
I stiffen. “Stuff?”
Yasmin bristles. Praise the good Lord we’re home. I’ve already got my key out and ready to jam in the door, but she turns to the neighbor’s door across the hall.
“By the way,” she turns to me and uses the neighbor’s door knocker, which squeaks like a shopping cart wheel, “I know what her barcode’s about.”
The guy who leaves threatening messages for my boss calls again. 31 Joshua Pike. He’s not an attorney. I can’t tell my boss that because she’ll ask for proof and I don’t know how I know that I know that. Gina’s got her door closed when I go to check on my way out, so I don’t hang around.
Razel and Somara are waiting outside my apartment and Razel’s brought her little sister.
“Am I late or are you early?” I ask. “Hi, Tanía.” Tanía waves and shrinks behind Razel.
“Yasmin’s not answering,” Somara says.
I unlock the outside door. The sound of running water from the neighbor’s bathroom fills the hallway. I hear a woman with Yasmin’s voice say something about candles. Also “Por qué no tienes una televisión?”
Our neighbor’s voice answers, “Boredom is the antidote to entertainment” in perfect English.
The water shuts off and pouring sounds take the place of the dull-applause sound of a filling bathtub. Neighbor groans and breaths sharp. The woman with Yasmin’s voice whispers “lo siento” over and over again, toggles English with the Spanish. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Can you not let us in?” Somara taps my hand that’s holding the keys. Razel glares at me. Tanía crinkles the bags of chips she’s holding and looks at Razel as if she’s going to starve.
“Lo siento, amigas.” I shove the door open too hard and it bangs against the wall, deepening the little dent in it, and rattles back toward us. I set my shit down on the counter and let my friends file past me. Razel starts the karaoke machine and hooks it up to her laptop. Tanía scrolls through the playlists. Somara flits around the kitchen, grabbing bowls and spoons and plates for when Calla and Blakely, the twins who moved to LA a few months ago and wanted to learn Spanish the momentito they met Somara in physics class, show up with storebought tortillas and garbanzo beans they mashed up and tried to fry. Yasmin suggested singing and we’ve been doing every Friday for a year.
Yasmin is not home. “I left something behind in the car,” I shout over some god-awful English song Tanía already has crowding through the laptop speakers and go back to the hallway. Thank the good Lord Razel hadn’t routed the music to the surround-sound system yet. If there was a good enough song to cover what’s going on across the hall, this is not it for sure.
“I think I was saying Buenos Dios over a year before I realized it was wrong,” the neighbor said. “I just thought that’s what people said to each other in the morning.”
“Well, Buenos Dios is pretty close to what you would say to someone in the morning. But ‘good Lord’ isn’t a bad way to greet people.” Yasmin laughs over most of the other sound until:
“But then, Josh started making fun of me since it’s not correct Spanish.” The neighbor gasps and coughs.
“Oh, he speaks Spanish, too?”
“He started to learn it when he figured out what I was doing.”
Our apartments mirror each other. The bathroom shares a wall with the hallway, which is like a stretched-out speaker. It’s quiet enough that I would have heard a car pull up in the parking lot about ten feet away had I been paying attention.
“Josh is a lawyer?” Yasmin says, quieter than before.
“He makes his living turning the tiny into terror.”
Yasmin and I never talk this much English.
“I am the sort of person who is more impressed with a tree than an electron microscope, a slug than an airplane.” Water sloshes onto tile. “Josh doesn’t understand this. At first, I think he thought it was cute, maybe, or that I was kidding, or that I didn’t really think that way or that he’d be able to change my mind.” The shower runs.
Anyway, he’d count the number of times I’d leave the room to take a call.”
“Where is he now?”
“One of my friends helped me get a restraining order after he threw the coffee table out the window when I wouldn’t translate my phone conversations. But I’m not sure if he still has a key.”
The water pouring had stopped and the fan whisper-screamed above the conversation, only swearing and coughing. The neighbor’s friends taught her Spanish but then Josh started to learn it. A stillbirth. 2nd- and 3rd-degree burns on 70% of her body. Restraining order violations. Quiet on both sides.
We start the music without Yasmin—I’d told everyone that she needed to help a friend and wasn’t sure when she’d be back—and are just into our second song when the smoke alarm in the neighbor’s apartment goes off. Yasmin shoves through the door yelling at us all to get out and tears through our living room to her bedroom, where she snags clothes out of her clean basket and races back through. Everyone but Tanía looks at me.
“Where ya goin’, Yas?” Tanía asks. She’s twelve, old enough not to be shy anymore but she’s always been much more comfortable with Yasmin than me even though we’ve all known each other since before she was born.
Yasmin barely pauses. “Lilly needs clothes,” she says over her shoulder.
“She doesn’t have her own clothes?” I say but the fire alarm in our place is going off now. Somara and I both call 911. Yasmin’s still inside when the fire truck comes.
“Don’t you not like Lilly?” Razel asks, chewing on the end of a braid.
Yasmin and Lilly come out, arms weaved. Lilly’s in a St. Patrick’sgreen pair of Yasmin’s socks and my blue bathrobe backwards. The door slams behind them and Lilly spins around, hands in fists in the air. Her panties match the blue of my robe. The red of the bubbled ooze from shoulder blades to butt matches nothing I’ve ever seen. Some of the lines—something dripped?—make barcode-like patterns all over.
Yasmin explains to the crowd I can’t move to join about nitric acid burns, the permanent confusion her nerves are in, flooding the sense out of Lilly every time anything touches her back.
“Didn’t you try to run?” Tanía asks.
“Why do you think it’s her back that’s burned?” Razel says, knocking Tanía’s shoulder with her palm.
Mi presencia no es necesaria. The truck is all flaily lights and squeaky trembling, our building now wears a growing gray top hat, the water saving it sounds like sand. As I slink around the firetruck, I hear Yasmin say, “Well, I think we now know whether he has a key.”
I’m driving beyond the limit—same day, maybe the next, but it’s dark like smoke out—waiting to turn out of my street, my turn signal like an overwound clock, a woop-drain, woop-drain, woop-drain in my ears. A girl in the middle of the road may be going up in smoke. There’s nothing there, I think. I believe it.
For the turn out of my neighborhood, I believe it. Through the big intersection with the pothole, I believe it. And then there’s the girl again, on the street before Church, standing with my hair and my shoes and holding with my hands all these clothes with the tags on still, covered in tags, everything 100% off. The clothes are blued like they can’t breathe and the smoke from a fire snatches up on each never-washed piece of clothing by the tag, and turning them all to haze, making it, them, her, undiscernible from sky.
Megan Wildhood is a creative writer and social worker at a crisis center in Seattle, WA. Her work, which centers on social justice, marginalized experiences and hope for healing as an act of resistance, has appeared in, among other publications, The Atlantic, The Sun, Yes! Magazine, and America Magazine. Long Division, a poetry chapbook ruminating on sororal estrangement, was released by Finishing Line Press in September 2017 and she’s currently working on a novel. You can learn more at meganwildhood.com.