Once I had a life full of peace, calm and quiet. Then came the baby. No, not my baby. My neighbor’s baby. And it might just drive me – single, childless, me – insane.
I wake up every day at 7 a.m., and the baby is up also, usually crying, and so I turn on music. I don’t even have to blast the speakers to drown out the cries. There is silence in the afternoon when I am working. I imagine this is when the baby sleeps. Then there is noise again. I turn the stereo back on. I am making this work, I have told myself so many times.
I will fully admit that this is the kind of thing we tell ourselves so we don’t go completely insane in this big, lonely city. That the scenario is less than ideal, uncomfortable at some points, and full-on infuriating at others. But I have seriously considered moving out because what happens when the baby starts talking and, based on everything I know about her thus far, never shuts up?
When I moved into my new apartment a year and a half ago, my next-door neighbors, barely seen, names not known, were childless. Together we lived anonymously, in our special urban bliss. I spoke with the husband half of the couple a few times in the hallway, but only in passing. We do not know each other’s names. We will live forever without knowing them.
Because of high ceilings and thin walls, however, I learned certain things about them. She is not a smoker but possesses the deep, husky voice of one. He really likes Vampire Weekend. Once they threw a boisterous party where, as best I could tell, everyone was playing bingo. They are in possession of power tools and are not afraid to use them.
There are certain things they have probably learned about me, too. I spend too much time on YouTube. I like to throw boozy brunches for my friends. I watch American Idol. I have had a few bad moments with customer service representatives from my health insurance company. Sometimes I curse to myself.
I imagined we knew just enough about each other that we wouldn’t want or need to know anything else. We were grown-ups living our separate lives. I am a single woman pretty much all of the time, and they are engaged in something resembling domestic bliss. Never, ever the twain shall meet.
And then, sometime last fall, they had a baby. That’s when I first remember hearing the baby crying anyway. Why do they cry so much? I felt a small sense of superiority that I had somehow made the right choice about not having a child. Babies cry. Listen to that damn baby. You guys are suckers, having that baby.
I suppose I could still have a baby. I’m 39. If I don’t do it soon, it’s not going to happen, unless I adopt. Lately becoming a parent has started to feel like an impossibility. It was something I once wanted. I had a relationship where it seemed like we were headed in that direction, but then we broke up. And I’m a working artist in New York, which means I am barely breaking even most of the time. How could I afford one on my own? The things I would have to do to raise a child would involve me changing my entire life, and I just don’t feel enough of a sense of urgency burning in my womb to make that happen.
So, when I heard that baby cry, I thought to myself, See what you are not missing out on? High up in my castle on Planet Smart Single Lady. Well, guess who’s the sucker here? Me. Because even though I don’t have the baby, and all the benefits of having the baby (including, but not limited to, a deep, emotional connection with another human being, the joy of parenting, plus a brand new stream of pictures to post to Facebook), I am still living with the crying baby.
The baby does more than just cry, of course. She happily gurgles. Sometimes she has long, nonsensical conversations with herself. Why is listening to all of this any different than hearing “Oxford Comma” at full blast? It’s all just noise. I should be able to get used to it.
The answer is simple. It is a constant reminder of the choices I made – and did not make. And I would like to feel good about where I am in my life as much as possible. At the very least, I should feel good about myself in my own home.
But I believed I had made a certain peace with it. It has helped that I have learned even more things about my neighbors these past few months. I know they love to make their child laugh. They don’t lose their patience, but once I heard her plead softly to her crying child, “Honey, mommy is just so tired.” He still likes Vampire Weekend, but he’s pretty crazy about “Old McDonald” these days, too. Now I know this about them: They are good parents.
Here we all are, parents, baby, single lady, living together, in noise and music and silence.
And then I ran into them in public one day. It was a weeknight, early, and I went to a winery about a mile away from our apartment building. I had just gotten my hair cut, and I felt comfortable in my skin. I had an hour to kill before I met friends at another bar. I had a journal with me. I wanted to collect my thoughts for the day, something it has grown harder to do in my own home with all the noise. These delicious moments alone with a glass of wine have always felt so exquisite to me.
I walked in the door of the winery, and I heard a familiar squeal, and then I heard a man say, “There’s our neighbor.” Because I do not believe that the whole world revolves around me, or that babies cry just to wake me up in the morning, or that mothers sing to their babies loudly just to remind me that I will never have a child of my own, or that when I walk in a bar and hear someone say something, that it’s about me, I ignored the voice, and began to take my coat off.
But it was about me, this time; it was my neighbor, and he was talking to me. And when he finally caught my eye, he smiled and said, “It’s the sound that follows you wherever you go.” As if he knew. Oh, he knew.
There was the baby at last, on her mother’s lap. I barely glanced at her, I must admit, because I did not want to have a face to match to the noise. Another kind of person might have introduced herself again to her neighbors, and cooed over the child. I wanted her to remain an abstract.
I had one sleeve of my coat off and then a sharp thought occurred to me: If I have to listen to that noise while I am trying to have a glass of wine and write in my journal about what I’m doing with my life, I’m going to lose my goddamn mind. So I put the dangling sleeve of my coat back on my arm and said to him, “Actually, I think I’m going to leave,” and then he laughed for a significant amount of time. He was still chuckling as I walked out the door.
Now we knew even more about each other. He was laughing his way through the noise, because he couldn’t avoid it. And I wanted to run from it – and still could.