Illustration by Blair Thornley
My first apartment is decidedly average. It’s a squat, 1960s building with little personality; the manager has tried to spruce it up with a tarp-lined decorative fountain and some half-dead plants still in their plastic nursery pots. It has low ceilings and no air conditioning and tired carpet that hasn’t been replaced in 20 years.
I focus on the positive; the apartment has a dishwasher and is on a quiet street lined with mature oak trees. And above all, the rent is spectacularly cheap. I find my roommate through Facebook and decide she is “safe” based on social media photos taken at Badger tailgates and her job as a third-grade teacher. We meet for a beer to size one another up before signing the lease.
As with many old apartments, the place has eccentricities that you discover after moving in and come to accept. I learn that “heat included” means we keep the windows cracked through the Midwestern winter to offset the radiator, which is fixed at 85 degrees and smells like burnt hair. I calculate precisely the right position for the separate hot and cold knobs in the shower and become adept at leaping to safety to avoid random blasts of scalding water. I am efficient at the eight-point turn required to extract my car from its parking spot.
At first I take pride in the good deal and wear the inconveniences as a badge of honor. Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy when I see that the co-workers who have become central to my social life live in apartments with rooftop pools and doormen that I had deemed too expensive. The fashionable furniture in their lobbies isn’t bolted to the floor with an old bike lock. The grout in their showers doesn’t need regular scrubbing to keep mold at bay. A friend tells me she is turned off when she sees a date’s “sad” apartment. I don’t offer to host Bachelor night.
Despite occasionally feeling self-conscious about my living situation, I tell myself I made the right decision enough times that I’m convinced it’s true. After all, I spend most of my waking hours at work, so the apartment primarily serves as a storage unit for my few belongings. It’s early March 2020, and I re-sign the lease without much thought. A few weeks later, I am told to work from home indefinitely.
My feelings about the apartment change when I have no choice but to spend time there. Has it always felt so stuffy? Did this couch always have a broken spring? Whose hair is this worked into the carpet? The smallest inconveniences become intolerable. Not having central air was a minor issue when I spent the hottest part of the day in a climate-controlled office, but in the August heat I feel sweat trickling down my back during Zoom calls. I get in the habit of keeping every window open — there are five in total — to encourage a cross breeze.
I work long hours, and I spend them alone once my roommate resumes in-person teaching. Solitude has never particularly bothered me, but even I struggle. I crave conversation like water or sugar or red meat. Without a social outlet, I start listening more intently to the noise of the neighborhood spilling in through the open windows.
When the sound gets close enough, I see it isn’t a truck at all but a man in a go-kart redesigned to look like a car in a Nintendo game, complete with blasting Double Dash!! theme song and a full Mario costume.
The house across the street goes up for sale and quickly sells. It’s an old house with a wraparound porch and stained-glass windows. Like many homes on the East Side, it doesn’t have air conditioning, and its owners open all the windows to catch the breeze coming off Lake Michigan. I can hear the husband’s and son’s cries when they are stung by the hornets that have taken residence under the front steps. I watch the son learning to ride a bike on the buckled sidewalk and say, “I’m doing it like a big boy!” when Dad lets go of the seat. That makes me smile.
Multiple times I think I hear an ice cream truck, the music ebbing and flowing as the driver maneuvers the narrow residential streets. When the sound gets close enough, I see it isn’t a truck at all but a man in a go-kart redesigned to look like a car in a Nintendo game, complete with blasting Double Dash!! theme song and a full Mario costume. He trails the school bus and waves to the kids as they disembark. I’m not sure why he does it — maybe it’s just something special for his kid — but he reappears with regularity whenever pleasant Wisconsin weather coincides with the school year.
The woman upstairs breaks up with her boyfriend. They are in a screaming match, and she is throwing his clothes out the window while he picks them up off the sidewalk below. Sitting on my living room couch I can hear every word, and I try to stifle my laughter so I can eavesdrop undetected. Apologies aren’t working for him, so he gives gaslighting a try. My face gets hot as I pound away at my keyboard, and I’m not laughing anymore. Eventually he leaves. I don’t see him again.
There isn’t as much to hear in the winter, and Taylor Swift’s Folklore is on repeat, but I can see out the window behind my monitor. It’s a gray morning, and snow is coming down in thick flakes that stick to each other like cotton candy. A woman is struggling to get her car dislodged from her street parking spot, which the plows have turned into a firmly packed snowbank. She has made little progress, trapped half-in and half-out of the crater around her car, and the street is too narrow for an approaching vehicle to navigate past her. Instead of backing up and going another route, the driver puts on his hazard lights and grabs a shovel out of his trunk to help dig out the wheels. They can’t hear me, but I cheer for them when she finally gets enough traction to pull out onto the road.
Like many people in the “deep COVID days,” I take a lot of walks. I go even when it rains, or when it’s cold, anything to get a break from the monotony of being at home. I develop a renewed appreciation for my neighborhood, with its historic homes that sit on bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan. I monitor the progress of carefully cultivated planting beds and take special pleasure in the tulips that explode in the spring. I encounter recurring characters from my walks who reappear in the produce section of the grocery store, at the gym, in line for coffee. The neighborhood has taken on a new intimacy and familiarity, like when you know someone by their smell.
My living situation remains challenging. After a full year at home, I have come to resent my roommate’s ability to watch Friends reruns at full volume while I work late. The apartment feels more cramped by the day, and I spend most of the time in my bedroom with the door closed. I tell her I want more personal space, and it’s the truth.
In the summer, I move to a building with tall ceilings and in-unit laundry and air conditioning that I can keep at 65 degrees year-round if I want to. I fill it with furniture that I pick out. It has a view overlooking a tree-lined bike trail and the backside of the Milwaukee skyline. The building manager puts out donuts in the lobby on the weekends. It’s nice.
My office reopens, albeit with a more flexible dress code and schedule than the old days. I go in almost daily, because I discover I don’t like working from my beautiful new apartment. On the occasion when I do plug into my living-room workspace, I still follow my old routine — brew a cup of coffee, open the windows — but by midday I am anxious and restless, far more than before. I experiment with a few variables. Should I switch to drinking tea? Take a midday walk? Get a new desk chair? No success.
I know the problem is one I can’t easily fix. It is just too quiet here. Neighborhood sounds once kept me company during the workday; now, when I open windows, the only sounds on the breeze are sirens and birds. I realize I didn’t really know my old neighbors, not by first names anyway, but I miss those glimpses into their lives that made me feel like I did. I wonder if the boy learned to ride his bike.
Amy Teske’s essay was one of two second-place winners in this magazine’s 10th annual Young Alumni Essay Contest. Teske lives and works as a stock analyst in Milwaukee.