This post also appears on the Fairlady site.
Sometimes I imagine my life as a National Geographic documentary narrated by David Attenborough: “What you see now… is the rare Samantha… making her way to the car. Look how she cleverly fumbles with her keys… a ruse used to survey her surroundings.”
However, his commentary would have been a little strange and maybe even a little strained over the weekend when a random male neighbour and I were walking up the stairs to our flats. Neighbour Man was half a staircase ahead of me when we both heard it – a woman’s loud gasping, panting, moaning; echoing rhythmically across the courtyard. Attenborough: “See how they both pause… unsure whether to acknowledge what is clearly… a violation of their social norms,” he continues, “Another of their kind… mating.”
Neighbour Man gave a shocked little chuckle before looking back at me and catching my eye, wordlessly asking, “You hear this too, right?” I replied with a nervous titter before preparing, like a normal person, to act like everything was hunky-dory, A-OK, a.k.a. – ignoring it. My plan would have gone off perfectly if not for one small glitch – he wouldn’t let me! Neighbour Man kept on pausing, catching my eye and chuckling before moving on. It was a relief to reach my flat where I could safely ignore the Lusty Neighbour in relative peace.
What’s far easier to ignore but far more awkward is when a more immediate neighbour – say, your flatmate – has audible… um… intimate time with (what you hope is) a loved one.
I had this experience last year.
Or at least I thought I did.
My then-flatmate and I had recently moved into our ghastly hole-in-the-wall flat in Stellenbosch – my first official home away from home sans the parental units, with my first official flatmate. I was in my room when I heard Flatmate’s cell phone ring. I knew Flatmate missed her boyfriend, so wasn’t surprised when I heard the door to her room close.
However, I was surprised when, ten minutes later, I heard a loud, passionate moan. Then another one. And another. And again. My insides squeezed in surprise and a wave of future awkwardness crashed over me. I thought, oh god, so this is a crash course on overhearing your flatmate have phone sex. There is no pamphlet for that.
Then, over the passionate groans, I heard Flatmate’s door open and realised – with a different kind of horror – that it was my brand, sparkling new neighbours getting it on instead.
I guess amoeba don’t have any of these neighbourly issues to deal with. For one thing, amoebas don’t have sex. They just… divide. And for another, well, quite frankly, I don’t think amoebas ever feel awkward.
Though amoebas never feel ill-at-ease and never worry about overhearing each other, you know, they also don’t have any neighbour advantages. Like the whole cup of sugar thing.
Without Paulette – mu current flatmate – I would have had to change my locks several times this year, for sure. You see, you can leave my flat without keys, but you can’t get back in without them. So when hurrying to work I will often daftly leave my keys on the desk where I carelessly flung them the night before.
We – urbanised people – don’t live in small villages anymore. Our communities have shrunk. If you have a flat tyre, you don’t rely on the kindness of strangers anymore. Instead you just dial a friend or family member. We’re suspicious of people we don’t know; I’ve seen this particularly in Cape Town. Your community consists of your friends, and their friends.
So living in a block of flats is always a bit strange, because suddenly you’re very close to lots of people doing lots of things we have now delegated as private – arguing, making love, gossiping (oh, the half stories I’ve heard! They make me very curious. Once I ALMOST knocked on a neighbour’s door and asked, “Please finish that story you started while looking for your keys.”) and cooking (though I’ve never felt awkward overhearing people cook).
What I’m saying is; the nice thing about neighbours is also the horrible thing about neighbours. The closeness. And, as David Attenborough would say, “we are… social creatures”.