November 21, 2014

Listening through thin walls

Private moments overheard highlight how we selectively share our lives.

I live in an apartment building with thin walls, situated directly next to another apartment building with thin walls, and if my life were a sitcom, these neighbors of mine would easily supply two seasons’ worth of subplots, minimum. At least that’s what I imagine, despite knowing almost none of them personally.

One of the unexpected adjustments to apartment life was the sheer amount of sound coming from the residents around me. When I lived in the dorms, I overheard people chatting in the hallway, or the occasional rhythmic thumping of a headboard against a shared wall.

Now, what I hear from my neighbors seems somehow more intimate and revealing. The tiny, thunderous feet of the child upstairs. The man next door gossiping about people from his church (over the summer there was some kind of nude photo scandal involving a “gold-digging woman” and the preacher). The bad musical taste of the teenager below us. The fights of a married couple while their two-year-old cries. The woman who sometimes breaks down in the middle of the night, screaming and crying into the phone about her father.

I know this means that my neighbors hear me, too, when I sing in the shower or listen to Christmas music in early November or laugh uncontrollably while cooking with my roommates. For my own sake, though, I pretend that the laws of sound transmission don’t always apply. I want to believe that my neighbors can’t hear me when I cry, or that they don’t listen to the inane, private jokes I share with my partner. They do, of course.

Like everyone else in the world, I am an obsessive curator of my own life. I regulate what I reveal to others depending on my audience, wanting to seem as interesting and cool as possible. This usually means omitting whatever I deem too ugly or intimate. When I found a cockroach while alone in my apartment, I freaked out and had two back-to-back panic attacks about it. A few hours later I made a joke about the bug on Facebook, which received 85 likes. I did not mention the panic attacks, or the shame I often feel when faced with the volatility of my anxiety disorder, because as much as I believe in the power of sharing your vulnerability with others, I get to keep the bad parts of my life private if I want to.

Iget to keep the good parts private, too, if I want, because my life and experiences and my feelings belong to me. The same is true for my neighbors, despite the fact that I am often privy to their experiences and feelings. Nonetheless, the people in my apartment building are largely strangers to me. I know hardly any of their names and, in many cases, would not recognize them on the street. But even as I choose what of my life to share and what to keep to myself, it is equal parts unnerving and comforting to know that these people probably know as much about me as I do about them—and, even in light of our mutually overheard intimacy, we still hold the front door open for each other and smile when coming back with arms full of groceries.

Clair Fuller is a third-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.