I hear one, two, three clanks as he locks the door across the hall; the elevator dings and my neighbor descends. Who are you, of all people, protecting the woman inside from? It’s you she should fear.
Meanwhile, a couple floors below, an elderly woman is attempting to lock her own door. I’m making my way down the stairs to avoid any interaction with the aforementioned man. Upon seeing “Beto” graffiti through the stairwell window, I pause to do a Snapchat about O’Rourke’s chances in Italy, obviously.
At first, I thought the old lady was scolding me for lurking in the stairwell like an up-to-no-good youth. Instead, she was pleading in a tiny, halting voice, “Non posso chiudere la porta.” I can’t close my door.
“Oh no,” I pause, abandoning my Snapchat filter selection, “Shall I try to help you?” I move into the hallway, and she hands me her keys. It’s immediately apparent that this is a round-peg-square-hole situation, but I mimic trying to lock the door so she can see the issue. “Signora, this key is too big, it doesn’t fit.”
“I…want. Want…close door,” she responds. She has no jacket on; where did she imagine she was heading?
“Do you have another key? This isn’t the right one.”
She stares at me blankly. Her eyes watery. “Lock…the door.”
The apartment door across the hall opens and a young man emerges, absorbing the scene. “What’s going on?” he asks. I explain and he turns to the woman. “Signora,” he says softly, “the locks were changed. These keys don’t work anymore. Why do you want to go out anyway?” he adds. “Wait inside. Doesn’t the signora arrive later? Or your daughter?”
The woman emits a few indecipherable sounds; it’s unclear if she’s having difficulty understanding or just speaking.
“I gotta go,” the man says to me.
“Ok…I’ve got this,” I say, not knowing what I’ve got exactly. I judge him for leaving. Doesn’t he have the phone number of the daughter or caretaker? Could he have helped more? Can’t he detect I’m a foreigner who isn’t equipped to be an effective member of Italian society?
But, I concede later, what do most of us actually know about our neighbors? Mine, I’ve concluded, are desperately unhappy. They scream at each other almost daily about money and mothers and brothers. They have dogs whose nails tip tap across the floor out of fear and devotion. Their income, at least some of it, depends on the man pedaling around Milan with a Foodora or Deliveroo or Paymenulla box on his back.
His seething voice seeps through my walls and imagination; the face of the woman he’s berating materializes. The rage distorts the sentences into sputtering acid, but I manage to detect words like stupid, bitch, fuck you. I press my ear up against the wall, alert for the sound of knuckle hitting flesh. Does Italy have a domestic abuse hotline? I wonder. You’re depressed! she screams back at him. Sometimes I hear the voices of kids visiting, and I wonder if their friends and family know how the switch flips when they leave.
We’ve shared a wall for nearly a year but never names.
Now, back downstairs to the elderly woman and her neighbor, who really must get to work. He offers his arm to lead her back into the apartment but she jerks away slightly. I then offer mine and her birdlike hand grips my forearm with a faint grazie. I take one step for every ten of her shuffles; the doormat appears insurmountable but she conquers it.
She rummages through an open drawer just inside the entrance. I stay in the hallway; this time it’s me who’s doing the pleading. “Wait here,” I urge. “Close the door from inside and stay here, ok? The signora or your daughter should be here soon,” I add. What the hell do you know, her eyes say as she closes the door.
I wait in the hallway for a few seconds to make sure she stays put. I then enter the stairwell and close the open door, telling myself this will be a deterrent to her leaving unaccompanied.
I left her there. Should I have stayed with her? Knocked on another neighbor’s door? I question myself as I board the subway, cursing the teens next to me who are being way too rowdy for 9 a.m., especially given the silence necessary for guilt rumination. They’re headed to the youth climate strike to denounce their elders. My annoyance is tinged with pride.
My grandpa, who turned 87 yesterday in a memory care facility, has no keys in his drawer. It was probably a foreign woman who helped him get back to his room, too. Buon compleanno from the motherland, Pop.