The original version of “The Neighbor” was published in the author’s collection, Zoo, copyright 2006 by Editions P.O.L.
At the Dakota, my life was peaceful.
I had inherited the apartment from my father’s sister, along with a modest sum of money. Living at the Dakota carries with it certain obligations. When the co-op decides, for example, to renovate the basement, you’d better be able to pay your share.
Until then, I had always lived with my mother in a little village in the west of France. I was a furniture maker, I had my own workshop, and everything was going well. I’d led an idyllic childhood with my widowed mother, and I would have been satisfied to continue just as I was. My mother admired my work, above all the delicately inlaid little chests. The prospect of my leaving made her very angry. She used to hate her American sister-in-law.
But I couldn’t resist the lure of the Dakota. My aunt’s death literally changed my life. I gave up my work and crossed the Atlantic, and my main activity ever since has consisted of living at the Dakota.
Located at the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street, the Dakota is one of the loveliest buildings in Manhattan. When I moved in, it was home to Boris Karloff, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland and many other celebrities. It was here that Polanski shot most of the scenes for Rosemary’s Baby. The floors are made of mahogany and cherry, and the ceilings are over thirteen feet high. Its name was apparently chosen because in 1881, the year it was built, this edge of Central Park seemed as remote and desolate as the Dakota Territory. High above the entrance is the emblematic statue of a Dakota Indian, who stands watch like a lookout on a ship’s prow.
When you inherit an apartment at the Dakota, even a fairly compact five-room suite like mine, you do some research, you learn things. I became obsessed with the place. I was the guardian of the temple. I knew more about the building than Leonard Bernstein himself, who’d lived there since he was a little boy.
For instance, the Dakota was constructed according to French architectural principles. Remarkably for Manhattan, it features a carriage entrance. In a typically French layout, the apartments are made up of rooms set one behind another, with a series of connecting doors. Thus, on festive occasions guests can progress from room to room in a “naturally convivial” fashion. I read that in a guidebook. My mother took a plane flight for the first time in her life in order to see my new residence. Shaking her head, she said the building was custom-made for ghosts, because the maze of doors made it easy for them to get around.
Every morning I would get up and make coffee, and my first thoughts were already taken up with the Dakota—especially my good fortune in living here. I sauntered around my apartment, observing the nuances of the parquet floor, the subtlety of the finish work, the delicacy of the moldings, and I would gaze up at the ceiling… I immersed myself in the loftiness of the space… And then I would stare at the park through my window, and I could not get over my luck. To live in the Dakota, overlooking Central Park. To have inherited such an apartment from its owner. Then I would phone my mother to say hello. For her in France it was the afternoon, while for me the day was only beginning.
Sometimes my elation was tempered a bit by the thought that I might have had a bigger apartment (the one directly overhead had at least twenty rooms) or that my five rooms might have been on the top floor, just under the roof, enjoying a more expansive view over the park and limiting the number of immediate neighbors. Because you need to know one thing about the Dakota: like all the old buildings around Central Park West, it’s poorly soundproofed. In fact, Polanski’s filming had caused a major disturbance.
Still, I felt pretty much at peace. I didn’t miss my mother; I even experienced a certain relief at her absence. And besides, the apartment above mine was empty, as it had been for years. Who in these times could afford twenty rooms looking out on Central Park?
And then my new neighbors arrived.
At first I wasn’t at all wary. There were no children. He was rather nondescript behind his glasses, she petite and dynamic. Asian. Good, I have nothing against Asians, or blacks or Jews—nor, let it be said in passing, against gays—but I couldn’t help noticing that she was the only person of color living at the Dakota. As for him, he had long hair. No one, however, showed the least sign of annoyance. No, everyone seemed quite happy with the new arrivals.
The first warning came very soon after they’d moved in. A flock of people under my windows, shouting, “John, John!” I leaned out. My name isn’t John, but I was thinking they might be friends of mine who couldn’t get the doorman to let them in. I should explain that since I’ve lived at the Dakota, I’ve had a lot of friends come to sleep in the back bedrooms. From time to time I’ve noticed that some of them don’t know my name. That’s especially true of Marco’s friends. I’ve known Marco for a long time. He followed me to New York when I moved into the Dakota.
My upstairs neighbor leaned out of his window, just above mine, and yelled something I didn’t understand. His buddies on the sidewalk started shouting “John” even louder than before. The Dakota Indian was no longer the only one keeping watch over the street corner: each day seemed to bring increasing numbers of bystanders gawking up at John’s windows. Then I observed the doorman dutifully chasing away the curiosity seekers, who tended to mistake our carriage entrance and the 72nd Street entryway for public places where they were free to take photos.
But all that was nothing.
The neighbors began to receive guests. As I said, the layout of the rooms was well-suited to entertaining. But honestly, at their place, all that was magnified. You would have thought they were holding press conferences or who knows what. A constant procession. I could no longer find peace and quiet in my own apartment.
The worst was yet to come, however: they started playing music.
At first it was an electric guitar. I put in earplugs, and for a while that did the trick. But then they sang, and after that they screamed—he most of all. One day he came and rang my doorbell. He told me I shouldn’t panic if I heard shouting. (Shortly before this I had complained to the doorman.) He had begun “primal scream” therapy. This involves loud shrieking that causes you to be reborn. You relive your own birth, or something along those lines—anyway, this is what he explained to me on the landing. “You don’t know about primal scream?” he asked me from behind his glasses. A lunatic. A congenital simpleton, of whom there are so many in rich people’s apartment buildings. He spent his days at home, devoting himself to his petty experiences. “Nothing good will come of this,” my mother kept telling me.
The number of friends who came to drink my beer grew larger and larger. They loitered in the corridor, they waited in front of the elevator, and they left my door open in hopes of glimpsing my neighbor. They told me he was a famous singer. “John who?” my mother asked me. As for me, I knew nothing about pop music. “But he’s more famous than Jesus!” Marco kept saying. I wondered if the whole world was going crazy.
The guitar playing and the shrieks were bad enough. But then they had a piano delivered.
A gigantic, white grand piano. The double doors weren’t wide enough for it, so the movers installed a pulley on the roof. The whole street watched the white piano being hoisted up while it swayed back and forth across our facade.
Alas, I now felt anything but peaceful at the Dakota. Compared to the piano, the parties, guitars and screams didn’t penetrate all that much through the mahogany and cherry floors. But the piano is an infernal device. Nothing can muffle it. The grand piano, in particular, has a soundboard that should be prohibited by law. It descends through the pipes, thumps along the baseboards, and even penetrates earplugs. It forms layers of sound in the ceiling and curtains of sound in the walls. One day there was road work on 72nd Street: I heard the piano more than the jackhammer.
I’m one who needs calm. I need to ruminate about my life. Something was evidently lacking—I don’t know, a wife, maybe children. Before my neighbors moved in, I got the idea of composing an ad for the newspaper personals section. But it was impossible for me to concentrate even for two minutes. No sooner had I conceived a rough outline of my future, barely had I begun forming an idea of what I wanted, when the first chords would interrupt my reflection. I would lose the thread of my little write-up. The woman I was imagining would flee like a ghost. And I no longer had the slightest notion of what I’d intended to do next. Was it to walk in the park, refinish the woodwork, read the newspaper? I would distractedly make myself another cup of coffee, but I no longer had an appetite for anything. My mind was nothing more than a piano and a guitar.
Marco gave me a record “so I would stop being an idiot.” One record, in exchange for all those beers over all that time. Imagine, it was called. It was sung by my neighbor. Out of curiosity, I put it on the stereo system inherited from my aunt, and I was immediately startled. I’d heard that song, Imagine, above my head for weeks on end! Imagine, all day long! What they say about Lennon, that he wrote these things in five minutes, is completely false. The guy was a workaholic!
On top of that, they were pretty good at arguing, I’d say. Well, I don’t want to tell tales about things that don’t concern me. At any rate, one day the John in question disappeared. The Asian woman kept the apartment, but she was hardly ever around. For awhile I was able to resume my quiet breakfasts, sipping my coffee and looking out over the park. It seemed that the woman had chucked him out. Marco read the newspapers compulsively: John was in Los Angeles, he did this, he did that, he was depressed… My mother also took an interest in John. She continued to call me daily, but now it was to learn the news about my neighbor. I had sent her Imagine, and for her that had been like catching a bug. She began listening avidly to all the records and reading all the articles.
Unfortunately for me, my neighbors finished by getting back together, and one day, lo and behold, I noticed that she looked pregnant, I who had thought there was nothing to fear on that score. However, the birth of their little boy had a positive effect on my life: no more music. For five years. If I summon up my memories of the time between 1975 and 1980, I can remember only the baby’s cries, followed by the sound of little feet on the floor, and then by bouncing balls, the clatter of electric trains and the quack-quack of toy ducks… But after all, I’m not a monster. I was a little boy myself once, and so those noises evoked quite tender feelings in me.
My mother turned up at the Dakota. She worried a lot about my neighbor: “Nothing since Stand by Me,” she lamented. “It’s unbearable.” And when she encountered him, I had to put up with her starstruck gaze. The world was topsy-turvy. The only advantage of having my mother around was that she drove away my beer-drinking pals. Other than that, it was as if my neighbor’s very presence made everybody crazy.
In any case, my relations with him had improved considerably. When I bumped into him, I’d make a point of saying hello.
Right up to that ill-starred day in 1980 when John Lennon took up the guitar again.
At the first notes, I dropped my coffee pot. It made an enormous clang as it hit the floor. That marked the reopening of hell.
My neighbors began to dominate my thoughts twenty-four hours a day. And those thoughts turned malevolent. I would watch my neighbor when he crossed the street, and I’d say to myself: “If he got hit by a car, I’d be rid of him for good…” Or else I’d follow him with my eyes all along 72nd Street, and I’d count his steps while telling myself, “At 100 he’s going to keel over dead from a heart attack.” Or I would dream of a fire that ravaged the entire building, leaving me as the only survivor. That’s the state I was in, though God knows I love the Dakota.
At Marco’s insistence, I even consulted a psychoanalyst—there’s no shortage of them in our neighborhood. During the third session, he asked me my neighbor’s name. “John Lennon?!?” he barked. I understood that psychoanalysis was over for me at that point.
There was a guy I’d spotted awhile back on 72nd Street amid all the onlookers. He stationed himself at the corner of the street, as motionless and calm as the statue of the Indian. Often, he’d be reading.
An uneasy feeling came over me as I watched this guy. I had the impression he was reading my mind, with the same assurance as a Dakota Indian. From time to time to he would glance toward my windows, and I had the sense that he was watching me, scrutinizing me.
On the morning of December 8, 1980, the guy dashed toward my neighbor as he was quietly emerging from the coach entrance and asked him to autograph an album. This sort of thing happened frequently.
At nightfall, I remember, there were fireworks in Central Park, and for once the sightseers turned their attention toward the park and away from our windows.
Around ten thirty that evening, I still wasn’t asleep, despite my habit of going to bed early. The creepy autograph-seeker seemed to have left, or at least I didn’t see him anymore. My neighbors hadn’t come home yet, and so I’d been able to enjoy a quiet day. They were in the process of recording an album they’d been rehearsing for months above my head… I made some coffee and sat down comfortably at my vantage point.
At ten fifty their limousine arrived. Yoko entered the building, with John trailing along behind her… I saw the guy burst from the carriage entrance, accost John and fire. Five shots.
I was to be one of the principal witnesses at the trial of Mark David Chapman. I wanted to tell the jury that I was the one who had instigated the murder, that this Chapman, loitering beneath my windows, had absorbed my hostile thoughts like a sponge and had acted in my place, in the place of the demon that had taken hold of me as soon as I’d heard the piano… But Marco and my mother had convinced me to let it drop, and I went back to my French village for a spell of rest.
When I returned to the Dakota, it was like an immense void. I sometimes met Madame Ono, who was hiding behind dark glasses. I tried to say a few words to her, to give her my condolences, I who had not always been an agreeable neighbor. But she didn’t seem to notice me. She was a great beauty, an Asiatic Jackie Kennedy, behind her big dark glasses.
Some years later, I was one of the first to launch a website. There were photos of the Dakota, of my windows, their windows, and all the places where John stopped along the 72nd Street sidewalk before being gunned down.
After successfully writing my personals ad for a bride, I had finally gotten married. But it wasn’t very long before my wife left me, and she was granted custody of Jonel and Yono—Jonel for John Lennon and Yono for Yoko Ono. A boy and a girl.
I stayed on at the Dakota, but Yoko never seemed to come around anymore. Times have changed, Marco told me over and over. He still came, though, to drink my beer and smoke my cigarettes. Anyway, I would tell him, the first time anyone says anything bad about Madame Ono, or tries to bother her, I can’t be responsible for what I’ll do.
The fans now gathered a little farther away, on the opposite side of the street, around a monument called the Strawberry Fields Memorial. I went there every day to talk to my neighbor for awhile. I asked him to forgive me, and it seemed to me that wherever he was, he heard me.
To tease me, Marco gave me a “John Lemon” kitchen apron. It depicted a long-haired, bespectacled lemon, which had the same oval face as John. It didn’t make me laugh. What’s past is past, Marco would repeat. But for me the past had not gone away at all.
The stillness at the Dakota was a terrible thing. In the silence I could hear the piano and the voice singing Imagine.
And then one day I went to hang up my laundry in the basement—at the Dakota the washing machines are down there. And there was John Lennon, sprawled out on some flattened cardboard boxes.
“I think Yoko has moved out,” I told him. “Don’t you have your keys anymore?”
“Uh, no,” John answered.
“You should ring the bell at my place. I’ll let you in. You remember me, don’t you?”
“Um, yes,” said John.
He had a rather woebegone expression, which was understandable considering all the time he’d been homeless. Even as far back as 1974, when Yoko had thrown him out and he was wandering the streets of Los Angeles, things weren’t going very well for him. My neighbor is a psychologically fragile man. We tend, mistakenly, to think that geniuses are always stable.
I offered him the back bedroom. I was a little embarrassed because the John Lemon apron was hanging in plain view in the kitchen, but he didn’t seem to notice. We tried to get hold of Yoko’s phone number. Believe it or not, although I had been her neighbor for all those years, no one wanted to give it to me—neither the doorman nor the other neighbors, who all pretended they didn’t have it. And try looking up Yoko Ono in the phone book! Everything was much harder than I would have thought.
“This guy is not John Lennon,” Marco told me as soon as he came by to check him out. He uncapped a beer. John did the same, and they looked straight into each other’s eyes.
“There’s no way he’s John Lennon,” Marco repeated.
I was deeply ashamed. But John didn’t seem to take offense. He had eaten and slept well, and he seemed to have regained his form.
“Where were you all this time?” asked Marco in a tone that displeased me. “Where were you when you were dead?”
But John had explained everything to me when I showed him my website. Chapman was a CIA agent. They simulated a murder, and they stashed John away for years. They had drugged him, he didn’t remember a thing. Their main goal had been to keep him quiet because of his pacifist leanings and all that.
“JOHN… LENNON… IS… DEAD,” Marco bellowed, emphasizing each word.
I had to ask Marco to leave.
My mother, whom I’d telephoned as soon as John reappeared, settled in with us. It was time for her to take that step, in any event. My mother was going on ninety-six, and she sometimes had brief episodes of confusion. She now lived only for John and me.
John seemed very happy to be with us. He dropped the idea of taking up again with Yoko. And his son Sean, whom we met once when he was returning to the Dakota, told us to get lost. John took that better than I’d have expected.
It’s the same with me. I no longer see my children or my wife. John and I get along really well, especially now that he has given up music. He drinks my beers, and he seems to have forgiven me for my destructive thoughts.
Translated from the French by Paul Curtis Daw.
Marie Darrieussecq is a French writer born in the Basque Country in 1969. She lives mainly in Paris. Her first novel, Pig Tales (Truismes), was published in 1996 and subsequently translated into thirty-five languages. All told, she has authored some fifteen books published in numerous countries, including novels, short fiction, a play, and nonfiction works. In 2013 she was awarded both the Prix Médicis and the Prix des Prix for her novel, Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Her biography of the German painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, was released in March 2016. Besides being a practicing psychotherapist, she is a regular contributor to contemporary art magazines in France and Britain and also writes for Libération and Charlie Hebdo.
Paul Curtis Daw is a lawyer-turned-translator. His translation of Evelyne Trouillot’s novel, Memory at Bay, was released by the University of Virginia Press in 2015. His translations of stories and other texts have been published frequently in Words Without Borders and have also appeared in Subtropics, Indiana Review, Cimarron Review, carte blanche, K1N, nowhere, Best European Fiction 2016 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015), and Best European Fiction 2017 (forthcoming, 2016). He serves as an officer and director of the American Literary Translators Association and also belongs to the Translators Association (UK).
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