A small window in my apartment opens to an air shaft that ventilates my unit and the one directly below mine, and through this air shaft I keep tabs on my neighbor. I know what he watches, what he sings in the shower, and what he calls his father on the phone. He calls him Padre.
My neighbor has a girlfriend. Or, he had one. The other night I heard her splashing around in the tub, telling my neighbor all about how she was sleeping with an old high school friend. I sat by my window and listened until I heard the water drain. Afterward, they had what sounded like wild and disconsolate breakup sex, and I thought: We all work through things in our own way.
I ran into my neighbor at the mailboxes. Across his back he had a black vinyl case.
"Is that a trumpet?" I said.
"It's a flugelhorn. It's like a trumpet, only chunkier." He seemed perfectly calm, even cheerful, which came across as heartbreaking and valiant.
"I didn't know you played."
"I wouldn't practice in the apartment," he said. "Everyone would hear."
I closed my mailbox. He couldn't have known I was his audience the night before, but it felt appropriate that I deliver some sort of condolence, however oblique and perfunctory. So I said, "I'd love to hear you play sometime."
Behind the greasy lenses of wire-rim glasses, his eyes brightened.
"I'm playing in a concert at Saint Mark's this Thursday."
"Oh," I said. "Nice."
There was no way out. I loved my apartment—it was spacious and somehow still affordable—and the thought of offending and then having to avoid this neighbor was unbearable. So I told him I'd be there.
At the church, I bought a ticket from an old man with the enormous ears and slicked-back white hair of a lifelong Republican. Inside, massive columns rose above me to the half-finished ceiling. The cathedral's construction had been abandoned, according to a pamphlet I tucked into a hymnal, sometime during the Great Depression, and it seemed to me that if God were real, this was the sort of place He'd skulk around: somewhere His glory would be indistinguishable from man's mislaid ambition.
As the church filled with polite, expectant murmurs, I ran through, yet again, the ways I resented my neighbor. It was not my fault that his girlfriend had decided to find carnal solace in the arms of her fellow Viking, Bulldog, or whatever. What's more, my neighbor should have known I was not earnestly offering my time—I was merely performing the time-honored ritual of feigning interest. If anything, he had manipulated me by asking me to come.
The choir, dressed in simple white robes, emerged from the wings of the church and shuffled onto a set of groaning risers. My neighbor walked in behind them and sat in a metal folding chair, holding his brass instrument tightly against his chest.
After some introductory fussing from the conductor, the choir began to sing a complicated song that felt electrified by some wild and melancholic spirit. To say I was moved would be inaccurate; I remained stabbed into place and the church itself seemed to reorient around me, its physical features changed by the music rising into its cavernous, still-scaffolded upper reaches.
And then my neighbor ruined it. He played his flugelhorn with chaste and mechanical precision, and by the time he sounded his final bloodless trill, I felt as though I'd been scolded by a relative I was only barely familiar with. A few more minutes of choral music (which I now found dull and maudlin) and I was delivered into the mercy of intermission.
I was making my way to the door and had almost escaped when I looked over to see my neighbor kiss a young woman seated in the front row. At this, my curiosity got the better of me. I turned from the door and walked up the aisle to where the two of them were standing.
"Nicely done," I said, holding out my left hand for some reason.
"Thanks for coming," my neighbor said. He took my left with his right. "Have you met Anna?"
"No!" I said, smiling broadly.
"This is the guy that lives above me," my neighbor said.
"Oh," Anna said. With just one word I could tell it was the same woman in the bathtub who'd betrayed him. "Nice to finally meet you."
"Well, I've got to run," I said. "But I'm glad I caught you. Wonderful flugelhorn. Really quality horn."
Just then the choir returned to their risers and all of a sudden it became impossible to leave without being seen by everyone. Anna patted the seat beside her, and I reluctantly sat down.
About midway through the second piece, she cupped her hand around my ear and whispered to me, "You know we can hear you, right?"
"What?" I said.
"We can hear it when you listen to us. You always cough or something. Bobby likes it."
With this, she sat back against the pew. I followed her gaze to her boyfriend, who was looking at me. Then the choir quieted and he rose and brought the flugelhorn to his lips.