The Other Side of the Wall
Isabel Spiegel

The moon grows, its halo of radiation on my bed. As usual I can’t seem to get comfortable, can’t find a position that will make me feel relaxed and elongated. I’m always cramped and frozen, my muscles in knots, shoulder blades bunched together as if someone had come along in the night with a staple gun and clamped them tight.

It’s this bed that is the problem. I want nothing more than to shove the old mattress out the door and leave it in the alleyway, a boudoir for drunks and old prostitutes, but I can’t seem to muster the energy. It’s one of those postponement things where you say, “This morning I’ll do it.” But instead, I’ll wake up to the ache, force myself to get up and focus on how many cracks there are in the ceiling or wait for the postman who comes every morning. He’ll hand me crisp, white envelopes, smile and say in his thick South Indian accent, “How are you doing Eva?” and I’ll try not to cry, and tell him that I’m doing fine, and it’s a beautiful day outside because every day is beautiful in Los Angeles. In the morning I’ll start with a hot bath with cups of Epsom salt. I’ll step onto the green and white hexagonal tiles of my 1920s bathroom, turn on the water in the tub and watch chunks of salt dissolve like glaciers. I’ll slip into the warm water and feel myself get thinner and smaller, until my body is salt on a child’s tongue in the ocean. I’ll imagine this child, his warm, brown back, his arms held up to the seagulls as they arc overhead, and I’ll try to believe that I’m the water rushing up to his thighs, beating his chest, playing around his ankles— that I don’t inhabit this body anymore.

A siren punctures the night’s stillness, and I wonder who they are rushing to collect. Is it a young man, thrown over the handlebars of his motorcycle on Sunset Boulevard? An old woman who fell on her hip and pressed the white button draped around her neck because her children live on the other side of the country? Or maybe it’s a little girl who grew up in the stark lights and white sheets of a hospital bed with nurses instead of preschool teachers and everyone always offering up a smile.

Above me I hear my El Salvadorian neighbors stir in their sleep. The husband snores. He is forgetting himself with dreams. I imagine that they have big red roses on their sheets and when they lie in bed they are covered in petals, he on his back, she on her side. The woman must be pulling the covers up higher under her chin, her brow creased and her cheeks heavy. I picture a small statue of the Virgin Mary on their bedside table next to a framed photo of the family they left behind in El Salvador, or maybe there’s only a jar filled with spare change for when they take the bus or go to the laundromat. On nights when I can’t sleep, I hear them leave early in the morning, their footsteps disappearing down the stairs. He leaves at 4am with his backpack and thermos, she at 6 with her bucket and cleaning supplies. Sometimes I stand by my window and watch her in the courtyard silhouetted with the cacti walking towards the dawn, still blue in winter. Once I waved to her as she left, but she didn’t see me, or maybe she thought I was just some crazy white girl. Sometimes I wish I had someone who would wave back.

The moon outside my barred window is round as an Alka-Seltzer tablet. I imagine it fizzing and hissing across the sky, effervescent and then gone. I shift in bed again, grab another pillow, put it behind my back and for a moment I feel my vertebrae relax and unwind. On my long dresser, orange bottles of pills reflect like yield signs in the dark. They put me on something for the sleep, for the pain, and for the lump in my breast I feel growing—a small seed. I imagine that it will sprout one day and that out of my chest will grow a green stem, spreading leaves. A rose will open, uncurling firm velvet petals, black red and leering like a painted calavera through a hole in my skin. I didn’t plan on feeling anything there; it was probably the mattress’s fault, but I rolled over on my left side one night and felt the lump right underneath.

I remember when I first grew breasts, having no control over my body’s metamorphosis, the swollen tender feeling of flesh stretching, fat tissue layering itself, veins congregating in small rivulets underneath swollen areola and dilated nipple. Breasts meant so much back then, stares and giggles, hiding them with baggy sweatshirts, plumping them up with push up bras bought with allowance money at Ross Dress for Less or the 99 Cent store. When I was thirteen I hid the bras at the bottom of my underwear drawer. By the time I was sixteen I hung my bra to dry outside on our side patio so that the neighbor boy would see the lace cups as he brushed his teeth.

I place my hand over my left breast. It’s full and round, fills up my palm in a proper handful and suddenly I understand the male fixation. It’s that whole obsession for round objects, like baseballs, they wish they could throw them around or exchange them. I watched a YouTube video of a woman who smashes wood and flattens soda cans with her massive, dangerously oversized mammaries. Instead of getting a breast reduction, she decided to train them to be black belt karate masters. Still, my little tumor could take her down, such a tiny speck in a whole cosmos. I think of sequoias eaten away by microscopic parasites, blue whales beached by bottle caps and plastic bags.

During the days I manage to pretend but I can’t distract myself at night—nights like these. Sometimes I can’t stand the darkness, the pressing weight of silence and I pull the lamp switch and read. Then for a moment I forget about things and I feel calmer. I look at the pictures on my wall, the one of my mother a few years before she died. I have placed the orange pill bottles in front of the picture in a line and they shine like votive candles. In this light she looks even more filled up with sun, the kind that comes after long summers of lying under lemon trees, like she did, staring up into the yellow orbs, so many harvest moons. Her favorite tree was in the backyard of the house I grew up in, which I can’t bring myself to sell, but can’t bear to live in either. It sits abandoned in Silverlake, surrounded by hipsters with their Fixie bikes and Warby Parker sunglasses, waiting intently for a For Sale sign to appear, like a medieval army starving out the enemy. I close my eyes, and will her to come back to me, a whiff of lemon and sweet smelling detergent. Our faces merge, both kissing my father, both telling him it will be alright, and when he tries to hold us, we push him away, because we already feel gone. We don’t want his alive body so close. We’re both putting on makeup, hands shaking as we trace our eyes with liner, smooth on lipstick. Some days we don’t bother putting it on. We stay gray and greasy and look at our reflection while we wait for it to crack under our hands like a mask of dried sand, and then he finds us crumpled on the dresser, shoulders slumped, everything heavy. Other days, we gather every fiber of will into our shoulders, our tendons taut as we slash our lips red, coat our eyelids in blue like iridescent beetles’ wings, battle paint.

I haven’t told him yet and maybe I won’t tell him at all. He has another family now, another little girl. His wife is seven years older than me. We could be sisters, but we’re not, and I avoid their house in Orange County. It’s bad enough to have to go behind the orange curtain, but I know it’s not just the drive, or their two-story prefab with the fake Roman fountain, or all the minivans and anti-abortionists. It’s because I can’t watch him hold her like he’s never lost anything or anyone, like all he’s ever cared about is in that one house.

I remember when I saw my mother, dry as a corn husk in her hospital bed. Her breathing sounded like wind through a straw and I said to myself, “Please God, don’t let me end up like this.” It frightened me, how selfish I felt, but I couldn’t help it as I watched her deteriorate so slowly, a kind of torture. Before she got really bad, she grabbed my hand one day, looked at me and said, “Eva, don’t you hold back from living, you hear me? You get out there and make every day count. Even if it’s bad, learn something from it. Grow. Keep changing, honey.” It seemed unfair almost, this benediction from my mother, telling me to live after she was gone, but since then, I wondered what I had done with my life, and if maybe this was a punishment for not being grateful, for cursing in traffic, for hating my job, for giving up on love after I broke up with my boyfriend and never had the courage to give my heart to anyone else, for missing my mother, for wishing I could bring her back, for putting things off, for never buying a new mattress.

I look up at the ceiling and urge her to appear, to visit me and say, “Eva, you didn’t do anything wrong, you still have a chance to fight this. Don’t join your old mother up here, not yet anyway,” but all I hear is the TV from my elderly insomniac neighbor next door who uses the news as a sedative. The voices sound fuzzy and dull through the wall, probably a reporter listing the death of a road rage victim or counting off, one by one, the number of children killed in Syria. The reporter’s face is flat, uncaring. She looks into the camera and doesn’t hear what she says. The children pile up around her, their brown bodies fill up the carpeted newsroom yet she doesn’t flinch. They sit slumped in leather swivel chairs, lie stiff on the oak desk, drape over the monitor, and she does nothing except hold the microphone to her lips and continues to count until I see nothing except children—children unmoving.

I get up out of bed, shed the covers and press myself against the cool of the plaster and listen to the soft murmur of static, like when I was a girl and my parents would whisper on the other side of the wall, and I would strain for the words, hoping to make sense of them.

Isabel Spiegel is a poet and prose writer from Los Angeles, whose work has appeared in No Ink and Philosopher’s Stone. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, Italy, with a concentration in creative writing. She is applying to MFA programs in the US and Canada currently and is working on a collection of short stories.