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In the darkness, meet your neighbors

The night was cold and the air was wet—so much moisture was suspended in the air, in fact, that the towel in the bathroom was still as damp as it had been after my shower at 5:00 that morning. I could smell what the neighbors upstairs were making, and the aroma of something frying made my stomach gurgle hopefully. The smell seemed to cling to every water molecule in the air, padding me in a cloud of oil and spices so thick I could have served myself a glass.


The penetrating cold, however, was more persistent. I was sitting with the laptop resting on my legs, a source of warmth but also of stress, the glowing screen filled with the many to-dos that waited for me. I would work until 10 o’clock and then close up, whatever task I was in at that point. Squeezing my hands into fists as I rubbed my thumbs over each knuckle, the icy state of my fingers reminded me how impossible it was to get warm in this environment. The winter nights only fell to 65 degrees, but in a city where construction was light on insulation and windows were exclusively single-pane, and heating was not found in residential buildings, the inside of my apartment was an icebox.


I succumbed to the stinging discomfort in my long fingers and set the laptop aside. I immediately missed its warmth when my legs faced a sudden shock of cold air as I stood up from the bed. It was worth it, however, when I returned to the scene with my small space heater and flipped it onto its highest temperature and strongest flow of air. Within about 60 seconds, I felt pleasure trickle up the back of my neck as the blast of air grew warm and washed over me.


My little space heater had become my best friend and constant companion. I was, however, careful to use it primarily when David was out of the house. After an hour or more of the fan spinning, the small machine whirring with its wires glowing in shades of coral, David would habitually come into whatever room I was in to remind me, “you do realize that’s like leaving an iron plugged in for hours, right?” To his point, it was true that I had already melted one of the outlet covers in the apartment from use of the heater. I usually retorted, nonetheless, “Total bosh! I never use it for more than an hour. It’s fine—it’s designed to be run this way.”


And so, there I was, with my space heater humming while David was out on that particularly cold night.

Four months, three neighbors, one staircase


A total of four months had passed since David and I moved together to this seventh-story apartment, and we were just now growing accustomed to what we’d learned after moving in. We were on the last formal floor of the building, but the owner of our apartment had constructed two informal apartments above to create more space to lease. At least, that’s what we say in Spanish: “informal.” Others might say “illegal.” There had clearly been no permits granted, and the construction was questionable at best. Both apartments above us shared the same electric connection and single fuse and meter with our own, and we had to trust the judgment of the owner as to who was due what portion of the electric bill each month. And, because neither the elevator shaft nor the stairwell reached this “informal” eighth floor, a stairway was constructed from floors seven to eight. The owner of 702 opted to chop the size of 702’s kitchen in half to make room for those stairs.


This all happened before David and I moved; the only wiser we were at the time of leasing was to the fact that the kitchen was a little small for a three-bedroom setup. As a place to cohabitate together, however, it had most of what we wanted. We took it.


I had never met the neighbors upstairs, despite sharing a rather unconventional connection in a shared electric bill and our more intimate-than-usual awareness of what the other was cooking. I knew the unit directly above me was a couple, and that the one next to it—right over 701—was a single woman. But that was it.

Velas


An hour had passed and I was finally comfortable, working away and trying to ignore the clock on the bottom of my computer screen. I knew it was past 9:00 p.m., and I knew I had committed to close the computer no later than 10:00. If I kept this rhythm, however, I might be able to alleviate the workload for the next day.


Besides, David wasn’t home yet. Why not keep working?


BOOM—zpppft!


The apartment fell dark. The light from my laptop was harsh on my eyes in the sudden blackout. The abrupt silence of the space heater was followed by the snap-crackle of its scorching coils cooling after an hour of effort.


“What the—?”


I moved deftly to the window. Were the other buildings dark? No, every window was illuminated. I left the bedroom and crossed the dining room in four fast steps, opening the door to the main hall of the seventh story. The hallway was brightly lit.


Closing the door with some confusion, I entertained the possibilities. The owner of the apartment had already earned my animosity those first four months, not least because of her non-disclosure of the shared electric bill. It was a tireless coordination every month when the bill arrived to my apartment, and I would have to send her a photo of the details so she could determine how much to charge each tenant. I would have to follow up with her multiple times before she would finally commit to a number, and our apartment was always presumed to consume twice that of those above us. And, on more than one occasion, due to her asinine process and perpetual delays, we would receive the following bill seeing the previous month’s charge still outstanding.


It was natural that my first thought, thus, was that the company cut the power due to a debt on her part.


Something still didn’t add up, however. I went back to the bedroom and tried to keep working, but the uncertainty of what to do next was all-consuming. The owner lived in Spain, where it was now four in the morning. She wouldn’t be able to resolve anything. Should I contact the building’s administrator?


A knock on the door broke through my uncertainty. Answering with a smile and a “buenas noches,” I saw a man and a woman—both about my age—at my door. They introduced themselves, and I heard the singsong locution of an Argentinean accent. They explained that they lived upstairs and had just lost power. They were checking to see if I’d lost power, too.


For some reason, it was in that moment that it hit me. It had to be true. The best explanation for the power outage was my best friend and constant companion, the space heater. True, it was a setup waiting to fail what with three apartments sharing a single meter. But the heater was probably what tipped the scale that night.


I wondered if my neighbors could read the embarrassment on my face. We chatted about what the possible causes could be, and I volunteered no ideas, rather used the opportunity to interact with the couple that I discovered were a charming pair of people. I had no candles at home, and they flew up their private set of stairs to return with several candles to give me. We discussed next steps and worked together to contact the administrator. He called the electric company, where they were able to dispatch someone immediately. Within an hour, David had come home and had been briefed on the situation, and a tech had confirmed that our fuse had blown. We went to bed late, but with power.


The space heater was wrapped tightly the next day in its own cord—a straightjacket of sorts—and stuffed into the deepest part of the office closet. It was never used again, and I never again saw my neighbors.


Fill in the blank:

A mosh pit is to a concert what a bosh pit is to _______________.

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