by Giuseppe Gullo
I think I first heard about them when I was bringing stuff to the new apartment, a couple weeks before my lease started and I could legally move in. The Costa Rican super had smuggled me a key without letting the owner know, so every night after work I’d sneak in carrying boxes with my grandmother’s never-used wine glasses from Italy and other things that for some reason I didn’t want to leave to the movers’ care. I thought of it as a way to get gradually familiar with the new place.
It couldn’t have been a more dramatic move – from a studio on the 53rd floor of an all-glass toothpick of a tower near Central Park that swayed when winds blew from the east, to a third-floor huge loft in a hundred-thirty-year-old rather run-down building at the border of the East Village that lacked any sort of special charm nor boasted an elevator or a doorman (“virtual doorman” the agent called the buzzer). All my friends thought that renting that place was the final proof of my European eccentricity.
Those evenings, as I climbed the three steep flights of stairs that went up in one long straight line like the Jacob’s Ladder in my childhood illustrated Bible, I only wanted to think of how large my new apartment was, of all the dinner parties I could throw, and how that would compensate for the lack of any other amenities (as I’d quickly learned to call a rooftop or an under-equipped gym), including natural light and fresh air.
I was immersed in these thoughts and overloaded with bags and a backpack, when I almost bumped into the second-floor tenant, a woman somewhere in her early seventies who took special care to let me know that she’d lived in that building for almost four decades even before telling me her name – Karen. She was a painter – “Of fairies and other purely spiritual entities. I paint them from life, when they come visit my apartment”, said in her own words – single, had three cats, was dressed completely in pastels, and sported a hand-woven pink beret. “Impossible to be more stereotypical than this,” I remember I thought, feeling guilty. I also remember how wary of me she seemed, and not cordial at all, which surprised me, since I’ve always thought that my good looks and manners could immediately win anyone over. Not Karen, though.
Ignoring that I was obviously struggling with my load, she wanted to talk and said that she was concerned that her quiet painting and listening to meditation music could bother me.
“Your apartment has been empty for five years, so I’m no longer used to having anyone living above me,” she added with a grin before falling silent and staring at me. “Just letting you know…”
This left me sincerely puzzled, and it took my European mind a while to figure out that in her coded language she meant to say exactly the opposite – that I should not dare to interfere with any of her activities by simply walking or breathing too heavily while at home. Let alone listening to any kind of music. Immediately, I thought of the headboard banging on the wall and the bedside lamp crashing to the floor the last time I’d brought home a date, and I nodded with a big smile.
“Feel free to come down anytime you feel I’m disturbing you. As the longest resident, I want you to feel welcome in the building. It’s only three apartments here, including yours. We’re like a family.”
I’d never heard nice words being said with a more ill-matched face.
I was clearly too overwhelmed by my first contact with Karen not to note that “we” and the “family” thing. It must have been then that she first mentioned the two men who lived above me, in the top apartment. In fact, when, the day before I moved in, I went to inform Karen of the oncoming catastrophe of having someone living above her (and trying to mitigate it with a bottle of Italian wine and a box of upmarket chocolate), she dismissed my concerns about them.
“I told you, they couldn’t care less. Michael and Felipe live in their own world. It’s been like this for a long time.”
Coming from Karen, with her portraits of fairies hung on the wall behind her, this statement about these other people’s eccentricities sounded quite remarkable and kindled my curiosity.
“Perhaps I should tell them anyway. For the noise, I mean. The movers up and down…”
“Don’t bother doing that extra flight of stairs. They won’t notice if you move in or out.”
“Or I should introduce myself, at least. As an act of courtesy, I mean.”
“Do as you like. If you’re going, bring them this wine and chocolate. I don’t drink and I’m diabetic.”
I spent my first months in the new apartment overcompensating for my concerns of upsetting Karen. The more I could see that she didn’t like me, the more determined I was to make her fall in love with me. I’d take my shoes off while still on the landing, listen to music and watch movies only through headphones, refrain from inviting friends over to dinner with the excuse that I didn’t know how to locate dishes and silverware in the moving boxes. My large loft was empty and semi-dark all the time. It seemed that my new goal in life had become to be the best neighbor in all of New York City.
This included also saying to all my dates that I was living with a difficult housemate and could never host anyone, not even for a quickie. No doubt this put me in a bad light. The petit French ballet dancer who at first seemed so enthralled with me must have come to think that I was poor boyfriend material – “You still having a housemate at almost forty and dating…a twink?” – and stopped answering my messages after a while.
Despite all my efforts, I may have seen Karen no more than twice in those early days, and every time either I was in a hurry to catch a train or she seemed not keen to talk at all. I needed to be told I was doing a great job, and then finally I’d be able to relax.
For at least a couple of months I did not meet Michael or Felipe either. I could see their names on countless deliveries that were left every day below the letterboxes but no actual sighting of them.
One night, when I was finally bringing home someone after two dates spent between bars and restaurants, I heard a door open somewhere along the staircase. From the lobby, my eyes immediately went up to Karen’s landing but, instead, I saw a tall, slender man coming down from the top floor toward me and Jordan.
We met halfway up the stairs.
“I’m so sorry for not having come to introduce myself and say hi since I moved in,” I said. “You must think I’m incredibly rude. I felt as if he must have known that both his Italian wine and Belgian chocolate had ended up at a dinner party in Brooklyn that same night.
“Not at all. Karen told me that you are a very busy man, that you get up early, leave your apartment at seven sharp in the morning and are not back till after midnight most days.” While talking to me, he kept sneaking quick glances at Jordan, who was one step below us but still stood a few inches taller than I. “I’m Michael, by the way”, he added.
“I’m Carlo, and this is Jordan.”
“Don’t work too hard, Carlo. It’s not worth it,” Michael said over his shoulder as he walked down the stairs past us.
I opened my apartment’s door to let Jordan in, but lingered on the landing to see Michael coming back up with two large boxes that he’d picked up from the lobby. I walked down quickly to take the larger one from him. He didn’t say anything, and when we came to his floor, an older man wearing shorts and a loose tank top was waiting on the landing.
“Thank you. This is Felipe,” Michael said.
“Welcome to the building.” Felipe then took my box smiling and disappeared into the darkness behind him.
“Why don’t you and Felipe come over for a coffee, one of these weekends?” I said. “I make an excellent Italian espresso.”
“That’d be lovely, thank you.”
After that night, I must have met Michael only one or two more times. I’d come back home a bit tipsy late at night – more and more often with Jordan – and he’d be taking packages up to his apartment. Felipe would always be looking down at him from the top of the stairs. Smiling perhaps. Never saying a word, I think. That’s it. My memory, usually crystal clear, seems strangely blurred when it comes to the two of them.
I’m pretty sure I never met them outside the building, at the Westside grocery store around the corner, say, or at the indie coffee store next door, and my recollection of them is always linked to that narrow, long and straight staircase.
From time to time, I’d hear the sound of footsteps or maybe something being dropped on the floor – a piece of silverware, I would think – the only reminder that the apartment was not empty. Once during the summer, I thought that classical music – a Bach cantata I love – was coming from upstairs but I could not be certain of that. What I’m certain of is that they never came down for my Italian espresso.
I stayed in that apartment for just over one year. From our first date, Jordan had said he wanted to live in the West Village, in a brownstone apartment in the low teens, with a fireplace, and as close as possible to the water. He was very specific with his living plans, as with many other things. I thought that being an opera singer – a bass with the most prominent Adam’s apple I’d ever seen – he needed to hold on to something tangible and rational in order to survive the all-consuming passions he lived out on stage. After dating for six months, I agreed to move with him into what seemed to be the home of his dreams. While packing my grandmother’s still unused wine glasses, I kept thinking that no longer having to worry about disturbing Karen’s fairies would compensate for the fact that Jordan was the first man my age I would think of calling my boyfriend, and that this implied dealing with lumbar disc protrusions as well as hair loss lotions in the bathroom. The time had come. Leaving twenty-something-year-old dancers in my past seemed to be part of the deal.
My short stay in that weird building would have been just an interlude in my New York life, had I not met Karen again last night, for the first time since I moved out.
I was walking across my old neighborhood when I saw her just as I lowered my gaze from the featureless façade and from the windows where my small collection of succulents used to sunbathe. She was carrying two large canvasses and a bag from the art supply store nearby.
“I thought fairies were small,” I said with a smile, stretching my arms toward her. Not living above her anymore made me feel much more relaxed and casual. I even think she might have been an attractive woman in her prime.
She ignored my joke and handed me both canvasses barely saying hi. It was such a relief to see her not any friendlier than before – her grumpiness clearly had nothing to do with my performance as a neighbour.
She wasn’t expecting to be invited to the indie café across the street. While ordering two organic herbal teas, I found an excuse to mention that I remembered that she’s diabetic and I felt very proud of that.
She brought the subject up as soon as we took our seats.
“I imagine you know what happened in the building.”
“You know about Michael and Felipe, don’t you?”
I told her of my very limited knowledge of the two men and I could see that she took my ignorance as a sign of negligence towards the “family,” as if I’d never been worthy of belonging in the first place.
“They’re both dead. Together.”
I walked back home along tenth street in an unexpectedly heavy rain and was drenched by the time I came to our apartment near the Christopher Street pier. Jordan was sitting on his favorite armchair watching an old movie by the useless fireplace that can only burn church candles.
“I’d booked a table for dinner,” he said, “but with this deluge the last thing I want to do is go out and catch a cold. We’ll have to stay in. I’m sorry.”
My first instinct was to sit down on the floor next to his armchair and tell him everything I’d heard about Michael and Felipe. Of how they’d met and decided to move in together exactly twenty years ago, just a few days before the big lock down of 2020, two almost perfect strangers suddenly confined to the apartment on the fourth floor, large and devoid of furniture except for the piles of books that Felipe translated. Of how, month after month, as the virus ravaged the city and the lockdown kept being extended and hardened, instead of being maddened by the silence in the street and the 7pm-applause coming every night from invisible hands, they grew calmer and calmer as they witnessed their bond grow deeper and their connection grow stronger. Of how they would only accept being apart when Michael went out once a month, while Felipe kept watch by the window until, upon Michael’s return, he would rush to the apartment door, and in a cautious frenzy, spray high-concentration isopropyl alcohol on everything – on clothes, shoes, face, hands, hair, shopping bags – before finally allowing themselves to kiss, embrace, and hold hands again.
“When week by week the restrictions were gradually lifted and we could go out shopping and gather together again – five people first, then ten, fifty, up to one-hundred, eventually – they never left the apartment. They didn’t even have to talk about it. They knew the world outside would have killed their perfect happiness. Only I was permitted to visit them all these years. They never lost sight of each other.”
Karen scoffed when I asked why they didn’t get vaccinated like everyone else had, and go out at least a little. “What could you ever know about that? Nothing is more vulnerable than pure love. Even a passing glance can dissolve it, like soap does the virus. It could have never survived outside, they knew it. Would you imagine them ever accepting to go live anywhere else? Of course it had to end as it did. But you don’t know what I’m talking about. You were a kid then…you’re still a kid now.”
Now I want to tell Jordan everything about that pure love, that perfect happiness; of how I wept the whole walk home, Couperin’s Premiere Ordre filling my head.
I want to talk to him about Michael and Felipe, of how I felt as Karen told their story, no matter if real or invented.
It couldn’t actually be true, right? In the end, isn’t she the one who paints fairies that visit her in her apartment? But I don’t care if her fairies are real or not. Michael and Felipe were, and I saw them. I met them, spoke to them, almost touched them. For one year we walked up and down the same long stretch of stairs, but I was so focused on what was below me that even I, like everyone else, ignored what was going on above my head, how close I’d lived to the purest love, the most perfect happiness in this world. She was right, of course. That chance had been given to me and I failed to grasp it. Did I perhaps not deserve it?
“You alright?” Jordan asks as I walk into the living room.
I see him under the bright cone of the reading lamp. The slightly grumpy look on his face makes him seem more attractive than usual. I come close, kiss the bald spot at the top of his head, and hug him from behind.
“It’s raining tonight too,” he said. “The third night in a row. Are we ever going to eat out again?”
“That’s fine, babe. Let’s stay in. There’s a story I want to tell you.”
Italian by birth and New Yorker by adoption, Giuseppe Gullo is an oncologist with an adamantine faith in the power of the arts.