D*S Essay Contest: Leah Pellegrini

by Grace Bonney

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[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]

Home Is Where the Hum Is

My upstairs apartment neighbor vacuums only at sunrise. I sometimes wake to the soft hum passing across the floor over my head. I’m not sure who she is, nor even that she’s female, but I envision her with tired hands like leather laced with wrinkles, wearing a sweet and sleepy sort of smile. Behind my shut eyes, I see her shuffling in the same slippers she’s kept for years, embroidered with tiny roses across the toes, as she tangles the thick cord of the vacuum around her ankles.

If it’s not the vacuum, it’s the shower, and I hear the water rushing gently through the pipes in the walls. I imagine those slippers waiting just outside her bathroom door, still warm, and her teapot steaming on the stove. I stand slowly from my twin-sized bed and draw up my sheets, tucking them into the sides of the mattress and fluffing my pillows, while above me, there’s that gentle purr of solidarity in the shared ritual of a fresh start.

I make my breakfast to the shrill of the next-door toddler’s tantrums. I flip my eggs while she flips furniture, sending board games and books flying helter-skelter into the walls. She stomps, and the floors shake, and the butter bubbles frothier around the edges of my pan. By the time I’m sitting at my Ikea dining table, sipping coffee, her mom or dad has managed to wrangle her unwillingly out the door. “I don’t want to go,” she shrieks. “No!” I think about human inertia while I stare into my mug, willing the billowing swirl of almond milk to translate into some sort of motivational message.

I do my novice yoga routine in my kitchen-cum-living room with the window wide open, listening to a distant jackhammer (somewhere, someone is always constructing something) and a mob of kids entering the school across the street. They sob their goodbyes to their mothers and squeal their hellos to each other as I rest in my own Child’s Pose on my hardwood floor.

[continued after the jump…]

In the summer, the children peter out of their apartments more slowly, meeting instead at the small park down the block where they intertwine arms and legs on the jungle gym, shoot water guns, and dangle from swings whose rusted cadence I can hear while I hunch before my laptop, reading my grown-up emails, swallowing my second bittersweet coffee.

As I leave for work or the grocery store or the gym, I typically cross paths with one of the many middle-aged women who share my building. They stand outside each other’s doors in sockfeet, exchanging Spanish secrets I can’t understand, or huff slowly up and down the stairs, lugging bagfuls of groceries. Their husbands are presumably at work or perhaps simply less inclined to show their fatigued faces.

Oftentimes, I encounter the same older woman who lives down the hall. She wears simple glasses and a nightgown that drapes casually across wide hips and soft elbows. You can tell that she carefully combs her short bob of coarse gray hair, squinting into her mirror and leaning her body up against the sink. Next to her is her beagle named Bella whose drooping belly grazes the cold tile. They hobble out the door together, smiling and panting in sync with one another. “Good mawning,” she drawls. “How are ya.” It’s not a question, but a statement.

She once explained to me that she has lived in this apartment for 52 years – she and her husband moved in just after their wedding and raised two sons here together. The boys are grown and gone, and her husband died two years ago. “But life goes on,” she said. “He’s watchin’ me from heaven now.” She padded clunkily down the steps behind me, gripping the railing, with Bella trailing slowly after her, bound for the corner bodega for a coffee and a fresh tomato. Another time, she was in a blue floral-printed dress, swathed in the smell of perfume. “Aww, fuck,” she said, locking eyes with me as she turned back towards her door. “Forgot a sweater,” she explained. “This restaurant I’m going to, they always keep it cold.” “I know how that is,” I told her, recovering from the shock of that unexpected swear word from her gentle mouth just in time to add, “Have fun!”

At night, I eat most dinners on my fire escape, with my bare toes on the metal and my glass of cheap wine perched perilously on the concrete sill. On the sidewalk below me, packs of middle-aged men play impassioned games of dominoes. Their wives watch, hair wrapped in curlers from the salons down the street, manicures still wet. Teenage boys in sagging shorts bet on coin flips, smoking cigarettes, and the children dip and dodge and dive through the throng after bouncing basketballs. Someone grills hot dogs or burgers. The smoke rises up through the fire escape stairs, curling around my calves as I watch the sun set through the slats.

This is home in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It has soft edges. The lines between inside and outside are blurred and permeable. Apartment walls are really more like sieves – they block out other people’s dense, material stuff, but the watery things sift through. Laughter. Sobbing. Sacred habits.

I slipped in here just as subtly, an anonymous newcomer in a place rich with history and packed with life, already running smoothly at the pace of its established routines. I have lived here for one year, and it feels like home, but in a preciously temporary sort of way. It’s merely a rental. I often think about the tenants who slept, showered, and sipped coffee here before me, and the ones who will fill the space with their own delicate aliveness once I’m gone.

That’s what “home” is, when you’re a twentysomething New Yorker hopping between apartments every year or two: it’s that delicate aliveness. It’s the bare feet and breakdowns, the routines and rituals. It’s the tenderness. It’s the vulnerability that slips slyly through the walls. It’s the shared simplicities that weave in and out of window frames. It’s the sound of someone else’s vacuum, the first thing I hear before I’ve even opened my eyes: the soothing hum of home. –Leah Pellegrini

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  • Just sent an email to the submissions address, but it looks like a chunk of text got cut out in the middle — any chance we can fix it? Thanks so much :)

  • Leah, I liked this. You’ve taken your readers behind the walls of the innumerable apartments that populate New York City and revealed what most apartment dwellers experience. The difference and the genius in your piece is that you stopped long enough to absorb the sounds, smells and the feel of the people mostly unknown to you. Nice work.

  • Beautiful. Please, oh please, may we have essay contests more often? Your readers are fabulous writers.

  • Leah, this is beautiful. You’ve achieved a rare quality in writing; you’ve placed your readers in that twin bed with you listening to the hum of the vacuum, with their eyes still closed. And so it goes, with every image you describe; we are voyeurs… listening as you listen, seeing as you see, walking down those same steps. Bravo!

  • Leah, what a beautiful little gem of an essay. You really have captured the individual sense of self in the midst of strangers, and how connections–real and imagined–begin to transform strangers into friends and neighbors. You have really breathed life into the characters surrounding you.

  • This is my favorite essay. So masterfully written and wonderfully evocative. I can just feel the rhythms of your neighborhood!

  • I love all the stories but so far this is my favorite, so simple and so real and true, I can feel being there, I love this series, thank you! How to choose???

  • Leah, this is wonderful. I even teared up a little, perhaps since I can relate to this story. Not having lived in S.WB, but having friend who did and do, I guessed this was neighborhood before you even said it. What a wonderfully accurate description of the people who make up this place. Love your essay!

  • walls like sieves that screen out other people’s dense….but the watery things sift through…
    lovely young urban single observations …feeling your way through your young once only life.

    Well done.

  • You remind me that home is also about neighbours. Something many people forget in their hopes for privacy and the focus on daily demands on time and energy. In an age where I see fences growing taller, I value your positive outlook

  • Leah, I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying your essays. This one is just perfect, but did I see that part of it was missing in the middle? If that is the case, and if there is a chance of reading the entire piece, I would like that. Good luck with this contest! I can’t imagine anyone else’s essay better captures the essence of “home.”

  • This is so evocative and truly lovely. I can picture and imagine all that you have described.

  • Leah, maybe it’s because you are such a fine photographer that your words make such beautiful, memorable pictures. I love your work on Instagram.

  • Beautifully written!! Your descriptive words capture the imagination; I could hear the vacuum humming and children laughing. You introduced your neighbor to your reading audience with such vivid familiarity, that I am convinced that she’s my very own grandma! Love the way your morning routine connects with sounds of life around you. Leah, you hit a Home-run on the theme of Home!!