“Should we knock on the door?” she said.
“If this is still going on in 10 minutes we should just call the police,” I decided.
As we listened and I felt my fight-or-flight adrenaline kicking in, I thought, Is this what adulthood is? Was I to accept that this kind of confrontation was actually common among married people after a long day at work and a few too many drinks? I was disgusted and fascinated, and disgusted by my fascination. I wanted to hear more, to figure out exactly what they were yelling to each other, even for the fight to escalate so I could understand it more clearly. The couple met our deadline. I don’t know whether they went to bed angry, but they stopped yelling. I went into my makeshift bedroom and turned on my white-noise machine and hoped that everything turned out okay. We went through a number of similar nights before the couple moved out, I hope to get a divorce. I was too scared to intervene, but I was never too scared to be judgmental.
Read more: The particular cruelty of domestic violence
Years later I moved into my first solo apartment, a studio in Chelsea that was tight yet cozy. I used a screen to separate my “bedroom” from my living room, but the close quarters didn’t bother me because those 350 square feet were all mine. I was surrounded by stacks of books piled on the floor and tons of DVDs, and the desire to soak up my solitude and revel in it. A young family of four lived in the one-bedroom apartment next door. The mother had lived there for years, and had a deal on rent that was apparently worth staying for, putting bunks in the bedroom so that her children could have some space while she and her husband slept on a pullout couch in the living area. I could hear every move the family made: the tantrums, the horseplay, the highs and lows of being together constantly. It drove me crazy. I got a better white-noise machine and soldiered on.
On Saturday, May 31, 2008, I came home from a business trip at close to midnight, groggy and jet-lagged, to find crime-scene tape surrounding my building. Before I could enter, a police officer checked my ID and asked me whether I’d noticed any disturbances in the building, anything off. Something was wrong, I understood, but other than letting me know it was safe to go in, he wouldn’t tell me any more.
The next morning a crowd of reporters had gathered in front of my building, and I learned from them what had happened. My neighbor Margaux Powers, age 26, a woman I didn’t even recognize in the photos that later appeared in the Daily News and Newsday, had been stabbed to death when she had tried to break up with her live-in boyfriend, a chef. He used a kitchen knife to slit her throat and “her body was ‘chopped’ into pieces.’” Our doorman let her sister into the apartment, where she discovered Margaux’s body covered in a green towel in the bathtub. Margaux’s murderer went missing for a matter of hours, and then it was reported that he had been found dead after throwing himself off a Financial District building.