|Marie in her West Village apartment with
Inan. (Photo Credit: Joseph Maida)
About ten years ago, I moved
into a railroad apartment in the West Village: five flights
up to a long, narrow space that my sisters, who live in houses,
might call a hall. When the apartment was swept and uncluttered,
tulips standing on the table, it looked like a sliver of a
country house. As long as you didn’t move. This place
is so peaceful, friends would say, so serene—and it
was, unless the neighbors were home. I nodded on the stairs,
but I had no desire to know the people across from me: two
adults and one young daughter living in a space too small
for even one person. I’d come to New York to escape
the white affluent suburbs, to live with different kinds of
people, but this was just too close. Their language, their
cooking, their shouting: Everything they did seemed foreign
and loud. I closed the door; they came through the wall. The
man’s snoring woke me. “Stephanie!” I heard
the mother call to her daughter so many times it was a song
stuck in my head. When the family’s friends came over,
their conversation and laughter drove me from my desk, forced
me to walk the streets. Then the worst thing happened.
They had another baby. And that child cried for twelve to
sixteen hours, day and night. I banged on the door. I called
the landlord. Who were these people? Why wouldn’t they
move? At that time, I was trying to conceive a child with
the man I loved. Inches from my neighbor’s snoring we
would be having the industrious sex people who are paying
for rounds of fertility drugs have—and then the baby
would start crying. And crying. Come on, honey, he’d
say, we have a job to do. But by then I’d be sobbing,
too, curled up in a fetal position under the sheets, my hands
over my ears as the baby screamed.
We broke up, and I was single again. As the baby next door
grew into a toddler (“Sabrina!” the mother endlessly
called), I began the long process of adopting a child from
China. Finally, I received the photograph of my future daughter,
a sturdy, sad-looking 3-year-old girl named Yi-Nan, and it
was time to go.
Three weeks in three Chinese cities (bicycles, smog, scorpions,
SARS, an appendicitis attack), Yi-Nan sobbing throughout the
fifteen-hour flight, and we were back in New York, slumped
in a cab speeding through the rainy night. As I lugged my
new daughter up my building’s five flights of stairs,
I began to hear voices, and then I saw them: Stephanie and
Sabrina; their mother, Maria; and their father, the snoring
man, Carlos. Everyone had crowded into the stairwell to greet
the little girl who pressed against my shoulder. It wasn’t
until the next morning that I saw the blown-up color photographs
of Yi-Nan—I had no idea who had gotten them or how—pasted
on the walls and doors with WELCOME HOME crayoned beneath
I hardly noticed, in the blur of those first weeks, how
the presence of my next-door neighbors began to comfort me.
Maria and Stephanie would coax Yi-Nan (whose name had morphed
into Inan) up the stairs as I staggered behind. Then gifts
began to appear: a child’s baseball hat hanging from
the doorknob, two or three laundered dresses neatly folded,
a large Tupperware container of plastic action figures.
I was a 52-year-old working woman, living alone with a disoriented
3-year-old who spoke only Mandarin. I was barely coping. Although
my friends cheered me on, they didn’t live with me;
my neighbors did. One day, Stephanie stood in my doorway as
I put away groceries. Another day, both Stephanie and Sabrina
came in. Soon they were stopping in regularly to teach Inan
numbers and letters and who Barbie is. When I struggled to
get my stomping, crying daughter dressed, they materialized
snapping their fingers and singing “You can do it”
as they danced around. They charmed her, they calmed her;
they made her laugh and learn English. And they taught me
how to teach her, they taught me to have fun.
Not only our next-door neighbors but the whole building
rallied to my support. Our landlords threw a baby shower.
Will and Peter, who lived below us, carried up groceries and
very often Inan as well. Soon doors were opening each morning
like little windows in an Advent calendar as our neighbors
called out “good morning” to the little girl counting
“one, two, three” as she walked downstairs.
I don’t remember when Maria and I began keeping the
doors between our apartments open. I crossed into her kitchen
one evening to see Inan sitting with the kids and eating spaghetti.
“It’s okay?” Maria said. “Yes,”
I said, “if it’s okay with you.” Inan looked
up, smiling, her mouth smeared with sauce.
When I was sick, Maria took Inan next door and fed her.
When Inan was sick, Will took time off from work to babysit.
And when Inan’s fever reached 105, Maria showed me how
to wrap her in cold towels. Back from the doctor, we found
coloring books waiting for her.
Our doors were open almost all the time now. The children
ran back and forth, and Maria and I walked into each other’s
homes with only a knock on the woodwork. Stephanie and Sabrina
and Inan decorated the little Christmas tree we’d carted
home in the stroller (Peter carried it up). And on Christmas
Day, when Inan had been in New York nine months, and a group
of us were opening presents, Will and Peter brought us a Christmas
breakfast of eggs and ham and blueberry muffins. It was the
happiest Christmas of my life.
Children bring blessings, an old friend, a mother, once
told me: Children open doors. Inan and I had come all the
way from China to find the people who would make our new life
possible: our generous neighbors, who had been there all along.
Marie Howe teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and is the
author of What the Living Do, a book of poems.