The first time I met my neighbor, he was humming a Françoise Hardy song while vomiting down his own shirt.
I had just come in from the market, my sore arms hanging on to heads of cabbage. As the insides of his stomach poured out of his mouth, the sounds he made were nothing like the unlovely noises that I would have produced in such a state. It was a wet melody. I could not name the song. I had not come into the habit of listening to the radio.
He did not look at me, but I could not move my feet, only gawk. Spread out across the wooden stairs, he blocked the way to my new door. A tall and gangly man, his limbs all bent at improbable angles. His neck could not keep his head straight.
Eventually, he ran out of song. Soon thereafter, his body too seemed to have been emptied. I studied the patterns of vomit he had created across the floor, like spilled water in the sand. These stairs, too close to the Champs-Elysées and too far from the local market, were not carved out for vomit. The contrast appeared deliberate, even artful. I wondered what the gardienne would think.
He opened his eyes and looked at me as if he expected me there.
“Good day, Monsieur,” I said. “Are you alright?”
“Thérèse?” he grumbled, his voice far less clear than when it had been employed in song. “I am perfectly fine. Leave me be.”
“I don’t believe we have met. I moved in with my husband on the third floor three weeks ago.”
“Just go on your way, you deal with enough babies in your salon.”
I looked around for a good resting spot for my cabbages, and found one on the steps of the stairs I had just come from. Carefully, as to not ruin my new shoes, I made my way to his side and offered him my arms.
“Do you live here?”
He did not take up on my offer. He let his head roll to his left, staring into the wallpaper for a moment, and then made a spasmic attempt to stand up on his own. His right foot appeared to fold under the weight of him, and he fell over on his side. I reached out my arms a little further, and he finally rolled his eyes over to me.
He gesticulated to the door on our right.
“This one’s mine.”
He looked down at his own shirt. Just like the stairs, it looked expensive enough to make something beautiful even of this type of decoration. He scoffed at himself.
“It’s alright, Monsieur,” I said. “We all have those days.”
At last, he took my arm. His body was lighter than it should have felt, hollowed out from a fuller state. I heaved him off the stairs and tried not to breathe through my nose.
There were only a few steps to the door. Whatever had happened to my new neighbour’s stomach had caught him just before he could have entered privacy. I asked him to fish out his keys. He shook his loose head and turned the handle on his door, giving way without protest.
As soon as we had stepped foot inside his apartment, he yanked himself loose from me, sinking onto a footstool by the coat rack with his head between his large palms. My attention was caught by what I momentarily mistook for the emerging hostess of the household, before I noticed that she was encased in glass.
A Japanese doll probably measuring two-thirds of my size, wrapped in layers of robes, her hair rolled up into a sphere, her mouth a thin, orange line hinting at a welcome.
My neighbor noticed me staring and wheezed out a laugh.
“That doll is a present from the Empress of Japan,” he said.
I was not sure whether I should laugh at the joke. I ended up with a short-lipped smile mimicking that of the doll. After the silent pause grew too awkward I offered:
“On what occasion?”
“In return for her hair.”
My neighbor offered no further explanation, but sighed and curled up into a ball on the footstool. At last, my feet caught up with what the stale air was telling me, and carried me back towards the door.
I mumbled my farewells and glanced over my shoulder, the doll’s face the only thing in the room returning my politeness, and closed the door behind me.