In January I moved into a basement suite in Burnaby. The windows looked out into holes in the ground that were covered by planter boxes along the east wall and a newly built deck along the back. No one lived in the house above, but every weekend at 5 AM the gardener would start up a weed wacker right above my bedroom window. I made it work though. I wasn’t inclined to look for a place, not with everything being the way it was. I bought a UV light. I would’ve liked more fresh air, but there it is.
There was another suite adjacent to mine. I could hear the guy who lived there. He was a Twitch streamer and apparently his setup was against the same wall as my couch. Every forty-five minutes or so, just as I settled into a book or put on a TV show, I’d be brought out of it by a cackle or a “Hey, what’s up, guys!” I could only assume he didn’t have many followers. I wondered if that suite had good windows. They were below ground. Caged, like mine, but maybe not covered. I always forgot to walk around the other side of the house and check. That was my world that summer.
I allowed myself one walk a day and one grocery trip a week. I was new to the city, so I didn’t know anyone to help me with any of that, or drive me. I’d made a few coworker-type friends at the job I had till March, but they’d melted away. The walk usually came around 2 PM, when my dad would call. I’d let the phone go to voicemail three times before he gave up. I always took my phone on the walk to watch the calls come in one after the other. I obsessively flicked each notification up and out of my way. I didn’t delete the messages, but I didn’t listen to them either. I never got to know the neighbourhood that well because I was staring at my phone on my walks. I only got impressions: carefully mowed lawns, empty houses, undisturbed trees in yards.
I’m a little ashamed now, but who isn’t ashamed of the things they do when they’re alone? I listened at the walls, to the tenant next door. I would have listened at the ceilings but there was no one up there. Sometimes I used a glass, but the walls were thin enough and my neighbour loud enough that I didn’t need it. I found out he mostly played GTA V. I tried to listen for his handle, but I never caught it. I guess there’s not a lot of point of saying your Twitch handle to people who are already watching your stream. It was like sitting beside someone who was trying to keep you entertained. On Twitch, even if no one’s watching, you have to act like you’re having fun, always be talking and animated in case someone jumps in to watch. He’d laugh and when he yelled “Oh SHIT!” which he did about every hour, probably when someone tuned in to his stream, his voice would crack a little.
This wasn’t the only thing I did during that time, I’m sure of that. But these are the things I remember. There was a lot of watching of YouTube videos and sitting around scrolling through social media, hopping between Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and back to the start, around again. There was also the front yard, where I’d go to sit on a lawn chair with a book in my lap and my phone in my hand.
The first time I spoke to him was because of the laundry. The laundry was shared with the other unit in a concrete entrance area outside. It was only courteous to listen at the door for the other person and if you heard the washer going, to just go back and wait for an hour or so until they were done, but my neighbour always left his clothes in the washer.
Also, the doors faced each other so you had to listen to make sure the other person wasn’t going to open the door just as you opened it, because that would cause scratches and maybe even a broken door, and maybe even injuries if you opened it weird. I’d never seen my neighbour open the door so I couldn’t really know if he opened it weird, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t listening at the door cause sometimes I’d hear a loud bang (that was him opening it) then another loud bang (that was him closing it), which doesn’t seem like very cautious door-opening technique.
But the laundry. I reached my hand in and touched the clothes in there (wet), then went and knocked on his door. I stepped all the way back, pretty much with my back against my door so that he had room to swing if he wanted. And he did swing, cranked the door till it was at a 90-degree angle and held it there, looking at me. He was short and skinny, wearing a baggy grey shirt with a picture that had long since faded. He wore bulky blue gaming headphones, the mic flipped to point straight up. His hair was buzzed close.
I pointed. “Your laundry,” I said.
He stared, eyebrows furrowing, like he didn’t understand me.
“Your laundry,” I said again.
“Right,” he said, sidling past me. He reached in and pulled out the laundry. It was mostly shirts and underwear, a couple pairs of shorts. He shoved the pile into the dryer, flipping it on. “There,” he said.
The next time I saw him, or maybe it was the first time I saw him, it was because he was playing music too loud. Not normally a big deal. My bedroom didn’t share a wall with him, and I owned headphones, but there was something about it that drove me nuts. Maybe it was the genre: rap-rock and emo. A lot of Linkin Park. I associate that genre with my embarrassing teenage years, with angst and hiding.
I knocked on his door and after a few knocks, he answered. He had a glass in his hand. Orange Crush and spiced rum, I’d later learn, or I knew already. I told him the music was a little too loud.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s my birthday,” which made me feel kind of bad.
“Oh,” I said. “That’s okay then. If it’s your birthday.”
Anyone who’s made a complaint knows that it’s nearly impossible to go back on the complaint once you make it. Even though I said that it was okay, he still knew that the music bothered me, regardless of whether it was his birthday or not, so when he invited me inside, I was obligated to say yes.
He made me one of those drinks, which he called a rum’n orange. I still drink them now. They really do taste good. Sweet. Easy. His living room was lit with coloured lights and dominated by a computer desk with three monitors and a monstrous tower underneath. Standard Twitch streamer setup. We sat down. The music changed to Sum-41 which, if you’re a Canadian of a certain age, you’re probably sick of.
“How long have you lived next door?” he said.
I drank my drink. The thing with rum’n oranges is that they do a really good job masking the alcohol taste with cloying sweetness. Before I knew it, or maybe after I knew it, I’d drunk a few of them. “A while, I think,” I told him.
He told me he wanted us to be friends. To be proper neighbours. “I’ve never had real neighbours,” he said. “Vancouver isn’t very neighbourly.”
I told him I understood. The couch was old and faded. There were dark stains and it sagged towards the middle. Pretty soon, through shifting and talking, our thighs were touching, and when he turned towards me to speak, I could smell his breath, orange-sweet, like candy.
“The thing with being a Twitch streamer,” he said, “is really, you have to be talking all day. It’s made me really good at keeping up conversation. Really good at keeping up a one-sided conversation. I’m usually good with people who are quiet because I can fill that space. I think it helps them feel more comfortable. A lot of my friends are shy. Nerdy gamer types. I have this one friend, she’s the one who comes over, Bethany, maybe you’ve heard her or seen her or something.” (I hadn’t,) “She’s great cause she’ll just watch me stream for hours, or bring over her Switch and play on it while I’m streaming. It’s good to get in-person social time in, even when it’s not exactly having a deep conversation. It’s nice just to have someone around. I had a girlfriend. Well, I moved in here with my girlfriend, but she left. We’d only been living together for a few months, and she left, which sucked. That’s why I’m streaming so much. Gotta cover the rest of the rent. I don’t blame her, really. The truth is I cheated on her. And she cheated on me. She’s a Twitch streamer too, and once you get a decent following… you get fans. And a few of them are local. Anyways, that’s why I’m here alone and always streaming and sometimes I play my music really loud. The only person I have coming over is Bethany. She’s been great, really. It’s just nice to have someone around. I’m glad I met you. Hopefully we can be neighbours. Friends, or whatever. Have a drink every once in a while.”
While he talked, I made and drank another rum’n orange. I was pretty-well fuzzy by then. He was cute in a skin-and-bones way. He had a nice smile. Sort of sad. I asked him if he wanted to have sex with me. He seemed pretty surprised by that, but when I came back to the couch, he looked up at me, his mouth parting. I could tell he’d gone all dry in his throat and I smiled. I glanced over at the windows, but it was dark outside. I couldn’t tell if they got more light than mine.
◊ ◊ ◊
I found a new guy on Grindr after my neighbour left. Or before he moved in. Either way, in those days, I liked being a vessel. I’d invite him over maybe twice a week. He always came to my place, so I didn’t know exactly where he lived. Anyways, he’d come over. Maybe he was married to a woman. Maybe he snuck away at nights, said he was going for a walk or tinkering in the garage and skulked over to my place to get his dick sucked. I only existed in that basement suite with the covered windows, and Kyle (that was his name) carried me with him alongside his own queerness, tucked away in some secret part of his heart. That’s just projection, really. It’s hard to recall specifics about that time, but I’m pretty sure I never saw Kyle outside of his bi-weekly visits. Still, he seemed like the type. Tall, muscular, always wearing tank-tops and shorts. He even came over with a backwards hat on once. He was nice, though. Tender. Sometimes I hated that. I wanted him to grab the back of my neck as we kissed, or take my hand and put it between his legs, but he only ever ran his hands through my hair and caressed my shoulders and back, eyes flitting back up to mine at every step, asking for permission. Sometimes, after we finished having sex, he’d stand in the kitchen naked, head hung low. He was beautiful. Even though I don’t remember the words we shared, I remember that body, and the way he hung his head. I probably asked him what was wrong, and he probably told me he wasn’t sure. Or maybe that he was confused. I hope I came up to him and put my arms around his neck, bringing our naked bodies close, penises touching. But all I remember is kneeling in front of him in that same spot sometime later. Or before.
◊ ◊ ◊
After his birthday, not long after, could have been right after, maybe his birthday party was actually a moving-out party and I’ve got them all turned around, the other tenant moved out. I listened at the door to the sounds of furniture being shifted, grunts of effort, the muffled sound of cutlery in a box. I opened the door and watched. There were a few people helping him, family it seemed like. He saw me and smiled. “Are you free? Can you help?” he asked. I shrugged and picked up a box.
When we finished I was sweaty and tired. He was stronger than he looked. He wore a loose t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. It hung thin to his shoulders and I could see through it. We stood in his empty basement suite alone.
“Why are you leaving?” I asked.
“My wife is taking me back,” he said. “I’m moving in with her.” He ran a finger along the sink, inspecting for dirt. A layer of muck came off on his finger and he wiped it on his pants.
“I thought you had a girlfriend,” I said.
He gave a sort of pleading grin. “I do,” he said.
My phone began to ring. I let it go in my pocket, staring at him until the jarring tones went quiet.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“No one. My dad.”
“Ah,” he said, the grin turning sad for a second. “I get it. Me and mine don’t have the best…” He trailed off, looking up at the ceiling, then adding, “either.”
The phone rang again, jarring in the empty apartment. But somehow natural, like this place was meant to be empty.
“Here,” he said, stepping close and reaching down into my pocket, pulling the phone out. I looked past him to the window set high in the wall. Through it, I could see green grass, freshly mowed. I wondered then, what was out there, what had changed. He brought the phone up, close to my face. His breath was coffee and cigarettes and the sour smell of Mountain Dew. “He wants to talk to you.”
Adam Ells is a Vancouver-based writer of literary and speculative fiction. Much of their work is set in Northern British Columbia, where they grew up. Their work has appeared in Hermine Annual, The Common Tongue, and Propertius Press’ Draw Down the Moon anthology.