strangers: lydia davis


            People are strangers to me. People I don’t know have habits that are nothing like my habits. These habits surprise me and yet they don’t surprise other people: they are taken completely for granted. Someone belongs to the Hunt Club. Someone else is fond of Dubonnet before dinner and always knows when it is time for a drink. These people are not like me and they are not really like each other, although they seem to me more like each other than like me just because they have in common the fact that they are all strangers to me.
            Then I move into an empty house, and suddenly next door to me is a stranger. I live my life and next door to me he lives his life, and because of what we have in common, we become a sort of family together. We are like a family and unlike a family, since we come together as strangers and form a temporary alliance, while family members come to be strangers and are bound together only by blood. A neighbor becomes a sort of cousin, or parent. Or else a neighbor becomes a bitter enemy, an intolerable presence encroaching on one’s land.


             A man and his son next door to me here in the village resented me and my house so much that they covered all the windows of their house that looked out onto mine. This was not enough and they hung dark yellow sheets in back of their house on a clothesline, so that I couldn’t see into their yard. Their anger was not satisfied and the son broke into my house once while I was away in the city — not to steal, but to damage something of mine and walk into a place where he had not been invited. He left by the back door as I entered the front. I never saw him. I rarely see him. I never see the father. Sometimes, only, when I am working in my garden, I hear him muttering behind the fence.


            Another neighbor has oriental rugs and I sometimes think of stealing one. She doesn’t need all she has. There are large ones in her livingroom and small ones running down her hallway and more in the upstairs bedroom. Most of my floors are bare. During the summer she goes away to Block Island. She sends me a postcard from Block Island. She would not think that I had stolen a rug from her, because she knows I am honest. We like to spend time together. We have dinner together.
            But the very perfection of this crime that I think about makes it impossible. She would not suspect me, because I could not steal from her, and because I could not do it, I cannot do it.


            Across the hall from me on the top floor of a building in the city lived my neighbor Miss McAdams. She lived alone with her gray poodle. The poodle was a noisy animal who kept running around the corner of the terrace to bark at me. Miss McAdams loved her dog deeply. When we rode up and down in the elevator together, she spoke to the dog instead of to me, or perhaps the only way she could speak to me was by speaking to the dog.
            Aside from this, I did not have much to do with Miss McAdams. Once, a French friend of mine was visiting and was bored and went across the hall because Miss McAdams was having a loud part of what looked like mostly middle-aged office workers. I stayed home. My French friend drank a lot and tried to pick up an older woman there. He was forced out the door of Miss McAdams’ apartment and fell into my door very drunk and angry. But Miss McAdams did not hold this against me.
            Another night she knocked on my door. She was crying. Something was wrong with her dog. It could not jump up onto her bed. It kept falling off the furniture. Its hind legs were paralyzed and it dragged them over the floor behind it. I sat with Miss McAdams while she waited for her brother to come and drive her to the veterinarian downtown. We had a drink together. This was the only time I saw the inside of her apartment.
            After that the dog had to be carried out of the building every day to do its business. It got weaker and weaker. Finally Miss McAdams took it back to the veterinarian downtown and he put it to sleep. That night I could hear her through the walls. She was drinking with a woman friend and crying. Every now and then she said loudly, “I’m a coward, I’m just a coward.”
            Some time after that an old woman in the building died. There was a small friendly black dog that had to be disposed of. The dog was brought up to Miss McAdams, and she took it even though she had said she did not want another dog. Every day at the same time, after she came home from work, I could hear its toenails clicking as it ran up and down the hallway waiting for her to take it out and walk it. She seemed to like the dog, but in the elevator she talked to me now, and not the dog.


            That same fall a boy in my building was very ill with leukemia, though he was still going to school. He was a cheerful, plump little boy and his older brother was also cheerful and plump. I would see them playing across the street in the park. Their father was a professor at a nearby university. One day in November, the boy was too weak to get out of the school bus by himself. The driver came into the building and called up to the boy’s mother on the intercom. I was in the elevator with her when she rode down to the lobby. She didn’t seem to know I was there and started pounding her fists on the doors because the elevator was moving so slowly. She stopped pounding, shook her fists in the air, and then started pounding again. When the doors opened she ran out looking angry.
            Just before Christmas I went to a party given by a couple who lived in the building, an old Russian doctor and his wife. This doctor had once, in his youth, walked a mile through a snowy Russian winter to deliver the baby of a young poet who was lying in bed smoking on filthy sheets and who later became very famous. Her baby grew up and then was killed in the Second World War. I heard this story at the party and then just before the party was over someone told me that the little boy with leukemia had died. A few days after the party I saw the boy’s father, a large clumsy man with a briefcase, standing in the front hall talking to his neighbors and weeping.

Strangers by Lydia Davis

Illustrations Laura Payne

“Strangers” by Lydia Davis. Copyright ©1983 by Lydia Davis. All rights reserved. Originally collected in Story and Other Stories, published by The Figures. Reprinted by permission of Denise Shannon Literary Agency for the author.