I once read that most people cannot tell the difference between pâté and cat food when it’s presented to them. I’ve seen the Fancy Feast commercial, so I don’t doubt it. Particularly bored scientists have done experiments and usually get the same results. A lot of people think they would be able to tell, but it seems like such a simple experiment I’m not certain people aren’t doing it all the time. Maybe there is a vast conspiracy of people serving cat food instead of pâté, just because they can. I sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that I could eat pâté a million times until I was sure I knew what pâté tasted like. Then I’d get another opportunity to eat pâté (or alternatively cat food), and my world would come crashing down. I’d be just another victim of the pâté-cat food schemery.
I feel much the same way about overhearing people having sex. I’m never really convinced I’ve overheard people in the throes of passion. It always happens the same way. I’ll be sitting there, minding my own business, and I’ll hear a sound. Usually a female sound. And after my reaction, saying, “Oh… well… hmm,” and clasping my hands for no reason like I’ve suddenly got to break bad news, I dismiss it. I laugh nervously. Surely, I’m not really overhearing sex, I think. A ton of things sound like people having sex: Fight scenes in movies, songs with high pitched notes, really jovial laughter, or even people making awkward sounds in order to make eavesdroppers uncomfortable. And it feels awfully rude for me to assume a stranger is having a private moment when they might be doing something innocuous, like watching tennis or porn.
And even if I do have to concede that yes, I am overhearing some sort of sex thing, it still never feels real. Every time it happens (and it’s happened more times than I think is normal), it always seems so over the top and artificial. Is she having a good time, I wonder. Perhaps, but surely she’s not having that good a time. Cosmo has me believe that most can’t tell the difference between real and fake orgasms. And there seem to be much better reasons to fake mild interest for enjoyment than there are to fake cat food for pâté.
This cognitive dissonance mostly came into play sophomore year, when I lived next door to a girl who had a single. She was an exceptionally tall girl, who I always assumed was an athlete because she wore her hair up and wore shorts. She kept to herself and I never knew much about her, besides her name since it was plastered on the door. On the rare occasion I’d spot her outside of her room, she usually ignored me, or gave me a strained close-mouth smile, as if annoyed she had to be sociable. On weekends, her boyfriend, who probably went to another school, would visit. He was a large bearded fellow, who looked to be about 250 pounds of muscle, and when he stood up his head nearly touched the ceiling. I actually would see him in the hallway more often than my neighbor, and he’d ‘Hi’ every single time even though it was always an unnecessarily awkward interaction.
In general, I couldn’t hear what was going on in her room from my room. However, sometimes when I was in the hallway, fumbling for my keys, or passing by her room on the way to the bathroom, I’d hear sounds. The first few times I was convinced I’d just happened to catch her at a kissy scene in a movie, because no one actually sounds like that in real life. And since these occurrences would only happen on weekends, it was obvious she and her boyfriend were just movie buffs. Though I could never entirely shake the feeling that the ‘Hi’s in the hallway were apologetic and guilty.
My blissful ignorance came to an end one Friday afternoon, when passing by the door, I heard a very sensual, “Ooh, babe…” And before I could even think, Oh those crazy kids and their movie films, while simultaneously speeding up, I quite clearly heard my neighbor voice ask, “Do you wanna… do you wanna get the thing?” It was the kind of sentence I knew would stay with me. As soon as I heard it, I knew voluntarily or not, I’d spend at least the next 10 minutes wondering what this thing was. At any random moment, for the rest of my life, I try to figure out what the thing was, with no closure. Sometime in the near future, I would have to bring it up to someone so that we could speculate on what the thing was, fruitlessly. Maybe it would be a good story for the next time I was drinking with a large group of people.
That night I didn’t go out with anyone. I decided to have an event-free night by myself just this once. I hadn’t gotten to the point where I couldn’t stand my “drinking buddies” but I had begun to sour on them. My roommate was out, as were most of the people on my hall. I could watch movies and listen to music as loud as I wanted. I had just about finished a bag of popcorn and was halfway through what was definitely an old Disney movie, when I heard talking that was quickly escalating to yelling. My lofted bed was right next to the window, so I was used to hearing everything that went on outside and ignored it. But soon, it became too loud to ignore. It sounded so scary and violent. I’d never heard anything like it. Well, I had, but not since I’d lived in Brooklyn. Clearly, some kind of gang fight had broken out beneath my window. My heart raced, but when I looked out the window, it was the same safe, white-bread campus it had always been.
I paused my movie, and realized the yelling was coming from next door, where my neighbor and her beau were having the couple’s row to end all couple’s rows, and maybe the world. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, the word ‘fuck’ was in there quite a bit, and now I was even more curious about the thing, because whatever it was, apparently it had destroyed their relationship in the course of about seven hours.
At some point during this fight, I’d finished my popcorn. As usual, I went to throw it out in the garbage in the hallway so the smell wouldn’t linger in the room. As soon as I stepped outside, I heard a loud bang. My neighbor’s door flew open with a gust of wind as she stomped out.
“GET THE FUCK OUT! I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!” She screamed. Before I could even blink, she was grabbing her boyfriend by the collar and literally dragging him on the ground and out of the door. I was too astonished to see this giant of a man being hauled around like a sack of flour to actually move. My neighbor looked to be on a warpath, but if she saw me, I never knew. With one last “Fuck you”, she was back inside as quickly as she’d appeared, the door once again slamming noisily. The boyfriend stumbled to his feet, disoriented. He turned and saw me, standing there awkwardly with the bag of popcorn I didn’t have the foresight to crush up. He took a breath.
I probably should have said something back, or asked if he was okay, but all I could do was shake my head and sprint off to the garbage can. He was still out there when I went back to my room. He was leaning against my neighbor’s door, mumbling something. I didn’t stick around to find out. I could hear him from my room. He’d apparently given up on trying to get back into the room or in trying to get her to come out. He was asking to at least get something back. It sounded like “license,” but as he repeated it over and over I realized he was saying glasses. For about ten minutes or so he begged her to just give him his glasses back. He promised he’d never bother her again, if she just gave him back his glasses. He pleaded so much and sounded so sad, even I wanted to yell, “Just give him back his goddamn glasses.” And maybe I would have if I wasn’t absolutely certain that girl could and would kick my ass. Finally, I heard her door open and she said haughtily, “Your glasses are in your hood,” before slamming the door again.
Even without seeing him, I could tell he realized she was right. He didn’t move for a while, and then he started laughing. Loud, wild, maniacal laughter. He laughed and laughed as he left the building. And before I knew it, I was laughing too, in the same maniacal way. From my window I could hear him laughing outside, and he could hear me. We continued in this way for a while, feeding off of each other until finally he had to get in his car and drive away.
I never saw him again after that. So I assume, true to his word, he stayed away. I did see my neighbor more often. We got into the habit of saying hello to each other, and I even friended her on Facebook, though that was mostly to see if she’d be listed as ‘in a relationship.’ Every once in a while, I’d get these crazy plans to actually befriend her. We’d have to become very close. Then one day after we’d been bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, and I was godmother to her kids, I’d be able to ask her what the hell happened. Or better yet what the thing was. And when she told me and/or kicked my ass, I’d be free to pursue other mysteries. Like whether or not pâté is cat food.