My Dead Neighbour

In the memory of the neighbour I barely knew

980 words · 5 min read

Living in a big city sometimes means you don’t get to know your neighbours and your community as good as you would in a small town, which may or may not be a bad thing. I once lived in a place on the 40th floor of a forty-something-storey building where there were 8 flats on each floor. Having a soul-sucking office job at the time that required long hours, I was at home for so little that I had never met my neighbours even once.

The place I now live has 4 flats on one single floor, and although I sometimes meet my neighbours, the relationship between me and my neighbours has never gone beyond giving polite nods when we stumbled upon each other while waiting for the lifts. We remain very much strangers to each other; in fact, we cannot even recognise each other when we meet in contexts other than waiting for the lifts on our floor: if I see one of them in the lobby, at the carpark, or on the beach two bus stops away from my home, I will fail to identify him or her, and I will only realise who he or she is after he or she has disappeared from my sight. Part of that is my own fault, of course, as I’m not the most personable person, and I don’t talk to people just for the sake of filling the silence, but I’m not the only person like that, because a number of my neighbours are like that too.

He, however, was among the friendlier one with whom I would at least banter a bit, and whom I could recognise outside the context of the corridor where we waited for the lifts. He wasn’t much older than I am, and his two kids were small. He was fit, and he liked playing tennis. So it came as a surprise when I was told that Mr. X had died two weeks or so ago after playing tennis.

“Who’s Mr. X?” I asked.

I didn’t even know his name.

When I was still in my teens, a doctor declared that I had an incurable condition, which, if left unchecked, would kill me: my heart would explode—not in a sense of being heart-broken by something sad, but literally—and there would be no way to save me when that happen.

Other than crying the next morning and having a brief thought of jumping out of the window (I lived on 24th floor, so that would certainly kill me), I don’t remember how I took that news at the time.

Before that diagnosis, I was, like every other teenager, immersed in Sturm und Drang. I was playing Chopin on the piano, feeling sad while playing the music, writing novels and failing to finish any of them, listening to music by Gustav Mahler (the first Mahler music I heard was Das Lied von der Erde, and that constant downward spiral in his music made me a Mahler enthusiast, even though listening to his music made me miserable: I liked feeling miserable), falling in love with someone who, I am sure, once loved me at the time when I rejected her love, a decision which I spent a very long time regretting, for I would go on loving her for so long (and perhaps I still do) that I was unable to move on.

After that diagnosis, I had a bomb tied to my chest, but nothing had changed in my life. I still played Chopin, listened to Mahler, read incomprehensible stories, wrote incomprehensible stories, and loved her. So it was a surprise that years later, when my melancholy was deemed serious enough to warrant medical attention, the doctor asked if that death sentence in the form of a dire medical diagnosis had changed me in any way: he, a trained psychiatrist, was keen to make out a connection between the diagnosis and my nervous breakdown. When I told him I couldn’t remember, he suggested I had repressed the memory. Being a psychology major myself who once specialised in cognitive psychology, however, I thought the idea of memory repression was bullshit: how could you distinguished between genuine repression and general forgetfulness anyway?

In the end, I stopped seeing the psychiatrist.

My paternal grandfather was eighty something when he died, and he was the first and, for now, the only dead body I’ve seen. He died in one early morning. Being as nocturnal as I was (and am), my parents didn’t wake me up and bring me to the hospital to witness that moment when his heart stopped beating. When I saw him as a dead man for the first time, it was in the funeral house, with dead man’s makeup on his face. My heart skipped a beat when I set my eyes on that body.

Every year, I visited his grave. The occupant of the grave next to my grandfather’s was a girl who, had she lived, would be younger than me. She died before my grandfather did.

The diagnosis for my heart-exploding illness turned out to be a false alarm. I will probably die of something other than exploding heart.

Mr. X died when he was having a shower at home, which meant he probably died a hundred feet from where I am typing this. I didn’t know a thing until two weeks or so after he died.

I saw my dead neighbour’s wife and children in the lobby the day when I heard of his death. I couldn’t recognise them, and they couldn’t recognise me. I only realised who they were after they had left the building and I had got into the lift.

What would I have said to her if I’d recognised her on the spot? To be honest, I don’t know.

And does she even know that I know her husband is dead?

 Misc    4 May, 2016
 Death    Hong Kong    City  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2019

Peter Y. Chuang


Peter Y. Chuang is a novelist, short story writer, and a music critic. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s probably listening to classical music or tinkering with his computers. He uses Linux (current distro of choice: Arch Linux). Read more about his Linux stuff.

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