My Neighbors’ Mantel
Voyeurism is a very particular term, and I misuse it constantly. When friends and I used to discuss the cracks in the veneer of professionalism put forward by our professors, when we’d get to see their humanity despite their best attempts at veiling it, I called myself a voyeur. When I am witness to the daily goings-on of my friends in healthy relationships, how their interactions with their partners display a hidden language only spoken by them, I call myself a voyeur. When, on a daily basis, I eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations and leech secondhand love, or pity, or sadness, from their words, I call myself a voyeur. Yet, all these instances of invasion—harmless, unannounced theft—lack a core component of true voyeurism: they do not arouse in me even an ounce of sexual pleasure. Any pleasure derived from this process is simply a side-effect of having met a curiosity of mine with evidence of something real and affirming, or, from experiencing the sickly sweet thrill of finding myself in a place I shouldn’t be, with information I shouldn’t have. Maybe I’m just too enamored by control, the freedom this thieving gives me to complicate or simplify the lives I’ve of those I encounter. Maybe I’m simply too motivated by my own imagination. In any case, it feels important to reiterate that this practice has never been a sexual or malicious one for me. I like to think it’s harmless, necessitated by a need of some sort, and that any penalty incurred in the process will live and die exclusively within the bounds of my mind alone. I look and listen because I need to in order to feel safe and in control, and I choose to believe that there is no consequence.
The same was true when I began to gaze through my neighbors living room window. During the first few weeks in my new home, I noticed the loud thrumming bass of their music late at night, I was irritated the Bud Light cans that blew from their yard into ours, I scoffed at the shoddily constructed plywood beer pong table in their driveway, I woke to the sound of them sparking an altercation with someone else in the neighborhood. To put it simply, my neighbors are bros. Typical dudes. And, as a person with a tumultuous relationship to traditional notions of masculinity, as a queer individual, as a person who dislikes being heckled when I walk out my front door, this fact is disconcerting. Their presence feels threatening. So, naturally, I keep an eye on them. From my porch, on certain evenings, when they leave their blinds drawn, I can see a small portion of the home they build together. I can see their mantel. I can see the things they place on it, and I can decide what those things mean.
In this tiny cabinet I reconstruct what I have found there. I treat these items as proxies, as emblems that I can reshape and rename to suit my interest. And, also, I suppose, I use these items as facilitators for some kind of deeper understanding so that I might feel closer to the bros next door. I might even try to feel neighborly.
I suppose the llama is as good a place to start as any. They have a large painting of a llama placed in prominence—front and center—and I feel entirely stumped by it. It looks like something one might find for a few dollars at a thrift store. It looks arbitrary, like the kind of thing one bro might pick up and offer to his buddy. Together they’d shrug. Why not? It’s as good as anything. It might even be a little funny.
I like to imagine what the homemaking process must’ve looked like for them. I wonder if any of them are free to be sensitive enough to make an esthetic choice not bound by convenience. When my roommate and I moved in, it took us weeks to fully furnish our living room because we wanted it to be cute, cozy, and inviting, not just functional. I wonder if one of the bros chose the llama because he thought it was cute, or because it looked soft, and he liked cute, soft things. I wonder if the others know this is why he chose the llama. I wonder if he even does.
I’ve always been drawn to people who are passionate about the things they love. The foam finger feels standard, like it must be a staple in most bro houses. And I’m not much a fan of sporting events. In fact, I find a lot of sports culture entirely repulsive. But, still, it’s nice to imagine the bros being excited about something. It’s nice to envision their usual negging camaraderie falling away to make space for celebration. The subject of that celebration doesn’t matter all that much to me.
They have a statue of a bird on their mantel, except theirs isn’t tiny and golden: their statue is a large (too large to fit in a tiny cabinet) brown owl with angry red eyes. It’s the kind I used to see on fence posts on all the farms in my hometown. There, its purpose was to intimidate pests and prevent them from invading and consuming crops. Here, in the bros’ living room, I wonder what function it serves, what pests it’s attempting to keep out.
They have a dog. And, when the dog is outside, it tugs at the end of its leash, barking desperately at anyone who passes. Their dog looks much meaner than the one I supply here, but certainly there must be times when it is not all teeth and anger. There must be moments when it curls up next to one of the bros (probably the nice one who apologizes for all the barking) to give and receive love.
The irony here is very obvious to me. It is their space. Do not enter. I am breaking the rules. They must’ve stolen it, I think. How typical. And somewhere, an out-of-towner doesn’t realize they’re driving the wrong way down a one-way street. It’s the bros’ fault, and it’s illegal, but there’s a version of me who’s always wanted to steal a street sign. A part of me still thinks it’d be fun.
Weeks have passed and they still haven’t taken the decorations down. Before the party started, they invited my roommate and I to join them. A gesture of good will. An olive branch. I hated that.
If I interrogate the driving force of this project, it feels true to say my motives were inspired by a need for self-preservation, merely a means of reimagining the bros next door as something other than the threat I’d expect. Yet, it would be untrue to say the power it has given me over the construction of their lives is holistic or fair. I try to be compassionate. I try to imagine them as human, but only on my own terms. I try to feel safe living next to them, or try imagining how we might become friends, and at times it feels possible. But there is only so much my imagination can do with what is kept on a mantel. There is only so much trust I can imagine myself capable of.