Zoe Heller: Listening in you hear the weirdest things

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The Independent Culture
THIS WEEKEND, in the locker room of my gym, a very skinny blonde woman in a multicoloured Lycra catsuit was talking to two of the gym staff about adultery. 'Oh, it's terrible - I feel badly for her,' she was saying when I came in. 'She loves him. And I think he loves her . . . Sad. But you know, it doesn't have to end badly. My girlfriend was somebody's mistress for 30 years. In the end, the wife died and the man married her. But see, he was

very famous and rich. Very famous.' There was a pause. The two gym staff remained silent. 'Yeah,' the woman sighed, at last.

'This was - ' and she named a well-known geriatric Hollywood heart-throb.

I had begun changing very slowly - folding my jeans in a careful little pile and rummaging in my handbag a lot. 'In the winters,' the blonde woman continued, 'the wife used to go to Palm Beach and my girlfriend would move in with him - into their house. One day I saw her and I said, 'Hey, great boots - where d'ya get 'em?' She says to me 'Oh, they're hers.' I said 'Whaddayamean? You're wearing his wife's boots?' 'Sure,' she says. 'I feel very close to her.' ' The woman began to cackle wildly. 'Can you believe that?' she said, several times. The two gym staff wagged their heads. 'Fabulous boots, though,' she added dreamily.

Eavesdropping is one of the great unacknowledged pleasures. I don't know what I would do if I had to rely on conversations in which I was personally involved for entertainment. Yesterday, as I sat writing in my kitchen, a row started up in the apartment across the way - a man and a woman screaming at each other. At times, you could hear every word, and at other times they moved into another room and some of the clarity was lost. Even then, you could follow the progress of the argument - the rise and fall of the voices, the general tone of misery and rage. For the first 15 minutes or so, it was rather upsetting to have all this disembodied anguish pouring in through my kitchen windows. But after a while I became strangely detached; or, rather, I entered into that state of being both detached and gripped - just as you do when watching soap operas.

My apartment is great for eavesdropping. The back of the building overlooks two restaurants with al fresco dining areas. In the really hot weather, I took to sleeping out on my little balcony and I often fell asleep with the odd fragments of other people's dinner-table intimacies drifting into my dreams. My apartment has several other advantages. It has a beautiful yellow kitchen, a green bathroom with pretty tiling and a little circus organ in the front room. All of which makes it particularly heartbreaking that I have to leave in a couple of days. My landlord is back from his travels and my sublet is up.

Where I shall be going is not yet clear. I did have a place fixed up on the Upper West Side, but when I went to move in I discovered that, since I had been there last, it had developed two vast holes in its bathroom and living-room walls. There was no hot water. And the kitchen was infested with roaches. I have been told that I should never write about roaches in this column again because it is such a New York cliche ('Like an American writing a column from London,' one man told me, 'and always complaining about how there's no ice in the drinks'). I take the point, but really I cannot be silent about the horror of this apartment's kitchen. There were roaches everywhere - running up and down the walls, swarming in great battalions across the floor. I want to bathe myself in Dettol just thinking about it. At first, I didn't realise quite how serious the situation was, and I commandeered my friend to go into the kitchen and spray anti-roach stuff everywhere. He stomped about very heroically for about five minutes. (I stood on the sofa in the living-room, meanwhile, shouting helpful things like, 'Oh Christ, I think one of them just dropped on your head.') Eventually, he emerged, looking rather green. 'There's millions of them in there,' he said, 'and this stuff isn't killing them. You need a fumigator.'

Subsequently, I decided this really wasn't the apartment for me. But I haven't yet managed to find a replacement, and so it looks increasingly as if I'm going to have to stay for a bit at the Gramercy Park Hotel.

The Gramercy holds many memories for me - most of them fairly grim. The Gramercy was where I went to stay when my first-ever American boyfriend threw me out of his apartment, after a big row one rainy night in 1988. More recently the Gramercy was where I stayed with another boyfriend for a traumatic week during which we existed solely on vodka gimlets and Pepperidge Farm cheesy snacks in the shape of goldfish. I have stayed at the Gramercy several other times, but they've all melded now into one yellowy recollection of smelly rooms, rude staff and dysfunctional romance.

The only good thing I can recall about this hotel is that it scores pretty high on the eavesdropping rating. The elevators are always full of fading rock stars having murmury confabulations in the Spinal Tap mode. And there's a dark sad bar in the lobby with a tinkly piano playing and a feast of weird conversations to listen in to. The last time I was there having a drink with my girlfriend Nina, we heard a woman say to her male companion: 'So how long have you been seeing the bitch? And don't eat the pretzels, the salt on them will scrape your ulcer.'

Which reminds me, the eavesdropping the other night in my apartment was interrupted at a crucial point when my superintendent turned up to talk to me about the rent. By the time I got rid of him, I had lost track of what was going on. The last complete sentence I heard, before the couple left their apartment or tumbled into bed or killed one another, was the woman shouting, 'I did not] I did not] I made tuna casserole that night]' -

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