Avoidance New York

“I got an idea the other day when I had to go downstairs to tell the restaurant to turn down the music,” I said to Barry. He was sprawled on my torn couch (newly torn by his calico kitten, Tammy), eating a watermelon wedge, dribbling pink juice onto the slashed couch and letting the seeds he spit into his hand slide through his fingers onto the floor.

“Idea for what?” he mumbled, his mouth still full.

“About an online directory about how to avoid interactions with people you’re obligated to interact with, but who you don’t like,” I said.

Barry, his matted graying dark hair in a loose ponytail, and his shirttails out, and his jeans cuffed unevenly so that the two legs were mismatched, had no idea what it meant to calculate to do anything—including practicing avoidance.

“The thing is,” I said, “there are a lot of restaurants in New York that are so loud you could meet people you don’t like there, and then go through the whole meal just smiling and nodding at each other because the music is so loud. Or, if you’re expecting a phone call from the person you’re trying to avoid, you could arrange to be at the restaurant when the call is comes in, and then pretend like you’re disappointed you can’t talk because of all the noise.” I started laughing with my eyes cast down, much like the inventor of an ingenious or revolutionary device would laugh, feigning humility. I found myself brilliant. I was brilliant at the art of avoidance.

“Or you could just tell them you’re busy,” Barry said. He had finally finished the watermelon, and now put his feet in white sports socks, with dirty under-sides, up on the couch Tammy had punctured. He was pushing the clutter he brought with him (harness for Tammy, multiple notebooks, an old fashioned tape recorder, dice, an eyeglasses toolkit and a kit with colored drawing pencils) around looking for the television’s remote control.

“You’ll find in life sometimes that there are people you don’t feel good about brushing off, and who, even if you tried, wouldn’t go away,” I said. “Remember, it’s always the ones you don’t like that stick around.”

With that, Barry belched and kept his eyes, which he rubbed constantly for some reason, fixed to the TV screen, which he had turned to a dumb romantic comedy. The heroine of the movie was experiencing a mishap with her blender, and the hero got covered in whatever she was mixing up after the top of the blender blew off. It was idiotic. Tammy was now sprawled on my windowsill, cleaning her beautiful orange and black mottled calico paws, a dainty counterpoint to her master. “You should be more like Tammy,” I said. Barry grunted, and refocused on the movie.

“Well, you’re probably already on your way to becoming like her on one score,” I said. “I bet you’ll ruin my couch, too, sooner or later.”

Barry and Tammy were staying with me for a week, while his apartment got de-bed-bugged. You could say it’s not smart to invite a bed-bug infested person and his cat to stay with you, but, for one thing, I didn’t invite him, and for another, I made him take all his clothes, and anything that wouldn’t catch fire, and put it in a dryer on high heat at the laundromat down the street. We couldn’t de-bed-bug Tammy, but we called Barry’s vet, and he said the cat probably wasn’t carrying any on her fur. Tammy was the charm, and Barry was the company who tagged along with her—a necessary part of the package, but it was Tammy I mostly enjoyed spending time with, even if she did tear my couch. It’s just that in life sometimes you have to accept the human companions who come with cats.

I figured the week with Barry would go by faster if we could work on my human-avoidance directory together. “Do you think we could charge money for people to use it?” I asked him.

Barry the next day had gotten through the three watermelons he had brought with him to my apartment, and rolled under the bed to keep cool, and was now on to a bucket of apples he had picked several days ago at a Hudson River Valley orchard. The beauty of being unemployed is you can spend a Tuesday afternoon with an entire orchard practically to yourself, picking off the best of the fruit, while your sad fellow humans reach beneath their cubicle desks to recharge their phones, or pick up the stray potato chips that missed the crevices of their computer keyboards. “Naw, I don’t think so—at least not at first,” he said. “I think the way to do it is offer it for free first, and then if people like it, and it catches on, what you do is come up with a more in-depth, a better, version of it, like an app people pay for.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said. “What do you think of calling it ‘Avoidance New York’?”

Barry started laughing and shaking his head. “Too honest,” he said. “People like to practice avoidance, but they don’t like to acknowledge to themselves—or anyone else—that that’s what they’re doing. It needs a name that would sound like something an evolved person would do.”

“How about ‘Meditative Moments New York,’ or ‘New York City: Space for Growth?’ That sounds like something the evolved people would like,” I said.

Barry nodded his approval and tipped an invisible hat at me. “The whole thing is giving people a way to feel like they’re better than they really are—all the while enabling them to do whatever they wanted to do anyway,” he said.

“Well, for instance, if you walk all the way up the subway platform, so you can get in at the head of the train, you can have a ‘meditative moment,’” I said.

We both were bent over laughing at that one. You avoided unnecessary human contact by arranging to sit in the least populated train car, but who would ever call 10 minutes—anywhere—on a New York subway a meditative moment? Or how about deliberately waiting until a pouring-down-rain day to run all your errands, thinking it’s better to have the rain on your tail than a person itching at your heels, or right in front of you, blowing second-hand smoke in your face?

The question was whether space from other people could be considered an ASAP service—as in, “If I don’t get away from these people immediately, I’m going to have an emergency.” From that perspective, I thought an app for phones might be a good idea. No matter where you were in the city, you could just turn on the app, and it would give you a tip about distancing yourself from your fellow human, or would direct you to the nearest least populated spot.

“I think an app for emergency alone-time would be a great thing,” I said. “Do you want to help?”

Barry, who had begun picking off loose strands of white rubber from his high-top sneakers took a deep breath. “How much work would it involve?”

It was like living with a person who was a hoarder because he was too lazy to walk to the garbage, and then also too lazy to then take the trash outside to the dumpster. The Saturday morning (not that early; 11 am) when the search for solitude was set to begin, I found Barry nearly using an empty pizza box as his pillow. I had gotten home late the night before, and not wanting to disturb him, hadn’t turned the light on near the alcove where the couch was that he slept on. When I woke up, I noticed the tangy smell of pepperoni, onions and garlic. Then I saw him lying half on and half off the couch, the paper box practically under his head. He talked jibberish when I tapped him on the shoulder, opening his eyes and blinking a few times like a newborn calf. “Well, well, yeah, OK, maybe later,” he mumbled. I just rolled my eyes and turned on my heel. I was off on my own to find places in New York City less human-ful.

A big part of being alone is finding the off-hours and off-weather. If you can live in off-time, you’re lucky. But in the quest for least-populated places in the city, that’s cheating. Plus, I usually worked during the times when everyone else worked, so that wouldn’t help me. One way of being alone during on-hours is to find places to roam that are close enough to others to be safe, but in places other people don’t want to walk to, or sit near. Then, the question becomes: are there certain people who don’t count as enough of a presence to ruin alone time?

A man in a multi-colored turban and mirror eyes, a t-shirt with holes and stains and rolled-up jeans was at the edge of a bench in Madison Square Park. He had a cigar in his mouth, which he didn’t light, but kept chewing on the end of. He didn’t seem to see me, so did I see him, or count him as a presence? As long as he didn’t try to talk to me, didn’t seem to see me, didn’t light his cigar, didn’t whistle, didn’t hum, didn’t make popping, sucking, or any other strange noises with his mouth, didn’t smell, didn’t make any distracting movements, didn’t twitch involuntarily, didn’t lean forward (and yet not too far back) and didn’t extend his legs. If he just didn’t, could he then be disregarded, and my time on the bench be considered “alone?”

I waved my arm up in the air and twirled around my fingers, seeing if his eyes turned my way, or if he even grumbled, but nothing. “Gee, my oh my, it sure does feel like good sun today,” I said, as if talking to myself. He still didn’t turn his head or make any noise. I was tempted to put my feet up in his lap to see if he finally turned my way, but decided against it. Basically, it was like sitting next to a humanoid statue, so I thought I could disregard his presence and consider myself alone.

The yelps of a child about three years old chasing an inflatable blue ball, and tapping the head of her companion Westie dog, turned me away finally from the humanoid statue and toward the edge of the grass. The kid was there with what looked like her nanny—a hefty brown-skinned woman with a fat mole above her lips wearing one of those medical tech-looking smocks. She had jeans on the bottom half, and the medical personnel smock on for a top. It was meant to look cheery with hearts and stars alternating in its pattern. “Get up, Ava, get up,” she said to the toddler, who was in what looked like the tiniest designer jeans I had ever seen and a short-sleeved leopard-print shirt. “I don’t want you sitting in the mud,” the woman said, finally, walking over and pulling the whimpering little girl to her feet.

The two of them walked toward me then, the woman with her arm stretched down toward the child, ready to pick her up if she decided to drop into the dirt again, and the child bouncing on the balls of her purple-sneakered feet. I moved over on the bench to make room for them, but the funny thing is they didn’t seem to see me. It felt like if I hadn’t moved, they would have just sat down on top of me, or carelessly pushed me aside like a pile of toys. I looked at them, nodded and smiled. I wasn’t a greater lover of children than of cats or hamsters, but thought I should at least acknowledge that the child was pretty cute. The woman flitted her head toward me fast, like she just saw an insect passing by in her peripheral vision, but then straightened her head forward and began talking to the child again.

I smiled in their direction again. “What a cute leopard top,” I said to them both. The woman’s head briefly turned in my direction again, but just as swiftly turned away. She had no expression on her face when she turned toward me. It was the same head movement and expression she might have had if she had turned her head at an unexpected sound that she quickly realized was nothing worth paying attention to.

So be it, I figured. They can’t see me; I can’t see them. It was mutual un-seeing, and I could take it.

When I got back to the apartment, Barry and Tammy were napping, with Tammy curled up in the crook of Barry’s arm. She was shedding all over him, and you could tell he never bothered to pick any cat hair off of himself. I always seemed to be on the verge of waking him up, and yet, even when he was awake, I wondered if Tammy and I were the only ones present. Tammy’s big green eyes opened, and after looking at me briefly, she began staring with wide eyes at something beyond me I couldn’t see. “Tammy, pretty girl, what are you looking at?” I cooed. I petted her gently between her eyes with two fingers, but she was distracted, and kept her eyes fixed to the other end of the apartment. Barry was still in a deep sleep, with a whistle sounding through his nose whenever he inhaled.

“Lazy man lying on my couch,” I snapped, hitting his forever-dirty-bottomed feet with my hand. “Time to get up—it’s 2 in the afternoon. What have you been doing all day?”

Barry grunted and smacked his lips up and down slowly like he was chewing on something. “Well,” he said sleepily. “I did get up at 9 to feed Tammy.”

I had to laugh at that—that was his day’s work. He was lucky he didn’t have to pay the exterminator in his building, I thought to myself.

“The thing is,” I said, sitting on the edge of the sofa, which he didn’t bother to free up any space for me on, “you’re here for a week for the de-bed-bugging of your apartment, and I’m letting you stay here for free, which saves you from having to get a hotel room, which you couldn’t afford anyway. So, I think you should accompany me on my search for Avoidance New York.”

Barry was now propped up on the couch, having moved my lobster pillow behind him. He was also reaching for and figuring out how to position the octopus pillow behind him. “OK, if you want. But if you’re writing about how to be alone in New York, why do you want company?”

“Because I don’t have anyone to share my discoveries of solitude with,” I said.

“If I’m there, you won’t be alone. “

“Yes, I will. You can be with people, and still be alone.”

Barry laughed in a grunt. He wasn’t offended that I found him easy to disregard. “That’s true,” he said. “You’re used to me; I’m used to you, why bother paying attention?”

“What’s funny is you don’t even need to be used to people to be alone around them,” I said. “There was one guy today I had to concentrate to remember was there, and there was a woman—a nanny I think—with a little kid, and I could have been sitting there naked and I don’t know if they would have noticed me.”

He laughed, rummaging through a dirty duffle bag on the floor. Tammy sat up, arched her back to stretch and extended a paw out as if reaching for my hand. I knew she was probably just stretching, but I took it as a sign of companionship and sympathy. “Oh, Tammy, what do you think is going on? Do you think we’re all just ignoring each other?” I asked her.

Barry continued with his chuckling, obviously finding Avoidance New York—and my quest for solitude in the crowd—a little “mental,” as they used to call crazy people. “Well, don’t expect a cat to be sympathetic about being ignored. They’re the world’s most famous ignorers,” he said.

Tammy, as a calico, seemed to know she was a higher-order cat. The next morning, or early afternoon (by the time I got Barry off the couch), she had her back turned to us, and was looking up at the sky, and then leveling her gaze straight ahead into the apartments across the alleyway. When we came over to say goodbye, and patted her head, she didn’t even turn. “Tammy, you’re the perfect Avoidance New York gal,” I told her.

When we got outside, the usual smears of dog poop and urine and cigarette butts were punctuated by the smell of a garbage truck making its rounds. It was down the block, one man outside the truck in the back, the other two in the vehicle as the man outside heaved bags into the back. “Why is garbage an all-day affair here, and yet no progress is ever made?” I said.

Barry, who was wearing an old Moody Blues concert t-shirt (mostly without holes) and his everyday jeans, snickered. “Why don’t you give them a break? They’re making progress. There’s just a lot of garbage.”

“I think it’s a matter of disorganization and a distribution of resources that’s not well thought out,” I said. “They should be paid more to do all the garbage pick-up between 11 pm and 6 am, Monday through Thursday, and if you happen to be out and about during that time on a weeknight, you should never run into two different garbage trucks—or even three or four—within a span of mile. At any rate, this time of day, especially, you shouldn’t keep running into them—and that stink—all the time. Let’s try to go another way whenever we see them—those trucks really gross me out.”

Barry didn’t change course, and just chortled. “Oh, forget about it,” he said. Then, of course, there was Mr. Sunflower-Head Man—the Asian greeter and his sister, wife or friend (who knew who she was?) with their little wooden fold-up table outside a Japanese restaurant. They were there until noon every day pedaling coffee and rolls. But why would anyone want to go to a Japanese restaurant for coffee in the morning? Were the Japanese now great purveyors of coffee? I called him Mr. Sunflower-Head Man because he had a big bouffant of black hair on the top of his head, where a widow’s peak would be, and as soon as I left my apartment’s front door his head would turn toward me, so high and eager it reminded me of a tall sunflower blowing in the breeze. But a sunflower doesn’t ask for any interaction or exchange of you; this Asian greeter with his wooden table seemed to be reaching out for something, a gesture I hated.

“And here they are again,” I said, side-eyeing Barry, who was picking at his brownish gray mouse hair tail, which he had just pulled up onto the back of his head. “Mr. Sunflower-Head Man and his little friend,” I sneered. Barry shook his head and laughed—he was always laughing at what I said.

“So, they’re cheerful, they enjoy life, who gives a shit?” he said.

“Well, they can see everyday I obviously don’t want to interact, and they won’t stop—every day it’s the same thing with the good morning-ing or good afternoon-ing,” I said.

As we approached, Mr. Sunflower-Head Man seemed to be on the balls of his feet, practically swaying back and forth. “Good afternoon!” he said in a singsong voice. “Good afternoon,” I said very softly through gritted teeth, like a dog snarling.

“You don’t have to say hello back, you know,” Barry said after we passed Mr. Sunflower-Head Man and his friend.

“I just don’t want them to know they’re getting to me.” Barry patted me on the shoulder then.

“They don’t care about you, believe me, they don’t care,” he said.

“Then, why does he make a point of good morning-ing me every morning? He can see—anyone can see—that I don’t want to be bothered.”

“Well, he may not care, or even think about, what you want,” Barry said.

The possibility that Mr. Sunflower-Head Man didn’t care what I wanted was hard to believe. He wasn’t selling much coffee. Let’s face it, who thinks of going to a Japanese restaurant specifically for coffee? So, maybe he filled the void of his day by waiting to irritate me with a “good morning!”

“Whatever,” I said. “Let’s move on.” Next on our avoidance tour came the homeless man seated on a director’s chair on the corner of 10th St. and 2nd Ave. He mumbled constantly with no apparent logic. “The bats, the bats, the bats,” he said as we approached. “The bats are there, just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there—even in the day,” he said in a loud mumble, like a person might mumble nonsense in his sleep. I quickened my step, but Barry paused, even after I pulled on his arm. “What’d you say?” he asked The Director. The homeless man, gray shaggy hair, grizzled beard, short and fat with a turtleneck under a sports team t-shirt of a team I didn’t recognize, smirked at us and turned to his side to spit. The Director’s chair raised him up, so even sitting down he was at eye level with us. “You’ll know, you’ll know,” he said. I quickened my pace, and deliberately didn’t look at him, but Barry lingered. He turned and stood still, like he was at a lion’s exhibit at the zoo. If there had been a pane of glass in front of The Director, he would have tapped it.

“Where’d you get that cool chair?” Barry asked. The Director looked at us with glassy eyes, almost the kind of foggy eyes an old person with cataracts gets. But this man wasn’t especially old. He didn’t seem much older than 45 or 50, at the oldest. His hair was gray and shaggy, and he was unkempt, but his face was free of lines and wrinkles. He looked at us, but through us, too. He made a quick stop on our faces, and then moved past, just like you’d see a subway train coming through the station, expecting it to pause, but since it’s out of service, just keeps going.

“Come on, I’m getting bored,” I said to Barry, tugging on the ends of his t-shirt. He’s not interested in us.”

“Here you go,” Barry said to The Director, placing a wrinkled dollar that looked like it gone through the washing machine, in his lap.

“Why bother?” I said. “It’s not like he asked us for anything. Not like he even sees us—at least he acts like he can’t see us.”

I just saw Barry’s brown rat-tail ponytail when I looked over at him. He was turned away from me, looking up at the buildings across the street. “The artwork around the window frames is amazing,” he said.

“Yeah, well, that’s nothing new or unusual. That’s all over New York. Do you think that guy could see us or not?”

I started walking faster, ahead of Barry, knowing his usual laggard’s pace would have to quicken to keep up, and we could miss a lot of the people he found interesting along the way—to wherever it was we were headed—I just wanted to get there. It was galling that on a mission to find strategies to be alone in a crowded city, he felt the need to acknowledge every person we met. He would nod at the street musicians, one time even giving them a thumbs-up, or putting a quarter in their hat.

We passed a rolling Jesus, and other religious icon statues I didn’t recognize, getting pushed down the street on a cart by what looked to me like the people they call expeditors in restaurants—the ones who aren’t important enough to take your order, but clear your plate and refill your water. “Do they have a home delivery app for Jesus now?” I asked. Barry reached out and touched the hem of one of the icons as it slowed down to cross the street.

“Maybe—I bet a lot of people would like that—church in your living room, whenever it’s convenient for you.”

“I think we should test out the first-two-cars rule about the subway,” I said. “About how a lot of people new to the city—or dumb people maybe—don’t realize there’s usually the most room in the first couple of cars. I never understood why everyone crowds into the cars right in the middle, as if they feel compelled to get onto the train at the exact spot where they enter the station. Are they just too lazy to walk up the platform, or just dumb? Could they enjoy being part of the crowd?”

After we walked to the head of the platform, watching a couple of large, brown rats scurry across the tracks below, I felt safe, but only in so far as I could stand far away enough from the other passengers. As Barry and I solidified our position, in prime place for one of the first cars, others would inch up, and then we, in turn, would inch up farther. “No matter how far you go, there’s always someone pushing farther—or else you have to share space with them,” I said. “What do I have to do in this city to not share space?”

Barry was twirling that brown mouse tail of his and staring into space again. “That’s the flaw of your whole plan about a guide of how to avoid people in New York. The city is too small and crowded to avoid people.”

“You can’t be alone here, but you can be apart,” I said. I wanted nothing more than to feel safe in my space, with no desire to push into anyone else’s space. Yet it seemed like I was being accused by others of encroaching into their space.

The subway rumbled into the station, and the doors opened with an automated beeping, and a short, thin man—probably 20 years younger than me—methodically pushed me to the side. He pushed me to the side as methodically, efficiently, and without thought (or word), as you would move a napkin dispenser, or a vase that you needed to clean under. No “pardon me,” no “excuse me,” no “oh, I beg your pardon.” Not even embarrassment or an expression of regret. His systematic touch on my shoulder angered me enough that I would have turned to say something, but it happened so fast, that by the time I realized what had happened, he was gone.

I was right, anyway, about the first car being less full than the rest, so I sat down right away. I didn’t bother to see if there were any old people or pregnant women around because I figured that with all my anxiety problems, I was about as good a candidate for a seat as anyone. Barry, apparently, arrived at a similar conclusion about himself, and sat down, too. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” I hissed in his ear. Barry sighed and looked up at the ceiling, where in front of us a very tall man was leaning his hand for support, the way all the others standing in the car were leaning their hands against one of the poles. “Yeah, what?” he said, looking at me sidelong. “You were blocking the way. You have to get out of the way so people can exit the train.”

“It’s never OK to push another person out of the way, especially without saying ‘excuse me,’ or ‘sorry.’ Anyway, I thought I was out of the way.”

Barry was picking now at the dirty rubber edges of his Converse sneakers. I had the same ones as his, except mine were purple, and his were white. We could hear the lip smacking of a man eating potato chips a few places down the long seat from us, and a teenage boy was jumping up against one of the poles, and swinging himself around it, pole dancing.

Every time the kid’s legs swung around the pole, I felt my chest constrict. I knew he was too far away to hit us, but the repetitive swinging, and the repetitive sight, was aggravating. I could feel myself breathing too fast to breath at all. I began pulling at the ends of my hair, twirling strands around my fingers, both as a way to look casual, and also as a nervous tick. I looked at my palms and they were shaking slightly and becoming sweaty. My stomach felt like it was in my mouth.

“Have you given any thought to the Dog Days of Revolution?” I asked Barry, tugging on his shirt sleeve to get his attention.”

“It’s not a bad idea, but do you think people would be open to the founding fathers rendered as dogs?”

“Well,” I said, tapping away the perspiration on my upper lip. “It’s like Avoidance New York; there’s a market for everything. I think Benjamin Franklin could be one of those wire-haired terriers, maybe wearing a sweater, and Thomas Jefferson could be an apricot colored standard poodle because I heard he was a redhead, and he was the ambassador to France, and then maybe George Washington could be a bull mastiff because he was such a big, formidable figure, a general. And maybe Hamilton could be a basset hound.”

“A basset hound? That one you have to re-think,” Barry said.

I was fidgeting on my seat, and I had become conscious of my breathing, but not in a good way like you’re supposed to do in a yoga class; more like a feeling that I was liable to stop breathing if I didn’t fixate on it, and the feeling that I could never get enough air into my lungs.

“Well,” I continued, anxiously keeping one eye on the window to watch the stops go by, “Martha Washington could be an Old English Sheep Dog. I don’t know what she looked like when she was young, but all the pictures I’ve seen of her remind me of Mrs. Claus. She’s comfortable looking, like a grandmother baking cookies in her kitchen.”

I started pulling on the ends of my hair again when the subway stalled between stations and the automated announcement came on: “We are being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher.”

“And Abigail Adams would be a Doberman Pinscher,” I rattled on, “and her husband would be one of those pointer dogs people take hunting.”

I had started gulping for air, maybe wheezing slightly, so I sank against the back of the chair and tried to hold my breath for a few seconds to stop hyperventilating. Barry finally paused and looked me in the eye for more than a beat. “You’re sweating,” he said.

“Hyperventilating, actually,” I said, trying to force myself not to breathe again for a few seconds. “Ever since my mother died a couple years ago, I’ve been having these panic attacks.”

Barry was picking at the rubber on the edge of his sneakers again, head down, looking like he was inspecting feet, the way I liked to do sometimes instead of having to learn people’s faces. Feet and shoes were sometimes more telling—how close together they’re standing, what kinds of shoes, how worn, what color, what shape the toes are in if it’s sandal weather.

“It’s really hard—in fact it’s getting harder rather than easier,” I said. The train stopped just then at 86th street, where we planned to get out to head to Central Park to continue our study of avoidance. “But the thing is—“ I said, getting pushed by other riders moving toward the door ahead of me, “I—“ I couldn’t get a word out before another person was standing in front of me, angling to get out. Weren’t we all getting out? What difference did it make whether you got out first? When we were on the platform, I continued: “I just can’t believe I’ll never speak with her again. It makes me physically ill.”

The sun was blinding on the street as I put on my sunglasses, enjoying the chance to hide my eyes and feel shielded. I didn’t want the crow’s feet I heard you got through squinting, but I also didn’t want the imprint on my skin of eyes—eyes more than the sun was what troubled me. I made a point of deliberating making my eyes go out of focus when too many people were looking at me.

I felt myself slowly calm down with the sun on my skin and my eyes out of view. “I’d just like to sit down for a while in the park, if that’s OK,” I said. Barry, eyes up in the treetops, nodded.

“We can do that.”

“I think I’d like to see what we can about feeling space from the vantage point of sitting still,” I said. “Just not moving for about an hour, and seeing if everyone else moves around us, or if they start getting in our face.”

“Sure,” Barry said swinging that rat tail of his and letting a loose shoelace drag on the ground. I wished Tammy were with us. It would have felt reassuring to wear her like a scarf around my neck.

I kept my eyes cast down and watched the wads of gum stuck to the ground and the cigarette butts. I wondered who drops gum on the sidewalk. Come to think of it, I never saw anyone as an adult take gum out of their mouth and then throw it down onto the sidewalk. Everyone I knew threw it in the garbage, and usually after wrapping it in paper, or the tinfoil the gum came in, to prevent it from sticking to the can. “Who just throws their gum on the ground?” I asked, nudging Barry in the elbow.

“Huh?” he said, looking down at me for a split second and then moving his head up toward the sky, inspecting the treetops and putting his hands up in the air as if to see if rain was coming.

“I said, who just throws their gum on the sidewalk? I’ve never seen anyone do it as an adult, but wherever you look on the sidewalk you see old gum mashed into the cement.”

“Lots of people, probably.”

Barry smiled, and sometimes even high-fived strangers in the street, but tended to overlook the companion at his side. His eyes were steadfastly up and away, and mine were averted down to the sidewalk, counting the old spat-out gum.

“What about the Great Lawn?” I said, referring to one of the park’s most famous expanses of shared open space. “What about if we sit there, and see if we can have a sense of peace—at least a feeling of not being bothered?”

“Sure, that sounds good,” Barry said. It looked like he was studying the architecture of the buildings lining the streets. “A lot of history,” he said in a foggy, off-hand way, like a person talking to himself in his sleep.

The cloud formations that seemed to be following us on an otherwise sunny day reminded me of a rabbit menagerie, so I studied them, trying to see their faces. The faces of the people passing me by were grotesque by comparison. “My father always said humans are the ugliest of all the animals.” Barry wasn’t listening, but I just kept talking. We had stopped at a corner to cross the street, and I thought that maybe some of the people standing around us could be listening. “Yeah, he always said that whenever he went to the supermarket, he couldn’t believe how ugly the people were waiting in line to check out. He always thought it would be a prettier scene with cheetahs or giraffes, or even dogs, waiting in line with shopping carts.”

We weren’t prepared with a towel or blanket, like the old lady, and what looked like her son (or young lover?) next to us, or the young couple who looked like tourists—big, showy cameras hanging around their necks—with their toddler and other small child. It looked like they had thought out the day in advance. I imagined them thinking Barry and I looked like we were just plopping down haphazardly after a long walk—which we kind of were. We had no blankets or food, and didn’t think a minute before sitting down cross-legged. It was the product of having an even lazier-than-myself companion to travel through the city with—no plans, no preparations, no forethought, just watching for vacancies to fill.

The mother and the oldest child got up and began throwing an inflatable beach ball back and forth, while the father stayed on the blanket doing that irritating goo-goo talking to the littler one. “Isn’t that the worst?” I sneered. Barry, as usual, was directed into the beyond, picking at the calluses on his palms, which God must have put there because surely no work did. Two times the beach ball rolled over to us, and two times Barry smiled, laughed, and rolled the ball back.

“I think we should just make them come here to get it themselves,” I said, beginning the raking of the ends of my hair again, and the rapid breathing. My stomach felt like it was rising again into my mouth, so that I longed for a good belch. I was fidgeting in my seat. “I heard that years ago it wasn’t uncommon for people to have picnics in cemeteries,” I said. “The great thing about cemeteries is most of the people there aren’t throwing balls back and forth.”

Barry laughed, and gave my shoulder a playful shove. “Right,” he said.

I felt like getting up to start pacing, but settled for fidgeting and hair raking. It had been like this for a while now, since my mother died. I couldn’t get past that anxiety of the phone call that isn’t coming, or the anticipated knock on the door that doesn’t arrive. It was like being on my tippy toes, ready to dive, or to reach for something on a high shelf, and then at the last minute having to abort the move, or maybe making the move, and finding that there’s nothing there.

I felt the beach ball game in my peripheral vision was sooner or later going to smack me in the head. It was a soft, inflatable ball, but I felt uneasy waiting for the impact.

“You know, I think I’ve already had enough of this,” I said, tapping Barry on the shoulder.

“Huh?”

“I said I’ve had enough. That I can see already that there is no possibility for avoidance here. I think I’d like to observe a place where there’s a gate. “

“We’ve only been here for about a half-hour,” he said. “You want to go already?”

That was Barry for you. He didn’t particularly appreciate Central Park. But he didn’t want to get up and get moving again so fast. He was the kind of person who didn’t want a long car ride to end because he had settled himself and was comfortable.

“Yeah, I just don’t think I want to stay here any longer.”

We ended up going home that night—the last night of the de-bed bugging stay in my apartment. I took a nap on the couch with Tammy curled up around me while Barry was in the shower. I didn’t hold it against her that she had ripped a hole in my couch. I would have pent up aggression, too, if I had a roommate like Barry. I was glad I only had to suffer through a temporary co-habitation—with a human, that is. Tammy, I would have been glad to keep.

Tammy had been spayed, or else I would have begged for a kitten. As it was, I spent that night looking through animal shelter listings for stray cats to adopt. Anything was preferable to the press of people in the streets, on the subways, and the rolling ball always in danger of smacking you in the face. Those were the things I associated with humans, and which I wanted to avoid. Cats played with balls, but usually they were small balls, and, let’s face it, they were a lot cuter than humans when doing it.

I bounced between cat noses and whiskers and black iron bars and fences that night, looking for the place in New York City where you can feel set aside—by choice. What could you do for the times you wanted to feel that you were safely off to the side? Was it just that you could feel pushed to the side, but you weren’t allowed to feel sheltered on the side?

The next afternoon I met Barry at the nearest good gate I could find—Gramercy Park. He showed up in his usual disarray, or schlump elegance—t-shirt so worn out the words on the front were illegible, loose jeans with a ragged cuff on the bottom (it looked like he had done his own “tailoring” at home with a scissor) and flip-flop sandals. His mousy brown hair, though, was freshly washed for once, and down along his collarbone. He was late, of course. By the time he showed up, I had already circled the enclosure at least five times getting exercise as I waited.

“Hey,” he said, his customary greeting. “How long have you been waiting?”

“Oh, maybe a half-hour. I lost count after a while.”

We paused, looking through the black slats of the Gramercy Park gate. I started staring first without talking, and then a minute later Barry noticed that I had stopped talking, and he started watching, too. A man, who looked like he was in his seventies or eighties, was reading a newspaper, with plaid newsboy cap on and drug store reading glasses at the tip of his nose, and at the other end of the park, two women, who also looked elderly, were sitting side by side on one of the benches talking. One was talking nonstop while the other nodded her head solemnly, like she was listening to a diagnosis.

“Gate’s locked. We’re not going to be able to get in,” Barry said.

“Yeah, of course—I know that, dummy. I’m just observing from the other side. I’m trying to see if the people lucky enough to have a key to the gate actually get to avoid anything, or whether they also have to have these irritating interactions.” I said this while nodding toward Barry, almost pointing with my head toward him. I wondered if he had caught on yet that I only let him stay at my apartment for the de-bed bugging because I wanted the time with Tammy.

Barry, anyway, could never be offended because his eyes were always trailing away. No matter what you were telling him—that he had won the lottery, that he had a terminal disease, that a bomb was about to detonate a few feet away—his eyes followed an upward path to the treetops, or at least to the top of a homeless man’s head. “Whatever,” he said, laughing, and nudging me in the shoulder.

The locked park was still nearly empty 10 minutes later, and from where I stood, almost silent. I was too far away to hear what the two women were talking about, and the man with his newspaper wasn’t saying a word, or even picking up his head to glance around. None of these people noticed my face pressed up to the slats, peaking in.

Barry was now sitting on the curb behind me fiddling with his phone—probably reading those lists like Top 10 Signs You’re an Unknown Genius or 12 Ways to Extend Your Life or 15 Changes to Expand Your Buying Power. For someone who made an art of doing as little as possible, he loved to read self-help articles. I felt bad for him waiting on the curb for me like a child waiting for his mother. I walked over and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hmm?” he said, startled. “What’s going on?”

“I think you probably should just go do something else for a while. I can always text you when I’m through. I may be here a while.”

He took a deep breath and picked up each of his feet to inspect the soles of his sneakers. Like he was concerned he had stepped in dog shit.

“Why do you always do that?” I snapped. “If you had stepped in something you would have smelled it by now.”

Barry laughed and turned his head. “I see you’re in your usual good mood. I think I’ll take your advice.” He got his ass up after waiting at least a minute, with those slow movements that looked so languid and elegant in Tammy and so slothful in him—a human.

After he had slumped away—probably to high-five a homeless man or stare purposelessly at the roofs of buildings—I stood inspecting through the black slats. The two women, who had been chatting about something one was much more vocal about than the other, had gone, and the man with the newspaper was nowhere in sight. I thought maybe he was still there somewhere because, with all the trees in full bloom, I couldn’t tell where the leaves began and ended and the possible presence of a flesh-and-blood creature began. Was the shadow a leafy branch, a rat, a dog, a squirrel, a garbage can, a discarded newspaper or magazine, cigarette butt—or a human?

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you!” a youngish male voice see-sawed behind me. It was effeminate, like my hairdresser’s. I jumped and spun around, pushing back against the black metal fence. He was wearing tight jeans and a fitted jacket with a hood that had fringe around the border. He had close-cropped light brown hair with gel in it and strangely shaped black-rimmed glasses—they were overly angular. He was riffling through his pockets for something, pulling out gum wrappers, a folded-up miniature map and toothpicks wrapped in plastic. Until, after about a minute, a key appeared. “Oh, good,” he sighed. “I thought I lost it. I’ve been wondering where you were.” He was talking to me without looking at me, fixated now on his phone. He held the door to the park open for me to follow him in. “I’ve been traveling myself—out to Baltimore last weekend for a wedding, then down in Florida, at my parent’s place, then the last few days out in Vegas for a convention. You’ve—“ He stopped then, grunted, looked up for a split second, and then back down at his phone. “Oh, shit!” he said suddenly. “I’ve got to go. We should catch up, though. Let me know when you’re around.” He tapped my shoulder, and with just the fastest sidelong glance, he left, the door clanging behind him, and me, standing behind—inside now—the locked gate.

The wind in the trees made dancing patterns on the pavement, and I thought I heard a far-off radio, so for a few minutes I thought there might have been other people in the park with me dancing. But when I caught up to the shadows, I didn’t see anyone. I walked along the parameter again, this time from the inside, and stopped now and then to inspect a tree or take in the landscaping. It was a beautiful park for the small group allowed in.

I saw others doing the same thing I had done just five minutes earlier—looking through the slats, peering in past the lock. I wondered if they were wondering about me like I had wondered about the old man reading his newspaper and the two women having their diagnosis-seeming conversation. But as quickly as they peered through the slats, they turned back down toward their phones, or toward each other, nodding their heads, laughing, giving each other playful nudges, or pointing their fingers in another direction.

I decided just to sit down for a while and take in the protected solitude. This was the Holy Grail of New York City voluntary isolation, and without a key to return, I probably would never be back here. After all, what were the chances that I would be mistaken again for a person somebody knew?

There was something, though, about the quiet from inside the locked park, and the playing of the shadows over my feet that agitated me. I started to feel one of my panic attacks coming on. I had that sensation of never being able to get enough air into my lungs, and my heart rate exhilarated. I was shaking slightly. I was confused because up until then, my attacks came on when I was in crowded places. Now, I was entirely alone, and, yet, it was happening again. I told myself over and over again: “You’re alone, you’re alone, you’re OK. You’re in control when you’re alone.” I would calm for a few minutes and then that panicked feeling that made me pull the ends of my hair, wring my hands, and pinch the sides of my thighs, would come back. “I better just get out of here and head home,” I said to myself. I got up, and could feel myself shaking as I walked.

I had to look around for a few minutes to find the gate where I had followed that man in. The gate’s black iron felt cooler than I would have expected, like it was deflecting, more than absorbing, the sun. I pushed at the door, but nothing happened. I tried then grabbing hold of one of the bars that made up a slat and using my weight to pull it back toward me. Nothing happened. People kept walking past on the sidewalk on the other side of the gate. Some would glance over for a second, but none seemed curious. None were about to pause.

I cleared my throat loudly and coughed. “Oh, excuse me,” I said meekly, in the tone you would use to ask a friend to pass the popcorn in a darkened movie theater. No one heard me. One woman looked swiftly in my direction and then began talking in a serious way to her Golden Retriever. “Now, Charles, we’ve been out here for over an hour now. It’s time for you to get down to business. Be a good boy,” she said, patting Charles on the head.

“Excuse me,” I repeated to no response. “Charles?” I finally added in desperation. The dog’s ears pricked up and he looked in my direction. His human companion looked in my direction, too, but unlike Charles, she looked past me, toward the green of the park. “What is it Charles?” she asked the Golden, “What is it? Do you see a squirrel? Is there a squirrel you want to chase?”

“Excuse me,” I said again, louder. The woman glanced at me, half-smiled, and took Charles with her down the sidewalk.

I kept trying to pull the gate back and forth, but found it locked in place, or was it just stuck?

A man, maybe in his 20s, with a baseball cap turned backward on a skateboard paused, watching me. “Having a problem?” he said, smirking. Ordinarily, I would have given him the finger, and a swift “screw you!” or “asshole!,” but, under the circumstances, I just nodded. “Yeah, I can’t seem to open this gate. I think it’s stuck.”

He laughed. “Not stuck; locked,” he said. “It locks both ways. Outside and inside.”

I turned to see if I had overlooked anyone who might be in the park with me, but I saw no one, and when I turned my head back toward the sidewalk, the man I had been speaking to had already walked away. I could see him down the block, about to cross the street.

Well, if it was locked, then someone, who had a key, would still be in here with me, I thought to myself. I was still shaking slightly, but forced myself to walk the periphery of the park—from the inside this time. I saw no one. I kept seeing the same shadows over and over again, and when I looked to see where they were coming from, all I saw were rustling leaves, shrubbery and flowers with their heads lilting in the breeze.

Sooner or later, someone would come into the park, and when that happened, I could use it as my opportunity to leave. I sat by the bench closest to the gate and twirled my hair in my fingers and tried not to breathe too quickly. The warm air and the smells of the greenery made me think of my mother, who loved the summer, was born, and died in the summer. My breathing became more rapid and I noticed my fingers becoming slippery with sweat again.

It was no use trying to catch the attention of someone passing by on the outside of the gate because, chances were, most of them didn’t have a key. About every 10 minutes, from where I was sitting, I would look around the inside periphery to see if there was a person there I had missed who would have a key. But never saw anyone.

I knew, logically, that there must be a way to turn the lock, without a key, to open the gate from the inside, but I couldn’t find where to turn or pull. I had never been good with locks, and with my heart racing, I was having trouble focusing.

Eventually someone would open the door—either on their way in, or the person who must be in the park with me, who I couldn’t find, would open the door on their way out. Until then, I could study the shadows of the trees, flowers and bushes, and the feet moving past on the sidewalk outside the gate. It was too tiring to look at all the faces.

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Peaches

Peaches was a show-stopper. It was hard having a roommate like this. Her golden head seemed to reflect the light coming in from our living room window so that the construction workers just outside, working on the building beside ours, couldn’t turn away. I was drab by contrast—a mousy brunette forever reaching up or stooping down.

Peaches didn’t deign to turn her head in my direction. Her small head was pitched upwards watching the birds flutter from branch to branch, the shadows of the tree playing along her back. “Do you really think it’s so bad to put cyanide in your boss’s pea soup?” I asked her.

She turned her head briefly and then returned to the flight of the birds. They were slowly skimming up above where even Peaches could lift her head to meet them. “Or what if I drove to Syosset and then accidentally bumped into him so he accidentally fell onto the tracks of the Long Island Railroad? Would you judge me for that?”

Peaches turned around, looked at me briefly and then stretched her petite body along the couch. It was a prime spot for a window-watcher like Peaches—a watcher of the slow construction outside in which something was forever being built—being built so slow and incompetently that you wondered if it ever would be inhabited. The construction was an existence unto itself. It wasn’t to be completed as much as it was to exist as an unending process. “Peaches, are you judging me? You don’t have the right to. I know for a fact that you hunt. I saw you with my own eyes dragging the sweetest bunny into Grandpa’s lake house last summer. If you can kill an innocent, sweet bunny, you can kill anything.”

Peaches scoffed at me, turning up her head and then tapping on the glass as the birds fluttered closer. She didn’t even bother turning back around when my phone vibrated on the windowsill near her. It was my friend Olivia, who had never met my boss, but was familiar with my travails. “I’ve been thinking of putting cyanide in Richard’s pea soup, or maybe his tomato soup—I can’t decide which—do you think that’s bad?” I asked. I didn’t wait for her to respond. “Or another idea was to rent a car, drive out to Syosset and then accidentally bump into him so he falls onto the Long Island Railroad tracks. Or maybe I could pay a couple of guys to get into a fight on the platform, and in the course of pushing and shoving, they would accidentally bump into him. Is that any better? Is it worse?”

“I guess it’s not that bad,” she said. “If the train came right away, it would probably be a quick death. The cyanide also would probably be pretty quick, so I guess that’s not bad either.”

Peaches, meanwhile, was glaring at me. She hated whenever I was on the phone, as if my voice was disturbing her peace or meditation, as if she was in an exclusive library, where instead of reading, she chose to sun herself by the window watching birds. But could she read? She seemed interested in whatever book I placed in my lap, but primarily to disturb it and distract me.

“Yeah, that’s what I figured,” I said. “All and all, worse ways you can die. The thing is, I don’t think you can buy cyanide at the drug store, and I think the train death might somehow get pointed back to me—there would be a whole investigation probably.”

“Yeah, probably,” Olivia said disappointingly. She was always the kind of friend you wanted around to talk about wishing death on others. She never judged and usually helped you either figure out the best way to do it, or why it was a bad idea. Sometimes she just met you for hot chocolate, or maybe a chocolate martini, and then the death plot seemed like a good idea all over again.

“Thanks—I guess that helps clarify things a little,” I said. We decided to revisit the cyanide in pea soup and death by accidental bumping onto the Syosset Long Island Railroad tracks the next weekend.

In the meantime, there was Peaches, forever preening and queenly being herself with her golden head and her big green eyes sometimes fixed on me for no reason. “What are you looking at, Peaches?” I asked her. “Isn’t it enough that I agreed to tack your awards to the wall?” She didn’t respond, yet again, so I got up and tapped the ribbons and certificates on the wall behind me. “Look, Peaches, I actually didn’t have room for any of this stuff, but I fit it in anyway.” Peaches made a peculiar sighing noise—her way of talking I suppose—and looked down and inspected herself, as if to say: “You can’t compete with all this,” and then went back to her bird inspection.

Olivia came over the next night to carry on our conversation about cyanide in pea soup vs. accidental bumping onto the Long Island Railroad Tracks. Who knows where she was headed in the getup, but she had on a silver sparkly cardigan with a black turtleneck underneath and off-white leather pants with tall, high-heeled black boots. She looked like she was suited up for a night of club hopping, though she had only been sitting in the office of her marketing firm all day, and was probably just heading home after our visit. Like Peaches, I guess you’d say she was a show-stopper. She wasn’t a strawberry blond like Peaches, but just a common blond with long, carefully blown out hair and a face that always looked tan, even in the winter. “Forget about the cyanide in the pea soup and getting him ‘accidentally’ shoved onto the Long Island Railroad tracks,” Olivia said. “You don’t want to go to jail—you’d probably get caught.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I guess there’s also the possibility that I’d feel bad if I did it.”

“Have you thought about getting Peaches involved?” Olivia asked. She patted Peaches on her golden head; Peaches shrugged her off and fell back into her daydream.

“I don’t know if Peaches would make any difference.”

“Are you kidding? Just being around her makes some people itch and start getting all antsy, clearing their throats and coughing over and over again. Some of them even start to cry—I heard that guy you had over last week sniffling,” Olivia said.

It was true that Peaches was extremely beautiful and had been a hit on the show circuit. It could be that her reputation proceeded her. “I know what you’re getting at—you think I should take Peaches into the office to meet Richard.” The thought of golden Peaches winding herself around my boss and then drawing away every time he reached out to her, and the effect—maybe even as of an irritant—she might have on him—made me laugh. She would cause discomfort and would refuse to be controlled. She wouldn’t care about his critiques or pomposity, the way I was forced to as his employee. Peaches was unemployable.

“Well, I suppose I could always try to bring her in, and see what happens,” I said. “What do you say, Peaches? Are you finally going to break your silence? How about a visit with my boss tomorrow?”

Technically, you’re supposed to call ahead about visitors, but since Peaches would be walking in with me, I figured, who cares? Peaches and I were such a pair—me in my retro short, tan shearling jacket from the ‘70s and my wool leopard beret cap, and Peaches as just her golden, delicate self with those luminous green eyes. The security guard smiled, and nearly cooed as we walked past him. “I have a friend with me today,” I said, smiling. “I can see that,” was all he said, like he was talking to a seven-year-old.

The elevator was the usual mix of cigarette smoke leftovers and cologne or perfume. By lunch it would be cigarette smoke leftovers, deli meats, vegetables, fruit and sweat. A fat half-bald man whistled so that Peaches turned her head to the wall, seeming to cringe. When we got to our floor, Peaches couldn’t be bothered, and almost seemed to be fighting dozing off. The lids of her big green eyes fluttered shut and then popped open again whenever someone passed us by on the walk-through hallways leading to my desk. “You act like a person on drugs,” I said to her. She looked at me, blinked a few times and then her green eyes—or were they yellow in the light?—fluttered half-shut again, contemplatively. She was so at peace when she did that, that she reminded me a little of a Buddha statue.

The florescent lights didn’t do Peaches and I well. We both preferred softer lighting. I had gotten used to it, coming to work five days a week, but Peaches seemed to find it revolting. After looking up once into the ceiling’s light panels, she quickly looked away, and nearly curled her lip up in disgust. Richard, as always, was standing at the filing cabinet to the side of his desk. He said he could think more clearly standing, and so, preferred to do his editing that way. The top of his filing cabinet was his standing-up desk. He never heard me coming. “Hi,” I said just loud enough to startle him.

“Hey, those are sound-proof feet,” he said.

“They’re cat feet,” I corrected him.

“Right!” he said. “We’re getting good numbers on that piece about selling wicker end tables in October. And the surprise is that piece by Santo on furniture varnish extending the life of dining room tables—it’s really taken off,” Richard said.

I couldn’t stand it any longer: “Richard, don’t you notice? I have a friend with me.” He looked me up and down, and to both sides, and did a half smile and a grunt. “What? New scarf, new purse?”

“No,” I said. Peaches was getting restless. She didn’t like being overlooked.

“The new series on the growth of the garden furniture market is almost ready to go,” he said. “I just have to sketch out the sponsored content box.”

I nodded my head and half smiled, mm-hmming and saying “oh,” every once in a while. “Now that we’re e-blasting every day it’s amazing how the site has really taken off,” Richard said. “Just getting it in front of their eyes—at a glance—every day—I—“

He stopped then and started sniffling and his eyes started watering. “What’s wrong, Richard?” I asked. “Don’t tell me you’re getting all choked up at our success.”

“I-I,” he started sneezing and rubbing his eyes. “It’s almost like-like” Sneeze, sneeze, sneeze.

“Like what, Richard?” I asked. “How about we talk about that content aggregator service you mentioned last week? Remember how you said we could probably get the same results by just re-using old stuff—stuff I wrote—over and over again, or maybe use an aggregation service that uses a—what was it you called it?—an algorithm?—to send us content calculated to appeal to our readers?”

Richard’s face got blotchy then, as if he were breaking out in hives. He reached up to loosen his collar and took messy gulps of water from his Poland Springs bottle—not the liter size; just the pint size, so it was gone in about two minutes. He shook his head and held the empty bottle out to me, as if he wanted me to fill it for him. “What, you think, I’m your secretary?” I laughed. “Just kidding! Sure, I’ll fill it up—it’s the least I can do for the guru of web analytics—who still can’t figure out how to post pictures to Facebook. But, you know what they say, there’s no accounting for genius. Geniuses are often eccentric and hard to know. I guess you must be one of those,” I said.

Richard’s face, which now was flushed with hives, and with red, swollen eyes, bounced up and down as he nodded in affirmation that he was, indeed, a genius who couldn’t be troubled to learn such pedestrian things as how to post pictures to Facebook. “I’m going to go now to get your water, but Peaches will stay with you,” I said. At that, Richard shook his head vigorously from side to side. I guess Peaches wasn’t his type. “Don’t worry, you’ll learn to love her,” I said, helping Peaches wrap herself around his neck. Richard shrunk down in his swivel chair, nearly banging his head against the window as the chair rolled out of control backwards. “What? Don’t tell me beautiful, gentle Peaches frightens you!”

Richard was still swinging his head back and forth vigorously when I went to get his water, Peaches still clinging. I knew Peaches sometimes had a bad effect on people, but this was more than had I hoped for. I was in no rush—I just glided across the office’s modular carpet squares. I used to work for a magazine about catalogs, and one of the catalogs I wrote about sold modular carpeting—carpeting that was sold and installed in squares. So when I looked closely at the carpet, and saw that it was divided into barely noticeable squares, I knew that must be what they used. I guess it made sense—if someone drops fruit punch or a bottle of white-out, the maintenance man can just pull up a solitary square rather than having to replace the whole thing.

I counted each modular square, and smiled out of the corners of my eyes at co-workers I felt uncomfortable around. The copy machine was unoccupied, but a stack of papers was slowly slipping from one of its ends—I didn’t look long enough, but I think either the paper wasn’t inserted properly, or the outcome of the printing was no longer needed. The kitchen stank of fish sticks and a gassy (almost toilety) vegetable smell. I always avoided looking in the garbage because the peelings of vegetables and fruits repulsed me.

I decided a paper cup’s worth of water was enough for Richard, even though his oversized white ceramic mug lay on the counter at arm’s length. There was a shortage of water in the world, so who could chance wasting any of it? I could always come back for more, I reasoned. Plus, the ceramic mug would be heavier to carry, and was there any reason I should put added pressure on my joints?

Cologne so strong it reminded me of lawn spray, or insecticide, wafted up my nose. One of our maintenance men was refilling our coffee machine. There were little packets with different kinds of coffees and teas that needed to be placed into the storage trays. I half smiled at him, and slightly nodded my head, but kept my eyes fixed downward, toward the cold water dripping into my cup. I didn’t know if it was my imagination, but I thought I could hear Richard coughing and sneezing all the way in the kitchen. I figured maybe I should let Peaches sink in even more, and then maybe he would start getting used to her. She just had that effect on some people—their eyes might water and they might sneeze, but she was pretty cute, so that in between the wheezing and red, itchy eyes, you had to admit you still kind of enjoyed her company.

Just as the maintenance man’s cologne stench was gliding away, Melanie came in smelling of that cloying coconut perfume or lotion she used. She was one of those people who need to acknowledge everyone, so that a daydreamy nod will just be ignored and prattled over. Melanie was heavy, and evidently convinced her best figure asset was her chest because whatever the occasion—even business conferences—she wore tops low-cut enough to reveal at least the top of her breast cleavage. She also always wore an orange-y spray tan—the kind you can purchase in a bottle at the drug store. “Hey there,” she said with both words drawn out in a high-pitched whiny way. “Did you hear what’s going on with Richard?”

Melanie looked like she was stifling a smile while knitting her eyebrows together to affect a look of concern. She loved the travails of others—a coughing fit/medical crisis in the middle of the workday was exactly the kind of thing she most enjoyed. “No, I hadn’t heard,” I said keeping my eyes pinned to the bulletin board where someone had clipped a cartoon about wishing it was as easy to lose weight as it was to lose your keys or your mind.

“He’s coughing like crazy and his face is all red and puffy looking,” she said.

“Well,” I said, “it’s allergy season. It’s to be expected, I guess.” She looked at me for a second and then started making her coffee—a gross looking concoction that required two parts. In the first part the coffee was made and in the second part the sickly sweet foam was made, to be poured on top. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could take the time to make such a thing. It reminded me of the people who wait in a line snaking out the door to buy coffee from a café I always passed by on the way to work.

“You better go check on him,” she whined. “He’s liable to choke. I heard of that before—people with a bad allergic reaction who get so swollen in the throat and chest they can’t breath.”

I didn’t say anything, and turned on my heel with the water. “Well, I’m bringing him water, anyway, that’s something. I hope he doesn’t choke before I get there—my trip to the kitchen will have been wasted.”

Sure enough, Richard’s coughing made a symphony that preceded me back to our work area. He had swiveled his chair even closer to the window and now his head was hanging out. Peaches wouldn’t loosen her grip, and clung to his neck.

“Poor Richard!” I said. “I’ve brought you your water. Wouldn’t you like some?” He turned and grabbed it from me so fast some of the water sloshed out against us both. He then gulped it down fast as if he were taking a shot a whiskey. A flight of two birds, plain looking sparrows, near Richard’s window, diverted Peaches and she loosened her grip and moved away from Richard and toward her favorite seat in any house (or office), the window. She followed the birds’ small jumps from branch to branch in the trees below, and her eyes tracked them as they flew up toward us.

“My God!” Richard said, rubbing his neck and rolling it from side to side once Peaches released him. “My allergies,” he lamented. I laughed as if the whole thing had been a joke and we were just two pals having a good time, or that I was a very ignorant person.

“Oh, I didn’t know. Do you have allergies?”

He smiled and nodded his head. “Time to time,” he said. Peaches had slid from the window, and was now behind me. I was on the periphery of Richard’s cubicle.

“Peaches has that effect on some people. I don’t have that problem, luckily.”

“As I was saying,” Richard continued, “the content aggregators can provide us with cost-effective service, and we’ll be able to re-use news produced by other publications—for a fee, of course—”

Peaches watched Richard’s hands move back and forth over his desk shuffling mounds of papers and rearranging Post-it notes thumb-tacked to his cubicle wall. He regarded her out of the corner of his eye the way you would keep track of a mosquito or fly buzzing around your patio dinner.

“It’s just—it just rubs me the wrong way when you lump my work in with the people who just provide ancillary support,” I said as Peaches moved closer to Richard and rubbed against him. He tried to move out of the way, but Peaches was too lithe and fast. He sneezed and his eyes began to tear. “It’s like putting the people who sell commercials in the same category as the people who star in the TV shows.”

“I also know TV shows make a lot of money in syndication—because of the sales of commercials,” he said.

My own metaphor had backfired. He was determined to under-represent my contribution in order to bolster his own. The more he acknowledged how much I do, the more his bosses would wonder what he does. “I just don’t like feeling like an easily replaceable cog in a large machine.” I pulled Peaches toward me for support. She was unsympathetic as usual. “You may be surprised that it’s not quite as easy as you thought to find someone who does everything I do, and is as reliable.”

“Well,” Richard chuckled, “No one is irreplaceable. Listen, very recently I was asked to justify my position.”

I just stared at him and nodded. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say: “Ha! I would have loved to hear that—hear how you made it sound like you’re such a big contributor when all you do all day is offer criticism of others’ work. Always as if you’re a visiting consultant who breezes in with his observations and suggestions, and then breezes out before it’s time to do the work you recommended.”

But I just continued staring and nodding. It was 12:30, his usual lunch hour. He always ate at the exact same time, like he was a laborer who was mandated to take his lunch break at the same time every day. Richard’s can of pea soup was set aside on the edge of his desk next to his second over-size white ceramic mug and can opener. Peaches tapped it and watched as it slid. “I can help you with that, Richard,” I said. I’ll take that to the kitchen if you want and heat it up for you.” Richard waggled his nose and wheezed slightly as Peaches crept closer. “Yeah, thanks, that’s great.”

Pea soup is an interesting thing. There are so many ways to make it even better—with just a small addition or two. I’m not a cook—had the gas turned off on my stove and oven years ago—but I might have a flair for creating pea soup with a twist. I had the kitchen to myself because most of the other employees were in a conference in the meeting room, so I took my time, surveying the supplies I had brought in my purse—or just happened to have, as luck would have it. I had my birth control pills, ibuprofen, Tums antacid, catnip and a vial of something I couldn’t identify, which Olivia must have slipped in.

Olivia was always traveling, so there was no telling what it could be. She liked to surprise her friends by slipping little gifts into their purses when they weren’t looking, sometimes even removing the label to increase the surprise. It could be sea salt from the Dead Sea, medicinal crystals from a medicine man in Belize or the crushed bones of a sea urchin. There was no telling with Olivia. “Well, what the hell?” I said aloud. “It’s not like it’s cyanide.”

Whatever it was, it was in liquid form. Could it be an exotic kind of vanilla extract? It was clear with maybe the slightest tinge of blue. I dashed in a drizzle across the sinking peas. I thought about tasting it, but then realized that wouldn’t be a good idea since then it would ruin the surprise. I wanted to enjoy the surprise of seeing Richard discover for me what this stuff was. I figured there was a better than average chance it was something he would like—well, maybe not better than average, but not too much worse than average. Upon closer sniff, I smelled something like almonds. Could it have been almond milk, or a sample of an Almond Joy milkshake (if such a thing existed)? I guess we would find out—or Richard would, anyway.

Back at his desk, Richard was sitting as far from Peaches as possible. Peaches, aware of her beauty, leaned against the window, letting the sun show her off. To Peaches, the sun wasn’t an orb in the sky that lighted the day and grew plants and trees; it was her personal spotlight.

“What were you doing, re-growing the peas?” Richard said, snickering. Just as he got cocky, Peaches took a few steps toward him, and he shrank into his seat—as much as a six-foot-one man can shrink into a seat.

“Yes, re-growing them, especially for you,” I said as sweetly as I could. Peaches, meanwhile, slithered her warm little body against Richard’s back, causing him to visibly shiver.

“It’s just little Peaches. She’s pretty, isn’t she?”

Richard began nervously shoveling pea soup in his mouth and nodding his head. Peaches was such a petite thing. How could anyone be afraid of her? It wasn’t really a life-and-death allergy, was it? Or whatever it was that was wrong with him whenever Peaches came around. She sidled up to him again and he started choking and turning pink. He even started gagging. Was it Peaches and that effect she happened to have on some people? Was it the pea soup complemented by Olivia’s surprise?

“Well, the interesting thing about content aggregators is they don’t actually know anything because they aren’t actually there. They’re just algorithms, Richard, that’s all,” I said.

And Richard coughed and coughed as Peaches sidled up against him, her golden coloring rich in the noon sun. Her head was turned toward the window, and she seemed to be counting the black birds flying by, her head darting back and forth like a person watching a tennis match.

Richard cleared his throat and pushed Peaches away. “It’s the number of times we’re in front of their eyes,” he said. “The content is less important.”

“Alright, then why bother picking everything apart—if what we run isn’t that important, then who cares—why scrutinize everything?”

The truthful answer from him, I guessed, was he just enjoyed the tearing and raking apart process too much to give it up, even if it was unnecessary. “We’re trying to provide a value to our readers,” he said in between coughs of increasing intensity. Peaches rubbed against his back, and then his eyes started watering, too, and his face became inflamed again. “Tastes, tastes—tastes like—“ he burbled.

“Yes, Richard, what does it taste like? It would be good to know because my friend—” I couldn’t get out what I wanted to tell him about the mystery ingredient because, as usual, he was interrupting me—this time by his choking, coughing and general distress. “Always interrupting me, just like you,” I said patting his back while Peaches continued to slink around him. Richard’s face started to show tinges of purple in little blotches here and there, and his eyes became bloodshot.

“How’s the soup?” I asked. “I didn’t want to ruin the surprise, but a friend of mine gave me a little something to try—an herb or seasoning of some kind, I think—so, I thought, what the hell, I’ll add it in.”

Richard was coughing again, but this time he was making less noise. He was burbling sort of. Peaches was more merciless than me, and kept slinking against him and watching him with big green eyes. “What do you think?” I said. “What do you think of the taste? I bet it tastes better now. That Olivia, she always picks out the best stuff.”

I was just on too much of a roll to stop—I loved too much that he finally couldn’t interrupt me—so I just kept going, and Peaches took the cue and kept bumping up against Richard every time he tried to take a deep breath.

“Of course content aggregators, content aggregators—there’s no telling what they could do for your lunch, Richard. Maybe you could just keep some of them in here to create an automated algorithm for determining what soup you’ll have day to day. You know, pea soup today, tomato cheddar tomorrow, New England clam chowder the next day, chicken noodle the next. But then again, what does it matter what you have for lunch? It’s how it’s presented, not what you’re eating, right Richard? Right?”

His head was nestled now on the desk like a grade school child taking a nap. I thought I saw him nod, but I wasn’t sure. Peaches decided he was a good sitting spot, so she nearly sat on his slumped down back.

“Peaches once killed the sweetest bunny, Richard. You know that?” That time I thought I saw him shake his head saying no, but I just couldn’t be sure.

“Anyway, I don’t want to keep you from your work, so Peaches and I better get going. You probably want to start researching content aggregation services this afternoon.”

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Problem Tree

Gold with a few green stragglers, the short tree under my fire escape was almost ready for my neighbor’s art project. Once the leaves were gone he planned to affix small yellow, orange and red envelopes, mirroring fall colors, filled with the problems of strangers. “Not a giving tree,” he said to me bouncing up and down slowly on the balls of his feet, “a problems and complaints tree.” I couldn’t help but smile even though I knew this was a serious art project. “A whining tree,” I suggested.

Grant, my neighbor, had a man-bun, a new fashion where even men with hair that was just shaggy, rather than long, scooped up the top part into a ballerina’s bun. He also smoked, another must-have accessory of the downtown New York City hipster. I kept my back to him, resentful of the poisons he forced on me, second-hand. “How do you think it looks?” he asked, taking out a box with the empty envelopes ready to go. “I don’t know,” I said. “Until you put the cigarette out, I’m not turning around.”

He laughed and laughed, a combination of guffawing and shallow high-pitched chuckling, as if he was calibrating something inside himself. “OK, OK,” he said. When I couldn’t smell the cigarette poison anymore, I slowly turned around. “You know,” he said, “we’re outside—it’s all diluted outside.” I shook my head and felt my irritability rising. “Not true,” I launched in, ready to debate, “if you’re in close proximity, it doesn’t matter whether you’re outside or inside. It’s equally poisonous.”

Grant was ignoring me now and riffling through the envelope box. “Actually, these have problems in them already,” he said. “I have two boxes now—one full of problems waiting to be picked off the tree, once it’s bare, and another, empty, waiting to be filled by additional problems.”

“Sealed or unsealed? If the idea is for people to pick problems, do they pick the problems seen or unseen?” I asked. I didn’t mind exchanging my long-term problems for another person’s, as long, of course, as it wasn’t a terminal illness, horrible disability or psychological malfunction worse than I already suffered from. Basically, I was looking to exchange with someone who was just having trouble finding the right hairdo, or a person who couldn’t afford the $5,000 “it” jacket.

“I think it would be better for everyone to pick at random, unseen,” he said. I laughed and moved away from the sealed-up problems.

“And I was so close to being able to have foresight in my life, almost got to choose the perfect problem for myself!” I said.  Grant didn’t find that overly funny. He looked at me with an implacable face and then smirked. He thought of this project as a serious psychological study, I guess. “Well, it won’t be long now,” I said. “Another couple weeks and the tree should be free of all leaves and ready for problems dressed up in fall colors. Since it’s going to be in fall colors, maybe a lot of people won’t even notice that it’s small envelopes instead of leaves, and they’ll just walk past.”

Grant didn’t seem concerned. He was one of those types who assumed people would be interested in everything he did. The idea that he would be disregarded was beyond his belief. “No, they’ll notice,” he said. Problems will be blowing in the breeze.”

“You mean ‘in the wind,’ like the song,” I said, laughing. Grant didn’t laugh. “Yeah, sort of,” he said. His man-bun needed tidying, so Grant patted it repeatedly and sighed, as though the burden of maintaining a proper man-bun while readying an obscure art project was too much to ask of one person. “I think it will be well received,” he said.

A few weeks later, after a windy rainstorm, the tree was bare, so Grant brought in a few friends more burly than himself to affix the envelopes with a hammer. Each envelope was secured to a large nail with durable string and then the nails were hammered into the tree.  The envelopes were red, orange, yellow and brown, and really looked a little like droopy autumn leaves from a distance after they all were in place.

Grant was having the equivalent of an art gallery opening that night. He had invited everyone he was connected to on Facebook and Twitter to come by and pick off problems. “The only question is whether there will be enough problems for everyone,” he said.

I laughed as he looked mystically upward as if he had just made a divine proclamation. He didn’t seem to hear me. “Yeah, well, I guess some people will just have to do their best to get by without problems,” I said.

At first the problem tree had only passive visitors—people who lived in the neighborhood curious to see why there were multicolored envelopes hanging from bare tree boughs. But by the end of the tree’s “opening night,” a few had begun to pick off problems. The surprise came when a girl with a polka dot umbrella, a miniskirt, and what looked like combat boots, pulled one of the golden envelopes down and then reached into her purse for a pad and pen. After scribbling for a minute or two and re-reading whatever she had scribbled, the girl pushed back her long dark bangs, walked over to Grant and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, is it OK to leave problems, or do we just have to take them?” she asked. “You don’t even have to buy more envelopes, see?” she said, stuffing her scribbled up piece of paper into the same golden envelope she had taken from.

Grant spent a good minute patting his man-bun and looking upward. “Well, I don’t see why not, but we won’t be making any progress that way—the problem tree will never be emptied. It’ll turn into an ongoing project—old problems getting taken and new problems being added. “OK, well, I guess, if it’s important to you. Maybe you’ll be one of the few,” he sniffed.

I couldn’t resist jumping in then: “Actually, she probably has the right idea. It’ll be more interactive and interesting that way.”

“It’s possible,” Grant allowed. “Like I said, we’ll see.” He turned away from me and took out one of his cigarettes, cupping his hand over it to light it without the wind interfering. I turned away and began walking in the other direction. “What a disgusting habit!” I said loudly before holding my breath and leaving.

It didn’t take long for the tree to catch on—it seemed that anything free—even problems—moved fast in New York. I wished the envelopes weren’t sealed so you could shop for your problems. I hated the idea of having to choose a problem unseen. I also couldn’t decide which of my own problems to give away. I mainly had resentment and anger to give away, more than problems.

I resented the bicycle riders who rode the wrong way on streets, ran stoplights and then were babied with public service announcements about how we all should be concerned for their safety. I also resented smokers, as I mentioned. I was tired of having to run around them, or even cross the street, to avoid being downwind of their cancer smoke. “Have you heard the news? Smoking causes cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, and even causes your teeth to rot,” I longed to tell them. But of course they had heard the news. They just believed it wouldn’t happen to them, or that they were “living in the moment.” Or better yet, this response: “Well, there are just so many ways to get cancer.” That was a classic smoker line.

I wondered if resentment and anger counted as problems I could pass on to an unsuspecting art project participant. I also had anxiety to give away. The next day I finally decided to chance it at the problem tree. Instead of exchanging my anxiety and anger, I thought it would be more humane to choose an easier problem to pass on. So, I was offering up my lack of closet space. Now, I just had to hope I wasn’t exchanging my lack of closet space for a rare disease or the problem of being pursued by a psychopath. After all, when you gave away a minor problem, you never knew what—how much worse—you were going to get in return.

I was standing under the problem tree, glowering up at it, my resentment again the issue—resenting this time that I felt compelled to participate in an art project. I didn’t like to not do something I said I’d do—and even encouraged—so now I was stuck on a cold day looking up at orange, gold and brown envelopes fluttering in the breeze, each one promising a chance at bad karma—being so unappreciative of one of my own problems that I end up with a much bigger one. I had never taken the time before to savor my problems. Now, I felt regret that I had to choose one to give away.

“You’re thinking about it too much,” Grant said, sneaking up on me from behind. “Be in the moment; it’s not about choosing—just tear one off.” I smiled, but my heart wasn’t in it. It seemed like just another depressing chore, rather than an exciting artistic experiment. Why would you want to give your problems to someone else?

“Well, I was thinking of my closet space problem, and I never have enough quarters when I go to the laundromat. Does that count as a problem?” I asked. “Or how about how much I loathe smoking?” I wondered that out loud as two girls, who looked like they were in high school, lit up near me. “Or how about how I lack the willpower to dust properly and weed out the old clothes in my closet?” Grant wasn’t listening to me anymore. In one hand was his lit cigarette, which he puffed on about once a minute, and in his other hand was his phone, which he was scrolling through looking at text messages or e-mails, head averted. “I think you just have to choose a new problem,” he said finally. “Then, whatever your own problem is, will become apparent.”

Already a few others had snapped problem-filled envelopes from the tree—almost with glee. I was the only one hesitating. I guess I was taking it too seriously, I told myself. So, I treated it like buying shoes and decided to just go by color. Gold goes with everything, I said to myself, so I snapped off a low-hanging branch with a gold envelope: “My roommate steals from me, but just small things—little fold-up umbrellas, cigarette lighters, hand towels, books. But I’m afraid to say anything because she’s my favorite roommate ever. I’d rather live with a thief whose company I enjoy than with an honest person I don’t like.”

This problem giver didn’t register any resentment as far as I could tell. The simple fact of anyone—let alone someone I trusted enough to live with—stealing from me would have created such resentment that I couldn’t have gone on living with that person. And yet somehow the problem giver didn’t seem to care. She (or he?) seemed more troubled that she continues to like this person and doesn’t want to have to ask him or her to move out.

“What a waste of an excuse to get rid of someone!” I said out loud. Grant turned around and laughed. “What? What are you talking about?” I considered lying to save his impression of me as a nice person, but ended up not bothering. “Well, this problem giver says her (or is it his?) roommate is probably stealing stuff, and instead of using that to get the roommate out of the apartment, the problem giver is looking for ways to keep the thief in spite of the stealing. She figures it’s a shame to lose a roommate you like just because he’s stealing stuff,” I said. Grant kept laughing at me and shuffling around his pack of cigarettes—even though he knew I detested being around smoking. As if he were doing it to spite me. “She’s a people person, I guess. She doesn’t like to cut out people from her life over small stuff,” he suggested.

I decided no longer to look at him. “’Small stuff?’ What are you talking about? He’s stealing from her—and he isn’t a stranger off the street. He’s her roommate.”

“But she likes this roommate—you can’t under-estimate that,” Grant said, fishing around in his pockets for his lighter. I was ready to get rid of him just for the smoking, so a roommate letting stealing go didn’t make sense to me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snapped. I decided to turn my back to him again, like I so often did during our conversations, to avoid his poison exhalations. “Well, anyway, so now what do I do with this thing?” I said snapping the golden envelope in the air.

I still needed to come up with a problem of my own to “share”—to pass along to a poor unsuspecting stranger. That’s what you get for being open minded enough to participate in a weird outdoor art project. I tucked the stranger with the thieving roommate into my purse and began obsessing over which problem to force onto someone else.

At home that night, the disarray of broken was stunning. The shades no longer could be pulled up and down because the pulley had long since broken. The small lamp with the cute miniature shade in the bedroom (on the windowsill I used as a nightstand) was broken for unknown reasons.  I had dropped it while making the bed last week, and though the landing had been soft, the cord had gotten muddled somehow, and now it wouldn’t work. The outlet closest to the lamp no longer worked, either, because when the previous lamp broke, a fuse was blown and I didn’t like tampering with the fuse box, so it remained blown.

A cabinet over the stove was missing, and had been missing for about five years, when it nearly toppled on my head. My landlord’s son said he’d get me a new one, but never did, and since I wasn’t using the cabinet for much, I just let it go. The bedroom window no longer locked for reasons unknown to me, but I was on the second floor, and an intruder would have to drag a ladder into an alley and then precariously balance it, so I was taking my chances (knock wood). The soap dish was gone from above the tub in the bathroom. Two times the landlord attempted to affix it, and two times for unknown reasons I had come home to a shattered soap dish lying in pieces in the basin of the tub. How did that happen?

The light on the ceiling in the kitchen was out, and had been out for years. I kept having the bulb replaced only to find it burn out just a month later, so I figured something was screwy with the wiring, and it was safer to just ignore.

The oven and stove didn’t work, but that was by choice. After returning from a business trip and finding a note from my cat sitter that my orange tabby Springles had turned the stove on (I guess she was getting tired of cold meals or it could have been her toys and food, which I left on top of the stove), I was so scared, I got the gas turned off. I wasn’t using it anyway, so why bother? The white paint looked like curdled milk in an upper corner of the apartment due to water damage after a leak sprung through the floorboards of the apartment above mine. The leak was gone (hopefully), but the water stain remained.

I sat in the disarray like the owner of an avant-garde one-of-a-kind dysfunction capsule. Who else had this particular mix of disrepair? It was the home living equivalent of a fingerprint—it was my disrepair print. The rent was stabilized and hadn’t been raised since I moved in ten years ago, so combined with the subconscious affinity I must have felt for the disrepair and dust (easily taken care of on my own—if I weren’t inert), I lounged on the couch considering my anxiety, and, now, the problems I could share. Was disrepair my problem, or just a symptom of a problem?

I was surrounded by long-time Village dwellers—people who had lived in this building for 30 or 40 years, and due to rent stabilization, only paid a few hundred dollars a month, while I paid $1,650. Should I resent these people—another thing broken in my life? As far as I knew, they weren’t even stealing from me, and I wanted them gone. I felt I was paying their share for them (so maybe they were stealing from me). I could hear NPR on from the room across the hall, which its owner kept ajar at all times, and If I listened slightly more closely, I could hear the Hare Krishnas down the hall ringing a bell and chanting. Grant’s apartment wasn’t in the few-hundred dollar range of old-time stabilization, but he was about $500 behind me, and unlike the old timers in the building, he didn’t have to endure a bathtub in the kitchen.

He was probably still tending to his problem tree, cigarette in hand, gazing up at the branches weighed down with the submissions of strangers. Puffing cancerous smoke at those who paused to hang a problem—as if they needed another problem like incidental poisoning.

No need to speculate when you have a problem tree under your window. I pushed the shade back just enough so I could look down without anyone seeing me—I wasn’t in the mood to be cajoled into coming down “for a few.” Grant wasn’t smoking, but was shaking the envelopes and unhooking some of them and holding them up to the street light, as if he could see through the sealed paper to the problems beneath. He then grabbed a red envelope, and with a letter opener in his pocket, delicately pried it open. He concentrated intently and then began laughing, and not even soft, embarrassed laughing, but loud, careless laughter. It wasn’t that late at night, but I guess he thought that, as the master of the problem tree, people would assume he was securing the envelopes rather than prying. Grant had come prepared. He had a glue stick that he used to reseal the envelopes, so, he must have assumed, no one would notice that they had been opened. It seemed no different to me than reading another person’s mail, or even a private diary entry. I opened my window and stuck my head out, prepared to resist coming down to “talk it out” with him. “Hey, hey,” I yelled as if I were trying to shoo away an unwanted stray animal. “Hey, there, Grant!”

He looked up and smiled. “Yeah, what’s going on?” Always so casual and in the moment. Smoothing his man-bun. “You’re opening private messages,” I shouted down. “Not private, intended to be shared by whomever happens to choose them,” Grant said. “Right, ‘whomever happens to choose them,’ not you, prying with your gratuitous inspections,” I said. He probably thought I was joking because he just kept smiling, and even started laughing. “Have you figured out what your problem is yet?” he asked.

I had to control myself from also laughing, but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. “Well, I think my main problem is intrusions like yours into places they don’t belong—having the people who live around you overstepping. I’m not as nice as my problem-giver,” I said. “I don’t think it’s OK to steal from a person you live with, or near, just because you’re friends and like each other. I feel like you’re violating the people who stuffed their problems in the sealed envelopes and were naïve enough to participate in your art project. It’s disrespectful.”

Grant shuffled his pack of cigarettes, and drawing one out and lighting it, blew smoke generously into the air, to spite me, I thought. I turned away and let him address the back of my head. “Nobody here seems to mind except you,” he said.

“Some of them—maybe even a lot of them—probably do mind, but they’re too embarrassed to say anything, or they just haven’t figured out yet what you’re doing,” I said.

“That’s your presumption,” he said.

I turned then and shut the window to the apartment and drew the shade down, not wanting to see Grant’s arrogant perusal of others’ problems—as if he was window shopping for problems while the rest of us were forced to choose sight unseen. The sounds of dog claws scratching the ceiling and clomping human feet sounded as the man who lived above me got home. The chiming of the Hare Krishna bells down the hall was at it again, and the man across the hall was blaring a jazz show on his radio. I thought I could even smell Grant’s cigarette smoke sneaking in through my windowpane.

Maybe my problem was insulation—if only the windows were better insulated and there was no smoke from friends’ or strangers’ cigarettes that could pass through—no incidental poisonings from others. And the door frame could be insulated, too, though I wasn’t sure how. Maybe I could find a cloth towel to shove around the corners and underneath to make the noise from my neighbors less noticeable. I grabbed my phone and began shuffling through the white noise options in an app I had recently added. Would I prefer to pretend I was at the beach, on a train, on a camping trip with crickets, lying under an industrial strength fan, or locked inside a vacuum (one option was a whooshing air sound)? The vacuum was appealing, but I chose the beach for now. With the waves up at full throttle I could barely hear the voices outside, and couldn’t hear at all the Hare Krishna bells.

Next, I retrieved the plastic Ziplock bag of flesh-colored foam earplugs that I kept by my bedside. I rolled them up and squeezed them as deep inside my ears as possible. The waves sounded muffled now, but I kept them as fail-safe aural barriers to others. My problem-giver could live with a thief she liked, but I wouldn’t have it. Even the idea of stealing the silence I owned, or stuffing my empty air full of cigarette smoke, would result in a sealing off, an enclosure against trespassers.

It seemed the only way to have the freedom to make everything just the way I wanted it was to seal everything off. As long as others could affect my environment, I wouldn’t be able to have everything exactly the way I wanted it. I felt they were stealing from me the ability to make things the way I wanted them to be. With this epiphany I rushed to the window to see if Grant was still there snooping through strangers’ problems, opened the window and yelled down sharp enough that he jumped and his lit cigarette fell to the pavement: “Hey, I figured out my problem—other people are interfering with the way I want things to be—they’re stealing the way I want things to be from me!”

Nobody was paying attention. Grant looked up, smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” he said, his voice rising at the end of the word, “that makes sense.” He laughed and began picking up trash around the tree. I was being made fun of. I turned back inside my apartment and resumed the insulation. No need to open the window any longer, not even in summer. I had a strong window air conditioner, and it was too cold during the winter to open the window, and now I could see no reason to communicate to anyone on the other side anyway. I didn’t want to be laughed at, or have poison smoke blown at me, or have to see a poseur unsealing sealed-over problems and conducting inspections of his “art project.” I didn’t want to feel any more like I was being intruded on. “Intrusions,” I sniffed to myself.

The problem was I could still hear the murmurings of interest and excitement over that stupid tree, even after all the measures I’d taken not to. I would have to talk to the landlord about getting Grant and his project removed. Maybe the tree, which hadn’t grown too big, could be transplanted to a pretentious experimental art space somewhere nearby. A place friendly to smoking, smirking man-buns—who presume to know your problems.

“Yeah, the tree right under my window,” I told Lester, the super, as soon as he called me back. “Grant Edwards has this art project where he’s stringing envelopes from the branches and it’s causing a disturbance—it’s keeping me up at night.”

Lester said he couldn’t do anything because the tree was on public property, and Grant had gotten a permit for his project from the city, so I would have to live with it. I could complain to the city, but by the time they got around to reviewing the situation and making a decision, the project would be over. The problems hanging under my window, tended to by a man-bun hipster-poseur, would remain.

The problem was the problems were self-perpetuating. No sooner had one envelope been taken down, then another was tacked on. Apparently, there was enthusiasm for this project. The word must have spread, and there were endless participants. So, I decided to add my problem to one of the tree’s branches. The project wasn’t going anywhere, so I might as well get something out of it, I reasoned. “I’d like to find the best kind of insulation to seal myself into my apartment and into my peace. My problem is intrusions from others,” I wrote on the note inside my sealed envelope. “Where or how can I seal myself in better?”

It was raining slightly, and I had my dome umbrella out to catch even the tiniest droplet. Meanwhile, others at the problem tree were umbrella-less, with their hoods up, at best. They didn’t seem to care about getting cold mist on their faces, or their hair getting humidified. Even a few man-buns were letting the rain trickle into them. “Do you think I could exchange my problem of not being able to find an affordable apartment with someone else’s problem?” a twenty-something woman in glued-to-the-bone jeans asked a friend, who laughed. “That’s your biggest problem? Hey, I’m 31 and still single.” Then they both started laughing and reaching up to hold a potential problem for a second or two before reaching for another, as if just briefly holding the sealed envelope could transmit through their fingertips the best problem to choose. Even worse, there was a bantering, amorous couple also under the problem tree, exchanging kisses and nudging each other in baby talk as they looked up at the hanging envelopes. “No, that one,” the woman said. “Oh, no, the low hanging ones are the ones for you,” the man shot back. They laughed and laughed, though who knew why?

I sidestepped, like I once saw a crab sidestep on the beach. I wanted to evade detection, though anyone who was interested could see me standing right there. “Care to share?” I heard a loud voice chirp. I looked up to see the amorous couple. I tried to laugh casually. “Share what?” I asked.

“The problem you’re leaving behind,” the female half of the couple said. She was chubby but wearing the skin-tight jeans that were the fashion, along with a black close-fitting jacket with a hood with a fake fur trim. “I’m looking for ways to better insulate myself,” I said. She smiled, nodded and laughed. “Right!” she said. “I get that. These Village apartments are really drafty. We can’t seem to keep the wind out.” I smiled as kindly as I could and continued my sideways crab crawl. I sighed and looked up at the roofs of the nearby buildings hoping to indicate that the conversation was done.

I heard footsteps and the rustling of jackets while I kept my eyes fixed to the periphery and uppermost borders of the buildings. After a few minutes, I glanced carefully down—inconspicuously in case someone was still around—and saw the couple had moved on and I was alone again. It was about 9 pm, and the problem tree’s traffic had slowed. Sometimes a passerby would pause for a few seconds, or a couple would stop and make a few comments, or laugh to themselves, but other than those brief interruptions, it was pleasantly empty—for about 10 minutes.

A procession of cancerous smoke snailed around my head and then: “I thought you were trying to get rid of this.” It was Grant, of course, with his ever-present cigarette. I winced and turned my head. “I tried really hard, I called Lester—you probably heard—to get rid of it, but since you got a permit for it and no one else seems to have a problem with it, yada, yada, whatever, he says there’s nothing that can be done about it, I’ll just have to stick it out.”

Grant laughed and turned his head up, blowing his smoke up out of his mouth and nose like a whale blowing spray through its blowhole. “Poor thing, so sad,” he said. “Have you decided on your problem yet?” he asked. I wondered whether I should just ignore his question, or even walk away since that was the question that set me off the last time we talked, but thought it would only make him laugh at me again if I stomped off. “Insulation, to be apart from things that could hurt me, like that,” I said pointing to the smoke drifting up into the air. Grant smiled and sighed. “Well, it’s not that bad, is it?” he said. “Are you kidding?” I nearly shrieked. “Second-hand smoke is even worse than first-hand smoke. It causes cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and even limb loss—“ Grant had dissolved into laughter and was nearly doubled over in hysterics. “No, really, people loose limbs from it,” I shouted. “It causes constriction of the arteries—really I’m not making that up.”

“I believe you,” he said, continuing to puff. “But I don’t think that’s your problem.”

I kept sidling away, crab-style, sideways, just like one of those little animals skirting along the shore, just out of reach of the water, but close enough to slide back in if necessary. “Well, you’re right—I mean that’s only part of it—it’s bigger than that. It’s the Hare Krishna bells down the hall, the man with his dogs stomping around on top of me—above my apartment—the man across the hall with his forever open door and his pile of books pushing up against my doormat. It’s all the whistling and humming and people singing to themselves—I just can’t stand any of it. I try to be considerate, and it just seems that nobody reciprocates,” I said.

“They don’t because they don’t see it as being inconsiderate,” Grant said.

“Well, I can’t help it if people have bad manners,” I huffed. “I just have to try to protect myself from them.”

The man-bun was wispy that night with many stray hairs escaping. In fact, it was more the idea of a man-bun that night than an actual bun. Grant noticed me staring and winked. “What?” he asked. “Something wrong?”

“No, it’s just—just, why do you bother with that thing?” I asked pointing at the top of his head. He smiled and reached out to where my hand lay against my side and brushed over it lightly. “You don’t really care about that, do you?” he said, “Or about the smoking?” He had grabbed hold of my limp, cold, moist hand, and was pressing his fingertips into my palm. I tried to wriggle free, but couldn’t.

“What are you talking about?” I stammered, looking up at the tops of the buildings and turning my head to avoid the stench of cigarettes.

“Why you won’t spend time with me,” he said.

“We’re very different,” I said. “It’s hard—I don’t think we’re on the same schedule or like a lot of the same things. And the cigarettes—I really can’t tolerate them—I can’t spend time with anyone who would smoke around me.”

Grant dropped my hand and stepped a few paces back, looking up at his art project. The problem-filled envelopes were weighing down the small tree. “So, it turned out pretty good, didn’t it?” he said.

“I’m surprised anyone wanted to bother—people are so lazy and inarticulate, I’m surprised they were able to think of a problem and then write it down and tack it to the tree. If you hadn’t supplied the pens and paper and envelopes, I bet nobody would have bothered,” I said.

Grant and I both started laughing and surveying the weighed-down tree. “Are you sure you don’t want to try out my cappuccino maker?” he said, seeing an opening, I suppose. “Thanks for asking,” I said quickly, “but I have a lot to do before tomorrow—I have a morning meeting to prepare for, and I suppose you’ll be smoking, as usual.”

“Probably,” he said, “but I always leave the window open.”

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Floral Shop

peonyThe stairs always seemed inadequate to my weight. I wasn’t much more than 100 pounds at the time, but the wood would creak, and usually a shred or two would pop off on the side. “Myrtle, you need to get those stairs fixed,” I kept telling the florist. “Even if you don’t care if someone gets hurt, you could get sued—and lose money. I know you care about that.” Myrtle laughed in the hoarse way she did and smoothed back her thick silver pageboy hair cut. It was luxurious, nice-looking hair, which I always thought was unusual for a woman who just let it go gray. Other than the gray hair, in fact, she was still vibrant looking, if not young. She wore fitted jeans that showed off her figure and blouses that weren’t revealing, but were often in bright colors and tailored rather than a size too large or frumpy. “I’ll take my chances,” she said. “The stairs aren’t too high—if someone falls, I bet they won’t get hurt, at least not bad enough to sue me.”

I rolled my eyes and turned away from her and stuck my nose in the peonies that had just arrived. I wanted an assortment of white, light and dark pink for the vase on my desk in the office, but Myrtle wouldn’t allow it. “Why can’t we make our own bouquet with the peonies the way we can with the roses?” There were certain flowers that only came in ready-made bundles, while other flowers, like the roses, came both in ready-made bundles, as well as individual flowers that you could mix and match. “Well, they’re more expensive and I don’t get as many of them in,” she said. “I don’t want them being handled as much—the roses aren’t as expensive—I get them in bulk, so I can afford to have people picking through them, and have enough both for the pre-made bouquets and the solitaries.”

She wasn’t going to budge—I had been trying for years—so I settled on a bundle of three dark pink peonies. As I paid, I noticed a man loitering outside, peering in and then looking away when I looked back at him. He was short, maybe 5’4, and had mousy brown hair and eyes so small I couldn’t tell what color they were. “Who’s that, Myrtle?” I asked counting out my change because Myrtle often short-changed (accidentally, probably). “Oh, him, he’s nobody. Just some weirdo—maybe homeless or with something wrong with him—he stops by about once a day and goes away after I give him a flower. He had his hand out like he was asking for money and when I told him ‘no,’ he pointed at the flowers. So, at the end of the day, I give him a flower I would have to get rid of anyway.”

As I walked out the door, the man had seated himself crossed-legged on the sidewalk and was still staring intently inside the shop. Whenever anyone passed by, he gestured at the flowers on display outside the shop and murmured “please.” My apartment was just a few doors down from the floral shop. I tried envisioning where the flowers could go in the apartment if I didn’t take them to the office. My roommate was allergic to most flowers and my cat, Hogarth, wouldn’t leave flowers alone, sticking his nose in the vase and batting it with his paws. Plus, I had heard a lot of flowers were poisonous to cats. Gertrude, my roommate, was on the sofa with a hand upraised, painting her nails. Her brown hair had been ironed straight and highlighted to give the impression of being sun-kissed. But to me it had a harsh, bleached look. “Hey, what’s up?” she said not bothering to look at me. “Peonies,” I said. “But don’t worry, they won’t be anywhere around you. I’m taking them directly to my room.” Gertrude grunted and looked away from me. “I guess that’s OK, then,” she said. I picked a spot at the top of my bookcase so high even Hogarth couldn’t reach for the flowers. Avoid poisoning the cat and aggravating the allergies of the roommate. So many not to disturb with a few peonies. Now or never—the last week of May—if you haven’t gotten your peonies by now, you’ll have to wait until next year.

After the peonies were arranged up high, I ventured out to face Gertrude. I knew she wasn’t mad; I just didn’t feel like seeing or talking to anyone. I had a roommate for financial necessity but would have been infinitely happier with just Hogarth and the peonies. To keep things pleasant, I realized I had to interact with her a little, rather than just going straight to my room and closing the door, like my instincts told me to do. I plopped myself down on our red, faux velvet couch watching Gertrude as she blew on her nails to dry them. “So, what have you been up to today?” I asked.

She smiled socially, but not that interested. We were more elevator-sharers than roommates. Talking to her always felt the way making polite conversation in the elevator with strangers or new acquaintances feels. “Well, not much. Just work and I got take out on the way home from that new Italian place that opened up on Third Avenue last week. It’s pretty good.”

“Did you happen to see that strange guy at the florist’s down the street?” I asked. Gertrude was now just watching me sidelong with her eye corners as she flipped the channels on the TV from reality to show to reality show. “No, I didn’t notice,” she said. “Actually, I don’t know why you stop in there at all—you know I’m allergic to most flowers. If you have a roommate in a small apartment who’s told you like a hundred times she’s allergic to most flowers, why do you keep buying them? I can already feel my sinuses closing up.” She sniffed loudly to make her point.

So, she wasn’t that interested in her reality shows after all. She was skipping through the channels fast and looking at me from the corner of her eyes because she was pissed. “Well, they’re all the way in my room, up high on a shelf and I passed through here as fast as I could,” I said. “I don’t need to have them around all the time, but once in a while, I think it’s OK if I buy a few flowers. Up until now I’ve just bought the silk and polyester kind, so I thought it might be nice to have a few real ones for a change.”

Gertrude sniffled dramatically again and rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” With that she got up from the couch and stomped toward her room, slamming the door. And all because of a few peonies, imagine that. I wasn’t going to let Gertrude’s sinuses interfere with my love of peonies. I laughed at my silk flower attempts to replicate the real thing, stuffing the apartment full of cloth instead of forcing the point. My room was my own, and despite Gertrude’s discomfort, I intended to keep it fully stocked with genuine blossoms from then on. “Hey, Gertrude, I yelled angrily after her, unrestrained because I didn’t think she could hear me (I suspected she had her ear buds over her ears and was listening to music), “I’m decorating with real flowers from now on. I don’t care about your allergies. All the things you can’t tolerate aren’t worth enduring fake flowers for.”

The next day I decided to get more flowers—the peonies may not have had that much longer to go, so I needed another bouquet to take their place. Myrtle was up on a ladder, pointing out needed ceiling repairs to an assistant when I walked in. So, it gave me extra time to decide among the blooms in peace, wandering into every corner and sniffing around. I wondered whether I should double-down on peonies or look into another flower like maybe an orchid or a lily. Myrtle must have noticed my deliberation. “Variety is always nice,” she said. “Why don’t you try a different kind finally? How many times are you going to refill your vase with peonies?” I laughed but wondered if she was right. The peony season was so short—just about a month—so I wanted to fill my vase up with them as much as I could, until the vase couldn’t have any more peonies. “Well, the peonies won’t be around much longer. Don’t you think I should choose them while I still can—you know savoring the spring and all?” When I turned to look at Myrtle, she had descended from the ladder and now had her back to me instead, as she arranged flowers in the window and glowered at the same man I saw the day before, standing, palms outstretched in front of the shop. Begging for money and settling for day-old roses, it seemed. “I’ll make it a mix then,” I told Myrtle. “I’ll take three peonies, a few lavender and a couple lilacs and I’ll donate a tulip to that man always hanging around.”

Myrtle wrinkled up her short nose and laughed. “I wouldn’t waste my money. I just give him the stuff we’re done with at the end of the day. Really, don’t bother. He’s probably got mental problems—I don’t know even know what he does with the flowers. I think it’s part of his mental problems—like an obsessive compulsive—he compulsively collects flowers.”

It didn’t really matter to me what he did with the flowers. I just wanted to distract myself from the pressure to overlook the peonies. The homeless man had averted his eyes from us and was looking down at his hands. It looked like strangers had given him coins throughout the day, and he was cascading them from palm to palm, staring at the movement. It was his own experimental art show, right in his hands. It may have meant more to him than the money. The shapes, feelings and sound of the coins moving from hand to hand was apparently what mattered. I betted by the looks of it that he never would use the coins for anything other than the joy of playing with them as smooth metallic objects. “I don’t care what he does with the flowers, I’m still going to give him one or two—just because I want to,” I told Myrtle. She nodded and looked away, shuffling things around the checkout counter. “Whatever. Your money to waste.” Meanwhile I noticed the window display Myrtle had just put together—small animal sculptures of cats, birds and rabbits with flowers twined around their necks. “Myrtle, do you realize you have a predator in your window?” She looked up confused from her phone. “What are you talking about?” she snapped. “Well, cats eat birds and rabbits—in your window. You have two vegetarian animals and one animal that would like to eat the other two.” She finally laughed, but just a little—more like a guffaw than anything else. When she rang up my flowers—the final selection of three peonies, two orchids, a few lavender and a couple lilacs—she admitted that she hadn’t noticed the predator advertising flowers in her window. “Well, they’re all so cute, who would notice?” she asked.

I left Myrtle with the two of us laughing, and stepped onto a sidewalk newly smudged with rain—with dog poop smudged and stinking, and Myrtle’s onlooker grasping a few daffodils tightly in his left fist with his head turned up to the rain, mouth open, catching droplets. He didn’t lower his gaze to me, so I kept my flowers to myself, thinking if he didn’t notice me, then so much the better.

When I got back to my apartment, the door was partially open, which I hated—I liked my doors closed so as little outside noise could get in as possible. So, upon entering, I closed it without a thought. “Gertrude, are you here?” I asked wanting to be sure the open door wasn’t due to the presence of a workman or intruder. A melodramatic sniffle announced her presence. “Oh, you’re back,” she said in enhanced nasal tones, coming into the living room from her bedroom, in her usual at-home attire of yoga pants and sorority t-shirt. “And you’ve bought more of them! I was just keeping the door open to air the apartment out of all those allergens, and now you’ve got more!” I hated to be mean, but couldn’t help laughing. “Well, I have a room of my own, so I figured I may as well have flowers, as long as they stay in isolation there. It’s not like I’m finally getting the garden I always wanted. All I’m doing is making a place for a weekly bouquet from a florist’s shop.” Gertrude just kept sniffling ostentatiously as if the melodramatic sniffling exceeded all of her vocabulary. “It’s just—I mean—the thing is,” she stammered. “Pollen travels, the things I’m allergic to don’t stay where you put them. They’re in your room, but they’re going to reach me wherever I go in the apartment. Things you’re allergic to like pollen follow and stick to you when you’re in a small apartment. You can’t just hide it in your room and think it won’t ruin my sinuses.”

“Well, I’ll put them on the side of my tall bookcase closest to the window and keep the window open a little whenever I’m home. Maybe that’ll help.” Gertrude looked away and then back at me rolling her eyes. “Whatever, do what you need to.” Well, I knew I didn’t need to; I just didn’t want to live without a piece of the garden I was missing. I felt bad bringing discomfort to a person I had to share space with, and realized I was disrupting the peace of my home, but that slice of garden was something I felt entitled to—I couldn’t have the whole, so the flowers around the edges at least were meant to be mine.

The next morning I awoke to a sound I couldn’t place—it wasn’t just the typical clomping around the apartment that Gertrude did early in the morning as she assembled her things for the gym. The door to my room didn’t open at first, and so I figured for a second that Gertrude had put a chair or another piece of furniture up against my door to prevent it from being open. But when I pushed a little harder, I heard a scurrying back of feet. “OK, OK, I’m moving, just give me a minute,” Gertrude said panting. I had caught her in the middle of taping some sort of tarp in front of my door, to seal in allergens from the flowers, I guessed. “Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to get in and out of your room. I just thought having this extra shield might help.” I laughed and pushed through the plastic tarp. “Well, do you think it might provide a noise barrier? I wouldn’t mind that.” Gertrude looked disappointed, gazing down and then around the room as if thinking of something that would really upset me this time, since the idea of being symbolically sealed in my room didn’t seem too bad to me.

She also had purchased three “air purifying” fans, and handed me the receipt. “I talked to my allergist today, and he recommended I purchase those,” Gertrude said, sweeping her hand at two thin, though tall, freestanding fans. “So, since I had to get them all because you refuse to stop buying flowers, I thought you should pay for them.”

“Sure—depending on how expensive they were. How much?” I asked trying not to be offensive by laughing again.

“They were each $300,” she said. Gertrude was now the one who laughed, stroking her dry, bleached hair and tapping her fingernails on a nearby wall sconce. “When do you think I could have that?” Of course she knew I wouldn’t pay it. “That’s a rip off,” I said. “I think I saw the same thing for sale at Kmart for about $50. Maybe whenever you move out I’ll think about reimbursing you for that, but I don’t think it’s worth that much money—and I don’t think having flowers in my room with the door shut most of the time should be doing anything to your allergies. I think it’s all in your head.”

She looked up—at God, I guess it was supposed to be—but since we were on the third floor of a six-story apartment building it ended up being two men in their 20s always in workout clothes. “I just can’t believe this,” she ranted. “My doctor even wrote me a note about how I need the air purifiers so I can submit it to my insurance company.”

I decided at that point to get out of the apartment and take a walk. The stairs leading downstairs to our “lobby” looked damp, and an old man who lived upstairs, who had been living there since the 1950s, mumbled to me, looking down from the next floor up. He only had a few teeth left, which seemed to affect his speech so that I could never understand him. “What? What was that?” I asked. “Watch it,” I thought I heard him say. As I slid my fingers along the banister, I smelled paint, and my fingertips were tinged in white. “Oh, shit!” I shreaked, my voice echoing up and down the stairwell. On the sidewalk I looked for one of those short Mexican men who stand outside the shops with a hose washing away the dog poop from the cement outside the shops’ entranceways. But none were around.

When I got to Myrtle’s shop, the homeless-looking man who coveted—and then seemed to hoard—flowers was sitting cross legged at the edge of the sidewalk, his rear end practically hanging off the edge into the street. He was looking down at the pavement where five wilting white roses were laid side by side. He also had a few books with him making me wonder whether he was collecting all these flowers as keepsakes, feeling like it was his duty to preserve the flowers Myrtle otherwise would have thrown out. I thought maybe he was doing that trick where you press flowers inside a book to preserve them. Myrtle was on her stepladder again arranging the latest flowers twined from aft to aft of the ceiling. I didn’t want to spook her off her ladder, so I opened the door as noisily as possible and cleared my throat a few times. She turned around slowly and half-smiled. “You’re back. Did they die already?”

“No, not yet,” I laughed. “Actually, I just need to use your sink. This senile old man in our building painted the banister on our stairwell and I touched it. Now I have paint all over my fingers.” I moved toward the sink at the back of the shop without even waiting for Myrtle to respond. “The truth is,” I said through the running water, “the flowers are not only still alive, but tormenting my roommate.”

“She has a phobia of flowers?” Myrtle asked. I wondered myself if maybe that was the case more than allergies because I had never heard of anyone having a generalized case of flower allergies, but I passed along Gertrude’s story. “No, actually, she claims she’s allergic to all flowers. I was trying to be nice about it, but I’ve given up. She got to the point where she wouldn’t even be nice about me having flowers in my room on occasion. So, now, guess what I’m doing? I’m constantly having flowers.”

“It’s good for business,” said Myrtle with a half-smile. “But why would she continue living with an allergy tormentor?”

I wasn’t sure I cared whether or not she moved out. In fact, I kind of hoped I propelled her out of the apartment. I was tired of her already. “Now, Gertrude, don’t make me bring in the daffodils,” I dreamed of taunting. “Well, so be it if she moves out,” I said. “I have some money saved up, and I can go a few months or more without a roommate. I never like having one anyway. On top of everything else, she bought an air purifier she now expects me to pay for. She deserves more than just daffodils, she deserves tulips, lilies, orchids, lavender—and just for spite—lilacs and daisies.”

Myrtle laughed, but had her head cocked a little. “Huh, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone buying someone flowers out of spite.”

“Well, technically, I’m buying it for my own enjoyment, but at the same time, I think I’m buying it to upset Gertrude,” I said.

“Well, whatever,” said Myrtle. “I don’t care why you’re buying the flowers, that’s for sure. Like I said, good for business.”

We had gravitated to the hydrangeas, with our noses nearly burrowing into the bouquets, when we heard a strange squeaking sound. The little squirrel of a man who had taken up residence outside Myrtle’s shop was running his right index finger up and down the glass. Myrtle shook her head, tossing her hair back. “Oh, no, that’s where I draw the line,” she said, knocking on the glass where the finger traced. “Don’t touch my windows—I don’t want any smudge marks—and you’ll scare the customers away.” He smiled, showing teeth that were yellowish with the two top teeth gapped. He had stopped squeaking his finger along the glass but was still standing there, just smiling and staring. “Why don’t you just call the police?” I asked. “Isn’t what he’s doing considered loitering?” Myrtle didn’t say anything, but grumbled. “Oh, I don’t know,” she eventually said under her breath.

All the while Myrtle picked through the bundles of flowers, making a small pile on the counter where the register stood. “Don’t tell me you’re giving those to that man,” I said. She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, what else am I going to do with them?”

“Why not donate them to the hospital? That might be a nice thing to do,” I said. Myrtle furrowed her eyebrows and smoothed her helmet of hair. “Don’t they have enough flowers already? Look, I feel bad for him—whoever he is. He just sits there all day and the flowers seem to mean something to him—God knows what, but who cares?”

I was irritable and didn’t want to see Myrtle giving carefully chosen flowers to the bum. I felt sorry for him, too, but other than passing him a stray flower here and there, I thought he should be ignored. I laughed to leave things pleasant and headed out the door. Myrtle, as always, was quickly diverted to something else, scrutinizing whether the Georgia O’Keefe prints on her wall were hung perfectly straight. “See you later,” I said over my shoulder as she fixed her eyes into a bright stamen.

I decided to put the homeless flower-mongerer permanently in my peripheral vision, making my eyes go out of focus whenever he inched in. The problem was when I heard him, too. “Why won’t you? Yes?” he said, reaching up, grazing the bottom of my pants with the stem of a calla lily. “Why don’t you?” I smiled and laughed. “That’s OK, thanks, but I’m all set,” I said. In the past it always seemed that he asked for flowers, but now that he was amassing a collection, he seemed to want to give them away. “Free,” he said. “Free, no problem.” I pulled away the hem of my pants from the edge of his hands and looked away. “No thanks,” I said, quickening my step.

I thought a walk in Washington Square Park might be a good cleanser to the flower-mongerer experience. The sidewalks on the way there were full of sidesteppers, people who jutted out knees and elbows at me on foot and bicycle, and scooter, even. Sometimes, ridiculously, a child—somewhat cute—would scoot by and then a few seconds later—not at all cute—would come the parent scooting. Usually they skimmed the outskirts of my clothing or feet, never bothering to excuse themselves. They assumed I would excuse them, but instead I scowled or made a human-animalistic growl in exasperation. And the smokers blew back their leftovers at me and some facing each other looked up at the sky and blew their smoke upwards as if to be polite. But why should it matter if smoke gets blown in your face if you’re already smoking yourself? “Oh, just swallow each other’s smoke already,” I snapped, though nobody listened. “You’re already poisoning yourself. Who cares if your friends add additional poison?”

The afternoon garbage run was underway. Garbage in the city is an all-day event, unlike the suburbs where you just see the garbage trucks in the early morning. I jogged forward to be in front of the stink rather than behind it. It always seemed—between the toxic smoke and the dump trucks—that I was always downwind of discomfort. I noticed the cigarettes getting crushed underfoot, along with gum and the stray dogwood petals falling from trees. I didn’t understand why it was acceptable to crush cigarettes on the sidewalk and then just leave them there. People frowned on throwing litter on the sidewalk, so why didn’t cigarettes count as litter? The crushed petals didn’t deserve to lie among a butt’s ashes.

“I told you 9 o’clock, so where were you?” a fat blond, with oversize sunglasses and a flowered dress with no waist, complained to what appeared to be her skinny, sharp-faced husband. “I waited here for over an hour,” she whined. She was tall on top of being fat and had to stoop to avoid a magnolia tree bough. Nevertheless, a few petals fluttered to the ground grazed by the top of her ponytail. She spun around and angrily slapped the branch back.

I was walking behind the angry branch pusher, so I held back, trying to stay more toward the magnolias than her. The children and adults on scooters were still there, but as I got onto the periphery of the park, skateboarders were added. I felt like an orange cone or hurtle placed in their path—a challenge for them to skirt.

The beds of flowers along the edge of the park were filled with tulips, but they were just temporary tenants, like a flowerbed timeshare. After they died, what looked like overgrown weeds would take over and then by the middle of July there would be mounds of long-stemmed daisies. They would look dry and close to the beginning of the wilting process, but would end up enduring through August.

A child who looked about four was running toward the remaining daffodils and pulling at their stems. The mother’s back was turned talking to a companion. She would glance back at her daughter stampeding the daffodils’ bed and then back toward her companion to resume the conversation. I longed to scold the child, but didn’t since it’s considered socially unacceptable to yell at other people’s children. Part of the privilege of having children was the freedom to yell at them. “Iris, no!” the mother said. “We have to get going. We’re going to be late.” She finally walked over to the child, scooped her up and carried her off.

The amazing thing was, while the children now and then stampeded the flowerbeds, the dogs were mostly well behaved—even the ones left off leash were better trained than the children to stay off the daffodils’ territory. “Such a sophisticated dog,” I said admiringly to what looked like a golden doodle. I talked directly to the dog, overlooking the owner, who was typically the human-dog-human translator. Couldn’t I just talk directly to a dog once in a while? “I like that you respect the garden. If only more children were like you,” I said to the golden doodle.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the park, people who looked like volunteers were clearing and raking the dirt of a garden that had been covered over with port-o-potties while nearby construction was taking place. Released from latrine duty, the ground was being readied for a planting of some kind.

“What are you planting?” I asked. “What kind of garden?” The volunteers looked at me, but none answered. They were mostly women who looked in their fifties or sixties. Their hair was short and either mousy brown, gray or white, and they were nearly all wearing baggy pants with t-shirts that said “Park Conservancy” on the back. I asked again: “What type of garden is this?” They continued for another few minutes raking with their backs to me, and then a short, chubby sixty-something with short gray and white hair turned slowly. “We don’t know. We’re just clearing it.” I laughed, wondering how you could labor with no concern as to what would grow in the plot you were readying. “Maybe you’ll be lucky, and they’ll be perennials,” I said laughing. They were ignoring me again, so even the one who had turned to answer my question earlier didn’t bother to look up.

On the way home I passed by tons of dandelions and those weeds where you blow and the fuzz gets scattered. I started counting these “flowers” to pass the time back to my apartment, and to keep from losing my temper thinking about Gertrude. I thought about picking the dandelions and white fuzzy weed flowers to present to her, but didn’t want to make any special effort—though that added assault to her allergies would have been funny. I also watched and purposely stepped on the cracks in the sidewalks. I figured a weed eradicator had probably been used to get rid of the dandelions that grow in the cracks, and I felt resentful. Why can’t dandelions be considered a serendipitous garden? They weren’t wildflowers, too?

I watched the flowers rimming the trees and found the “please curb your dog” signs mostly observed, but found a couple beagles on leashes sniffing suspiciously at a mixed bed of daffodils and tulips.

As I ambled away from the park and back toward my apartment, there were no longer dandelions or flowers with fuzzy white tops. In their place were carefully cultivated mini-gardens surrounding the trees with the warnings to dogs. But then again maybe we should at least let the dogs pee someplace nearby. If that’s the way they mark their territory, then it’s like they’re sending love to the flowers—a love that might kill them, but still. I was wondering what kind of accommodations could be made to allow dogs to mark the flowers without killing them when I saw Myrtle coming toward me.

She was dressed the same as always—the fitted jeans, a bright turquoise fitted button-down top and, since it was a warm day, brown Birkenstock sandals, her pink-pedicured, pale toes sticking out. Her thick bobbed gray hair swung back and forth with her fast stride, a barrette of some sort held the top strands from billowing in her face. She was carrying an empty vase tucked into her left elbow. Her red handbag was slung over her right shoulder. She nodded and smiled slightly when she saw me. “What’s the vase for?” I asked. “I’m donating it to the park,” she said. “Apparently, they’re creating a potted border to one of the flower beds they’re clearing and they said they might like a wide vase like this—I ‘ve got a ton of them.” The volunteers must have considered this confidential information because they didn’t share any of this with me when I asked.

“That’s weird,” I said. “I was just over there and asked them what they were clearing the bed for, and they just said they didn’t know.”

“Well,” said Myrtle, “They probably don’t. They’re just volunteers for the day—they just do whatever park management tells them. They’re not the ones making the plans.” Something about this bothered me. “If I were them, I’d be insulted—toiling away at a flower bed for hours and no one thinking I’d like to know the plan,” I said.

“Well, think about it—you’ve seen these people—do you really think most of them have any better way to spend their time? They don’t care—they’re just excited for something to do, whatever it is,” Myrtle said. “By the way, did you say something about your roommate being allergic to flowers? I could have sworn you keep telling me that.”

“Yeah, that’s right—Gertrude at least says she can’t be around any flowers. Why do you ask?”

“Because just before I left to come over here, I saw her parading down the street with her arms full of flowers,” Myrtle said. I had a suspicion of what was going on, but didn’t want to sound crazy, so I just laughed. “Well, that’s Gertrude for you, always up to something weird,” I said.

The rest of my walk home wasn’t as leisurely. I felt the flowers I had lined my small space with were being pulled away from me. I stopped seeing the plantings around trees, wondering why they suddenly dwindled, and then stopped altogether the closer I got to home. In fact, I saw no flowers of any kind except a young woman carrying a box out of an office building with a small green plant tucked inside. It had the look of a move-out box on her last day on the job. I then passed by the building where I used to work and saw people one after another passing through the automated security gates in the lobby. They reminded me of bees coming and going through the opening of a beehive. Every four or five of these people paused on the sidewalk outside to light a cigarette. I turned away to avoid taking in their smoke leftovers—carcinogen leftovers, actually.

The air seemed fresher locked up indoors. Sprawling indoor gardens were starting to make more sense than outdoor ones. “What a disgusting habit!” I said out loud as I passed by the smokers, turning my head and fanning my hand in front of my nose. They ignored me, figuring probably that I was just talking to someone on my cell phone. I also made the “tsk, tsk” sound and shook my head at some of them. They always ignored me, but I kept hoping at least one would see me and feel ashamed to be smoking. At the very least, shouldn’t they keep their smoke to themselves?

Every light holed me up on the way back to my apartment. I didn’t try to walk without the benefit of the red light, even when no cars were coming because I had a bad feeling I would turn my head for a split second and get slammed. Bicycles sped around me, running lights, skirting my heels, and I always seemed to be just in front of or just behind someone, as if I were part of a parade of marching circus animals. If I stopped short, the person behind me would crash into my back and I would bump hard into the person at the tips of my toes. I would be harassed forward if I kept going straight, so I veered off onto another street. It would take longer getting home, but at least I wouldn’t be part of the crowd. That crowd was too conjoined for me—I didn’t want to be one of its middle dominoes.

The rest of the way home, I ran around people blowing toxic smoke back at me (cigarettes again and the occasional cigar), sidestepped even on the sidewalk bicycle riders interspersed with scooters and a wad of still-sticky bright pink gum. I ducked to avoid a low-hanging branch loosened by a recent storm.

There was something soft, malleable and broken into bits I began feeling about five blocks from my apartment. I couldn’t tell what it was at first under my feet. It looked like shreds of bright pink, red, yellow, orange, purple and blue paper. I thought it was some kind of confetti or the remnants of a child’s art project. It was sticking to the bottom of my rubber-soled sandals. I picked up my foot and it looked like smudges or soft chunks of blood. But when I looked closer, I could see it wasn’t that either. I ran the outside of my index finger along the edge of these soft blots of red. They were flower petals, but most were not in tact—they were the shreds of petals. “And they’re just the colors I love!” I said out loud, though no one was listening. “The same colors I like to choose for my own flowers.”

The density of petals on the sidewalk grew thicker as I moved closer to Myrtle’s shop and my apartment. Other people were curious about it, too, and some were bent over picking up a petal and holding it to the light to inspect it. “Isn’t that weird?” I heard one older woman say to her husband. “I wonder if some trees in bloom got cut down near here so the petals blew over.”

As I walked further up I saw Myrtle outside her store talking to a few of the other shop owners in the neighborhood. She was laughing and shaking her head and pointing to a spot on the sidewalk where an old beach towel and a bottle of water had been left. “I’m telling you, you should have seen him go,” she said between peals of laughter. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Like what?” I said gently, trying to push my way into the circle of people she presided over. “Like what?”

“That weirdo who’s always sitting outside here,” she said, pointing to the spot where the beach towel and water bottle lay. “He just got up all of a sudden—with all these flowers—and started marching up and down the block shredding them, shredding them, I’m telling you.”

“Shredding what?” I said. Myrtle looked at me like I was dumb or being facetious. “Shredding what? Shredding flowers—look around you—they’re everywhere. All those flowers I brought him that I was going to get rid of anyway and gave him—he shredded them. Oh, and your roommate, that ditz helped him out, I should tell you.”

“Gertrude? What could she do?” I said. “Well,” Mytrle said, flipping her hair and acting like she was re-telling a story on a comedy show, “She gave him a ton of flowers to shred. They didn’t all come from the end-of-day flowers I gave him—nope, they weren’t all end-of-the-day flowers at all.”

I had a sinking feeling, but at the same time, I wasn’t all that surprised—as if I just should have known better. Gertrude wasn’t such a nice person that she wouldn’t get back at me for carving out a garden in my room—with the door kept closed, no less. I saw her then coming up the sidewalk, in her home-on-the-couch look—yoga pants, t-shirt, dry, bleached hair pulled into a pony tail and long acrylic nails curled under into her palm. She was smiling, but looking down. I kept walking toward her, but she kept looking down and then up toward the roofs of buildings, that same smile remaining and then moving to more of a half smile or nervous smirk. “Gertrude,” I said as I got closer to her, “Gertrude.” She finally looked directly at me, squinting like the sun was in her eyes, though it had become cloudy. “Oh, I didn’t see you,” she said. “I was just taking the trash out, and thought I’d get rid of some things—“

“Like my flowers!” I said. “You gave that bum my flowers!” Gertrude looked off again at the tops of the buildings and then down at our feet. Eventually she looked sidelong at me. “Actually, I just threw them out—in the dumpster, here, she said, gesturing behind at the small white dumpster with garbage cans inside, which our building used. “He must have fished them out of there.” This made me even angrier than if she had bequeathed the flowers to the beggar. The thoughtless dumping of the flowers was far worse. “Well, the thing is, I asked you this morning to get rid of them, and then if you weren’t, to get me the humidifier my doctor recommended, and then I didn’t see you until just now, so I didn’t know what to do. My throat was starting to get sore,” Gertrude whined.

I couldn’t stand looking at her anymore, and thought a donation of her furniture and keepsakes to the dumpster, or maybe directly to the flower beggar, would be a good idea. He had resumed his post among the shredded flowers, yet among the bounty of his shredded collection, he asked for more. The people who had congregated to marvel at the petal-covered sidewalk had dispersed, and Myrtle was back inside her shop. The beggar sat cross-legged opposite with that hand of his still extended to those who passed within or without.

I forgot Gertrude for a moment and stomped over to the flower beggar. “Stop asking for flowers!” I nearly screamed at him with passersby turning around for a second, probably thinking I was his fellow mentally ill homeless person. “Why are you asking for them anyway? I felt bad for you at first. But it looks like all you want is to shred them, so why should anyone help you?” He just smiled and cocked his head like a dog at me. “Please,” he said, pointing at the flowers in Myrtle’s window. “Please.” He either didn’t speak English or he was mentally impaired—maybe even a little retarded. “Is it an experimental art project? Is that what all this is?” If it was art, I would accept it, but waste with no art was intolerable.

It was then that I got my idea. I ran into Myrtle’s shop and asked to borrow a vase, and then began collecting the petals from the sidewalk. I wasn’t an artist, but maybe I could glue them to a board of thick paper and create a collage of some kind. Attention diverted from the beggar to me, and I heard laughing and saw people turn their heads toward me even as they walked away, as if they couldn’t get enough of the strangeness of a woman collecting shredded flowers from a sidewalk. Was it that strange? “What are you doing?” Myrtle asked me, nudging my shoulder. “What are you bothering with those for?”

“Just my own personal salvage operation,” I said, trying to laugh to seem casual. “I thought maybe I could glue them to some kind of artsy paper and make a collage or abstract design somehow.”

Myrtle started to laugh, full-throated and even bent over because she thought it was just too hilarious. “I didn’t know you were an artist!” she said, “I guess we better call MoMa—sounds like something up their ally, you never know.”

“Ha, ha,” I said. “It’s just something I want to do—as long as they’re lying here on the sidewalk going to waste.”

But Myrtle kept laughing and the beggar even started smiling, while keeping his hand extended. “I got more for you, don’t you worry,” Myrtle said to him. “You can shred all the flowers you want—I can’t keep them forever—I have to trash some of them eventually anyway.”

I fixed my eyes on the bright shreds of my bouquet on the sidewalk, collecting it piece by piece—the beggar waiting, hand outstretched for more to collect and tear apart; Myrtle laughing as she bundled together out-going flowers.

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Chrysanthemums

flowersI set aside the yellow chrysanthemums and wondered about the oranges, reds and purples. They were arranged one on each step to our house and I thought the colors should be coordinated like an outfit of clothing. Greg, my housemate, didn’t like the care I took with the chrysanthemums every year because he considered them out-of-season flowers—because they were flowers that bloomed in fall rather than in spring or summer. “What are you doing?” he would snap at me. “Didn’t you do enough gardening this summer?”

He didn’t appreciate the full growing season, thinking it should be confined to April or May through the beginning of September and then be done. I tried also explaining crocuses to him, which he saw himself every year in March but dismissed as weeds. He was on the fence about daffodils.

So, while he fixated on changing all our light bulbs to ones he called “energy efficient,” which I called less flattering and more garish, I arranged the chrysanthemums wondering how best to show them off.

Just as I decided to place the purple up top, then the orange and then maybe the bluish followed by the pink and yellow, Greg appeared at the top of the stone steps in a t-shirt and track pants. I always wondered why he didn’t just wear jeans. Was it to give the impression that he was fitter than he really was?  He wasn’t fat, but maybe he liked people thinking he was either about to leave for the gym or just back from a rough workout. He blamed me for liking Hershey bars better than gyms, though I have no idea why. I wasn’t fat either—and with much less effort than he exerted. Why blame me for having a smarter way of living?

“The chrysanthemums again?” he said. “I thought you were done with those and were going to help me change out the light bulbs.”

“I don’t like the light bulbs you bought—and I don’t care about whether they’re better for the environment or more economical. I think the lighting tones they give off are less pleasant than the old bulbs. So, since you’re taking away a little beauty from my life I thought I would concentrate on the beauty I still have control over.”

When I agreed to be Greg’s housemate a few years ago I had no idea he thought efficiency was a good idea over comfort and that he wasn’t tuned into daffodils, tulips, peonies, lilacs, lilies, roses and, especially, chrysanthemums. The whole season built up to them and they were such a soft-spoken, unostentatious, flower. I appreciated that they didn’t take advantage of their end-of-season status to flaunt themselves like a rose. They were outside nearly every shop door and many houses by the middle of October, but they weren’t glamorous. Nobody chooses chrysanthemums for their wedding reception.

Greg laughed and began pointing at dandelions left over from the summer. “What about those?  How do weeds fit into the ‘beauty?’” He liked to look me up and down while he talked, but not in an admiring way—more like an insurance rep who visits a house after a disaster and eyes everything up and down affixing costs here and there.

“Actually, I don’t consider dandelions weeds. I always thought they were misclassified,” I said.

He snickered but I pretended to ignore him and just smiled in return. It was unfortunate that three years after agreeing to share the house (he the first floor; I the second with shared access to the kitchen, living room, garage and outdoor spaces) we still lived alongside one another. I commiserated with the dandelions. They were called weeds because they found themselves growing on the outskirts of someone’s doorstep. They were like flowers except nobody planned for them. My big hope was Greg’s love of adhering to society-approved timelines and the fact that he just turned 36 would mean he’d finally propose to his girlfriend and move out.

“How’s it going with Stephanie?” I said. “If you don’t speed it up and claim her she’ll find somebody else.”

“I don’t know—we’ll see. I’m thinking about it.”

It wasn’t like he was a treasure—balding with glasses and on the short side—so I couldn’t imagine what was keeping him from asking his kind, decently attractive (though admittedly not beautiful) girlfriend to marry him. It’s not like he had a line of girls waiting to go out with him.

“If you think about it for too long, she’ll find somebody else,” I snapped.

He laughed as if to say he didn’t care, and walked back into the house leaving me with my chrysanthemum companions. Stephanie would be over later so I thought I might plant a seed in her mind about leaving him. His lack of appreciation of chrysanthemums and dandelions and the whole growth cycle indicted him as a person who didn’t appreciate wildlife and nature. Did such a person deserve to be given a mate and probably children? That would put him fully in synch with the natural cycle of life, death and reproduction.  He didn’t recognize the beauty of the natural world, so was that something he deserved?

On the other hand, a conventional thinker like that could hope for nothing more than marriage. I imagined marriage as a locked tree house from the male perspective. The roaming bird, haphazardly dropping seeds here and there, seemed the true male mentality. If you have that mindset, what could be worse than being tied down to one place, one person, one garden?

As I heard Greg pattering around the kitchen opening his energy drink-in-a-can, I wondered if the chrysanthemums regretted their pots. It wasn’t like I put them there—I purchased the chrysanthemums already in their golden brass-looking pots. But maybe energy-wise they counted the pots against me. I also wondered whether I was receiving bad energy from the chrysanthemums for not planting them myself—enjoying them without having grown them.

The chrysanthemums only had about three weeks left before the first serious frost would come and shrivel them up, so I thought the right color arrangement was important—like a dying person dressing up to her best since she would want to look good for whatever time she had left.

“I thought you were going to dust,” Greg yelled from the kitchen.

“The chrysanthemums are more important, and I don’t have time to do both,” I said.  “I suppose when this latest blooming season is over, I’ll have no excuse so I’ll have to take care of the dust so it doesn’t interfere with your energy drink regimen.”

“I’m allergic to dust,” he said sniffling dramatically enough that you could almost hear the phlegm going down his throat. “It makes me sick.”

I laughed not to be spiteful but because I really thought it was funny that he was that weak and prissy-ish that he couldn’t stand a little dust. And that he was so petty that he wouldn’t then just pitch in and take care of it himself. When we first became housemates we decided on a division of household chores. Dusting was in my column. He would rather sniffle and choke on his own phlegm than deviate from our assignments.

“Oh, that’s a shame,” I said. “It’s awful not to feel well, isn’t it? I think I’d like to spend more time with the chrysanthemums. I’ll let you know when Stephanie gets here.” His girlfriend was due to arrive in the next hour or so for their weekly Saturday night date.

Stephanie usually wore the same thing every Saturday—tight skinny jeans with an animal print top of some kind. She was a girl who loved efficiency and since she liked animal prints she decided her days-off outfits should be comprised of nothing but designer skinny jeans, various animal print tops—leopard, zebra, giraffe, even cow—paired with a selection of $400+ designer high heels. She said it simplified her life to have this animal print-skinny jean-designer shoe algorithm that she could just plug in to quickly put together an outfit for her leisure hours. Her work hours—as a financial consultant—were spent in pants suits in various colors—red, navy blue, pink, even purplish—with the same high heels she wore during her leisure hours and a variety of decorative silk scarves (paisley, floral, striped, collage, etc.). Her goal was to eliminate the need to think about anything other than what she considered the substance of her days—her work and her quest to get married by the age of 30. She had latched onto Greg because, because, because—well, I’m not sure. I suppose because he was her romantic equivalent of what college seniors call the “safety school,” meaning a man who fit the general profile she was looking for, and was acceptable even if he wasn’t her first choice, or even her second or third choice. Who had time for all that choosiness anyway?

The Chrysanthemums’ petals retained their color. Until they shriveled up after the first deep frost, they would keep it pretty well. At that point, you could still see their colors but their ends would be tinged with brown. It was mid-October, so I thought they might have another month. After the shriveling would come the potpourri stage, when I would collect whatever was left of the colorful petals and throw them in with other petals I had collected from earlier blooming cycles of the year and add pine chips.

Just then I heard Stephanie’s SUV coming up our gravel driveway. She was driving the way she usually did—tentatively. She was going at exactly a mid-range speed for driveway travel, careful not to so much as skim the grass at the perimeter of the gravel. It was a snow leopard day as she emerged from the car with the white and black pattern of the cardigan offset by a red-pink silk scarf and silver stiletto heels beneath her weekend skinny jeans. As she came closer to where I stood on the cement steps, I pretended to be paying most of my attention to the chrysanthemums. I hated that long interlude between the time you see someone walking toward you from far away and when they get to within the zone of hearing and communicating right in front of you. I never know if I’m supposed to wave at them from afar and then continue to stare at them smiling and seeming interested or whether I’m supposed to smile, nod and ignore. So, I just pretended to labor over chrysanthemum decision-making until I heard her heels click close enough for us to talk.

“Hi!  How’s it going?” Stephanie said as she made her way to my chrysanthemums on the steps and me hovering over them. “Oh, hi there, Stephanie! I like that you’re a snow leopard today. Gold and black leopards get all the attention. It’s time the snow leopard had his day.”

Stephanie laughed, but mostly just to be polite. Greg told me that she thought I was strange and didn’t get my humor. I didn’t worry much about that because I couldn’t bear to make small talk. So, I just tried to be nice, but as myself rather than as a person she wouldn’t find strange.

“Is Greg around?” she said. “I’m a little earlier than usual so I wasn’t sure.”

“Yeah, he’s brooding over his energy drink because he’s angry that I’ve neglected my dusting duties in favor of the chrysanthemum tending and color coordination you see I’m involved with. I guess that’s something to look forward to—the luxury of staying on top of the dust if the two of you eventually move in together.”

Stephanie laughed again and looked past me into the house. “Yeah, I guess I’m kind of a neat freak. I thought the two of you had worked out a shared housekeeping schedule for the common areas,” she said.

“We did, but unlike you, I don’t owe him anything so if I happen to rather spend time with chrysanthemums than with a dusting rag or a sponge, that’s what I do,” I pointed out, smiling proudly. I got lonely sometimes but liked that I wasn’t beholden to anyone except the gardens I created.

Stephanie continued her perfunctory social laughter. “It’s not that bad. I like to keep things tidy, too, so I’m not doing anything I wouldn’t do on my own.”

“I guess you could say the two of you came together over your shared love of the tidy,” I said. I looked at her and giggled and then stooped over the crysanthemums again tinkering with the arrangement of colors, wanting each color to set off perfectly both the color above and below it. I knew they were the last of the season’s flowers, so I wanted to make the most of them. I kept thinking how awful it would be to be a crystanthemum and have colors that didn’t suit me surrounding my pot on all sides.

“Yep, I guess so,” she said. “You know, I think I’m going to go in if you don’t mind and see if I can find Greg.”

“Sure, maybe you can help him with his energy drink,” I said. The chrysanthemums seemed to be aligned properly now color-wise, so I started futzing with each of the flowers in each of the vases. I didn’t want any to be twisted, with chrysanthemum stems tangled. Integrity of the stems was important to me, with each stem set apart from the others even as they all shared the same pot and the same colors within that pot.

I thought maybe each pot of flowers would last longer if the bounty were even side-to-side rather than lopsided, though I knew there was no scientific evidence to back that up. One idea I had that I thought I might follow through with that afternoon was mixing colors within the same pot. So, instead of having orange crysanthemums on the top step, followed by purple, then blue, then pink, I would bleed some orange into the purple pot and some purple into the blue pot and some blue into the pink pot, and then mix things up even further by, say, taking some blue and putting it in the orange pot along with the orange and purple and just keep mixing everything up. But to do that I would have to start ripping up the stems from the roots and turning the pots into vases rather than planters.

“I think you can still go out without your gray pants,” I heard Stephanie say from the kitchen. The screen door was drawn to take advantage of the mild autumn day, so it was perfect for eavesdropping, or impossible to escape private noise, depending on how you looked at it.

“Well, the only other pair of pants I have that’s clean are my jeans, and I don’t feel comfortable going to that restaurant in jeans,” Greg said.

“I’m in jeans,” Stephanie pointed out, laughing. “What difference does it make?”

“Yeah, but it’s different—women can get away with it. Besides, those are designer jeans. Mine are working-in-the-garage jeans.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” Stephanie said. “Of course you just don’t want to go. It’s like last year when you said you couldn’t go to church because you didn’t have the right kind of dress pants, and that you didn’t want buy cheap dress pants and so you wanted to wait until you got your end-of-the-year bonus to splurge on a designer suit. The end of the year came and you never got the suit and finally admitted that you just didn’t want to go. If you don’t like the places we go, why don’t you just say so?”

“I like the places we go—I’m just not able to dress for those places tonight.”

Luckily, the chrysanthemums were always dressed appropriately, so I was glad I didn’t have to worry about their wardrobes. I had friends who fretted about what they would wear, but what do you do with a man who uses wardrobe deficiencies as an excuse to get out of things you feel like doing? I admired the chrysanthemums’ colors. They only had one season but they always were attired perfectly. Their colors went well with the oranges, reds, yellows and the remaining greens of mid-October and November and if the season was colder than usual and the leaves just turned brown or fell off early, the brightness of the chrysanthemums offered a colorful counterpoint. Greg, on the other hand, was Stephanie’s stripped tree—a tree that night that had lost its foliage and had nothing else charming, like, say, a fresh coat of new snow, to compensate for its barren offering.

“Oh, alright,” Stephanie snapped. “Just put on your jeans and we’ll figure out someplace else to go.” With that she stamped outside and came to sit on the steps with me and the chrysanthemums. I decided to just admit I’d heard everything because it would be phony not to, and, plus, she knew I was right outside the screen door. And on top of that, she and Greg knew one of my favorite pastimes was eavesdropping.

“It’s hard when there’s a shortage of gray slacks, huh Stephanie?” I said hoping to make her smile, though kind of enjoying their argument.

“Yeah, right,” she said, smiling and giving one of her social laughs. “He’s absolutely ridiculous!  If doesn’t want to go someplace why doesn’t he just say so?”

“That’s Greg for you,” I said. “I don’t even like sharing a kitchen, dining room and livingroom with him, so I can’t imagine spending a life with him. I shouldn’t say this, of course, but to be entirely honest—and I’ve told him this directly already—I think he’s awful,” I said.

Stephanie grinned but didn’t bother with her social laugh this time. She was just trying to meet her age 30 deadline and time was running out. It was pretty much the same as having a week before a big splashy affair you’re obligated to attend yet have no dress or partner for. Now it was a week before the big party and she was racing around forcing herself into whatever “gowns” she could find. I would say she was at the stage where she was ready to just start dialing names out of an alumni association directory along with squeezing herself into a gown that didn’t fit, but she showed enough reservation that there seemed to be still a chance she would decide not to attend after all.

“Well not that bad,” she said staring at the orange chrysanthemums. “He can be insensitive and maybe doesn’t think as much as he should, but he’s not a bad person. Remember the starving raccoon he fed?”

I had to control myself to only chuckle at that one. Greg had discovered a skinny raccoon late one night in our driveway, so he crept into the neighbor’s driveway (a neighbor he couldn’t stand) and opened up the neighbor’s garbage can, scattering empty or half-eaten cartons of food out toward near where the raccoon was wandering so the raccoon would encamp in the neighbor’s driveway for a feast. The raccoon was still wreaking havoc on the neighbor more than six months later. I told all this to Stephanie.

“Huh, that’s strange,” Stephanie said after I told her the true story. “He told me how sad the skinny raccoon made him, and how he just wanted to do something to help. I thought maybe he was becoming more sensitive.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I said. I wondered why Stephanie was so intent on the orange chrysanthemums, while she could see how I toiled to coordinate the colors on all the steps rather than fixating on one pot. If I could have pulled up the chrysanthemums by the roots without killing them, I would have interspersed the colors, cross-coloring all the pots rather than leaving each one with just one solid hue.

“I know you’re about to turn 30, but who cares? You could pass Greg by and keep on looking,” I said.

“You don’t understand,” she said, rubbing her fingers along the stems of the chrysanthemums and keeping her eyes away from me. “My mother won’t leave me alone about this. She just keeps hounding me about making plans to get married. She even roped me into asking Greg along on a cruise I was going to take alone with my her and my dad.”

“I never understood why some parents care so much about their children getting married by a certain age,” I said. “Is it because they’re worried about passing on their genes, or is it more because they’re worried their children will be misfits if they don’t get married by around 30?”

She looked at me with an annoyed expression and rolled her eyes. “Well,” she said irritably. “I think they’re just worried about me. They don’t want me to miss out on anything.”

The chrysanthemums next to us were now perfectly color coordinated and were flourishing in their individual pots. They didn’t have knowledge that it was mid-October and if they did have that knowledge I don’t think they would have done anything different. Was it because they didn’t have to worry about finding a mate, or because they had knowledge programmed into their stems that they should just grow according to their internal selves while taking whatever they could from the climate surrounding them to thrive even more?

“Too bad you can’t just be like chrysanthemums,” I said. She laughed probably thinking I was just joking. But, actually, I saw chrysanthemums as a good model for Stephanie, and especially, for her mother. They needed a reminder from beings in tune with the environment as a whole yet unworried about the growth patterns surrounding them. They grew unto themselves, not caring how I color coordinated them or whether they bloomed too late or too early this year to serve as decoration.

“You think so much of flowers and animals, but you know the only reason they don’t do the things you don’t like is because they don’t have the power of reasoning,” Stephanie said.

That was funny to me. The idea that if chrysanthemums could reason they would worry about getting invitations to cocktail parties or be consumed with worry that the right honey bees weren’t coming around or that the trees and shrubbery surrounding them weren’t pruned in a stylish way. Or, in the animal world, that my cat, Halgar, would be embarrassed because he was caught eating a cheap brand of tuna fish.

“I think the peace of chrysanthemums and other plants and animals like Halgar has more to do with a deep-seeded, intuitive synchronicity with the natural world. They’re oriented strictly toward what’s inside them and what comes naturally to them. They focus on whether they want to lie in the sun or, if they’re a flower, which direction to turn their heads to face the sun. Or they focus on whether they’re hungry or tired. It never gets beyond the primal with them, and that doesn’t make them less. It makes them more,” I said.

“I think wanting to mate and reproduce is very primal,” Stephanie pointed out.

“Well, that’s true, except you’ve said yourself that you don’t like children much and that you’re mainly concerned with your mother pressuring you.”

“I never said I don’t like children. I just said that I don’t go crazy for them and I’m not mainly concerned with my mother pressuring me. It just happens to be on my mind a lot lately,” she said.

“Well, whatever the case, I wouldn’t worry about an arbitrary deadline like age 30 if I were you—even if your mother threatens to throw you overboard on the cruise she’s forcing you to invite Greg along on.” I laughed and felt bad about it, but with the freedom of chrysanthemums before me, I found it funny that this girl sitting on the outskirts of my fall garden was consumed with deadlines related to her age and her mother’s opinion. The seasons speak for themselves and you can either tap into what grows during that particular cycle and look forward to the next growing cycle or you can glower about the flowers that either won’t grow that season or whose season has already past. In any case, it didn’t make sense to me to worry about forcing something to grow that wasn’t. If whatever you wanted wouldn’t grow, it wouldn’t grow. Forcing it would be like expecting a rose to grow in your back yard in October while overlooking the ease of chrysanthemums.

From the kitchen, just inside the screen door, we heard Greg fumbling around the cabinets, swearing to himself. Who knew making a peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich could be so frustrating? His deliberation of the dress pants complete, he decided that he would have a sandwich with his energy drink to tide him over until he and Stephanie could get to a suitably casual restaurant or find a place they liked that was willing to deliver.

“I guess I better go in there and show him where you keep the extra crunchy peanut butter. It’s funny. I don’t even live here and I know how you organize your kitchen cabinets. He’s been sharing a kitchen with you for the past three years and he still can’t get it through his head,” she said irritably.

“I guess that gives you a preview of your married life,” I laughed. Stephanie didn’t seem to find that funny. Not bothering with her social laugh, she got up and turned on her designer heels to break through the peanut butter and jelly impasse.

“To the right of the refrigerator,” I heard Stephanie say. “No, not the bottom shelf, the top one. You’ve been sharing a kitchen with her for three years now, how do you not know where the peanut butter is?”

Greg laughed a little in a quick, huffy sort of way, the way a person laughs when he only finds something funny because it makes him mad or bitter. But why be bitter over elusive peanut butter?

“It’s not just the peanut butter, it’s everything,” Stephanie said. “How do you live alongside another person for years and not observe their personal habits, likes and dislikes? After three years you don’t know her any better than a person would know a passerby in an airport.“

“Are you saying I’m stupid?” he said.

“No, obviously you don’t have a mental impairment—you’re better at a lot of things than I am. But when it comes to other people, you don’t seem to retain information.”

“I retain what’s important to me,” he said. “I know how much she spends on groceries every week, picking out the stuff I tell her specifically not to. In fact, I think I’m finally going to insist that we keep separate groceries in the kitchen—maybe we’ll mark off my milk from hers; my Cheerios from hers; my butter from hers; my Palmolive from hers with stickers.”

I had to cover my mouth at that point to avoid making my eavesdropping obvious by laughing. If it weren’t for my laziness alongside my love of the garden, I really would have left our shared arrangement a long time ago. On top of that, I was hoping he was one of those people in my life who would eventually remove himself with no effort required on my part. Unfortunately, I was learning that most of the people I didn’t like in this world outlasted me. So, we were really going to have duplicates of peanut butter; duplicates of jam; duplicates of orange juice; duplicates of rye bread. We couldn’t meld so we would duplicate.

Even Stephanie laughed—and her true high-pitched rolling laugh, not her controlled mono-chuckle. “Well, I think that’s taking it a little far, don’t you think?”

“No, I think I’ve tolerated her grocery preferences over my specific requests long enough,” he said, “and I’m pissed.”

I never knew, staring at the chrysanthemums and already anticipating the spring buds (even in late October) that my choice of dishwasher detergent was so upsetting, that maybe I was even causing an existential crisis over it or precipitating a fight between Greg and Stephanie that might blow the whole thing up.

“It’s really not worth getting upset about,” said Stephanie irritably. “And, actually if you paid as much attention as even I’ve noticed just coming over here on the weekends, you would have gotten by now that she has a system for where she keeps things that’s been exactly the same for the last three years.”

“We’re not talking about that now,” he said. “We’re talking about her buying things—brands—that I’ve told her I don’t want her buying with our shared kitchen budget because they’re too expensive.”

There was a long pause at that point and I could hear Stephanie’s heels tapping the floor. She may have been anxiously pacing back and forth trying to figure out whether to continue arguing with an ass for another couple of years—or a lifetime—or whether to cut her losses and walk out.

“I’m not sure what bothers me more—the petty cheapness or the fact that after three years you still don’t know this person you’ve been sharing living space with,” Stephanie said.

“I know the people I like,” he said.

“And what do you have against chrysanthemums?” Stephanie asked. “She said you don’t want her keeping them on the steps up to the front door and that you don’t think they’re legitimate flowers.”

“They’re alright. I just don’t see why anyone would want to bother with flowers in October. She sits out there on the front steps with those flowers like it’s May or June. It’s the fall, so why bother?”

“Flowers bloom all the way from March through the end of October around here,” Stephanie said. “It’s more than just the spring and summer.”

“Fuck the flowers” he snapped. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s dumb. You’re starting to sound like her.”

My coordination of chrysanthemum colors was nearly complete. I was satisfied that as Greg and Stephanie or Greg then Stephanie or Stephanie then Greg stomped down the stone stairs in a few moments they would pass by a perfect cascade of fall colors.

There was a long silence in which I wondered if there was crying going on that I couldn’t hear from my stone steps or whether the two of them had locked eyes, decided they didn’t care about their differences and embraced. The flowers’ colors in my peripheral vision were calming as I stared at the screen door wondering if anyone would pass through to me on the steps. I had anxiety about denouements. I seemed to prefer long, drawn-out, suppressed sadness to heightened bursts of emotion. Feeling in the middle of the fall was comforting because even if Greg and Stephanie had a horrible climax of emotion in which everything toppled, I was immersed in the seasonal, an unending cycle.

After a few minutes I heard the clattering of Stephanie’s heels followed by the lighter tapping of Greg’s sneakers and moved back from the screen door, pretending to inspect the chrysanthemums. They knew I was eavesdropping but I thought it would be rude to not pretend to try to cover it up.

Both of their faces were inscrutable, though I’m pretty sure they weren’t elated or relieved. They both had what I called stone faces on them as they brushed past me. I smiled feigning sympathy at Stephanie, but she walked past me without acknowledgement. Greg, on the other hand, stooped down suddenly, tore out a couple of chrysanthemums from each pot and with at least five of the flowers in hand snorted loud enough to startle Stephanie and I. “Now they’re good for something,” he said handing them to Stephanie and snickering at me: “Cut myself a slice of your garden. Oh, yeah, nice colors,” he added laughing, as he pulled Stephanie in the car and the two of them drove off.

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You Birthed That Skin

The gilt mirrors surrounded Cynthia and the eight bridesmaids and one junior bridesmaid, a slight Asian child of around 12 who bounced up and down and smiled to her mother about her dress’s “tail.” The bridesmaids, an offset of the local Junior League, were clothed in lime green chiffon. The maid of honor was skeletal with the studded joints of her spine visible and her collarbone-length light blond hair turned perfectly under like a tight roll of toilet paper or the curled-under edge of a ready-made pie crust. The other seven bridesmaids were less coiffed but aligned enough to mostly remember the parts of their uniforms they were responsible for—short strands of pearls, pearl stud earrings and short silver heels.

The bride, Madison Powell, meanwhile, posed in front of one of several free-standing full length mirrors looking up and down again at a book cover in her hand. “On a scale of one to 10, how much do I look like her?” she asked. The book, “The Bridesmaids,” was the story of Grace Kelly’s wedding and featured a photo on the cover of Kelly with her attendants. Nobody had the heart to tell her that despite nailing the hair color and having about equal height, there wasn’t much in her face reminiscent of the Princess of Monaco. She had a similar complexion and eye color maybe.

“Oh, definitely, I can really see it,” Ashley, a chunky, olive-complexioned bridesmaid said, patting Madison on the shoulder. Ashley considered Madison her style advisor and may have been the only one able to believe Madison bore a small resemblance to Grace Kelly. She taught Madison how to cook and provided the steadying influence Madison’s mother wanted when she pressured her daughter to join the Junior League. Luckily, Ashley wasn’t secure with her figure and didn’t care about fashion, so Madison was able to play the superior role in at least one area of their relationship.

Then there was the bridesmaid, Lara, who had bullied her way into the bridal party throwing a tantrum when a month went by after the announcement of the engagement and no bridesmaid request was made. Cynthia, seated on a folding chair at the edge of the room so as not to disrupt the preparations, overheard Madison complain to Ashley that Lara had been tipsy and kept asking one of the other bridesmaids whether her husband had “jizz” on his tie. “Can you believe that?” Madison said. “She’s just so jealous of married people she’ll do anything to annoy us. If I had known this was the way she would be, I never would have asked her. I just felt sorry for her.”

Every once and a while Madison would pat Cynthia’s arm or shoulder in passing and smile. “It’s so great to have you here!” she would say. “Ashley, have you met my dear friend Cynthia?” She would smile then sympathetically in Cynthia’s direction and then return to her preparations. Her sisters-in-law had just arrived—also bridesmaids—one about 25 with black curlicue hair and at least 50 pounds overweight; the other a petite, golden-skinned college freshman with tidy straight brown hair. The groom’s mother accompanied them, and it seemed the older, more portly of her daughters took after her. “Do you mind, hon?” she said to Cynthia. “Could you spray my skirt with Static-Guard?” Cynthia smiled as graciously as she could muster and made a circle around the mother-of-the-groom spraying gluey-smelling Static-Guard as she went. “Thanks,” mother-of-the-groom laughed self-consciously.

Cynthia was off to the side in the folding chair, up against the wall, her back to one of the mirrors surrounding the room. But she was called on repeatedly. If not to Static Guard mother-of-the groom then to hold the bouquet or to hold a piece of a skirt’s train up while a shoe was put on or a tight corner was negotiated. She had come from New York City to Chicago for the wedding and had been asked at the last minute, the night before, if she would be interested in spending the morning before the wedding with the women of the bride’s side of the wedding party as they got their makeup done. She and Madison had been close friends for 10 years, and with the exception of two of the nine bridesmaids, she had never heard about or seen any of these girls before. If they were such good friends that Madison wanted them to stand by her side at her wedding, wouldn’t Cynthia have heard of them before?

Madison was now walking back and forth in front of one wall’s series of mirrors trying to imagine what the guests at the church would see as she walked down the aisle. “I look like a fashionable bride, right?” she asked Lara who was concerned with the assessment of her own rump. “Definitely! I wouldn’t worry—you look great!” Lara said.

Madison didn’t bother to return the compliment to Lara who kept looking at herself in profile and twisting around to try to see what she looked like from the rear. Instead, Madison began to make lunch plans. “Hey everyone, I’m going to order pizza for lunch, but not that thick Chicago-style pizza—I’m going to get skinny pizza—the kind with the super-thin crust,” she said. After all, she didn’t want to give the impression to her Junior League friends of a person who took didn’t take the dangers of deep-dish pizza seriously.

“Hey, Cynthia, come sit with us,” Madison gestured offering Cynthia a seat with the bridesmaids in the middle of the room. “I was just telling Ashley that you also spent some time down South.” Ashley was from Birmingham, Ala., and Cynthia guessed that Madison thought geography was the only thing Cynthia could possibly have in common with Ashley.

“Yeah, I went to the University of Georgia, and really liked it. It was a culture shock, but really interesting to live in another part of the country.

“I’ll bet,” said Ashley. “But I wouldn’t know—I’ve lived in Birmingham my whole life—though I did help start a new chapter of my sorority at Ole Miss and so spent a few months in Oxford, Miss. I took a trip to Europe with my family last year.” Cynthia laughed socially and smiled. “Wow, that sounds great going to Europe with your family.”

The slow-going conversation was interrupted by a long-sleeved, bright coral thin figure. With a wan, drawn face and short feathery blond hair, Madison’s mother had arrived. A bottle of chilled Chardonnay was waiting for her in a nearby refrigerator because that was one of Abigail Powell’s expectations—that whenever possible chilled wine be waiting upon her arrival. She had a facelift and microdermabrasion 10 years earlier to un-crease and smooth out her face, but the 10 pounds she lost on an already slender frame left her face gaunt and hollow. “Cynthia, nice to see you,” Abigail said. “It’s been a while. How are you doing? How are your parents?”

Cynthia smiled, suspecting she wasn’t a favorite of Abigail’s. “Nice to see you, too. We’re all doing good. Just enjoying life in the Village,” she said.

“Oh, are you still ‘single in the city?’” said Abigail.

“Yeah, still living the life of the single girl,” said Cynthia.  Abigail shot looks to Madison every minute or so with raised eyebrows.

Cynthia excused herself back to the mirrored room’s periphery. “Sorry, but I have to make a phone call,” she said backing away. She looked directly at Abigail and smiled again while pulling back. Abigail and Madison continued to exchange looks with Abigail shaking her head and patting Madison’s hand. Cynthia looked away toward the periphery of mirrors and saw herself at the corner and the bridesmaid-strangers toward the center framed by yet another circle of mirrors—free-standing head-to-toe mirrors. Madison’s rotund, frazzled-gray-haired future mother-in-law and the younger, prettier of her daughters were getting primped by the make-up artist. The make-up artist was taken by the daughter’s smooth golden skin. “Not a blemish. Gorgeous,” the woman said. One of Madison’s aunts laughed knowingly and patted the mother-in-law-to-be’s shoulder: “You birthed that skin!”

Cynthia laughed to herself thinking how interesting an anthropologist would find the bridesmaids preparation room with an aunt congratulating the mother-of-the-groom for “birthing” the skin of her daughter. The daughter just smiled smugly and nearly winked at herself in the mirror. More bridesmaids had filtered into the room in the meantime—one a woman with the kind of vaguely brownish purple hair that can occur when a home hair dying job goes bad. This woman Cynthia remembered as Julie, an old roommate of Madison’s who she thought had done enough to wipe her name off the bridesmaids roster. She had borrowed Madison’s computer to send e-mails to her friends making fun of Madison. Cynthia, who happened to be living for free in another apartment pet sitting for a friend, had given her room next door to Madison so she could escape from living with Julie. Cynthia became anxious and began slowing making a circle around the room passing varying images of herself as the mirrors all seemed to have a slightly different shapes and were under slightly different lighting. There she was bright and skinny and here she was wide-set with shadows under her eyes and there she was washed out by a stray white light. The girls she passed checked out their rear views, how they looked in profile, how their calves looked peeping out from under their lime green chiffon and even how they looked side-by-side to gauge how they would look in group pictures and maybe secretly to see how they each looked compared to one another.

Madison and her mother were still seated at the center of the room talking in soft tones when Madison’s eye caught Cynthia’s. “Hey there, you!” she said playfully. “What are you doing walking around in circles?” Abigail frowned raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips. “Just stretching my legs, I guess,” said Cynthia. “Getting a sense of the scene so I’ll always remember it—it must be the writer in me.”

Madison looked sympathetically at Cynthia realizing maybe for the first time that her “dear friend” had spent much of the day as the sole observer rather than as a participant. “I’ve hardly had a chance to talk to you,” said Madison. “Are you having fun?” Cynthia smiled and nodded. “It’s been interesting watching everyone get ready,” she said.

“Well, actually,” said Madison, “I have a job for you—if you don’t mind. I’d like you to hand out the programs.”

“Sure, I would be honored,” she said. Cynthia stared awkwardly at Madison after that waiting for her to pick up the conversation.

“So, how do you like my friends?” Madison asked her.

“They’re nice, but—but, it’s weird, I mean, I’ve never heard you talk about them before,” Cynthia said. Madison smiled at Cynthia and cocked her head like a person talking to a slow child.

“The Junior League. I met them through the Junior League. We get together sometimes, we—”

Abigail cut in then: “They have a lot in common. Madison has a lot in common with those girls.” Cynthia smiled again and nodded.

“It’s funny. People used to say that we sound exactly alike,” Cynthia pointed out to Madison and her mother who looked back at her with blank stone faces. “Anyway, it’s just funny, I’ve never heard you talk about them before.”

Madison began fidgeting in her seat and her face became flushed while she and her mother kept exchanging looks. “Well, you’re one of my closest friends who doesn’t live in Chicago,” she said. “I never wanted to have nine bridesmaids, you know, I—“ Abigail reached out and squeezed her daughter’s wrist. “Remember what Dr. Samuels said,” she whispered. Cynthia ordinarily would have pretended not to have heard, but her feelings were hurt at having been suddenly pushed to the periphery of her once close friend’s social circle. “Madison, who’s Dr. Samuels? Is that your new psychologist?” Madison smiled and didn’t seem too embarrassed.

“How did you know? It’s like I told you, Mom, Cynthia can always—“

“Well, I know you like to see psychologists and I didn’t think anything was physically wrong with you, so I just figured when you were talking about a ‘doctor,’ that’s the only thing it could be,” said Cynthia.

Madison and her mother began exchanging looks again, wiping the smile from Madison’s face. “Well, maybe it might be a good idea for you to tell Cynthia what Dr. Samuels said,” Abigail suggested nodding her head and patting the top of her daughter’s hand.

“You’ve been a great friend,” Madison said, “but Dr. Samuels says that sometimes friends can be ‘unintentionally toxic’ because they don’t share the same life goals as you. So, they accidentally lead you away from the things you want.”

Cynthia could see the logic in theory, but wondered how it applied to her. “I know we’re different, but I feel like I’ve always been supportive of you,” Cynthia said. “I never cared one way or another what you wanted to do.”

“Actually, Dr. Samuels says that’s part of the problem—you’re not working toward the same goals—getting married and having kids—so you don’t keep me on track the way these girls do,” said Madison, waving her hand around the room at the nine bridesmaids straightening their skirts, looking at themselves sideways, from the rear and back again. “They’re good judges,” said Madison.

“And you want them to judge you?” asked Cynthia.

“No, it’s just—it’s hard to explain,” said Madison. “I do and I don’t. I mean I want to end up the way they are, I—it’s like we’re all on a diet together. And you’re not on our diet. So, we keep each other on track.“

“Don’t want to end up like me,” Cynthia said, completing her friend’s thought like she often did.

“No offense, but yeah,” said Madison laughing.  Cynthia again smiled and kept her gaze over Madison’s head focusing on the reflections of the bridesmaids getting ready and looking one another over. The inspections seemed endless.

“You know I think you’re great,” said Madison, “it’s just that I think we’re on different paths. I definitely wanted to have you here, though, to be part of the day, you’ve been a really good friend. I mean I wanted to include you—I never wanted nine bridesmaids, I had to include some of them and some of them were family. But I wanted you to share the day—I mean that’s why I invited you to spend time with us while we got ready.” Cynthia stared at her, mouth slightly opened.

“Anyway,” said Madison, “I’m glad you’re here—and—do you still want to hand out the programs? I understand if you don’t, but—“

Cynthia smiled. She felt backed into a corner having made a special trip away from home and having already spent money on airfare and hotel, but most of all, she didn’t want to embarrass herself or create “a situation” by leaving abruptly. “Sure, I’ll still do it,” she said.

“Good, would you mind holding this again?” Madison asked, handing Cynthia her bouquet. “What do you think of it? My mother thought these calla lilies would look good but I actually wanted roses.” Cynthia smiled and nodded her head, her eyes rotating around each of the mirrors. Each reflection was of a lime green-uniformed bridesmaid or junior bridesmaid twisting front to back and conducting a self-inspection. Madison also took another look at herself sucking in her stomach and looking at her profile again.

“I lost about 10 pounds. Can you tell?” she asked an unresponsive Cynthia. “Can you tell?” Cynthia nodded her head and smiled. Madison took an appraisal of the nine bridesmaids reflecting in every direction. “Oh, wait! Not everyone is wearing pearls,” Madison said. “Didn’t you all get my e-mail last month? I told you to keep checking your e-mail. Oh, well,” she laughed with humor. “Oh well, no big deal. See how easy I am?”

Cynthia, as it turned out, was wearing a short strand of pearls. She ran her fingers across it protectively. The battalion of bridesmaids were slowly prying themselves from the mirrored circle, lining up to march outside with Madison for a group picture of the wedding party. Madison’s mother-in-law and the prettier of her soon-to-be sisters-in-law were again the center of attention. “Look at you!” one of her mother-in-law’s sisters said to Madison’s future sister-in-law. “Your skin is just glowing!” The mother-in-law to-be smiled proudly. “I like to say I made her myself,” she laughed. The sister patted her on the shoulder. “Well, you did!  You birthed that skin.”

The wedding coordinator handed Cynthia a small box with the wedding programs and she took her place among the bridesmaids trailing Madison out the door of the hotel and into the street, across the way to a park where the whole wedding party would assemble, stretched out in long phalanxes on either side of Madison and her finance. There was construction work on the far end of the street but no dust, luckily, one of the bridesmaids observed. The bridesmaids looked at each other continuing their appraisals and adjustments. “Yeah, just push that strand off there”; “Sure, that looks fine”; “What do you mean? You look great?” Meanwhile, Madison fretted about the anxiety-induced red blotches springing out on her white upper chest. Her doctor-bridesmaid reassured her: “Don’t worry, that’ll clear up before the ceremony.”

Cynthia stared at the clouds and the tops of trees looking for birds or squirrels to concentrate on, and then, happened to glance down—maybe she wanted to check out the bridesmaids shoes to see what their selections said about them the way she checked out people’s feet on elevators and buses. And that’s when she caught sight of it—dozens and dozens of nails spread wide apart enough on the street not to be immediately noticeable. In fact, it seemed she was the only one who had noticed at all. The bridesmaids were still smoothing one another’s hair and dresses and offering reassurances. A few of the nails lodged into the ends of Madison’s dress and into a portion of the short train which her maid-of-honor had let slip from her hands. Cynthia reached out to tap Madison’s shoulder but then retracted her hand. She wrung her hands anxiously as if in a neurotic dilemma and reached out again for the bride’s shoulder. She did it again—reaching out for her friend’s shoulder—and then retracted her hand again, her eyes fixed on the birds at the edge of the park jumping from branch to branch and then settling.

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Life and Times of the Introvert: The Door Ajar

The crutch and the walker had been there for nine months, and Art had intimated that he eventually planned to remove them. “I was wondering if I could take those down to the curb?” Kate asked him the last time they intersected in the hallway. “Oh, sorry,” he laughed. “I’m kind of attached to them for some reason. I think I may use them in one of my theater productions.” Art was part-time therapist and part-time experimental theater man. He advertised his therapy sessions on street lamps and utility posts throughout the East Village in New York City, where he lived across the hall from Kate.

The other day he skulked through the hall complaining that someone was tearing down his signs—photocopied sheets of printing paper with grainy photos of himself, a brief description of his expertise and slips with his phone number. Leaning closer than was comfortable to Kate, he reenacted what he said to the culprit: “You do that again—and I’ll kill you.” Kate knew Art wasn’t violent, but he said the man he caught tearing down his signs seemed afraid.  Art said, as a therapist, he understood why the man would tear down his signs. “There’s something about signs—they can really mess with you—do something to your brain,” he said drilling a forefinger into the side of his head as he said it.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Kate said, backing away slowly toward her apartment’s door, trying to make a graceful exit from the conversation. “Are you sure you don’t want help taking that stuff down to the curb?”

“No,” Art laughed again. “I’m sorry about that, but I’ll do it. Really, I’m sorry,” and he laughed again.

“It’s OK, but it—eventually—it would be nice if you could take it to the curb,” Kate said.  She laughed a little, but it was forced. She was irritated by the stack of books, the walker and the crutch that made the end of the floor their apartments shared look like an invalid’s ward. It was depressing to see those signs of decrepitude on the way in and out of her home everyday.  Art had a hip replacement surgery nearly a year earlier and hadn’t used the crutch or walker in over six months. Kate hadn’t seen him for months, and had just been grateful for the quiet. Then one day she saw him hobbling to his apartment on crutches and presumed he had suffered an accident. “How did you hurt yourself?” Kate asked. “I didn’t hurt myself at all,” Art said irritably as if she should have known. “I had both hips replaced.”

Art was liable to catch Kate in a conversation any time she came or left her apartment because his door was nearly always ajar. But Kate never looked inside to acknowledge him. She considered the slightly open door with radio on full blast or Art on the phone as an intrusion of her privacy—he was encroaching on the hallway’s shared space.  “What’s up? How’s it going?” he would say, popping out from the slightly opened door like a jack-in-the-box. Kate began to dread leaving and returning to her apartment, wishing there was a backdoor or an easy way up and down the fire escape.  She had never heard of anyone living in an apartment building in New York City with their door nearly always open a crack, and she found it disturbing. One morning while brushing her teeth, she heard Art watching pornography.  When she was awoken at around 4 a.m. one morning by Art arriving home (he usually left around 7 or 8 p.m. and came home between 3 and 4 a.m.) and kept awake by a door ajar with a blaring talk radio show, she left him a note tacked to his door.  The next day Kate found a note from Art (written on the reverse side of the note she had left him) posted to her door with his profuse apology. But the door continued to stay ajar throughout the day, including overnight with NPR blaring out. After confronting him several times face-to-face about turning the radio down and closing his door, Kate gave up, bought earplugs and used her ceiling fan (even when it was cold) to drown out the noise from his apartment.

But the noise flowing from his apartment in the middle of the night and early in the morning wasn’t enough. Art, who once lived on a kibbutz in Israel, seemed to crave the communal life and couldn’t resist spreading himself out into the hallway. The walker, the crutch and the stack of books may have been his way of reaching toward her, Kate thought. She realized that it was probably related to his love of living a communal life rather than insensitivity to her comfort, but she still felt irritated and encroached upon.

“But the crutch, the walker and the stack of books?” she said to Art during their latest hallway interaction when Art was on a tangent about experimental theater in Berlin (where he hadn’t been for at least 20 years). “Do you think it would be possible to remove them from the hall by next week?”

“Oh, sure, definitely,” he said. “What’s happening next week? Are you having guests?”

“No, it’s just getting cumbersome for me with all this stuff abutting my door. It would be great if you could get rid of it. I could help you take it down to the curb tomorrow if you want.”

“I’m sorry, I feel horrible,” he said. “I’m going to get rid of it this week. I’m going to move it to my office.” Oh, his office, thought Kate. She imagined a room at a YMCA or in a low-income housing building of some kind. Art bragged to her when she first moved in that his rent was only $370 a month, so she supposed he took advantage of that low rent (having lived in their rent stabilized building for at least 20 years, having his original rent set when the neighborhood was a slum) to also have an office.  His therapy sessions took place at the office and he also could be heard some mornings as she left for work talking to therapy clients over the phone from his apartment.

“OK, well, if you could do that that would be great,” Kate said, turning on her heel into her apartment. “Well, have a good night.”

The next few nights were quiet, with Art staying away from his apartment from around 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., as if he had a night shift job, which Kate knew from forced conversations with him that he didn’t. When she first moved in she figured he had a job like overnight subway engineer or operator that necessitated his strange schedule. When there was a mass transit strike a month after she moved in, and she heard Art’s radio blaring in the middle of the night, she was forgiving because she thought he was listening to find out if the strike were over and he would need to go back to work.  When the strike let up and there were no other local crises and the overnight blasting radio through the door ajar continued, she was less forgiving, and one night at around 4 a.m. , had enough and banged on his door to no avail. The door wasn’t open wide enough to see him and she was too shy to push it open so she slunk back to her apartment to wait out the rest of the night and confront him the next day after work.

“I had no idea you could hear it in your apartment,” Art said apologetically. But why shouldn’t she hear his radio in her apartment, which was across a tiny hallway with his door ajar, Kate wondered to herself.

“I think if you could just keep your door shut all the way and maybe turn the volume down slightly—at the same time as you shut the door all the way—it would help a lot,” she said. “It’s just that my bedroom is directly across from the front door to your apartment, which you’re leaving open.”

Art raised his eyebrows at the mention of a bedroom. He lived in one of the building’s un-renovated apartments, which meant his apartment had just one large room with a kitchen at one end and a “living room” at the other end along with a small room with a toilet. There was a bathtub in the kitchen that was covered with a board during the day. The board allowed it to serve as a kitchen counter when it wasn’t in use as a tub.  He hadn’t done much to spruce up the place. He barely had any furniture—just a gray upholstered easy chair that looked like it came from a garage sale or the Salvation Army, possibly a small desk with a chair, and maybe a single bed in the corner. Every time Kate talked to him with her own door ajar in the hallway between their apartments, he eyed the inside of her place with longing, but not to live there. He just seemed to want to be let inside. “Wow, Reynolds did a good job with the renovations,” he said of their landlord as he looked over her shoulder into the little bit of her apartment he could spy from the hallway. “It’s small but it works for me,” Kate said trying to be kind as she backed into her doorway ready to shut and bolt lock the door as soon as she slipped inside.  “Anyway, if you could shut your door all the way and turn the radio down overnight, I would really appreciate it.”

The next night the same occurred. This time Kate didn’t wait until the next morning to confront Art. Instead she knocked on his door at around 2 a.m. “What’s up?” he said pushing open the already slightly opened door. “It’s 2 a.m. and your radio is blasting with your door wide open,” Kate snapped.  “Could you turn it down and shut your door all the way?” He looked at her, finally annoyed: “Well, I have to be able to hear it myself.” Kate thought it was funny that he seemed put out that he should have to worry about keeping his radio on low with his apartment door shut in the middle of the night. “It’s just the time of day—it’s not like it’s two in the afternoon,” she said. “But this is the only time I’m home,” he said.  Kate was eager to get back to bed so she didn’t take it further. “Alright, well, do whatever you can.” With that she stepped back in her apartment, closed, locked and drew the bolt chain across her door and went back to bed. Later on she wondered how it could be true that was the only time he was home.  If that were the only time he was home, then wouldn’t that time have to be reserved for sleeping rather than listening to the radio? She wondered where else he might sleep. Could he sleep on a bench or on the grass in a park, or maybe on a sofa in his office? She was puzzled but didn’t want to ask him any questions. The last thing she wanted to do was encourage him to start conversations with her.  When the summer came and he was gone for most of the night, she imagined him sleeping outside in Thompkins Square Park like a bum to escape the stuffiness of his un-air-conditioned apartment.  He appeared one day with a tottering pile of old books under each arm.

Kate smiled and said hello as she turned toward him in the hall after securing the lock on her door. “All these books were just left on the sidewalk,” Art said. “Someone must have died and his kids didn’t know what to do with all these books.” He was almost breathless he was so excited. “Oh,” said Kate smiling and trying her best to be friendly, or at least not off-putting, “You could sell them to The Strand.” Art had a more nuanced strategy. “They’re all mystery and true crime books so I’m going to sell them to this bookstore in the West Village that specializes in mysteries.” Kate couldn’t imagine to going to that trouble and found it sad that some old man’s collection had been left on the sidewalk instead of being distributed among relatives. The collection was probably a prized possession and it was now in the hands of Art who would sell it for pocket change. It was depressing.

“You probably won’t get much for them—you could keep them or give them to friends,” Kate said. Art gestured toward his stagnant and building stack of books in the hall and laughed. “Don’t have room. Do you want some of them?” Kate didn’t have any room either, so she shook her head. “How are you going to be get them over to the West Village?  Won’t the cab fare be as much as you’d get for the books?” He laughed and nodded his head. “Maybe, but I’d like to see. You want to come with me?”

“No,” Kate said immediately without considering it. “Thanks for asking but I’m in the process of organizing my kitchen things.” Art laughed as if he didn’t believe her and began loading the mystery books into an abandoned grocery store shopping cart he kept in the corner of his kitchen. “Suit yourself.”

Kate didn’t see Art for a few days but heard and smelled him through the crack in his door as she passed by on her way into her apartment. His radio on full blast, she could hear it as she climbed the steps and smelled what she thought might be mustiness as she paused just long enough to turn the lock on her door. She sped through it always hoping he wouldn’t pop his head out at her—“How’s it going? What’s new?” Kate jumped as Art’s door creaked open. That creak had become like an alarm clock from her inner world. She tried to just smile, say hello and turn on her heel into her apartment, but he stopped her. “I saw you today on Broadway but you were somewhere else,” he laughed. “It’s like you didn’t even see me.”

“Oh, sorry about that,” Kate said. “I’m a big daydreamer and pretty spacey.”

“Take a look around you, see what’s around you,” he said.

“Yeah, you’re right, I should, but I like to live life in my inner world. I’m more of an introvert.”

“Don’t miss what’s happening around you,” he said sounding to Kate like a preacher or motivational speaker.  As long as he was hyped up and inspired maybe now was the perfect time to push him to finally move the walker, the crutch and the stack of books from the hallway.

“I was wondering,” she said, “if it would be possible to move that stuff in the hallway into your apartment?  I understand if you don’t want to throw it out yet, but if you could move it into your apartment, I would really appreciate it.”

“Oh, gee, I’m really sorry—sure thing. I’m just waiting to hear back from my friend Fred who works at the Salvation Army and my friend Amy who works at a thrift shop down the street to see if either of them wants it. I should know in the next few weeks.”

“OK, thanks.” Without the energy to argue about, it Kate went back into her apartment wondering when to involve the landlord who wanted Art out anyway.  Kate hesitated to involve the landlord not for Art’s sake but for her own. She thought it was unlikely the landlord would be able to kick Art out—he had been trying for years—and also that once Art found out she had complained about him, her situation would grow worse. Then, on top of living across a narrow hall from a perpetually ajar door with noise streaming from it, she would be living next door to a hostile neighbor. So, she would give Art exactly three weeks to get rid of his hallway junk—and then, and then—what? She knew she wouldn’t go to the landlord, so maybe she would just take the stuff to the sidewalk herself without asking, and if he objected, she could then point out that she gave him his chance and he wasn’t doing anything himself, so she took matters into her own hands.

Sure enough, three weeks went by and the crutch, the walker and the stack of books remained, so after coming home from work one day, Kate carried it all to the sidewalk to be hauled off by the next garbage truck making its rounds. She didn’t see Art for the next few weeks, but a week after dropping his junk off on the curb she noticed a new assortment in the hall—what looked like an urn with a Chinese-style trim of dragon designs; a painting of a clown, a child and a dog; and a straw basket with office papers and a pack of cards. It was like there was an ongoing garage sale in the narrow space between their apartments. He didn’t seem able or willing to keep his personal belongings to himself.

Kate peered into the as-usual ajar door and saw something she only glanced at for a split second before gasping, swinging on the balls of her feet and dashing into her apartment, locking and drawing the bolt chain across her door—Art with a shirt but no pants or underwear (big bare white rump) in the window frame. She guessed the cool breeze must have felt good airing out his private parts, and she couldn’t blame him, but that’s definitely the kind of thing a person should shut and lock the door before doing—and make sure there’s no unsuspecting person on the front receiving end of that view. Luckily, Kate believed his window looked out onto nothing but a vacant ally, but he should have known she would be passing by in the hall from the rear perspective.

A few days later, when she ran into him, Kate was too embarrassed to bring up the bare-rear-in-window-view incident, so she stuck to the new gathering of junk. “I hope you don’t mind, but I had to take down that stuff of yours to the curb last week. I had family visiting and wanted it to look nice,” Kate said lying about the visiting relatives. “Sure, no worries,” said Art.  “I was planning to get rid of it myself. You just beat me to the punch,” he said laughing. “Actually, about this new stuff,” said Kate, gesturing toward the urn-like vase, clown painting and straw basket filled with office papers and playing cards, “I was wondering if you could also move this stuff into your apartment or have it thrown away? I’m happy to help you carry it out to the curb, if you want.” He looked at her and laughed. “Here we go again! I’m sorry, no, no really. I’ll get rid of it all soon. I just have to get in touch with a friend of mine who wants me to donate it.”  Kate smiled and tried to laugh to be cooperative and keep the tone friendly.  A few days later the vase that looked like an urn was gone but a large white board was now leaning up against the wall (along with the remainder of the other junk—the basket with playing cards and the clown painting). It was a rotating carousel of personal junk connecting her closed, locked door to his forever ajar.

Kate decided to give Art one final warning before calling the landlord.  “I hate to do this, but I don’t know if I can live with all this stuff constantly in the hallway,” she said to him the next afternoon.  “If it doesn’t stop I’m going to have to talk to Reynolds about it.” Art looked surprised but without panic. Kate guessed she wasn’t the first person to talk to the landlord about Art. “It’s not getting in your way is it?” he said. “You can still get in and out of your apartment, right? You know, this is a common space between our apartments, for us to share. I choose to—from time to time—store a few transitional items in my share of the space. Did you ever think of it that way?”

Kate nodded and smiled politely as she listened. In fact she had thought of what he was saying, but the sprawl of the inner life of his apartment into the space she had no choice but to walk into everyday was disturbing. “Yes, actually, I have thought of that,” she said. “But, as a space we share we also have to be respectful of each other’s comfort, and I hate to say this—sorry, don’t mean to be difficult—but I’m not comfortable with all this stuff in the hallway all the time.” Her voice rose defensively toward the end and she looked away self-consciously. “Ok, Ok,” he sighed. “I’ll get rid of it.” Art was annoyed and turned away from her, ducking back into his apartment but, as always, he kept his door slightly open even with his back to her through the opening.

Not surprisingly to Kate, he didn’t get rid of it, so she called Reynolds, the landlord”: “I hate to complain about this—I feel bad about having to do it—but I was wondering if you could talk to my neighbor, Art West, about removing his stuff from the hallway we share? But don’t tell him I asked you. Maybe you could just say it needs to be removed because it’s a fire code violation.” Reynolds laughed in a big snort. “What? You don’t need to apologize. You don’t want his junk in the hallway, so he needs to get rid of it.” Kate began to panic thinking she’d just unleashed an uncomfortable situation for herself. “I know I don’t have to apologize or lie about it, but I don’t want to create an uncomfortable situation with Art. He’s my neighbor, so I have to see him all the time. I just want to keep things pleasant.” Reynolds laughed in a snort again. “OK, your choice. I’ll just ask him to get rid of the stuff. I won’t tell him you asked.”

A month later Art’s personal extensions still sprawled into the hallway. Kate wasn’t surprised because she knew she was easily disregarded—she was often disregarded for some reason—but she didn’t expect the landlord who had the power to kick Art out to be ignored. So, she gave Reynolds a call to see if he had ever bothered to talk to Art about the problem, like he said he would. “I talked to him, dear, but he’s stubborn. I can’t do nothing about it,” Reynolds explained over the phone. “It’s mean, but what if you told him that if he doesn’t clear out the hallway, you’ll kick him out?” Kate suggested. Reynolds laughed. “I wish it were that easy. He’s been living here for 30 years—with the laws in this city, it isn’t easy to get rid of him. I can’t even raise his rent more than 1, 2 percent a year. I tried, but he don’t listen to me.”

Kate began to think of her alternatives and searched the listings for apartments in her neighborhood, but soon became discouraged, finding nearly everything comparable out of her price range. Her building was rent stabilized, and to top that off, Reynolds hadn’t bothered to raise the rent at all in over five years.  Just when she was at the point of resolving to ignore Art’s encroachment, she came home to a succession of cages lining the walls—albeit with a space around her door so she could still access her apartment.  The cages looked large enough for those big colorful parrots who sit on pirates’ shoulders, but there were no parrots or any other bird—or anything else—in any of them. But they were all painted colors like bright pink, green, red, orange, neon yellow. The colors were brilliant and the cages might have made an interesting experimental art display at the Whitney Museum, but they surrounded her door waiting for a foot to get caught in them, a toe to be stubbed or the corner of a long coat or dress to catch. As Kate inspected the cages, she heard Art clamoring up the stairs, his sneakers squeaking. “What is this?” she asked irritably. “Oh, this,” he said, sweeping his hand across the cages. “My friend Bernice is having an art show for charity next week and Sandra, her brother-in-law’s cousin is doing a cage motif—an allegory, actually–” Kate interrupted him at that point, not able to continue listening because she just felt so mad to be surrounded by bright cages with just enough room to creep into her apartment at the end of the day. “Actually—actually, I don’t care!” she snapped, her voice breaking. “I can’t live like this! This isn’t fair to me.”

Art smiled kindly when he heard her voice breaking and saw her eyes begin to tear. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I had no idea it bothered you so much! But you can still get into your apartment, right? It’ll only be here for a few more days, I promise.”

Kate tried to suppress her crying, not wanting to embarrass herself. She downplayed her anxiety about the personal garbage surrounding her door. “It’s OK. I would just prefer to keep the hallway clear of our personal stuff. It’s nicer looking that way and safer—so nobody trips.”

Art was already on to something else by then, traipsing back into his apartment and out with a full-length mirror. “How do you think this would look stuck right here?” he said, pushing the mirror up against the dead end of hallway bordering their apartments. “Sure, I guess—whatever you want to do,” Kate said forcing herself to smile and then quickly getting away from him and behind her closed, locked and bolted door.

The next few weeks were a revolving hall of boxed nuisances liked birthday party noisemakers, dog chew toys that squeaked when brushed up against and novelty gags like plastic vomit and whoopee cushions. Art said it was for one of his upcoming experimental theater performances. The show, he said, was about adults who regress into their six-year-old selves remembering all the things they got punished for as children.  Kate was not amused. She was getting madder by the day and wondered constantly if the spillage of Art’s personal pursuits into their shared hallway was malicious and done out of spite.  She was so angry she wondered how to get rid of him. The landlord wouldn’t or couldn’t do a thing and he wasn’t going anywhere—he had been there nearly 30 years, after all, and at a rent that had barely changed since he first moved in.  Kate thought about making up stories about him to push him out; thought about giving him a shove out his window; about even buying a gun to get rid of him with. She would just claim self-defense (she was at least 50 pounds less). Or even buying a dozen fertile rats to throw into his always slightly opened doorway. Well, what are you going to do? You leave your door open a crack long enough, who’s to say rats won’t get thrown inside?

When Kate saw the stocky, balding, t-shirted frame of Art hanging black and white photo after photo on the concrete hallway wall one afternoon—she had grown so hopeless, she didn’t bother to question it anymore—she came up with an idea. “Oh, Art, I heard something I wanted to mention to you,” she said. “What’s up?” Art said in the springy tone that always made Kate think of a Jack-in-the-box. “Well, I noticed some men in here the other day who wouldn’t say who they were but were taking photos of the apartments and jotting down notes.”  Art looked up excitedly, raising his eyebrows and licking his lips like a dog contemplating whether to run for a ball. “I tell you, we’re getting closer and closer to living in a police state. I’m going to call Reynolds about this,” he said. Kate assumed her charade would end once Art called Reynolds, but she was having fun with it anyway. It was as if she was exacting a kind of revenge for the discomfort he brought into her life.

When Kate ran into Art next, a few days later, she prepared herself to control laughter as he told her how it turned out it was nothing—that he had spoken to Reynolds and the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. Instead, she found Art drilling into his door. Could he be installing a heartier lock—surely not. She bet it was just another of his crazy hallway art/personal garbage installations. “Hi,” she said smiling as she passed him by. “Another of your art projects, or should I say, a friend of a friend’s art project? ‘Eye through East Village Key holes?’” she joked.  Art didn’t laugh.

“You have no idea how devious these people are. I bet Reynolds hired a private investigation firm to check up on all of us—especially ones like me who don’t pay much—to see if he can find something on us to get rid of us with. You have no idea who these people are. Of course he denies it. I called Reynolds up about those photos you saw being taken and the people writing notes, and he played dumb—like he had no idea what I was talking about .You have no idea how devious these people are,” he ranted.

Kate felt a miracle had occurred. She wasn’t sure why she had lied about the spy photographers in the building except that it was fun, but now she couldn’t believe it had finally closed the door on Art—locked it actually. The coming weeks saw the removal of his personal extensions from the hallway into his locked apartment (Art couldn’t have the landlord’s spies taking pictures of his personal belongings, after al) and a door that was firmly closed and locked regardless of whether he was home. But the only problem was Kate still felt put upon whenever he popped out of his apartment after hearing her come up the steps or when they ran into each other on the street.

So one day: “Art, you know it was the funniest thing—I feel kind of dumb mentioning it—”

“No, no, nothing is dumb—never be afraid to ask questions in life,” he said in a voice that he saved from his days in the kibbutz in Israel.  “Well, yesterday, when I was coming up the steps, I overheard two men I had never seen before talking about a new security system Reynolds was installing,” Kate said. “I didn’t hear all of it, but I heard them say something about capturing images of people leaving their apartments and then the apartment building so they would have a record of comings and goings in the building and also would be able to keep track of movements in the hallway to prevent apartment break-ins. It’s kind of nice in a way—like that security camera they installed last year above the door to the building.”

Art smoothed back what was left of his hair several times and looked up and down repeatedly as if he were contemplating the capture of himself in still life. “Believe me, they aren’t doing us any favors. You have no idea how devious these people are,” he said. “We’re losing our freedom every day. My friend in Berlin is doing a show with monkeys and circus performers that’s an allegory for the repression of the state and you try to do that here—forget it! We’re losing our freedoms everyday. You watch. This hallway monitoring is just the beginning.”

Whether or not the citizens of the East Village could have a performance with monkeys and circus performers that criticized the government was interesting to ponder, but mainly Kate listened with interest as Art showed signs of retreating further into his apartment, shutting the door fully and drawing in the extensions of himself that had drooled out into their shared hallway for the past five years. Any sensible person would simply call the landlord, ask about the hallway monitoring and be satisfied that it was all a misunderstanding when the landlord informed them that no such monitoring was going on. But Art was more hysterical visionary than sensible person, so no matter how much Reynolds assured him nothing was going on, Art would never believe it. He preferred to believe we were in a fight for freedom. Kate just felt, on the other hand, that she was in a fight to keep her neighbor’s personal self from intruding on her. “Yeah, that’s true,” Kate said trying to knit her eyebrows together and not smile. “Well, anyway, I better get going. I have to give a friend a call.”

Now, not only was Art’s door shut most of the time, but Art no longer lingered in the hallway and no longer left his personal junk in the space between their apartments. The fight for freedom meant evading the cameras Kate let him believe surrounded them. Kate could still hear Art’s radio from her apartment when she turned off her light before going to bed, though.  One day with a spring in her step noticing a hallway free of the personal, Kate knocked on Art’s now firmly closed door. He answered in a faded t-shirt and long cotton shorts that hit just above his knees. If a woman had worn them years ago they would have been called culottes. She smiled and tried take on the look of a good Samaritan. “What’s up?” he asked in his jaunty way, the radio blaring NPR behind him and through the hall and down the building’s staircase. “Sorry to bother you, but I wanted to let you know what I heard last night.” Art raised his eyebrows and rubbed his hands together alert to the excitement of new oppression. “Oh?” he said. “Well, those same guys who were installing the hidden cameras a few weeks ago were back and I overheard them talking about how the landlord (our Reynolds, of course) thought the building could be even more secure if he could monitor the sounds in the hallway,” Kate said biting her lip not to smile. “No!” Art exclaimed. “Well, yes, actually. So, I know how you always listen to NPR and how I can hear it from my apartment sometimes and I know how conservative Reynolds is—“  Art was just shaking his head and looking up and down as if to say “God have mercy on us all” to himself. “Don’t say anymore—I get it.”

Following that last episode, it became very quiet at their end of the hall, or, as Kate called it to herself and friends, “monastery chic.” It baffled Kate that some people became anxious when things got too quiet. There was nearly nothing she loved more. With Art’s radio no longer blaring into the hall and throughout the lower half of the building, she rolled around in the cleanliness of the quiet, savoring the absence of the outsider’s personal belongings and emotions. She had her own inner world now and nothing more to corrupt it like a stranger tracking sawdust through an immaculate house.

Then, one night a few months later, she heard odd tapping and scraping outside the building.  She thought at first it was just kids bouncing a ball off the side of the building or someone drawing graffiti against the front door like they did from time to time. But it sounded different and as though it was coming from above. Could it be the long-promised apocalypse? Or maybe just the helicopters trailing the Occupy Wall Street protesters again. Kate decided to take a look from the roof, so she climbed the five flights of stairs up there, hearing the scraping and banging and tapping getting ever louder. When she pushed open the door, she saw all the usual things—untended to asphalt, stray cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a few abandoned lawn chairs, all with a faint smell of pot in the air. “Glad it’s pot and not cigarette stink again,” she said to herself. “My thoughts exactly,” answered a voice from the periphery.  “Hello? Is somebody there?” Kate said. Nobody answered for a few seconds and then she heard a kicking sound against the building. “Yeah, right here,” a struggling voice said. Kate then noticed a balding head rearing itself from the edge of the roof. “Art! Is that you?” she said. “What are you doing?” Art pulled himself up so his elbows were resting on the asphalt and his legs must have been resting against a gutter or the top of a window. “Can you believe it? The city won’t let me post ads for my therapy practice on lampposts any more. So, I came up with this idea—to hang some banners down along the side of the building about my practice. Plus, those cameras you were telling me about—the cameras may not be able to see me up here. I guess it’s a private and public place up here—above the cameras but with all those people right down there,” he said gleefully.”

Kate wondered how long it would take Reynolds to have the banners taken down—and whether the whole thing was worth dangling from a rooftop for. Was it that important to establish communication? “Why don’t you just advertise online someplace, like on Craig’s List?” she asked. “The ones I’m trying to reach don’t have computers,” he said irritably. “Who are you trying to reach?” Kate asked sincerely. She couldn’t figure out who he hoped would wander into his apartment or happen to see a homemade banner in crayons dangling from a roof and decide he had finally found a therapist he could trust.  “People around here who need help,” he said like it was obvious. “People who need me—my services.”

The best thing to do Kate thought would be to help Art up from the roof but she wondered if it wasn’t best just to leave him there with his banner. He could be his own best advertisement. “Should I leave the door open for you?” she asked, pointing to the door that led to the rooftop. She had wandered over just far enough to the edge to catch a glimpse of him hanging there. “Nah,” he said pounding the top of his banner into the gutter. “I’ll be here for a while.”

Image

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Phasology: Just a Phase I’m Going Through?

Looking for a Door in the Moon

Drilling the edges

shy of center,

my saw carves off the corners

light trickling

from the periphery

catching

my hands

forearms

sides of my legs

but glancing away

from my face.

 

Moon Skewers

Skewer me moon

my cocktail party

needs thank you

favors and no one else

can offer

personalized moon

cut-outs.

A thousand dollars

here

and there

is all it takes

for my friends

to not find

moon skewers

any place

but mine.

 

Asking You to Stay

Dropping a hint

at the full moon’s

rising

I pulled

from the roots

daffodils

tulips

peonies—

spring’s best

in full light

of a full moon

hoping to hold

this phase

in place.

 

Failing at Forcing Waning

When it’s full,

screw the top off

see if you can force it

to be half

or less

than half

or waning.

When you don’t succeed

at forcing waning,

give up and invest

in night-blooming gardens.

 

Moon on My Fork

Similar to

a baked potato

I thought I could

stand on a tree

look through a fork

at the moon

and see through fine

slats

if it was done.

I knew I couldn’t touch

even the rim

but I thought

if I gestured

in the right direction

I could get a sense

of level

of done.

Up a tree

looking through

forked slats

the light is refined

and if I squint

the moon goes away

but doesn’t come

nearer

and doesn’t tell me

how close to done.

 

Moon In Search of a Day Job

Bored to be the moon

so looking

for a good cloud

or spare sun

to transpose with.

When you’ve got

a night job

everyone else

sleeps through

you prefer

the sun or just

to have a function

people are awake to.

 

Chip Off the Old Moon

Chip off the old moon

just finding rocky

scraps of unnamable

fragments in the garage.

You told me

they came from the moon

and you’re not

an astronaut

it’s true

but I like

to believe you.

Holding said

moon chips

up for light

I have to remember

not to turn off

the garage light

with the moon

you said

these came from

now, throwing off

no light tonight.

 

Gardening on the Moon

Gardening on the moon

little light

but no passersby

to interfere

with my nocturnal

blooms.

Working in the laboratory

I keep churning

hearty cross-breeds

planning a send-up

of gold folds

or pink layers

of earth bloom

fit for a replanting

with no sun

no water

but a long rocky

face to themselves.

 

Moon Police

Moon police

is that crater

approved for inhabiting

or just one-day

excursions?

Remember to declare

moon dust

at customs

try not to smuggle

moon rocks

not sold

by certified moon

vendors

and please

turn the light off

before you leave.

 

Lunatic Highway

Driving alone

through the moon

I couldn’t belive

how smooth

the cut of clouds

seemed to slice

the moon in two.

Setting my wheels

upward with nothing

filling my engine

to could get me

there

I attempted

the lift through

the lunatic highway.

 

Moon’s Solitude

Solitude

the moon

doesn’t mind saying no

to lingering on a phase

or allowing a tide

to stay longer.

Alone in its movements

the moon doesn’t mind

being the only

moon

among clouds

stray planets

being the only

one

who can move

the ocean.

 

Couldn’t Be Your Waitress

Couldn’t serve you

couldn’t be your

waitress

said the moon

traveling as I am

on high

forever monitoring

sky oscillations

I have nothing

I’m willing to

give you

as you are

so low

but I drop

in passing

light shreds

you can use

as you can.

 

Choices of the Moon

Inspecting your choices

you had none

but to endure

all the phases–

fluctuating light

and often insufficient

darkness to sleep,

but you knew

your favorite phase—

the one unseen—

new—

would be back.

 

Moon Climbing

Learning to climb

the moon staircase

wasn’t hard.

I just repeatedly

looked up, longed

for light

and sought the mid-

night solace

of alone with spot

light instead

of cocktail

party.

Looking at the light

alone

repeatedly

it was easy

to see myself

in the moon.

 

Moon with a View

To dine

with a view

from the moon

is to forget

the crumbs

on your plate

the howling

dogs at your feet.

Table set

the crumbs

howling animals

don’t matter

seeing through

blackholes

burned out

stars

abandoned space suits

flags

ripped apart

by errant astronaut

forays—

looking back

with a view

of home, far enough

away to appreciate.

 

Smothering a Moon Half

Sliced in half

I wondered

at the other half

I hid under

my pillow.

Half as a bright

for twice as long,

I slept well

atop smothered light.

 

Absent—Gone to the Moon

I forgot to count space

absences

the same as your others.

Suited in space

technologically advanced

gear

ready to explore

the universe’s largest

nightlight,

I stood by pretending

the light you traveled toward

was you.

The light in my lone room

I thought was you

as you kept trekking

away

the suited alien

from earth.

 

Dying Star, Full Moon

The star burning out

leaped past

in dying streak

the full moon

wondering if

brightness at its peak

so near

would diminish

its final showing.

 

In the Moon’s Hand

Poem written

on the moon’s face

the moon blushing

with harvest color

yellowish, a little

like a juandiced

baby;

the script of passing

clouds, stars dying out

winks at us

an inscrutable poem.

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The Life and Times of The Introvert: The Vise

“I’d like not to see you again,” I told Marcy. She laughed and continued washing dishes she then loaded into the dishwasher. “Did you hear me?”  Sucking at my grape gum, and concentrating on the swirling of my saliva around the gum and the smell of the sugared-up grape and the sound of the chewing inside my head (I could only hear it because I always chewed with my mouth closed), I opened my eyes wide and glared.  I feared my glare would be wasted because her back was turned to me, but luckily Marcy turned around just as I was in mid-glare.

“I don’t like living together. I find you too cheerful,” I said without smiling. I liked to laugh, but this time I was humorless and ready for business. “I think you’re a nice person, but I don’t want to see you again.”

“Too bad,” she said in her insensitive way. She was lucky in that nothing much penetrated her skin. She kept everything she had on the outside of her skin like body makeup she could just wash off at night. Nothing stained her and nothing seeped into her skin with permanence. “We have a lease that I’m on with you, and you’d have to find another roommate, and I’d have to agree to move out.”

“That’s what I’m asking—for you to agree to move out,” I said. You’d be surprised how comfortable I was with this exchange, and even how good it felt. I enjoyed fighting it out once my passive aggressive default mode was pushed past its limit. I tended to erupt in such anger at that point that I needed the catharsis of a good fight. I even sometimes picked fights with strangers on the street. Most of those strangers were a lot bigger and nastier than me, too. I hit the jackpot in that none of them had yet raised a hand (or foot) to me.

I disliked a lot of the things Marcy was guilty of, like whistling, which happens to be one of the public offenses I’ve fought over with strangers.  There were these Cheese Whiz looking Midwesterners in town for the Thanksgiving Parade lumped in a sidewalk-tromping group with my mother and I. And the man was whistling that annoying non-harmony that people usually tend to whistle in varied, unmelodic tones.  I didn’t know where it was coming from, so I said loudly, meaning to be overheard, “Who’s whistling?  I keep hearing whistling coming from somewhere. Who’s whistling?”  Just then a big, burly corn-fed looking man, blond, and his also big and burly, also blond, wife or girlfriend strolled past and the man said, “I’m the one whistling.”  “Well, it’s bothering me,” I said. “Too bad,” he responded. Of course I couldn’t leave it at that. So: “You’re very rude.”  “Thank you,” he said, and then turning to his wife or girlfriend: “Did you hear that?  She thinks it’s rude that I was whistling?”  “Oh, that’s funny,” the wife or girlfriend said.  What I wanted to say looking back on the exchange, but didn’t think of at the time, and would have been dumb to say anyway is: “Go back to your cheese.”  They looked like the kind of people who put cheese on everything.  They probably thought I was a New York snob, though I didn’t actually have enough money or any connections (not even one) to be considered a snob.

I bring this up because I told Marcy this story to hint to her how much I hate her whistling, and she took the side of the cheese-born couple. “Those are just your crazy rules. Anybody is free to whistle on the sidewalk.”

Another thing that bothered me about Marcy was she had enough energy to clean properly. I was obsessive compulsive, but about troubling thoughts—like picturing bumblebees or car wrecks. Marcy, on the other hand, cleaned the apartment every morning before leaving for work and looked askance at the dust piling up on the dresser in my room. Some would consider it a benefit to have a roommate eager to clean, but it annoyed me because it connoted a person with so much energy she needed to expend it doing superfluous housework.  The reason she had so much energy was she didn’t take anything within her.  There was nothing inside her sucking at her energy, and I considered that a character flaw. Her happiness and bounding energy to me meant she didn’t have adequate inner anxieties.

“Why aren’t you more troubled?” I asked one morning after her vacuum woke me up.  “If you were more troubled I bet you wouldn’t be so eager to wake up early.”

“Yes, I guess I’m just lucky. I’ve always been a happy person,” she said.

One of the things about Marcy—happy or not—was she always had to be in a romantic relationship. She was a “people” person (I personally preferred cats and other fur-laden mammals to humans, but go figure). So, she treated her boyfriends like jobs. When one looked like it was winding down, she would look for another one to avoid time alone. The idea was an unbroken, seamless transition between boyfriends.  I suggested she come up with a way to find them and keep them in reserve—that she could can them the way you would can extra produce.

Steve Slumberts was the latest of them. “How’s it going with Steve, by the way?” I bated her, knowing she was keeping her eye out for someone new (I liked eavesdropping). “He’s good, but we don’t actually see each other as much as we used to.”

“You know, it might be good for you to spend some time alone,” I said.  I loved seeing her usually vacant face filled with terror.  She thought there was no worse fate than spending the day—let alone months—without a person whose function it was to be called on whenever she needed company.

“I’m a relationship person,” she said, quoting some woman she liked to listen to on the radio.

“But you don’t have a relationship with yourself,” I said.  I had already lost her concentration by that point, as she turned on her heel heading towards her room.  She often didn’t stick around to listen to me complete my thoughts, and sometimes would ask a question, like “How’s it going?  What’s up?”  And then shift on her legs back and fourth and dash off, too impatient to stay to listen to my response.

I suppose she was about to get ready to go out—to a place I would loathe, no doubt. Probably one of those dance clubs where there’s no place to sit down and no way to talk above the pulsating music.  For a person who claimed to like people so much it was funny that the music she liked best sounded like it was created by robots. Generally there were no words and no discernable instruments played. It was exactly like it would be if a computer were programmed (by a human?) to make a calculated succession of sounds, guided by a mathematical formula.

What if I were a missionary, I wondered.  I had no religious affiliation, relying for spiritual salvation on my sense that whatever there was of a God lived inside of ourselves instead of in a church or temple or through an appointed religious representative like a priest or rabbi. But I wanted both to get rid of my roommate and—more out of arrogance than humanitarian reasons—show her the folly of her ways.  I remembered stories of Christian missionaries who traveled all over the world “saving” the natives. I betted my vacuous roommate could use some help.

“What she needs,” I thought as I heard the shower droning, “is an in-house religious retreat.”  When the water switched off and I heard her bedroom door click shut, I slipped off my sneakers, and crept in my socks to her door. I was the one who asked her to move in rather than the other way around, so I knew things about the apartment we rented that she hadn’t heard about. She wasn’t one for history, so I doubt she would have been interested anyway. The apartment dated back to Victorian times, and came with keys that locked from the outside of the rooms. If you locked the doors from the inside, they didn’t require a key and locked just by pushing in a button. The thing was, the keys the landlord gave me just as a point of interest, or a novelty he thought I’d enjoy, overrode the internal locks, so that you could lock a person in her room!  The landlord told me the family who lived here years ago had unruly children, and the parents were such Victorian disciplinarians, they had the peculiar locks and keys made to lock the children in their rooms when they misbehaved.

Marcy hadn’t misbehaved, but she could learn a lesson about self-reflection and meditation.  I bet she hadn’t spent more than 10 minutes alone her whole life. Imagine preferring people to quiet reflection!  At the very least, she needed to know what it meant to spend time with only herself.  I would be doing her a favor.  I retrieved the key from my room as fast as I could (as fast as I could, that is, on tippy-toe), and, as quietly as possible, turned the key in the lock, shutting her in—for as long as I felt she needed to experience solitude.

I felt no ethical qualms about what I did. My only regret was she had a clock in there so she wouldn’t lose track of time. I felt sure a person like her not only needed a dose of first-time-in-her-life aloneness, but also that she needed to divorce herself from the clock and its connection to her “activities.”   Why are people so consumed with filling their days with activities?  I’m happy just dreaming with my eyes open out the window.

Now the fun began.  I heard her bare feet pad across the wooden floorboards and try the doorknob. “What the heck!” she said. Marcy didn’t use swear words, so “heck” or “Oh, fruit” was about as bad as it got. “Hey, Amanda,” she said to me. “I can’t seem to open this door. Can you help?”  I stifled a laugh and, leaving the key in my pocket, twisted the knob vigorously. “Huh, that’s strange. I can’t open it either.”  I heard her laughing, and knew the right thing to think was “Gosh, I really admire how she always keeps her spirits up.” But, instead, I thought it was time she learned how not to be cheerful. Could I lock the shallow laughter out of her?

“Well, unfortunately, I guess you’ll be stuck there a while. It’s Sunday, so the super isn’t around, and it’ll be hard to find a locksmith,” I told her, making my voice serious and somber even as I smiled broadly. “It’s a shame that you’ll miss your date tonight.”

At that point, it seemed as if her laughing, which continued, morphed from that grating social laugh of hers into a nervous laugh.  That suited me fine. It was time she experienced a little anxiety.  “No need to panic, of course, I’m sure since you have a half-bath in there you’ll be fine. I can always slip you some thinly sliced cheese or cold cuts under the door, I suppose.”  Now I was having fun.

She laughed, of course. “Well, I’m sure we’ll get in touch with someone soon who can help.  Or, I mean, you will. I just realized I don’t have my phone in here.” Another piece of luck for me.  This could go on quite a long time indeed.  It’s a rare opportunity when you get the chance to cordon off a troublesome person in your life, so I meant to make the most of it. “Oh, yes, I’ll be sure to do that. I wouldn’t want you to have to stay in there too long.  I think I’ll go now and see if I can find someone.”

I had no intention of finding anyone to help, so I took a walk around the block, looking for popsicle and ice cream sandwich vendors. I wanted something I could eat at her door, but which I couldn’t slip under the door, so I wouldn’t have to offer her any. My chocolate and vanilla ice cream sandwich in hand, I felt empowered. The only wrinkle in my plan was Marcy’s sure request to push some finely cut vegetables under the door. I have no idea why cheerful people usually like fruits and vegetables, but they do. I’d take a plastic roll of Hostess Cupcakes over roughage and apples any day.  Apple pie and other dessert tarts was the closest I got to health food.

Returning, I heard the word-less, rhythm-ful, bass-heavy music she liked reverberating from her room.  I forgot about that. Since she moved in I had been tortured by the pulsating throb of robot communications she called music.  The worst part was when I put my head on my pillow at night, I could feel the vibrations of it beating against my head, even after I dulled the sound with earplugs. I had spoken to her about the need to turn the music off at some point during the night, but to no avail, so I gave up trying, and, instead, used earplugs and the whirring of a ceiling fan to blunt the disturbance. But the officious beat she projected, I could do nothing about.

I knocked on her door several times as loud as I could. “Hi there, I’m back. Unfortunately, we have no vegetables, but I have some cold cuts—all red meat, unfortunately—that I can fit under the door.”  Oh, yes, so unfortunate, as Marcy tries her best to lead a healthy lifestyle. She says red meat gives you a greater chance of having heart attacks and cancer. Though I say her brain has been shriveling up for years, so why worry about it?

“Do you have anything else?” she asked, giggling. “How about some of those thin wheat crackers?  I bet those would slide under the door OK.”

“Yeah, alright,” I said.  After I retrieved the crackers and slid them to her, I thought about unlocking the door, but came to the conclusion again that it was for her own good to stay put. A person needs to find out what it’s like to be alone. I had spent my whole life alone, so why should she get away with never experiencing solitude?

“It must be a change of pace for you to have so much time to yourself,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s kind of sad. I don’t know how you spend so much time hidden away in your room, as if you were locked in there yourself. What do you do in there anyway?  I’ve been going crazy in here,” she said.

“I think of my room with the door locked as my sanctuary,” I said. “It’s the rest of the world that makes me feel crazy.” I felt as if I had done her a great favor locking her in her room, enabling her to experience what it’s like to have a sanctuary, but she wasn’t capable of appreciating the experience. True, the loneliness was a part of the experience, and it could be difficult, but what you gained in exchange for the loneliness—the richness of an inner life—was worth the discomfort.  One thing I hadn’t considered before occurred to me—what if Marcy was incapable of having a rich inner life? Were some people born without an inner-self, so that when left alone, they had nothing inside themselves to draw on?

“I just like getting to know new people. Whenever I meet someone new, I feel like I’ve just discovered a new TV show,” she said.

I would have laughed except it was touching that she knew herself well enough to describe what “new people” could be most accurately equated to; but, on the other hand, she wasn’t conscious enough to feel embarrassed about the analogy. She didn’t realize there was anything funny about new friendships seeming like TV pilots.

“Are these people generally good new shows?” I asked, “Or the kind of shows that go off the air without getting picked up for the regular season?”

She didn’t laugh immediately as I expected—since she was one of those people with a tittering social laugh that was similar to the canned laughter of a stage audience. I think she was puzzled that I thought her metaphor was funny. “Yeah, mostly good,” she said. “They’re company anyway.”

“You know what’s funny to me?” I said, “The way you need someone to study with you at the library. If you’re studying, and you’re studying for different classes and different subjects, what’s the other person there for?”

“I like knowing someone is going through the same things I’m going through even if their version of it is a little different,” she said.

I had always looked at suffering as a solitary trial, and even though I knew about “support groups,” I didn’t think they made any difference—at the end of the day, your suffering was your own. If a thousand other people felt the same pain, what difference did it make to your own pain? I could see if by gathering enough co-sufferers together you could dilute the pain or make a deal whereby you all share the pain by taking different shifts, or signing up for different months or years to endure it. But just knowing of the shared pain wasn’t enough for me.

“You’re never going to figure anything out on your own,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” I snapped. “If you’ve got a problem, the last thing you want is a group of people arguing with each other about the right thing to do. You need time for quiet reflection—especially since, in the end, you’re the one who’s going to have to make up your mind about it.

It sounded like birds outside her window, rapping against the glass, and I could smell fresh air seeping from under the door. I felt my planned casement threatened. Her window was too high up for anyone to scale in, and even if it were possible, her cell phone was sitting on an end table in the sitting room, so she had no way of alerting anyone but me to her problem.

“What’s that funny sound I hear?” I said. “It sounds like in desperation you’ve put a bird and squirrel cocktail party together.”

“No, nothing that creative,” she said. “Remember, I don’t have an inner-life or creativity, so I can’t do stuff like that.”

“That’s true,” I agreed. “And animals don’t seem to like you too much.”

“Yeah, but Jasper, Susan and Igor do,” she said.

“Who in the world are they?  Let me guess—you couldn’t restrain yourself, and became friends with homeless people living below your window.”

“Kind of. Do you remember the fair I went to with Chip last week?  And how Chip got me the puppets?  Well, I just put them on the shelf over my desk and forgot about them, but with all this boring alone—that is, self-reflection time, as you call it—I’ve gotten to know them better. I hung them from my window pane and we’re having drinks” she said in an even voice.

I always thought Marcy lacked enough self-awareness to understand irony, so I felt certain it wasn’t a joke. I had never known her to make any jokes outside of repeating lines from sitcoms or comedy club shows her latest boyfriend took her to.

“Yeah, Jasper was just telling me the funniest story about this bar, The Sacrosanct, he went to last week—the bartenders were all male models and there were free Jello shots,” she said.

“Was it Puppets night?” I asked, laughing. She stayed silent. “You know, like ladies night, where bars think they’ll get lots of women for men to hit on by offering the women free drinks? So, I guess there’s a new puppet fetish I didn’t know about.”

Marcy often had little intelligent to say, but she usually offered up enough vacuous conversation to avoid silence (a thing on her list of most dreaded), so I found it odd the way her long pause just kept continuing.

“Well?” I said.

“Of course, Igor and Susan have been going out for a while, so they’re not really into The Sacrosanct,” she said.

“The Sacrosanct isn’t for everybody,” I said. “I guess you have to know the right people—or puppets—to get in.”

“Igor has an in, and, of course, he got Susan in, who begged him to then get Jasper in, too.”

Hmm, talking puppets heading to nightclubs, getting their puppet friends in past the velvet rope. This sounded like an endeavor for me. I fished the key to her bedroom door out of my pocket.

“Well, what do you know?” I said, opening the door, “I found the key, after all. Turns out it was at the bottom of the draw near the sink in the kitchen, Marcy.”

I expected her to run to the door like a puppy released from a pen (to think of her more kindly I usually needed to pretend she was a cat or dog), but she didn’t acknowledge my entrance or the opened door.  She didn’t bother to turn around to look at me. Instead, she stayed in a crouched position over her puppets, making them dance over the floorboards under her. “Looks like Jasper’s really having a good time tonight,” she said. “I’m so glad they came to visit me tonight. I hate being alone.”

“Well, it’s your lucky day, Marcy,” I said. “Did you hear me? I found the key, and was able to unlock your door. You can go run around town now, the way you like.” I snickered at that, thinking of her continuous, thin conversation as she trotted from one trendy club to the next, partly soothing herself, partly social climbing.

“It’s just that Jasper isn’t ready to go yet, and Igor and Susan want to dance some more,” Marcy said, turning to look at me, but only peripherally, looking more to the side of my face than directly at me.

She seemed enthralled, and even happy, similar to how she seemed when I ran into her on her way to her room after a coming home late on a Friday or Saturday night. I would be turning over on the sofa with my book, and in would come Marcy exhilarated about all the stuff I couldn’t stand being around—masses of people jumbled up together in a relatively small space with “music” so loud you couldn’t have a conversation.

Now the puppets she dangled in each hand enthralled her. She was socializing with them.

“So, you’re really enjoying their company, ha?  I guess they’re not so different from your other friends, right?” I laughed, and walked over to her side to see if she heard me. I was waiting for her (irritatingly) good-humored reciprocal chuckle.

“Igor, Susan and Jasper aren’t ready to leave yet, remember?” she said.

It was the oddest thing the way she didn’t seem to hear me, or that she heard me but didn’t care now to escape from her room and her animated puppets.

“The door is open, Marcy. You can go about your business now. Isn’t that lucky that I finally found the key?  It was in the back of one of the drawers in the kitchen. Isn’t that funny?”

Well, it was the oddest thing, but the little twit didn’t seem to care. Should I have felt horrible about continuing to think of her as a little twit?  I didn’t think so.

“The door’s open, Marcy. It’s wide open. You can leave now. I’ve managed to unlock the door.”

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Dog’s Tale: Doggerel

You Mean You’re NOT a Dog?

Dog ears

secure

you were surprised

people forgot

you were human

and believed

you to be a dog.

You ate

with fork and knife

sat upright

at the table;

you even

tucked a napkin

into your collar.

But we all

just kept looking

for your leash

and canine teeth.

Glad I Don’t Have to Give You Anything to Hold

Your paws on the glass

look like hands

but I’m happy

they can only tap

the glass

and not grasp.

I would hate being

responsible

for giving you

things to hold.

Your paws

dig holes

nudge and tap

but can’t secure.

Your Head Held High; Mine Tugged

The collar

you’ve asked me to wear

isn’t comfortable—

at least not when

attached

to a leash.

Strolling through the park

your head held high

you didn’t notice

mine

tugged to the side

and straining

to lift up

as we walked together.

Why the Clock and Not Our Hunger?

The clock

the humans

pointed to

as I waited

for under-the-table

scraps

didn’t make sense

to me.

I knew time

by my hunger.

How or why

did they refer

to a clock

to dine?

You’re in the House with Me, Unseen

Deft with my nose

I can smell you

sense you

hear you

in the house

with me—

before you ever

reach my floor.

Alone with my

allotment

of water

and dry food

I hear

smell

nearly taste

you

on the the floorboards

above

and below

me.

Who’s Sleeping in My Dog Bed?

Sleeping

in my dog bed

again?

While I was

out walking

I returned

to find you

in my bed

having pushed

my bone

out of the way

sidelined

my chew toy.

I went back

out the sliding glass door

hoping you’ll be

gone

when I return.

My Water Bowl Saves, but Doesn’t Satisfy

My water bowl

isn’t up-to-the-top

full—

not exactly empty

but not full enough

not to be

thirsty.

Repercussions of Cheap Dining Service

Good to know

you’re economizing

on my behalf.

The half-price

kibbles

aren’t so bad

and neither is

my burglar-present

nap.

I Know Bones

Definitely

a bone

you pushed

to the side

and covered

with sweet potatoes—

but my eyes

and canine teeth

know a bone.

Edging Near Your Tablecloth

The teacup

the saucer

the tablecloth

the gently pulled

chairs

the guests

nicely dressed

with appropriate

gifts;

my teeth

latching onto

the rim

aiming to pull

tablecloth

place settings

hors d’oeuvres

out from

under you.

Competing with the Astronaut Dog

The astronaut

dog

makes me feel

bad about myself.

He’s been

to space

and I’ve only

been

to the park.

Salvaging a Posey

Always angry

about forsaken

roses,

the tulips

or peonies

I dug up

may have been

salvaged

for your posey.

You Can Have My Bones; I’ll Have Your Pasta

The Roman dog

only ate

pasta

but his owners

kept feeding him

bones

thinking he’d finally

be convinced

he was a dog.

But he stuck

to pasta smuggling

pushing his bones onto his human

companions’ plates.

A Tranquilizer for You, Too

The tranquilizer

for the flight

worked but

I wondered

why you didn’t

knock yourself

out too.

Your conversation

is much worse

than my barking.

The Cliff’s Turn—Unheeded

The horses

paid no attention

to me scurrying up

the mountain

alongside them.

Passengers

on their backs,

they didn’t hear

my barking

nipping at their

heels

as we rounded

the cliff’s turn.

Taking a Pass on Your Sausage

The hanging sausage

doesn’t tempt me

because I’d have to

come into your store

to jump at it.

The idea

of wagging my tail

begging

on hind legs

cocking my head

so you’d think

I was cute

doesn’t appeal enough

to jump for sausage.

My Pet Human

I take you on

your walks

though you refuse

to wear a leash

like me.

I trust

you’ll heel

come when I bark

and eventually

play dead.

Put a Trace on Me

My paws

in sand

and snow

can be traced

but my paws

tapping with

unclipped claws

across your kitchen

tiles

to your buffet

leave no trace

except

missing pork chops.

My Wolf-Kin

I feel bad

for my wolf-kin

you hunt—

it’s me

in the wild

with fiercer

teeth

silver fur

and greater abilities

to hunt.

You’re killing me

because I don’t

fit on your

living room sofa.

Focus on the Black Birds

Eating my kibbles

still eying your

steak,

you keep telling me

to focus on shooing

the black birds away

to get my eyes off

your plate.

But my kibbles don’t

taste good

and all the black birds

ever on our lawn

won’t distract me.

Happiness I’ve Ripped Up

The daffodil

bed

I don’t respect

so have dug up.

There’s nothing

I won’t dig up

creating a dirt pile

for my bones,

taking happiness

in the garden

I’ve ripped up.

I Got Dirty Because You Dragged Me There

Itchy ears

a tail that drags

in your backyard’s mud

doesn’t mean I’m only

fleas and dirt

trailing through

your home.

The dirt and pests

I bring to you

came from where

you dragged me to.

When You Turned to Ask for the Butter

The scraps

are satisfying

but only because

they’re scraps

you don’t know about—

your pork chop

sliding off the side

of your plate

as you turn

to ask

for the butter.

Microchipped Home

The way home

is encoded

in my brain

and by rote

in my paws

but you’ve microchipped

it under my skin

even though

yours may not be

my home forever.

I’ll Stop Barking When You Do

You told me

to stay quiet

in your purse

at the bank

because I wasn’t

allowed

and to stay quiet

under the table

at the restaurant

where I also wasn’t

allowed

but meanwhile

you never

shut up

yourself.

I’m Not Graceful; Just Your Companion

The cat’s been let out

for the night

so why am I left

neutered

to sleep on top

of your slippers?

If you could only

catch him

you say you’d neuter

him too

but he wails

to be let out

climbs so well

hunts

de-mouses

and creeps along

windowsills

with grace

while I’m just

your companion.

King’s Dog

The king says

I have to abide

by his side

as he sits

on his throne

walks along the beach

the people we pass

asking if they can

pet me.

I’d like to sneak off

and be one of their dogs

but they always

cluck their tongues

saying how lucky I am

to be the dog

of a king

and move on.

Tracking my Owner

My owner

wears a cologne

that makes him

easy to track

on the golf course

his easy chair

the backyard

the toilet.

I try to ignore

his scent

(hard for a dog)

wishing he’d go

someplace

more exotic.

Your Belongings Are My Chew Toys

The dump truck

towed the belongings

I gnawed at

as if they were useless—

a chewed up armchair

the toys

I ravaged

but I could still have used them—

your belongings

to you

my chew toys

to me.

Civilization of Talking Dogs

Will the people

of the future

finding my bones

leash, collar

and water bowl

suspect

21st century humans

were talking dogs?

Panting at the Base of the Tree

The birds sing

and I bark

to keep up

with the cat’s

track up their branches

swiping at them

making a noonday

meal of them

while I circle

the base of the tree

panting.

Splashing Back

Getting de-fleaed

the bath stings

and the water

is too hot—

so I splash it

in the eyes

of the one

who plunged me

in.

Picking Up On Your Crap

Doing the walk

with you

is laborious

but I’m the only

one who picks

up on your crap.

Can’t Find the Moon

Howling but can’t

find the moon

so digging deeper

because I can’t

find the sights

in the sky

my wolf relatives

handed me,

or at least

howled toward

themselves.

Shadow of a Bat

The shadow of a bat

on the stairwell

had me leaping

and barking

at 4 a.m.

which disturbed you,

but you brought me hunting

so often

I thought it was a bird

to retrieve for you,

stumbling out of your room

in your underpants.

Invisibly Fenced In

At the edges

of the gate

my nose tapped

the electric fence—

pushed back

by the invisible

current,

fur bristling

while the other dogs

in the park across

the lawn

played without me.

My Second-Grade Meat

The pot’s on the stove

and I smell stew

and see a cake

waiting to be placed

under rich icing

and I see my kibbles

and second-grade

meat in a can

on the floor.

Gardening with Dog

The basket

you pushed me off from

happened to include

your bulbs

for next year’s

crop of dug up.

Extensive Fur

The vet says

I’m too fat

but how does he

know it isn’t

especially

full-bodied

fur?

My tail is looking

bushier than usual

and my paws

are robust.

My belly is all

muscle

under extensive

fur.

Garden for You

Sitting on top of the tulips

my tail up

a daffodil,

I’m taking the spring

garden in.

The mud on my paws

tracked over your

new carpet

my way

of bringing the garden

to you.

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