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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Seawall

“Sea-bright, but not too blue,” Belinda said, stroking the wall as if it were a pony. “I want bright, but more on the green or turquoise side.” She swept back her wavy, bobbed dark hair, slightly frizzy on a humid day. I thought the best thing was just to humor her.

“Yeah, I think that sounds good. It’ll be like your wall is an ocean.” Belinda liked that and laughed: “That’s what I need—a wall that’s the ocean.”

I had known Belinda since we were in summer camp together as 6-year-olds. I was the mousy one with glasses, and a visor my mother forced me to wear, who was always red and peeling. Belinda, on the other hand, was always tanned golden with no obvious need for sun protection, and a compact, lithe body. Where I stumbled like a Saint Bernard puppy, she was nimble, like a little chipmunk. Now, she was contemplating a wall that resembled the sea, and I was thinking about how to get myself up the next morning to return to a job I hated, but needed. “Actually, you can do whatever you want,” I told her. The wall doesn’t have to just resemble the sea—it can be the sea—well, sort of.”

Belinda looked up from a catalog of paint colors she had just opened and looked up at me like I was dumb. “What are you talking about? The sea is nowhere around here.”

“But you’re building a huge pool right outside here,” I said, pointing to the contemplated sea beyond the still-white wall. “This whole wall could be glass, and—or—it could open with a switch on the wall or a remote control, so your living room could be the beach. You could even add sand if you wanted to.”

“Sounds messy,” Belinda said, inspecting herself in a seashell compact mirror she had picked up from the top of an oak bar. The living room, along with at least three other rooms in the house, had a fully stocked bar. Her husband was somewhat of an alcoholic. Not an alcoholic, Belinda liked to say, if being an alcoholic meant you couldn’t function. Brad could do anything you asked him to—even drive—after having numerous drinks. Our Friday night visits had become a ritual because of his habit of being passed out on the bed by the time she got home. End-of-week celebrations got out of hand, or were enjoyed, too fully. So, she was alone in the after-party and needed a friend to break up the silence (and snoring).

Somehow Brad had ended up successful, at least from a money perspective. He worked for some financial institution doing something I didn’t really understand, so I wouldn’t even try explaining—whatever it is you can do at financial institutions to become wealthy. I thought maybe he might be involved with that thing people call a “hedge fund,” but I wasn’t sure. One thing was certain, though: that he fell into clover. I mean he was lucky like a man on a sinking ship who accidentally falls into a life boat, or a man who gets knocked unconscious and is picked up by a Good Samaritan who decides to not just nurse him back to health, but to stuff a huge wad of bills in his pocket before sending him off. He just didn’t seem that bright or hard working to me. The only thing I’d give him is he was good with numbers and maps. But it seemed that you could know him for years, and he wouldn’t have any idea what any of the expressions on your face meant, or what you might like for your birthday.

“You can always turn one of the other rooms into your regular living room, and make this one your beach living room,” I suggested. Belinda liked that and started laughing, tapping the top of the bar with her sharp fingernails. I never knew if that was a nervous or happy gesture. “You have so many more rooms than you need, you might as well make one of them the beach,” I said. Belinda shrugged and began scavenging through a drawer in the bar, pulling out stray, unused birthday candles, a lighter, rubber bands, notepads, and one of her cat, Samuel’s, toy mice. “Are you planning to set the mouse on fire?” I asked.

She laughed. “No,” Belinda said. “I’m looking for a sheet I thought Brad stuck in here with price quotes from one of our contractors. I was going to try to figure out from it how much a living room beach would cost us.”

I couldn’t help but laugh because “us” was just too silly. Belinda had her “freelance” travel writing and photography (really just marketing writing on behalf of tourism bureaus around the world), but the livelihood of the household was entirely up to woozy Brad. “Don’t worry about it—I bet Brad wouldn’t care.”

Belinda nodded, but kept her head down, with her thick black eyebrows furrowed. “That’s not the point,” she muttered. “My psychologist says I need to become more accountable, so I’m trying to keep track of all this stuff.” Stuff was the word for it, I thought to myself. Belinda had left several shopping bags on the floor with today’s loot. She had purchased at least six sundresses and four pairs of sandals in preparation for the summer, along with a new kind of coffee pot that somehow was supposed to make your already-made coffee taste better, and three ceramic bowls said to be made by some sort of spiritual guru in Peru. “As long as I track everything, and it seems to have a purpose, I can buy it,” she said. “Like, tomorrow, I think I need curtains for the kitchen windows with lobsters printed on them to go with the sea theme, and I saw a clock somewhere with crab or lobster claws as the minute and hour hands. That kind of stuff.”

The gravel driveway rumbled and the wind chimes moaned—moaned that Brad was home. It was a Friday night, so he would probably go straight to the bedroom and collapse on top of the made bed, fully clothed, just shucking off his loafers. Belinda patted down her hair—or did she fluff it up? And straightened her puffy mini-skirt, which had the outline of cat heads on it. When she heard Brad’s key in the lock, she looked back at the wall she was hoping to knock down to create a sea at the edge of the living room that she could stumble into from the couch without opening any doors. It was “casual Friday,” so he had on a navy blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt and khaki pants with the usual loafers. He had driven home, but he was already drinking. His eyes were bloodshot—that was always the giveaway with him, more than behavior. “Babe!” he blurted, brushing past me and giving Belinda a kiss on the cheek. She laughed and then turned her face away knowing he was on his way, first to the bathroom, and then to the bedroom to go immediately to sleep for a few hours.

This time, though, he paused, pivoted and began thumbing through papers on the counter where Belinda had sketched out the contours of the living room seawall. “Looks like it’s coming together,” he mumbled, running his hand through his blond hair. He was 30, but his hair was still blond—he was one of those people who would have blond hair until it finally turned gray. His skin was tanned from helping his father lay down a roof at the family’s summer home. You could see why Belinda had been taken wit him—blond, tan, handsome, strong (the kind of natural muscles in the arms and stomach that don’t require time at the gym) and smart, at least where numbers and finance were concerned. “Yup, it all adds up,” he mumbled without looking up.

“What adds up?” Belinda said, shoving his shoulder lightly. “What’s there to add up?” He laughed, and taking out a joint from his pocket and sticking it in his mouth, hand fishing in the other pocket for his lighter, turned again and walked (mostly straight) to their bedroom.

“Well, at least he said ‘added up,’ and not ‘what the fuck is this?’” I said. Belinda stroked her head from scalp to hair tips and sighed. “Who cares?” she said. “The contractors will be here tomorrow morning to begin work.”

The smell of burned toast and marshmallows was strong enough that each of the three contractor workmen who came through the door the next morning asked about it. It was Belinda’s usual breakfast of slightly burned toast with Marshmallow Fluff and peanut butter on top. Toasted wasn’t enough—it needed to be slightly blackened, she always liked to remind me. “Something burning?” one of them—the tallest of the three, with a comical, long mustache turned up at the ends and a baseball cap turned backwards, asked. The second one—equally tall, but with a potbelly and crew-cut blond hair snickered. “Breakfast go wrong?” he asked.

“The burning is intentional—that’s the way she likes it,” I said. He flinched and then made a sort of funny clucking sound with his tongue: “To each his own, as they say.” The third one was as small as a jockey, and had the kind of little hands and fingers I could imagine being very nimble with minute screws. He didn’t seem capable of heavy lifting, so maybe that’s what they used him for. “Somebody roasting marshmallows in here?” he asked.

“No, just Marshmallow Fluff,” I said.

“People still eat that stuff?” he asked.

“It’s her favorite thing,” I answered, pointing to Belinda, who wasn’t listening to us, but was instead sipping pulpy orange juice in the adjacent kitchen, and texting someone.

I couldn’t stand when Belinda divorced herself from her surroundings—especially when she was the conductor of the surroundings, the one everyone was there for, and everyone was ready to take orders from. I walked up to the back of the high stool she was slumped over on top of, face buried in her phone, and jiggled the back of the chair. “Hey! Belinda! These people are waiting to hear what you want them to do.” She looked up slowly and drowsily, like a person awakened by a flight attendant to be informed the plane is landing and she has to put her seat back in an upright position. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “That’s right, I forgot I haven’t given them directions yet.”

“See, what I want,” she said, facing our three contractors, who I had tapped on the shoulders to turn around, “is the sea inside. I mean what I want is a continuous flow from my living space into the pool,” she said. The three of them started laughing then, which I thought was risky since they were laughing at the person who was going to pay them. Belinda, though, didn’t let that stop her, and continued as if they were solemnly listening and nodding their heads. “See, the sea is something I’ve always really felt at home with—did you see my seashell collection when you walked through the living room? Well, I just thought that as long as we were going to have a pool, we may as well make the living room convertible into a beach. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”

“It’s your house,” the tall contractor with the potbelly,” said. “Fair enough.”

“Well, what I was thinking is once you tear down the wall, you could replace it with a wall that’s entirely made of glass, and also retractable by pushing a button. Then, I want to try eventually maybe to expand the pool to as close to the wall as possible, so the pool would begin where the living room ends.”

The other two contractors were just nodding their heads and spacing out the way you do in a boring high school class. They weren’t interested in the thought process behind the construction; they just wanted to know which wall needed to be torn down.

“So, that’s the one we’re tearing down and putting in the glass for?” the potbellied one asked.

“That’s right,” Belinda said, “the retractable glass, that is.”

The contractor, and what seemed to be his two underlings, nodded then and turned away, and began measuring the walls and conferring with each other, while Belinda and I stayed silent. She was in one of her moods, where she acts all day like she’s just woken up. “I can’t find anything today,” she mumbled to herself. “Somebody should help,” she said under her breath, not wanting to address me directly or start a conversation.

“Something you need help with?” I asked, playing dumb. She sighed melodramatically: “I just want the Graham Crackers I bought yesterday. And the sewing kit and the elephant purse.” She wasn’t on any drugs that I knew of at the moment, in case you thought that sounded like a delirious person talking. That was just Belinda’s usual brain workings.

“Well, the Graham Crackers are in the cabinet, the sewing kit is in the top drawer in the kitchen, near the microwave, and the elephant purse is in your bedroom closet,” I said. She looked at me for just a second and then sighed again.

“It would be good if the things I need could just be here when I need them, don’t you think? It’s good not to have to go searching for things all the time. That’s one thing I hate—searching for things.”

“I thought the places where I put all those things were places you usually would put them yourself,” I said.

“Well, in the future, it would probably be better for you just to put all the stuff I ask you to buy right here on the counter, or on top of the bar in the living room,” she said.

The workmen had begun drilling something, and were shouting instructions at each other over the drill, so Belinda and I couldn’t talk much more. I just nodded and turned away. “How long do you think it will be before that wall comes down?” she said to me between drilling sessions. “How long?”

I didn’t know myself, though I guess I should have researched that when Belinda first start talking about this project. “I don’t know. I suppose you’ll have to talk to the contractor about that,” I said.

Belinda didn’t like that and started breathing heavily. “When I hired you, I thought you were going to keep track of things for me,” she said.

“Yes, but the thing is, I was staying late yesterday just as your friend, not as your employee—like I do every Friday night,” I pointed out. “You picked out all that stuff when we went to the grocery store after my official hours were over.” I was beginning to regret agreeing to work for Belinda, but I was between jobs and needed the money. I needed the salary she was paying me to continue paying my rent and buying food and toiletries. It wasn’t just one of those jobs you take to earn a little extra spending money; it was a job you take just to afford the necessities in life.

“I guess we have to be clear now that whenever I spend time with you—even as a friend—just hanging out—I’m still working for you,” I said.

Belinda didn’t argue. She just tapped her fingernails, painted the palest “ballet slipper” pink and nodded. “Yeah, that sounds good. I need your organization skills.”

I started keeping a running tab on my phone of everything Belinda purchased when she was with me—bags of Blow Pop lollipops, bags of marbles (she liked to roll them around her fingers to relax and meditate), multi-colored, multi-design gypsy-like skirts, inevitably with animals woven into the prints or hiding in the background—or maybe just a replacement jar of Marshmallow Fluff.

A lot of days I would be tapping into my phone the latest candy bar or skin anti-aging product she had just purchased, including what she purchased, where she purchased it (and whether she received a receipt) and where in the house she decided to store it, and Belinda would look at me like I was crazy. “What are you doing?” she would snap, and I’d have to remind her that I was doing what she asked me to do to “keep her organized.”

My favorite times were when I had the entertainment of Brad chipping in with the home renovations. He was handy, and liked to add his own flourishes where the contractors left off. One Saturday morning, for instance, while Belinda and I were still sipping our mimosas, he came down in his jeans with no shirt on—tan and with that natural musculature he had—and took out a drill of some sort and started working on what he said would become the frame for the retractable glass wall. “There! How’s that?” Brad said, turning off the drill and standing back to admire his work. That work so far consisted solely of what looked like a few bolts or joints for a door.

“Why couldn’t the contractor do those things?” I asked.

“I noticed something that needed to be done, so I thought I’d pitch in,” he said, smoothing back his wavy blond hair.

“But aren’t you worried you’ll mess up their work?” I asked.

“Well, it’s my house and I’m paying for them, so if I screw something up, I’ll just have to pay for them to fix it, so who cares?” I didn’t want to bother pointing out that he’d be hurting himself if he had to pay for them to re-do work. He must have known that himself, and just had so much money he didn’t need that he was almost looking for ways to blow it. Belinda put down her drink in the middle of our conversation, looking bored and went outside to inspect the lawn and some herb plants she had just put down seeds for.

“Must be weird working for your old friend,” Brad said out of the blue as he stood back to inspect his work and dust off his hands. “I mean it can’t be easy.”

“Easier than being married to her, I bet,” I said. I laughed big to offset the meanness of my comment, but he looked at me in an unfriendly and flat way in response. “I mean, you know, Belinda is a complex person,” I offered. He laughed and headed to the refrigerator in the living room bar for a beer. Popping it open, I thought I saw him roll his eyes. “Not that complex, but she makes things harder than they have to be—she likes projects.”

“I guess you could call turning your living room into a beach a project,” I said.

We both laughed, but also muffled ourselves because we knew how sensitive Belinda could be. She had come in from outside and was upstairs continuing her two-hour morning-get-ready routine, and she would want to know what we were laughing about—and then, of course, she would get suspicious, jealous and territorial—as if I wanted her emotionally dumb, alcoholic husband anyway. “I should get back to my Graham Cracker cataloging and shelving,” I said. “I think I heard the shower switch off, so Belinda will be down soon.”

Belinda had a few different Graham Crackers she liked—there was the original, and then there were variations, like one with cinnamon and another with chocolate. She decided that it would be a good idea for me to enter into an Excel spreadsheet everything she bought during the week, including where we put it in the house. Brad had finished “helping” the contractors, and was sitting quietly with his Wall Street Journal and beer, and I was concentrating over the Honey Graham Crackers when Belinda finally came down the stairs. Her hair was still slightly damp, and she was scrunching it and puffing it up in her hands to help her natural waves and curls take shape. She had on a pink, blue and green sundress with a geometric pattern and flat sandals with rubber soles but with silver snakeskin-print straps that came together with a zipper at the top of her foot. “Have all the Graham Crackers been accounted for?” she asked. She was smiling, but also tapping her fingernails impatiently on the counter.

“Well, it looks like everything’s in order,” I said. “The question is whether the honey ones should go next to the original kind, or whether the cinnamon ones should come after the honey. I thought it might be nice to have cinnamon in between the honey and the plain, or should the chocolate ones go between the honey and the plain?”

“You can use your discretion,” she said, walking over to her husband. She rubbed Brad’s back, but he seemed to contract slightly at her touch, even though he looked up and smiled and clicked his teeth the way you would say giddyap to a horse.

“How do you like the beginning of the end of our immovable living room wall?” she asked, nearly prancing and twirling in front of her husband. She stood back just far enough for him to admire her fashion acumen and beauty. “I just got this dress yesterday,” she said, shyly looking up and down, waiting for a compliment.

“How well do you think the wall will retract?” he asked. “Do you really think it’ll be as easy as you’re picturing?”

Belinda rolled her eyes and turned away, back toward the kitchen counter, where I had printed out an Excel spreadsheet detailing the Graham Cracker files. “Why wouldn’t it?” she snapped. “That’s what we’re paying them for—to create a wall onto the pool area that we can retract by pushing a button.”

Brad laughed. “Just because you’re paying for it, and that’s how you’ve asked it to be done, doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way. It may retract, but it may not be as easy or fast as you think.”

“Then we won’t pay for it,” she said. “We don’t have to pay for it until it’s just the way we want it.” Brad laughed again, but this time didn’t bother to respond. He just looked back down at his newspaper, and resumed studying it. He had taken out his phone, and was using the calculator on it to add something up. “You know, you can read the newspaper on your phone, too,” Belinda said to her husband who was still looking down and not responding. “We’re not that old that we need print newspapers delivered to the house.”

“In fact, I’ve been tearing them up for an art project while the contractors are here,” Belinda said. “I’m using them to line the floor and then wherever I see work boot prints at the end of the day, I’m using a permanent marker to outline them. Then, after this construction project is all done, I’m going to paint the insides of the work boot prints different colors, and create a big mosaic of the newspapers with the work boot prints on them.”

Belinda bent under the bar and pulled out two long sheets of taped together newspapers full of dusty boot prints framed by black ink. “See the progress I’m making,” she said. Brad looked at her and then looked up as if imploring God. But actually he was inspecting the ceiling.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to three circles looped together not unlike the Olympic rings.

“Well, that’s another of my ideas,” Belinda said. “I was thinking if we have the sea in our living room—once that wall is knocked down and a new one we can take away any time is created—we’ll then have that barrier overhead.

“Do you want to also create a retractable roof?” Brad asked.

“Well, maybe,” she said, “but not just yet. I was thinking first about painting a design on the ceiling, like my own version of the constellations—because it would be too hard for me to try to replicate the real constellations.”

I wondered if she had become a full-time bored person. Belinda had no real job, so maybe this was just a way to fill her time. Who expects an ocean and constellations in their living room? I always thought she had mental problems, but now it seemed as if I had confirmation. “Belinda,” I said, “where does this end? Are you going to ask for a retractable wall in the kitchen so your kitchen leads right into a stable full of horses—so you and the horses can eat together in the morning?”

“Actually, that’s not a bad idea,” she said. Brad had checked out of the conversation long ago and was inspecting his fingernails—holding them up to the light to see if he had gotten dirt or a splinter out from underneath while “helping” the contractors.

The thinnest of the contractors, whom we learned was Larry, arrived first that morning. Belinda had convinced Brad to pay extra to have them work on Saturdays, on top of the weekdays, because, she told him, her living room seascape couldn’t wait.

I had begun to think of the three contractors as dominoes because they looked like one of those pictures where you line up three people in descending order of height. If they stood in the right order, side-by-side, it looked like you could tap the biggest one and the other two in descending size would topple over. Brad had left already that morning, so he wasn’t there to explain his contribution to the project. It was an ongoing contribution, however, so Larry and the others knew when something seemed awry what must have happened. “Looks like our helper is back,” he said running his finger over the wood Brad had worked over.

“Sorry! He doesn’t listen to us,” I said. Belinda was at the bar fussing over her phone again, looking through her calendar, so I was acting as family spokesperson. “He’s not always in his right mind,” I added. “He’s really good at numbers and in putting things together on paper—like paper puzzles—so he thinks his talents will transfer to the three-dimensional world, but it usually doesn’t work out.”

Larry just laughed and went about his work, not caring much what we did—he seemed to think of us like ambient animals of some kind—like the way people eating a picnic think of the squirrels in the trees around them—harmless, kind of cute, and of no consequence in any way, good or bad.

“Do you think the Northern or Southern Hemisphere’s constellations should be on our ceiling in here?” Belinda asked me.

“Well,” I said, not needing to deliberate, “we’re in the northern hemisphere, so shouldn’t it, of course, be the Northern?”

Belinda looked at me without smiling. “Sure, if you want to be obvious about it. I was thinking I shouldn’t have to choose. In my living room, I’m bringing an ocean inside and I can have both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere’s skies overhead—it can be both,” she said.

Belinda was one of those people who asks questions mostly to have you confirm whatever she’s already decided. I always had a suspicion that’s the way she was, but when I went to work for her, I found out for sure. “Oh, yeah, that’s a good point,” I said.

I didn’t have anything to do like you would at a typical job where you have set responsibilities and regular tasks to complete. Instead it was like I was simply there to be on call—at the ready in case an emergency like an errand she didn’t feel like dealing with arose or she needed something in the house that she didn’t feel like looking for herself. Belinda always said her least favorite activity was looking for something. If it didn’t fall in her lap then it wasn’t worth having. “You know me, I hate challenges,” she would say with no shame. “Why does everyone have to pretend they love challenges so much?” was a frequent Belinda question. “Everything is a challenge to me. I find getting out of bed in the morning, and then peeling myself off the couch after my nap in the afternoon, a challenge. Why would I want to go looking for more challenges?” She was reiterating this tirade as I was trying to think of projects for myself. I couldn’t spend another day watching Belinda map out her Northern-Southern Hemisphere ceiling in between checking text messages on her phone.

I doubted the ceiling constellations would ever rise as long as it was a project that depended on Belinda’s own hand. However, if one of her ideas involved someone else doing and/or paying for it, it was much more likely. She was good at keeping other people on task. “You know, I was thinking,” she began saying to me, “as long as you’re here for so much of the day, maybe you’re the one who should be supervising their work.” She made a sweeping gesture toward the contractors as if she were sweeping her arm to indicate everything featured on a buffet table. “Yeah,” she said without waiting for me to respond, “I think that makes sense to me.”

“But it’s your ocean,” I said smiling. “How can I be the guide to the builders who are creating it? You’re the only one who knows what’s in your head—how you envision this living room sea.” That was the truth, and it also was my way of trying to get out of what I knew would be a lose-lose situation. It was inevitable that Belinda would be dissatisfied with the outcome of the project, so it was better that she be dissatisfied with herself and the builders, then have me to blame. “You can approximate it, anyway,” she said, “and so it doesn’t turn out perfectly, we’ll just rebuild it.” Belinda said it so flippantly you’d think she was talking about throwing away a pancake that didn’t turn out the exact way she wanted it. “Stop worrying!” she said, patting me on the leg, “It’s no big deal—really.”

So, Belinda stepped back, sometimes out nearly all day, running errands, taking walks, or just sitting cross-legged on the floor of her bedroom upstairs staring into space while she listened to the Stone Temple Pilots. I was left sitting at a stool at the living room’s oak bar watching contractors work.

There was about three weeks when a heavy tarp went up, after the old wall had been knocked out and removed, when the contractors worked on the other side of it, and I was left facing a dark, thick, plastic shield. It was the intermediate step of allowing for the living room’s ocean, but in the meantime, it was much worse—there was no way to see in front of me. I spent all day glancing to the sides and behind me, where a few windows still remained. As I listened to music on my phone waiting out the removal of the tarp, I noticed that Brad was coming home earlier and earlier. He was becoming my companion waiting out the arrival of the living room ocean.

I thought maybe he had lost his job, but he kept a computer propped open on the edge of the bar, where he worked, and would take a call every now and then. “I don’t have to be any one place,” he told me. “As long as I get my work done, they don’t care. Actually, after this new wall is built, I may work some place different every day. Like I might go one whole day to that new miniature golf course, or go another day to a bowling alley,” he said.

I laughed imagining him—or anyone—trying to get work done at a miniature golf course or a bowling alley. “But you won’t be able to hear anyone if they call,” I said.

“I don’t have to hear anyone to get my work done,” he said in a serious way, seeming to want to earnestly inform me of the new way business is done.

“So much the better,” I said. “If you don’t hear what anyone is saying, they can’t distract you.” You couldn’t learn from them, either, but I could see what Brad was saying. I didn’t want to learn from anyone either a lot of the time. Sometimes laboring under the droning roll of a bowling ball—even when it was headed to the gutter—was preferable to the tedium of explanations and minute-detail reiteration. I definitely wanted nothing reiterated.

“Yep, that’s it,” he said, his voice trailing off under the contractors’ hammers and drills. The blinds before us, the hammers in our ears, it was so cozy. Neither of us bothered even making the smallest talk about Belinda. She was excused by both of us from the project. She set the living room ocean rolling, but its arrival wouldn’t be dependent on her. “What’s Belinda up to today?” he asked about his own wife.

“Well, she’s doing some new kind of exercise class today—something about dancing and kick boxing, and there may be ropes of some kind involved.” We both laughed, at first muffled. I felt bad laughing about my friend, and he must have felt the same way, only worse. I guess you’re probably not supposed to laugh about your wife behind her back. “Or is it the class with stationary bikes, that even though they’re ‘stationary,’ are called spinning?” I asked. We then doubled over and started laughing even harder. Belinda had made a whole life for herself of running errands and maintaining her figure and health. The things most people squeezed into a couple hours after work, or on the weekend, had been elongated to encompass her whole life. The only thing left was to turn her living room into a beach with an ocean at its edge.

Brad was nursing what looked like a white Russian, one of his favorite mid-afternoon drinks. He had a stirring stick in it, which he swiveled around absent-mindedly in between typing on his computer and staring into the tarp covering the window. “Care for one?” he asked, holding the glass up and shaking it, so the contents swished around.

“Well, I never know when Belinda will need me to double-check the Graham Crackers, or to go with her to the supermarket to lead her around and push the cart, so I better not,” I said. We both started laughing again.

“You’re sure you really want to be here?” he asked.

“Of course I don’t want to be here,” I said. “I just don’t have a lot of options. I’m applying for other stuff, but haven’t found anything yet. The two of you (you mostly) are paying me more than I’d make working at a store or as a waitress.”

“I wouldn’t want to work for my wife,” Brad said. “All her specifications for everything—she has an opinion about everything, and a particular way she has in mind.”

It was the standard formula for a bad boss, but also a bad spouse. I just kept my mouth shut about that out of loyalty to Belinda, and not wanting to get involved in their marital disputes. I hadn’t even noticed, but as we talked, I had been trading sips of the white Russian with Brad. He had been sliding it back and forth to me, and I had been taking little sips from his glass. “The thing is, Belinda is a very creative person,” I said. “She’s a little out there, but she has ideas a lot of other people don’t.”

The three workmen, their perfectly collapsible domino sizes aligned one after the other on the other side of the tarp, sounded far away even though they were just several feet from us. We both stared in a glazed way at their shadows moving up and down doing whatever it was they were doing to make Belinda’s ocean possible. “They’re nice ideas, but after a while you get tired of having to get up and go to work every day while she’s worrying about living room oceans and drawing constellations on the ceiling. It gets old,” Brad said.

“I guess that’s part of her charm,” I said. “Belinda doesn’t have to have practical concerns—especially with you here now. Not that she was too practical before she met you, but now she feels she has carte blanche to be the eccentric grande dame she always wanted to be.” Brad laughed at the expression “grande dame,” but I think he knew what I meant. She was role-playing “whimsical lady of the house.”

Neither of us laughed because, actually, that wasn’t sarcasm—she really was very charming. We had advanced to a rum and Coke, or I should say Brad advanced and I accompanied. He kept sliding the glass to me and I kept taking timid little sips. The men working on the other side of the tarp were hammering and screwing something beyond our vision into what would become the frame to the retractable door. From where we sat sipping our cocktail, it looked like one of the men was about to land a blow onto the other’s head every time the hammer was drawn back—the trick the shadows played on us. When the workmen carried a cooler between them at lunch, we laughed that their shadows made it look like they were carrying a coffin. Other times they appeared taller or fatter than they really were—it must have all depended on the angle of the sun, but neither of us could figure it out. “It’s like our own puppet show,” I said, sipping at the rim of a Tom Collins.

“But who are the puppets? The shadows or the men? Do you think they can see our shadows in here? Maybe we’re the real show,” Brad said.

About a week later, the tarp was removed, and a seamless living room-to-pool “ocean” was emerging. Belinda fluttered around whenever guests were over pointing to “her creation.” Giving a visitor the grand tour, she would gesture with her arm in a flourish toward the pool. “See,” she would say, standing at the newly retractable door, “it’s already almost boundary-less, but once this whole thing is done, it’ll be just like we’re at the beach—the pool will come right up to the edge of the door—and there won’t be any door there—unless we want there to be.” Here friends would usually nod their heads and smile, or laugh with her good-naturedly, and a few now and then would grumble about building inspection codes and other legalese she didn’t care about. “Oh, who cares? I’m sure nobody who can take anything from me will notice a thing,” Belinda would say.

The living room walls were now the sea-foam green color Belinda had been vigorously testing paint samples against for weeks to find just the perfect shade. “I almost wonder if I should move some palm trees in here,” she said.

“I think you should be true to your region—be authentic—and just leave the palm trees out,” I said. I partly believed that would be the more tasteful choice, but I also didn’t want to make work for myself, knowing I would be the one, as her trusty personal assistant, who would be sent to search for the “perfect palm tree.”

There was a bed of sunflowers outside, near the pool, that was entering the first stages of the wilting process. Belinda was standing in front of them wrinkling her nose in disgust. And then she suddenly brightened. “I have another of my fantastic ideas,” she shouted back to me in the living room. “I’m going to take my old compact mirrors, remove them from the cases they’re in, and stick them to the center of the sunflowers. They won’t just be drying out and wilting then. They’ll be one of my new art projects. The flowers will reflect me back to myself,” she said.

“Or, whoever happens to be standing in front of them,” I pointed out. Something seemed cruel to me about dirtying up dying flowers by affixing little mirrors to their stamens. “I really don’t see flowers—real flowers—as objects to turn into art projects,” I said. “They’re part of the natural world, not art.”

Belinda looked up like she was considering what I was saying. “Well, actually, I think I know a way to make this even better—some of the flowers can have magnifying mirrors—you know how compacts usually come with one mirror that’s magnified and one that’s not? And so people will get all different views of themselves when walking around the perimeter of my ocean,” she said.

“But I don’t know that anyone needs that many views of themselves,” I said.

It was too late, she had run back into the house, and up the stairs to get her old compacts and was studying the different ways she could pull them apart and remove the mirrors. Brad had returned from wherever it was he disappeared to now that he was almost entirely working from home. “Any idea where Belinda is?” he asked.

“Oh, she’s just upstairs pulling apart old compact mirrors because she wants to stick them to the stamens of the dying sunflowers outside.”

“What?” Brad asked. He was nice looking, but not nice looking in a just-home-from-the-office way. More nice looking in an I’m-on-vacation kind of way, or the way you would look as a retiree just home from the golf course. He had on a pair of khaki shorts and a Polo top and flip flops. His phone was in one hand, but a beer was in his other.

“Given up on going to the office?” I said.

“What did you say she was doing?” Brad asked, disregarding my question.

“Oh, never mind, she’s just bored and finding ways to entertain herself again. She probably should just get a job, but I guess that would be too far fetched,” I said. Brad smiled, nodded and raised his beer can as if to say “cheers” to his spoiled wife.

It was sad that our tarp was gone, and the project almost complete, the pool nearly up to the door to the living room, and nothing escaping or delineating the view from outdoors to indoors. It was sad the way we could see straight through now. There was less to talk and guess about. There were no additional divisions for Belinda to break down, so she was left looking for places to create where she could see herself more often—even if just for a few weeks, embedded in the faces of dying flowers. “How do you like your own personal ocean?” I asked Brad.

“Well, it makes it easier to drown now,” he said, only partially laughing—and partially stifling a belch. “I mean, think about it, there I am—the way—you know me, and then, the doors being open, I just wander in my bathrobe right into the pool.” We both started laughing then, but, truly, I also could envision an easy drowning.

Belinda was on her way through what used to be the sliding glass doors, but now was just an open threshold. She had at least five compact mirrors, separated from their cases, in hand. “Sunflowers, prepare to show me off!” she said, twirling around the parameter of the pool, where five foot tall late August sunflowers, heads beginning to wilt, nodded in the breeze. Her dark hair was pulled back into one of her bouncy pony tails—exactly the same as when we were 6-year-olds—and she took out of her pocket a stick of Krazy Glue. “Don’t tell me you’re going to glue the mirror onto those poor flowers,” I said.

“Well,” said Belinda, “you can Krazy Glue anything to anything.”

Brad and I turned our back to her, and, just as we had watched the shadows of the contractors working behind the tarp for hours a few weeks earlier, so now we watched our own shadows skimming over the surface of the pool. It was getting dark outside, and the lights outside the house were positioned just perfectly to create a shadow show of ourselves.

He handed his beer to me to sip from, again just like he was giving it to a child to taste, and then after each sip, both of us would revert back to the pool’s surface, watching our elongated shadows. “It’s strange that now that the ocean is done Belinda is onto the garden,” I said. “There’s not even anyone in the pool.”

Brad thought it over, gulping down his beer. “Except those cool shadows—they’re like swimmers, kind of.”

Belinda, who had affixed the first mirror to the first billowing, dying sunflower, perked up at that. “It’ll be full, you’ll see. I’m just trying to figure out what parties I want to throw for it—the first party of my first living room ocean.”

I rolled my eyes in her direction, realizing that I would be the lead helper in any of these parties she threw, and Brad laughed, and, I thought, also grimaced. “When are these parties going to be?” he asked, keeping his eyes all the while on our swimming shadows.

“Well, it all depends on how much help I have,” she said, looking at us as if we had stolen something from her, or were about to.

“Your show, baby,” Brad said. I wished I could go say the same, but working as her assistant, all I could do was nod.

“Sure, whatever you need,” I said.

The problem was there didn’t seem to be anything to celebrate. Belinda had created her own ocean, but did the end of a construction project in itself call for a celebration, or was it just to brag about the whole thing? It seemed like she was conflating bragging and “celebrating.”

“Did you ever wonder if you could catch your shadow?” Brad asked, ignoring the party planning.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Belinda snapped.

“You mean this time of day, when the shadows get elongated, trying to jump on top of them—like jumping into the pool to meld with your shadow?” I asked.

“Yeah, maybe,” he said, laughing.

Belinda was standing back a few inches from a sunflower, head hanging, Belinda’s own head, pert, checking herself out in the flower’s newly mirrored center. “Hey, it works!” she said. “I see myself. I knew I’d get something out of these flowers before they died.”

The shadows in the pool—our own—looked more appealing the more Belinda squatted down, angling herself in front of the mirrored sunflowers. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was Brad who went first, just a loosening of the collar, and then the shirt was off, and then the pants, and then the boxer shorts, and before I knew it, I was following along, fixating on the scar on his tanned upper left arm for some reason. I didn’t even think about whether I should undress and follow—I just did, like I was a duckling following a mother duck into a pond.

We stayed apart in the water, and even though we had caught up to our elongated shadows, we could still see our upper bodies reflected in the pool’s surface. We laughed and splashed at it, as if we were babies who had never seen our shadows before, or animals standing in front of a mirror.

“Well, why did you do that?” Belinda whined. She seemed kind of freaked out, and took steps back from the pool, like a person would step back to see a painting in its entirety. “It’s awful!” she nearly shrieked, once she saw we were naked.

I thought she might join us for, if no other reason, than not to be left out—especially with her own husband involved—but instead she sat cross-legged at the opened boundary between the living room and the “ocean.” As we swam back and forth, the water, which used to lie a comfortable distance from the house, lapped at her knees. She was wearing a sundress, so I suppose she didn’t care if her legs got wet. She just sighed, and looked down at her thumbs. It looked like she was inspecting her thumbs for hangnails. She looked up occasionally at the living room’s ceiling. “My constellation never got done,” she said as if listing end-of-life regrets. “I got the paints for it, but never even opened them.”

She stood up then and backed up, so that she was up to her knees in the water, and used her hands to make a frame, like she was holding up a camera, and pointed the imaginary camera up toward the living room ceiling. “Well, I don’t think it would be too hard to complete, and then maybe we could build an overhang over the pool that would be lit with LED lights and have a constellation design that would show, so it would look like you were right under the stars,” Belinda said.

Brad and I were swimming back and forth still, and around each other, similar, I thought, to a two-member herd of whales or dolphins. I was just coming up for air when I heard this latest idea. “But we ARE under the stars,” I said.

“Under the stars, but most of the time, you can’t see them,” she said. “Too much light around here, and the weather’s a lot of times too cloudy.”

“I would just turn off the outdoor lights, and just leave the pool light on, if you want to see stars,” I said.

Belinda backed into the living room, her newfound shoreline, and walked to a panel of switches on the wall near the bar. She paused to take a sip of her Chardonnay, swishing it around her mouth for a second or two, seeming to think about something. She then switched off the lights outside, and for at least a few minutes, Brad and I were submerged up to our necks in total darkness since Belinda had forgotten to turn on the lights inside the pool. We could hear her humming to herself and tapping her fingernails on the bar, and the clink of her wine glass as she set it down. It was disorienting floating in the dark, but neither us bothered to move to the shallow end. After a long time, we saw the flicker of a light—she was flicking a cigarette lighter on and off.

Brad and I were making ever tighter concentric circles around each other, and eventually Belinda’s lighter stopped flicking on and off. I knew she knew where the pool light was, so I wondered why she didn’t just turn it on. I guessed she found it funny thinking of us swimming around in the pitch dark, stuck, with no way to see where the edge was. The concentric circles became sloppy, and Brad and I started bumping into each other and rubbing an arm here or there. It wasn’t intentional—definitely not on my part anyway—it’s just that we couldn’t see a thing, including where one another was moving. Were we moving away from each other at any moment, or drawing close enough to graze?

“Is there a reason you’re leaving us in the dark?” I shouted out to Belinda. She had gone a step further and also shut off the lights inside the house, so now there truly was no light to navigate by. “Not especially,” she said. “I just thought it would be nice to have darkness at the same time both outside and in, now that I’ve taken out that wall—or made it retractable anyway. Now the lighting conditions can match—can be seamless—dark out and dark in.”

Brad and I began holding onto each other so as to keep steady and afloat. We would make our way to the edge of the pool—or what felt like the edge anyway—and then retreat back into the center, laughing. You’d think Belinda would get uneasy about her husband and her good friend/personal assistant clinging together naked in the pool, but she gave no indication she cared either way. We could hear her humming and picking up and putting down her wine glass. “Ho-hum, what a night,” she sighed. “There’s just not a good enough star show out tonight. That’s why I want to build a decorative overhang for the pool, so I’ll know there’ll always be stars whenever I want to see them.”

We heard Belinda get up—she must have been sitting on the floor—and put her wine glass down on the bar top. And then switch the lights back on. Brad and I began pulling away, and then drew close again regardless of the light. I was resting my head, cocked sideways, on one of his shoulders. Belinda had taken out a large piece of construction paper, and laid down by the side of the pool. She had the kind of colored pencils artists use to make rudimentary sketches in hand. Those pencils always reminded me of adult crayons. She looked up at the sky, which with the lights she just turned on, was washed out, and then looked down at her paper.

She began drawing what must have been her ongoing constellation—the same one she originally envisioned, just for the living room, now would be extended into an overhang above the pool, with lights inside, guaranteeing her “seamless stars” whenever she wanted. “The question is which colors do I chose to make it flow as undivided as possible from the inside to the outside,” Belinda said.

Brad and I hung onto each other and twirled in little circles around the pool. The great thing now was how we could cling together in our swirling state from garden back to where we came from. The living room remained open for us permanently—while the door remained retracted.

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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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Desert

Stacy and Bart hadn’t seen each for six days. He was at a fitness camp in Burlington, Vermont. He said he needed a break from their house. Stacy hadn’t been a fair partner in cleaning—Bart felt like only he scooped the cat’s litter and dusted around the box. Only he administered the insecticide when needed. Only he inspected the oven for grease.

“That’s ridiculous,” Stacy said as he packed his allergy medications and searched for his extra contact lens cases. “I come home every night after 10 hours in the office and put dinner on the table and clean up while you sit on the toilet or spend time alone with Algernon, hoarding him to yourself—he hates me now,” Stacy said referring to their black and white tuxedo cat, Algernon. “I do so much I—“ she gasped then, making gulping sounds and started to cry. “I can’t take this anymore,” Bart said glaring at her. “The constant crises and hysteria.” It was then that he zipped up his two overnight bags and stomped out of the house. Stacy knew he would be back because they had an appointment the following Saturday with Dr. Hirschman, their couples counselor.

Bart couldn’t bear to miss a pre-scheduled appointment, and he was too compulsive to drop out of an-already-set course of treatment. He believed in “powering through” the misery to “complete the assignment.”

But he was uncharacteristically late, as it turned out. Focusing on the cactuses on Dr. Hirschman’s waiting room registration desk, Stacy folded her arms with her fingernails digging into the opposing arm. She smiled and hoped no one noticed the digging into her own flesh. Bart had texted her that he would be 15 minutes late, so she knew he would show up, but it was out of character for him to be late. When he arrived in his usual khaki pants, collared shirt and loafers (his style had changed little since she first met him at a fraternity party in college), he smiled like you would to a relative you don’t like but have to sit next to at a wedding. “Sorry, I wanted to stop at home and clean up. I was worried about Algernon’s litter box. He doesn’t like it when it isn’t scooped well, so I was worried he would try going in the tub again.” Stacy shook her head and rolled her eyes. “That’s just like you, not to trust that I could take care of Algernon,” she said. “That’s what I can’t deal with anymore.” Before they could continue the latest round of argument over who was the better maintainer of the house, Dr. Hirschman walked out to the waiting room to greet them. If you booked a weekday appointment, she was in what might be called “business casual”—slacks with blouse and low heels or maybe a comfortable looking dress with cute flats. But on Saturdays, Dr. Hirschman wore blue jeans and a t-shirt, her long highlighted brown hair hanging down the middle of her back like a sixties hippie. Stacy found her more credible in that attire, but Bart always winced when he first saw her. “Now, now,” Dr. Hirschman said laughing. “Save that for later. Our session hasn’t even officially started yet!” Bart and Stacy smiled socially and laughed as if they were only play fighting. “I guess we got a little ahead of ourselves,” Stacy said.

Walking behind Dr. Hirschman, watching her brown hair swinging side to side like a soft metronome and seeing the photos of cactuses, canyons and desert sunsets on the wall, Stacy shivered. She couldn’t figure out why the doctor loved the desert so much. “Dr. Hirschman what is it about the desert that makes you want to see it all day?” Dr. Hirschman laughed, and as they got settled in her office, posed the question back to her patient. “I guess to act like the stereotypical psychologist, I’ll turn that question around: Why do you think I like it so much? Or maybe more interesting to think about—why don’t you like it?”

Stacy wasn’t sure, but was too embarrassed to admit she didn’t know why. “Well, it’s just so empty, and it looks so hot, and I know it’s a dry heat which is better than a wet heat like we have here in Connecticut, and the canyons are so steep and, you know, kind of unmanageable, and—“ She knew she was rambling but couldn’t help herself. Bart, meanwhile, was sitting smugly back on the couch laughing, ready to expose her. “She doesn’t like it because there aren’t any benches or restaurants in the photos,” he said. “There’s nothing in the desert ready to serve her.”

Stacy began clearing her throat repetitively. “That’s not true! I don’t need to be served. Why would you say that about me?” She looked as though she might cry with her cheeks and eyes reddening. Bart meanwhile continued in his smugness, slouching even further back on the couch and snorting a laugh. “Well, let’s see…” he said in answer to her question.

“Alright, alright, let’s move on,” Dr. Hirschman said. She seemed to realize she was dangerously close to one of her two clients storming out of the room. “We’ll revisit that later.”

“The problem is he doesn’t believe I contribute to our home,” Stacy said. “Yet I contribute more than a quarter of our income. He obsesses over how regularly I scoop Algernon’s litter and whether I clean properly around the box.”

“True, but it’s more a lack of caring,” Bart said. “I don’t think you care about keeping things in the places we’ve decided they go.”

Dr. Hirshman perked up at that, waiting for an epiphany with the same expression a dog has when asked if he wants to go outside or wants a treat. The cocked head with widened eyes and a slight leaning forward. “You’ve decided things have certain places they have to go?” she said.

“Yeah, he’s got a designated spot for everything. You want to take your sneakers off when you get home, forget it—you’ve got to know where the sneaker box is first,” Stacy said laughing. You need scotch tape? You better put it back in the office supplies cubby. I needed a hanger the other day and it took me a half-hour to remember that he classified hangers as “laundry paraphernalia,” and so, put them in a crate hidden behind the door to our porch.”

Dr. Hirschman bit her lip and half-smiled. Stacy thought she caught the doctor trying to mask a giggle as a cough, which made her happy. If even the psychologist couldn’t keep a straight face about the way Bart acted, didn’t that prove something? “So, Dr. Hirschman, you see what I’m dealing with.”

The doctor looked around letting her eyes rest on each desert canyon or empty night vista full-mooned rimmed, smiling to herself and then looking back at her two clients. “I think you spend too much time arguing about the organization of stuff,” she said, “or, on the other hand, the disorganization of stuff. Or what stuff is missing altogether.”

Stacy’s victorious smile faded. She thought the doctor was becoming a woman-to-woman ally, but it seemed now that what she was about to propose would involve discomfort—perhaps the thing Stacy hated the most.

“How about a living room desert—a temporary one anyway?” Dr. Hirschman suggested. “Actually, it can be as temporary as you want it to be. You spend a week throwing or moving out everything the two of you decide together is not absolutely necessary, and then after at least two weeks of living without it, you decide whether you want to fill the house up again with the stuff that’s gone, replace it with new stuff or use the down-to-the-bare-essentials house as a chance to easily move out and move on—your separate ways.”

Stacy blinked repeatedly as if she had something in her eye, or had turned the bathroom light on in the middle of the night, and cringed. “That sounds awful!”

Bart, on the other hand, did his bark laugh and slapped his knee. “Sounds good to me. I’ve been asking her if we could do a garage sale for over a year. All that crap in the house. You can never dust all the way with all that stuff everywhere.”

Dr. Hirschman laughed. “That just says it all, doesn’t it? Why not compromise, and just try it for one week, including two weekends? You can start this Friday. The first weekend you empty as much out as possible, during the week you live in your homemade desert and then the second weekend you decide whether to move all or some of the stuff back in, forget about the missing stuff entirely, but continue to live with each other, or dispense with everything including the relationship. Of course, you also could retrieve the stuff, divide it up and then end the relationship. Like I said, the desert can be as temporary or permanent as you make it.”

Stacy took a few deep breaths, rolled her eyes and then stared at the floor. “But I like my stuff. I feel like Bart doesn’t like any stuff at all practically. He just likes sweeping things clean, so I don’t really feel like he’ll be suffering. I feel like I’ll be the only one suffering.” She wanted to add an emphatic, “I hate that!” and stomp her feet like she would have done if she and Bart were talking about this proposed plan alone, but didn’t want to appear childish in front of the doctor. “I mean, I don’t know how reasonable that is,” Stacy said laughing sociably to cut the tension.

“I’ll tell you what—give it a try and if you can’t do it, you can’t do it,” the doctor said.

Too embarrassed to protest any further—she hated the idea of Bart appearing the more evolved of the two of them—Stacy nodded in agreement. “Alright, we’ll give it a try.”

Walking out of Dr. Hirschman’s office, the scenes of desert played out, Stacy and Bart one behind the other rather than side by side. The rigid crests of dry sand, the redness of the sun crisp against flat land and the far-off oasis she thought she saw in a picture not nearly as vivid as the hard sand crusts at the borders. The hallway out was wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side, and they weren’t yet at the point of separating, so why single-file?, Stacy wondered to herself watching Bart’s shoulders rock slightly from side to side heading toward the exit. His real walk was all balls of the feet with a slight bounce, but a lot of the time—especially in public—he tried for what he must have thought of as masculine by rocking side to side as if to the beat of a drum. Stacy always laughed to herself thinking that with Bart, it wouldn’t be an internal drum that his steps were keeping pace to, but something more like a tambourine.

The next morning light broke up the curtains’ pattern and the last of the picnic baskets had been divided up—the ones Stacy brought to the marriage and the ones Bart had tried to replace hers with. They met through a summertime picnic-goers club about 10 years ago, and so, they both had their ideas on how to spread a meal over an open lawn; they also each had beliefs on how to transport, and, to Stacy’s annoyance, pack up the meal afterwards. She liked to focus on the preparations and the feast whereas Bart focused on keeping the meal contained, how to limit infestations and how to pack up back into the basket. His baskets were compartmentalized; Stacy’s were large and decorative with handles of varying sizes. Bart’s handles were superior, designed for long-distance hauls. If their home was now a desert, they both agreed, they should each get to keep just one basket. They now had about five or six each.

“Don’t worry, I won’t touch your basket. We’re down to just these two now, so since it’s the only one you have left, you can keep it with no argument from me,” Bart said. Stacy forced herself to laugh.

“Oh, good, because if nothing else, I’d like to be left with my favorite picnic basket. At least you respect the integrity of that one basket,” she said. Bart huffed and snorted the way he did to connote irritation rather than humor and then moved onto to Stacy’s collection of flag dishtowels. “So, I guess we can’t get rid of any of these?” he said. “I suppose you wouldn’t want to throw out any part of a collection.”

Stacy laughed genuinely because she really thought it was funny he would ask. “No, one for every country I’ve visited, so throwing one out would be like throwing out a memory.” The only time she used the dishtowels was when they had company. She would drive Bart crazy asking his opinion, given the culture and politics of their guests, which flag dishtowels would be best. “Plus, you know I like to alternate them every few days so I don’t feel like I’m stuck—it helps to be reminded of all the places we could go.”

At that, Bart’s eyes wondered over to the window and the suitcases he had pulled out of the closet that morning for review. Which would go first? They were under the windowsill, with light catching the beaded up dust around their edges. “I wonder why we ever kept all of these?” he said without looking at Stacy. “You only needed your own since you know I don’t like to travel, but you just kept buying more. Look at this one,” he said picking up a brown leather suitcase monogrammed with his initials. “Where would I ever take this thing?”

Stacy laughed, and, getting up, ran her fingers along the monogrammed letters. “Great leather. I remember when I first ordered that for you how much I loved seeing your initials on the leather and how when you wouldn’t use it yourself, I would take it with me on my trips so I could be reminded of you. Now, of course, I don’t need any reminders.” She laughed again and patted Bart on the back.

“Don’t need reminding because you just love me so much you can’t stop thinking about me, right?” he said. Stacy smiled and winked playfully. “Yeah, sure,” she said.

Bart pulled one suitcase for himself and glared at Stephanie nodding his head toward the pile of empty bags. “It’s hard to get a feel for a suitcase when it’s empty; it’s like having to try to pick out an outfit in a store hanging on a hanger or just on a mannequin,” she said. “You can’t get a sense—“

“What are you talking about?” Bart snapped. “You’ve stuffed most of those suitcases full of crap enough times to know what they’re like. Pick one and let’s get this over with.”

Stacy ran her fingers again along the monogram and then let the back of her hand rest on a blue with pink polka dot suitcase she got for their honeymoon. “That’s one that won’t get lost at the baggage claim,” she said. “One of those other ones is liable to just keep circling because they look like any other.”

Stacy had begun making a pile of things she chose to keep while Bart had a large trash bag he was using to throw things away. Stacy kept piling items on top of each other and then all of a sudden remembered the suitcase itself was a container and began piling it all inside it. Meanwhile she brushed off the dust from the underside of her keeper pile when Bart wasn’t looking. He always laughed at her inability to care for her possessions. “I don’t mind if you want to throw away all the cleaning solutions, mops and all that stuff,” she said. “I mean I don’t mind leaving all that up to you. You don’t have to ask me if there’s any of it I’d like to keep.”

Bart laughed and ran his hand along the cords of wood under the window frame, looked around and rolled his eyes. “That makes sense.” During his trip to the fitness camp dust had collected, though none that Stacy could see. She always thought of that kind of dust as just residing in Bart’s eyes, as if the back of his eyes needed housekeeping more than the space they shared. Their home always seemed more or less the same. He always looked at her the same and said the same things when they saw each other at night after work. He was precise throwing his zipped-up iPad down in the corner he appointed for it, his cell phone on the island in the middle of the kitchen and then without looking at her (she sitting usually in the picture window seat daydreaming over a pack of cards playing solitare or painting with Crayola water colors): “So, what do you want tonight?” He just meant something along the lines of do you want meatloaf, turkey loaf, green bean casserole or fillet of sole.

“Obviously, you don’t get much use out of these,” he said, piling the mops, brooms, detergents and solutions into his trash bag. “I think I’d like to start fresh with all new cleaning stuff,” he said. “I don’t want to bring all this dust with me.” Stacy laughed as if she were trying to be sociable and inspected the room remaining in her boxes. She still had a way to go to get them filled. “Well, I always thought if we had ever had a child, we could have done a good overhauling cleaning,” she said. “We never had a kid, we hardly ever traveled anywhere together and we hardly ever had any friends over. You were always so obsessed over keeping everything a certain way—and we didn’t have anyone to make it look a certain way for—so I just figured who cares?”

Bart continued averting his face from her as he kept piling cleaning solutions into the trash. “We had ourselves,” he said. “You’d think you’d have some pride about it, just for your own sake, never mind mine.” He sniffed in a way that always reminded Stacy of a prudish minister or even a manly nun. Bart made a big show of having a certain stride when he walked, and with his fitness camps, but at the end of the day, he always seemed a little old ladyish to Stacy. Would a real man preoccupy himself with how clean the borders of the cat litter box were or whether too much dust had accumulated on the windowsill? Bart even once suggested they clean between the tiles of their bathroom with a toothbrush. “No, not really. I don’t care about it myself,” Stacy said. “I need motivation. Like when I thought we would have children. When we didn’t end up having any and you never wanted us to have anyone over, I figured who cares?”

The childlessness of their house never seemed to bother Bart. They had received hand-me-down strollers from friends when they prematurely told them they were planning to have children “in the next year or two,” and ended up shoving the several strollers in the back of a deep closet under the stairs. Stacy always held out hope even when they began trying to avoid each other. She thought maybe things would eventually warm up again between them and then maybe they’d finally have a baby before she got too old. Bart, on the other hand, quickly seemed to forget about the idea and immersed himself in fitness camps. He hated to travel but made an exception for the long weekends in the wilderness in which he climbed rocks and forged—well, not rivers—but shallow streams (or so it seemed to Stacy from the pictures she saw). It was the only borderline manly thing other than his false macho walking stride that Stacy ever knew him to do.

“That’s just a cop out. If it hadn’t been for the ‘childlessness’ and no entertaining it would have been something else,” Bart said. “You would have said it wasn’t sunny enough to clean or there was too much construction going on outside or the garbage man wasn’t picking up trash well enough to clean—after all, who can throw stuff out and sweep away dust and dirt without a good garbage man?”

Stacy smiled through grinding teeth and chortled her social laugh. “Ha-ha, well, I guess you’ve got me nailed down, don’t you?” But anyway, it’s all going now, so garbage man or not, you’ll finally get your chance to sweep every corner and every exposed cord of wood just the way you always wanted to.” She walked over to the deep closet where all the hand-me-down strollers were stored and began taking them out and lining them up side by side. “I think rather than choose which to get rid of, we should fill them all up and use them as a conveyance,” Stacy said. “Like for my lighter collection. Remember when I tried liking smoking?” She laughed and winked. Bart furrowed his brow and pursed his lips. “That was idiotic. I still don’t know why you did that,” he said. “You’re the only person I know who was lucky enough to fail at trying to like smoking.”

Stacy laughed again. “I don’t know—it looks cool, don’t you think? Hey, my grandma smoked at least five cigarettes a day and lived till she was 90.”

Bart shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I’m not even having this conversation. You’re just lucky it didn’t take. So, yeah, get rid of all the cigarette paraphernalia.”

The lighters were pretty and Stacy might have kept them if they weren’t following the doctor’s orders to strive for a desert that would be a clean slate to make decisions from. They were of all different colors and some even had pictures on them. One, which she got in France, had a picture of the Eiffel Tower, and another she got from a trendy bakery had a picture of a cupcake with hot pink icing. “But do you think it’s safe to throw lighters out in the trash? What if they ignite spontaneously and the garbage man catches on fire?”

“Occupational hazard, I guess,” Bart said. “Anything else for the strollers?” Stacy thought a minute, her eyes tracking around the room until she noticed a basket of scarves, some with stripes, others with solid color, some with spots. Some of them belonged to Stacy, some to Bart. “Let’s get rid of all those scarves,” she said. “Just toss them in with the lighters and then maybe we’ll add some of the college sports sweatshirts we ended up with and maybe finish the stroller load off with some expired toiletries.”

Stacy began retrieving the items and tossing them into the strollers as you would toss garbage into the trash because the strollers had become just that—mobile trash cans. “I guess these served a purpose after all,” she said laughing. “I knew I was holding onto them for something.”

Bart looked away from her and made a show of rummaging through one of his piles. “We could have adopted—I suggested it, remember?” he said. “You were just so stubborn—it had to be ours. Well, that’s what you get.”

“I don’t remember saying exactly that. I just wanted to make sure if we had a kid it would be one we’d feel connected to. I didn’t want to feel like we had a stranger here,” Stacy said.

Bart sighed and turned his back on her, stuffing the strollers with a hodgepodge of garbage. “How about the lions, elephants and the humpbacked whale under the bed?” he said. Stacy smiled and began dragging large black and white wildlife photos from under the bed. “I thought these would have been nice for the nursery,” she said. “I wanted to hang these animals alongside a map of the world so the kid would learn about nature and want to travel. I just didn’t want her to have that fear of travel like you.”

“Not afraid to travel,” Bart spit out. “Just don’t think it’s worth the money. You buy a TV, you can watch it for five years maybe; you take a week’s trip to Europe the money’s gone in a week.”

“Lucky Dr. Hirschman had us make a desert at home instead of having us travel to one. We have our own mobile desert—we can make it wherever we live,” Stacy said. “Pretty convenient, huh?” She lined the freeze-framed animals against the wall and watched as Bart sorted his cleaning equipment and added in a collection of baseball mitts to his mounting garbage.

The sun making a railroad track of light through the prism-patterned window curtains as it set, the living room, kitchen and bedroom were almost empty. The bed remained and the closet with a handful of each of their clothes and Stacy’s toiletries remained, along with a couch, coffee table and end table with a lamp, but the material that had accumulated between them over the years was gone.

Bart and Stacey were like two people who didn’t know each other but saw each other every day waiting at a bus stop. They would look at each other and attempt a pleasant expression and then look away into the distance as if they were looking for the bus that was scheduled to arrive shortly. Their eyes trailed in search from the emptied corners of the room to the garbage-wreaked strollers to the newly opened views from all of their windows. There was formerly always an obstruction like an art print waiting to get hung or a memento from one of Stacey’s trips on the windowsill.

On the last journey of her eyes, Stacey settled her attention on paint and brushes left on top of one of the strollers. She thought she would just throw them out since she never managed to get around to painting anything. Now with bare walls and the decision of what to take and what to leave, the thought occurred to her finally to create not on a canvas but across their shared living space.

“I’m afraid your canvases have long since made it to the dumpster,” Bart said chuckling. “Maybe when we—or you maybe—relocate you can find an art supply store to stock up again.”

Stacy laughed right back. “Well, actually, our desert is here so I can paint anything I want. All our photos, all the art we picked out for our place, is gone. The walls are back to the original now—just like they were when we first got here—and I can paint anything I want—jungles, beaches, cityscapes, gigantic splotches, anything—even yet another desert.”

Broad swipes at the center of the wall from the orange palette were following by royal blue at the upper edges of the wall and pinks were splotched here and there. “Desert colors,” Stacy said.

Bart laughed with a snort. “That’s just a mish-mosh of colors. That’s nothing.”

Stacy reached back into her palette and drew dark and gray colored “v’s” to look like scattered birds traveling. “Time to fly,” she said to herself. The colors merged so that it wasn’t clear where the desert skyline ended and where the sunset began. For a few minutes Bart didn’t say anything and then he tapped Stacy’s shoulder: “You know, I have some white paint down in the garage. I don’t mind cleaning this up after you’re done. I think the white I have is pretty thick, pretty opaque, should cover this up.”

Stacy didn’t hear him and seemed not to see him either brushing past him so that her shoulder butted against his as she strode across the floor to dip into another color and pick out another piece of wall to frame into an orange canyon’s shadow or the rising rim of a sunset (or was it a sunrise?). Bart meanwhile had brought the white can of paint back from the garage, opened it and stood poised with his brush. He looked at Stacy’s back swaying this way and that like an aerobic exercise as she covered the wall with her desert. He looked concerned and confused—eye brows knitted so the lines popped out of his forehead and a line appeared between his eyes. His cheeks were flushed. “Don’t worry about it, just relax, it’s OK. I can fix this, I can clean this up pretty easy, I think. It turns out I have that white paint I was talking about. I just got it up from the garage.”

Stacy twisted toward him briefly with his scrunched up face, muscles tight and his hand raised to administer his healing white paint balm. “Sure, it’s OK,” she said. “Why wouldn’t it be OK? What do you think of all these suns? I decided to bleed the color some. I decided there should be more than one sunset and sunrise maybe and a lot of things that could be canyons or mesas or maybe not or—why do you keep staring at me like that? I’m painting my desert. And there you are with your white paint brush all ready to—“

“Stacy, babe, really don’t worry about it’s OK, why don’t we go sit on the couch for a while and read a magazine or—“

“Can’t—I want to finish this desert scene. I’ve only tackled the first wall, and there are three others, three others with suns waiting to be bled all over the place.”

“Alright—whatever—well whenever you’re ready, I have the white paint.”

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On Unicorn Farm

The pig mirror had a cracked hoof, but did that disqualify it for the living room? Judy didn’t think so. “Well, maybe I can find a pretty pendent of some kind to glue to the injured foot,” she said. She smiled in the belly of the pig, her large hazel eyes framed with mascara and greenish eye shadow and her purple-tinged lips reassuring her. “I like it—it adds color to what would ordinarily be the kind of room a person would just do their taxes in,” she said to Herbert, the man she had hired to oversee the property she had just been given, and to act as a kind of super in the house. She needed someone there when the plunger wasn’t enough to fix the toilet.

“Actually, to tell you the truth, I’d like a whole collection of mirrored animals with pieces missing,” Judy said, only slightly laughing. “I think I might even mount them on the wall.” Herbert had long since ignored her—Judy got the sense he thought she was crazy and tuned her out as soon as she started talking about anything unrelated to the utility of the house. “What do you think, Herbert? You think that’s a good idea?” Herbert made a face, wrinkling his short nose. He was 10 years younger than Judy—probably no older than his late 20s, but he had the affect of a middle-aged man. “Noooo,” he said melodramatically. “I don’t think that would be the best choice.” Judy laughed and seemed happier with her idea now that it had been rejected. “Yeah, I think I’ll look for some fake jewels, maybe those little things they paste on finger nails and then paste them to the missing parts of the animals.”

The farm, technically speaking, wasn’t a farm. It was a three-bedroom house originally white with black shutters, but which Judy had painted pink with green shutters. Each shutter had a different sea animal carved into it. She had chosen the octopus window frame for her own bedroom. “Don’t worry, Herbert, you and Lily can have the starfish room,” Judy said. “Maybe Lily will start feeling better with more colors and windows with sea creatures and the wind knocking in the middle of the night.”

Herbert smiled sociably and nodded. “I don’t think so. But we’ll see. Dr. Mathis says a change in her routine might be a good idea. Her meds aren’t doing as much as he had thought.” The starfish room wasn’t bad, though Judy wouldn’t have chosen it for herself—the hills on the horizon beyond the sea creature-shuttered windows weren’t visible enough, so all you got was a horizon with nothing to put it into context. Herbert’s wife, Lily, was depressed, and it was one of those depressions that didn’t stem from any life event—she was just sad for no apparent reason. She dragged her slippered feet across the wooden floorboards of the Manhattan apartment she shared with Herbert, too de-energized to pick up her feet, and she often slumped when she walked, like an old lady would. On the streets, it was a different story. She wore fashionable, bright clothes and would only slump when no one she knew was around.

“Well, maybe cooking for all of us and working in the garden will help,” Judy said. “I heard they give people busy work to do in mental hospitals, so maybe my new house is the next best thing—”

“Right,” laughed Herbert. “To a mental institution.” Judy was afraid to live alone in the house she was given by her father. And she didn’t know how to do the most basic of home repair work, so if her old work friend, Herbert, and his depressed wife, Lily, were looking for a change of scenery and needed a cheap place to live, she was willing to give it to them. She made sure she wouldn’t have to share a bathroom with them, and the house was just big enough that she could avoid them if she didn’t feel like looking at them. “Well, I’ve never had my own garden before, and you said Lily knows how to do that stuff and knows how to cook, right?” Herbert nodded and smiled vaguely. “Good enough. She knows how, anyway.”

The next day, Judy found herself in the eye of the broken pig. She had stuck it on the wall and found a faux-jeweled ornament to cover up the missing foot. She wandered around the room laughing at how the pig’s eye followed her, like the eyes in a painting would. “Herbert, are you sure you don’t want the injured pig in your room?” Judy called up the stairs. Herbert wasn’t listening to her through his sweeping and dusting and vacuuming. Evidently he would be housekeeper as part of his low-rent agreement. Judy hadn’t asked him to serve as a housekeeper, but he found her standards of home cleanliness unacceptable. “The pig is yours if you want it. It’s kind of funny looking. Maybe it would make Lily laugh.”

When Judy didn’t hear any response, she trudged up the stairs, each step groaning the way she liked a house’s steps to talk back to the owner. Herbert was in the room he and his wife would share, using a toothbrush to scrub between the tiles in the bathroom just off the bedroom. “I keep seeing brown residue of some kind,” he said.  I like the little spaces between to be plain white.”

Judy rolled her eyes. “Who cares? I don’t have patience for that nonsense. Does Lily care?”

Herbert shook his head and laughed, never pausing in his scrubbing. “Not really. I guess she feels the way you do.” Every few minutes he would hold the toothbrush up to the light to see what new dirt it had picked up. “Well, I don’t think she realizes that she actually does care—she just takes it for granted that everything will be clean.” The light coming in from the window was still strong enough for Judy to look in the mirror and see the beginning of crow’s feet around her eyes and slight wrinkles around her mouth. Nobody else could see it, maybe, but she knew it was there. Lily and Herbert were younger, and she wondered how much they noticed. Did Herbert, inspecting the tiny spaces between the tiles on the floor, notice the creases on his face gaining on him, or the way his mouth was more marked than it was last year? “I think Lily’s probably more interested in keeping up her own looks than worrying about the bathroom tiles,” Judy said.

Judy and Herbert were outside debating which tree would be best to anchor a swing to, and whether it would harm another tree to string lanterns to it, when an SUV rolled up with Lily in the passenger seat. The driver’s seat was taken by a curtain of ironed dark hair streaked with honey-colored highlights. The curtain turned and a slightly beaked nose bobbed up and down.  When the face beneath the curtain turned down to rummage through a large purse, Judy and Herbert could see Lily with her head turned away looking out the window. She had arrived at her destination but seemed to be still in transit in her mind. She was still looking out the window in the immovable way you do when on the highway for a long stretch of time.

Judy hoped she would just stay that way for a few hours to avoid having to make small talk with her. But after about a minute she turned her small, thin neck, brushed back her bobbed dark hair, put her sunglasses on and pushed out of the car. She smiled socially and said goodbye to the hair-as-curtain friend who had given her the ride, but Judy could see it was just one of those forced smiles you do when someone is taking your picture. Lily had a small black overnight bag slung over her shoulder and she was in black Capri pants with a short-sleeved, cream-colored tailored blouse. She had on black, shiny, open-toed dress shoes with light pink-painted toenails. “Hi Judy,” she said thinly smiling. “Thanks again for letting us stay here between apartments. We really appreciate it.”

“Sure, no problem,” Judy said. “Like I told Herbert, I needed someone here in case the toilet broke.” Lily nodded and smiled and then looked away, studying the tree where Judy and Herbert had been debating about the swing. A yard measuring stick was leaning against the trunk and there was a manual for the swing lying in the grass. “That’s where we were thinking of putting a swing. I thought maybe it would be nice to have one of those tree swings in the front yard. What do you think?”

Lily smiled again and nodded. “Sure, I guess. If the tree can hold our weight.” Lily didn’t travel lightly. She had a bird that had died over the last month, but she decided to keep the cage. She had filled it with scarves and tights. It was now an accessories carrier. That was the only sign of whimsy. She had a six-piece Louis Vuitton luggage set that required several trips to move into the house. Judy wasn’t a light traveler either, so she sympathized.

“I like that I’m not the only one around here who isn’t a low-maintenance traveler,” Judy said during one of their trips back and forth to the car to retrieve the luggage. “People are always making fun of me about it.” Lily looked back at her without laughing, seeming to shy away from the two of them being grouped together. “Well, I have a lot of sets of clothes that I like to keep organized together,” she said. Judy pitied her the organized outlook. It was good to make sure all your personal things were kept out of sight, each in a place you could find, but sub-dividing into categories all these items, and then constantly sorting and re-sorting them, seemed like a terrible waste of energy. “Oh, I’m not too organized myself,” said Judy. “I just have lots of stuff.”

The strangeness of the arrangement, with Judy, a single woman, and Herbert and Lily, the married couple, living together was inherent. But the first tangible strange thing Judy noticed was when Lily began unpacking. Lily was, like she described herself, organized. In a special pouch in the suitcase were her silk scarves in a multitude of colors; in another pouch were her beaded necklaces and in another her necklaces with pendants; and in another part of the suitcase her cardigans and then her Capri pants and then her blouses, and so forth until you began to get dizzy watching. And then there was in its own special bag a cuckoo clock from a trip she and Herbert took to Austria a few years earlier.

“That’s fantastic, Lily,” Judy said. She hadn’t thought enough of Lily to think her capable of keeping cuckoos. “Does it work? Is there one of those little birds that comes out every hour co-coo-ing?” Lily smiled with her eyes cast down. “Actually,” she said, “it’s an antique from a great aunt—one of the family who stayed in Austria rather than coming to the US in the 40s. It does work, actually.” Judy looked longingly at the cuckoo clock. “Could we mount it on the wall downstairs, maybe in the living room? I would just love to be reminded of the time by a cuckoo.” Lily nodded and got back to her packing seeming to prefer staring at her socks than at Judy. “It helps to stay on task when you’re reminded of the changing of the hour,” Lily said. “I like to make a list every morning with everything I want to do that day, and then let the cuckoo remind me at the beginning of every hour how I’m doing.”

It was hard to believe this was the same person Herbert said could barely be peeled off the couch. Maybe the cuckoo clock and the agenda of the day was Lily’s psychologist’s advice for getting herself on the move. The cuckoo was central to the house now. Once it was mounted on the wall, it began announcing the hours as early as 6 am, when Lily woke up and went downstairs and set the cuckoo to clucking hourly. They had all agreed the cuckoo should be turned off for sleep. Lily would then begin tending to the herb plants she grew in pots on the windowsill behind the sink in the kitchen—mint, rosemary, thyme and oregano, among others Judy couldn’t identify. She would then begin organizing what Judy and Herbert had thrown here or there. Stray magazines would be compiled and organized by month and then week and then sub-categorized according to content. Lily was the obsessive one about everything having its place and Herbert was the one who checked between every tile and around every window and door frame for dust. Judy preferred to ruminate on the broken pig mirror or wonder whether the tree swing would propel her high enough. As Judy told Herbert, she was glad they were there, anyway, in the event of a broken toilet.

Herbert was the next to rise and he would obsess over eggs for about 20 minutes. He liked to keep not one but two-dozen eggs in the house. Every morning he would conduct an egg inspection, holding each egg up to the light and sniffing each. For what purpose, Judy had no idea. Herbert said he could tell whether at any given point an egg would be at its best in taste by doing this inspection. Judy liked to sneak up behind him while he was bent down, hovering over the egg drawer in the refrigerator. “But how can you tell? And does it matter?” she would ask as he sometimes jumped back. “When an egg is at the point when it’s best to eat, you know it,” he would say. And then the cuckoo would announce the coming of the next hour and he would rush to choose his egg as if he were on a game show and the timer had just buzzed.

“Why don’t you share eggs with your husband?” Judy asked Lily as she sat by the living room’s picture window staring away. Lily usually had instant oatmeal as soon as she woke up and then didn’t eat anything else except a few crackers or a piece of fruit until dinner. She was thin. “It’s too rich for me. I like something light in the morning,” she said. “And I like to eat as soon as I wake up. I don’t want to wait for him to wake up and then go through his whole process of choosing an egg and then wasting time while he figures out what kind of eggs he wants and then another 10 minutes while he decides what he wants with his eggs and then another five minutes while he thinks about what he wants to drink. I’d rather eat, tidy up and then, then, then,” her voice trailed off like she couldn’t remember what should come next. “And then what, Lily?” Judy said. “Oh, I don’t know, whatever I feel like doing that day,” Lily said.

What Lily felt like doing was reorganization. Usually, nothing was thrown out or altered; just rearranged. Everyday, as if doing it for the first time, Lily reorganized all of her belongings. A person unfamiliar with her routine would never guess she did the exact same thing the day before and the day before that. It reminded Judy of a person who looks at the same painting from a different angle everyday hoping to notice something new. Lily’s collection of purses was a special focus. She would go one by one to make sure they were all empty and then she would try to minimize storage space by finding the biggest one and then putting the next biggest one inside and then the next biggest inside that one and so forth. It was as if she were making Russian nesting dolls of the purses. She hadn’t done any shopping since her arrival, so the bags were always the same. Yet every day she re-did this task as if hoping to find that she had been wrong and one of the bags was actually bigger than another or that she could suddenly squeeze two or three bags into one.

Meanwhile Judy had begun a daily project of pasting faux jewels to the missing parts of animal mirrors—like the pig mirror with the missing hoof. Something about seeing herself in the frame of a broken animal was appealing or comforting. She now had a small basket of rhinestones and other costume jewelry to paste onto the missing parts.

And as Judy pasted jewels to animals in disrepair and Lily slid bag into bag to make her possessions as small as possible, Herbert inspected eggs, scrubbed along the cracks between tiles, dusted behind the refrigerator, disinfected the floorboards and policed the coffee table. If he had just polished the table, it was unacceptable to put anything down on it. Judy once made the mistake of thoughtlessly putting her umbrella down and he got up from the couch just to take the umbrella off the table and put it in the designated umbrella bin by the front door. “You’ll ruin the wood,” he said to Judy as he resettled on the sofa with his iPad.

One late afternoon, with the sun glaring eye level through the picture window and Lily staring through winter tree skeletons at an unnamed target in the distance, Judy began mapping out her spring garden. She wanted both a flower garden and fruit and vegetable garden—and wasn’t sure if it was too late—whether a great spring garden is something that needs to be planned in the fall. “What do you think, Lily, is it too late to plan for my spring garden?” she asked as Lily continued to stare out the window. Lily didn’t respond, so Judy just kept talking. “I mean, let’s say I wanted daffodils, crocuses, and then peonies and lilies and lilac and all the berries I like—strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry—”

Lily spun her head around, her dark bob of hair swinging. “Actually, I don’t know much about gardening,” she said. “I don’t know why Herbert told you that.”

Judy laughed. “Yeah, that’s strange. It’s not like I wouldn’t have let you stay here if you didn’t.”

Herbert, who had been playing one of his puzzle games on his phone, butted in suddenly: “What are you talking about? You had about ten herb plants growing on our windowsills in our old place.”

Lily rolled her eyes. “That’s nothing. Anybody can grow mint and things like that on a windowsill. I don’t know anything about the berries Judy is interested in.”

“Well, who cares?” Judy said irritably. “You can just help me with as much as you know.”

It was still bitter winter, so the garden planning was all internal now, behind fogged-up windows and artificial heating. Judy didn’t bother to talk about it out loud now that she knew neither of her housemates could help. The peony bushes were most important and the tulips were pretty important, too. The roses, which Judy guessed would be eaten by beetles, were less important, but she would have liked having at least enough for a bouquet. She wondered if the daffodils would come in naturally with the crocuses at the end of March. And whether this garden she envisioned would look good twined around the small, steel unicorn she purchased at an antique shop in the fall. Judy’s mind was set about wanting a garden surrounding the unicorn. “Do you think there’s anything strange or unpleasant about a unicorn in a garden?” she asked the other two. Lily swung her head around again. “Definitely strange, but not too unpleasant. Maybe there are some religious people who think it’s a sign of the devil, the way they do about things like crystals. Assuming nobody sees it as a devil symbol, I don’t think it would offend anybody.”

The cuckoo clock struck the hour and Lily and Herbert jumped up like puppets with their cords pulled. Herbert began putting all his electronic devices away—phone, tablet, laptop computer—and Lily began straightening the pillows of the picture window couch. Judy continued to reside in the ungrown garden in her mind, preparing to plant, yet uncertain of how and when the flowers would come in, or where the unicorn would go.

The room became vacant before the garden could come fully to mind, and Judy turned to the growing collection of incomplete animals—the mirrored animal art missing paws and hooves, ears, eyes, and, in one case, a fang. The pig she discovered at the antique shop with Herbert was now on the wall in the living room opposite the cuckoo clock. His missing hoof glittered now with rhinestones and faux pearls. When the cuckoo announced the hour and darted in and out of her wooden box, the cuckoo’s reflection was caught and magnified in the pig. An owl mirror, which Judy named Floyd, was next—his beak was chipped. A new beak of faux turquoise was needed. As Judy rummaged through her brown bag of fake jewels, assorted beads and sparkles, the raised voices of Herbert and Lily drifted down to her. “I resent that you don’t believe me,” Lily said. Herbert just laughed and laughed. “Oh, come on!” Judy heard her stomping back and forth in the upstairs hallway. “No, really, it says a lot that even about something like this, you don’t believe me,” Lily said. “Well, where would the horses come from?” Herbert asked. “Why would they be running across this lawn?” There was a long pause and then a creaking of feet toward the top of the stairs. “How am I supposed to know? I just know I saw three white horses running really fast across the front lawn. I don’t know why you won’t believe me,” Lily whined as she came downstairs.

Lily was in a huff once downstairs, pacing from picture window and back along the other side of the room. She moved fast twirling her hair and frowning. She was mumbling to herself. “Well, I believe you,” Judy said. “Sorry—but I couldn’t help overhearing about the horses. I think it’s possible.” Lily stopped and half-smiled. “Thanks—I guess that helps. It’s just so aggravating to always be second guessed about everything.”

Judy held up the owl mirror, Floyd, with his new rhinestone and faux pearl beak. “What do you think? He’s looking good now, isn’t he?” Judy took Floyd to the kitchen sink and began washing him so you could see yourself clearly when you passed by him on the way in or out of the house. She thought Floyd would do well by the front door as the kind of mirror you give yourself a first or last look in after arriving or just before leaving. Lily, meanwhile, had brought her purses within purses downstairs and was taking each out of the one it had been tucked into until a dozen purses were laid out on the sofa. She then began her usual routine of sliding her hand into each to ensure nothing had been forgotten, zipped up and thrown into the closet.  “I could have sworn I left a pendent for a necklace in one of these,” Lily said irritably. “I just can’t find it anywhere.” Judy who had returned to the living room after tacking up Floyd to the entranceway wall, didn’t want to embarrass Lily by stating the obvious—that she searches through her purses compulsively every week, and that Judy knew she was doing it as a compulsion rather than as a search for any keepsake. “Well, I’m sure it will turn up sooner or later—you know how it goes,” Judy said gently.

As Lily consumed herself with the purse inspection, Judy looked through her growing collection of mirrored animals, settling on a cow with a chipped udder as her next project. Throughout the day she worked at covering over the chipped area with saffire-looking jewels and some sort of yellow semi-precious stone she couldn’t identify.

At dinner that night, the theme was silent irritability. There was waiting-for-the-elevator-with-strangers chat interspersed with yearning glances away from the table out the dark window. “Well, I meant to tell you, Herbert, I like the way the sconces ended up looking in my bathroom,” Judy said. “The sea horses are illuminated well.” Lily laughed in a guffawing way and cleared her throat. “What’s wrong?” Judy asked looking shyly at her. “It’s a unique choice of lighting fixtures,” she said, laughing again. “It goes well with your mirror menagerie, I guess,” she said. Judy detected sarcasm, but played dumb. “Yes, well, you know me, I’m nothing if not a sophisticate.”

“What I don’t understand is why you don’t at least get animal mirrors with their parts in tact,” she said. “It’s like you feel sorry for them as if they were real.” Judy thought about it, shuffling her peas on the plate. “Well, if you have an animal mirror that’s old and in a garage sale or at an antique store, there’s a good chance part of it’s going to be chipped because glass breaks so easily, and usually they’re a good bargain—because they’re broken. Actually, until I happened to see the pig mirror, I never knew animal mirrors existed.”

Lily went upstairs immediately after dinner saying she was in the middle of a good book she wanted to get back to, so Herbert and Judy cleared the table and loaded the dishes in the dishwasher. “Why were you goading her earlier about whether or not she really saw horses?” Judy asked. Herbert shut off the water from the kitchen sink and turned to face her. “Lily does this kind of thing all the time. She makes up stories. Like back when we were in the city, she said she used to see a homeless man everyday on her way home from work who used to do magic tricks for her until she gave him money.” Judy laughed and nodded. “I don’t think that’s unbelievable. There are probably a lot of homeless magicians in New York.”

Homeless magicians didn’t seem strange at all to Judy. She added: “Actually, what’s strange to me is if they’re magicians, why don’t they pull an apartment or house out of their hat so they don’t have to live on the street?” She laughed again and turned back to the dishes. Each dish had an animal on it, and with the wear of many years and meals, most of the animals had parts that were fading, though you could still get the idea. You knew you were looking at a pelican with a fading beak or a rabbit with one ear deteriorating or a peacock with nothing but tail feathers left. “Well, anyway,” Herbert said shortly, “she makes stuff up. Parts may be true, but the whole thing lots of times isn’t.” Judy wondered what the problem was—as long as the general idea or point was true, couldn’t she be given some leeway? “So, maybe it wasn’t three white horses running across the lawn, but three deer or a large rabbit,” she said. “Who cares?”

“God is in the details,” Herbert sighed hanging up the dishtowel and walking out of the kitchen. “The devil, you mean,” said Judy. She retreated to her cow with the chipped udder, contemplating the adornment that could conceal the missing edges.

Over the next month, the only intact animal in the house was the cuckoo clock’s cuckoo, who zipped in and out in a sing song announcing the hour. The cuckoo was flawless as Judy labored over a barnyard of mirrored invalids, Herbert checked the cracks in the house for dust and Lily organized and reorganized her belongings and slouched around, often with a disgusted downturn of her lips. She would sometimes mumble to herself: “He’s so dismissive of me, ready to disbelieve me, I’m so sick of this, cleaning this and that and inspecting everything.” Judy would let her go on and rattle to herself thinking maybe it was good for her, like a catharsis. Plus, it was pretty funny. “Yes,” Judy responded one afternoon, “Herbert is an inspector. He’s always pointing things out I never would have noticed. Like the other day—”

Lily was rubbing her hands vigorously with coconut-smelling hand moisturizer and staring again out the picture window. “I know what you’re about to say—that he noticed the dust at the edge of the floorboard. That’s one of his big things—the accumulation of dust and the idea that there are spaces too small for a broom, a mop or one of those little vacuum cleaners to reach. It drives him crazy that there could be dust that’s out of reach, I—Hey, hey, hey, gimme my phone!” Lily said hysterically. “I think I see them again!” She was tapping the window glass and bouncing up and down on the picture window seat. “Did you hear me? Gimme my phone!”

Judy did as she was told and rushed to the window. Sure enough, there were three white horses. This time they weren’t running but nosing around the bushes at the edge of the woods. They were treating the backyard more as a pasture than as a path to stampede through. Lily gingerly opened the window, but as careful as she was, it seemed the horses heard her because just as the window hinges creaked, they sauntered away.

“Don’t worry, Lily,” Judy said. “I’ll let Herbert know I saw them, too. He probably won’t believe it until he sees it himself, but at least he’ll have to call us both crazy now, or say I’m lying.”

Herbert, up a stepladder changing the batteries in the house’s smoke detectors that night, didn’t argue about the presence of the white horses, but, worse yet, didn’t seem to care. Lily at one side of the base of the ladder and Judy at the other, took turns explaining what they saw. “And then they nosed around the bushes. Like they didn’t have anywhere to go,” said Lily. “Yeah, they weren’t running anywhere this time, they were kind of contemplative,” Judy added. “Maybe they would have stayed longer, but the opening of the window must have scared them off,” Lily said. “Yeah, it’s a shame because I was just getting Lily’s phone so she could take a picture when they ran off,” said Judy.

“That’s good to know,” he said in a nearly flat tone. “The account of the rampaging white horses has been substantiated,” he laughed. Lily took a deep breath then and stomped away and Judy laughed back. “Yes, really, no joke, I saw them myself—but more nosing around this time; not really a rampage.”

The next week saw so many mirrored animals tacked to the walls of the house that injured or incomplete animals reflected back toward one another wherever you looked. Outside the bedrooms upstairs a pair of foxes, each with a missing ear filled in with orange beads, kept watch, and as you descended the stairs, monkeys with cracked tails filled in with paisley beads looked back, showing you your face in the descent. Lily would pause in front of the filled-in animals and pat her hair or smile to check that there wasn’t food stuck between her teeth. Sometimes it seemed she couldn’t keep from glancing sidelong at herself, even when perched on the picture seat—her favorite spot—looking longingly at the edge of the woods.

“Coo-coo, coo-coo,” the cuckoo clock said on the hour one late afternoon with the sun in early spring staying longer than they had gotten used to. “All these broken animals,” Lily said to Judy who was reading a book on the couch. “They can’t help but find you—wherever you look—in this house.” Herbert was assembling one of his model airplanes, the pieces spread out on the dining room table. “A lot of reflections,” he grumbled, overhearing Lily.

But the time for reflections had come to an end—or at least the reflections through the window Lily had been looking through since her arrival. The three white horses were nosing around again. Judy ran to get her phone to take a picture this time through the glass, but Lily stopped her. “Don’t! You might accidentally press against the glass and frighten them. I’m going to sneak out the back door and see if I can get a good look at them from the side of the house.” The funny part was neither Judy nor Lily thought to get Herbert. Instead the first thought was to just take a picture of it—as if they knew he would believe a photo more than his own eyes. Documentation was more important to him than experience.

Lily put on her slippers and crept out the backdoor. She was cat-like, you couldn’t hear anything at all—from inside the house, at least. Judy saw her profile and bob of hair at the edge of the house and watched her tiptoe slowly toward the center and edge forward to get a good view of the horses.  She crept and crept ever closer and the horses didn’t seem to care—they were too interested in the exploring the grass near the woods’ edge. But at some point, Lily must have stepped on a twig or tapped a rock because the horses all looked up suddenly and moved back into the woods.

“Wait! Don’t leave!” Lily shouted loud enough that Judy could hear her through the closed window. For a few seconds Lily just stood there agitated, rubbing her hands, but then she moved toward the woods herself.  The sun was going down, but it was still light enough to clearly see what remained visible of the horses—one’s tail, another’s hindquarters, the edge of the third one’s mane. And you could see Lily in her gray, loose fitting yoga pants and sweatshirt and her shearling slippers following about five feet behind them. She crept closer to them and then they receded a little more into the woods. It reminded Judy of a child trying to catch a ball that started at the edge of the water at the beach and was slowly moving out farther and farther away from the shore.

“Hey Lily,” Judy said, finally opening the window. “They’ll probably come back tomorrow, don’t worry about it. They probably live around here and will be coming through a lot now.” Lily looked back at Judy and half-smiled, but moved forward into the woods, pushing branches aside and clucking her tongue. “Herbert, your wife is going after the horses—into the woods,” Judy yelled into the kitchen, where Herbert had been using a scraping device for the last half hour between the tiles. “Maybe you should go get her. She’s not listening to me.”

Herbert didn’t seem too alarmed. He slowly put down his tile grout scraper and walked—didn’t run—out the door to the yard. You could just see Lily’s outline as she moved deeper into the woods. The outline of her body was framed by the skeletons of early spring trees, which still didn’t have buds on them. “Forget about it—they’ll be back,” he shouted.

Judy saw Herbert place a hand on Lily’s shoulder, but then retreat. He walked back to the house shaking his head. “I think she just has to satisfy her curiosity. Let’s just leave her alone and see what happens.” They waited by the window seat, Judy repairing the missing claw of a mirrored raccoon and Herbert polishing an antique candlestick Judy just bought. About an hour went by and they didn’t see Lily. Then there was a rustling of leaves, and one by one, the white horses emerged from the woods. They again didn’t seem like they were in a hurry and began nosing around. Herbert and Judy looked at each other with wide eyes. “Oh, so I guess Lily must have been following them,” Judy said. “She probably isn’t far behind.”

The horses were in no hurry, especially with Herbert and Judy staying inside and just watching from afar. One of them looked like he (or she?) had some kind of glitter just above his eyes, on his forehead. Maybe decorative bridal with glitter that had smeared off onto his head. “It looks like he had something there on his head that’s gone now but left a mark—or rubbed off somehow,” Judy said, pointing it out to Herbert. “Should we go out there and look for her?” Herbert didn’t answer, but instead tapped the glass and laughed. “Just wanted to see if they would notice that and run back into the woods. I’ve never liked horses.” Judy laughed and pushed his hand away from the window. “Don’t do that, I’ll go myself. I love horses.”

Like Lily, Judy also was in slippers. She crept out, tiptoeing until she was close enough to see the mottling on the skin of one of the horses. “I love you horsies,” she said softly wanting to pet and brush them. Judy almost forgot her mission. “Hey, Lily,” she said loud enough that she hoped her housemate could hear, but not loud enough to frighten the horses. “They’re out here now. There’s no point staying in the woods anymore.”

Judy heard a rustling of leaves—possibly—but no sign of Lily. She wondered if she should joke about how Lily should come back to the house because she wouldn’t want to miss her weekly purse assessment, but decided Lily probably wouldn’t find it funny. Judy crept closer to the edge of the woods and peered in and raised her voice louder this time: “Lily, are you in there? The horses are out here now, in the open, in the front yard. There’s no point staying out there anymore.”

There was leave crunching and twig-moving sounds and Lily emerged, her bobbed hair only slightly mussed up and her slippers slightly dark with soil at the edges. She was breathless. “The thing is,” she said,” catching her wind, “the thing is, I think there could be more. You know that? I think there could be more.” Judy stifled her laugh. “What do you mean, you saw or heard other horses in the woods?” Lily shook her head, hair sticking to her lips. “No, no, I just mean, just because I couldn’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. These horses here could just be missing from a larger herd.”

Judy extended an arm out to Lily, as if wanting to help a person with a leg injury walk. “Well, if there is a larger herd out there, we’ll probably see it sooner or later, without looking for it, don’t you think?” Lily moved back toward the edge of the woods and turned her back. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I just worry if I don’t keep watch—I just worry—I don’t want to miss anything. I keep thinking the others will come back for these three in the yard, and I’ll miss it. I’m just going to keep watch here.” She folded her arms and stood staring into the woods, her back to the house.

Judy shrugged her shoulders and walked back inside. Herbert would have to convince his wife there were no more horses coming—at least not tonight. Judy, meanwhile, looked for her next damaged animal mirror to repair—a duck, a goat, maybe a reptile this time. Or a wolf? What beads or jewels could mask a missing fang? Judy saw her reflection in the completed animal mirrors around her, just broken up here and there by the opaque spots where she decorated over missing parts. She could even see Lily in some of the animals, still at the edge of the woods with her back turned, only part of her cut off by a missing hoof.


 

Lily’s Poetry Journal

 

Garden in a Bathtub

Cast-Off

White porcelain clawed

Tubs

Gardens inside

Where a shriveled end-of-day

Person might lie

Petunias grew

Cleaning in late summer.

Sun Canvas, Sun on Horse

Bright orange

Brushes water

Colors lapping

White canvas

Setting in the horse’s eyes

Galloping down

Her mane

Tracking a tub-entombed

Garden

Late Day Walker

Plastic-sheen sky

Cornered the walker’s trail

Rabbits burrowing, deer foraging

The moon

Obscured

Stars dimmed out

The walker persisted

To a lit wrap-around

Porch.

Moon on a Foggy Night

Oozing from the moon

Fog or mist

Smeared gauze.

Tracking across the sky

We didn’t bother

the sleeping

residents

padding across the porch

forgetting

our elongated light.

Spying on Aliens

Spying on aliens

Was the goal

Of our new telescope;

Seeing aliens

In private deliberations

Cooking dinner

Playing games

Of cards.

We could never get

Close enough

Or zoom in enough

But we’re optimistic

People like us

Are alive

On planets beyond

Our galaxy.

Tapestries

Tapestries

Three-dimensional

Strung across living

Room, picture window

lake, dock,

Swans, ducks

And frogs

Weaved into the blue

Tapestry

Swim out

The daydreamer

Peering, couched

Bleeding Blue

Bleeding blue

Caved purple iridescent

Plants drowned

Fish hooked

Lines down

Sank in

Striped companions

Moths in a Lamp

Light inverted

Wings singed

The upward-bound

Spiraled down

Light-captured

Gardener’s a Witch

The gardener

We were suspicious

Was a witch;

Plants he seized

Danced around

Offered himself

A magician

Of cold cures.

Winter here

He watches the woods

Chanting

at abandoned birds’ nests

Inviting Paw Prints

Paw prints on our porch

We kept,

Waxing until

Immutable

A record

Of the stray animals

We invited

Grandfather Clock-Jewelry Dispenser

Grandfather clock became jewelry dispenser,

Stuffing left over

Jewels

Into the clock

Chiming

A diamond or rhinestone

Rolling out the bottom

The luck of the chime

Self-Portrait as an Owl

Eyes sliced sharp

To a talon

The last gulp

Before midnight

The mirrored inspection

Just looked like myself

With glasses on

On the wrong side of the window

Un-Shoed

The key dangled

On a horseshoe

A horse roamed

Shoe-less

While a key chain

Handily was tacked

To a wall.

The key opened

A door removed

The horse since

Moved on, too

With no shoe

Happy to be

Tromping along

Her feet

Un-shoed

Dying at the Pool’s Edge

Dying at the pool’s

Edge

The frog seemed

Disoriented

Rearranged from his swamp

He nosed

Chemically enhanced

Blue

Hoping for the smear

Of algae

Or a passing

Leaf

A sign of

Under current

Swimmers—

Fish at least—

But he saw clear

Voided water

Silk Flower?

Dark pink

Lighter

At the core

The flower

Was real

Except

The bees buzzed

Around it

The dog sniffed

Its outer bands

And nothing moved

Changed

Or fell off

The darker edges

Always just seemed

About to fly away

Daffodil in Broken Fence

Our fence has a hole

A daffodil grows between

Bugle-heading herself

In the accidental

Opening

Attempted Mummy

I asked

To mummify

You

And you acted

Like it was

Strange

To ask.

I unspooled

White gauze

Wrap

And started

At your feet

You asleep

But woken up

When I touched

Your eyes.

I’d have mummified

You

Right on the property

Given you

Your own sarcophagus

But you remain

Exposed

Burying Watches

On a whim

I buried an old watch—

Actually

A watch collection.

I ensured

At least some

Were still ticking

Buried alive.

The hour hand

Kept steady

Minutes crept

By—

A face submerged

In dirt

Struck noon

High-Up Church

Stepping up

On slippery moss

The monument

Was an aged church,

The tram

Out-of-function

You had to

Toe it

Up the edge

Of greasy rocks

To kneel

At the altar

Swooning Swan

Swooning

The swan

Fawned over

The stone swan

Linking stone

And feather

Necks.

The real and

Hypothetical

Swans, linked

Were a distant

Photograph’s

Perfection—

You couldn’t tell

Afar

Which was stone

And which just swooned

Snow Blind

I wanted to pull snow

Across

Our windows.

Coating the ground

The view still

Wasn’t obscured

So I wanted to make

The white

A black eye shade.

I shoveled careless

Of keeping

The snow in a tidy

Pile on the ground

And slammed

Our house’s

Glass

Funny Nectar

Humming into

The nook

Of a flower’s stamen

The hummingbird

Made concentric

Tightening circles

Apart from her

Habitat

She was brought

As a pet to the farm

So she searched

For nectar

Finding it tasted funny

A Rocking Horse in Fall

A rocking horse

Pink with green

Polka dots

Idled in the fall

Grass, the dead

Gold

Fall leaves

Impeded the rocking

Horse’s

Stampede—

I just lilted

The wooden

Animal by the ears

Crunching dried out

Foliage

In mid-rotation

Stopped

Hot Air Balloon Ornament

Setting the toy

Balloon on the ground

The model

A hot air balloon

Was too small

And lacking

To take flight—

So became

A lawn ornament

Birds and rodents

Perched on

Planted

In the ground

Remaining terrestrial

The children

Pulling it to play

One-Eyed Lion

The lion

Had an eye

Chipped off

But I kept

Rubbing its back,

A known amulet.

The next-door

Developers

Kept razing

Trees in favor

Of a diminished view

The lion

Stared one-eyed

At the reduced

horizon

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