I think you should know what our neighbor has been saying since you left: you borrowed a ladle once and never returned it. You left cigarette butts on the porch. You talked too loudly on the telephone during your phone interviews, and you drank so much whiskey and watched so much MSNBC and name-dropped so many literary figures you once had lunch with a very long time ago.
You never got another job. You never watered our shared porch plants even though they were your idea. You never recycled properly. You put the cardboard in with the plastic. You never scrubbed the grill or wrote your second novel or walked the dog. You didn’t even have a dog. You were the type of man who would never appreciate a dog, even if it was barking at your knees. All you had was that beard, your thick brown beard, and after you shaved, it was like there was nothing left of you.
Our neighbor is only saying these things because you and Helen drank the whole bottle of whiskey and left rings all over their nightstand. But that isn’t even what is making our neighbor so angry. When he came home from work to find Helen gone, he saw your brown hairs scattered over the rug on his side of the bed. I wouldn’t have believed you were capable of such cruelty, if I hadn’t seen the hairs myself. And I wasn’t even going to mention this, but the police had asked me to think long and hard about anything out of character you did right before you disappeared. So I told them. You sat right there on our neighbor’s side of the bed as though it was yours and you didn’t have to bother cleaning up.
“Uh oh,” the policeman said.
“What?” I asked. “What?”
The policeman wrote something down on his clipboard. “A man who suddenly shaves after a lifetime of wearing a beard is headed one of two places,” he said. “Somewhere tropical, or the grave.”
You men talk like this, so matter of fact.
On Memorial Day, news reporters gather at our doors in the morning. They knock on our neighbor’s, and they knock on mine. This is what some of the reporters have been saying about you and Helen:
You are dead.
You slit your throats like a pair of suburban star-crossed lovers.
You are in the south of France. Enjoying the open, wild air.
They try to schedule interviews with me through the wood. Everybody wants to talk to me now that you may be dead. Social workers have started a campaign to reach out to me. They leave me messages, reminding me I am not an island. I am not alone.
But when I look around our apartment, it seems I am. There is no one else but me on the couch or at the kitchen table or under the sheets. Through the window, I see people line up alongside the main road to be together, waving American flags. I can see families on the street, memorializing, with hot dogs hanging out of their mouths. There are so many things the older women in town will not say to me now that you are gone: At least you are still young, Caroline. There is no one who understands how upsetting this is, except our neighbor, who is experiencing a similar problem.
Our neighbor is the one becoming a problem. He listens through the walls at night. He knows I am alone just as I know he is listening.
“What do you think his name is?” I asked you two years ago on our first night together in the apartment.
“I call him, Our Neighbor,” you said to me. We laughed.
You said that you’d call his wife Our Other Neighbor and their children Their Children. You said you thought this was exactly who they were, and exactly what they would always be to you.
I only answer the door for our neighbor now. While the reporters shout through the front door, we are on the back porch. He stands there and asks me to come over to his place. He is thin in black jeans, and has a very triangular nose as though he was dumped out of a box and assembled by his children.
I go on to the porch. The sun is present and warm. Our neighbor has eggs that are cooked for me. He means, he already cooked them for me. He was anticipating a nice morning together, with eggs. And his children. Do I even like eggs? Do I even like children?
“Of course, I do,” I tell him. “I’ve always wanted children.” Though once I’ve said this aloud, it doesn’t sound true.
Our neighbor’s apartment is just like ours, though I shouldn’t be surprised. When the landlord showed us the floor plan she said, you could have any apartment in the building, they all look the same, but we choose 1B because you wanted me to hear the neighbors walking above so I wouldn’t feel alone if you were ever away. Since you’ve been gone, some of your kindest moments have become your cruelest.
Our neighbor puts the plate down in front of me, and we have too much in common now, there is no point bothering with pleasantries.
“Do you suppose they’ve killed themselves?” our neighbor asks me.
“No,” I say, and sip my coffee.
“You sound so sure,” he says. “What makes you so sure?”
“People kill themselves because they are bored,” I say. “Not because they are in love.”
Our neighbor clears his throat. He doesn’t like to believe that you and Helen are in love. The newspapers do, but not him. Our neighbor thinks the worst of people. He prefers to believe that his wife was a woman who was lonely all day with the children. And you are a man who has recognized what a beautiful body your wife has, who has realized how nice her tits are. He repeats the word twice as if he is saying something mean.
“Tits?” I ask.
Then he adds that if you two were in love, he prefers to think that it is over now, meaning you are both dead.
I can’t believe this. “A thirty-four year old woman has breasts,” I say. “A wife has breasts.”
But I know you are not dead, because I can feel you rolling your eyes at my comment. Not our neighbor though. He takes me very seriously. It’s almost nice in a way, how he blushes and quickly apologizes. “I forgot who I was talking to,” he says. We have shared a porch for two years and it is the first time I realize that our neighbor is a person too.
You should know what I’ve been saying to our neighbor since you left: you were beautiful in a way I never knew any other man to be. And even though you were home most of the day, you wore khakis and put on a nice leather belt and a collared shirt, and every so often, cologne. You made asparagus and garlic and mushroom pasta for dinner. When I got home from work, I took in the garlic and asked you why you got so dressed up just to be home. I didn’t mean this to sound insulting. You said you felt better when dressed like a civilized person who had somewhere to go.
“Brains in my head, feet in my shoes,” you said, holding up my Dr. Seuss book. “I’ve been reading your literature all day.”
I know you meant “literature” in some kind of ironic, offensive way. I have more books than you do, but they are all children’s books, so you didn’t think they counted.
“I’ve never seen so many children’s books in one place,” one of your other friends said. He wrote a book about lamps. The evolution of. “And you don’t even have children.”
Your friends found it funny, or at least worth commenting on, even though I explain that I am an editor of children’s books. It is my job to read children’s literature. I get paid to do it. It was something I chose, yes, but you don’t choose a job in the way you choose a piece of jewelry. A job is a choice that is forced upon you, and that is not the same thing as a choice. I wanted to scream this so loud in your face that night in front of your friends, you don’t even know.
* * *
All of those terribly boring parties. Our parties were always the worst because none of my friends came—they were your friends or even worse, Helen’s friends. Our parties were really like your and Helen’s parties. Helen and her friends touched the vases and commented on my lack of foreign literature.
Helen read a lot of Borges. So did you.
“Oh just be together,” I said to you in the kitchen. “Just do us all a favor and be together.”
“Caroline,” you said, sipping on whiskey. “Stop.”
We both knew you drank too much, and yet you tell me to stop. You started at two in the afternoon, but it was too embarrassing to acknowledge. So sometimes during dinner you didn’t sip on anything but water, and you thought that if you didn’t drink for one night, this changed both of our lives. But this didn’t change anything; I knew you were drunk by the time I got home from work. And when I didn’t wrap my arms around you and say I’m so proud of you, you sighed, or said, what the hell, or got the whiskey out of the cabinet and drank until your eyes bled just to show me that there were consequences for dismissing any of your accomplishments, no matter how minor.
“Jesus, Caroline, I’m not dead,” you said. I swear you were unbuckling your belt. “Sometimes, you look at me like I’m not even here.”
“I know,” I said. It was true. Sometimes I could barely look at you. “I’m sorry.”
You hated it when I agreed with you. You thought agreeing was dismissive, that two people only agreed with each other when neither of them were listening. But I was listening, otherwise how else would I have known that you took a sip of Jim Beam and the liquor got caught in your throat? From the bedroom, I heard you cough a little, and I remember thinking you were the kind of person who would never die, even with no money or job or health insurance, you would always be next to me in an ironed pair of khakis and a red checkered shirt with nowhere to go.
“Fine,” I said. It was as though you were waiting for me to smack you in the face. “You’re a dirty drunk with no job.”
“That’s more like it,” you said.
After that, it was mostly quiet. Our fights couldn’t even fill up a postcard.
* * *
On the porch, our neighbor looks like he is about to cry. “Where are my children?” he asks suddenly worried.
“At school,” I say, taking his hand. “Don’t worry. It’s Tuesday.”
I think you should know the kinds of things I’ve begun to tell our neighbor: you loved sex right before you had your morning coffee. You were more aroused than me every single morning, and when I opened my eyes, I could already feel you from behind rubbing against me.
One night, I told you I had started to feel like some kind of morning scratching post, and this made you angry, how-could-you-think-that-is-all-you-are-to-me you shouted, but after three glasses of whiskey, you became sad.
Our neighbor says he understands. He sips his coffee. He explains to me that if I was a scratching post, this meant you had become a dog, this meant that everything we did was out of desperation, an itch, that we threw the trash out because we couldn’t deal with it anymore, that we swept the floor because we were worried about being buried alive by soot.
It sounds cruel to admit to our neighbor, even though you’d agree with me, that we loved their fights. Once Helen was up against the wall, like they had just finished making love, and we could almost hear their breath coming through the insulation.
“Then just do it,” our neighbor told Helen. “Just fucking do it already!”
You looked at me over the sink and we laughed. I slipped on my nightgown. We listened to their children crying from their bedroom.
“I feel sorry for Their Children,” I said. I was tweezing my eyebrows, and you were wiping the hairs off the counter with a wet napkin.
“I’ll fucking do it,” Helen shouted through the wall. A door slammed. Our bed shook. I looked at you, but you didn’t look over at me.
It is mostly quiet now, and it has taken this silence to make me realize that our neighbor doesn’t talk to his children at night. He puts on cartoons for them and walks out of the room. I can hear the kerplunks and the horns blaring through the walls. I am lying in my bed thinking of you and what you would say to children at a time like this. Sometimes I read, but I don’t like the feel of books in my hands anymore. Even I can admit, the enthusiasm of a children’s story can be too much for night. So I close my eyes and think of you. Sometimes, I feel like I’m cheating on our neighbor when I think of you and I don’t even know why. I don’t belong to our neighbor. I never even belonged to you.
Our neighbor’s children have found the newspaper where you and Helen are advertised as missing. Helen Walker: green eyes and a tattoo of the moon on her buttocks. She weighs 115 pounds. She is sixty-eight inches.
“Sixty-eight inches,” our neighbor says. He doesn’t like that Helen is described this way. “Like it’s a joke? Sixty-eight inch woman….missing.”
You are, apparently, seventy-five inches. I never thought of you as being so small. You have brown eyes. No wisdom teeth. They include this, I suspect, in case all they find is your teeth.
“Here,” I say, taking the paper from them all. “Let’s read this instead.”
I am lying on our neighbor’s couch. We are reading Oh, The Places You’ll Go! under my arm. The children like the pictures of the cars most. They keep pointing to the cars and screaming out the words.
“Today is your day!” Michael shouts.
“You’re off and away,” I say.
After dinner, I send the children to sleep, even though it doesn’t feel like my job to do so. They are quiet upstairs, but I don’t believe they are actually sleeping. “Out like lights,” our neighbor says, but sometimes, I don’t think our neighbor really knows anything. We’ve always suspected this from the other side of the wall. “Our Neighbor,” you said, spitting toothpaste into the sink, “is a fucking idiot.”
“I agree,” I said.
“Our Other Neighbor is beautiful,” you said. “I saw her jogging the other day. Seeing her just reminded me of how beautiful she is.”
“Helen is very pretty,” I said. When you talked about other women like this, it only made us feel closer.
“And he tells her to just leave,” you said. “What an idiot.”
“If a person wants to go,” I said, “she should just go. If a person wants to go, it’s cruel to stay.”
On the couch, our neighbor asks me to spend the night. To lay my legs on him. So I do. His hands are rougher than yours.
“You don’t wear skirts?” he asks, and I am unclear why he phrases this as a question.
“Sometimes,” I say. “Holidays.”
Our neighbor has his hand on my leg, and I wonder if my skin feels like he had imagined it to feel. It scares me that I am not fulfilling his expectations. Our neighbor knows what I can be. He’s heard me through the wall. He’s listened to you touch me. We’ve heard the both of them as well. Our neighbor is quiet and Helen is loud, and knowing what I know now, I suspect you fantasized heavily about her. You wanted a woman who screamed. A woman who strapped on a leather leotard without blushing. But I still don’t understand, because that time I shouted, you held your hand over my mouth to keep the neighbors from hearing.
“Relax,” our neighbor says. He squeezes my calf with his hands. His hands are strong and warm from cleaning the dishes. “The children are asleep.”
When a man says, the children are asleep, it sounds exactly like, let’s have sex now, but the problem is, the children are not asleep. I know this because I was once a child. And as a child, I was never asleep. I always had to play play play or pee pee pee.
The children appear in the doorway. At my knees. “Tell us a prayer,” the children say to me.
“You mean, tell you a story?” I ask.
“No,” they say. “A prayer. Tell us a prayer like Mom used to.”
“I don’t know what prayer your mother used to tell you.”
“You have to say my Mom’s.”
I look at our neighbor for help. Our neighbor shrugs his shoulders. He removes his hand from my leg. “It was their mother’s thing,” he says.
“I don’t know what prayer your mother used to say unless you say it to me,” I tell the children.
The children start crying. “You have to know, you have to know just ask Mom! Ask my Mom or never talk to me again! I mean it!”
The children run back to their room. That is the only difference between our apartments. We put our books where they put their children.
“I’m sorry it has to feel like this,” our neighbor says to me.
But the truth is, it doesn’t feel like anything. And it doesn’t occur to me until later that night when our neighbor is breathing heavily on my mouth that was exactly what he meant.
* * *
We had been living in our apartment for six months when Helen had knocked on our door to invite us over to eat. We had been eating Cheerios from the box, because we had no milk. It had been snowing for two days, and Helen seemed concerned that we might die of starvation. But if anything, she was the one who looked like she was starving, staring at us in the wooden frame with her long brown hair that looked heavier than her entire body. We smiled, and told her we’d be right over, and after we closed the door, you said she made hair look like some kind of barometer of good health.
Helen suggested we take what we had out of our fridges and see what we could create with it. We had lettuce, a can of corn, a box of Cheerios, chives, tomato sauce, whiskey, and they had eggs, ground beef, two half gallons of low fat milk, bean sprouts.
Helen lit the stove, poured the eggs and corn into a pan, and suggested that, first, we drink all the whiskey. Both you and our neighbor laughed at this because that was why you loved her. Helen was fun. She reminded me of a girl I would have followed around in college. Someone I would have liked now if my hair wasn’t fraying at my shoulders, and her long skirts didn’t make me look so ancient in trousers. She cursed more than the average woman and made my tongue feel like it was dipped in milk. She didn’t wear socks, didn’t paint her nails, didn’t even think about her nails, ever. She took a shot of whiskey and confessed, “I can’t tell you the last time I thought about these fucking nails.”
“To be honest,” I say to our neighbor when I wake him up in the middle of our first night together. “I don’t think Helen was all that beautiful.”
If she had just tweezed her eyebrows, or if her mouth was a little fuller, her hair thinner, or if she wrapped a nice belt around her baggy shirt to cinch her waist.
“I know what you mean,” our neighbor says. “Sometimes, she fell asleep without brushing her teeth.”
Maybe, if she had brushed her teeth more often, I would understand.
We made a “Mexican egg and beef dish” out of the food. We cooked up the eggs and corn and chives and ground beef. You made a “whiskey tomato sauce reduction,” something you seemed to take a lot of pride in. Our neighbor looked unsatisfied by the meal, but you and Helen ate every bit on your plate. You looked at me, like you expected me to be like our neighbor and dump it in the trash. But I hated you so much that night, I ate everything.
Helen talked about her children for most of the dinner, but nobody minded, not even her children who listened from the stairwell. The stories she told were actually funny. She made children sound more fun than they were. Little Michael, who went to confession and said to the priest, “Father, I’ve been pinching again.” Or four year old Lila, who sneezes and then shouts, “Oh, I am so sorry about all the noise!”
“And poor Hannah, practicing all night for her school presentation at the kitchen counter!” Helen said, holding up her whiskey glass like she was making a toast. “In conclusion, cross-dressing in Japan in the seventeen hundreds wasn’t such a bad idea after all.”
Helen imitated her children’s voices so perfectly we were all compelled to laugh, and I looked at you and I could tell we were both thinking that maybe children wouldn’t be so bad, even with one income, the poverty could be sort of amusing, the children would grow up with humility and a strong sense of self, and the neighbors could watch our children when we went out dancing at night because it seemed the neighbors weren’t so bad after all, even though they collected our mail from time to time and forgot to give it back, or hung their wet underwear on the porch to dry, or stayed up late listening to French techno and rehashing summers spent overseas and how humid it was during July in the Mediterranean, which is something our neighbor hated and Helen liked. Helen liked to feel the weather. She announced this at dinner, after the whiskey was all gone, and the candles burned down to stubs and the snow had stopped.
She opened the window and took a deep breath. I am wondering now if this is when you fell in love with her. If you loved her this whole time. If you watched her when she sunbathed topless on the porch.
“While the children are home!” our neighbor exclaims.
Even though we all laughed, our neighbor looked embarrassed.
“Helen was born in Europe,” he added, as if Europeans weren’t expected to love their children.
“I only lived there for two years, honey,” Helen said. It had become obvious Helen didn’t love her children in any real selfless way, Helen, who was as detached from our life inside these walls as you were, sitting in your collared shirt across the table, staring at the three of us like you were tired from your hard day at work.
Our neighbor’s children are becoming demanding of me. Our neighbor gets out of bed most mornings in a panic and asks me to watch them. He is late, he says. And the women are suicidal.
“What women?” I ask. It occurs to me that I don’t know what our neighbor does at work all day.
“In my therapy group,” he says. “I run a group for widows.”
“All day?” I ask.
“They are in a lot of pain,” he says. He kisses me on the cheek. He is so programmed, our neighbor.
“They’re the worst,” he says to me leaning over my body. “But you’re the best.”
My mouth is dry. “Go,” I say. “I’ll watch the children.” It’s research, I tell my boss on the phone. Mhmmm, she says.
Michael, Lila, and Hannah. They look like buttons on the rug. They tug on my dress. They want to play Hang Up.
“How do you play that?” I ask.
“You call someone and then you hang up!” Michael says.
“Okay,” I say. “Who do we call?”
“No,” Hannah says. “Abe Lincoln.”
“How do you get their numbers?” I ask.
“You have them!” Lila says.
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, that’s okay,” Hannah says. “We do.”
They call Santa first. “It’s just been so long since we’ve talked to him,” Lila says.
Lila dials. The other children giggle in circles on the floor. Michael’s face is red from rubbing it against the rug.
“Hello, Santa!” Lila shouts. “Congratulations! You’ve won one-thousand rolls of toilet paper! How would you like them delivered?”
Lila’s face sags. “He hung up,” she says.
“Alright,” I say, “You’ve had your fun. Don’t go bothering anyone anymore.”
“We just have to call Abe Lincoln,” Hannah says. “Give me the phone.”
Hannah grabs the phone from Lila. She dials. “Hi, Abe! Lookie here, Abe, we’re selling birds on sticks, how many can I write you down for?”
I walk into the kitchen. I fill the kettle with water. I should be at work, I know this. I never skip work. I haven’t missed a day since that month I didn’t get my period, and we stayed home for three days straight reading each other Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny. My boss called frantically every morning. But the children? she asked. I erased the message. I was bleeding by then. Like a whole bucketful on the floor. What children? I thought. I don’t have any and please do not rub it in.
“Alright,” I shout from the kitchen, “no more! You’ve had your fun.”
“We haven’t had all of our fun!” they shout. “Just one more. Please?”
“Please please please please!”
“Okay,” I say. I turn the gas on. “Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.”
“Who should we call, Caroline?”
I don’t want them bothering anyone, so I give them the phone number to our apartment. “Oh, boy,” Michael says. I can hear them dialing.
“Whose number is this?” they ask.
I am at a loss for words. “Barbara Streisand’s,” I shout.
“Uhh, who is that?”
“She’s a very busy woman. So you’ll probably have to leave a message.”
“What should we say?”
“Tell her that you loved Christmas Memories.”
I hear our phone ringing through the walls. I hear the children giggling.
And then Michael says, “Hello, Barbie Strand! Oh my, we hear you just love Christmas memories! How would you like your Christmas memories delivered?”
I run into the living room.
“Who are you talking to?” I ask Michael, but the girls shush me.
“Who are you talking to?” I ask again. “Give me the phone.”
“Never!” Michael shouts at me and hangs up.
“Was there a voice on the other end of the line?” I ask.
“Well?” I ask. “Was there?”
“Yes,” Michael finally says.
“And what did he sound like?”
Michael bites on his finger and sniffles. “Like Santa.”
I throw the phone and leave the children on the floor. I run next door to find you. It hurts how quickly and easily I love you again. I turn our doorknob but it is locked. I don’t have my keys. I look down. I am wearing our neighbor’s clothes. I haven’t been home in days. I pound on the door, and call your name, but you don’t let me in. You must be drunk. You must be wondering if perhaps you should get up. Maybe open the windows and the door and get a good cross-breeze started, but you don’t. So I scream. It exhausts me too, being like this, a different person every second. I scream and scream and scream because even if you are somewhere warm where the wind is loud, even if Helen is breathing in your ear, or crushing the garlic or opening the champagne, even if you are dead, a floating body in the middle of the ocean, I know you can hear me.
* * *
Back in the kitchen, the children are still on the floor. Lila is playing with a piece of dried macaroni, and Michael is reading the book I gave them.
“Onward up many,” Michael says to the girls. “A frightening creek. Though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak!”
I pick up the phone. I dial our number and I listen to the phone ring six times before I hang up. I dial again. And again. “What are you doing, Caroline?” Hannah asks.
“I don’t think Barbie Strand is at that number,” Lila says.
The children are so polite, it breaks my heart. They close the book and put it back on the shelf.
“Our mountain is waiting!” Michael shouts and stands up. They all run by me and out the door.
When our neighbor comes home, the children are in the trees.
“What are they doing up there?” he asks, concerned.
“They are pretending to be monkeys who have been abandoned by their monkey mother on a mountain full of other monkeys.”
“It’s good to see them play,” he says.
The game is too sad, I can’t bring myself to look out the window. But I can feel the children looking through the trees to make sure I am watching them. Our neighbor turns on the stove. Our neighbor is wearing a white pressed shirt. He is happy that the children like me. Happy that the steak was half off at the grocery store. Even if you are dead, is it wrong to still feel grateful for things? His kiss is warm and his hands on my waist are sturdy. Will you forgive me? He has a gritty tongue, and I don’t know if you’d expect that from our neighbor, I don’t know what you’ve expected from our neighbor, but he is a different person every day too. Today he is soft and grateful and looks at me as though he loves me just for being in his kitchen. He looks at me as if he knows something I don’t. “They will come home, Caroline,” he says. And I know you can hear all of this, our neighbor getting dinner started and the children outside calling my name.