The Neighbors

By: Laura Pochintesta

March 21, Artie—I, Dr. Arthur Stein, have become accustomed to living in silence. Silence is the sound I tried, when I first moved to the suburbs, to muffle. For months, I would leave the television on while I showered and shaved and had my coffee. I would play the radio in the car, even on short errands. Sometimes I would hum, off-key, for I’m not one who can carry a tune. I have begun, gradually, to respect the silence for that which it could reveal. Inspired thoughts, perhaps, or spirits in the atmosphere, or the music of nature. Today, though, it revealed some kind of trauma. My neighbor was screaming at the top of her lungs, so much I thought she’d seen a ghost, or maybe that an intruder had broken into her home. I could hear the sobs and ragged breathing clear through the windows. I stared toward her house. It seemed she was passing from room to room as her outrage steadily increased and subsided, as rhythmic as breath. I went outside to the hedge and peered through. I thought about going to the front door and ringing the bell. I hate to admit I was afraid of what I might find, a distraught woman, so I left it alone.

March 21, Janette—Today, this first, cold day of spring, I, Mrs. Janette Joliffe, have made an important decision. It’s my birthday tomorrow, and I want to enjoy it. My stepson, Bill, will be calling me from Florida, and Missy, my ex-stepdaughter-in-law who lives a few towns over, will come with a birthday cake, even though I don’t like cake. I never bothered to tell her that I don’t like it; she is a person who has always tried too hard to make things perfect. I hope I hear from my daughter, Mae, but I never know if she will remember to call. It doesn’t really matter this year, though, since I am so at peace with my decision, which is also my own little secret. I have always been secretive. Which is funny, because my friends say what they like about me is that what you see is what you get—that’s what they have always said.

March 22, Artie—I can see my neighbor, Mrs. Janette Joliffe, sitting on the stone bench in her yard. She is a woman busy with everything and nothing, a woman of countless questions and all the answers. We sometimes talk across the hedges. She has been married twice, but I only met the second husband briefly before he passed away, not long ago; seemed like a nice guy. I was married once, and it was more than enough. I can’t imagine why someone would go through with it twice.

March 22, Janette—My birthday was a beautiful day. Before Missy was due to come over, I went out to the stone bench under the dogwood tree in the yard and sat there for a while. The tree was only as tall as I was when we planted it in this yard. It had been a gift to me when Mae was born, a pink dogwood, pink because I had a girl. The tree is old but still graceful beneath its rough, loose bark. Its limbs, though mature, have become wispy and fragile in high winds, and the blooms, though still lovely in spring, are fewer now, and shorter-lived. Every year I took a picture of Mae under the dogwood with the rhododendrons and azaleas in the background. She has not been home in many years. I used to fantasize that she might surprise me, come strolling into the yard to the dogwood tree and ask me what’s for lunch. Artie from next door came out into his yard while I was sitting there. He doesn’t always say hello, but today he did. I told him it was my birthday, and I told him about the dogwood, and then all of a sudden I burst out in tears. Poor man had no idea why.

March 23, Artie—My neighbor cried in front of me yesterday. It came out of small talk we were making about the tree in her yard. She mentioned a daughter, or maybe a stepdaughter, I’m not sure. I was only vaguely listening, maybe because, living alone, I’m out of practice doing so, or maybe because I sensed an unspecified despair marring the spring air. I have a degree in biochemistry. I ought to understand the science behind sadness and all the masks it wears. But there are puzzles that can’t be solved. And so I sheepishly excused myself and left her there alone. It’s what I have always done. I don’t understand why the sadness of others seems to find me, even now that I have moved to this quiet suburb, to live on this rectangular plot without incident, to leave the past behind.

March 23, Janette—My ex-stepdaughter-in-law Missy doesn’t trust Artie next door. “Something about him,” she says. “Don’t engage too much, Mom, especially now that you’re alone.” She has never stopped calling me “Mom,” even five years into her divorce. I don’t mind, really; it’s nice to hear. I try to recall how Mae’s voice sounds when she says the same word. How the short “o” vowel sound would form in her breath, how her perfect mouth would mimic the oval form of the letter itself. Mae wouldn’t think twice about Artie. But Missy is suspicious of people the world over. “Why would a man from the city move to the suburbs alone?” she says skeptically. Missy was lukewarm about me too, when I first came into her father-in-law John’s life. After my first husband died, I was awfully sad. I had been married to him for fifty-four years when he passed away. So when I saw my childhood sweetheart John again at a reunion, himself a widower, I was overjoyed, though I thought, given the three-hour plane ride between us, that would be the end of it. Except then I thought about how easy the conversation had been, how he hadn’t really changed at all. So I called him, went to some lengths to obtain his number. He had found mine too; looked it up online, he told me, delighted. “You made the first move,” he joked, after we got together. “We’re so modern,” I laughed. We got married under the dogwood out back the spring we were both turning seventy. Bill came with Missy. They served as our witnesses. Mae didn’t make it, but I felt her there in spirit. Not a year after John came to live with me, Bill and Missy relocated to the area too. It was nice to have family close by.

March 24, Artie—I like living alone here in the suburbs. People keep a healthy distance. They don’t ask a lot of questions. When I lived in the city with Alysa, when we would argue, it felt as if the world could hear. Alysa was a crier, and the more I tried to keep her calm, the more she flew off the handle. She never trusted me; she was paranoid I’d cheat. I assured her I wasn’t like that. To prove it, I suggested we marry. It was a relief, that brief honeymoon period when all was well. It didn’t last, though. Soon Alysa was despondent again, flinging our wineglasses against the walls. And when she’d leave me no choice but to escape out the door, the neighbors looked at me darkly, as if I’d caused all the mess, before they turned away. Now only my neighbor Mrs. Joliffe’s daughter—or stepdaughter, I’m not sure which—who visits occasionally, glares at me the way my old neighbors used to. I don’t know why.

March 24, Janette—Anyway, my secret… I am dying. My doctor said I have three months to live. When I found out, I cried. I put the music on loud, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, “Spring,” everyone’s favorite, including mine. I cried in every room of my house, out loud. I screamed myself hoarse. “I’m almost seventy-eight,” I said. “I should be ready.” But it was awful. I stayed awake for forty-eight hours and sat comatose in between crying jags. I finished the single-malt scotch I’d saved in the sideboard. I sipped it in one of the brandy snifters that my husband—my adored first husband Frank—had bought in Venice. I looked at the glass, the cut crystal catching the sunlight. It was daytime, the first day of spring, a beautiful day. Suddenly, something in the air came over me, and I felt giddy. A brief hit of delirium—and the kernel of an idea.

March 25, Artie—I will admit, I am a little paranoid. When I left Alysa, I sort of went off the grid. I deleted all my social media. I cancelled my cell phone. I paid the rent in advance to the end of my lease, moved out of our apartment, out of the city, to a small beach house my sister and her husband own down the shore. My wife was the one who had the dissociative personality disorder, but the only way to dissociate myself was to disappear.

March 25, Janette—So about my secret… I am not going to tell a soul. Instead, I’ve made a decision. I’m going to get ready. Take stock of everything in all the drawers and cabinets and closets. What to keep and what to toss. And why. And I’m going to write it all down. So, to start, I washed each of the cut-crystal brandy glasses by hand in the hottest tap water my hands could endure, dried them to a shine while they were still warm, placed them back in their spot in the sideboard, along with the empty bottle of scotch—and a note to my daughter: Mae, Keep these glasses. Your father bought them in Venice. It was my first trip abroad that widened my world. The traghetto, the blue-brown waters of the canal, Burano and its lace, Lugano and its glass. A world away from anything I had ever imagined. P.S. This was your father’s favorite scotch.

April 14, Artie—It seemed bizarre at first, the kernel of an idea to leave my marriage. My heart pounded; my head hurt; at first I could not convince myself that it was possible to sever the commitment I had made. But as things worsened, and I made the decision to leave, a lightness entered my mind. I decided it would be my secret. I researched how to change my name, how to leave things in a tidy way, how to work remotely in my field. I asked my sister to buy the house in the suburbs so I could pay her back instead of a bank. And now I live in silence with my secret: that I am, but also am not, Dr. Artie Stein.

April 14, Janette—Today, I wrote this note to my ex-stepdaughter-in-law: Missy, The dining room set, please keep, put it in storage if you don’t want it in your house. I want it to stay in the family, and I consider you family. I bought it with the money I earned from my first and only job. You know I grew up poor and without even a dining room, in a factory town, without my parents, who both died young. My first husband, Frank, had grown up around a table every day of the week. When we met, and he brought me home to meet his folks, that was what moved me the most. That his mother cooked, that his father said grace, that they ate and argued at a table, so this is important to me. I want family to sit around it for holidays and other days. I have always protected this table with a vinyl cloth to prevent scratches. I dust it weekly with lemon Pledge.

Her phone call, which came in just as I had finished my note, startled me. She had done some checking up on Artie Stein. He doesn’t seem to have a past. “I don’t believe he is who he says. So watch him,” she said.

“I’m so grateful for your thoughtful gesture,” I said (for your ludicrous paranoia, I didn’t say).

April 30, Artie—I still wear the silver wedding band, the one that matches Alysa’s. We never got divorced. If anyone asks, I could say my wife died. But no one in the suburbs has asked. Even my neighbor, the one who wears two wedding bands, one on each hand, has never asked. She speaks with affection about both of her husbands. “My first husband,” she tells me, “the one named Frank, he’s the one who planted the dogwood. My late husband,” she calls him John, “he’s the one you met.” I see her sometimes glancing down at my wedding band. I think she wants to ask, and I’m still deciding what story I should tell her if she does. My ex-wife, or my late wife, I think I’ll say.

April 30, Janette—On my two ring fingers, I wear my wedding bands. I never took off the yellow-gold one Frank put on my left hand when we took our vows. And I also won’t remove the platinum one from John that I’ve worn the past eight years. Mae, I wrote on the paper I placed inside the velvet box where I keep my rings whenever I bake, and Missy, (I added her name in case Mae doesn’t show up), Please think about what to do with my rings when I’m gone. Leave them with me if you don’t care to keep them. I think that would be a good option.

May 4, Artie—Before Alysa’s mental health deteriorated, we did have a cloud-break of sun. We decided to have a child. We were so happy with our decision, and every morning we awoke to the possibility that it would be so. Yet months passed and the same cycles occurred. “I think it always takes this long,” she said, and I believed her. She didn’t seem fazed, but I was. I pictured our baby, swaddled in a receiving blanket, a warm bundle I could hold like a football, one who might play football like I did and watch the games with me on Sunday afternoons. “Let’s think of names,” I suggested, but Alysa didn’t want to. In my head, though, he was named after me.

May 4, Janette—There’s an old box in the upper recesses of my closet. Like a casket that holds the no longer alive, between layers of tissue, it cradles a knitted wool baby blanket, its pink, white, and blue stripes arranged in a pattern like a flag, a silver teething ring, a yellow baby bonnet, all equally fitting for girl or boy. Mae, I never showed you these things; years ago, we just put them away, pretended like nothing happened. But I think it’s only right that you should know, that once I’m gone, someone else will know, that before you were born, there was a first child, a boy. They told me not to give him a name, that it would be better not to. But I did. His name was Vincent.

May 19, Artie—A close friend died. It would have been wrong not to acknowledge it. The question was, how could I avoid Alysa? If she saw me at the services, the game would be over. I decided to send a card to my dear friend’s family instead. But it’s odd, when someone dies, and you aren’t part of the end, you aren’t present for the rites of passage that signify the end, and you feel somehow they’re still alive.

May 19, Janette—It’s just after Mother’s Day. I never liked this day. It had a lot to do with my stormy mother who happened to die one Mother’s Day. In the casket, she looked miserable. It was not that she died unhappy or unfulfilled. It was really just the expression she had worn all her life. Her eyes, round and dark, did not spring to life even when they were open and looking at the world. Her mouth naturally curved downward, the wrinkles following the slope of her lips, pursed together in silent distrust or disapproval of the world. I hope that I do not look like this when I go.

June 21, Artie—I’m not sure I can go on living this lie. It feels like the past few years have been a protracted experiment, yet I still cannot anticipate the result. If I should meet someone, get close to her, want to marry again down the line, would I tell her the truth? Would it be wrong to start again as this other self who doesn’t actually exist? I feel the impulse to ask my neighbor Janette. She is old enough to be my mother, and she started over even later. Would it be strange if I went over to her house across the hedge, across the driveway to the neat stone path, and knocked on the front door?

June 21, Janette—It’s intensifying, this pain I feel, so I’m not quite sure if I’m hearing right. Is that a knock at the front door? Or is it wishful thinking? I have kept this house pristine for decades, but I never got the doorbell fixed when, years back, it turned faulty. It was one of those musical chime doorbells. That doorbell was one of the things I loved about the house when we first bought it. Mae’s neighborhood pals rang it to call for her when she was little, and the trick-or-treaters when they used to come around, and the relatives at Thanksgiving. Sometimes friends would surprise us, and Mae would run toward the door at the unexpected sound. Eventually, when it had become more a herald of deliverymen and proselytizers than true visitors, I decided not to repair it. I didn’t miss the ringing of the bell; it was a relief knowing it wouldn’t sound. I have decided that I am going to sleep. But there is one thing left to do. I rip a piece of paper from the yellow legal pad, the kind that John liked to use. This would be my last endeavor. My hand shakes madly in the attempt to write. I hardly recognize my own scrawl as I tape the paper onto the fridge. Mae, Chop down the dogwood in the backyard. Or ask my neighbor Artie to do it. I think it’s time.