Monday, October 24, 2016

Neighborhood Watch

The Grim Reaper appears in our neighborhood the end of September. It is six feet tall, blank faced, and planted firmly in the flowerbed outside the orange rambler with the blue rocking chair on the porch. It is an omen; a sign; its outstretched arms beckoning for more macabre decorations to follow. And they do. By week’s end our neighborhood is dotted with headstones and pumpkins and cheap, Styrofoam ghouls. One yard boasts a skeleton, flat on its back on a gurney, an infant skeleton emerging from its pelvis.

There are accidental decorations, too. A black cat has met its fate on 7th East. A young married couple have giddily painted “It’s a Girl” in red lettering on their living room window. I pass the house the day after a rain storm, the careful letters running like blood, the happy news made unintentionally horrific.

Mid-week I haul my son down the street for a playdate. Our neighborhood is lousy with three-year-old boys, and it is something of a joy to watch them play, to witness the buoyancy that comes with innocence.  “You’re the only one without a baby,” my friend says as she pulls her infant daughter from her car seat. This observation is simultaneously painful and comforting. We talk about preschools and diets and grocery shopping. I am thankful for the beneficence of geography—that we women are not only neighbors, but friends.

On Friday the street a few blocks down from us is cordoned off by emergency vehicles. Police swarm the home of a retired couple—parents who have recently taken in their thirty-something son. Rumors fly about the son, and I gather slivered gossip that includes words like explosive devices and teenaged girls and abuse. The retired couple, by all accounts, are not to blame.  "Good people," my neighbor says of the parents. "At church every Sunday."
That night I can’t sleep. There are reports of stolen cars and egged houses on the neighborhood Facebook page. The wind howls outside my window. It seems the world itself is ill at ease; a world where adult children masquerade as clowns and take things that don't belong to them and seek the presidency. I think of my own babies, asleep in their beds, and try to console myself with the thought that most children grow up to be just people. I try to reassure myself that we are safe, here in our home; that the walls are solid, the foundation sure.

And then comes morning, calm and bright and blue. There is nothing like a brilliant autumn day. I am thankful for the mercy of the equinox, that the bitter is balanced by the sweet. 

A few days later, I drive past the house of the retired couple. The father is on a ladder, caught up in the arms of an apple tree. He reaches up and plucks an apple from a branch, and perhaps it is just wistful thinking on my part, but the motion seems exceptionally tender, as if he is sparing the fruit from its otherwise inevitable fall.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Best Friends Forever

We both moved onto the same neighborhood block the year before we started first grade, and before you knew it we were inseparable. I liked her because she was brave and a good listener and had lots of interesting things to say. When I had an untied shoelace at recess, she was the one who asked Mrs. Fisher to tie it for me, because I was too afraid to ask. I liked her because she was sophisticated and cosmopolitan: we listened to cassette tapes of the Beach Boys in her bedroom and she had an aunt that lived near La Jolla (the ‘j’ makes the “hah” sound).  She slept in the basement, and we had to pass her older brother’s room on our way down the hall. Sometimes, his door was ajar, and I could catch sight of posters bearing exotic cars and daring ski stunts and bikinied women.
Her family drove Saabs, spent Christmas in Hawaii, skied in Park City and had a boat and jet skis. We didn’t have cable, but they had a satellite dish the size of a minivan on a cement pad in their backyard. And on one auspicious day, they installed a miniature TV set in the kitchen. They had a Mount Olympus water dispenser and, after school, we would drink the sweet water and spread butter on Saltine crackers and watch episodes of Small Wonder and Full House.

She had beautiful hair. My sisters and I had our thin hair trimmed at Fantastic Sam’s, but she went to a stylist—a man I imagined as a Fabio-type character with linen pants and bare feet.

She knew, at my house, that my mom made popcorn with real butter and that my dad liked to sing. She was allowed to drink from the big cup of ice water that my mom kept filled on the kitchen counter—but not any other friends. We took piano lessons from the same teacher and made up a song about her incessant praise for the metronome. We both had a crush on Aaron Lingman and we both were in the same Primary class at church.
In the summer we’d watch Overboard and Grease and Better Off Dead. We ran lemonade stands together and rode our bikes around the lazy, suburban streets. We had sleepovers, lots and lots of sleepovers. We’d talk late into the night and, as we grew, the topics changed from Santa Claus and lost teeth and Barbie dolls to training bras and periods and boys. We’d talk and talk until one of us said “I’m going to fall asleep soon, but you keep talking until I do.”

She was the first of us to experience loss. Her maternal grandfather died, and she didn’t dare to go to his funeral service. It is the only time I remember seeing her with some of her bravery gone.

We read Anne of Green Gables and called ourselves bosom buddies. I pictured her as Diana, the dark-haired beauty, and myself as Anne, the awkward writer. We watched Beaches over and over and cycled through boxes of Kleenex. I pictured her as Bette Midler – although not as brassy – and myself as Barbara Hersey – just as quiet, but perhaps not so long-suffering. Other girls our age moved in and out of our neighborhood, but our alliance and loyalty were set. I’m certain we wore the “Best Friends” necklaces on more than one occasion – the cheap dollar store kind with chains as soft as sand and jagged broken edges.  But we never needed to: everyone knew that I was her best friend, and she was mine.
There were small resentments, too. She landed more babysitting jobs than I did. In sixth grade, we both served on Safety Patrol, but she was selected as captain.  At lunch, she started sitting with the girls who used words like “screw” and “condom” and “virgin” – dark, secret words that, at the time, I found terrifying. And then, there was always that hair of hers.

I moved the summer before we started junior high, and before you knew it, our lives started to separate. We went to different schools, had different friends, different interests. I suspect, if I had stayed on that same neighborhood block, our lives would have diverged anyway. But the distance gave us an excuse to drift apart; it allowed our friendship to adjust without any bitterness or hurt.
She invited me to go to Lake Powell with her family just weeks before we started high school. We were no longer best friends, but we had kept up well enough with the occasional phone call or visit. The night before we left, she and I climbed onto a giant red rock and laid down and gazed at the stars. It’s been over twenty years, but I still remember that night sky —the texture and illumination and sheer wonder of it. We were tanned and lean and on our way to adulthood— our knees tucked up and our hair splayed out around us like halos or supernovas. We talked and talked in that easy way we’d always had, mostly about starting high school and friends and boys we liked. I think we were both a little afraid of the mystery of adulthood that loomed large in front of us. But there was a certain security in the two of us, talking side by side, the universe of my childhood contained in the locket of her memory, and hers in mine.