Close Neighbors

Close Neighbors

By Carolyn Eichhorn
© 2017 by the author


Sven tried to escape out the back door three times today. He rolled right over the threshold from the kitchen breaking for the backyard. Marjorie scurried over dipping low to snatch him up from the porch floor. It cracks me up that she calls her Roomba Sven.

“The closest I’ll get to having a Swedish pool boy!” she jokes to Sally when they catch up over white wine.

Sally is Marjorie’s best friend. She lives across the street and two houses down. The pair bonded at a community yard sale two years ago when Marjorie gushed over Sally’s purple wicker octopus planter. Sally had laughed so much at Marjorie’s squeals that she’d given it to her for free. That monstrosity sits on the tile floor of the upstairs bathroom, its gaping smile now stuffed with white rolled washcloths like pearly teeth. The friends meet for drinks and gossip once or twice a week. It’s mild tonight, so they are tucked into the deep chair cushions on Marjorie’s front porch, sipping Prosecco, their chattering wafting through the open windows and the house.

Marjorie had worked from home today. Between phone calls and emails, she set Sven loose to vacuum the kitchen and living room downstairs, occasionally emptying his bin, and then restarting his quest to bump around every baseboard and piece of furniture.

“I love him,” she tells Sally. “He cleans under my bed. God knows I’m not going to do that.”

She’s not lying. Marjorie is a slob. There are boxes upstairs full of crap she cleared out of the downstairs rooms for a Christmas party year before last.  These joined boxes of stuff from her office move and more boxes from her mother’s room at the nursing home. She has no idea what’s tucked away in the middle bedroom anymore. No idea.

“I’d love to have my own Sven!” Sally said. “The cat hair! It’s amazing how it drifts up on the steps, in the corners, everywhere. One little kitty cat does all that.” She shakes her head and finishes her wine. “And now Hollywood is scattering litter throughout the house and shredding anything paper.”

Sally pauses as Marjorie refills her glass. The sun slips lower and the air is orange giving the porch the effect of the seventies-era photographs crammed in family albums behind the closet door in the guest room. Her mother had been beautiful once, in a hippie chick kinda way.  Marjorie’s dad grinned under a spectacular mustache in picture after picture, surrounded by friends and family, beer in hand, at barbecues, crab feasts, campsites, and national landmarks. He was dead now.

“Was it crazy expensive?” Sally asks, her face scrunched in anticipation of an answer she doesn’t want to hear.

Marjorie shrugs. She’s not trying to be coy, she honestly can’t remember. Her episodes lately both frighten and shame her. Misplaced items that turn up where she thought she’d looked, disorientation as if she doesn’t recognize her own home, occasional sleep-walking, and more embarrassingly – sleep-eating. Her mother had suffered from dementia in her later years, but Marjorie is only 45. She’s terrified and desperate to hide it. She takes a deep draw on her glass, cheeks burning and changes the subject.

“So how’s Harold?” she asks, rolling out the name with a smile. Harrrrrrrroooold.

It’s Sally’s turn to shrug and Marjorie leans in. Sally’s post-divorce social life was better than reality television. She’d attacked online dating like a mission, emphasizing quantity over quality initially.  Speed dating, mixers, Meetup groups, even a singles cruise that Sally had described as a “boink-fest.” These days, Sally had mostly settled in with an average looking guy who did something or other with learning technologies. Marjorie missed the first date stories, the awkward introductions, the misrepresented blind dates, and the crazies. That’s what Sally called the memorable ones – crazies. There had been a man who’d suggested a stroll in the park and showed up with a full leg brace, a dude whose entire identity was tied to his ability to make a good red sauce, the self-proclaimed evangelist who’d probably lived at home with his mother at 40, and many others who never got to date two. Marjorie like to make up bios for these luckless guys once she was sure that Sally had crossed them off her list of viable mates.

“He was probably just out of jail,” she’d say, or “Who starts off a first date by telling you that his job is too complex to share so early in a relationship? Hitmen? Spies? No, that guy was either unemployed or he had a stupid job like portapotty emptier or roadside sign spinner.”  They would laugh and laugh, sputtering their wine, tears smudging their mascara. Marjorie felt like part of Sally’s shenanigans. When they’d met at that yard sale, Sally’s husband Dean had just moved out. He’d become convinced that Sally had been unfaithful and the bitter fighting had become more than either could bear. Sally had never confessed anything like that to Marjorie, only saying that Dean “felt” another man in their house. “It was so quiet once Dean left. Like a silence I was unprepared for, as if even the house held its breath, stopped settling even. It became empty.” Sally had cleared out most of her clutter, selling what she could at the yard sale where she’d struck up a conversation with Marjorie. She’d gotten a cat and that had brought some life back to her home.  She was a new woman these days, smiling again, going out on the weekends, she’d even lost a few pounds.

Marjorie feels as if she is on the opposite trajectory. She inhabits only a portion of her house. She seems to move from the couch to the kitchen to the bath and bedroom, ignoring the rest of the rooms and the clutter within. She regularly examines her thickening legs and hips after stepping out of the shower in the morning, visibly dismayed at the indications of middle age. After long hours at the office, the last thing she wants is to go out and be nice to people, or to convince them to like her. It is easier to get take out and watch TV or read. Dating hardly seems worth it. These days, modern women like Marjorie have devices that work efficiently to ease any sexual tension. Though she knows that masturbation is a natural and healthy activity, Marjorie still takes great care to close the windows or turn up the volume on the television so as not to be indiscreet with the gasping breaths or mewling sounds accompanying her self-pleasure. No one outside her house would ever know that the buzzing sound was anything other than Sven, bumping around upstairs and vacuuming under her bed. Sven, in fact, was great camouflage.

Sally is talking again, and Marjorie half listens to her review of dinner the previous Saturday while she pushes cake crumbs around on her plate with her finger. There had been five slices of the lemon layer cake left after she’d eaten last night. This morning there were four. Had those been icing smudges on the faucet? Marjorie shivers and then stretches to cover her fear. It wasn’t hard to imagine what she was thinking. Was she losing her mind? Would she descend into confusion and incoherence as her mother had? The signs of instability are there.  She is frequently startled by everyday objects when she moves through the house. Just that morning, she’d jumped and cried out when returning Sven from the back door upon seeing her sneakers knocked over and in the middle of the living area. Such a stupid thing – just shoes, but Marjorie had stood there for a full minute breathing heavier than normal until she thought up explanations that fit the scene. Sven likely pushed them around. It’s possible that she had kicked them off next to the ottoman the night before, forgetting to place them with her other shoes on the rack.

Also, she was not going to fit into her clothes if she kept bingeing on whatever food she had in the house. Marjorie had no memory of mindless snacking, cheated out of the enjoyment of the missing sleeve of Oreos or the bowl of cheese crackers or the carton of chicken lo mein. Too bad anxiety didn’t burn more calories. At least she slept. Like the dead, actually. Groggy and unfocused most mornings, but unsettled, uneasy.

“…so glad that I agreed to take it. Honestly, I feel like I have my life back,” Sally is saying.

“What?” Marjorie asks. “I’m sorry, I drifted a moment. So glad that you agreed to what?”

“Xanax, honey. I used to be a bundle of nerves, honestly. But now,” she pauses as if testing the air, “not so much.”

“Really,” Marjorie says. “I don’t remember you ever being anxious.” She sat up a little straighter.

“Oh my, I was a mess. I’d forget things, and accuse Dean of moving stuff around to deliberately make me crazy. He’d deny it of course and then get on his tear about how he was sure I was sneaking men into the house while he was at work. Like I needed the trouble of another man-child! Ugh, right? Anyway, it got so bad that we just couldn’t stand to be in the same house with each other. When he left, I started seeing a therapist. I wanted to get my life on track, you know? He gave me Xanax. Such a tiny little pill, but it gave me my life back. The jitters stopped. I adopted Hollywood, and we are perfectly happy. Though,” Sally bites her lip without finishing her thought.

“Though what?”

Sally looks distraught.

“What?” Marjorie asks again.

“Harold. He’s allergic I think. To Hollywood. I think Harold is allergic to cats.”

Marjorie didn’t reply, so Sally continued.

“He sneezes when he’s at my house. Well, sort of. I hear him suppressing sneezes in the other room. You know, stuff like that. I think he gets up during the night and rummages through my fridge. What if we can’t find a way to live together? Anyway, I think he’s allergic to Hollywood.” Sally finishes her wine and twists to look back toward her house. “I should go. Thank you as always for the wine and cake. Oh, that cake. It’s the real deal. I can’t even feel bad about that.” Sally smiles and stands.

“Don’t worry about this, I’ve got it,” Marjorie says, gathering the plates together but not lifting them. She watches Sally descend the porch steps and gives a little wave when Sally glances back at the street. Then she sinks back into her porch chair as the gloom deepens enough for the streetlight to flicker on. I can’t tell what she is thinking. I can only see part of her face from here so I shift slightly. There’s no indication that she senses me.

That’s good because I don’t want to move again. It’s so much easier here than at Sally’s. No annoying husband. No cat. I hate cats. Makes my nose itch just thinking about that fleabag. Here, I just have to share space with the Roomba. Marjorie’s job gives me plenty of time in the open. I like the way her pillowcases smell and how they feel on my skin.  She mumbles in her sleep and it’s adorable. I like to think that she’s dreaming of me. That she knows somehow that I’m here in spite of my carefulness. She’s pretending that she lives alone, but she needs me. She needs me to watch over her as I’ve been doing for the last two years.

Marjorie stands, balancing the dessert plates and the wine glasses as she pulls open the storm door. I melt back into the shadows of the dining room with its thick carpet and wait silently as she rinses the dishes and places them in the top rack. She looks sad or tired. Probably sleepy by now. The crushed Ambien I stirred into her leftover linguini carbonara would be interacting with that Prosecco by now. She should sleep deeply enough for me to join her again tonight, breathing in her breath and feeling the warmth of her nearness.

In the morning, I’ll retreat back to the linen closet or the guest room or the basement until she goes out. Maybe I’ll drop in on Sally again. Check out how she is with this new boyfriend. I’ll take one of Marjorie’s Benadryls first. But tonight, I’ll focus on my best girl. Of all of my ladies, Marjorie is my favorite by far. And that lemon cake is to die for.



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