Even though a howling inebriate once banged on our door for twenty minutes after the corner bar had closed for the night; even though a refrigerator-size man once shouted at me through the glass, Do Not Be Afraid! I Repeat, Lady, Do Not Be Afraid of Me!; even though we saw a much slinkier guy trying the windows next door for easy entry; even though the produce-delivery driver rings the bell on the same day at the same hour every week with no expectation of an answer and, in fact, is down the block before any one of our four work-at-home buttocks could leave an office chair; even though we have faith peddlers and donation seekers and numerous benign inquisitors who want to know how old the house is and what kind of bamboo we have in our sidewalk pots; even though all of this happens on our front porch despite the unwelcoming No Soliciting sign we have there, Husband still insists that we have a moral obligation to answer the door, no matter the hour.
Because it just might be a neighbor in distress.
Because there is a blanketed figure, hunched and wandering on the foggy sidewalk—head down and one foot in front of the other, likely some delusional, drug-addicted, street person who has left a pint bottle on the front steps and urinated in our potted bamboo—with whom Husband feels he must seek engagement by shouting from our bedroom window: “Hey, did you ring the bell?”
Because Husband finds solace in the possibility of an afterlife and is fascinated with the idea of it picking up where one’s current life has left off, and suppose death were to arrive suddenly when your state of consciousness had clicked into the place of refusing to open the door for someone in need?
Because, as it turns out, the woman who lives across the street and sweeps her driveway meticulously has just locked herself out of both car and apartment, and wants to borrow our phone.
Because, having just proved his neighbor-in-distress argument, Husband has fulfilled his moral obligation and gone back to bed.
Because the dread of chatting with this particular neighbor while waiting for the car-unlockers is not much of an excuse, even if, aside from an occasional mention of her indie-music dance party group on the second Friday of the month, the neighbor is only perfunctorily cordial and restricts conversation to bland remarks on the absence or (somewhat worrisome) presence of a breeze.
Because beneath the blanket she grabbed from her garage on this chill-drip morning, my neighbor is not wearing her usual bland, perfunctory courderoys with half-zip sweater, but rather, a night-on-the-town ruffled plunge of filmy floral with a short, sexy, thigh-hugging skirt, runway heels, and diamond-drop earrings that shimmy when she talks.
Because I feel I must satisfy my curiosity as to whether this vampy figure resembling the neighbor might actually be a younger, slimmer, lipsticked sister of hers with contact lenses and a deliberate hair style.
Because in place of my neighbor’s usual woodeness, there is a vibrant elasticity.
Because in place of the on/off-button smile usually flanking the aforementioned remark on the absence or (somewhat worrisome) presence of a breeze, there are smirks and pouts and spontaneous grins.
Because, at the moment, the woman fires light into the corners of the room like a spinning disco ball.
Because she was in a taxi earlier this morning with someone who kept throwing up, news that she reports with the same breathless chatter she uses to narrate her glammy outfit: Do you like this ring? It was my mother’s. Do you like these shoes? They’re from a movie.
Because, according to my neighbor, I really must see said movie and get said shoes right away.
Because she is serious about this advice.
Because her cellphone must be locked in her car inside a cute evening purse rather than in the bottomless Mary Poppins bag she’s unpacking on our hall table.
Because the neighbor seems to be seeking the spontaneous acceptance of spontaneous gifts: a cd by a jazz trumpeter (“Take this. It’s for you.”), a cassette tape by a ‘90s pop singer (“You can have this, too.”), and, at home, an extra vacuum cleaner (“Do you want it?”).
Because these offers are aimed and fired by an invisible marksman standing behind her.
Because Husband really wants to believe that we must be surrounded by invisible, more enlightened, beings since the thought of humanity as the pinnacle of the sentient population is almost unbearable: his hopes being higher than mine; his despair more eviscerating.
Because the neighbor is telling the customer-care phone agent from the car-unlocking service about her movie-inspired shoes, about sweeping the leaves off her driveway earlier this morning, and about the taxi (even earlier than that) in which someone kept throwing up.
Because the neighbor’s disco ball is now spinning even faster.
Because I had remembered my neighbor as chunky in her perfunctory pants, and somehow she sees me noticing this: “I’ve lost 17 pounds in nine weeks. Lookin’ good, aren’t I?”
Because my presumably mid-50s neighbor looks about 32 this morning and somehow sees me noticing this as well: “I’m 48.”
Because one deserves to have to nod stupidly when caught observing what is not politely observed.
Because at 6:03 a.m., I, who have deemed my neighbor’s clothes—and indeed, my neighbor—bland and perfunctory, am now frumping about in my own baggy sweater with a frayed neckline, the indisputable champ of perfunctitude.
Because, yes, the neighbor would very much like some green tea; in fact, her mother used to boil herbs for her.
Because when my neighbor was eight, she told her parents to get a divorce since they were good to her, but not to each other--a phrase that seems well-rehearsed, curiously thin-at-the-knees.
Because it’s helpful to know that, according to my neighbor, I really ought to go to a certain downtown department store that has a spa where I could get a relaxing facial; that I really should check out her indie-music dance party group on the second Friday of the month.
Because my neighbor was 19 when her mother died.
Because my neighbor has since been in the hospital three times after trying to kill herself and did I know that meds for bi-polar disorder cause weight gain?
Because all of this is delivered by way of the aforementioned breathless chatter along with shopping advice and an extra vacuum cleaner.
Because there is something endearing about the childlike vulnerability with which she announces, “I need to blow my nose.”
Because said vulnerability, however, is a concern when a woman has been in a taxi early that morning, reportedly coming home from a party.
Because an acquaintance (a neighbor, for example) who is accustomed to this woman’s bland, perfunctory aspect might feel dizzy from the disco-ball sparkle, might even find that she feels comparatively bland and perfunctory, and is perhaps made aware of her own personal poundage and recent birthday.
Because the neighbor in her animated form is a surprise, and dreading conversation with her now seems cosmically parsimonious, and if Husband is right about the afterlife, I will probably carry on as a goldfish.
Because it’s possible that I’m already a goldfish and my little bowl has, instead of clear glass, a mirror painting of a human shape I assume to be myself within a 1904 home interior that includes a rug and a staircase and a front door with a bell.
Because my neighbor is actually charming during what I will later understand to have been “an episode.”
Because my neighbor will always miss her mom.
Because my neighbor probably oscillates between joie de vivre and joie de weather.
Because she urinates with the bathroom door open—even at our house.
Because she has probably lived alone for a long time.
Because one of the men in her indie-music dance party group on the second Friday of the month (for that’s how she says it, the full phrase every time) is a florist whose partner is an artist.
Because my neighbor sweeps her driveway meticulously, which I know from loitering by the front window when restless, which happens every 49 minutes or so, and suggests that, based on a random and completely unproven correlation between age and restlessness, I should be able, in another eleven years, to sit still for a full hour.
Because my neighbor declares, “There were some big penises at the party last night.”
Because I must have misheard her and filled in the genital reference on my own, since today at 6:02 a.m., I was about to become deliciously engaged with one such male organ and was sorry to see it get up and walk to the window, shroud itself in belted terry, and go downstairs to answer the door.
Because, actually, on further recollection, the organ with which I was about to be deliciously engaged did belong to a male other than Husband, and I was about to destroy my marriage over a thoughtless, infidelity with a man whose face I cannot recall even sixty seconds later, inflicting irrevocable misery on both Husband and myself.
Because sometimes it is a relief to be awakened from a dream, even if that relief is tempered by the realization that the dream also included, just inches from my lips, after 19 years’ abstinence, a cigarette that I could have enjoyed with no harm to Husband or health; even if both of these memories, including that of the male organ, quickly close up like soup around a sinking spoon, the sole remnant, an unexplained fit of irrational, shoulder-spastic weeping.
Because at this hour puffy eyes need no explanation.
Because I worry that perhaps my neighbor was not fully conscious at the party last night, and, in fact, may have been ripped to the point of oblivion, exploited by said penises, and deposited, at dawn, into a taxi where the person throwing up might, in fact, have been her.
Because, no, actually, the big penises were on statues at last night’s elegant soirée, an art opening for the partner of the florist (in the indie-music dance party group on the second Friday of the month) who sculpted the male statues.
Because, according to my neighbor, I am soooo hilarious!
Because it is only by luck and a mysterious distribution of brain chemicals that I am not the one currently talking about big penises to a worried-looking neighbor and thinking that she is soooo hilarious.
Because my neighbor will probably always live alone.
Because two other women on our block have lived alone for at least ten years and will probably continue to do so, one widow having erected a decorative wrought-iron cage around her front door, and the other having adopted a barky dog that chases its tail--presumably every 49 minutes.
Because one such widow could be ringing our doorbell in distress, a possibility that presses the lab-mouse lever of my quietly persistent dread that Husband will die first; a dread that is fueled not only by the fact that he is nine years older than me but also by his proclivity to reflect on impermanence and mortality more often than pundits say “at the end of the day”; a dread that is further fueled by the probability that by then he will have earned enough door-answering badges to qualify for an evolved beinghood and superior level of afterlife enlightenment, while I, the chronic ignorer of the doorbell, am sent back to my old painted-mirror goldfish bowl, or worse, to a new one made of brutally transparent glass in a first-grade teacher’s classroom.
Because one day I might be a woman who lives alone, wearing perfunctory sweaters and urinating with the bathroom door open.
Because calling him Husband marks both the longevity and the brevity of our years ahead, the label being an effort to temporarily objectify our inevitable loss of each other into a natural process, a calculation of male-female life expectancy by which I am to live fourteen years longer than Husband and in which I find about as much comfort as Hamlet found in Gertrude’s speech about the natural process of sons surviving their fathers.
Because a bamboo shakes off its leaves while shimmying in the breeze.
Because answering the door at 6:03 a.m. reminds me to forget about the time I was standing, restless, by the front window and saw a bland, perfunctory version of my neighbor emptying her pocket-trash—wadded snot rags and a crumpled shopping list—into our potted bamboo when she didn’t know I was looking and didn’t even try to hide the deed.
Because while there is something saving in her lack of calculation, littering is perhaps the least of her problems.
Because if my neighbor’s aunt didn’t own the turreted Edwardian where she lives and probably receives her disability check, she might, in fact, be leaving a pint bottle on the front steps and perhaps urinating in our potted bamboo instead of in our bathroom at 6:12 a.m. with the door open.
Because in the past she may have rung our doorbell and not been answered.
Because for her the afterlife has already become dangerously enticing, and suppose on one hopeless Monday morning some April she is ringing the bell after crawling, drugged and scraped, across the street because she has changed her mind about dying?
Because, in the present, she would like another shot of tea, but instead of drinking it in the kitchen or in a chair by the window where she could see the car-unlocking truck when it arrives, she insists on taking it outside onto the chill-drip foggy sidewalk, in what I fear is a departure prompted by an abrupt awareness of what she has revealed to me.
Because, actually, on further consideration, my neighbor will probably not even remember how she came across the teacup currently occupying her hand, a dream that will have closed up like a hole in a bowl of soup.
Because, in subsequent conversations about the absence or (somewhat worrisome) presence of a breeze, she will never refer back to the time she rang our bell at 6:03 a.m.— a silence in which there is both sadness and mercy.
Because by 6:16 a.m., she is pressing her nose against the inside of our front window.
Because the breeze has blown a bamboo leaf onto her driveway.