knew I needed to stop driving by Mark’s house to spy on him. It was
spying, no matter how much I tried to convince myself that it was something more
innocent, like showing that I still cared. I don’t know why I did it exactly.
I would be out in my car, and the next thing I knew, I was rolling by the front
of his house with my lights off, riding the break while I scrutinized all the
evidence of what he might be doing inside.
Sometimes there would be cars in front that I didn’t
recognize, but those were probably friends of the neighbors, the Westers. They
had company all the time, or at least they did when I knew them, which
admittedly was almost six months ago. Mrs. Wester always made her famous cheese
balls for the guests, and anytime she saw me she’d invite me over for some
reheated hors d’oeuvres from the night before. Honestly, I didn’t even know at
this point if the Westers still lived next door to Mark. For all I knew, they
could have moved to South America and some strangers could have been living in
their house now, and one of them might have been a luscious young woman, who
might have been making passionate love to Mark at the very moment I was outside
with nothing better to do than drive by my ex-boyfriend’s house.
At least I never got out of the car. From the street I could
see that he’d let all our plants die, and he’d put up a porch swing. The smooth
contours and the bold, crisp color of the wood brought an artificial vivacity to
the porch, especially in the midst of the clay pots with rotten leaves and
shriveled flowers hanging over the sides, advertising the sadness that must lurk
inside the house and inside of Mark. I always dreaded the thought that one day
I’d see him on the porch swing with another woman.
I knew I had to stop driving by, but it was the only
connection I had to Mark and I couldn’t seem to stop doing it. After a while, I
got to the point where I would drive a little faster because I was more and
more afraid of what I might see, of what would have changed.
I tried to focus on everything that had changed for
me since Mark and I had broken up. I was on a “voyage of self-discovery.”
I started reading self help books and learning to spend quality time with
myself, I took up yoga again, got back in touch with old girlfriends, everything
I could do to try to make something good out of being single. I wanted to be
I even went to a therapeutic paper-making class where you
write down all your feelings on paper and then dissolve that paper to make more
paper in a symbolic cleansing ritual. I think it was at that point that I
realized I had lost all perspective. I was sitting in a “friendship circle”
with fourteen other people who were desperate enough for help that they resorted
to art therapy. Suddenly Jordan the art therapist’s spunky voice became very
The room was filled with a labored hopefulness, everyone
struggling to get comfortable sitting and writing on the cold cement floor and
trying to get something good out of all this, to prove that they could be
helped. One woman spewed out insults at her ex-husband as she furiously wrote
pages and pages of her gripes out on paper. Most people didn’t have much to
write, or maybe they couldn’t bring themselves to write it all, so they just
gazed up at Jordan the art therapist, waiting and hoping to be shown the way to
inner peace. Jordan the art therapist played with her pigtails and chipped away
her glitter nail polish while talking about grinding up our inner demons like
paper. The smell of her fruity perfume had overtaken the small air supply in
the room, and I had an impulse to open a window, but when I got up I knew I had
to leave. I got my coat and walked out without looking back.
I finally settled with a resolution to spend one hour each
day enjoying my own company in some way. I loved this plan because it was
flexible. I started by eating a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream while taking a
bubble bath. Sinking down into the warm, caressing water and savoring the cool
tingle of the ice cream sliding down my throat, I thought I will never get
tired of this. This is heaven. A week into this plan, though, I was
getting tired of my own company.
A lot of times I’d just sit and look out the window. I
started noticing the short redhead across the street, whose floor-length kitchen
window was directly across from me. Sometimes she’d be watering her plants and
she’d wave to me, and I’d wave back. The kitchen was painted an inviting
shade of blue, and she would start every day by making oatmeal and coffee with
cream and three spoonfuls of sugar for breakfast, and reading her newspaper.
Every morning she’d finish eating, fold her newspaper neatly, and then sink down
in her chair at the kitchen table and cry. It never lasted more than two
minutes. Some days it was a sobbing, heaving sort of cry, and other days it was
a lonely cry, and the only way I could tell was that she always folded her
napkin into a rectangle and used the corner to straighten her eye makeup. Then
she would puff her chest out in a few deep breaths and run her hands over her
hair and down her clothes. And finally, with a bounce in her step, she would
leave for work.
She would always dance in front of the stove when she was
making dinner for herself. I imagined she was listening to Frank Sinatra—the
upbeat songs like Fly Me to the Moon and You Make Me Feel So Young.
She made herself martinis with two olives, which she plopped into the glass one
at a time with a festive flip of the wrist. Sometimes she’d bring home fresh
flowers with her groceries—always something modest like daisies or irises—and
she’d change the water every day to keep them fresh for as long as possible.
I found myself thinking about the redhead the next time I was
tempted to drive by Mark’s house, about the way she would sit confidently alone
at her kitchen table. I decided to go to Max’s diner instead of Mark’s and
attempt to enjoy my own company. I ordered a huge plate of french fries and
played Johnny Cash on the jukebox. It wasn’t so bad, being alone. I could
I was enjoying my fries when all of a sudden I heard a
familiar voice that filled me with dread. It took me a moment to place it, but
when I looked behind me toward the door there she was—Jordan the art therapist,
in all her glittery splendor, ordering a diet coke with vanilla ice cream.
Suddenly the bite of french fry in my mouth was unwelcome. I hated the thought
of her seeing me here, much less knowing what state my life was in since I
walked out of her class feeling superior. She saw me right away, and came over
to talk to me.
“Don’t I know you from some place? Lori? Lila? What’s your
“My name’s Lily, but I don’t remember meeting you before,” I
“I’m sure of it,” she said, not acknowledging my denial.
“The paper making class, right? You were in the paper class! I knew I
“Yeah, that’s right. Jordan, right?”
“Yes. How could I forget you? You turned the class
around for me. I never got to thank you for that.” She sat down across from me
in my booth.
“What do you mean?”
“After you left, everyone started really talking. It
was just what we needed to get people thinking about why they were there.
Everyone was just sitting there expecting me to guide them into some sort of
understanding of their lives. They need to do it for themselves. I’m sorry.
I always get into these little speeches and I bet you’re thinking ‘Who is this
woman and why is she still talking?’”
She looked at me for a response.
“I just felt like I didn’t belong there,” I said. “But I
guess, I’m glad my leaving helped the rest of the class. There were some pretty
unhappy people in there.”
“Yes there were. And most of them are still very unhappy.
But see, I believe in art therapy not because of the whole gimmick of writing
down your feelings but because when you’re doing art you can’t help thinking
about your life. It’s good for people to do that from time to time, to really
think about everything.”
“Hmm. That’s interesting,” I said. I was still adjusting to
the change in Jordan’s voice, or maybe just the way I heard her voice. It
didn’t sound spunky at all. It sounded more like an old woman, or at least
someone with some measure of credibility.
“Forgive me,” she said, “I’ve been in such a contemplative
mood lately. I just want everyone to be right there with me. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
Then we just sat there, not talking, for several minutes.
She looked perfectly calm, unconcerned with her diet coke float that should have
been ready by then. She wore her hair down; it softly framed her face and
curled just at the tips. She had a light dusting of glittery powder all over
her face and neck, and metallic blue eye shadow, but in the sunlight, it looked
somehow more dignified than it did in the fluorescent lights in the basement.
The edges of her lips pointed slightly upward and with her pale blue eyes
looking off to the side and the sun catching the tiny sparkles on her skin, she
emanated tranquility. She was basking in the sunlight, daydreaming, not caring
at all whether her diet coke float was ready or not, and I just stared at her.
The music, and the golden hue of the sunlight coming through the blinds in sharp
lines that extended over the tabletops, onto the counter, and up the back wall,
over Jordan in her reverie, shimmering with silver dust, and over me and my
enormous plate of ketchup-drenched fries—it was one of those snapshots in time
that you never forget, even if it’s not particularly profound.
“Does art therapy really work? I mean, have you ever had
anyone have a breakthrough in your class, like a therapeutic breakthrough?”
“Yeah, I guess you did,” she said.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Sure you did. You’re not coming anymore, are you. You’re
“I guess, but, no offense, I don’t think I got anything out
of that class at all.”
“Everyone gets something out of it. Even if it’s just the
desire to leave.”
On the way home I stopped at the store and bought two huge
bouquets of flowers. I stopped at the redhead’s apartment and I was going to
leave the bouquet outside her door but she heard me and opened the door as I was
“These are for you,” I said, handing them to her. “I’m Lily,
I live across the street from you and I noticed that you always have flowers, so
I brought you these. And I got some for myself too.”
“That’s very nice, dear. Are you mentally ill?”
“No, um, I don’t understand. I’m just trying, I...”
“Who are you again and why have you been watching me from
across the street?”
“I haven’t been watching you. I just can see into your
kitchen from my kitchen and I noticed your flowers. That’s all. I’m not spying
on you or anything. I’m Lily.”
“Look, young lady, I don’t know who you are but I would
appreciate it if you left me alone, like everyone else. I like it best that
way. It works for me, okay?”
“I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to bring you
some flowers. Will you take them?”
“Yes. Thank you,” she said quickly.
“I’m Lily,” I said.
“I know, you said that. Thank you for the flowers. Have a
She closed the door. Her voice was harsher than I expected.
Her skin was rough looking and her hair was streaked with grays. She had a
veiny neck and her eyes were dark brown and sunken into their sockets. She
smelled like Lysol. I ran over the conversation in my head on the way down the
stairs and across the street.
My flowers smelled wonderful. Their sweetness left a trail
behind me all the way up the stairs. Mrs. Riley came up behind me.
“My, those flowers smell nice. Lily with fresh flowers, how
appropriate!” She laughed to herself. She had a thick Boston accent.
“Yeah, I guess it is appropriate, Mrs. Riley.”
“Oh, call me Jane, sweetheart” she said. “You’re such a
pretty young girl. And so quiet. You know, Seymour and I have company all the
time. We’d be delighted to have you over some time. I make my famous salmon
dip. It’s marvelous! I’ll let you know the next time we have company.”
“Okay, that would be nice.”
“Well, good night then. I’ve got a sink full of dishes
waiting for me in there and they’re not getting any cleaner.”
From then on I kept flowers in a vase in the middle of my
kitchen table, and I kept the curtain closed so I couldn’t see the redhead
across the street. My apartment was quiet, too quiet sometimes, and I could
hear all the little noises in the building—showers going on and off, music, TV
shows, the distant sound of couples in the throes of passion. Late at night,
those sounds would be gone, and I could sometimes hear a faint moaning, like
someone in an incredible amount of pain, waiting for death to come and rescue
them from their merciless existence. A few times I opened my door and tried to
hear where it was coming from.