The Neighbors

by Sheree La Puma

I needed to be a part of something—anything, a neighborhood—a community, glued together like dark red nail polish dripped dried on white bathroom tile, a messy blob of circumstance reborn.

Glendale, CA. We moved into a Spanish-style bungalow built in 1932, an unkempt piece of history, used and discarded, deep cracks, yellow with pale purple fruit bodies multiplying in its core. I cried, scraping lead paint bubbles off the walls with my thin putty knife. Scraping cottage cheese ceilings, watching asbestos drift down like snowflakes, light and airy. Powdery and pure, crumbly toxic popcorn, only 26 years old, I worry about my lungs now, having read somewhere that asbestos causes cancer. Cancer. I was young then, a sweet naive mother with two pretty girls and I wanted to raise them in a very pretty house, give them a perfect little life. Poor babies buried in snow. I locked the poison in with shiny vinyl violets and blue peonies. It made my in-laws happy. It made me happy. I rushed to finished, didn’t care that wallpaper overlapped wallpaper, or that corners were ragged and torn. I was desperate to hide our imperfections from the world.

The day we moved in, Ana, Irish, proud, was digging trenches with a pickax. “Putting in the new sewer line,” she said. Only five foot three, slim, with wide hips, unafraid.

A newborn baby girl howled, perched on the edge of a hill, safely contained in her well-used infant seat. Ana had four kids. Her house encompassed an impressive 900 square feet, two bedrooms and a bathroom. Several large Aloe vera plants lined her yard, sharp, prickly, unfriendly. There were also several pines. They cut the tallest one down. It was leaning towards their house. Beautiful, mint green, free from dead, brown needles, like the Christmas tree we wanted but could never afford. They chopped it into pieces, hauled it away. Only a stump was left, jagged, an ugly reminder of the impermanence of life.

Ana’s husband was a photographer. More than that, he owned his own studio. He was chiseled from stone, smart, intense. He’d come to my front door now and again to retrieve one of the kids. I’d fantasize he was mine, angry with my husband for sticking me here, next to two overachieving neighbors. Pale, white, skinny, I refinished my hardwood floors in an attempt at redemption. Ana and her husband decided to add on to their bungalow. This meant tearing it down and rebuilding.

They were Mormon, love, determination, good, and evil all wrapped together. Everything I wanted to be. Moreover, they were human. I’d never admit to that, being human. It would mean stripping walls, starting over. Ana did this freely. She talked with me, laid her feelings bare. We sat on the tree stump that divided our yards. Our children ran, laughed together. Kerry, her oldest daughter, beat her sister with a branch from a large oak tree. The baby, stuck in the swing, wailed in horror. It took a while for Ana to notice. I watched helplessly and drank vodka out of a thermos. I drank away my fears. There was no room for God in my life. I was stuck in the here and now. Never thought about the future. If he happened by, God, I’d have no problem sending him next door. I didn’t believe in happy ever after.

SHEREE LA PUMA is an award-winning writer whose personal essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in or are forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, WSQ, Chiron Review, Juxtaprose, The Rumpus, Plainsongs, Into The Void, and I-70 Review, among others. She has a micro-chapbook, The Politics of Love, due out in August and a chapbook, Broken: Do Not Use, due out in Fall. She received an MFA in Writing from California Institute of the Arts and taught poetry to former gang members.

Photo: “Aloe Vera” by spurekar