The first time I saw her, it was four o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t sleep. A loud catfight had jolted me out of bed and I was sure that the wretched screaming was coming from my two children. Terrible images crashed through my head as I fell out of bed; my girls being kidnapped through their window, my girls suffocating in their sleep due to some throat-closing disease they had contracted at the playground. When I pushed open their door, they both lay peaceful and still. I leaned into Jessica’s crib and waited until her damp breath reached my cheek. Dana was in her bed, her legs twisted in the sheets, both arms flung above her head like she was doing a swan dive into a deep blue pool. Her breathing was loud and purposeful.
I closed their door and tiptoed back to bed, careful not to wake Mark as I snuck back under the sheets. He was lying facing me with his hands under his cheek. He looked like an innocent altar boy, his dark hair slightly disheveled. We didn’t close our windows or curtains in the summer and in the moonlight, I could see his black eyelashes fluttering under the weight of an eventful dream. I wondered if I was in it. Even after seven years of marriage, Mark still appeared in almost all of my dreams.
I couldn’t fall asleep so I slipped out of the sheets as quietly as I could and eased out of the bedroom. I walked down the stairs and decided to go outside and listen to the night. It was July and summer at night in the Midwest was always the loudest time of the year. When I was a little girl, I would lie in bed, still as I could, and concentrate on the chorus of grasshoppers and cicadas that muted the noises in my house. The television, car doors slamming, even my parents’ loud voices were no match for their collective song.
As I padded, barefoot, onto the back deck, I saw the shadowy figure of a gray cat saunter out from under it. He slowed halfway across the lawn and looked back as if to ask, “Yeah? So? Mind your own business.” His yellow eyes flickered in the moonlight.
Our small deck barely had room for a picnic table. It was painted white and propped a few feet off of the ground by four wooden stilts that looked like they were one season away from complete rot. One side was lined with white lattice that appeared naked and empty without a pushy, dark green vine blindly forcing its way through the squares. No matter what I planted, it just wouldn’t climb. I had tried four varieties of ivy. The patch of ground below the lattice looked like the chest of a heart transplant patient.
The grasshoppers sang without apology and a warm, humid breeze sank down onto me as I sat on the picnic bench and folded my arms across my chest. When I flipped one leg up over the bench, preparing to lie down and watch the stars, a dim sliver of light flashed from my neighbor’s yard. I peered through the lattice and saw someone there. It was a woman. She was sitting on the grass in the middle of their small lawn. I bent forward, resting my elbows on the picnic bench, and noticed that she was hugging her knees close to her chest. The white nightgown she wore looked darker around her rear end, drenched by the dew.
They had moved in less than a week ago, and Jenny, my neighbor from across the street, told me that her name was Sadie and his was Joe. I hadn’t met them yet. I hadn’t really been out of the house much except during the day to run errands and we had yet to run into each other. Jenny said that they were newlyweds and not from around here. As I spied through my peephole lattice, I saw that she was curled up like a scared roly-poly bug and rocking back and forth. I wondered if maybe one of those fighting cats was hers and she had just discovered his body, mangled and broken like a soldier strewn across a bloody hillside. The temptation to approach her and ask if she was okay came but then quickly went. She looked a little bit crazy out there on the lawn, drenched and rocking herself.
I scooted forward to get a better view but my hand slipped. I banged my elbow on the bench and held my breath, hoping she didn’t hear the noise. She turned and looked in my direction. I ducked my head down. Our houses weren’t more than thirty feet apart. There was no way I would be able to move without her seeing me. I stared at the bench, my nose nearly touching it, and kept as still as I could. After a while, I slowly looked up and she had turned around and resumed her rocking. One inch at a time, I moved off of the bench and sat down under the table. I figured if I couldn’t sleep, I might as well sit outside and spy on the neighborhood’s new crazy lady.
When Mark and I bought this house, we had been married for two years. We had spent each day since the honeymoon saving for the down payment. We lived in a small studio apartment with almost no heat and ate Ramen Noodles, our only consolation the weekly monitoring of our growing savings account. It felt so fantastic and responsible and adult when we finally had the money and found the house. We threw a housewarming party before we even had furniture. Our friends sat on milk crates and unpacked boxes and drank beer from the bottle.
But about a year after we moved in, Mark kissed another woman. He said it happened when he was drunk at a bar and he probably wouldn’t recognize her if he saw her again. When he confessed over coffee on a Sunday morning, my initial reaction was indifference. Then I began to cry. He tried to comfort me but as he held me all I could envision was his arms wrapped around someone else so I pushed him away, picked up my coffee cup and threw it against the wall. I ran upstairs and locked myself in our bedroom. Every twenty minutes or so, he would come to the door, weakly knock, calling my name and apologizing. At about noon, after I got hungry, I unlocked the door. I let him in and told him I just needed time and not to talk to me. When we went to bed that night, he told me that I was overreacting. “Watch it,” I said. “I haven’t decided whether I’m going to leave you yet.”
After a few days of contemplating leaving him, or worse, him leaving me for her, I became obsessed with finding out who she was. The bar that was the scene of the crime stood less than a mile from our house. For about a week, I spent my evenings sitting on a bench across the street from the bar’s entrance. Mark never knew this, but I would watch every woman who went inside, imagining that she was the one who had kissed my husband. There was one pretty brunette that I was especially suspicious of and whenever I saw her go in, I would yell, “Slutty bitch!” from across the street and then duck behind a bush when she turned to see who was yelling. But after a while, I just got tired of the sick feeling in my stomach and stopped the stakeout from across the bar.
It was right after the surveillance stopped that I found out I was pregnant. Before Mark’s tryst, we had decided to start trying to conceive. I had been ready for at least a year but Mark insisted that we wait. He said we didn’t have enough money. He said he wanted to take one last trip to Europe. He even said he wanted to get really wasted one last time. I laughed and said he could do it while I was pregnant, that I would have fun watching him puke the next day. Finally after two of his friends’ wives got pregnant, he agreed that we could start trying. Now that I look back on it, I wonder if our agreement to try to get pregnant was what made him kiss that woman. After he told me about her, I was so thrown that I forgot we had begun to try. That is, until I realized that the week prior, the week I’d spent staking out the bar, should have been the week of my period.
By the time I woke up the girls, I already had their breakfasts ready and their clothes from the laundry folded and set out. I hadn’t slept since the catfight and I could feel the fatigue pulling under my eyes.
“Morning Dana-bird,” I said, kissing her forehead. She grimaced and smacked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Her old soul especially came through in the morning as she slowly rolled around in her sheets, protesting my wake up call. Her high-pitched, three-year old energy would only slowly kick in after this long, quiet morning routine.
I looked into Jessica’s crib and she was awake but not crying.
“Well hello, angel face. Listening to the morning birds?” I whispered. I picked her up and carried her on my hip into my bedroom to change her diaper on the bed. Mark had just finished his shower.
“Where were you this morning?” he called out from the bathroom.
“Couldn’t sleep. I’ve been up since about three.”
“Wow,” he said, toweling his hair and walking into the bedroom. “Take a nap today when you put the girls down for theirs.” I laughed, puffing air out my mouth. Mark had no idea how much work I had to do around the house. I tickled Jessica’s belly and she giggled.
“Oh my god, Mark,” I said, remembering the woman in the lawn. “I saw the new neighbor woman out in her yard at four in the morning. She was just sitting in the grass all crunched up in a ball.”
“Yeah. She was out there for a good two hours. She was only wearing her nightgown and was rocking back and forth. And when the sun started to come up, she just got up, walked up the back steps and into the house. It was the strangest thing.”
“Great. A new set of freaky neighbors.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” I said, chuckling from deep in my throat.
That day, after I returned from grocery shopping with the girls, I heard the neighbors fighting. I could hear them as I lifted Dana out of her car seat. She ran to play on the swing set and I yelled after her to be careful. Jessica was asleep so I opened all the car doors and let her snooze while I unloaded the groceries. As I leaned into the trunk, reaching for a big box of laundry detergent, I heard their voices through open windows. They were unmistakably angry. I leaned my ear towards their house. It was difficult to understand what they were saying except once he yelled, “No! You’re wrong!” and then she said, “Bullshit! Fuck you! I saw you with her!” My first reaction was to smile. I suppose it was because their fighting sounded so familiar to me. But as I stood in my driveway holding the heavy box of detergent, the memory of Mark’s kiss hit me like it happened yesterday. My stomach turned. Then the neighbor woman yelled, “No! I don’t believe you!” Her voice was thick from sobbing. She sounded so much like me after Mark confessed his infidelity. And Jenny said they had just been married. Poor thing.
Their front door opened and I heard her scream, “Ass hole! I fucking hate you! Go to hell!” She ran out onto their front walkway, only a few feet from where I stood, digging in her purse for her keys. When she noticed me standing there, she put her head down and said, “Sorry” through her long brown hair. When she reached her car, she still hadn’t found her keys and her thin arm darted madly inside her purse. “Fuck!” she yelled. When she finally found the keys, she jumped in the car and was out of their driveway in one swooping motion.
Her husband came out as she drove away. He stood on the sidewalk with his hands on his hips. “Shit,” he said, as her car squealed around the corner. I turned around and was pretending to be reaching in the trunk for something when I heard his front door slam.
Later in the afternoon, when I picked up a plant from the windowsill to water it, I noticed that her car was back. I grinned and hoped that they were inside having wild makeup sex. When I brought the plant back to the window, I paused when I noticed that his car was not in the driveway. I felt let down and worried for her, thinking of the one time Mark left me. It was before he kissed the other woman, back when I was so in love with him that I thought I would disappear if he left me. After a fight, he said I was suffocating him and then he left for two days without even a phone call. I just sat at home and cried. I missed work and spent both days making a list of ways to be less dependent on him. The list was eight pages long by the time he returned. I sheepishly presented it to him, hoping that my hand-written plan to change would win him back. He laughed when he read the list, shaking his head and smiling. He asked if the smeared spots were from teardrops and I nodded yes. Then he said he missed me while he was gone. I signed the list in red pen and he thanked me and then we had sex.
As I put Jessica in her play-chair, I wondered if I could help this woman. Maybe I could share my story and help her through this. I turned on the television for Dana and went to the kitchen to microwave a cup of water for tea. I thought about what I would say to the neighbor, what advice I would give. But the only thing I could think of was, Wait. Don’t give up yet. As I cursed myself for thinking up such useless advice, I dropped the counseling idea. Surely she didn’t want my advice, the advice of some long-ago-scorned housewife from Ohio. The microwave beeped, indicating that my water was hot.
That night at four AM, I woke up again. No catfight this time, just wide-awake and frustrated. I tossed and turned, sighing loudly until Mark said, “What,” his voice frustrated and deep from sleep. “What is your problem?”
“Sorry,” I said, slipping out from under the sheets and leaving the room. I walked to the bathroom and bunched my nightgown up above my waist and sat down to pee in the dark. I kicked my panties off onto the floor and decided to leave them off. It always felt so airless down there.
When I stood up to wash my hands, I looked out the bathroom window and saw her. She was lying down this time, spread eagle in the yard, wearing the same thin, white nightgown. Peering down on her from the second floor, it looked like she was smiling. Laughing almost. I smiled too and turned my head to the left in an attempt to look at her right side up. From up here, she looked like Ophelia in the stream, wet with dew and nearly enveloped by the earth. I had to get a closer look.
I went out the front door so that I could walk around the house and reach the deck unnoticed. My eyes were wide in the darkness as I tiptoed barefoot across our front lawn. I looked up and found a narrow sliver of the moon. It appeared to be rocking back and forth across the sky. I could hear nothing except the crickets and a distant train’s horn. When I stepped on something squishy, I jumped with giddy fright and gulped a big breath of night air. I felt like a kid at summer camp, sneaking out to find the boys. Without my panties on.
Crawling up onto the porch proved difficult for my knees, but I managed. I snuck into position under the picnic table and watched through the lattice as her chest rose and fell. She was taking deliberately deep breaths and I wondered if this was some new form of yoga. I leaned my shoulder into the table’s crisscrossed legs, finding a good hole in the lattice to see her face. She arched her back a little, like an invisible man was there making love to her, and I felt instantly turned on, then ashamed. I put my hand over my mouth and watched her. Moving from square to square, I studied different parts of her body and realized that she was beautiful. She wasn’t extremely thin or busty, but she almost glowed. It was as if she was what mother nature intended beauty to look like and every night she reaped the rewards.
As I swayed under the table, trying to find the best angle, I skipped over four squares in the lattice. She was naked. Her nipples stood erect in the slow night breeze. She had a dark patch of pubic hair that seemed to match the almost black grass below her. I watched in awe. She looked elated. She was smiling wide and turning her head from side to side. She exhaled and made a snow angel in the grass. I wondered if it would be strange if I tried it too. A small breeze came across the lawn and went up under my nightgown. I smiled and put my fingers in my mouth and laughed silently.
“Couldn’t sleep again?” Mark whispered, as he woke me up on the couch, stroking my forehead.
“No,” I said, rolling onto my side.
“What are we going to do with you?” he asked, walking back to the kitchen. “We’ll have to take you to one of those sleep clinics soon. Put monitors on your forehead and video tape you as you sleep.”
“Great,” I said, stretching my legs. “That way ten people in lab coats can watch me drool.” Mark laughed.
“Want some coffee?” he asked from the kitchen.
“You made coffee?” I asked, finishing my stretch. “Yes, I’d love some. Are the girls OK?”
“They’re fine. Sound asleep,” he said as he walked from the kitchen with two coffee mugs. “What time did you wake up?”
“Four o’clock again.”
“Did you see psycho neighbor out in the yard?” he asked, handing me my coffee.
“No. Not this time.”
“Too bad,” Mark said. “Could have been a good piece of gossip for the other neighbors.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Too bad.”
She left him. It happened two days after the night I saw her naked. I watched from my window as she packed her car. She stuffed two big suitcases into her trunk and lots of small boxes into the back seat. He wasn’t home while she packed. When he drove up, she was shoving one last box into the passenger seat. He walked slowly to the car and stood there with his hands in his pockets. She looked at him and smiled slightly. They spoke for a few minutes and then she walked around the car, slowly and with her head down. The car started and sputtered a bit. It was probably distressed under all the weight. Then she just drove away. The car slowed at the corner, turned, and was gone.
He stood there for about five minutes, like he expected her chugging little car to turn around and come back. I wanted to go out and tell him that it would. But even though I didn’t really know her, I was pretty sure that she wouldn’t return.
“I just don’t think it’s any of our business,” Mark said after I told him about the neighbors. We were sitting in bed reading our books, propped up by our pillows.
“I know it’s none of our business. But I can’t believe she left him,” I said.
“I just can’t believe she would do that.”
“But you said you thought he cheated on her.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he did.” I paused and then said, “But so did you and I didn’t leave you.” Silence. Mark raised his eyebrows and inhaled deeply. “Maybe I should have,” I said. He looked at me like I was being rude.
“Okay,” he exhaled.
“No, I mean it. Why didn’t I ever leave?”
“Jesus. I only kissed her once at a bar and I was drunk. It was so long ago.”
“I was pregnant with Dana. That’s why I didn’t leave.” I looked straight ahead but could feel Mark radiating heat. I wanted to look at his face and see if he thought this was true, to see if he felt bound to me by our children, but I couldn’t turn my head.
“Almost four years later and you’re still blowing it out of proportion.”
“I don’t know,” I said slowly, anger charging from my chest up into the back of my throat. “Why didn’t I ever leave?”
“Because you just wouldn’t have.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, finally turning to him. He looked angry.
“Drop it Lorraine. Just drop it.” He turned over and flipped off his bedside light.
“Fine,” I said, trying to indicate in that one tiny word that I felt differently about the whole thing now.
I woke up again. Three o’clock. I left the bedroom and went to the bathroom window to look out at their yard. It looked dark evergreen and much bigger without her sitting in it. I contemplated sitting out in our lawn but the grass had dead patches and the dry yellow stalks would probably poke and hurt. I stood at that bathroom window for a long time, my hands perched on the sill that started at my collarbone. I imagined what I looked like from the outside. Probably seemed like a detached head was floating near the windowsill.
I turned around and went back to the bedroom. Mark was breathing heavily and I lay down next to him and clasped my hands over my hips. Outside our window, the crickets and cicadas were singing loudly. I listened to them. I focused on them and tried to fall asleep.