A story about neighbors: nobody likes you when you’re 23
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Nobody likes you when you’re 23
A true story about neighbors in the time of Coronavirus: where a little neighborly love goes a long way.
During a year when all is dark, and toward the end of the year as days get darker, I am looking for glimmers everywhere. Glimmers are what help us pay attention, help us write—they can be experienced within the body through our senses. When glimmers are experienced beyond us, pay close attention. It was a few days ago that I noticed my neighbor, glimmering, shining like the final flash of sunset.
Jillian stands on the lawn with a cigarette loosely held in one hand, a hose gripped in the other to water browning grass. Headphones frame her gaunt face. She wears a red t-shirt with the word “happy” in bold type, repeated twice. She looks up at me, coughs a little (which makes me nervous because of Coronavirus), tells me what her shirt says, though I didn’t ask.
She looks past me at the sun through the pines, pulls her shirt taut from her lean body, and explains how this particular oversized t-shirt was a gift from a friend who had died five years ago from lupus. She points to the exact unit her friend had died in.
“Good and bad days, we’re happy-happy.”
Jillian has lupus too, but now I am thinking of my body, not gaunt, not lean. I am thinking of my body, how sturdy, how full it is. Most of my writing has to do with my experience of my body. It’s all I really have. I love to write about physical and tactile experiences, especially food.
Last week, I made cupcakes from scratch to pass the time. There was leftover batter which sat in a bowl with cellophane stretched over the top for a couple of days in the refrigerator. When I checked last, the batter had separated. I had to let it reach room temperature, then mix it together again before pouring the combination of eggs, flour, and sugar over potato chips to make some kind of salty-sweet upside-down cake.
When it was time to place the cake in the oven, I took the dog for a short walk. There is usually litter strewn about the sidewalk, cigarette butts, and ice cream wrappers from the afternoon before, and we usually see Jillian. On this day, she is across the street talking to the local repairman (who never wears a mask). They are gossiping I think. Jillian’s in a good mood, tells me she likes my haircut, tells me today is her son’s 23rd birthday, tells me her son has visited her three times this week.
“It’s like he’s thanking me for birthing him or something.” She laughs and pets the dog.
I offer a suggestion.
“I guess this year you won’t have to sing Happy Birthday. You can sing that Blink-182 song. You know, nobody likes you when you’re twenty-three.”
We smile behind masks, wave goodbye for now.
The cake is done and I’m cleaning the kitchen. I open the door to the garage to throw away the cellophane that’s sticky with sugar, dewy with condensation. As the door swings closed, it snaps off its bottom hinge and now it won’t shut fully. It hangs there, open, extended. I’m annoyed. There have been many times this year when I have felt one second away from snapping off my hinges. We are nearing the end of 2020. We have lived through Covid-19 concerns for almost a full twelve months in lock-down and isolation, worried about our health, worried about our sanity.
The last time I felt this way, I myself was twenty-three. My body was gaunt and lean. I was frail and depressed, not eating. It was my super-senior year of undergrad and I was just about to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder type I. In those days, I liked to wear a wraparound satchel my friend brought me from his travels to Edinburgh, Scotland. I wore it for comfort. The bag crossed over my chest and held me when he was away on Fulbright scholarship, held me when he couldn’t.
I want to hold Jillian when I can’t—or do I want to be held by her, when she’s gone? The answer must be both. Jillian has lived with unmedicated lupus for over five years now and my door is broken; stuck open. I am stuck at home. It’s been a long year, and my heart is broken and open.
“I text Jillian. “Does your 23-year-old like cake?”
“She responds. “Who doesn’t like cake?”
I frost and sprinkle the cake, add wrapped Starbursts to its circumference. All I have for decoration is the leftover fruit-flavored Halloween candy. All I have is leftover cake batter and stale treats. What kind of neighbor am I? I doubt myself. I doubt my glimmer.
The dog and I walk the cake to Jillian’s door. There’s a sign taped on the screen reading, “Ring doorbell, please” including two exclamation points. The sign is a page of printer paper decorated with colorful magic marker. There are flowers and hearts in the negative space. I ring the doorbell and wait. Jillian appears with a mask and headphones on. My eyes meet her eyes. She opens the door, the screen. She sees the cake, extends her long-sleeved arms to hold the plate by both elbows, like she would a newborn.
“Careful, it’s fresh.”
Tears leak from Jillian’s crows’ feet lines. “How did you know I was too tired to bake?”
The dog and I walk home, and I wonder whether Jillian and her son will even like the crumbly, makeshift cake. Did they think the caramelized potato chips were strange? What about the Starbursts? Does Jillian eat Starbursts? These are my concerns.
During a year when I can only offer what I have, I hope the cake holds Jillian, her gauntness, her frailty. During a year when I don’t know how much longer Jillian will be with us, I hope my memory of baking a cake for her son holds me like writing this does, like the satchel from Edinburgh, like the red happy-happy shirt clothing Jillian’s body on good and bad days.
Sara Paye (she/they) is an awarded writer and MFA candidate at Sierra Nevada University at Tahoe (that big lake we gotta keep blue, between California and Nevada). Paye lives in Vegas, and yeah... she is kind of a showgirl of sorts. She definitely likes attention.