"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


La Croix

Every Friday that summer she’d come over and we’d drink La Croix’s out on my back deck after work. I’d get home a bit earlier on those nights, around 4:30, and she’d hop across our suburban street after seeing my truck pull-up. We’d sit out there on the deck nestled against the woods, talking and sipping sparkling water from our cans. Her favorite flavor was pomegranate. I didn’t like it, but always made sure I had it for her. 

The conversation was easy. Always. We’d only pause when deer walked by and then—silence, little smirks on our faces as we watched them forage in the forest. 

Sometimes we’d hear the sounds of neighbors in their backyards, firing up the grill on those golden summer nights. We’d gossip about them. Tell each other what the other one didn’t know or things we suspected might be the case

Occasionally a few neighbors would get together and we’d hear their tipsy laughs across the yards. She asked what I tell people when they offer me a drink. I told her the truth. “I don’t do that anymore.” I asked what she says, knowing she’d never been a drinker. She smiled. I laughed and told her that was good. Causes a lot of problems and solves none. 

“Duh.” Rolling her eyes with a smile. Flip-flops kicked off, putting her feet up on the deck railing. 

“I probably wouldn’t have hung out with a teetotaler like you back then,” I jested. Gave a wink and took a swig from my can.

“Well, glad you changed.” She said it as a friend, but it’d been a long time since someone said something that caused me to feel the way it did. Not since high school. 

She’s married

Her husband was deployed. My wife and I were separated and I got the kids every Saturday and Sunday. I hated that word, separated.  I’d hear it when I was young—listening to my mom on the phone or something—and think: Boring. Old. Adults. With Problems. Now that was me.

The lonely birds—our nickname for each other, like we were in a band. I’d pull out my phone and put on the Police or some other “80’s band” and sometimes one of us, but never both, would sing part of a verse, like we were just sitting in traffic. That’s as close as we came to being an actual band.

We talked about our loneliness. She got to speak to her husband once or twice a week on Skype. Sent him lots of emails. Got lots of emails. I felt bad for her though. She wasn’t from here. All her family lived in a different state. She had maybe just a few friends, as far as I could tell. “But you know how it is when you move somewhere as an adult,” she told me once, putting her blonde hair into a pony tail. “Friends just aren’t the same.”

I’d ask about her husband. “Is he doing okay?” 

“Seems to be,” she’d say. 

“Are you doing okay?” I’d ask. A head nod. 

She had a group she sometimes went to—for military spouses. 

“Do you like it?” 

“Eh.” Shrugged shoulders.

She asked if I had anyone to talk to. 

“Guys in construction don’t talk about their marital problems with each other,” I quipped. 

“What about your mom?”

I scratched at my scruff. “Eh.”

Once she joked I should join a dating site and pulled out her phone, saying she’d help me create a profile. We went through most of the steps to make an account, laughing at some of the questions the app asked. We uploaded a crummy photo she took of me, sitting with my legs crossed on the back deck, wearing a stupid grin and hoisting my can of LaCroix in mock celebration. When it was time to hit “submit,” we stopped.  

We didn’t know much about each other before that summer. She and her husband had moved in two or so years ago. My wife and I, when we were still talking, just knew them as the “young couple across the street.” (Truth was they weren’t that much younger, maybe five years.) Her husband was a good guy. He and I would sometimes have a chat across the street when raking leaves in the fall. But I didn’t know her, didn’t say much beyond a few “hellos” and waves. 

Around 8 p.m. the sun would dip beneath the backyard woods and we’d get out the citronella candles, maybe throw on a sweatshirt. She’d ask what I had planned for the kids for the weekend, when they’d be coming in the morning and what not. It would get dark enough that I’d strain to see her face, and so I’d flip on the back light as the sound of sprinklers gave way to croaking toads and crickets. Then the mosquitos would start feasting, no matter how much Off we put on, and we’d say good night. Like a kid, she’d walk around my house, through the side lawn, and then cross under the street lamps to get back home. I’d glance across the road to her house, just to see when she turned off the lights—usually just a few minutes after we said goodbye.

At first, we didn’t talk much outside those Friday evenings. I always had the kids on the weekends and we both worked during the week—me during the day and her a few nights a week at a department store. Then on some random weeknight, I got a text from her.

Quite the storm, huh? 

She capped it off with a little smiley face. I’d forgotten we’d exchanged numbers one night out on the deck. Just in case of an emergency.

“Like if I saw your house burning down, I’d text you.”

“Good. And if I see a robber in your house, I’ll text you.”

After that, we continued on our back deck conversations over text. When she’d spot a deer in my backyard woods, she’d text an emoji of one. Kind of stupid, but deer were kind of our thing. They were the reason we’d started hanging out on my back deck in the first place. I was outside some Friday evening in late May, pounding the dirt off my work boots, and I saw the neighbor lady from across the street —“cute young girl” as my wife had described her when they first moved in—wandering into my backyard.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said in a whisper, looking surprised to see me. She hushed a finger to her lips and pointed at a mother deer and her two fawns hiding in a thicket in the woods. She’d been watching them from across the street and couldn’t help but try to get a closer look. That’s when we got to talking for the first time—I even had to ask her name—and our Friday night ritual began.

She’s married.

The thought intruded into my mind sometimes when I’d be looking at her face. Her tan golden face. Little freckles on her nose. I had no idea why. I didn’t have those kinds of feelings. So I didn’t know why I repeated it in my head. 

What are you doing over there?

Watching a movie.

What one?

Friday the 13th. Scary!

You can text if you have a bad dream :o) 

Oh shut up.

In late July her husband came home for a two-week leave. I looked out my window at all the cars parked in their driveway, on the street too. Visiting friends and family. Balloons and streamers. They were a couple again.

Of course, we didn’t do our lonely bird Friday night chats when her husband was home. Didn’t text each other either. 

I ran into them one evening, outside on the street. They were getting ready to head out for a walk together and I’d just finished up a run. I shook Dave’s hand and welcomed him home. Then he and I got into a friendly conversation about baseball for a few minutes. She was there, right there, but we didn’t say anything to each other. In the back of my mind, I wondered if she’d told him at all about our chats, about how close we’d grown that summer, as friends. 

Why would she tell him that? 

Why not? It’s all innocent, friendly. 

But if you’re asking, is it?

In that moment, it was like we went back to being strangers, at a distance from each other. (Why was that?) Then the two weeks passed and her husband went back overseas. A few days later, I sent her a text: 

Hope you guys had some good time together and hope you’re doing okay.

Thx. It was good having him home. Hard now though…

Let me know if you need anything.

She took a while to respond. I checked my phone every few minutes, and then finally: 

We still up for Friday night?

It began to rain right as I got home that Friday. Pulling into my driveway, rain beginning to splatter my windshield, I looked over at her house. 

She’s not going to come over. Why would she? It’s raining. The back deck is our thing. She’s never even been in the house.

Darn rain! We can plan for next week.

You sure? I can still come over.

Sit in the rain?

We can’t drink cans of sparkling water in your house?

I started picking up the house as quick as I could, my phone in hand.

Only if you want.

I looked out the window and saw her leaving her house, an umbrella in her hand as she crossed the street. It was odd seeing her in pants, not wearing her usual cut-off jean shorts. 

“I can’t believe you’ve never been in here.”

“So rude of you never to invite me,” she joked, stepping out of her shoes.

“You’re not missing much. Pomegranate?”

“You know me.”

We ate dinner together that night. General Tso’s. Kung Pao chicken. Fried rice and wontons. 

“Don’t worry about paying. I got it,” I said awkwardly. We were so natural together—any awkwardness between us always seemed magnified. Should I have paid? It’s the nice thing to do, for a friend. Besides, I’m not going to ask an Army wife to fork over 12 bucks. 

We watched the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. As she was teasing me about mispronouncing “Abu Dhabi”, the doorbell rang. 

I peered out the window. The rain was still coming down. It was Lou, our neighbor, holding an umbrella over his head. 

“Hey John,” Lou said. “Just wanted to let you know that one of your truck windows is open a crack. Might want to shut that.”

“Oh thanks, Lou. Hadn’t noticed,” I said. 

My living room couch was close to the front door and I could tell Lou caught a glance of the back of her head. I can’t say if he recognized her, but I think he probably did. He did.  There was a look of something in his eyes. Confusion? Judgment? Did he think that…?

“Sorry to interrupt you,” Lou said, turning around and walking quickly back to the sidewalk. The way he said “you,” how he’d scurried away so quickly.

We were just friends watching the Olympics together, I wanted to tell him. Why’d I feel the need to tell him that? Of course, I didn’t say anything. There wasn’t a need to say anything. We were just friends. 

But screw you, Lou, for that look. She’s a wife whose husband is overseas and I’m just trying to keep her company, be a friend, a good neighbor. What the hell are you doing to help her?

She stood up a few minutes after Lou left. She’d heard something in his voice, maybe seen something in his eyes. I could tell.

“You know, this week was crazy. I think I’m going to head home.”

“So early? But the Americans haven’t even come out,” I said. I couldn’t just say, “I understand, good bye,” and then solemnly lead her out the door. That would signal that I knew why she was leaving. That we both realized Lou had sensed something, judged us. That maybe there was a reason for us to be judged.

“I know,” she said, already at the door. “It’s just that I’m really tired. Thank you for dinner.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

“Have a good weekend,” she said.

“You too.”

The next day I waited for a text, but never got one. 

Thanks for coming over. See you next Friday (if you want).

 

She never responded to my text. Didn’t come over the next Friday either. A few weeks later her husband was back from overseas. I learned from a neighbor they’d just found out she was pregnant (should I text ‘congratulations’ or is that weird?), would likely be moving back to her home state to be closer to family. 

It was true. A “For Sale” sign went up. Then the moving van came. This was mid-September and there was a hint of crispness now in the air. Everyone was back in jeans.  

“We’ll miss you guys,” I said to Dave as he hauled a box over to the moving van.

“We’ll miss you too,” he said. “I know my wife would like to say good-bye too but she’s inside with her mom packing up.” My wife. He said it like I didn’t know who she was, like I wouldn’t even know her name. 

“Oh, that’s fine,” I said. “You guys take care and best of luck with the baby.” 

I walked back across the street to my house. Lou was out, doing some yard work. I could feel something in his look, but I didn’t care. 

As I crossed the road, I thought back, remembering a time when she’d asked about my wife while we sat together out on the deck. She had on her short jean shorts, a tank top. Her blonde hair kissing her tan shoulders. I’d just found out my wife was seeing someone from her work, which was “okay”—we’d agreed we could start doing that. 

“They must’ve had a thing going before we were even separated,” I said. 

“Before you guys split, did you have any idea they were friends, that they were close?” she asked.

“No idea at all,” I said. “She never even mentioned his name.”

“Huh,” she said.

“What?”

 “That’s telling,” she said. “Kept him secret for a reason, I guess. If they were just friends, she probably would’ve told you about him, mentioned something.” 

Crossing the street, I thought back on that and what I’d just heard.  My wife. Like he assumed I wouldn’t even know her name. Like he assumed we were complete strangers to each other.

He had no idea. She’d never told him about our texts, the LaCroix’s, our lonely bird get-togethers. Us.

For some reason, that made me happy.


Peter Shaw is a writer living in Minneapolis with his wife and two children.

Cover photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

The Fairies Under My Desk

The Fairies Under My Desk