A week before I gave birth, the new people moved in next door. It was mid-winter. I watched from my window as a couple of burly men hoisted the furniture out of the truck and lugged it into the house. A young woman about my age was standing on the front lawn in a long robin’s-egg blue parka. When she turned around, I noticed a baby wearing a matching blue ski cap hitched to her in a front pack and a toddler in a red one-piece snowsuit clinging to her leg. A third boy, maybe six, was fashioning snowballs and firing them at the STOP sign. Another girl, older still, stood silently in the doorway shivering in a red turtleneck and denim skirt. The woman waved her arms around like a crossing guard, directing the moving men here and there. I didn’t see a husband anywhere.
A couple of days later, I waddled over with banana bread. At that stage I was overdue and I’d been off work for two weeks. I was so bored I would have proffered communion wafers to the Devil if he’d turned up for a chat. Banana bread was the only thing I knew how to make besides chocolate chip cookies. That morning I had made the chocolate chip cookie batter — which in my estimation anyone would prefer to banana bread — but I’d eaten it all while I waited for the oven to preheat.
Her name was Theresa. She invited me in for coffee. She was wearing short shorts and a midriff t-shirt even though it was frigid outside. Her stomach was as flat as a plate. She had the sleek, unmarred legs of a window-display mannequin and wore her thick blonde hair up in a high ponytail. Seeing her reminded me of all those years I spent imitating Marcia Brady — wielding pom-poms while somersaulting and holding a hand up to shield my broken nose.
They’d come from Denver, Theresa said. The weather was great there, but she wasn’t a big fan of the pre-fab subdivisions. She was glad to be here in the Midwest in a real, old-fashioned neighborhood with sidewalks and trees.
“I love old houses like this one,” she said. “I’m so excited to get to work on it.”
“I wish I felt the same. It tires me out just thinking about all the stuff we still have to do . . . the carpets, the kitchen, the plaster . . . .”
She silenced me, swiping her hand through the air.
“Once you take the first step,” she said, “it’s much harder to stop than to keep a’movin’!”
She sounded just like my mother.
Theresa’s house was spotless. The kids (there were four) were watching television in the family room. It was so quiet, I felt like I had entered the public library. This was one of my first impressions of life with kids, and it was misleading. The living room reminded me of something I had seen somewhere. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Even the area rug in the living room — a maroon and olive oriental — looked familiar.
“I love that rug,” I said.
“Pottery Barn. The whole house is Pottery Barn. I left all the old crap in Denver and went on a big spree when we bought this place.”
“I’m sorry it’s such a mess,” she continued, leading me into the kitchen.
“Are you kidding?” Where were the boxes? Potted plants — two ficuses, a palm tree, a peace lily — lined all four corners of the living room. There was a beautiful floral arrangement on the mantle flanked by silver candlestick holders and family photos. The only things on the kitchen counter were a cappuccino maker and a toaster.
“I just feel like it’s out of control sometimes,” she said. “Like I just can’t get a handle on it.”
She walked over to the cappuccino maker and turned a dial. “Do you like lattes? I can make you a decaf . . .”
“Sure!” During my internment I’d forgotten all about lattes.
“I’ve got to have a double,” she said. “I was up all night painting my daughter Lindsey’s bathroom.”
There was a baby sitting in a car seat on the kitchen table. He looked fresh out of the pouch. I wasn’t experienced enough with babies to guess his age, so I asked. Six weeks, she said. She said his name was Max.
“How do you do that — paint — with the baby?” I had read that you should never leave a car seat or a bouncy seat on a table, so I stationed myself next to Max with one hand on the rim of his seat. “And when did you unpack?”
“I did that the first night.” She handed me the latte. She’d produced a thick, peaked whip. “I can’t stand boxes. Lindsey’s birthday is on Sunday. She really wanted a Barbie bathroom so I figured what the heck! I’m up anyway with the baby! Why not paint?”
“Geez,” I said. “It would freak me out to start a project like that.”
After coffee we went up to look at the bathroom. It looked exactly like my childhood Barbie bus — a pinkish purple hue I’d never seen on any other surface since. She’d actually recreated a life – sized Barbie on the wall opposite the toilet so that — somewhat disconcertingly — Barbie appeared to be staring down at the facilities.
Theresa explained that by employing a combing technique, she was able to create the illusion of wallpaper.
“I’m very impressed,” I said.
“Oh, it’s not done.” She pointed up at the ceiling. “I missed a couple of spots up there, and I still have to install the shelves.”
That night I told my husband, Ed, that our new neighbor had already managed to paint her daughter’s bathroom.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said.
“She must be on something.” I climbed into bed and arranged the pillows to accommodate my large mid-section. “Nobody has that much energy.” It was 9 p.m.. I could barely keep my eyes open.
“She’s probably painting the kitchen tonight,” I added.
“I got a defective model,” Ed said. I glared at him. He grinned and I hit him with a pillow.
I met Theresa’s husband, Jim, two days later; the night before I gave birth to Steve. We were sitting in the living room when he walked in. She was drinking Merlot and I was nursing a Coke. He didn’t look our way. He didn’t look at the kids who were glued to Barney. He came in on tiptoe like a thief. He probably would have continued right past us down the hall to the kitchen if Theresa hadn’t brought me to his attention.
“Our new neighbor,” she called, pointing to me. He walked slowly over, studying the ground. He offered me his hand. When he looked up, I noticed that he was very good-looking. In fact, he was the type of person who is so good looking you can’t hear a word they are saying. He had black hair, short in the back but long in the front, with bangs that hung like a drop cloth over his eyes.
“Go look at the bathroom,” Theresa said to him. “I’m pretty well finished. Now I’m thinking we should fix up the attic for the kids . . . you know, like a castle? Take a peek up there. Everything in miniature. You’ll totally be able to see it.
In his abashed stance (he’d gone back to studying the carpet) he reminded me of that dopey actor Keanu Reeves. Finally, he brushed his bangs aside and glanced briefly at Theresa.
“Will do,” he mumbled. Then he loped off toward the kitchen.
After a week of sleepless, frantic motherhood I looked out the kitchen window one morning and burst into tears. The trees were naked. The wind was howling. The houses lining the street looked like upturned coffins. The only thing I wanted was sleep, but there were dishes in the sink and diapers on the counter. Even after I did the dishes, more appeared. It felt like I’d entered my own private horror film or an endlessly recurring nightmare — one of the ones where you try to save someone but you can’t move your legs or you go to school only to find out your teacher is giving a test in a language you don’t speak on a subject you’ve never heard of. My grandmother always had dreams that there was a lion chasing her. I couldn’t relate to that at all, but I would have screamed aloud if someone made a movie about dishes that materialize out of thin air or laundry that proliferates unchecked.
My mother showed up.
“Let me see! Let me see my grandson!” she squealed as she burst through the door. In her hip-length mink she resembled a linebacker.
When I held him up, she said: “What in the world is wrong with his face!?”
“Infant acne,” I said. “The doctor said it would clear up in a week or two.”
“He gets it from me,” I added.
“You never had acne!” She looked aghast. She shook off the pelt and I hung it up in the hall closet.
“No, my hormones. Apparently he’s expelling hormones.”
“Through his face!?” She was fixing her hair in the mirror; lining the white blonde ends up like scythes behind her ears.
“So I’m told.”
“In that case, I’ll hold off on pictures for a couple of days. Am I still in the basement?”
The next day I had just put Steve down for a nap and was headed upstairs to join him when the doorbell rang. It was my mother-in-law, Mrs. Fisher. When I opened the door her voice hit me like a slap. I fought the urge to shush her. Since Steve’s birth our house had become her own personal toll booth — she couldn’t pass by without depositing something in our kitchen, but she always made it quite clear she was on her way elsewhere.
She placed the pan on the counter and glanced at the full sink and the paper-strewn breakfast table.
“I’m headed to Neam’s,” she said. “They’re having a great sale on rump roast.”
“Great,” I said.
“Just let me say hi to Angela before I go.”
In the living room she shrieked, “Angela!” as if she were greeting not my mother but a long-lost beau. I winced and listened for a cry from upstairs, but there was nothing.
Mrs. Fisher was still in the living room chatting with my mother when the doorbell rang again five minutes later.
“Sheesh!” I hissed. I was never going to get my nap.
It was Theresa. She was carrying a wicker basket. I tried to thank her and shoo her out the door, but my mother yelled out: “Yoo hoo! Who’s that?” I had no choice but to lead Theresa out to the sun porch where my mother was reclining on the chaise.
Mrs. Fisher was sitting on the loveseat opposite my mother. She sat stiffly on the edge of it with her knees pressed together and her hands in her lap. In that position, she looked like she’d popped right out of a 19th century novel. When Theresa and I walked in, she stood up.
“This is our new neighbor, Theresa Dixon,” I said.
“Welcome to the neighborhood!” Mrs. Fisher bowed to her.
“Hello!” my mother said. She closed her compact and put it back in her purse. She had just finished reapplying her lipstick — mandatory after every meal. I have never seen my mother without makeup. When I was little, I snuck into her room one time (strictly off-limits) and there was lipstick all over the pillowcase. Many years later when I kidded her about wearing makeup to bed, she said: “I only show one face to the world.”
“I brought treats.” Theresa held up the basket. Then she set it down on the coffee table and opened it to reveal homemade spaghetti sauce and gnocchi, Caesar salad and fudge caramel brownies nestled on a red and white striped tablecloth. She said she’d picked the basket up at Pottery Barn.
“Well, isn’t that something!?” Mrs. Fisher peered down at the booty as Theresa emptied it out on to the table.
“Thank you so much!” my mother said. “I was just getting up to cook dinner, but now I can just relax and enjoy the baby!”
“Theresa owns her own business.” I changed the subject to keep myself from singing “Alleluia.” My mother probably would have whipped up one of her signature happy-face meals. When I was a child she thought she could fool me into eating nutritious food by disguising it. She cut liverwurst sandwiches into the shape of bunnies and tulips. She put scoops of tuna fish in tomato boats with raisin smiley faces on it. She lined up cauliflower and broccoli to resemble the forest outside the salmon man’s home. The salmon man had pecan eyes and a red pepper mouth. It didn’t take me long to figure out that when she decorated the food, it was bound to taste terrible.
“Kind of like Shabby Chic,” I added, describing the business the way Theresa had described it to me.
“Oh, I love Shabby Chic,” my mother said.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s a business,” Theresa said. “But I enjoy it. It’s much less stressful than my old job.”
“What did you do?” My mother zipped up her bag and placed it next to the brownies on the coffee table.
“Consultant. Arthur Anderson. I used to fly all over the place, and that’s a little hard to do when you have four kids.”
“Four kids!” Mrs. Fisher said. “Good Lord!” Just the week before Mrs. Fisher had announced that she was not interested in a regular babysitting gig when I went back to work. “I didn’t enjoy it the first time around,” she explained.
Apparently Mrs. Fisher felt the rump roast could wait. She sat back down on the edge of the love seat.
“Take a seat,” she said to Theresa, patting the cushion next to her.
“I can just stay a sec. I’ve got to get back to my kitchen.” Theresa sat down next to Mrs. Fisher. She looked up at me. “Did I tell you I’m painting it?”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“What I want to do is paint the linoleum so that it looks like black and white tile.”
“You can do that?” Mrs. Fisher said. “It won’t come off when you’re scrubbing the floor?”
“Polyurethane. I’m going to put a coat on afterward.”
“On linoleum?” my mother said.
“I saw it on the Home Improvement channel,” Theresa said. “Do you ever watch that?”
Mrs. Fisher shook her head. “We don’t believe in cable,” she said.
“I don’t have time,” my mother said.
The phone rang.
“Excuse me,” I said.
When I returned to the porch, they were glued to Oprah. Oprah was interviewing these mentally ill people who couldn’t see their own image in the mirror. They didn’t see the person who was actually standing there, they saw a monster. According to these people (who were, for the most part, beautiful) what they saw in the mirror horrified them. They saw thinning hair when their hair was actually thick. They saw a unibrow when their eyebrows were perfectly etched. It got so bad for these people that they couldn’t leave the house. Oprah couldn’t wrap her mind around it.
When a commercial came on, I said: “I have to nap. I have to get some rest while I can.”
“Of course you do!” Mrs. Fisher jumped up. “And I have to grab that rump roast before someone beats me to it.”
Theresa put her delectables back in the basket.
“I’ll just take these to the kitchen,” she said. “And then I’m off to start painting.”
The year after Steve’s birth was the hardest of my life. I was an only child, I’d never babysat much, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I dreamt about the easy carefree days when I could read or go to the movies or even eat a meal in peace. Every single day I watched the Martha Stewart show — probably the worst thing I could have done for my mental health. In the afternoons I studied my mottled amoeba – like stomach in the bathroom mirror.
It didn’t help that my neighbor kept getting so much accomplished. After Theresa painted the kitchen floor, she redid the attic stairs to resemble Rapunzel’s hair and turned the crawl space up there into a palace replete with miniature furniture.
“The point is adults don’t even fit in this room,” she said as we peered in through the small opening to Rapunzel’s lair. The ceiling was so low she must have painted the entire room on her knees. It looked like she had sawed the legs off all the tables and chairs. The room was so elaborately decorated — floral needlepoint rug, down – stuffed throw pillows, double swags with Rosettes on the windows — it might have been a display in a Junior League show house.
I started to avoid Theresa after that. Some of the other mothers felt the same way.
“There are only so many amazing projects I can ogle,” Susan said.
“She told me she weighs less than she did in college,” Mary Ellen added. “I mean, did I ask her for that information?”
“And what about her kids? She says that if they want to take out a new toy, they put back the one they are playing with,” Susan said. “She claims they actually do it . . . like, on a regular basis.”
“I have never heard one peep out of those kids,” Mary Ellen said. “It’s weird, if you ask me.”
“When she came to the door the other day I didn’t answer it,” I admitted. I didn’t say that this had happened five times. I even checked the window for her before I left the house.
The winter passed. While Theresa irritated us all, she remained our go-to person in a crisis. I sought her out when anything unprecedented happened. She knew what to do when Ed spilled red wine on our new living room carpet. She gave me a Polar heart monitor when I started working out and cautioned me about remaining in the zone. One day I complained about the comforter in my master bedroom and two days later she showed up with one she had “happened upon” at Pottery Barn. It turned out to be perfect for the room. She showed Susan how to re-grout her tub and gave me a copy of the “Household Companion” for my birthday, which shed light on many of my domestic conundrums but annoyed me all the same. She was a little like the smart girl in the class — we resented the fact that she knew all the answers, but it certainly came in handy when we had a question.
In the beginning of March I accepted an invitation to a party at her house. Ed wondered why, seeing as I complained about her so much.
“How can we avoid it?” I said. “We live next door!”
It turned into more than one party — it became a weekly neighborhood bash. She called it “Margarita Night” and she began charging $10 per person. Her sister was in the Peace Corps in Ghana and she had decided to raise money for the orphanage there. Her sister even sent her pictures of the children, which she tacked up to a large poster alongside the red donation tub.
The great thing about Margarita night was that Ed and I could bring the baby and then when it was time for bed, we’d take him home, pick up the T.V. monitor (our one extravagant purchase that year) and plug it in Theresa’s kitchen. We were able to study our sleeping baby (whose window was no more than 20 feet away) while sipping Margaritas and talking to grown-ups. A dream come true! We were usually the last people to leave.
By May there were twenty to thirty couples who regularly attended Margarita Night. The neighbors on either side and to the back of Theresa had fashioned makeshift openings in their fences so the kids could travel from yard to yard freely while the adults relaxed. One night I sat down next to Jim in one of the wicker chairs that Theresa had repainted earlier in the week. Purple, pink and white impatiens flooded the pots surrounding the deck. Lavender petunias dripped down from mossy planters suspended all around us. I would not have chosen to sit next to Jim as he had never been particularly friendly, but the backyard was teeming with people. I’d just put the baby to bed and I was badly in need of a chair.
“I don’t know how your wife does it!” I said.
“Hmmph,” he grunted, looking down at his drink.
“No, seriously,” I continued. “I can barely function, but I look out my window yesterday and she’s out here painting these chairs with four kids scurrying all around her! It’s truly, truly amazing.”
“It’s exhausting,” he said. He looked up and stared vacantly at the partygoers.
“Not for her,” I said. “She never gets tired.”
Theresa raced up to us. She was carrying a tray of empty Margarita glasses. She was frantic. I had never seen her in such a state.
“You know,” she said to Jim, “I think we should start serving more food. People drink too many of these. The chips and dip are not cutting it. Maybe we can charge more and order out from Chicken Shack from now on. The kids are hungry. Can you run to the store for me? I need more Margarita mix. I need to make a Caesar salad and some corn dogs. I need some more toothpicks and another gallon of vanilla ice cream. Can you hurry?”
“I wish I knew why Jim is always so blah,” I said to Ed in bed later that night.
“It’s like that Bunny commercial.” He closed his book and put it back on the nightstand. “She got the Energizers and he got the duds.”
“It almost seems like he’s depressed,” I said. “If I were him, I would get kind of bummed out living with such a busy bee.”
“I agree.” He turned out the light. “But it would be nice if one of us was a little more motivated.”
“Nice!” I rolled away from him.
“What? I included myself in that assessment. It would be great if one of us was always getting things done. Think of what this place would look like.”
“Yeah,” I said. “If I was that productive, you’d feel like crap.”
The conversation about Jim proved a harbinger, but it did not portend what I expected. At the time I imagined she was neglecting him, driving him too hard. I even entertained the thought that he longed for someone (like me) who knew how to put her feet up.
“Maybe he’ll get so worn out, he’ll leave her,” Susan said. The thought had crossed my mind. Conjecturing about how hard it would be to live with a perfectionist made me feel so much better about the laundry overload and the dirty dishes and the moments when I hissed “You’d better shut up!” as I closed the baby’s door.
But he didn’t leave her.
One night about a month later, I woke up to red flashing lights circling the ceiling, the hiss/click of walkie talkies and the sound of car doors slamming. I peeked out the window. A fire engine was parked in front of Theresa’s house, an ambulance in the driveway. A few minutes later, a cruiser arrived and two officers strode into the house. Several minutes later Jim came out in shorts and a t-shirt holding the baby. The other children emerged and stood behind him watching silently. I remained in that window for what seemed like hours — at one point batting Ed awake. He joined me, peeking through the blinds at the other end of the bed. Finally a stretcher emerged from the house. The sheet pulled all the way up.
“Oh my God,” I whispered. “Is she dead?”
“Shit,” Ed said.
“Is she dead?” I repeated.
“She can’t be dead!”
The ambulance pulled away. The fire truck followed. The cruiser stayed behind. I called Susan across the street. She had watched the whole thing too. We continued to talk and peer through the blinds until the cruiser left, followed by Jim and the kids about 20 minutes later. Jim and the kids returned about an hour later. No one felt comfortable contacting him, but no one could sleep either. The phone rang all night long.
The next morning Susan called when I was in the shower. She left a message on the answering machine which I played the minute I got out; dripping and shivering in the hallway in my flimsy towel.
“It’s about Theresa,” she said. “I know what happened. Call me back.”
She had killed herself, Susan said. Jim, it turned out, had been afraid this was coming. Apparently she’d had these episodes before, and he knew that the more painting, decorating, entertaining she did, the more manic she was growing. According to Susan, she had swallowed so many anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills and painkillers (left over from the C-section) that she was dead by the time Jim had awakened in the night to pee. Jim told Susan that she must have been stockpiling pills for months.
“She was sick,” Susan said. “I guess we should have guessed, but it never even occurred to me.”
After I talked to Susan, I walked back to my room and sat down on the edge of the bed. My shivering had turned violent. My teeth were chattering hard enough to chip a tooth and my hands shook like someone in the last stages of a degenerative neurological disorder. I got back into bed and curled up into a ball to warm up. I put my new comforter up over my head and lay trembling in my darkened cocoon.