The night Jon and I moved into our first house together, I studied the neighbor’s backyard from our bedroom window: a rusted metal seesaw, a hot tub, a plastic kiddie pool filled with sand and cigarette butts, two sets of patio furniture scattershot throughout the yard, garden hoses, a weathercock, a wooden club house from where the eldest boy had earlier fired at his sister with a Nerf Gun, half a dozen toys, and three evergreen trees.
“What a mess,” Jon said, joining me at the window. A short chain-link fence separated our backyards. “I’ll build a taller fence.”
“We have the evergreens,” I said. They weren’t our trees, but they afforded us privacy. Piles of unused landscaping rocks, stacks of bricks, and four-foot high mounds of dirt encircled the evergreens.
“Hemlock roots can’t get oxygen with all of that stuff around them. They’re suffocating,” Jon said.
I agreed that the trees were dying. Already hundreds of inner needles had fallen to the ground, balding the evergreens from the inside-out. The remaining foliage was turning brown. As I watched, a miniature dachshund dashed around the evergreens, slowing to yap at squirrels.
“They’re killing the trees,” I said. “Maybe they don’t know.”
“Or they don’t care,” Jon said. He left me at the window to resume unpacking his boxes.
I wondered if cardinals took shelter elsewhere, though I wistfully filled a birdfeeder — the only thing in our yard — with safflower seeds.
Despite what the appearance of the neighbors’ backyard suggested, our new neighborhood was an upgrade from the ones Jon and I had come from. The street lined with old-houses-turned-cheap-student-apartments and crack houses, where I lived when Jon and I had met, dubbed the Student Ghetto, featured homes with actual police tape cautioning one’s entrance. Cops made frequent trips to answer domestic complaints in Jon’s old neighborhood, too. He once confronted a drunk sleeping in his yard, presumably having stumbled the few blocks from the nearest strip of bars. Our new neighborhood was isolated in the burbs, a good drive from any bar, and populated by tidy seniors who had moved in when the neighborhood was constructed in the 1960s and they, like us, in their hope-filled thirties. If such a thing as the middle-class Midwest American Dream existed, we believed we were on the right path.
During the year that passed it became my nighttime routine, while brushing my hair and teeth, to look at the neighbors’ backyard. I liked to watch as their boy, maybe nine, a young girl, four, and two toddling twin boys ran around the yard, throwing sticks and climbing under patio furniture. The evergreens survived, though they continued to thin and droop. I noticed, but didn’t dwell on it. Jon and I were busy acclimating to our new neighborhood and our new marriage. We took hour-long walks and admired the mature Black Walnuts, Burr Oaks, and Eastern Cottonwoods. We greeted children who were chasing each other in nearby yards. We became friendly with our other neighbors, sharing beer and grilled burgers. We introduced ourselves to the father over the fence one afternoon, but otherwise never spoke to the backyard neighbors about our concern for their trees, or for that matter, about anything. We weren’t unfriendly, exactly, just disinterested in them and they in us. Our reasons were unarticulated, but instinctual and palpable, as reasons for disliking other people often are.
One muggy summer afternoon, when I could no longer bear the sound of the dachshund’s incessant barking, I crept from our yard to theirs and left a water dish. The dog continued yap, yap, yapping and baring teeth, but paused long enough to drink. Their backyard was rank with dog poop. The father’s cavernous radio voice traveled through an open window, “Goddamn it!” I startled, thinking he was yelling at me. “No more pop for anyone. Ever!” The mother joined in, “Get her out of my face before I kick her ass!” I had never witnessed hitting, never seen bruises. I didn’t know when a neighbor should intervene or mind her own business, so I went inside. “They’re a family on the edge,” Jon said. Without dogs or children, it was easy to be self-righteous, easy to decide they were doing it wrong. Later, I watched them from my bedroom window. At their kitchen sink, the mother and the faces of her four children flashed in and out of the lighted window like fireflies.
Our second year in the neighborhood I watched our backyard neighbors with more fervor, their chaotic and lively backyard bringing me a strange comfort. Some days the family of six flew kites and barbecued. Some days the hollering persisted. But I had gotten used to their loud lives, and now consumed with the attempt to conceive, I longed for a lively backyard of my own. That year, “try” dates were noted with conspicuous, unsexy black X’s on the fridge calendar. I holed up in our bedroom reading books on fertility diets. We planted a Hosta garden, adding a point of interest to what was otherwise a barren backyard, a karmic sign to the universe that we wanted to be fertile, we could make things grow.
Our joy was short-lived when we finally conceived. I miscarried, mourning for weeks after, bawling while I stared at the neighbors’ kid-friendly backyard, my eyes settling on the hand-me-down swing set — a new addition — certain that I would never need one. Three months later, magically, I was pregnant again. “This one is sticking,” Jon said and he was right. We were as happy as we’d ever been, spending our days shopping for baby clothes and trying out the feel of names on our tongues.
Then winter and our baby came. Anxiety and postpartum blues sealed me indoors. I stopped looking out the bedroom window, stopped wondering about the neighbors, stopped caring about the evergreens. Every two hours I breastfed, changed diapers, cooed, and rocked. I sang, “Grow baby grow!” the same song Lily heard in the womb, stolen from the Noisettes’s “Go baby go!” Between feedings, when she slept, I tried to maintain the appearance of an orderly life, of a wife and new mother succeeding, a happy home. But I struggled during those first few tender weeks. I prepared pork chops, vacuumed, and went into the bathroom to scream at the mirror.
Maybe the neighbors heard my crying, my outbursts at Jon; maybe they saw the light in my bedroom on all night as I surrendered to terrific bouts of insomnia. Maybe they heard the truth: I was a mother on the edge. But they couldn’t see how lonely I felt in my new role, how afraid I was for Lily — even the once friendly mail carriers now morphing into kidnappers and perverts. I was sure I would trip and plummet down the stairs while holding her or Jon would run the bathwater too hot if I wasn’t constantly watching. So I kept vigil inside the house and willed the outside world away.
Lily was three months old and able to hold up her own head before I again remembered to look out my bedroom window. It was a shock, on that cool spring evening, to see the neighbors’ house unchanged when everything in my own life was so impossibly different. I could only describe it as before and after Lily. The backyard ensemble was in the same arrangement as before, a ghost-town with their children off somewhere else. But after, their kitchen window was far away, like another planet shining in the dark. Lily’s tiny fingers could uncurl long enough to grasp her bottle, a stuffed rabbit, my nose. I cradled her dark head and kissed her. Mother, I thought, and for the first time since her birth, I truly felt the sun-filled, full-bodied happiness of the word.
Sometimes I imagine that the mother across the backyard and I would understand one another now if I reached out to her, asked her name. Other neighbors have told me she lost three babies to miscarriage over the years, grieving so deeply she lost her job, too. She works odd hours now and doesn’t believe in daycare; and a year after the birth of her twins, fell asleep so soundly following an overnight shift that she didn’t wake when her children clamored out the front door and into the street.
Then again, maybe we wouldn’t have anything to say to each other. I witness episodes of our backyard neighbors’ lives that they wouldn’t want their friends and extended family to see. How can the mother across our backyard yell the things she does at her young daughter? I don’t understand. I’m afraid that if I speak up to her that she and her husband will turn their wrath on us.
Lily changes before our eyes while other things, like our non-relationship with the backyard neighbors, stay the same. Spring turns into summer turns into fall turns into winter. At her one-year-old birthday party, Lily careens from one pair of outstretched hands to another, squealing, sometimes falling. My adoration for her is so intense that I ache. Before bed each night, after I’ve read to Lily and settled her into her crib, I remember the evergreens. They look the same, sick but alive. “We won’t have any privacy once the trees are gone,” Jon says. He worries, much too late, about forced intimacy with our neighbors. “How long before a tree dies?” I ask him. Neither of us knows when the evergreens will succumb. I worry about what it means to watch them die and do nothing to help.