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Welcome to the Neighborhood :
Janet knew she would buy the small Craftsman bungalow the moment she walked through the door.
“You’ll love the neighborhood,” said Ruth, her real estate agent, a short woman with spiky hair and a Brooklyn accent that said she meant business. “Roz and I have been living here since forever. Lots of couples,” she said with a significant look that said couples like us. “We have a bridge club on Saturday nights. Do you and Jesse play?”
“We’d love to learn,” Janet said.
The sunny day Jesse helped her move in, they met Ann and Angie, Janet’s neighbors across the back, two white-haired women puttering around the garden with spades and watering cans.
“Pleasure,” Jesse said, wiping her hands chivalrously on her army pants, her voice gruff and friendly.
“You’re both moving in?” Angie asked.
“Maybe.” Jesse laughed. “Eventually. If she’ll have me.” The aw-shucks tone in her voice made Janet’s ears turn red.
For a while it seemed like Janet met a new couple every time she stepped out the door. There were Mimi and Meredith, the psychologists who lived down the block with their asthmatic beagles. Ann and Angie. Ruth and Roz.
And of course there was the bridge club. After her move, Janet looked forward to the bridge club all week: the gold light of Ruth’s living room – it was always at Ruth’s – the rich chuckles of the other women, as they dealt hands and stories, the warm slide of brandy down her throat, the feeling that here, for the first time in her 43 years, she was welcome, a member of a group of women just like her.
After two months of ribbing from the other members of the bridge club, Jesse moved in, bringing a crate of clothes and a box of tools.
“That’s it?” Janet asked, surprised, even though she had seen the house where Jesse lived with five roommates, all young adults floating through life.
“I like to travel light,” Jesse said, leaning over to kiss the tender spot just below Janet’s earlobe. Ann, or was it Ang, waved a trowel at them from across the yard. “Besides, you have dishes and all that stuff.”
Jesse stood out in the bridge group, gangling and boisterous, growing louder as the evening wore on. But these women, all older, enfolded her, buffing the rough edges of her personality, of their new relationship, until it felt smooth and settled as a river stone warmed by the sun.
The fights began a few months after she and Jesse moved into together. Their whirlwind courtship hadn’t prepared Janet for the random chaos of Jesse’s life, her habit of bouncing from job to job – working late hours at girl bars and hipster coffeehouses, spending her days tinkering with her motorcycle.
“I’m not your mother,” she found herself screaming at Jesse, coming home one too many times to a living room filled with cigarette butts, beer bottles, and plates crusted with old food.
“Then get off my ass,” Jesse yelled back, over the blare of her girl punk CD.
They had their final fight one night after work, all the usual dramatics. Janet demanded her key back and Jesse stormed out, throwing her clothes and toolbox in the back of her pickup.
As she watched Jesse’s retreating back, her crow’s wing hair and that fine, narrow ass, a pang shot through Janet. Where would she find another lover? She wasn’t getting any younger.
She ran into Meredith and Mimi the next morning, on rounds with the beagles, Arthur and Gwen.
“Jesse’s gone early,” Mimi said. “Another road trip?”
“Yeah.” Janet snorted. “A permanent one.” She bent over to scratch Arthur’s ears. He looked at her with bloodshot eyes, hoping for a treat.
“What happened?” Meredith said. “I thought you were working with a counselor?”
“I don’t think a counselor was what we needed,” Janet said.
Mimi and Meredith exchanged a look. “I’m so sorry,” Mimi patted her arm. “This must be a tough time.” They moved off briskly, dragging Arthur in their wake.
That night, Ruth called.
“Janet, I heard the terrible news. How are you?”
“Fine,” she said. “I should have done it a long time ago.”
“Honey, are you sure? Just walking away from a two-year relationship like that? I can’t imagine. If anything happened to Roz, it would be devastating. Simply devastating. She goes up north for the weekend, and I don’t know what to do with myself.”
There was an awkward pause.
“So what happened? Meredith said you were seeing a counselor?”
“It didn’t work out,” Janet said. “You can’t fix someone who doesn’t want to be fixed.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“There were a lot of problems,” Janet said.
“I didn’t realize. You never said anything,” Ruth said. “I mean except that one time at the bridge game. We’re your friends. You should have said something.”
“She has a lot of growing up to do.”
“Well, my condolences. If you ever need someone to talk to.”
“You’ll be my first call.”
The next few days were quiet. Janet didn’t see much of her neighbors, coming and going. It was the shoulder season, the slump in early March when the snow shriveled to a hard, gritty crust and the last remnants of cold felt like a seasonal grudge.
Janet waved at Meredith and Mimi a few times, out walking the beagles. They had altered their morning walk and always smiled from the opposite side of the street now. Arthur seemed confused by this, constantly turning backwards to peer at the landmarks – bushes, telephone poles – while Gwen forged ahead.
Each morning, Janet woke feeling lighter, a weight lifted off her chest. She took a few days off work and cleaned the house from top to bottom. Washing away the crust of their relationship, cleaning out all the spaces in the house that Jesse had filled, replacing the stale smell of her cigarette butts with lemony furniture polish.
After months of stomach-churning anxiety, Jesse was gone, and the locks were changed. Janet was free, freer than she’d felt in years, her breathing easier, her heart open again, ready for love. With someone better.
She felt like a landlord after an unruly tenant moves out.
One Saturday morning, she sat on her porch mixing paint. The week had unthawed, and the weak sunlight felt almost warm on her arms.
Across the fence, she saw Ann and Ang moving slowly in the pale sunlight, carefully testing the back step for ice, inspecting the yard for fresh shoots.
Snippets of conversation floated over to her as she stirred.
“This is where I wanted the tulips.”
“That’s where the iris are.”
“No, I planted tulips there last year.”
“You dug up all the iris?”
The paint made a gentle slapping sound against the side of the can. Janet stood up to reach for a sponge. She opened the screen door to wave at her neighbors.
“Hello, ladies – how are the garden plans this year?” She walked toward the fence to chat.
The two exchanged a startled glance. “Fine, fine,” said Ann. “We’re heading for the garden center. Catch you later?”
They almost scuttled into the house.
Odd, Janet thought, but not enough to put a dent in her mood. She saw Roz down the block, out washing her car on the first warm day of the season, her beefy arms bulging out of the old T-shirt she was wearing. A spray of water caught the light.
Janet headed down the street.
“Hi,” she smiled. “Great day for a car wash.”
Roz turned toward her and fumbled the hose. Water sprayed all over the flat, yellow grass. “Ah, Janet,” she said weakly. “Heard the bad news.”
“It’s not so bad.” Janet winked. “You know how it is with younger women.”
Roz’s thick neck turned crimson.
“Nothing against Jesse,” Janet said. “We had some good times. I’m just saying, there’s better fish out there. I see that now.”
“Right,” Roz said. A movement inside the house caught Janet’s eye. Roz set down the hose. “Forgot my, ah, rubber gloves inside,” she said.
“See you tonight at the bridge game?” Janet said to her retreating back.
Janet noticed she had left a film of soap bubbles on the car, which was odd. She wondered if Roz was avoiding her? Moments after she got back to the house her phone rang.
“Janet, it’s Ruth.”
“Ruth,” Janet said, unable to hide the relief in her voice. “How are you?”
“Fine. Fine. Look, about the card game.”
“Is it still on?”
“We’re going to have to make some changes.”
“What kind of changes?”
“We’re going to have to break up our cozy little circle.”
“What happened?” A sinking feeling in her stomach.
“Nothing. Nothing happened, Janet, it’s just that . . . Bridge is a partners’ game. You play it in pairs. There’s strategy involved. And, my point is, you’re not a pair any more. There’s only one of you.”
“There’s only ever been one of me,” Janet said, stifling a hysterical giggle.
“You get my point.”
“Is this about Jesse? Did she say something about me?”
“No, no. She didn’t say anything about you. Anyway, we’re your friends, we’re on your side. It’s just the card game. Having an odd number throws things out of balance, if you see my point.”
Janet had an image of her mother, widowed in her early forties, suddenly excluded from the Saturday night card games with her longstanding circle of friends. An extra woman threw everything out of kilter. She saw that now.
“And another thing,” Ruth paused. Janet gripped the phone like it was a life preserver.
“You seem too happy.”
Ruth hung up before Janet could ask her what that meant.
Janet set down the phone. The spring sun, so pale and promising when she woke up that morning, slid behind a curl of haze. A chilly wind puffed across the porch, stirring winter grit. The house felt dusty and echoing, like a door swinging open into an empty room.
Two months later, she found a new real estate agent and put the house on the market. May was the best time to sell, after all.
At the crowded open house, she saw Ruth, showing around a new client.
“You’ll just love the neighborhood,” she heard Ruth say. “Did I mention our Saturday night bridge club?”