June 11, 2009

Phyllis Aboaf

THE NEIGHBOR’S TALE

We live in the same building,
A six-story apartment house in Queens.
She’s just three doors down, has been there
For the last twenty years. I’m more recent.
Two years ago I moved in with my husband,
Now, my Ex.
Things change.
She’s thirty years my senior. Twice divorced.
From time to time she talks about her life
With weary, wry bemusement. I’ve not noticed
Any bitterness, just quiet resignation in her voice.

She calls me “Hon,” I join her in the basement
Where we do our wash together every Sunday.
We pool our quarters, share detergents, fabric softener,
And compare notes: About the doorman, we decide he’s sleazy.
About the radiators, too much heat on her side of the hall
(Hot flashes make it worse), not enough on mine.
But that’s ok.
I like the aching chill.
It keeps me edgy and unsettled.
Also, I am forced to put on layers which protect me
And help me to feel larger than I am.
I tell her that on my side of the building,
Construction’s taking place across the street.
And that the dust and soot which seep
Through the cracks of my apartment window,
I find curiously reassuring—coating everything
With a soft, grey fuzz.
I’m pleased to see how fast it accumulates.
It’s something I can have—it seems uniquely mine.
I can keep it if I want to. It’s my choice.

I meet her in the elevator. She’s all dressed up—
Hair blow-dried, blue Hermes scarf tied just so,
Coach bag, expensive leather belt, earrings, diamond watch,
Manicured and pedicured. “How’s my make-up?” she asks.
“You look great,” I say, sincere and also envious
Of her courage. Her back is straight, her high-heeled sandals click
Along the dark, marbled entrance to the lobby.
The stylish cut of her Armani suit conceals her thickened waist.
Beneath the low-cut jacket, powdered flesh reveals
Considerable cleavage.

But it’s the perfume that’s a dead giveaway.
(I catch a fragrant whiff as she walks by.)
Expensive. Sultry.
Of course! It’s Friday night. She has a date!
No, just heading to a fancy singles bar, whereas I
Will spend the evening sleeping on my futon
With my cat.
One day she catches me off guard. My eyes are puffy,
Hair a mess. I know I look like shit—baggy sweatpants, dirty tee—
I see a new expression in her eyes—pained, perhaps maternal,
Full of pity. Or is it empathy? But then it passes.
No girlish hugs allowed.
She knows better than to make a move—

For ours is a strange alliance—fragile, delicate—
Equal parts intimacy and reticence; we have
An unspoken agreement to talk about everything,
Hold nothing back—except the truth about our lives
And how our hearts are shrinking, drying up like prunes.

She says, “I can’t give up, I know
I’m really ‘over the hill,’ but I keep trying.
You shouldn’t give up either, you’re too young.”
But I have.

Later on, I muse on that expression, ‘over the hill,’
And consider how my own internal, personal geography
Is somewhat different.
No hills to speak of
And no valleys either.
Just a dull, flat, horizon-less expanse
With nothing to see in any direction.

At night the city’s summer sounds soon take over
Sirens, rap music from passing cars, people’s voices…
We say goodnight, she calls out, “You take care now.”

Each of us walks into
A dark apartment
That the other’s never seen
And never will.

We prefer it that way, my neighbor and I—
We do not wish to know each other better.
There’s comfort in not naming what we are.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008
Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention