Won't You Be My Neighbor?

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May 18, 2010

Nana had declared an end to cooking years ago. It was part of staying clean, she explained. She’d always drunk while she made dinner. Now she did neither. As we walked to a pizzeria, I figured out what she’d been doing with her time instead. Snooping. She knew everything about everyone in the building. When she wasn’t going to AA meetings, it seemed, she was pressing her ear to the neighbors’ doors.

“That woman in 2B, you know why she has legs like that? She used to be a man,” Nana said. “Back then, she dated the guy who used to live in 2A. But when she had her change, he broke up with her. A pity. They were such a cute couple.”

Nana lowered her voice when she told me about the family in 1C. “A real tragedy. Their daughter went off to college. She was acting funny when she came home for winter break. They thought it was drugs. Turns out it was brain cancer.” She shook her head.

“Now that one, Linda was her name, she went steady with Vic’s oldest brother,” Nana added. “Vic’s the youngest. Four boys. His dad’s a saint raising those kids on his own.”

“What happened to his mom?” I asked, making my voice light so I wouldn’t sound too interested.

“She went back to Puerto Rico.”

My throat closed. With our family full of missing men, it had never occurred to me that women left, too. That seemed even sadder.

“It was a few years ago,” Nana continued. “He was what? Seven or eight then? Young.” Nana was married and working part-time. Vic was a latchkey kid, going home to his older brothers.

One day, he’d showed up at her door with those Betty Boop eyes and his backpack, almost as big as him, falling off his shoulders. Nana hadn’t asked questions and he hadn’t offered an explanation. He came in and did his homework at the kitchen table. Every day.

“He failed math that year,” Nana laughed. “I couldn’t remember how to do fractions.” She’d spent the summer brushing up so it wouldn’t happen again in the fall. It didn’t. Vic passed.

Nana’s apartment had a story, too. Between her meager divorce settlement from my grandfather and the money she’d saved working as a secretary, Nana had managed to scrape together enough to buy it. She was proud that she owned her place. And she was even prouder that she had kept it through her many marriages. “Sixty and single,” Nana said. “And I’m going to stay that way.”

I wasn’t sure I believed her. “What about that nice guy you told me about in 3C?” I asked.

“A pack rat with rent control,” she said. “No way.”

I called Mom when we got home. I told her about the train and the pizzeria. I gave her all the gossip from the building.

I finished and she was silent. She was probably mad that Nana had told me about the guy who’d had the sex change. She probably thought that was inappropriate for me to hear. I shouldn’t have repeated that.

The phone felt heavy in my hand as I waited for her to say something.

“She never helped me with my math,” she said, her voice hard and flat.

I was standing in the kitchen. I glanced towards the living room, where Nana was watching TV. Suddenly, I was nervous that she’d been listening to my conversation. I stared at her, trying to figure out if she’d heard what Mom just said.

Nana laughed. She was watching The Cosby Show, a sitcom about a black family that lived in Brooklyn. The Huxtables. They had a whole brownstone to themselves. The mom was an attorney. The dad, Cliff, was a doctor. He could fix anything.

I imagined that they were a building over. I would go knock on the door. Cliff would open it. He’d make fun of how short I was by saying hello into the air, and pretending he didn’t see me. He’d lower his chin to his chest and look down. “Alma! There you are!” he’d say. He’d invite me in. I’d tell him about what just happened and that I didn’t know what to do. Cliff would chuckle and the studio audience would laugh, too.

In the last five minutes of the show, Cliff would sit Mom and Nana down on the couch. He’d say something funny. Mom and Nana would hug and hold each other’s hands. Mom wouldn’t be mad that Nana helps Vic with his homework. And no one would be mad at me for talking about it.

“Hello?” Mom asked.

The faucet dripped. I was still there, in Nana’s apartment. My chest felt thick.

“Hey, Mom, guess what? I found some of your old books. Which one should I read first?”

Her voice wavered. “I don’t know. What’s there?”

As quickly as I could, I listed the ones that I remembered. I babbled about the covers. I mentioned that the pages were yellowing. I asked her if she read them when she was about my age. I didn’t let her answer. I plowed ahead. I prattled on about my impressions of the books, based on what was written on the back. If I talked fast enough, I could erase Vic and Nana from her mind. Her voice would be light again and so would I. Mom said she didn’t remember them too well. “Just pick one, any one. It doesn’t matter,” she said.

In the morning, I posed myself on the stoop just as I’d imagined. There I was, in short shorts, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying in my hand. I read the title of the first chapter: En Route to the Congress of Dreams or the Zipless Fuck. I had no idea what it meant, but I felt adult. Now all I needed to do was ignore Vic when he rolled up on his bicycle. Then I’d be a New Yorker, like the girls on the train.

The door to the building squeaked open. I felt someone standing behind me. “Hi.”

I turned around and looked up. It was Vic, smiling with his big teeth. I said hi back to him.

He sat down next to me. “So, whatcha doin’ today?”

I was supposed to go to the noon meeting with Nana. She said they had a great group here, that I’d love the stories. But, after what happened on the phone last night, I felt even worse than usual about AA. It would be another thing I couldn’t talk to Mom about.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Cause I was thinkin’ to go to the pool. You can come if you want.”

“I’ll have to ask Nana,” I said.

“Nans won’t mind.”

She didn’t. “You two have fun,” she said. The tone in her voice made my nose sweat. Vic looked away and readjusted his baseball cap, turning the bill to a sharper angle.

Nana gave me a little cash, a padlock, and a key.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“You have to lock up your stuff at the pool. This is Brooklyn.”

Vic laughed.

“My little Southern belle,” Nana said.

I wiped the tip of my nose, quick, with my thumb. Inside, I bristled. Didn’t Nana know I was a New Yorker now?

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