the friends we keep

In ALL, JUDY BLUME MOMENTS by Stephanie Klein23 Comments

As much of a wet-nap as my neighbor Janene was when playing Monkey In The Middle, beggars can’t be choosers.  The older girls across the street didn’t want to play with me.  When we’d first moved into our house, I was told there were girls my age who lived across the street. I didn’t know their names, or that they were two years older, or that it would even matter that they were two years older, so I stood in our front yard and yelled in a sing-song voice, "New neighbors, new neighbors, come out and play!"  But they didn’t.  It wasn’t because my lungs were underdeveloped.  They’d heard me just fine.  In fact, they’d sometimes peep their heads out from behind their screen doors and repeat the chant back to me in an exaggerated whine.  "New neighbor, new neighbor…no."  Then the sound of their front doors slamming.

So we had each other, Janene and I, and in all of two days, we’d forgotten what had come to pass earlier in the week.  We were like middle-aged men that way.  I’d sometimes go to Janene’s house, six houses down the block from mine, and we’d visit her neighbor, an elderly woman with breasts that hung like ferrets.  Her neighbor–who incidentally was also my neighbor, though to this day, I’ve never considered her so–had thick slices of glass for spectacles, and when she spoke, I’d sometimes be in a position to see through them, a warped disproportionate world.  I’d only ever been invited inside her kitchen, which smelled not of a restorative chicken broth, but of cat.  I didn’t know if it was cat piss, or breath, or litter I smelled, but I knew, for certain, it was a cat house.  Or a guinea pig.  I couldn’t be sure.  Still, no one but school-aged children borrowing from their kindergarten class had a guinea pig.  Maybe she had a caged rabbit somewhere.  I couldn’t be sure. 

She served us Coca-Cola from a glass bottle and mixed it with whole milk.  I leaned my cheek against the cool plastic place mat as I watched the contents of my glass, the meeting of two sides. It was a cloudy mix of black and white mingling as if a wave had just crashed and the currents were sorting things out.  Who belonged where.   No, you, you there, you go up there.  That’s it.  I imagined each bubble resisting the milky enzymes, rising to the top in struggle.  And she wanted me to drink this?  Milk?!  It even sounded thick.  It’s why I called milk "blulka" as an infant. 

I remember wincing when the concoction was offered, telling Janene privately, "that’s so grossatating" in a very hushed tone, fearing I’d hurt the old woman’s feelings.  Just the same, I accepted the woman’s offer with a smile, despite her need to pat at my head.  Why did Janene suggest coming here? I wondered. Couldn’t we run now and go play Register at my house?  But I just sat there, at the kitchen table of an elderly neighbor, holding my cola gumbo, straining to get a glimpse of a cat she claimed not to have. 

"Do you like your drink, dears?"
I nodded as if I were auditioning for a Jell-O commercial.  Considering my tendency to be a bit of a ham, I suppose I even licked my lips. She seemed so pleased, as if she’d just hailed us the moon.  I couldn’t imagine refusing her. It was bad enough that she didn’t have any grass in her yard, which is not, incidentally, a euphemism. 

She called the front of her house, her "garden."  Which is just creepy when said by an old woman.  Mystical, perhaps, if there were a trellis and actual leaves.  Foliage.  A decorative bench, some bird feed, pansies, and shrubs.  Herbs, even.  Perhaps a gaudy statue with overbalanced testicles holding a watering can while flexing.  But it’s downright creepy when your garden consists of cement. "Rock" and "Garden" really shouldn’t be permitted to mingle.

And in the remembering, it now comes to mind that it was Janene’s plan all along.  She liked to visit with this neighbor because she offered her cola and milk.  This was the lure for her.  It wasn’t a necessary task, an insistence from her own mother to visit with the elderly as a good deed.  A chore that needed to be crossed off a list.  It was probably done in spite of her mother’s insistence that she keep the hell away from the lady with the rocks in her head and yard. And it just goes to show, there’s no accounting for taste, or the friends we choose to keep.

Comments

  1. "Breasts like ferrets." Funniest thing I've read today. Thinking about the junior Mr. Beer every day. And you, too!

  2. Hi Stephanie-
    I'm a long time reader, first time poster. I feel dorky/stalker-y saying this, but I can't help it, so I'll say it– I can't tell you how much our lives have parallelled one another. You and I are the same age (college '97), I grew up in Manhattan, although I come from Long Island stock on both sides, broke up with my fiance (we had been together for 7 years)not long after you ended it with the wasband– similar to your experience, I also discovered appalling infidelity. I was back on the dating scene in full force afterwards same as you, with many experiences and plenty of soul searching that sound a lot like your "Straight Up & Dirty" experience. It wouldn't surprise me if we even encountered a few of the same men in NYC. I lived on 70th and West End and had an endless number of dates and Jdates at Compass and Cafe Mozart– I'm a strong believer in home court advantage for women on dates. Eventually found my own suitor online like you did, and married him on Sept 14 2006, right around when you got married I believe. I was also pregnant with twins the same time as you, but I lost them at 21 weeks, sadly. And I'm a readhead. A real one, and not one of those people with a red highlight or two during the summer who call themselves redheads. Right now my husband is considering changing jobs– and this may mean a move to (you guessed it) Texas.
    I am certainly not the writer that you are (I have a Wharton MBA– but a friend once called me a "Romantic Economist", which I took as a compliment), but I just wanted to share with you how much your stories have touched me and many other women. I have listened to your story (and in some ways felt it was my own with all these similarities) with phenominal respect for your humor, your courage, and your ability to express raw emotion in a way that is amazingly personal, but at the same time accessible to so many others. Just a big huge thank you for sharing your thoughts and your life.
    Best, Rachel C.

  3. We used to consume that beverage in Brooklyn circa 1972. Sounds like the same old lady. *head scratch*

  4. Add some vodka and khalua to the milk and coke, and you've got a very tasty cocktail called the vodka paralyzer…

  5. As kids, we would spend a lot of time at my grandparent's house. We liked to explore…boxes in the attic, cabinets in the basement and we especially liked to create stories about the secret passageways that existed in the old houses on the street and the potions being created by the creepy neighbors. Most of the neighbors were old. We visited one often and I can vividly remember the way that her house smelled of mothballs. She wore keds sneakers and I remember thinking that that was about the hippest move that an old woman could make without breaking one (okay, bad joke). Anyway, she would give us mint flavored candy, you know the kind…shaped like a leaf and seemingly coated in sugar…they looked good until you bit in. We would continue to go back and continue to eat the candy anyway. We laugh now that any and all weight issues we struggle with can be blamed on being force-fed as children.

  6. Isn't it strange the things we remember from being younger? Especially when food is involved…I'll always remember my Aunt Margaret kept reese's peanut butter cups on hand for when we stopped by and my Great Grandmother, fondly referred to as 'Granny Grits' would give us saltines or cheese and peanut butter crackers with a Coke for a snack. I miss those days…

  7. Okay well I'm going to have to scratch my plans for after my 13yr old goes off to college. I've been planning it for the last year or so. I only have 5 more years then he'll be off to college and I'm planning on going some where warm (out of Illinois). I had envisioned myself in a nice little cottage like house with a little patch of grass for the dog but mostly just rock maybe a water feature. Something extremely low maintenance. But if the neighbors are going to think I have as many rocks in my head as I do my yard maybe I should rethink the landscaping…. Or then again maybe not it might be fun to be the crazy lady next door.

  8. stephanie,

    when i was little, i snuck away from home sometimes to hang out with an old woman named stella – she made me peppermint tea and cream cheese pinwheels. unlike your friend janene, i would not have shared my strange old lady treasure. (consider yourself lucky!)

    as for the cement garden – i have heard this phrase used before. in an old neighborhood in kenosha, there is an ancient italian couple that turned their yard into cement (including their garden) so they wouldn't have to maintain it anymore, and the woman there called it her cement garden. weird, yes. tacky, absolutely. but still… kinda – cute.

    the elderly are fun to write about. so many quirks to their existence.

    thanks for this piece.

    still sending boundless love to your little lucas.

  9. p.s. You might like to try what we southerners call a 'lumpy coke', just take some peanuts, pour them into your coke and enjoy! (Drink carefully so you don't choke on a peanut, but after you get to the peanuts at the bottom, its quite yummy!) Works best with in best in a bottled coke. ;-)

  10. Hi, Stephanie. I've loved reading your blog for over a year now but have been on vacation and missed it for the last twelve days. After catching up, I just wanted to tell you that I'm thinking of you and your family. Some friends of mine went through something similar with their daughter… She's just over one now… and I know how difficult it was for them. Since I don't have children of my own yet, I can't possibly know how you're feeling or what you're going through but did want to let you know that you're all in my prayers. I know words can only be so comforting but I hope you find some peace soon and that all goes well with little Lucas and his sister. Thank you for sharing.

  11. That scene of you standing in the front yard calling "new neighbors, new neighbors…" just blew me away with the sweetness…and took me back to the front yard of my childhood. I can almost feel the grass tickling my toes. Thanks.

  12. Oh my gosh. I remember drinking milk and coke as a kid. I have no idea how milk and coke was introduced to me but I remember drinking this when I lived in Hawaii at 9 years old. It left brown residue all over the glass.

  13. People used to put peanuts at the bottom of their bottled cokes here. Man, I used to love those bottled cokes. We'd buy them in the hot summers, guzzle them up then take them back up to the store for our dime.

    the whole neighbors come out to play cracked me up. When my little gf Mindy moved out the neighborhood and in her place a family with three girls moved in, I went over feigning confusion of where Mindy had gone, to introduce myslef to my new friend Beth.

    It's so funny how kids immediately want to play together in the neighborhood. Do kids still play like that today? In the neighborhood and shit?

  14. Sorry for the double. Also had the old lady next door, her name was Ms. Honeycut and she was a widow. But she let us play her big organ and she always had ton of supply of peppermints and none of that cheap kind either, always the Brach starlights.

    I related a lot to this one. Hilarious description of the woman's tits. Banana titties! :D

  15. We lived out in the boonies in New York; our closest neighbor was an old Italian lady up the street, and she would offer us 8-year-olds ESPRESSO. (gag) I'm convinced that this is why I don't like coffee to this day. I wonder if she did it on purpose so we would stay away.

    I'm laughing out loud at your description and reaction to the cola/milk combo; I'd be tempted to try it, but you've totally grossed me out. :-)

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