I turn to the woman standing in line behind me: There are two doors. Which one do you choose—left or right? She looks up from her phone, wary. What’s behind the doors?, she asks. This is a simple game to get to know one another, to see if we are compatible as friends. I stare back at her. You tell me.
My great-great aunt broke into neighbors’ houses with a bobby pin she’d pull from her big cinnamon–bun of hair. I never met her. My parents told me the stories, how once they found out what she was doing they quietly went around to the neighbors’ houses and tucked envelopes of cash in their screen doors to make up for the little things my great-great aunt was taking—a decorative hand towel, toothpicks in a little ceramic penguin, butterscotches and cocktail mints. I asked why none of the neighbors ever called the cops. Because they felt sorry for her. They said she had seen much, had basic needs that went unmet for many years, that these life experiences changed her. Bis auf die Knochen?, I asked. We didn’t understand her either, they replied.
I think of my great-great aunt in that big rambling house all by herself for all those years, living among furniture brought over from the old country, how my parents described room after room after room filled with those heavy uncomfortable pieces, how as she got older and frailer the dust collected. After she died, my parents sold off every last piece and locked the door behind them. I once told them it all sounded so romantic, living among the ghosts of the old country. It wasn’t, they said. It smelled like a terrible sadness.
My parents ask if I’ve met anyone nice when they call. This sounds like a trick question, I say. My mother huffs You know. Like a friend or maybe a special guy. I hear a muffled discussion, then my father crystal clear: We’re worried you’re all alone there. I tell them I’m surrounded by ten million people, how can I possibly be alone? Then I ask if my great-great aunt ever took any dishware, because I need a new set.
Sometimes I ride two stops past my stop so I can repeat the past on a leisurely stroll. The woman from the other day is coming out of a store and I fall in behind her. She’s carrying shopping bags in both hands. Her high-heeled boots quickly clip-clip-clip on the sidewalk, as if she has to get home because she has a million things to do before she finally gets a moment to herself. I stay half a block back, follow her to a brownstone. She pauses, tilts her face up to the door and stares before climbing the stairs. She shuts the door behind her and the stoop light goes out. The night blankets me once again, and I imagine children and a husband tugging at her as she tries not to show she’s rushing through dinner preparation and bedtime rituals. I wonder if she’d enjoy weekly dinners out, a chance to vent about children sticky with pancake syrup and snot, the husband mumbling under his breath You wanted them. I’d pick at her fries and tell her about my great-great aunt’s renegade life, how people called her spinster but they were dead wrong, how she had the ghosts of our ancestors from the old country to talk to and that suited her just fine. I’d tell her I could understand what it’s like having so many people in my life that I can’t wait to get rid of them for an hour or two.
I dream of a closed door with a keyhole. I can hear laughter, music, glasses tinkling. I look through the keyhole and see a woman, her hair twisted and pinned to the nape of her neck, her earrings catching the light when she tosses her head back to laugh at something someone is telling her. I look closer, and I’m the someone who’s making her laugh. The room is crowded, and we have carved our little spot along a wall to share our secrets. We laugh, reminiscing about how we met standing in line all those years ago, how I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to pick the left or the right door. How she thought I was the most interesting person she’d ever met, how there was something so familiar about me.
L Mari Harris’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in matchbook, Ponder Review, (mac)ro(mic), Bandit Lit, Pithead Chapel, Tiny Molecules, among others. She lives in central Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @LMariHarris and read more of her work at www.lmariharris.wordpress.com.