Today’s essay was one of two finalists in our spring 2022 Essay Contest
by Diana Spechler
The Dallas suburbs have the most dramatic sunsets—the geometry of sloping roofs, sagging telephone wires, trees blackening to silhouette, hot pink smears on the sky. I cook elaborate dinners for my parents. I write all day in their sunroom. I walk around and around their block, three loops, waving to anyone who waves to me. A husband plays golf alone in his driveway. Two families barbecue, shouting to each other across the street. A shirtless grandpa washes his sports car. Whenever I pass, he tells me about it. I like its color—the aqua of a highly chlorinated swimming pool. I don’t know what else to say to him, but sports car owners relish a woman who doesn’t know.
In April, I fall in love with a man in another city.
Woman in Parked Car, Neighbor in the Interim, as I approach your home, your navy sedan, your shoulders appear, your curly hair, your arms a cradle for your head on the steering wheel. Beyond your closed window stands your mailbox, red flag erect, your towering brick house.
On her front steps, my mother and her friends sit masked and staggered. I take their picture. Their roots are coming in. My roots are coming in, too. I keep taking pictures—a sunset over a dumpster, my niece riding a bicycle in a bikini, my sister’s boxer standing on hind legs to hug our father.
All we think about is who might die. It’s like that don’t-imagine-a-pink-elephant thing. I hate the don’t-imagine-a-pink-elephant thing, that violent assault on my inner life.
When I see you, Neighbor, I embody you. I, too, would love to escape—the news, the fear, the promise of death. I am inside your car, inside your skin. Our foot rests on the brake out of habit. The caged animal of our heart thrashes its bars.
In a year, we will scramble for vaccine appointments. But our vocabularies do not yet include vaccine appointments. We say PPE. We say Wuhan. We say shelter in place. We say Covid-19, as though we knew all along we were counting. We sanitize the groceries, the mail, the lifelines of our palms. At night, I laugh with my love on the phone, our voices low. We graduate from pictures to video chats.
Together we watch an episode of My 600-lb Life called Penny’s Story. At 530 pounds, Penny is trapped in bed. “My world has closed in around me,” she says.
I marvel at the poetry of the sentence, her choice of the nebulous present perfect, the assertion of her own powerlessness—not “I” as subject, but “me” as object.
He says, “There’s a lot more nudity in this show than I expected.”
We start to plan: Waco, the halfway point between our cities, the place where all those people burned when I was still a child. A rapid test—that swab that plumbs the depths of the nostril, brushing a place so deep inside, we couldn’t have known it was there.
In a year, I will rise from his bed to pack a suitcase at a fevered pitch, joining the long line of wounded women who know in their bones how to pack through tears.
Do you think I want to write about him? My god, I don’t want to write about him. The world is burning. California. Cypress. Siberia. The sea. But whenever I approach the blank screen, he hovers over the flames. How I loved him through a global pandemic. How I made his dog our dog. How he appeared under my balcony like Romeo while I was quarantined on New Year’s Eve. How he made me laugh in the kitchen by tapping my breast with a wooden spoon. The day on the dunes, snow-colored sand, when the election results, delayed like a denouement, finally went the right way, and we each attempted a cartwheel and failed, and then we drove to Las Cruces, sharing popcorn in the car.
We cannot choose our subjects. But if I could, it would be you, Neighbor, who knows that home-as-refuge is myth, that there’s nothing more painful than the people we love. Take all the time you need in that car. Watch the sunset through its rearview mirror. No one else has things figured out—whom to avoid, where to escape, what to do with all of this grief.