I used to covet my sister in law’s Atlanta cul de sac where she lived with her husband and two kids. Visiting her most Julys for the past twelve years, I revered what unfolded before me on her street— a mecca of multicultural bon homie. There were the two Indian families, a Black family, a Korean one, a gay white couple, a Jewish family (my SIL) and others. I envied this community–not the sulpher ditch that bordered my SIL’s home and not the thin, afterthought trees that lined the front yards–but the festivity at the close of any given workday; front doors open to careening children, cold beers passed among the fathers and the waiving Indian mother across the road on her front step painting neighbor girls’ nails–a row of pastel polish lining her bottom step.
My own experience with communal living in NYC apartment buildings consisted of one neighbor who would allow her toddler to visit us unannounced but when we tried the same, her husband would edge us out, explaining it was mealtime regardless of the hour. Speaking to friends in other cities, this disconnect between t.v sitcom city living and actual relations with neighbors, is often profoundly lonely. In my current NYC building, my neighbor, a therapist in her sixties, once asked me to complain to our landlord about the fact the other family on our floor leaves cardboard boxes in the hall from time to time; (I refused). On another floor of our building, two youngish roommates who’ve recently moved in have campaigned to try to evict a lovely elderly man who allegedly (to their bat-ears only) listened to his television too loudly. Yesterday, he passed away after having a stroke on the floor of his apartment. RIP Patrick. That’s the extent of our community.
So did I smile to myself over the phone when my sister in law reported the gradual and complete disintegration of cul de sac bliss? Maybe. It made a good story. With each phoned update, with my SIL or sometimes my MIL I was like a kid with a holiday advent calendar-the passage of time revealing new, exciting morsels.
Central to this drama was the Korean mother, an attorney, whose husband allegedly had an affair with a Korean stripper. Apparently, this life event opened the door for the Korean mom to go to Korea and leave her two tween children with her parents for more than a year in order to have head to toe plastic surgery. Fast forward and this Korean mother returned to the neighborhood wondrously lithe–the neighborhood vixen.
The Vixen’s return was cinematic. As my MIL recounted, “She suddenly had a red sports car. I saw her once when she zoomed right by me, the roof opened up. I had no idea who she was.” (My quotes here are not exact because they were from a while ago but are the gist of what was told to me). Another sighting described to me in so many words: “One day she emerged from her house on a busy fall evening–families propped on their porches–wearing a neat white apron and balancing what looked like a homemade pie in one hand.” A vision of domesticity. Yet, confoundingly, another time the Vixen called SIL on the phone and asked her how to mop her kitchen floor. “I dumped my bucket of water and soap on the floor and then couldn’t mop it up.” My patient SIL had to explain the mechanics of dipping the mop into the soapy water when IN THE BUCKET.
Perhaps encouraged by the cleaning tutorial that SIL had provided without guffawing, Vixen invited SIL to grab a coffee; in the Starbucks din, Vixen asked SIL to testify against her husband in her ongoing child custody dispute. As SIL politely explained, she could do no such thing as she only knew one thing–the year the Vixen left her daughter in Atlanta, the daughter could be seen on the sidewalk watching the neighborhood kids race down the sloped street, perfectly still.
During one trip to Atlanta, SIL hurried me outside to her front porch so I could finally meet the Vixen. Sitting on my SIL’s throne-like Adirondeck chair, I gawked at the woman standing a car length away on the road. I could see her in profile, a slim middle aged woman in cigarette black pants and a subdued voice that did not carry to the front porch. She could be a slighter me. Where was the flamboyance and narcissistic sheen I had expected? Maybe it was disappointment that froze me that day. Was it possible that she was not the villainous figure I’d been imagining? Could someone almost “normal” abandon their kids for a year by choice? My interest in this one thread of a complicated neighborhood dynamic was apparently obvious to everyone but me. As my therapist noted, for someone like me who was abandoned at a Seoul police station and left in a basket as a baby, I am of course interested in why women leave their families. Do not get me started on any movie that involves foster kids/orphans. Wet Shar Pei face every time.
MY SIL told me of the evening the Vixen’s quiet daughter willingly entered her house’s basement with a group of neighborhood boys to enjoy a carefree pillow fight, only to emerge crying and complaining she was hit. After my brother in law, a physician, gave her a cursory check for damage that revealed no injury, she went home. A day or so later, the Vixen emailed the entire cul de sac of 35 plus neighbors what can only be described as a rant against my brother in law for daring to dismiss her daughter’s complaints of pain after the pillow fight. (and this was before the sensibilities of the Metoo movement). Was this a sign of her unraveling as many of us believed or had she, albeit in an unconventional way, recharged her maternal battery to focus on protecting her daughter as a mother ought? Soon after, the rest of the neighbors succumbed to the joyful disintegration—complete with angry shouting at each other across lawns, front doors closed to spontaneous playdates and comically, one irate father flipping the bird at another on the street.
I no longer envy my sister in law’s cul de sac. (She recently left it behind for a new neighborhood.) I’m fine with my disgruntled therapist neighbor who once pointed to a yellow star decoration my other neighbor affixed to our hallway wall and angrily shouted “see it’s a Wiccan symbol. A Wiccan symbol.” (It’s not, it’s just a star). But I occasionally still wonder about the Vixen. Was she deeply disturbed or someone brave enough to put herself first in order to be stronger later? I’ve never been dumped for a stripper as far as I know but I can imagine the inner turmoil and self doubt that would cause! I’ve also been at times, the depleted parent, no good to anyone. Though I’ve no plans to “refresh” my look in Korea, I dream of taking a treehouse of the world tour someday, partly alone and part with my husband and kids. Maybe what I can take from this all is that I not only can but MUST do things that are for me alone–whether it be my riotously enjoyable Wed night “creative zoom” with my middle school bestie Michelle and other artist friends of hers, going to see art like David Hockney’s drawings at the Morgan library at my own leisurely pace, “jogging” around the Reservoir with a friend or re-learning how to drive so I can rent a summer house without knocking down the mailbox while reversing out of the driveway. (True story).
Friends, take care of yourselves. xoxo