The Old Neighborhood

by Andy Tu

The old neighborhood was nearly unrecognizable. Half the houses had been renovated, and the extensions crowded the once free spaces between each dwelling, disrupting the line of vision to the field of sycamores that stretched beyond the yards. As for the houses that had not added extra limbs—they, in an attempt to keep up, had been given a new layer of paint, like fresh make up; the appearance of maintaining youth. The once modest community of stone, wood, and mortar was now overtaken by steel and payment plans that would allow anyone to get an upgrade with yearly installments.

Audy had lived here until the 4th grade, and it was here that he’d met Natalie more than two decades ago, before he moved away; before cell phones became ubiquitous; before the McDonald’s arrived, planting itself suddenly off the center of the main road like it’d marched in on the legs of its yellow, arching legs. As he drove into his cul-de-sac, he remembered the first time he saw her: he was outside hitting the soft rubber ball against the wall that separated his house from the neighbor’s when she came running outside to fetch the mail. Her father came to the doorway and, with a stern, thick voice, told her to not leave the front door open when she did this. This was the third time he told her, he’d said. Snakes could come in.

That memory sifted through him as Audy eyed her house, in the corner between the two houses with the largest renovations: one whose extended garage jutted toward her bedroom window; the other that seemed to have grown in all directions like a swollen finger. And her house was perhaps the most noticeably untouched, save for the coat of white paint that was already peeling.

He’d felt his heart pound hard against his chest when he’d friended her on Facebook. He wished it could have been under more natural circumstances, like running into her when he came to visit his childhood home, but he didn’t want to disappoint himself if he knocked on the door and a stranger answered. And now his heart pounded even harder, feeling as if it were throwing off the balance of his steps as he walked on the path that led through the stringy, uncut lawn to her front door. He almost wanted to turn around and leave. He’d built this up too much for himself. She’d always been somewhere in the bottom of his mind, covered by the office romances and two long-term girlfriends. She’d been there, like a buried treasure, unlocked and waiting for him to free it from beneath the sands, to simply open it and look.

He raised his arm and gripped his fingers into a first to knock, but then decided that the doorbell would make more sense. They used to knock all the time, when doorbells did not offer themselves outside every front door, when they were extravagances that played specific, personal tunes to alert whoever was home that someone was at their door waiting to appreciate their company the way they appreciated the tune. But now it was simply: ding.

cats looking outside

As the door opened he felt his breath escape him; he became acutely aware of his body, the way his arms hung stiffly at his side, the way his palms opened up because he wanted to appear as a carefree, open-minded person who was simply curious about how an old neighborhood friend was doing, without any sort of agenda.

The woman that stood before him had long black hair that wired over her ears like the disheveled lawn, and dark teal eyes. It was not Natalie. Natalie had light brown hair and bright green eyes. Natalie used to smile at him naturally. Natalie would smile at him, if this were Natalie.

“Audy?” The woman turned her head to the side as if to repeat the question. He could see her trying to recognize him in her eyes. Perhaps it was another old neighbor. He searched through the faces of his childhood playtime, but they all blended together; only Natalie’s remained distinct.

“Yes.” He sounded so formal. “I’m sorry, do we know each other?”

“It’s me.”

The corners of her mouth perked into a faint smile. He had to squint to match it with the Natalie in his memory, but he could not. Was this woman really her? Her skin was pale, not healthily tanned. Her square, heavy frame suggested idleness, not speed and activity. He could barely believe it. He’d imagined that same girl in his memory, just grown up. But he finally did recognize her after a moment of unrestrained staring. It was the waver on that column of light reflecting off her irises that made him realize it really was her—a broken, hollow version of her childhood self.

He told her that he just happened to pass by and wanted to say hi.

“Come on in,” she said. He walked inside like he was walking into a mortuary. She closed the door firmly and chained the locks. He felt hatred for her father; he must have done this to her.

“So how’ve you been?” she asked.

They walked through the tiny living room, between a sofa covered with a blue blanket and a television on the opposite wall. In the kitchen, he told her about his auditing job, and mentioned how it made him feel unfulfilled and critical. He wondered why he was revealing so much to her as they sat into the wooden chairs.

“Oh…” she said.

“And what about you?”

Her phone chimed on the kitchen counter. She got up and went to it.

“I’m sorry, I need to respond to this.” After she finished her text message, she sat back down but kept the phone in her palm like she was expecting another reply.

“I’m working at the corner of the main road,” she said, her eyes not quite meeting his. “You remember Saddle’s Cafe?”

He nodded.

“It got bought out and converted into a book store a while back after I finished high school.”

“Oh…”

A silence passed.

“Hey,” he said. “Do you remember how we used to play tag at the park, with everyone else? Bella… June… I forget the rest of their names…”

“We did?” She seemed surprised.

“Yeah… I remember when you were ‘it’, you’d get this scrunched up look on your face like you were upset or something.” He smiled faintly at her, but she just looked at him like he was confusing her for someone else. Her eyes made their way down toward the boarded floors.

He wanted to ask her what else she’d done in the past ten years. But he could already sense the answer. He could see it in the incongruity of the kitchen—the way the knives were lying sloppily across the counter on old towels, how the wooden table between them seemed to drag against his palms as he shuffled his hands nervously. She had not done anything else, but stayed here, content to wear away like the insides of this house.

Her phone chimed again as if premeditated to break the silence. She looked down casually and smiled as she focused on her text. At least someone, whoever was on the other end, was putting a smile on her face. He felt so awkward there, and couldn’t help but look to the sides to hint that she was not being a polite host. But she kept her eyes down at the screen as her fingers continued to type.

“So,” she said when she was finished.

He wanted to ask how she became like this, how that little girl who ran so fast and smiled like the world was her playground became this, whatever this was. But it wasn’t her fault, and there was nothing to be at fault for. She was simply not what he’d expected, not what he’d wanted.

“What happened to your hair?” he blurted out. He found himself wanting to apologize.

“I didn’t like the old color.” She said it with such disdain, like it was partly his fault for asking.

They spent the next fifteen minutes talking about the renovations of the houses, the corporations that had come in to the nearby city, how everyone had a car now and could afford all sorts of new things.

“Well, almost everyone,” she said. She kept her eyes at the window looking into the backyard. They lingered there in silence, and he wondered what she was thinking about.

“I’m sorry but I have to go soon,” she said. “It’s been nice seeing you.” She did not look at him as she got up and walked to the front door, leaving him there at the table. There was no goodbye, either, as she closed the door as he left, just a smile that she seemed to try to throw at him, but couldn’t.

As Audy walked back to his car, he saw himself as a young boy running across the lawn of his old house, Natalie riding past him on her bicycle, a smile in her eyes the color of a golden sun.

*******

Andy is currently rewriting his first novel. He lives in California.

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