Girl Next Door

 

Oh how I wish I were a trinity, so if I lost a part of me, I’d still have two of the same to live.

 

– from Love’s Recovery, the Indigo Girls

 

She was the girl next door.  Her name was Francine, and she lived in the apartment next to and below us.  We had been thrilled when she moved in, replacing a young couple who had fought with us over a leak.

 

I first saw her when she came to view the flat with her mom.  Though the glimpse had been brief, I’d seen enough to get a general impression – short, brunette, the profile of a somewhat naive smile.  When I rang her doorbell a couple months later, she looked different.

 

“Are you guys throwing a party in there?”  I asked.  I may have even had my hands on my waist, framing the mound of my nine-month pregnant silhouette.

 

She was very cute, a late twenty-something kind of woman – slim, fashion smart, radiating petite authority – and she pouted back at me, hand on the doorknob.  Leaning forward, she offered her other hand.

 

“No, just testing the stereo.  I’m Francine.”

 

I kicked myself for being so rude.  I had been just as barbarian as her predecessors, when they’d rang to complain about the leak.

 

“Sorry!  I’m Anastasia.  I live here, obviously,” I said, cocking my head to the open door on the left.  “I just wanted to come by and check.  Our living room walls were shaking during dinner.” I smiled apologetically.  I had pictured frat boys and plastic cups, ready to flaunt my belly as due course for urgent decibel reduction.  Now I felt like the Goodyear blimp.

 

“Oh, no, no.  See, I’m just testing the sound system.  It’s new.  Look.”  With that, she half turned, pointing to wires and black boxes of different sizes littering the shag rug in front of a white stucco fireplace. 

 

When I went back up, my husband’s eyebrows were high with expectation.  He obviously wanted to know more than how the conversation had gone, because he’d eavesdropped from over the stairwell.  I didn’t tell him that Sex and the City had hit the suburbs of our Dutch metropolitan habitat.  The independent, gorgeous single girl who’d reconciled herself to a mortgage had moved in next door.

 

He got to meet and see her for himself.  She rang an hour later, handing him her mobile phone number because she was going out.  It was nine-thirty on a Sunday night.  We were just about to clear off the table and hit the sofa.

 

“My dog has never been alone in the apartment before.  He might yap up a storm.  Don’t hesitate to call if it bothers you,” she squeaked.

 

Francine’s peeps reverberated all the way from alcove below through to the hall above and into our living room. Was it just me, or did she sound perkier talking to my husband?  I pictured a bomber jacket with a fake sheepskin collar and high waist riding on tight jeans.  I heard the clicking of boots and the light jangle of silver hoops shimmering between locks of highlit hair. 

 

He joined me back at the dinner table, grinning.  He didn’t say anything about how cute she was, either.  But it was there, in the grin.  It hung over our dirty plates, the bourgeois remnants of our potatoes, red cabbage, and vegetarian schnitzel dinner.

 

We saw her again after she’d sent us a card for the baby.  My husband had insisted on dropping a birth announcement in her mail slot.  I had protested at first, convinced she would throw it away.  I was irked by the thought of a picture of our daughter, the cutest thing ever born since Francine, smashed at the bottom of her kitchen trash bin.  But he said it was only polite, after all, since she must have heard the baby crying at some wee hour during the last few weeks.  In the end, I let it go and was surprised when we got a card back from her.  She’d ordered it via internet, paying postage to have some super computer send it instead of buying one at the store to put in our box for free.  She was not only cute, she was a gadget girl.  She used internet resources we vaguely knew existed.

 

Saturday we returned from a Infant CPR course we’d managed to stumble to in the morning with the baby.  I was wearing yoga pants, sneakers, and the breastfeeding top that smelled least of baby goo and mom leakage.  I had taken care to put make-up on, even adding a pair of dangly earrings my daughter wouldn’t be able to rip off in a feeding frenzy.  My husband had said I looked good; our CPR instructor and friend, Tina, had said I looked good. 

 

Standing in the porch of our front door, all the compliments of the morning dissipated.  As I fumbled for keys in the pocket of my maternity anorak, the clicking of heels trailed up the stairs behind us.  I glanced over my shoulder to see Francine sparkle up the stairs.  My face, puffy with fatigue, felt as big as my jacket sleeves.  Francine made a few comments about the baby, an eloquent yet brief cacophony of polite and charming.  My husband beamed, holding the baby carrier so she could get a glance.  He then left me on the stair alone, whisking the baby away to warmth.  An awkward silence ensued as Francine proceeded to unlock her door, taking too long for comfort.

 

I was cute once.  I used to be like her.  I used to be sexy, independent, sparkly.  Now a frumpy, postpartum mess, I’d morphed into a creature who complained about the noise before introducing herself with any sense of civilized, social prowess. 

 

“Have a good weekend,” I said meekly, filling the gap. 

 

“You, too,” she said without looking back, closing the door behind her.

 

Our girl next door was rather typical for young, European chique – marked with an aesthetically sophisticated nonchalance that blew my American roots through the roof.  Take the average European high school girl.  She tends to look older and more polished than her American counterpart, Rory Gilmore included.  This is especially the case when the American girl, like me, comes from suburban Southern California.  There, Rory’s jeans, sweaters, and Converse sneakers give way to shorts, flip flops, and poor posture. 

 

I owe my own metamorphosis to a European year abroad during graduate school, after which – as my mom put it – I returned a veritable Sabrina.  It was in the autumn of my Californian homecoming that I met the dapper man from Amsterdam who I would later marry.  He fell for me in the prime of my young adult life, unaware that I was thirty pounds lighter and that the pairs of H&M stretchy pants hanging in my closet were venturing uncharted waters. The fact I’d spent every free weekend of the previous year in Berlin was easy to see – not just in my black vinyl skirt and Amelie bob, but also in the light-year girth of an unprecedented self-confidence.

 

Seven-and-a-half years later, I hold our month-old daughter in my arms, nursing her from a vantage point on the living room couch.  I gaze across the room at wedding photos framed in pewter above the fireplace.  They were taken thirteen months ago, but the girl in the picture is just that – a girl.  I look so different there, so young.  I’d had what seemed then like a lifetime behind me following six years abroad and a PhD.  Yet two months after the photo was taken, I’d lose my mom to cancer.  One month after her funeral, I would discover I was pregnant. 

 

I spent the following forty weeks wearing yoga pants and sneakers.  I did my best to look hip when going out, but I was mostly simply pregnant, looking the part especially in the month before our nine-pound wonder was born.  I had received the pregnancy as a gift, a sabbatical of healing and renewal.  After struggling with school, my mom’s illness, and false starts broken by trips to nurse her in California, I enjoyed a rich period of respite and expectation.  According to some points of view, my life stood still.  Inside me, though, it soared – in my daughter and in other ways the world often overlooks.  I wrote, traveled, and loved, forming new friendships and rediscovering the man I’d married.

 

As my lower lip trembles in feeble, fickle comparison to the girl next door, I ignore the pajama hair in the mirror long enough to ask myself why I’m suddenly so petty.  After some introspection, I realize it has nothing to do with feeling frumpy and inundated with breast milk.  I’m saying goodbye to a part of me that is so close, just a threshold away, but rendered recently and permanently obsolete.  I can still reach out and touch the girl I was before my mom passed away.  She is tactile, visible, and her Chanel Mademoiselle perfume lingers in the interstice between her life and this budding one.  She fits into vinyl skirts three sizes smaller than the one I’d wear now.  She runs half marathons.  She wears platform sandals on long walks through Golden Gate Park with her foreign exchange student boyfriend, unscathed by the restless night in which they’d barely slept.

 

Her nights are just as long, now, but they pass in songs and whispers to her baby.  She doesn’t have a lot of time to pontificate on the transience of her youth, but when she runs into the girl next door, it’s like running into a glass wall.  There I am, she says, sighing a little.  And there’s my mom, with me.  There’s my past, the daughter part of me.  Oh, look at all the places I loved when I was young, the places I went to with my mom when she was young, too.  She is gone now, and the girl is a just a crisp caricature framed in pewter above the fireplace.  I see the trinity that we are – my mom, the girl I was, and the mother I have become – and I understand that all parts, lost and forged, merge in the miracle in my arms.

 

My baby likes my pajama hair.  She counts on it.  On a good day, like the Sunday after Infant CPR, the three of us hang out and revel in the sweetness of having nowhere to be but with each other.  Papa gets up at six to change her, because I can’t anymore with three night feedings behind me.  I put some coffee in a commuter mug so he can drink it while holding her.  I snuggle back under the covers, look at his pajama hair and hers, then grin from ear to ear, forgetting about mine for a few minutes. 

 

© 2008 Anastasia Hacopian.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Girl Next Door

  1. I love your writing so much and always look forward to finding a new entry to read, and this is so bittersweet. I’m not exactly in the same place as you, but I understand that feeling of mourning the past. It feels like the past is right there to reach out and touch, but grabbing for it is like trying to hold onto a cloud.

    Aurelia is beautiful and is so lucky to have you as a mom.

  2. Ditto!

    I see the trinity that we are – my mom, the girl I was, and the mother I have become – and I understand that all parts, lost and forged, merge in the miracle in my arms. <– So true!

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