In graduate school, I passed most of my mornings seated at a little white desk in the garden apartment of a classic red brick row house on R Street in Georgetown, reading or writing or staring idly out the squat rectangular windows that let in light from the small square of backyard just outside them, fumbling with words while making my way through a bowl of Rainier cherries or a tart Pink Lady apple, fruit being my favorite mid-morning snack. My desk was by a little windowed door that led to a short flight of steps up to the patio area owned by the old French woman who lived upstairs. She was frail and hard of hearing but with a warm smile and I would on occasion, when the weather was too beautiful to bear, venture out the door and steal a couple of hours sitting in a little shaft of sunlight on the steps as close to my door as possible, moving every twenty minutes or so to follow the sun. A moveable feast. One morning, mid-trespass, I saw her looking out one of the windows on the second floor, a broad face with glassy eyes looking past dark, brocaded drapery. I jumped up and made to look as though I was clearing my belongings — the small striped beach towel I’d purchased in Nice, the tube of sunscreen, whatever overly-thick and overly-dense book I was reading at the time. She held up her hand in a kind of papal wave, absolving me, and disappeared.
“Thank you,” I shouted. “No — merci.” As I issued the correction, I winced at the fact that I’d not yet ventured upstairs to visit with her, especially since I spoke fairly fluent French and anticipated this might please her. But I was 24 and selfish and unsure of myself. The amount of energy and self-assurance it might have taken to initiate such an excursion felt beyond my grasp, though I could hear my mother tsk-ing in my ear. I turned my cheek. It was easier to do nothing. I returned to my perch, leaning my face back into the warmth of the sun. There is a feeling when you are out of doors, bathing in sunlight, drinking the fresh air, attending to the march of ants or the song of birds or the idle drip-drop of water from the outdoor hose spigot, of expansiveness — of being filled and full. Even at 24, when I knew close to nothing about anything, I saw the near-immediate transformation of the atrophying words on paper issued from my indoor desk once outside: blooming fuller, taking on new meaning, shed of the stale turns of phrases I usually leaned on. I was thinking a lot about Romantic poets at the time thanks to a seminar led by a drill sergeant-type professor, and I recall a particularly fecund afternoon writing about a Coleridge poem on those steps, though even the fresh air and chirping birds around me could not instill a love of the poetry.
Upstairs, Madame grew increasingly frail during my tenancy. For a time, I would occasionally see her brought outside to her courtyard by her caregiver, on a brief tour of the terra cotta pots that lined its perimeter. Those excursions grew fewer and further between and, encouraged by her gracious wave that one morning, I increasingly availed myself of her absence by making bolder and bolder use of the steps, and then a slight square of red brick patio, and finally one morning laid my entire towel out to sunbathe. I could not focus on my reading that morning, though: I continued to glance up at the windows, expecting her face in one of them with a look of disapproval. Or perhaps she might dispatch her caregiver to shoo me away. Or —
Finally, I stood and rolled up my towel and sat on the steps, feeling more comfortable with the modesty it entailed.
I never did ask for her permission for the use of the backyard, and because of her kind smile and because I am older now and understand that sometimes watching others enjoy what we cannot can be fulfilling, I presume that she would have generously invited me to use it as I pleased had I asked, and that my uneasiness was likely all for nought.
Nor did I apologize for my halfway trespass, or thank her for the acknowledging wave she’d issued in my direction that one morning.
Instead, I lived there in indecision, drinking in the sunlight hungrily, furtively, with likely undue guilt.
I have been thinking a lot about this dynamic as I sit here indoors, indefinitely, looking out the window with envy. I still write at the same little white desk from my graduate school years, now repositioned under a very broad set of windows that look out across a street in the upper ’80s through which I can see the slenderest wisp of hope: a flowering tree wedged between tall red brick buildings from whose windows, every night at 7 pm, tough Manhattanites cheer and whistle and bang pots to recognize the tremendous heroism of our essential workers and especially our frontline medical staff during this horrific pandemic. I think about the fact that I was not particularly neighborly as a 24 year old, and am ashamed that I borrowed from Madame without returning the favor with a visit. And I think about the fact that she was increasingly confined to her house, and that she must have been lonely and hungry for not only companionship but sunshine. And I think about — even when not under circumstances of deprivation — how delicious that sunshine felt, how thoughts came alive in it, how full I felt in its embrace. And I regret not spending more time outside earlier this year, even in the cold and gray early March, almost as much as I regret not visiting her.
But we learn from our mistakes. And so I have been reaching out to my own neighbors — physical and otherwise — in the best and safest ways I know how, in her memory, in a gesture somewhere between atonement and common decency. And I intend to spend the entirety of July or August — or whenever we are set free — out of doors, also in her memory and in the memory of the many New Yorkers — my neighbors here in this resilient city — who have passed on and will not be able to see Central Park in mid-May bloom or languid August heat or russet October chill or snow-blanketed December repose.
+Distractions, if you need ’em. (I do.)
+Mi Golondrina is running a limited-time sale — 30% off sitewide. Trust me when I say they never put their merchandise on sale and I, for one, will be supporting this lovely woman-owned small business during this difficult financial time. Seriously considering this but there are so many beautiful options. A great idea to order one of these for your mother in advance of mother’s day (not too far away now)! I gave one to my mother a couple of years ago for the occasion and she loves hers.
+Don’t ask me why but I find something very appealing about this traditional-looking laundry basket. Maybe because I’m desperate for fresh air, I am fantasizing about clipping clothes to a laundry line outside with it.
+Adore this sweet smocked dress for a little one in all its colorways, but especially that cheery orange print!
+In love with this amazing mirror!
+I’ll take everything from this tabletop collection.
+This, in the faded mint color! Easy to wear and so fun.
+In that vein, I am so, so obsessed with this upholstered headboard. I wish I had a reason to buy it — ugh! It would be too perfect for a little girl’s room. If only I had a basement or attic to stow it in, or a guest room to outfit…I would so love to build mini’s “big girl” room around this!
+More on my love of the outdoors, even though I am not what I would categorize as an outdoor person.