This, we thought to ourselves, was how a true bohemian lived. Obviously we liked her.
As I write I am sitting in my front yard patio, a tiny courtyard well-defined by a surrounding low stucco wall. The wall reminds me that I am good at boundaries, from years of struggling with an over-identifying, tiny and close-knit family of origin, from years spent “individuating,” as a young woman, carving out my private life, my secrets. In this shaded area I can hide under the camellia trees, watch people walk their dogs, listen to the chirruping of the birds, follow a pair of hummingbirds as they build their discreet nest, be both simultaneously public and private. It’s the same patio where my reclusive friend Liv, once and only once, shared a pitcher of Manhattans with me.
When we moved to this neighborhood in Altadena I joined an informal writers’ group that met in the back performance room of a musty and messy coffee shop. Within the larger, looser group, there was a tiny group of attendees who actually wrote, submitted, and endured rejection. For a long time I had felt alone in my aspirations and this group offered me something to look forward to, a sense of solidarity and encouragement. Liv, a local woman, appeared intermittently.
After years I reached out to more dedicated members and reformed a writers’ group in a more pleasing shape. We met from home to home, a band of women with some writing credits and larger writing dreams.
Liv continued in the new group. She was our wry member, whose blog was filled with laugh-out-loud funny observations while simultaneously snapping a heart string. She always attended our meetings, or any other gathering, dressed in the same oversized jean shirt, cropped nylon gym pants, and stubby black clogs which appeared ready to be thrown out. She lived a few blocks from me, and for years I would see her in this same outfit walking her dog.
She was also the least forthcoming of our group—and the rest of us felt she enjoyed cultivating her enigmatic image. Even in our smaller group she was begrudging about what she was working on, and only slightly more forthcoming as to how she earned her living. If she attended a party, as the evening went on we would look around and she would be gone. We began to laugh at what she called her “French exits.”
She was an aesthete, who would send a link for a Dvorak piece, or write movingly over a moment, a memory, a poem, a movie, a friend, a dead lover.
When it was her turn to host we made our way through a virtual barricade of greenery. We took notice of her rambling garden, the chaotic interior of her home, a hallway wall scribbled upon, annotated, the kitchen a jamble, the stove a bit, well, filthy. She served us a platter of bacon and biscuits on cunningly mismatched and tea-stained crockery. We also admired the paintings from her childhood, the layers of memories adorning her walls and shelves, a dramatic carved beam, her father’s from Norway. This, we thought to ourselves, was how a true bohemian lived. Obviously we liked her.
In 2012 when my yard’s landscaping was completed, the mother from the home across the street came over to congratulate us. Their home was barricaded with a wire fence, packed densely with the foliage of oleander trees. You could never see their home from the street, and their drive was gated. She hugged me, and rued their inability to afford to weed through their vast mature foliage. We’d been waving at each other for 14 years. Fourteen years of me catching glimpses of life across the street. Little girls growing up into big girls, a granddaughter appearing, a son returning home from college. What might they have noticed? Our children turning into young adults, family members coming and going.
Glimpses, glances, a few waves, a few exchanged words. As we chatted she confessed she was in the process of saving their home from foreclosure for the second time.
When we had first moved to this street, our FedEx delivery man (a friend, our daughters attended the same elementary school) told us who our neighbors across the street actually were. The dad was a once-famous actor, formerly on a series, occasionally now a touring Broadway Lion King, who had come down in the world, according to our friend. His home may appear large and pricey on Zillow, but he had abandoned a compound-like residence before moving to this street. We pondered that, waved politely at the family when we saw them, and went our way. Our FedEx friend told us that as he delivered items to our neighbor he had seen Joe Mantegna visiting the actor. I was jealous. But, this is Southern California. You learn quickly from minor to outsized celebrityhood, you want to a) appear cool and b) give these however briefly lit luminaries their space, their privacy, their lives.
With our non-celebrity next door neighbor we were different. For 14 years we talked with Mr. Rayburn as he walked his dog twice daily, as he fussed in his yard, maintained his cars. We met his aging children. (How strange, I thought as a young mother, to have children with gray hair.) I listened as he choked up, telling of his dog’s passing in the night. We exchanged cookies or candy for Christmas, and shared a glass of wine on his patio in the summer, listening to him talk of a California when Balboa Island was an undeveloped lagoon—or his experience in World War II as an artillery captain in the Aleutian campaign in Alaska. We attended his 90th birthday celebration.
When the inevitable decline approached, we slunk away, his dementia excusing me at least from any meaningful participation. We got updates from his son, and sympathized. We attended the funeral and reception; the photograph of him on the program was that of a dazzlingly handsome young man we had never met. We watched the house be emptied, cleaned, repainted then sold.
We have never gelled with the replacement neighbors. I brought over cookies and was given blank stares. I have developed an antipathy towards them, mentally condemning them each time they slam the metal gate at 5:30 or 6:30 or 7:30 in the morning, or haul at the trash bins at a similar hour. We’ve listened to them argue, through both sets of open windows, and I assume they’ve heard us argue as well. But I know the actual reason for my scowl is that they’ve replaced the routines and rituals of Mr. Rayburn, and I hold it against them.
After a few years the writers’ group evolved again and this time I abandoned it, but I continued to occasionally socialize with Liv. She had a thing for a gin fizz Ramos, and my husband bought all the ingredients and made her one. We sat at the kitchen counter and she crooned appreciation while I tried to fathom the gin and whipped cream concoction. She loved Manhattans, so did I, and the two of us once sat in my front yard and served ourselves, back and forth, from a small pitcher I had made.
But while her writing could stun, while she could make incisive comments in a group of us, one-on-one was challenging. She lived mere blocks away, and while my husband traveled I could have easily invited her over for another pitcher of Manhattans, but the stumbling, tentative conversations stalled me.
Outside of the celebrity home one fine March morning in 2014 appeared a desiccated Christmas tree, barren of ornaments, its needles brown and brittle. How droll an abandonment! I thought to myself.
In the following days a moving truck appeared. Did that mean they were moving? A friend of mine had also been foreclosed upon; had financial pressures caught up with them as well? I had seen the family coming and going, but I hadn’t seen the actor in a quite a while. Perhaps he was touring or, worse, perhaps they had separated.
A month after I noticed the sad Christmas tree I actually did see Joe Mantegna on my street. Imagine that! A few days later I flipped online through the social media pages and stopped at an entertainment feed. I read that my neighbor across the street had died.
I hadn’t even known he was sick, and he had died, according to the reports, of a long illness. That I hadn’t known or guessed at the private tragedy unfolding within their home, that I hadn’t in any way offered some support or even words, pained me.
My neighbor across the street had obituaries in both the LA Times and the NY Times. I think about him, not pretending that if I had made a better effort we would have been best of pals, just that I would know that I had made the attempt, with him and his family.
Why hadn’t I?
Around this time five of us became a group. Three women from the writers’ group, Ann, Liv, me, and two husbands. Our energy together became ethereal and steeped in booze. We talked of movies and drank, ate elaborate meals and drank, watched art movies and drank, talked of music and musicians and drank, sang to YouTube clips and drank.
We paced these gatherings against our propensity for hangovers. They occurred about twice a year. The last one was a year ago. The five of us sat in my living room, singing to Annie Lennox, singing along with America, singing with the Stylistics, singing with Gordon Lightfoot and “Carefree Highway.”
Then, things shifted. Moods or work schedules or commitments, or a wish to avoid hangovers. No visits or sightings over the summer, or the fall. In January 2018 Ann emailed me and Liv, anxious over a lump in her breast, with a 92 percent recovery rate.
Liv emailed us both back: “That’s 92 percent fantastic. And in case you’re still a little worried, let me be your cautionary tale—what happens if you take no action. See, I’ve never had an illness I couldn’t cure by myself before. I always got well and it was back to hiking. Now I can barely make it up the driveway. Please keep this under your hat. And rest assured, the bad decision was all mine.”
I emailed her immediately. Are you all right?! Can I help? She responded: Definitely not okay. Let’s talk at a later date. I wrote: Holler if you need anything, I’m almost always nearby.
I’m just eight blocks away, I thought to myself.
In February I bumped into Ann who said, “Hey, Liv’s dropped out of sight. I guess she’s hanging with another crowd of friends.” I looked at Ann and said, “We are her crowd of friends,” then realized with a pang, I hadn’t followed up. The thought floated in and back out of my mind. Perhaps I should knock on her door, drop off a pot of chicken soup… perhaps…
Why didn’t I?
On a March evening, a year since I had last physically seen my friend Liv, Ann emailed our loose band of writers saying that she had just read on her neighborhood Facebook group that Liv had passed away.
How could this be?
How had it come to this?
The emails ricocheted, with one member saying, “French exit to the end.”
Why had she done this alone? Why had we allowed her to go through this alone? One phone call and we would have swooped in; is that what she wanted to avoid?
How could she have cut herself off from her network? I felt sorrow in how I felt she had beggared herself of life.
Yes, I know there are readers out there who consider my interpretation presumptuous, riven with assumptions, using my own emotional makeup as the standard measurement. Ann herself forcefully told me this was what Liv had wanted.
The months before her death she’d visit a neighbor down her street, an RN, to watch British comedies together. The neighbor thought, due to her appearance, that Liv must be dieting. When the RN realized Liv was seriously ill, she had Liv call her each morning, just to verify she was breathing. Liv was estranged from her siblings. The RN reached out to the family who, despite not having seen her in decades, came flying in from different points across the country. The RN arranged for Liv to be moved to the hospital. The family members reached her days before her passing.
The RN organized a visit to Liv’s home Tuesday morning the day after we received the news of her death. That morning her neighbors, with whom she had socialized over the years, shared that they had never been invited into Liv’s home. When I heard this I realized what a quiet gift Liv had offered us, inviting us inside. The RN apologized for the state of the house, since Liv was ill, she said, there wasn’t much cleaning going on. Her home looked precisely as it had when we had visited in our writers’ group, except now we saw the boxes full of medical supplies. She had ordered cotton pads and bandaging tape delivered to her doorstep. She had not visited a doctor. As friends sent emails she responded she was ill, but to “keep it under your hat.” Then she burrowed herself away. Her black Lab toured the home Tuesday morning with us, eager for our affection and attention. This animal lover had not made plans for her beloved pets.
Sharing her penchant-for-secrecy gene, her siblings have not announced her death, nor shared with us any plans for a memorial service.
What would it have cost me to rap on Liv’s door? To attempt to push myself inward? To transgress against her wishes? Reading her email, conveniently believing her words, I had let myself off the hook.
I know there’s a contingent thinking that she wanted her isolation, her wishes respected, yet afterwards there were enough bread crumbs, scattered between us, that I also saw a plea for someone to follow the trail, piece it all together. Writers ex machina.
So with profound sadness I contemplate her passing and my complicity with her silence. I cannot and will not ever know: Was it terror, was it denial, was it mute courage? My boundaries, my respect for her boundaries, bars me from that knowledge.
I think about Liv, about Mr. Rayburn, about the neighbors I disdain and the actor’s family. A study claims that we are happier when our neighbors are happy. I read that and wondered how I would even know if they were happy. How would they know about me?
Now I question the purpose of the clear demarcations I am so fond of, that, in fact, seem reinforced and buttressed in this menacing political climate. Pushing against the self-imposed limits, pressing against border and boundaries I have accepted, imposed upon myself and others. I now intend to gently push a little more, and risk the possibility of emotional rejection. In the publishing world, rejection is the price of admission. I think it is true in the personal realm, as well. If I am rebuffed, surely I will endure no permanent damage, perhaps a small brush of anxiety, a dull blow to my pride. But if I am welcomed, the pleasure of connection is doubled. Emotional risk, I’m on it. I need to start by dismantling my barricades in place of bricking up the walls.
Perhaps we all do.
Maybe, sometime soon, I hope, I might be able to invite my neighbors, Mr. Rayburn’s usurpers, over to my patio for a glass of wine.
Header photo of the author’s patio by Désirée Zamorano. Photo of Désirée Zamorano by Skye Moorhead.