My therapist told me this quote from Oscar Wilde, supposedly his last words. We’ve been talking about being outcast, and queer, and of thoughts of death and suicide. Wilde had been ill after his imprisonment, and his last months were spent bedridden, in a room with ugly wallpaper. When Jason tells me this I think of “The Yellow Wallpaper” first, because of the literary connection, then of the wallpaper in my own home, the lower half of a decrepit Victorian. “I hate this wallpaper,” Wilde was supposed to have said, just before he died. “One or the other of us will have to go.”
It’s a season of death and illness, even as it’s undoubtedly spring come early. Everyone’s mental health and immune defenses are at their lowest ebb, in the pause between the last of the cellared rations of tubers and the first greens of spring. My husband claims to be nursing at least his third consecutive cold. The snows have melted, unlikely to return. The banks of the river are pits of sucking clay. In the yards and along every path, snowdrops have been supplanted with crocuses; this morning I walked the dog through the neighborhood, and saw a forsythia in bloom.
Anything growing in my own yard, besides grass and trees and some shrubs, is thanks to Abby, who had been our neighbor when we first moved here. As I go in and out the door to the porch where I garage my bicycle, I pass the particularly sprawling and accursed yew that Abby had a vendetta against. Now that the snow has melted, I can see the pile of sand and yard trash she had deposited into the middle of it, in her attempts to kill it without uprooting it outright. She hated our landlord, but would not defy him outright, only in her sidelong witchy way.
Abby, her teenage daughter, Micah, who had ferrets, Abby’s wife, Janet, their neurotic dog, Ziggy, and their cats constituted the family upstairs when we moved in. A couple years after we arrived, Micah graduated and moved into her own place in town. Then, a few years ago, Abby and Janet bought their own house in the next village. Within the year Abby, who had never been well, became seriously ill. I saw her in the hospital the day she and Janet got the news that Abby had stage IV cancer, but I didn’t realize that I would never see my friend again. There is no fifth stage. Abby died within a couple of weeks.
After Abby and Janet moved away, we had other neighbors, but they come and go, all college students, and we’ve liked some of them, but never had the fondness we did for our first neighbors. We were “the boys” to them, just a little bit younger than our upstairs matriarchs and an all-male household beneath their all-female one (except for cats and ferrets). They were the ones who made relationships with our neighbors in the houses on either side of us, gave us a way to piggyback into them when they left, so that we share dog talk, snow removal equipment and labor with them, watch their houses when they go on vacation.
But mostly this is Kevin who does this work of being neighborly. I’m planted in the past, still picking Abby’s raspberries every May and freezing them. I make desserts from them and bring them to Janet’s potlucks. I admire, photograph, and report upon Abby’s roses, her black irises, the daffodils and crocuses that are thinned each year by the squirrel population. No one feeds the birds, now that Abby’s gone, but they still come to raise families in our trees each year.
Even that fucking shrub is still alive, still gaping where it has spread instead of being pruned, full of grit and trash. Oh Abby, I think, as I pass. She had such a cheerful way with what was ugly, happy to bring home boxes of plants, plaster stickers over her loud and tiny sherbet-orange beater of a car. Abby made things with her disturbances of fertile grounds. Her perennials still bloom. Micah still has Janet. So does Ziggy, who is a calmer animal than she ever was, reflecting her mistress’ unflappable demeanor. Abby was the loud one, spiky-haired, covered in piercings and dressed in purple, though there was always something calm and fixed about her gaze. She was actually shy, but went to pains to hide this. She loved the beautiful and the tender ones, hated bullies and the resistant, persistent ugly things that can’t be scrubbed out or ripped out.
How Abby hated that shrub. One or the other of them was going to have to go.