How does she get into my kitchen at seven a.m., squeezing frosting on my boy's toast? In college she hardly ever ate, except in motion. This frosting makes a curlicue motion spelling out his name so slowly from somewhere deep in her brain with the sentences she concocts to entwine us. Her loud laugh in a phone call from the same state – that's how she finds me, and now she moves in her robe through my house morning after morning. Or is it medicine and tech that draws us together, that cul-de-sac of specialists with machines that my husband had wandered into in this so pristine dollop of Silicon Valley?
She comes out of her room—how do we happen to have a spare?--with a bleeding face. Wrinkles, she says, that's what's keeping her from getting a new job, no boss will have her. My son offers her a band-aid that she takes, that she kisses and tucks away, and presents him with a small stuffed dinosaur, all the while talking about the Mossad who controls her ex-boss who still wants the papers she took on her exit.
She doesn't sound crazy at first. We drive her to another part of the state so she can feel safe disposing of said papers. It is after we return and try to sleep that it occurs to us that we are crazy, it is after that we hear how little better she sounds.
For example, she is standing in our garden on Thanksgiving, turning over the petals of our roses. Can she find one free of ants? No one likes ants in their bouquets, and especially not her nephew. Her nephew is visiting. He comes bearing his part of the turkey, he quarrels with her out in that garden, he doesn't care about the ants. I am putting food on plates in front of the glass wall that overlooks the garden, and hand him one. He has only one working arm. He delivered pizza and someone opening the door shot him. On introduction, I say how lucky he was. Yeah, he says, that's luck. With his one arm he wants to write for newspapers. She says no, and this is their quarrel: he has to help her exploit tech and medicine.
Because she is a nurse. Once bedside, once emergency room, once intensive care, once hospice, now high-tech, a trajectory of death and machine. So reassuring. A nurse is a rock, a nurse brings you back from illness and offers placebos and absorbs sadness, she cares, she is trained to care, unless she doesn't. Now she's a nurse in tech and doesn't have time to care. Her nephew distrusts her, he takes his one arm back for newspaper work and unlists himself from her cellphone.
She had a roommate before moving in with us, a roommate in a house full of elaborate holiday decoration: gilt Santas, tumblers of green glass balls, wreaths both vegetable and fabric. This roommate posed as a nurse as well, she nursed for a company high in the tech world too. Consultant-nurse. But the roommate wanted too much: too much money for her share of the rent, too much shopping for ornaments, too much attention that was not hers.
The roommate's mixer sits in my kitchen, booty from her leaving her roommate in the middle of the month. The woman calls, wanting it back. She is friendly at first, words of Might I have a word with her? Not: Where is she? Then she is not at all friendly. We try to stay out of it, we try to protect our friend. After all, she had to get rid of her papers because of the Mossad, and her roommate wouldn't help her, let alone her nephew.
My husband says it's okay, sure, we have a spare bedroom. She will pay so much when she gets a new job, which turns into If she gets one, or Whether. But what do we do together to make us so friendly for so long while she's not paying rent? Not friend things. She stays in her room. She uses her phone in her room to set up appointments she doesn't manage to attend, though we hear her confirm. When she at last emerges from her room, it is only to greet our son, to present him with another gift that he, in his gift-greedy youth, is always happy to get, then she drives her late model black Mercedes to the shop where it stays.
Now she is standing at her bedroom door with her face all bloody. Where can she go if we sell the house? We are selling the house so she can't live in it, we are selling the house and moving three thousand miles away. My son doesn't want to leave the house where he is so lonely he plays badminton by himself in the street to lure playmates who never appear out of their ranch three-bedrooms, he who counts on the dog to retrieve friends at the park when he can. Really, my son doesn't want to leave her. Aunt, he calls her.
We have to sell the house to get rid of her.
We slip out of the house to talk about the house deal, we both walk the dog in that park, a job that is really only one person's, so we can talk, we let the dog run wild while we wonder what to do.
You can't evict someone who doesn't pay rent.
We hear her sobbing inside her room, our son can hear her. It's only six months after her boxes began to appear in our garage, after she comes to us in the middle of the night, telling us about the Mossad, the bad boyfriend who never comes back, her roommate who has locked her out. She is my friend and no way is this going to be permanent. Just a few weeks, maybe a month, maybe two. She will get a new job and jobs are so easy to get here, medical tech like all other tech needs people like her who can do so much in such a specialized field.
She spends hours frosting toast or wrapping bits of food inside parchment and steaming it or else constructing something more elegant than food. She doesn't eat it herself. When the boy is hungry, when he returns from school and does his homework and needs to eat, she cooks before I get home, then she wraps the leftover food in parchment bits. I cook something else that my son's too full for while she keeps on wrapping. At last she throws out her small bits of food and offers the boy a sliver of chocolate, the one food that if dropped, poisons the dog. She drops it.
The dog tries to bite her. She hides behind her door in her room, behind the door she seldom opens. We put the dog in a crate, the dog can't bite her behind bars. She feeds him bits of the wrapped food—not, so far, chocolate--through those bars and, to make friends, opens his door that we tell her not to, and lets him run around and pee everywhere, but still he growls. Or so she says.
My husband, this husband of mine, she spends hours in conversation with. His attribute: listening. Just as he edges toward the exit, she finds another tidbit to talk about, another conversation he can fit in, he can't avoid joining because she knows someone, has some phone number. He is hers, though never in the bedroom.
She stands at her bedroom door, her face bleeding. She's talking to the neighbor, she's saying what to the neighbor who's never said what to us?
The moving van arrives and we fill it, the boy confused with his small stuffed dinosaur in a box at his feet. Isn't she coming? But she has already moved to the neighbor's, she has snatched her little mail from our box where we leave it and has rung the doorbell at the neighbor's with the clothes on her back. The neighbor comes out while we move, giving us the stink eye we surely deserve, she coils her hose and turns her head away when she sees us.
The van leaves with our boxes, none of which are hers due to the notes pinned to her couch, the hem of her bed. We board the taxi that will take us to the airport and three thousand miles away where we will collect our things after they are driven to us. Before the taxi exits, while my husband is checking the keys and the garden, she runs out of the neighbor's house and into ours and retrieves a container of detergent I have left behind. She holds it up, and I nod. That she can have.
Illustration by Carolyn Tripp