The Case of the Disappearing Neighbors

First my next-door neighbor, Bill, disappears. His health has been precarious for some time, but one could generally catch him early in the morning, picking up his newspaper at the bottom of his driveway, or checking his mail that he knows darn well never arrives before 3 p.m. After Mom’s death I canceled my newspaper delivery and found I could sleep in a bit longer each day, so I would generally miss Bill’s walks down the driveway, which was fine by me because he was a garrulous, well-meaning, but exceedingly tedious fellow who never understood the immense value of a brief “good morning” (with no follow-up conversation) between neighbors.

He put his house on the market about two months after the housing bubble burst. And he had priced it too high even for a strong market. Needless to say, the house was taken off the market six months later. Bill had hoped to move to a nursing home, but decided to stay around for a while longer. He’d have weekly doctor visits and occasional hospital visits, and not-infrequent falls. Tony, the neighbor directly across from him, tended his lawn and looked in on him daily.

First I see that Bill’s mailbox is taped up. The outside lights come on with a timer, so they gave no indication of Bill’s presence or absence. Then Bill’s lawn starts looking shaggy. The Florida growing season begins sometime in April, but weekly cuttings aren’t generally needed until May, especially since it’s been a dry year. Why isn’t Tony cutting his lawn? Wait a minute, where is Tony, anyway?

You may remember my telling you about Tony some time ago. His blue diesel pick-up is still in the driveway. I’m sure I heard him start it up and let it idle for a half-hour sometime last week, didn’t I? But then I notice that I never see him around. His garage door, usually open and the scene of activity, is always closed. Tony has likewise disappeared. His wife hasn’t been around for a couple of years now; I wonder, briefly, if she made one final appearance and, in a fit of rage, killed him.

Did Bill die? Did he go into a nursing home? If so, why isn’t his house on the market again, and why has he left no provision for cutting his lawn? When the weeds became chest-high, I paid my lawn guy $40 to bring Bill’s yard back into the land of respectability.

Then there’s the Corner House I told you about. The place has gone into foreclosure, and its crazy and/or criminal residents have relocated, thank goodness. That’s three houses shuttered and vacant in the same month.

The folks across the street, the ones who plowed down my mailbox, have been extremely quiet. Maybe absent, I don’t know. I never see them. And my next-door neighbor, Felix, is disappearing in a different way: he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He and his wife went up to Long Island for a family reunion last month, and I fed their cat in exchange for swimming in their pool. Good people. Felix is at the stage when he’s really upset at how his faculties are slipping away, and he’s becoming increasingly frustrated and bad-tempered. He mentions that he thinks Tony must be in prison, though he has no basis for his opinion. His wife is the personification of patience and long-suffering, but I can see the strain it’s putting on her.

So yesterday I’m getting acupuncture and discover that I’m missing my wallet. I hope it dropped out of my pocket in my car, but it’s not there. It’s possible I lost it on the brief walks to and from my car, and someone quickly grabbed it, but it’s more likely that I left it at home. I rarely do, since I tend to double- and triple-check my pockets before leaving, a habit I’ve had for decades. I was meeting a friend for dinner, and I’m grumbling because of how much more this is making me drive out of my way, and I’m hungry.

And there, in front of his house, is Tony. “Where have you been?!” I shout, gleefully. He’s happy to see me too. He explains that he’s getting married. (Apparently the bad-tempered woman is now his ex.) He and this woman dated some 30 years ago, and they’ve recently reconnected, and he’s been in Connecticut with her, and they’re getting married next month. He’ll go where the work is: Connecticut if it’s there, down here if the jobs are more plentiful here. She’ll stay in CT, where her comfortable career is. He says it’s an ideal arrangement for both of them.

Tony clears up the mystery: He too had been bothered by the denizens of the Corner House, especially the tall, bald, crazy-eyed fellow who kept asking for rides, and didn’t want anyone to know that he was leaving for fear they’d break into his house and become squatters. He was similarly afraid for Bill, so when Bill went into a home — an actual home owned by an LPN who takes care of a handful of seniors there, forming a pleasant little community — Tony didn’t think it would be good for the news to circulate through the neighborhood while the Corner House people were still there. Now they’re gone, so the news can spread freely. And Tony will make sure Bill’s lawn is tended, even if he’s living in Connecticut at the time. I mention, as a joke, that we wondered if he had been carted off to jail or something, and he replied, “No, those days are far behind me!” Another little surprise.

So all’s well with our neighborhood, except for Felix. I wish I had a magic wand. Or a miracle cure. For now, all I have is friendship and support. And the knowledge that we all disappear from time to time, sometimes forever, and always for good. Nothing is permanent, the Buddha tells us, except change.

Categories: Buddhism, Life in Florida, Relationships | 4 Comments

The Erotica Eight and the Great Puttanesca Initiation

I hope my friend Indigo Bunting will weigh in with her recollections and corrections to this story. I am old and my memory is failing, while her memory is remarkably pristine.

The first thing I don’t remember is the year. I rarely remember what year anything happened. But back when we all lived in Maryland, some friends offered to host a spirituality/mythology discussion group. We’d all watch an episode of the Bill Moyers series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, and discuss it afterwards. This evolved into a general spiritual exploration group, which didn’t go so well since some of us wanted more theory, others wanted more practical stuff, and some seemed dedicated to fluffy bunnies and unicorns. (It seems now that this pattern has been repeating in my life for quite some time now.)

This group evolved, or devolved, into discussion of another book, Ladies’ Own Erotica by the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society. We’d read a few chapters in preparation, then come together over an amazing meal that one of us would prepare, and discuss the book. It was a heady mixture of the lubricious (one of my favorite words in the whole wide world) and the respectable, the intellectual and the wanton, the sensual and the spiritual.

By this time the group had weeded itself down to a core group of eight people: two married couples; one couple who didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, which merely showed how silly the whole argument was, since no one could be more married in body, soul, or mind than they; and two single guys. That first night, sitting around over Bill Rau’s pasta puttanesca and much excellent wine discussing women’s approach to erotica and how it differed from men’s, and what made something exciting or arousing in one context and either boring or rather distasteful in another, we christened ourselves the Erotica Eight.

The Erotica Eight met quite a few times after that, sometimes discussing erotica, sometimes not; we even went on a group trip to Chincoteague, Maryland, and Assateague Island at the height of a winter snowstorm, and rented a house for a long weekend. That is a longer and much stranger story for another time.

The Great Puttanesca Initiation happened this way. When we arrived, we found Bill at his stove in the middle of making this sauce that smelled oh-my-god-is-it-possible-for-anything-to-have-a-more-intoxicating-aroma. A surprising amount of excellent extra-virgin olive oil, a few teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes, a couple of tins of anchovies (which was my first honest encounter with those wondrous fishies), and a dozen or so cloves of garlic, minced. To this was added a goodly amount of lovely oil-cured black olives, capers, and several cans of roma tomatoes, and a little tomato paste. A little red wine, a few leaves of basil, and a handful of chopped Italian parsley. That’s it.

When I wrote of puttanesca some time ago, I said that the celebrated Neapolitan dish was so named because it was “pasta the way a whore would make it.” Many think the the name refers to the decadent sauce’s hot, spicy flavor and rapturous aroma. Others say that because the ingredients were so inexpensive, it was offered for free to prospective customers to entice them into houses of ill repute — or that the dish was so quickly made that prostitutes could prepare it between customers.

Author and chef Diane Seed relates this story:

To understand how this sauce came to get its name, one must consider the 1950s when brothels in Italy were state-owned. They were known as case chiuse or “closed houses” because the shutters had to be kept permanently closed to avoid offending the sensibilities of neighbors or innocent passers-by. Conscientious Italian housewives usually shop at the local market every day to buy fresh food, but the “civil servants” were only allowed one day per week for shopping, and their time was valuable. Their specialty became a sauce made quickly from odds and ends in the larder.

Tonight I made puttanesca sauce myself for the first time. I was not disappointed. It was not quite as spicy as Bill’s version was, but there was definitely a heat that crept up on me as I ate it. It was sensuous, and heady, and altogether wonderful. But as you can see, it was my counterpart to Proust’s madeleine: one mouthful, and I was transported back to the even headier days of the Erotica Eight, of our sitting around a table filled with wine and laughter, eating the food of whores, and tracing the strange road from Joseph Campbell to the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society.

Categories: Cooking, Relationships, Sex and Sexuality, Spirituality | 12 Comments

The Moment You Knew the Relationship Was Doomed

When you look back on your failed romantic relationships (and most of us have had one or two), was there a time when you knew, with absolute certainty, that it was over? I’m not thinking of the arguments or the betrayals, but those little revelations that tell you This person is not for me, no way, no how.

An acquaintance writes:

I was teasing this guy I’ve been dating this morning over the fact that he could not be bothered to pay any attention to the war in Georgia. This morning he said casually over coffee, “I don’t understand what they’re doing here.”

“Who?” I asked.

“The Russians,” he replied.

Yes, he thought the Russians had invaded the United States. And he still couldn’t be bothered to look into it.

I remember one fellow by the name of Tony who took an inexplicable shine to me a number of years ago. Gorgeous, but dense as a bag of rocks. We enjoyed one another’s company for a while. But the more we talked, the more his intellectual limitations became apparent. Continue reading

Categories: Humor, Psychology, Relationships | Leave a comment

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