Take It from Me
A Saturday morning in early October
New Canaan, Connecticut
While my husband is upstairs sleeping in, I climb onto the second shelf of the built-in unit flanking the living room fireplace and peer through the quarter-round window to spy on whoever is moving into the Durbins’ house today. Discovering other people’s secrets doesn’t make mine less shameful, but it does make me feel less alone. Intimate knowledge forms a bond even when the other person remains unaware. Of course, my husband knows of mine, but even he doesn’t know everything. And, God willing, he never will.
Nevertheless, I can’t say I’ll miss George Durbin. He isn’t neighborly—always seeking a way to extricate himself from conversations with me. Joe and I invited him to our Christmas open house and a summer cocktail party this past year, but he wasn’t interested. Come to think of it, George has never been interested in much, which is probably why his wife, Peg—whom I do miss terribly—ran all the way to California last year.
Peg’s sarcasm made me laugh. She was also the queen of unplanned get-togethers. The first time she asked me over, she didn’t put on airs like so many others. She simply kicked off her shoes, uncorked a bottle of inexpensive wine, handed me a glass, then proceeded to gossip about the insurance company office where she worked—conversations that, over time, we called episodes of As the Policies Turn. The important point is that Peg was a true friend, not a casual acquaintance from one of my volunteer committees. A true friend is a rare and precious thing.
The November day she told me she was leaving was dark in more ways than one. Her declaration landed like a fist to my jaw—a rejection of me as much as of George. I’d thought I knew her, but apparently she’d held something back just as I’d been doing. Envy deepened the bruise. Not that I want to flee my home, but her courage at our stage of life cracked open something uneasy in me.
I blame that and the second bottle of wine we guzzled for sparking my compulsive urge, a constant source of turmoil that I’ve had to manage since my late teens. Until Peg’s announcement, I’d rarely slipped up since quitting therapy years ago. Yet suddenly there I was, sneaking the wineglass charm into my purse when she wasn’t looking. That little item is now tucked away in the drawer beneath my feet—hidden but tangible, just like my shame.
I’m about to give up my lookout when two youngish women and a long-haired young man tumble out of the large U-Haul, each straining to carry a rolled carpet. Cupping my hands around my face, I press my nose to the glass to get a closer look. We’ve never had renters on this street. What kind of people would lease a home with peeling paint and neglected flower beds littered with dead rhododendron? Such a shame, that. It’d take so little effort for that Cape to look charming, with its expansive front porch and antique shutters.
“Whatcha you doin’ up there, Wendy?” my husband asks, yawning.
“Oh, Joe!” Startled, I fall backward against the end table that belonged to my great-grandmother, nearly knocking over our son Billy’s high school graduation photograph. My cheeks are hot as I tighten my silk robe’s belt. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people.”
“Hm.” He bestows a warm smile. “Interesting advice coming from the neighborhood spy.”
His genial wink eases the sting of embarrassment. He’s never judged my peccadilloes. They amuse him, which isn’t the worst thing. After all, no marriage survives without humor.
“I’m hardly spying.” I skirt around the end table to cross the living room. “I’m just curious. Did George tell you about his tenants? Are they a family?”
Children’s laughter would offset the otherwise dubious rental situation. How I miss those busy, happy days. The endless sticky hands and kisses. The invigorating rise and fall of my heart with each of my son’s victories and setbacks.
Now there is such silence.
Joe walks toward the kitchen, his iPad in hand, ready for his ninety-minute Saturday-morning ritual of downing three cups of coffee while reading the paper. “He didn’t say.”
Translation: Joe didn’t ask.
Eager for company, I follow him, although I’ve already had my coffee, eaten breakfast, and cleaned up my mess. We’ve been married twenty years, so he’s used to being shadowed. I’m a tracker. I like to ensure that he and Billy are safe, comfortable, and have what they need.
“Can I pour you a cup, too, hon?” he asks.
“No thanks.” I grab the sugar bowl, a teaspoon, and the creamer, and set them on the kitchen table while he finds a mug and pours his coffee. “Would you like some eggs?”
“Not hungry yet, thanks.” Joe sits and sweetens his drink, then turns his iPad cover into a stand for the device and proceeds to open the New York Times app. Before he begins reading, he asks, “What’s on your agenda today?”
It’s been roughly six weeks since we dropped Billy off at Colgate University. Forty-one days that feel like as many months. Not that Joe seems as affected by his absence. Then again, Joe’s life hasn’t undergone a wholesale change like mine.
Older friends swore that we’d revel in reclaiming our lives and spontaneity. I’m still waiting for that promise—one I clung to when hugging my son goodbye—to come true. While the details of our life before Billy are hazy, I treasure my early encounters with Joe’s effortless love and comfortable companionship—an ease that was a first for me.
“Want to drive up to Litchfield? We could hike around Lake Waramaug and then hit that winery.” I rest my chin on my fist.
“Would that make you happy?” He sips his drink, brows rising in question.
Happier than sitting here all day. “The leaves should be gorgeous.”
“Okay. We’ll drive up after lunch.” He nods and then turns his attention to the screen in front of him, falling silent.
I flex my hand and stare at my manicure, which is chipping thanks to the refinishing work I did on the Levys’ armoire last week, determined to brush aside the nagging thought that keeps poking at my figurative ribs. Is this all there is? How many times have I overheard women whining about one sort of midlife crisis or another and sworn to myself it wouldn’t happen to me? Sworn that I’d always be grateful that my married life was so much better than my childhood. And yet here I am, pestered by that irksome question, for which I don’t have even a rhetorical answer.
With a sigh, I place my hands in my lap. Maybe I’ll swing through Burtis Nails after dropping my son’s care package at the post office; then perhaps I’ll pick up a small welcome gift for the new neighbors.
My gaze wanders back to my husband, whose forty-ninth birthday is coming up, not that you’d know it. Regular exercise keeps him trim. He has all his hair, too, although it’s graying pleasingly around the edges. The only change to those deep brown eyes—the kindest eyes I know—is that they’re bracketed now by deep smile lines.
He’s a content man. An honest and committed one who accepts our restricted social lives to help me avoid triggers. He first learned of my problem during our engagement, after I was arrested for palming a sample tube of lipstick at Nordstrom. I was sure the horror would send him running. When he bailed me out of jail, compassionately listened to my teary explanation of my compulsion, and then suggested therapy, I knew he was a keeper. Although I was fearful that confessing would lead to additional arrests, I was more afraid that Joe might end our engagement if I didn’t get help.
I should count myself lucky with him. I do, too, except for one recent and troubling change.
Glancing down at my nightgown—a pretty periwinkle silk negligee trimmed in cream-colored lace—I commit to seduction. As subtly as possible, I loosen the robe’s neckline to expose my pajamas’ lacy bodice as well as my cleavage. Twining a shoulder-length, highlighted lock of hair around my finger, I stretch my foot out beneath the table until it makes contact with Joe and then run it playfully up his shin.
He looks up, confused. “Did you ask something?”
“No.” I aim for a sensual pose, feeling simultaneously vulnerable yet daring. We’re alone. Nothing on the calendar and all the time in the world. “Wanna have a little fun?”
Joe pats my foot, all the while wearing a pleasant smile. “I’m reading, hon.”
I maintain an equally pleasant expression despite the burn of rejection. Not even a twinkle in his eye or a “maybe later” to pacify me. It’s been this way for a few months—as if he woke up one morning without any libido. Worse, he doesn’t seem to miss it. I try not to take it personally or let my mind tumble down the rabbit holes spawned by a community that’s seen its fair share of affairs.
I’ve never before doubted Joe’s love for me, even though gravity and a flagging metabolism have begun to grab hold of my butt, my tummy, and my boobs despite the many long walks, yoga classes, and facials I endure. He delights in my kindness, as well as my effort spent improving everything from our home to the community. And he patiently helps me handle my mother, which is more than my father could muster. Joe couldn’t fake that affection, could he?
Sighing, I rise to go get dressed. “I’m hitting the post office soon. Would you like to add a note to Billy’s care package?”
Joe looks up again. “Isn’t that, like, the fifth box you’ve sent?”
“I know. I’m falling behind.” Last week’s stomach bug ruined my plan to send them weekly.
“Getting care packages from ‘Mommy’ every week could be a little embarrassing.” He eyes me over his coffee cup.
My mouth falls open. “Those boys love the goodies.” My son and his roommate, Craig, live in a shoebox posing as a dorm room, eating mediocre cafeteria food. There’s no way they don’t look forward to my treats. “Just because he’s growing up doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate reminders that he’s loved. Everyone likes reassurances.”
“Okey dokey.” Joe shows no sign of picking up on my hint. Before returning his attention to the news, he says, “If we get home in time, maybe we’ll hit a movie.”
I nod. There’s almost no risk of my impulse causing trouble in a theater since there’s nothing in the lobby to take. “Sounds good.”
On that note, I wander out of the kitchen and down the hallway to the base of the stairs, passing a wall of family photos. Some people have trophies. Others display diplomas and certificates. My family is my legacy. I’ve given my all to these two men, which might explain my growing sense of emptiness.
I’ve daydreamed about turning my refinishing hobby into a business. The before-and-after videos that so-called pros post on Instagram and TikTok confirm I’m as good as any. But working with clients, particularly if working in their homes, makes it too dicey.
Those boundaries became clear during my real estate broker days. When Billy was three, I swiped a drink coaster from an open house. It was a cheap-looking gold-beaded cloth with a mesmerizing royal-blue evil eye in its center. Unbeknownst to me, the set had been a gift from a deceased relative. The homeowners called my agency to complain about the missing one, assuming one of the potential buyers had stolen it. I managed to slip it back the next day, relocating it to a table in another room as if someone had simply misplaced it. Regrettably, it wasn’t the first random item I’d taken from a client’s home.
Horrified, I confessed to Joe, quit my job, and doubled down on therapy sessions for a couple of years with great success. Since then, I’ve arranged my life to minimize triggering and stressful situations. Until last year I’d lost control only a handful of times. Two handfuls, tops.
Upstairs, I hang my robe on its hook and thumb through my closet, which is neatly arranged by color and type. The bathroom sparkles and smells faintly of the Ocean Mist–scented candle set on the ledge of the tub. Peaceful. Pretty. Orderly. If only the rest of the world were as easy to manage.
I change into my favorite pair of dark jeans, a crisp white button-down shirt, and a leather-and- turquoise belt, then fasten my hair into a low twist. When it comes to makeup at my age, less is more. A swipe of pale pink lip gloss and a dash of mascara is enough. I choose silver hoops for my ears, take one last look, then return downstairs to the kitchen pantry, where the care package remains open.
It’s stuffed with brownies baked fresh last night, jalapeño potato chips, Clif bars, a fresh pack of Billy’s favorite mechanical pencils, and a card with a surprise check for fifty dollars. After taping and addressing the package, I pass Joe, who is still seated at the table.
“See you later.” I plant a peck on his head and then grab my car keys from the tray in the small mudroom just off the kitchen.
“Mm,” he grunts as I breeze through the back door.
While pulling out of the driveway, I crane my neck to look for movement next door. The ragtag group is taking a brief water break at the rear of their truck, laughing about something. The only sign of the new occupants is a bright blue MINI Cooper.
Hm. Not a family, then. Dashed hope deflates my lungs.
After mailing the package—where a postal worker named Vicky ribs me about my frequent visits—I swing through the grocery store to pick up a few things, including fresh-cut gerbera daisies. They have roses and lilies, but nothing beats the bright cheeriness of the gerberas. I also pick up a lovely mix of sunflowers, orange roses, and gold cushion poms for my new neighbors. They’ll probably be too tired from the move to cook, so I grab a container of store-made butternut squash soup, which is as good as my own, and a rotisserie chicken. My gesture should make them feel welcomed.
The potential for change—a new friend—excites me. I jiggle my keys, revved and anxious, and hurry down the paper-goods aisle toward the checkout counter. Awareness of the crowd of shoppers in the line should keep me from slipping, but this brewing energy is a warning sign. The
urge has struck more frequently since Billy left—a departure that brought about a swift and unceremonious end to my volunteer work at the high school and with the lacrosse board. An abundance of free time and the anxiety of worrying about his transition have increased the threat to my family’s reputation and possibly to my freedom. For now, I shove my hands in my pockets to be safe.
By the time I return home, the U-Haul is gone. Joe is also out—probably on a run. Good news, actually.
I beeline to the living room, open the bottom drawer of the built-in cabinet, and kneel beside it to pick through the various items I’ve “collected” throughout the years. My secret stash.
Kleptomania—a label I hate to own, but there it is. A much ridiculed and misunderstood condition. My therapist once tried to offset my shame by explaining the difference between it and shoplifting. Shoplifters take something they don’t want to pay for. Kleptomaniacs are compelled to filch things in their immediate vicinity that usually have little to no monetary value. The chance of having this rare impulse control disorder is greater if one’s parent suffers from it or a closely related one. Not great news for Billy, but so far I haven’t detected any hint of trouble in him.
Aside from the initial euphoria of giving in to the urge, I live with immediate remorse. Cognitive behavioral therapy and medication helped, but there’s no cure. I was told it could lessen with age, but my recent behavior suggests that my earlier success was the result not of maturity but rather of my structuring a meticulously buttoned-up life.
Unfortunately, Joe believes I’ve been in complete control since I quit therapy a decade ago— a belief I’ve never corrected. It’s bad enough that I winnow the scope of our lives. Why force him to live on pins and needles about slipups? Constant worry could drive him to bolt like my father did when he tired of my mother’s crippling OCD.
It takes a second to find what I’m looking for—a squatty, square, orange-glass vase—wedged in the back of the drawer. My mother’s, taken six years ago after a particularly unpleasant visit. Now it will be a gift instead of a reminder.
In the kitchen, I fill it with cold water and plant food, then snip the ends of the stems and arrange the flowers to their best advantage. I return to the kitchen pantry shelf that houses my wrapping papers and ribbons. Among the many varieties is a wide, yellow organza wire one that I fashion into a classic bow around the vase. Perfect.
Before I leave the house, it occurs to me that my neighbors will be busy unpacking. Not an ideal time to chat. I pull out a sheet of embossed stationery from the kitchen desk.
Welcome to the neighborhood! We hope these small gifts make your day a little easier. Looking forward to meeting you once you’re settled. Fondly,
Your next-door neighbors, Wendy and Joe Moore
After taping the note to the soup container and packing the food into a recyclable bag, I check my reflection in the microwave’s glass door and then slip out the back with the goodies in hand.
It feels as if I’m floating across the yard as fantasies about whoever has moved in begin to spin. Maybe they’ll be empty nesters like Joe and me, possibly from someplace interesting like Montreal or London. Maybe the wife will be into yoga or paddle tennis. Maybe they’ll enjoy hanging out with us, and by this time next year we’ll be true friends.
Smiling to myself, I trot up the porch stairs, prepared to hand over the goodies and allow them their space.
Resisting the desire to step inside the wide-open door, I ring the bell while a mild pang for Peg tightens my chest. We often sat here commiserating over childhood stories. I would seek advice about dealing with my mom, and she’d lament about her alcoholic father. We bonded in part through the scars and childhood embarrassment our sick parents caused us. Luckily, I’ve spared my son that fate. Ten seconds later, a young woman—thirty-five, tops—comes into the foyer. My pipe dreams scatter like dead leaves in the wind.
She’s quite out of sorts. Her hair—a plain shade of brown that could use both highlights and lowlights—sticks out at all angles, doing nothing at all to complement her sparkling cornflower-blue eyes. Compactly built, she’s dressed in ratty jean shorts and a snug black-and-white long- sleeved T-shirt that says THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE. She tips her head to the left and flashes a winning, broad grin. “Hello there.”
“Hi,” I say dumbly, tearing my gaze from that shirt. “I’m Wendy, from next door.” I gesture with my head while holding up the gifts. “I thought you might appreciate a little food and a welcome gift.”
“Well, that’s unexpected. Thanks.” Her statement almost sounds like a question. She takes the gifts, then can’t shake my hand because hers are full. “I’m Harper. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Same to you.” A fly buzzes between us. “I know you’re busy, so I won’t keep you.”
She sets the bag and bouquet on a table just inside the door and steps onto the porch, clasping her arms behind her and stretching. “I’ve got a minute.”
“Oh.” I’m not prepared for a conversation, but I smile. “So, are you on your own or do you have a, um, partner?”
She crosses her arms, her gaze trailing off. “On my own. Moved from the city.”
People from Manhattan refer to it as “the” city, as if it’s the only one on the planet.
“This’ll certainly be a change of pace.” Although only seventy-five minutes by direct train to Grand Central, New Canaan’s the opposite of that bustling metropolis. I’m curious about her choice, but it’d be rude to question her so quickly.
“We’re a small but mighty community. If you’d like, I’ll give you a list of the best doctors, dentists, and salons in the area.”
“Is everyone here as helpful as you?” Her expression is as enigmatic as her tone.
I choose to treat her question as sincere. “Not always, but this is a friendly street. Peaceful too.”
“Perfect.” Harper lets her hands fall to her sides. “Thanks again for the thoughtful gifts.”
“You’re welcome.” I pause, then add, “You should consider joining the Newcomers’ Club. It’s a great way to meet people in your situation—new to town, I mean.”
It then occurs to me that she’ll stick out in this family-oriented community, populated primarily by married folks with small children and older folks who’ve been here forever. Despite the multitude of restaurants and few bars uptown, there isn’t much of a singles scene, especially if you exclude older divorcées.
“Maybe I will,” she says, glancing over her shoulder through the open door. “I should probably get back to work now, Wendy. Have a good day.”
“Same to you.” I nod. “I look forward to getting to know you better.”
Her expression is friendly as she waves goodbye, then she strides inside where I can’t see her anymore.
When I return to my kitchen, Joe is there, glistening with sweat and gulping down water. “Saw you over at the Durbins’.”
Why didn’t he come introduce himself as well? “I took a little welcome gift to our new neighbor.”
He sets the glass in the sink and wipes his forehead with the hem of his shirt. “Neighbor—singular?”
“Yes. A younger woman. Harper.”
His expression reflects my same sort of surprised curiosity about that fact. “Let’s hope she’s quiet.”
I snicker. It’s such a Joe thing to seek the quiet. He can spend hours in his hammock or puttering around the garden humming to himself, content with whatever the day brings. “I guess we’ll find out.”
He busses me on the cheek. “Gonna go shower.” Sadly, it’s not an invitation. “Then we’ll head to the lake.”
Once he’s gone, I dab his sweat from my face and think about Harper. She’s not what I expected, but perhaps the unexpected is what’s needed to shake off my doldrums. She looks like someone who’ll need help to learn the ropes around here. Someone to perk up her style a little, too. Maybe even to play matchmaker.
I tap my finger to my lips, making a mental list of some of the single men in Joe’s office.
Yes. By Christmas, Harper will be telling everyone that moving next door to us was the best decision she ever made.