Sometimes, when it’s quiet, I am flooded with painful memories of what my life was like before moving to Poplar Hills. I remember especially the sounds of quiet: crows quarreling in the trees, the drone of bees, the occasional concert by a mockingbird. These were the sounds of peace. And they are absent from Poplar Hills, although I search for them often.
Why are there no crows here? A neighbor— No. Let’s not call him that. He may live next door, but we are not neighbors. Anyway, the one time we ever conversed with one another, he told me that an outbreak of West Nile virus had killed all the crows. I choose not to believe him, even though there are no crows in Poplar Hills. I prefer to think they have better taste than to inhabit a sterile exurb like this.
Oh, sure, the name sounds fine, but there are neither poplars nor hills within at least a hundred miles of this place. Instead, I live in a house that resembles all the other houses on my block and, indeed, in the entirety of Poplar Hills. The houses were all built at the same time by the same company, and the homeowners’ association makes damn sure there are no deviations in terms of paint, trim, roofs, landscaping, and yard ornamentation. If you happen to have a bit too much to drink at a neighbor’s party (not that any of them have ever invited me) and are trying to find your way home, you damned well better remember your own house number.
I guess I should consider myself lucky that the people who live in Poplar Hills make lots of noise. Power mowers and hedge trimmers begin to whine at the first tinge of pink in the eastern sky and only cease their racket at sundown. Basketballs bounce endlessly through hoops on concrete driveways, horns honk as soccer moms pull up to pick up or drop off various children. Car radios blare; music and TV-speak blast through open windows at all hours. Sometimes, loud arguments escalate into full-blown fights, eventually bringing sirens and the ear-splitting blaaat, blaaat of fire engines.
But occasionally it does get quiet—in the early morning hours before dawn, after the teenagers and party-goers have staggered home from their revels and the last car door has slammed, followed by the beeping or pinging of car doors locking and then the high-pitched whine of security alarms before the owners punch in the code to silence them.
It’s only then that I feel it might be possible to rise from my sleepless bed and cross the floor to the window, hoping I might hear an owl hooting in the distance or that I might see a clear sky, knowing there won’t be nearly as many stars as I grew up with, but perhaps the Big Dipper? Orion? That’s when I remember running across the back yard and into the orchard, with you finally catching me and the two of us collapsing onto a bed of sun-kissed grass, bathed in dappled moonlight and surrounded by the scent of apples, our laughter stifled by desire, your hand creeping up beneath my skirt.
There are no stars outside this window. All I see is a haze of yellowish pollution that bathes the street lights in a dirty brown tinge and makes me sneeze.
I’m here because of you. Only because of you. Of course, I’ll never tell you my real opinion of Poplar Hills or how often I think about getting into the car with one suitcase and enough money for food and gas and heading straight back home. Which belongs to someone else now—thus, one reason I won’t run away. The other is you.
You don’t seem to mind the noise, sleeping right through it as though it’s always been a part of our life. But surely there’s something to remind you—when it’s quiet—of home. Of sitting on the screened porch and thinking how lovely it is that the bees’ buzzing is making you sleepy. Of watching the sky outside turn from blue to orange and yellow and sometimes even red and finally to star-dusted black. Of the scent of lilacs in spring, apple pie cooling on the kitchen windowsill, pine trees after rain. I try to forget these things, but I can’t.
I try to forget because of you. And because remembering is so goddamn painful. You have to understand how hard it is, although I will never complain. Can you tell anyway? Do I seem fretful to you? Angry? Afraid?
Or do I hide it all successfully?
What I want to do, since leaving is not in the cards, is re-create some of our former life here—enough to keep me going. Surely, you understand.
I want to plant pine trees in the yard, for example. The homeowners’ association will, of course, object on the grounds that only indigenous plants are allowed in Poplar Hills, all the while ignoring the bald truth that, when this subdivision was created, every single indigenous plant (including poplars, if there ever were any to begin with) was removed and replaced with the developer’s idea of landscaping: acres and acres of grass, the occasional boxwood shrub, ubiquitous beds of pansies or impatiens.
I could bake an apple pie and open my window and set it there to cool, but I seriously doubt that any of the neighbors would notice. Or, if they did notice, it would probably be expressed in terms of “I sure hope you’re not air-conditioning the outdoors.” Anyway, who would eat the damn thing?
I’d like to have a bird feeder, but it, too, would be frowned upon because it would likely attract squirrels— “rats with furry tails,” according to the gal next door. Anyway, birds and bees are out of the question. They go where they please, and obviously they please to be elsewhere. The same is true for sunsets. Although maybe, with the right weather conditions, I could get lucky some day. If so, I bet I’ll be the only one to notice, and it’ll probably make me cry. Because I’ll be remembering the two of us walking down by the water line at the shore, watching that orange disk sink beneath the waves, breathing the salt air tinged with rotting seaweed, knowing that there will be other sunsets, other walks on the beach stretching ahead of us on and on into our golden years.
I doubt that life will ever look that full of promise again, and I worry about becoming bitter. That, too, will be hard to conceal.
See, the thing is, I feel stuck. I remember you showing me the ad in the paper, saying, “A place like this? It would be absolute heaven.”
I remember asking you why, mostly because I loved our farm and also because the house pictured in the ad was new and, to me, lacked personality.
“It’s like starting out from scratch,” you’d explained. “No creaky, leaky place that’s about to fall down around us.”
We fought—even though the farmhouse was old and the floors needed shoring up in places and the roof was on its last legs. We fought because I knew you were right. But I’d grown up in that old house, and I just couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else. Afterwards, I guess I figured it would be something we could discuss, even negotiate, when the time came. And then that option disappeared.
I’m told you could have several years ahead of you, the quality of which is much in doubt—at least to my way of thinking. You can’t talk. You can’t move. You are fed through a tube. The money from selling the farm means that you get the best care possible in the circumstances.
Your parents believe in miracles, but I’m in no position to hold my breath. And, anyway, how dare they? I’m the one who has to—
Well. No use going there.
Mom and Dad say I’m nuts—that you should be in a nursing home so that I can, as they put it, “get on with living.” But you are my life. I know all too well how much you longed to live here. And maybe I’m guilty of seeing that in terms of “last wishes,” which I am so not ready to face. Anyway, I had to do something to help ease your suffering, didn’t I? That’s why you are living—if you can call it that—where you’ve always wanted to.
Are you happy? Do you, too, wonder if Poplar Hills has turned out to be a huge disappointment? Are you wishing you could tell me how, yes, you wanted to live here before that roadside bomb changed our lives forever but that now the irony of not being able to host a backyard barbecue or shoot some hoops with the neighbors or head off to the hardware store on Saturdays is making you even more depressed?
You’ve got to be depressed. Aren’t you? I am. We never saw it coming. We weren’t prepared at all. We never even got a chance to start a family. And now we live in Poplar Hills—if you can call it living.
Goddamn it! Why did they let you live?
And God damn me for even thinking such a thing—for consoling myself with thoughts of escape, for thinking I’ll just crawl into bed and never get up again, for daring to hope that this, too, shall pass. Only when?
Sometimes, when it’s quiet, I can remember that funny laugh of yours that starts somewhere in your belly and bubbles out into the room, making everyone around you join in. I can remember the feel of your hands on my body, the weight of you as we come together. I can almost taste your kisses, hear your sighs, breathe in the heady blend of aftershave and male sweat that lingers on the clothes you used to wear. I can remember our honeymoon in the Costa Rican rain forest and our plans to see Antarctica and the African Serengeti, how we were going to have two point five kids and a dog and, eventually, grandchildren. I can remember far too many joyful moments (and a few angry ones) that made up the fabric of our life before moving to Poplar Hills. And, no matter how hard I try, I can’t forget the heavenly silence that once held both of us in its peaceful embrace.
Now, you have been silenced, and the only thing that might save me is to embrace the noise.
Header image: Vincent van Gogh [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons