There’s a middle-aged woman in a worn-out lawn chair sitting in front of Sandra’s apartment. She’s looking at the garden – her garden, Sandra told me once – and because it’s late summer, the flowers have already fully bloomed and are staring back at her in all their colorful splendor.
I’ve seen this woman many times before. She’s always there. The first time I saw her, Sandra said a polite hello, and whispered to me the building’s gossip: that she’s crazy, a mental-illness, poor thing. Just sits there all day, doing nothing, thinking God-knows-what. She doesn’t look crazy to me. Calm expression, idle fingers, expectant glance. She looks like she’s waiting.
The door is already open, so there’s no need for the key labeled #1, made for someone else, a long time ago. I stand at the foot of the winding staircase, and inhale. It smells different – not necessarily good or bad, just different from my own house, which now that I think about it, doesn’t smell much like anything. But maybe it’s just because I’m used to it. As I climb the stairs, I wonder if Sandra notices these things.
The lights on the second landing come on automatically, prompted by motion-detectors. The hallway is cluttered: an unassembled crib in a big cardboard box, Baby’s First Blanket still wrapped, diapers, diapers, diapers. You’d think Apartment 2B was expecting a baby, but really it had already been born and was living with half of Apartment 2B, elsewhere. Or so Sandra said. I wondered why he hadn’t gotten rid of any of the baby stuff. She shrugged like it was obvious. Because it means something. And you don’t get rid of things until they meant something.
When I reach the third floor, I hear gentle mewing and several kitty claws against a wooden door. I launch key #2 into the lock, and push the door open slightly. A thin tabby and a white cat with black patches are nudging one another out of the way, each trying to poke its head out into the hallway. Behind them, a plump orange cat sits meowing loudly with a bored expression on its face, clearly un-amused. I gently push them back with my left foot and quickly slide into the apartment, shutting the door behind me. The little one gets on her hind legs and stretches out to me, excitedly. I pat her on the head and feel her purr. I cross over to the kitchen, where Sandra had stacked cans of cat food before leaving for Chicago. There’s a note on yellow legal-pad paper next to the can-opener.
I recognize her distinct handwriting immediately. She crosses her Z’s and writes her A’s like a typewriter. And as usual, the letter was unnecessarily long – her parenthetical remarks revealing her off-topic thought processes – even though it was simply meant to convey her gratitude for this favor (and to repeat the instructions for cat-feeding, litter box-cleaning, and plant-watering because she knows as well as anyone that my memory is shit when it comes to big things and only picks up random tidbits, like some offhand comment made in casual conversation).
I rinse out the cats’ bowls and divide a can into thirds, the fork-marks forming an unfinished peace sign. I hear them meow gratefully as I make my way into the living room, where her love for botany manifests itself.
There are plants everywhere: sitting on the wooden floor, lining the tops of bookcases, strewn across the windowsill, covering the television set. I push the foliage of an overgrown fern out of the way, revealing the DVD box-set of every episode of “Friends” known to mankind. I smile to myself, remembering the weekend spent sprawled out on her couch and laughing at their eccentric antics. We wondered what it would be like to be part of a group, to take up more than a quiet corner at the local coffee house, to have to tell more than one person everything.
I wander into Sandra’s bedroom. The dark pink curtains are drawn closed, but the sunlight penetrates the translucent fabric, tinting the four blue walls with a rosy pink wash, leaving the overall impression of purple. My attention is immediately drawn to the giant, smiling Audrey Hepburn in black-and-white. Sandra loves her movies. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Love in the Afternoon, Funny Face – they all end the same way. And the last scenes are always her favorites. I think it has something to do with a last-minute decision to be together after all. She’d never admit it, but she cries every time.
I walk across the room, and the floorboards creak under my bare feet. Sandra’s makeup is laid out neatly on a wooden table: liquid eyeliner, waterproof mascara, and an opened but unused tube of red lipstick that I’d never seen her wear. I wonder what she’s saving it for.
As I walk the perimeter of her room, I’m careful not to touch the walls. They display her love of photography – or memories, maybe. Small, colorful pictures everywhere like stacked bricks, and I smile every time I come across one I recognize.
Coney Island, Winter ’07 – Sandra hugging a towel around my shivering shoulders, upon our completion of the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim
Serendipity 3, Spring ’08 – us in caps and gowns, two frozen hot chocolates being lifted in celebration
New Apartment, Fall ’10 – Sandra surrounded by boxes in an empty, unpainted living room, unsure of which to unpack first
Next to her bed, level with her pillow, there’s a break in the pattern, and the paint is exposed. I touch the empty space with my fingertips, where the dust is collecting, and try to remember what was there. Then a low meowing, and Sandra’s fat orange cat appears in the doorway. He must have strong back legs, because he manages to jump up on a small table in the corner, nearly knocking over a sickly-looking cactus in the process. Sandra must have forgotten about this one.
Intending to move it closer to sunlight, I pick up the prickly potted plant. And then I remember: Arizona, Summer ’09 – Sandra looking happier than I’d ever seen her, a tiny cactus in her left hand, her right enclosed in his. I remember because the photograph’s right there, beneath the dying cactus. After all this time. I wonder why she hasn’t gotten rid of it yet, but then I remember something Sandra said to me once.
Because it means something. And you don’t get rid of things until they meant something.
Katherine Yee, Age 17, Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Silver Key