When I was a kid, my bedroom window faced what I still believe to be the most beautiful alleyway in San Francisco. The alley sloped upwards from our house, which stood at the lower end, with the surrounding neighbors’ driveways and back yards connecting all along the alley’s spine. Our neighbors’ gardens overflowed with camellia bushes and rose trees, edged by fences piled high with climbing morning glories and honeysuckle and clematis. My room was on the second floor, and I could see right into everyone’s back yard. Our neighborhood was mostly full of elderly couples even at that time, and I would watch an old man though a picture window, at the upper end of the alley, slowly mount his stationary bicycle at 6 A.M. every day and stare gloomily into space for an hour while he pedaled. There was a dyed, painted, and very sour-looking lady with silver hair who often worked in her rose garden, and whose livid purple gardening gloves I could see even through the heaviest fog. A little, speedily balding cantor from the neighborhood synagogue used to trot out on sunny afternoons in flowered Bermuda shorts with a plastic lawn chair, and listen to opera music while sunning himself and dreamily turning the pages of a ragged newspaper. Around the time of my thirteenth birthday, the couple next door to us, a truly ancient man who looked entirely constructed of dried papyrus, and a bedridden lady who I had never seen, put the house up for sale. I found out that the lady had died of cancer, and her husband did not want to keep the house. Within a few months another couple had moved in. The man was an uninteresting-looking businessman with a bland face and grey hair, in appearance not unlike the father in “Calvin and Hobbes”. He would shuffle out into the garden on occassion to watch his young wife and two small children play together. Once I was delighted to see him hand his little girl a bottle of beer and let her sip it a few times, but he never again displayed any vestige of personal distinction. I thought his wife quite beautiful, and often wished to peek over our fence and talk to her. She had curly brown hair that fluffed all around her head oddly and made her look like a slovenly angel when the sun shone through it. She wore jeans and men’s shirts, was wonderfully tall, and her lean arms and neck were covered in freckles the color of pupils in sepia photographs. My favorite thing about her was that she would sometimes pause over her children, who were docile and blond like Golden Labrador puppies and only rarely whimpered for attention, and she would gaze for a long time up into the sky. There wasn’t anything up there to see, except clouds. I made sure to lean out the window and follow her line of sight several times, and there was never an aircraft or a bird or a stray balloon to watch. I thought that she looked up into the sky to use it as a blank canvas to receive the rich artistry of a profound imagination.
During my earlier childhood (say, ages five to eleven) I was bold in the use of our alley. I visited the neighbors and peered over their fences until they complained to my mother, and made friends with all the cats and dogs who frequented the neighborhood. I built a structurally unsound go-cart out of wood and wagon parts with my father and sped down the alley, crashing deliberately into garage doors when I frightened myself by going too fast. In the evenings, I liked to blow up an old balloon and use a Ping-Pong paddle to keep it from falling to the ground, bumping it gently into the air every time to catch the golden light from the sunset. My parents sometimes allowed me to earn five dollars by washing their car, a job I executed poorly but thoroughly. On weekends I put on a leotard, a homemade set of cat ears, and a tail I later learned was meant to be part of a rat costume, and climbed over our fence and up the alley to wander around the neighborhood by myself, meowing when mothers with strollers and men walking dogs looked at me strangely. The majority of this boldness vanished during the year that I was twelve, after which I preferred to read and draw and write, and watch the daily activity of the alley in the safety of my room.
So by the time the young wife moved in next door, it was too late for me to just lean over the fence and say hello to her. I had grown shy, and my peculiarities as a little kid began to catch up with me in high school. It was the 90s, and I felt bewildered with my classmates’ obsessions with dating and fashion and modern music. I bungled my way through 18th century philosophy books while the other kids watched MTV. While the computer nerds learned how to code in the dank computer lab, and the potheads were stealing bites of a piece of space cake in the bathroom, and a blond boy with eyeliner was kicked out of his mother’s house, I wandered around the little garden behind the music room, gnawed on unripe pomegranates, and pretended I believed in tree spirits and fairies. Although I never excelled in much besides art and English literature, my teachers seemed to find me refreshing after having to suffer through the petty sea of hormones and impulsive thinking that largely constitute up the lives of teenagers. I don’t think that I was really less superficial than the other kids; I simply had no group of friends. Quentin Crisp once said that no one is boring who will tell the truth about himself. I agree, and the fact is that people of any age behave more honestly when they are alone.
By the time I was fifteen I was desperate to make contact with an outside world of which I knew even less than most fifteen-year-olds. The Internet had just begun to rise from the primordial ooze, and I ventured into AOL chat rooms, armed with not-quite-clever-enough lies and a murky soup of desires that I was unable to articulate even to myself. After sneaking out of bed late one night and watching a gangster movie in which a house was set ablaze from a flaming brick hurled into a parlor window, I got the idea to start sending my young neighbor anonymous notes. I began to write terrible poetry. It wasn’t blank verse about love or being a misunderstood genius, and it wasn’t a poor imitation of an admired writer, all of which I understand is the usual literary output of teenagers. Therefore I did have the merit of being original. What made my poetry awful was an overly wordy, melodramatic style, combined with truly radioactive levels of self-importance (these are not terrible qualities by themselves, but combined they make for some seriously clumsy and pedantic writing).
I don’t think that my notes ever frightened her. My romantic attentions were entirely taken up by a tomboyish blond girl at my school who had a lumbering boyfriend who looked just like her (a truly impressive obsession that I was far too cowardly to reveal to anybody at the time), and even then I had a fairly good sense of how to, at the very least, appear to respect personal space. I never wrote about myself, or about her or her family, or made any oblique references to love or sex. I simply wrote imaginative poetry about dreams, metaphors, philosophy, or the bits and pieces of abstract physics, which I picked up on the sly while I was supposed to be studying Newtonian mechanics. I would write to her on a piece of lined paper, fold it up carefully into an airplane, and send it sailing into her yard, always under cover of night. I never knew if she read them. The planes usually sank out of sight beyond the fence, and I never saw her pick one up. She continued to dreamily alternate between watching the sky and watching her children play in the garden, for three more years. I then went to college, and when I came home after my first semester, she and her family had moved away.
Although my poetry was forgettable (except for a single line that I recall, about children praying to the ceiling through closed eyes), I had never written such private things to anybody in the world before. I was a fairly secretive child and had been an outrageous liar when younger (I once stubbornly insisted to my entire cabin at summer camp that I had grown up on a farm where there were nine cows named after the Greek Muses, several ostriches and a monkey named Lester). At fifteen, I discovered that what I really wanted was to be understood. I believed that my young neighbor and I thought similar thoughts and saw similar visions. I imagined that she would find my white, lined airplanes, and be secretly delighted that the sky she stared up at so often had finally yielded strange gifts meant only for her. I believed that she would see herself in my poems, and that they would be little passages communicating intellectual kinship and solidarity, that when she would lie awake next to her boring husband, or fix breakfast for her vapid, blond, puppy-children, she would feel that there was someone else in the world who thought as she did.
Oh, the solipsism of youth. But you see, I never knew for sure. I never spoke to her. I have thankfully developed many gratifyingly material relationships with the outside world, which has in return grown from a mere macrocosm of myself into a universe of previously unimagined proper nouns. Nevertheless, my experience of being a creepy teen that watched my young neighbor and sent her paper airplane poetry was my first lesson in how to be an artist. Many begin their lives learning how to blend gracefully into shared social habituation and normalize themselves to the lives of those around them. Like me, many do not begin this way. We usually find, later, some other way to make contact, from the inside out. As though I had travelled deep into the Arctic Circle and discovered there among the icebergs a perfect replica of my own room, I suddenly realized what an artist was, and that I was one. It would be about ten more years before I began to shake myself free of my reluctance to leave the safety of my loneliness, and now, nineteen years later, I can say with complete, self-aware honesty that I have indeed discovered my own dear room in the howling, icy wilderness, in the shape of my community and my partners and my ever-increasing sphere of friendships.
I would like to thank my young neighbor, wherever she is now, for being the recipient of my writing. C/O neighbor woman, golden brown hair, freckles.