We really only spoke over the fence. But she was more of a friend than friends were at the time.
She lived in the house behind mine. All those years ago, a carport stood where my master bedroom now sits. If you walked to the back of the carport, past the rotting wood eaves, peered through the dirty screen and over the chain link fence, you would stare into Jane’s backyard.
She was a mail carrier and worked odd hours. We met briefly over the fence line when I moved in. She was pleased I wasn’t a renter because people in the neighborhood had a tendency to come and go. She’d been a resident for 16 years.
She wasn’t an attractive woman. She bleached her hair platinum blonde, and it contrasted harshly against the pockmarked, tan leather of her skin. No nonsense and coarse talking, she lived alone. When I first moved in, my hair was long and blond. Her appraisal of me that first time over the fence immediately let me know Jane was an unapologetic lesbian.
The next time I saw her, two months later, I was bald.
When that happened, my new favorite spot became the back of the carport. I placed a rocking chair, a small plastic table, and an ashtray there. At night, I’d rock, hidden in darkness with no head covering, and chain smoke my way through nausea, night terrors, and insomnia.
It was 2:00 a.m. when she appeared over the fence.
“What happened to you?”
“I got sick.”
She let a low whistle out from under her breath. “Now, that sucks balls. Big time. You’re in for a long, hard haul, Baby.”
I smiled because I was accustomed to commentary along the lines of “Oh, you’re going to beat this” and “God has a plan,”and my favorite, “Try to see it as a gift to make you realize what’s important.”
“You’re a hot bald chick. And I hang out with a lotta bull dykes, so . . .”
Again, I smiled. A rarity those days.
“Well, you know where to find me. If you need me. We ladies have to stick together.” And she walked back into her house.
A storm was brewing out in the Gulf. Our city hadn’t taken a direct hit since the 1930’s, but the news said it was headed our way. The night before, I walked outside because I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about the tree in Jane’s backyard.
It’s called a Costa Rican Monkey Ear Tree, and it’s got to be at least 200 feet tall. The monkey ears refer to the hard fig shells attached to the branches. They’re black and shaped like a monkey’s ear. When they fall, they’re hard enough and high enough in the air that if they pelt you in the head, they hurt.
In a neighboring city, there’s a tree that’s 200 feet tall and is listed on the register as historic; Jane’s tree is much bigger and thicker in diameter than that one, and it’s not listed on any registry. When the windows are open, I hear eerie screeches and growls, which lead me to believe there are species of animals and insects living in it that have yet to be discovered. It reminds me of the Swiss Family Robinson Tree house. If it falls, it will take out the surrounding houses. But it’s more than that: the roots are so far reaching, they break through the cement of the sidewalks down the street. If Jane’s tree goes down, it’s taking half the neighborhood with it.
It was 3:30 a.m. the morning before the storm. Giving up on sleep, I left bed and went outside. I found Jane standing underneath the tree, looking up at its colossal vastness in the darkness.
Over the fence, in my night gown, I said quietly, “I can’t sleep either. I can’t stop thinking about your tree.”
Without looking at me, she said, “There’s nothing we can do. Worrying won’t change it.”
“I’m still worried.”
“It’s been here for a hundred years, Baby. It will be here long after we’re gone. The tree will win.”
Slightly soothed, I went back to bed.
The storm would take a turn and hit the middle of the state. We would still get residual effects. The next day, when I looked out the window through the sheets of rain and wind, every tree in Jane’s yard was down.
Except her Monkey Ear Tree.
Luckily, our houses wouldn’t sustain damage. Though Jane’s wooden deck was destroyed. When the rain stopped, four of her girlfriends—burly, no-nonsense ladies–came over with a chain saw and cleared out the damage. Jane sent them over to clean up my yard as well.
She would rebuild that deck herself. While she measured and cut the wood boards on her work table with perfect precision, I watched her over the fence, wishing I could love her like I sometimes loved men.
I was in the carport getting tools out of the utility closet.
I heard that low whistle and then, “Jesus, Baby. You got FAT.”
I smirked at the familiar voice and looked up. “I’m pregnant.”
“No shit. How did that happen?”
“A pitcher of margaritas.”
She paused, “I don’t mean to intrude. But didn’t Progesterone try to kill you?”
She was quiet, as she leaned down to pick at some weeds through the fence. Throwing them behind her shoulder, she said “Well, I guess some risks are worth taking.”
“I’ll go back on treatment after she comes.”
“Sounds like a plan. A girl . . . Woot. Good for you. Well, you know where to find me if you need me. Us ladies need to stick together.”
I was pushing the stroller in front of her house. The walks were the only thing that calmed the girl down. She did nothing but scream for the first eight months. She wouldn’t sleep through the night for two years. I was back on treatment, working full time, exhausted, and sick all the time.
“Wow. She’s got some lungs. Come up here. Let me see her,” Jane yelled from the swinging bench on her front porch.
I pushed the stroller up and sat down next to her on the swing.
“She sure is a pretty thing,” she cooed, peering into the stroller.
“She has reflux. Bad.”
“You look horrible, Baby.”
“He doesn’t help you.” It wasn’t a question.
We sat in silence, swinging; Jane taking occasional pulls from her can of Budweiser.
“Let me watch her for a little while. Go sleep.”
My voice broke, and tears pricked my eyes.
“I can’t, Jane,“ I said. “She screams. She turns blue sometimes. She projectile-vomits. She’s the fucking Exorcist.”
“Meh. She sounds like my mother. Go get some sleep. You’re sick.”
Three hours later, I was at her door. Guilty. But feeling better.
“Was she horrible? Did she scream the entire time?”
“Yes,” said Jane. “She’s a beast. Worst. Baby. Ever.”
But her smile was so wide, it made her face look like a puckered leather hand bag.
I was getting in my car.
“I sold the house today.”
I froze. Looked over the fence. She was standing underneath the tree with her hands on her hips, looking up.
“My mom’s sick. I’m moving her in with me. Closer to where she lives and the hospital. It will be easier to get her in and out of a condo. Less maintenance. I love this house. But it’s too old. Renovations to make it handicap accessible would cost too much.”
A lot of people have left. I’ve never asked one to stay.
She looked down at the ground. Kicked one of the huge roots of her tree.
“I’ll miss you, you know.”
“I’ll miss you, too, Jane.”
I got in my car and cried all the way to work.
I rarely talk to the new neighbors. Though they’ve lived there for years.
Call me irrational. Silly. Pigheaded.
But I don’t like them.
Because it will never be their tree. It will never be their fence.