Olivier Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
You used to leave me foil-wrapped paper plates of leftover fish dinners on the grey, moss-flecked wall separating our homes. I thought your cat might appreciate some miso-glazed sea bass. This, you would text on a random Tuesday evening. At first, you thought I was vegan like my husband and focused on the nutritional needs of Mr. Fleas. But when I confessed how much I loved the way you poached salmon with leeks, you left double portions of fish on the wall with increasing frequency. Delicious! So thoughtful!
Thank you! Each time I thanked you, I never mentioned that Mr. Fleas preferred fish from a can. Instead, I ate the double portions of grilled sea bass and poached salmon and seared tuna and wondered why you loved my cat so much. Mr. Fleas was religious about avoiding humans who did not live with him, even though he jumped the wall in his young punk days to sample your Connie’s canine kibble and take naps on your superior outdoor chaise lounge. You didn’t really know him but you loved him from a distance and somehow gained a crystalline understanding of his essence. This, apparently, was your superpower.
One evening, as I did the dishes, you waved to me from your side of the wall, where you were sweeping up leaves that had fallen from my eucalyptus tree. I opened my kitchen window to apologize for the recent earsplitting battles between Mr. Fleas and a grey, interloping tabby my husband and I wished we could rescue but instead nicknamed Nemesis. Mr. Fleas came home limping two nights ago from a Nemesis altercation and has been depressed ever since, I explained, to which you answered: “Of course he is. This is his universe.” You gestured to my desiccated sliver of yard, its saving grace the eucalyptus tree, and I marveled at your empathy.
By the summer of 2017, empathy had disappeared from most of Venice. You couldn’t buy it at Erewhon, where employees from Snapchat congregated outside with their eco-friendly takeout boxes of cruciferous vegetable and beet-based lunches from the hot bar and posed for selfies next to the homeless encampment that sprawled for two blocks on Venice Boulevard. I tried but failed to glimpse it in the faces of the drivers who blitzed through the four-way stop intersections as if motoring on the Autobahn, assailing my pedestrianism with volleys of expletives. Once, I tried to solicit it from the architect who demolished the affordably priced cottage next door to my home and built a McMansion that got sold to an NBA player who visited twice a year and otherwise used it as a vacation rental. “Have you ever lived next door to construction?” I had asked her, whereupon she fake-smiled, shrugged and said, “It’s Venice.”
I thought you had saved yourself, leaving before the pandemic. What timing!
This, I would say to my husband about you and Diane as we tiptoed through our neighborhood and tried to avoid collisions with the unmasked joggers, skateboarders, scooter riders and cyclists whizzing past us at hair-length distances as if it was February 2020. We walked and walked, lamenting your absence and how all our other neighbors did not fit the blue versus red narrative of pandemic compliance. We tried to exhaust ourselves with physical exercise so we could sleep but instead became consumed with the question that transcended national politics and vexed us without cessation.
Why are there so many assholes?
Even when you still lived here, I wandered the streets of our neighborhood in search of a community that no longer existed. I passed by homes and businesses festooned with graffiti and sidewalks drowning in trash heaps and heard the screams of tent residents enmeshed in domestic disputes. I challenged pleasure-seeking tourists joyriding scooters and bikes on narrow sidewalks to move to the street before I did and almost always lost that battle. I drifted past sullen locals who avoided neighborly eye contact and felt unwarranted nostalgia for my younger self. Younger me loved this neighborhood because she only smelled the sea salt air and heard birdsong and bought the best strawberries every Friday at the local farmers market. Younger me used to buy bananas for the 50-something woman with burn scars on her arms who could reliably be found slumped near the entrance of Windward Market. The woman always accepted the fruit and that was enough but then I grew older and I could see how the woman’s eyes burned with a different monologue even though her lips said “God Bless You.” You think a banana is going to help? I have four kids in foster care, third degree burns all over my body because my ex-boyfriend dumped a pot of hot water on me and I’ve been homeless for four years. Thanks for the potassium though! You can go home now and feel good about yourself.
With each block I walked, I tried to take stock of all traumas and disappointments: the lifelong and recent, the personal and collective. But these efforts only intensified the feeling I did not want to identify as middle-aged despair. And then, I would walk home, open my front gate and greet you. You were always outside, tending to your numerous plants and flowers on your front lawn and back patio. You always smiled at me and when I complained about the assholes, you always tried to point out something positive. What about the squirrels that beg for their breakfasts on our shared wall or the Quaker parrots that visit your tree? Are you well and is your family well and hasn’t Mr. Fleas seemed more cheerful these days after chasing Nemesis out of his yard? Yes, you’re right, I would say and marvel at the perennial sunniness of your disposition.
We knew that your bathroom window faced my kitchen window but no one ever talked about this. Sometimes, as I washed the dinner dishes, I succumbed to cinematic cliché and watched you take a shower. Through the frosted glass, I could only see your silhouette from the waist up. Clearly, this was a metaphor for something, but I kept choosing math over literature as I fruitlessly tried to count how many times I had watched a film or TV show where neighbors spied on neighbors until something else happened.
They showed up one day in 2017 with a bulldozer without giving us the advance notice that I had requested. The noise shattered my cats’ nervous systems and you didn’t think I was crazy when I theorized that Lavinia literally died from fright. As I mourned the loss of my beloved indoor cat and prayed that the indoor/outdoor Mr. Fleas would survive, termites from the crushed cottage migrated to my wooden home in pestilential mobs. In the meantime, they hastily erected a construction fence, punctured my sewer line and made false claims about property boundaries to avoid paying us for the damage. Cockroaches suddenly made grand entrances on staircases and pillows and I began jolting awake every morning at 6:54 a.m., dreading the impending 7 a.m. auditory assault of machinery. I never told you how much I appreciated your tolerance for my abundant complaining about my declining quality of life whenever I saw you. You only smiled at me like you always did and suggest that we enjoy some wine and cheese in your yard. Your wife did not drink wine and my husband did not eat cheese but I was too depressed back then to intuit most types of subtext.
Once, I came home to the sight of you in our alleyway, bare chested and hosing off the debris that had rained on your car because of the stucco-spraying project at the construction site. I wanted to inspect the multiple tattoos on your arms but didn’t know how to conduct that kind of intel in a way that would protect us both. Instead, I accepted your offer to wash my car since you were washing yours. Earplugs, you told me as you hosed off the body of my filthy silver-grey Honda Civic to the sound of the stucco sprayer. And pot.
In our neighborhood, we didn’t really have neighbors, only transients. You could easily identify the ones surrounded by their Samsonite or Rimowa carry-on bags, unlocking security-coded doors to renovated vacation rentals, and those forced to relocate their tents to a different sidewalk on a haphazard basis, dependent on when the sanitation department decided to street sweep. People who did not live near us walked past our homes en route to the beach and thought nothing of leaving their beer cans, leftover ranch sauce and crumpled sandwich wrappers on the ground by our front gates. Sometimes, we found discarded needles and syringes or a mound of human feces decorated with fragments of toilet paper deposited at either our front or back gates. Everyone was just passing through so it seemed, except for us, which made us the pioneers in hoarding bleach, disinfectant wipes and latex gloves so that we might mitigate environmental degradation and disease-causing pathogens in the hopes of surviving another day.
I loved that we safety texted each other when someone forgot to close their garage door or if we saw people smoking meth in front of our driveways. I was so grateful that Sunday morning when we opened our garage doors at the exact same time, saw the burning trash can across the alleyway and put out the fire together using my hose and your bucket. And when my husband traveled for business, you reminded me that I could call you if the screams in the alleyway sounded too close or if someone refused to stop ringing my doorbell at four in the morning for the hell of it.
My husband traveled and your wife worked late and so mostly, it was you and me against the big, bad neighborhood.
We never really talked about the night I came home after a late dinner with a friend and found you standing on your side of the wall as if waiting up for me. My husband had already been out of town for a week so you knew that I was alone. When I asked how you were, you extended your hand over the wall. Your large hazel eyes looked red-rimmed, glassy and devoid of your perennial sunniness but the smell of pot deterred me from considering that you might have been crying.
I grabbed your hand and you wouldn’t let go. I told myself it was the pot and tried to revert to the way we were. I told you that someone is sleeping in my side yard because of that new gap between my house and the construction site. I released your hand while your eyes became luminous with purpose. You insisted on showing me a piece of wood that languished in your garage but might fit the gap. Meet me in the alley, you said. It was two minutes to midnight.
I accepted your kind offer to install the piece of wood so that I might be protected against the next trespassing meth addict. Of course we wanted to help the homeless but we also wanted to feel safe in our beds and stop formulating safety plans in case someone broke through a window at three in the morning. In the darkness of the alleyway, we acknowledged our shared front seat to deep human misery and then your lips found mine for an open mouthed kiss, no tongue. My mind screamed with question marks and you hugged me for a little too long and all I could say was, thank you for being such a great neighbor!
In the morning, I treated the night before like a dream because next-door neighbors only start kissing each other on TV and I couldn’t remember watching a show where a handsome man wants to kiss a perimenopausal woman in the throes of a midlife crisis.
You told me that we were like one big family, living practically on top of each other like that for 10 years. You told me that you knew me without having to know me, which I initially deemed ludicrous. You told me that my flavor of suffering wafted over our shared wall for you to inhale and absorb into your bloodstream if you didn’t take the proper precautions.
Stop, I wanted to say to all of it. You love the idea of me, the way I love that you’re French because I traveled to Paris when I was 20 and fell in love with a boy who loved someone else.
But I did love that you were French, in the way that I loved watching you tinker with your motorcycle and your general mechanical aptitude and how you left pieces of breakfast toast on our wall for the squirrels. I loved listening to you converse in French with your grown children when they visited and that you spoke English with an accent and made amazing vegetable quiches and installed French shutters on your bedroom window. I loved that you lingered at my New Years Eve parties even if Diane went home early so my friends could be charmed by you. “Oh yeah, your French neighbor…” they would trail off with a collective gleam in their eyes and I would beam with neighborly pride and urge them to try your spinach and mushroom quiche.
I didn’t know that you watched me at my parties, committing to memory the outfits I wore. All those black cocktail dresses and high heels. My smeared eyeliner and tousled hair. How drinking wine and playing hostess denuded me of the fear and suffering I wore almost daily like a heavy coat and allowed you to see who I might have been.
All eras end. You lived in LA for 16 years and then you didn’t while I remained behind, sitting at the top of my staircase so I could peer out the window facing your now vacant backyard. Your landlord junked your beautiful outdoor furniture and French shutters and remodeled your home with fresh bathroom tiles and a new washer/dryer but I could still feel your presence. For five months during the pandemic, no one lived next door, which meant you still did. But first, you and Diane threw a going away party.
Goodbye crime, grime, homeless encampments, tech bro douchebags, greedy real estate developers and littering party animal tourists! When I asked you why Boulder, Colorado, you politely explained that Diane’s entire family lived there. But you seemed happy and celebratory and piled my plate with slices of the vegetarian quiches that you prepared.
You too shined as a party host and treated everyone with equal amounts of hospitality. I honestly thought our moment in the alleyway had passed, never to be repeated. But I kept drinking red wine and so did you and my husband left the party early because he was training for a half marathon the next morning. You entertained your other party guests while I conversed with Diane for at least an hour. We had a great conversation! I see why you married her!
I rose from your comfortable sofa that you planned on leaving in the alleyway and hugged Diane goodbye. Good luck in Colorado, I said. Go find Olivier, she said. He’ll want to say goodbye too.
It seemed perfectly ordinary for you to accompany me outside. I told you how much I would miss you, that you were the only real neighbor I had in Venice and that I didn’t think I would meet another neighbor like you. I kissed you on the cheek and we hugged and you whispered: “I feel something for you. I’m not supposed to say it but I do.”
I stared at you and remained silent. “We like each other, don’t we?”
And then your tongue was in my mouth. I felt your urgency and your need and maybe some sadness that lived inside you for I don’t know how long. When you withdrew, I remained silent and also shocked and yes, a little bit titillated.
“I’m sorry,” you said.
“I didn’t stop you,” I said.
Which you interpreted as permission to kiss me again with the same messy urgency.
“I’m sorry,” you said again and fled into your house.
I loved that you were French and so I succumbed to stereotypes and misinterpretations. You were French and so I expected you to be a smooth operator kisser, not someone with lips and tongue that tasted of grief and naked longing. You were French so I imagined that maybe you and Diane had some kind of understanding or don’t ask/don’t tell policy. You were French so when you returned to LA at the beginning of the pandemic to collect the rest of your belongings and officially vacate your home, I became a flushed, awkward adolescent after I read your text. You texted me as if it was still February 2020, informing me that you would be in LA for a few days and that you would love to see me. You let me know that you had a hotel room near the airport but you were French and so I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. You didn’t live in LA anymore and didn’t know that the city had recently closed the beaches.
But I only saw you briefly, cleaning up debris from your yard that would soon belong to someone else. I had returned home from grocery shopping with my husband and we all exchanged brief, stilted pleasantries and then I looked at my husband, who understood and excused himself. I was American so maybe you assumed that my husband knew nothing about the kissing.
We took a few moments to stare at each other without referencing the past. And then you said you would be here all weekend and I said that it was nice to see you, whereupon I fled into my home to unpack my groceries.
Even now, I don’t regret that I declined your offer to visit you at your hotel. But I do wish you knew that in the months when I saw no one except for my husband, I would drink red wine in my living room and imagine us in some dark, crowded, post-pandemic bar, where we sat thigh to thigh in a private candlelit booth and briefly lived lives that did not belong to us.
I never asked why you waited nine months to call me so you could finally unburden yourself. But when you did, you didn’t waste time on pleasantries.
I know this sounds fake but I miss two things about LA. The beach and you.
You painted your new life in Colorado in only the broadest of brushstrokes. How you live in a beautiful home three times the size of your former Venice bungalow. How you can sunbathe in the nude and no one can see you in your spacious backyard. How your dog keeps you company but otherwise, it’s kind of lonely living in a place that’s chock full of your wife’s relatives.
You told me that you were attracted to me from the beginning and that until the night you kissed me, you had never cheated on your wife. You were shocked when I told you that my husband knew everything and that you couldn’t imagine discussing anything of the kind with Diane. I told you that I had only thought of you as my neighbor until the night we met in the alleyway. I told you that it was…shocking. I think you liked that because then you said that you really liked kissing me and hoped to do that again sometime.
And then, you altered what existed between us one more time. You said, “I love you.”
You said, “I wanted you to know. I didn’t want to die and have you not know.” And I could only say in return, “It’s better to say these things than not say them.”
I wanted you to hang up first but you wouldn’t do this. Afterwards, I tried but failed to visualize the size and shape of your heart.
Five months after you left, the new next-door neighbors arrived. Three men in their 30’s with maybe seven vehicles between them. They all worked for the scooter outfits and their driveway is now a 24-hour loading zone. We have to constantly ask them to move their cars and trucks that block our driveway but because this pales in comparison to construction noise and migrating termites and ruptured sewer lines, we ask them nicely. There’s a Doberman patrolling their yard, now a sterile parking lot for the scooters, and at first I worried about Mr. Fleas but he’s getting on in years and doesn’t try to jump the wall anymore. When I do the dishes and see a silhouette in your former bathroom, I immediately avert my eyes. Of course I think about you, wishing I said something different on the phone. How every day I feel your absence and miss what we shared together. How I was attracted to you too but I ultimately could not see you the way you saw me. How for me, love has evolved into the definition of knowledge and I’ve known my husband for a very long time.
I’d like to think this would have helped but maybe not.
You never tried to contact me again, which I thought I understood. You were already a memory and an absence both quotidian and existential when I ran into Jean Paul, the other French neighbor who lived down the street. He had kept in touch with you until the end. You lived next door for a decade and yet I knew nothing about your flavor of suffering and how it tormented you in between tending to your plants and walking Connie and cooking luscious meals in your kitchen. But you knew about mine. This, apparently, was your superpower.
I tracked down Diane, who told me you at least left a note. He was always fond of you, was all she said about the history of you and me. She told me that our Venice neighborhood had eaten you alive and then your beloved Connie had died and that no amount of Colorado living could remedy who you had become.
I still sit at the top of my staircase so I can peer out the window facing your former backyard. I stare hard at the scooters, identical in size and shape, until they melt and morph into the shrubs and flowers of the past. I see a young punk Mr. Fleas prowling the wall, unafraid of Connie, and there you are, feeding toast to the squirrels at eight in the morning. Are you well and is your family well? You smile at me and I realize that nobody asks me this anymore.
You extend your hand from across the wall and I grab it. This time, I try to grasp your flavor of suffering, but without comparing it to my own. I see you, I whisper, as if that changes anything, as if I can still bestow a parting gift that you might receive somewhere, someday.
Susan Josephs is a Los Angeles-based writer. Her prose has been published in over a dozen publications including the Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Forward, ARTnews, LA Weekly and the Chicago Tribune. Her short fiction has been published in Fleas on the Dog and Lilith and she’s the author of five plays that have received either full productions or staged readings in New York and Los Angeles. Susan’s debut novel Accidental Friends will be published by Bedazzled Ink in October 2023.