To your left your friend Mary pours herself another glass of red. To your right your husband James chops chives on a stained plastic board. Mary laughs at James’s joke. She laughs loudly.
The door in front of you, beyond the cluttered table, is open. It is dark outside. The flowers in the aged polystyrene trough are lit by the kitchen globe. They are impatiens, red, drooping from scraggly stems. A snail climbs towards the flowers up the side of the trough. The flowers are wet. It was raining earlier, but the rain has stopped now. The wooden fence is streaked with water and covered by a nest of dormant branches, some sort of vine. You don’t know what the vine is called, but sometimes you think you should prune it. You can’t get to the clothesline any more, the vine has grown so dense. But you never do prune the vine. Nor do you sweep up the leaves on the path. They are matted and rotting against the concrete. That’s where the snails live.
The air is still. The smoke from Mary’s cigarette draws a straight line upwards, until it gets confused and begins to waver and eddy. She laughs again, her breath disturbing the smoke. James smiles, then speaks some more. His voice is quiet, soft. The knife hits the chopping board with a dull, regular beat.
Mary asks you if she can put some music on. You say yes. She chooses some Tracy Chapman. She keeps the volume low.
Beyond the fence is the back of another house. The roof of the house is rusted iron. The roof of your house is also rusted iron. Earlier, when it was raining, the sound of the water on the roof was so loud that you couldn’t hear what James was saying. He speaks softly. You had to close the door. But now that the rain has stopped, the door is open again. You look at the other house.
There is a man sitting at a desk by the window upstairs. He looks young, but you can’t see his face well, even though his lamp shines on it. The twisted branches of the vine slightly obscure your view. The branches look dead, but they’re not. It is winter.
James scrapes the chopped chives into a bowl. There is lettuce in the bowl, shredded by hand. And cherry tomatoes. James is making a salad.
James and Mary are talking about music. They are talking about a disc you and James lent Mary, a recording of Mozart on original instruments. Mary tells James that she likes the freshness of the sound. She says that it has an edge. You hear the words ‘original’ and ‘edge’, but you don’t hear the other words.
Soon the vine will begin sprouting new green shoots. The shoots will darken into thick leaves. The vine will grow bigger.
Mary asks if she can open another bottle of wine. You say yes. She gets up and goes to the wine rack. She asks if she can open the cabernet. James says yes. He says ‘Sure.’ She sits down again, and attaches the corkscrew to the cop of the bottle. She has no difficulty in opening the bottle. She fills up your glass, then James’s, then her own. You don’t take a sip, not yet.
James asks you something, but you don’t catch what he says and you have to ask him to repeat it. He wants you to pass the vinegar. You pass it to him. James is making salad dressing. You didn’t hear him the first time he asked you to pass the vinegar because you were looking out the door, at the window, at the man sitting working.
The man at the window is working hard. He is writing, and referring to something on the side of the desk. He is concentrating. You can tell that by the tilt of his head.
Mary lights another cigarette.
The snail has reached the rim of the flower trough.
James pours virgin olive oil into the jar with the vinegar. He screws the pepper mill over the mixture. He is talking again. You look up at the window. The man is looking back.
You turn your head towards him, so he can see that you are looking at him. You can’t be sure whether he can see, though, because of the vine. You smile. Mary and James are talking again. Now they are talking about politics. They don’t notice you smiling.
The man smiles back. You turn away and take a sip of your wine.
James says that the salad is ready. Mary asks if she can get the plates. She knows where they are, because she visits often. Sometimes she does the dishes. James says yes.
James pours the salad dressing into the bowl. He uses tongs to toss the salad. Then he puts the salad onto the plates that Mary has brought from the cupboard. Mary and James eat.
Mary and James are not talking now. They are eating. You take another sip of wine, and as you do so you see that the man in the window is looking at you again. Or maybe he is still looking at you.
You don’t know which, because you turned away. The glass is in your hand. You raise your glass while you look at the man. You toast him. He smiles. He waves. You look at James and Mary, but they have not seen. They are talking now. Mary is complimenting James on his salad dressing. They talk about salad dressings.
You think about what the man can see from his window. Perhaps he can see other windows. Perhaps the only view is of your door, and the people sitting in the kitchen, drinking red wine and eating salad.
You pick up your fork and try to puncture a cherry tomato. The tomato is slippery because of the oil in the salad dressing. The tomato slides out from under the fork, and lands on the table. It rolls towards the edge, and you don’t move quickly enough to stop it from falling off onto the floor.
James glances at you. You bend over to pick up the tomato. There is a trail of salad dressing along the lino. A snail trail. As you rake the tomato in your hand you see that Mary has taken off her shoes. She is wearing pantihose. They are blue, a deep navy colour. They have reinforced toes, so the blue is stronger there. One of her feet is against James’s ankle. A blue toe is moving, slowly rubbing itself against the hairs on his leg. The foot quickly moves away from him, and plunges back into her shoe.
You sit up, and put the tomato onto the edge of your plate. The music is still playing.
You look across to the window. The light has gone out. The man isn’t there any longer.
Rain is beginning to fall again. The red impatiens flowers are bobbing as the droplets hit them. Mary asks if she should close the door. You say yes.
Image credit: Francesco Pappalardo