Sheila, my upstairs neighbor, sat on the roof deck and flicked her cigarette lighter. Our old brick building has five floors, two units per floor—left, right. I’m 2L. She’s 3R. She wore her bathrobe over a T-shirt and shorts and had on rubber slide sandals with thick knee-high socks. The notice lay on the patio table, creased like a mosaic, recently uncrumpled. We’d all gotten the leaflet in our mailboxes: building sold, all tenants out by the end of the year.
“What will you do, Mel?” Sheila asked, no greeting necessary.
The news wasn’t a total surprise. In the years since the kids moved out, the once-open harbor view had become cluttered. Just a few streets away, the cranes, electric yellows and reds, streaked the sky like fireworks on Independence Day. Not so American, though—they had German or Chinese names along their beams. They glided over the bay toward the harbor, migrating like their bird counterparts, but without instinct or season. These cranes stayed through the winter and, instead of nests, they built a parking garage and a skyscraper-in-progress, soon to be the city’s tallest.
“Luxury condos.” Sheila clicked the lighter like a metronome. “Luxury! In this neighborhood!” I hadn’t answered her earlier question, but it didn’t matter.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“Forty years.” She shook her head. “Got my first job at DeMoulas, thought I’d stay two years, maybe five. And here we are. You know.”
I nodded. “Twenty-six for me. Marty and I moved here just after we got married. Wasn’t so ‘luxurious’ then.” I made air quotes with my hands like I’d seen the kids do.
“I’d like the luxury of staying in my own home.”
I leaned on the railing to take in the view. Down the block, I saw the former diner, famous for plentiful five-dollar breakfasts, was now a juicery that poured ten-dollar beverages. Next door, the old barbershop turned pet boutique, where grooming services were fancier than my wash-and-cuts. In the distance, the downtown skyscrapers, the harbor and its bobbing sails. Beyond, the rest of the world arrived and left in low-flying planes.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“Wherever will have me.”
I looked toward the cranes. “Maybe I’ll go to China,” I said.
“You speak Chinese?”
I spoke maybe ten phrases of Spanish, back when I worked as a bank teller and helped new arrivals open accounts. Cuanto quieres depositar? Firme aqui, gracias.
“No,” I said.
Sheila chuckled, then pointed to the half-built tower that already blocked our sightlines. “If I arrived here today, not knowing what it had once been… Would you want to live here now?”
“I do live here now,” I said.
“You know what I mean.” She lifted the paper and brought the lighter close. “Isn’t it crazy to not even recognize your own neighborhood?”
“And that it doesn’t recognize you, either.”
I took the paper from Sheila and reread it. I hated that it told me what to do. “A big message from a flimsy messenger,” I said. I smoothed it out, then began to fold it again. “When the kids were little, we took an origami class. Enrichment – that was the program name at school.” Muscle memory kicked in, and I folded the paper, over and over, until it was a crane. I placed it on the deck railing. “There. I like that version better.”
“So do I,” Sheila said.
I looked at the paper crane’s counterparts in the distance and felt earnestly worried. Where was I going to live? Who starts over at my age?
Sheila saw my expression change. “What is it?”
The cranes swiveled like slow-motion sprinklers. If I didn’t know what they were doing, I might have found them beautiful.
I thought for a moment. “You know, for many years, I didn’t think of home as a place—home was people. Marty, the kids. But since Marty passed and Luca and Arabella moved out, I don’t think that’s true. My apartment, without my loved ones—it’s now my loved one. But just like them, it was never really mine. I can’t keep it, any more than I could keep them.”
“Maybe it’s your kids’ turn to keep you.”
“No,” I said. “They’re young. Not to say I’m unwelcome…but there’s no space for me.”
“Your kids got kids?”
“Just wait. Then they’ll be thrilled to have you.”
I looked out to the water. “When I move, I’ll have to leave Marty.”
Marty, scattered over the harbor where he used to take the kids fishing. On those outings, they’d be gone all day. When they got home, they’d fall asleep early. At the time, I’d relished those extended days to myself, not realizing they were a preview of middle age. Now, solitude is the norm. What I longed for then is what I have now, and vice versa.
Sheila picked up the paper crane and held it in her palm, then put the lighter back in her pocket. The temperature was dropping, and I could see goosebumps on her arms. She squeezed my shoulder. “Let’s get inside before I burn the place down.”
Luca came that weekend to help me downsize. I thought I lived simply, but my kids disagreed—I had too much stuff, and most had to go.
“Don’t try to take on everything at once,” Luca said. “We’ll go room by room – you know, the Marie Kondo thing.”
“Trust me. If we start small and get rid of things as we go, the big move will be more manageable down the line.”
We started in the pantry. After Marty died, I didn’t cook much, but I always picked up instant meals that took little effort – cans of soup and tuna fish, boxes of noodles and jars of sauce. Over the years, I hadn’t realized how deep the reserves had become. As we cleared and tossed, the worn shelves peeked out, the particle board bowed like hammocks.
“I’m guessing it won’t matter,” Luca said. “If the building stays, they’ll gut all this anyway.”
He meant well, but I pictured the crane’s approach and pivot, and the impact of the wrecking ball. I felt a lump in my throat.
He noticed. “Oh, look,” he said, a little too chipper, as he held up a box of macaroni and cheese. It was the kind marketed to children, with animal shapes.
“How that ended up in my pantry…”
“Truth? I love this stuff.” Luca inverted the box to check the expiration. “Still good. Let’s make it!”
While Luca continued to purge, I boiled a pot of water. The pasta pieces plopped as they fell in, and I was suddenly transported to twenty-five years earlier, Luca a baby in my arms, straining to see what had transpired. I’d been at the stove—prepping baked ziti, I think—and his eyes widened at the commotion. It must have sounded like his toys, overturned, ready for play. He’d pitched toward the heat, so fast and unexpected, and after I instinctively yanked him back from open flame, he brought his little fists to my chin in frustration. I’d laughed at him, that furious baby, which only made him angrier.
“No way,” I’d said. “Hot!”
He’d babbled something back at me, indignant, and I pretended I understood.
Tonight’s meal was much simpler. Once ready, I emptied the pot into two oversized bowls and poured glasses of water. The few bites were as salty and delicious as Luca promised. I’d gotten up for seconds when the building fire alarm went off. I shrugged and refilled our bowls. It usually stopped after a few minutes. But the alarm kept shrieking, and soon we saw the glare of reds and whites temporarily splatter the walls. An unmistakable siren joined the din.
Sheila, I thought.
Luca went to the entryway, just out of sight. I heard the door creak open and then quickly shut. The smell of smoke, faint but distinct, tickled my nostrils. When Luca reappeared in the kitchen, his face was drained of color.
I got to my feet. What do I grab? I scanned the melee across the shelves and surfaces, the half-packed boxes. Everything? Nothing?
When we’d said goodbye to Marty, the most-loved one, Luca, Arabella, and I stood out by the water for a long time. Now, there was no time.
“Fire escape,” I barked.
When Luca was in high school, Marty and I caught him sneaking out a few times. In his old bedroom, I watched his muscle memory return. He twisted the window lock, then leaned his shoulder into the pane to lift it. He went out first.
Outside, I looked through the metal grate to the pavement below, and two floors suddenly felt skyscraper height. I leaned against the brick wall for support while Luca lowered the ladder. He went down one rung, one foot, swift like a teenager. I followed, cautious, two feet per rung.
“I never did that before,” I said, once we were on the ground.
“First time for everything,” Luca said. “You OK?”
I had no idea how to answer him.
“Fine,” I said. “You?”
“I’m OK.” He looked as rattled as I felt.
A few of my neighbors milled about, dazed, and we huddled together. I scanned the group for Sheila but didn’t see her anywhere. I wondered, was she was up on the roof or long gone? Had she sped things up, or was the fire a coincidence?
“Does anyone know what started it?” Carlos, my neighbor, read my thoughts.
“The laundry room, supposedly,” said Leigh from 1R. “Dryer exhaust duct—went right up the shaft. Who knows the last time it was cleaned out.”
We waited, made small talk, and in between reassurances and pleasantries, our worries leaked out. Would we be able to go back in, how much damage was done? Would our landlord put us up in a hotel, if we’d have to relocate now, rather than later?
At this last question, Luca caught my eye, then looked away. Despite what I’d told Sheila before, I’d hoped he’d extend an invite, even a temporary one.
We broke off from the group and craned our necks toward my unit’s windows. I expected to see smoke pouring out, dramatic like in a movie, but they looked ordinary. Still, my heart raced.
“Luca,” I said. “Do you think…I mean, now, I might even have to travel light.”
He had no idea how to answer me. “Let’s see what…one thing at a time, Mom.”
Hours later, when we were cleared to go back in, I went upstairs to check on Sheila.
“It’s unlocked,” she called from inside.
She sat on her couch and sipped from a tumbler. Her unit was unscathed. I didn’t ask what I didn’t want to know.
A few weeks later, she bought an RV and left, destination TBD.
“Probably Arizona,” she said, the last time I saw her.
“Why Arizona?” I asked.
“Why not? I’ll text you wherever I land, and then you’ll come visit.”
“That sounds nice,” I said.
The common areas on my floor had some water damage from the central sprinkler system, but my apartment was mostly fine. Wrecking-ball prepped, I joked. Luca and I opened the windows and, the next morning, resumed packing. He showed me how to hold each item in the apartment and determine if it brought me joy, then and now, and to thank the items before sending them off.
I purged most things. Arabella requested Marty’s fishing poles, and I shipped them to her. Luca took a few pots and pans.
Before Luca left, I held his hands and thanked him for helping me.
I went to my old bank and closed my account, then put the money in an online bank, accessible from anywhere.