by E. Y. Smith
Every morning, despite the fact they could have just as easily called each other by cellphone, they called each other through tin cans attached by a thin wire that ran between their windows, and they talked for hours. Most mornings they seemed to even run late to work, but they didn’t seem to mind—laughing together after they kissed each other hello and ducked into one or the other’s car, then swiftly swerving into the street.
The neighbors often scratched their heads as these two drove past. They’d return together and late in the evening, when the dusk had just set over both their houses, and the beetles had retired from the full red roses in each of their gardens, and the couple would kiss each other goodbye before parting.
No one could figure out why they lived separately, or how they had even met, or why they spent so much time together. They neighbors talked about it among themselves, asking each other if they’d seen the two lately and where they came from and why they spent so much time together. It’s almost like they’re too much in love, said a neighbor, somewhat jokingly, but the brief silence that followed suggested he wasn’t joking entirely. The other neighbors laughed and nodded and said nothing else on the matter for a few minutes. But one interrupted suddenly, in the middle of a conversation about the bank and the town and the climate, and said, We oughta call them the Romantics.
And so the two were called “the Romantics” sometimes lovingly and sometimes mockingly, as though the neighborhood couldn’t decide whether to admire the couple or deride them. It was ridiculously easy to mock the Romantics for their lavish and frequent displays of affection. It was, in some sense, like making fun of the clowns at the rodeo. However, no one could deny a genuineness—a nobility, even—in the Romantics’ gestures.
As time passed, the neighbors discussed the Romantics more frequently. One couldn’t seem to step outside without seeing one of the Romantics, in the front lawn, painting the other, or standing outside the other’s house with a boom box, or kneeling down before the other and declaring their love.
However, the neighborhood had divided on what to make of them. Sometimes the neighbors would make a face at the Romantics as they passed by—holding hands and endlessly complimenting each other. Sometimes the neighbors would overhear the Romantics reciting sonnets to each other and silently thank them. Such neighbors would turn down the television or the radio or whatever they were listening to and call in their spouse and quietly smile and point out toward the window, from which the words of Keats and Blake and Shakespeare trailed in softly.
Eventually, Valentine’s Day rolled around. The neighbors attended the annual block party. The esteemed investor who lived on the corner threw it. And of course, the Romantics RSVP’d.
They were not out of place with the strawberry-red décor, the innumerable gleaming paper and plastic hearts stuck to the deep reddish walls, the chrome-red fruit punch and heart-shaped fruits and brownies and cookies. They found a place on the couch and between two heart-shaped velvet throw-pillows as the neighbors watched and muttered to themselves about whether the Romantics would bother to socialize.
At one point, the investor cut into the Romantics’ conversation—stopping before the couple with a cough and the extension of his wide, cool-looking hand, which each of the Romantics shook. After a moment, one of the Romantics sort of tilted her head to the side and laughed as the other Romantic’s mouth formed an uncomfortable-looking smile, and the laughing Romantic took the investor’s hand and let him guide her out of the living room.
Everyone was watching the other Romantic now—and not trying to be too obvious about it—as he adjusted his blazer and sat alone on the couch and drank his wine awkwardly. The neighbors muttered among themselves about it when they thought he wasn’t listening, and a minute minute, the lone Romantic stood and, after brushing himself off and finishing off his wine, retreated to the kitchen.
The neighbors shared glances with each other. They all seemed to know that something so precious and enlivened and heartfelt couldn’t last, and they told themselves romanticism was good in theory, but in reality, it wasn’t sustainable.
After a while, the party simmered down and the neighbors started home. Some neighbors claimed they didn’t see the Romantic, who went off with the investor, leave that night, while others said they were sure they saw otherwise.
Almost everyone, however, saw the other Romantic pacing around the sidewalk and kicking the stones and with his hands deep in his blazer’s pockets.
Winter wore on. The neighbors noticed one Romantic without the other. The started calling the man “The Man” and the woman “The Woman.”
The neighbors noticed the tin cans dangling from the Man’s window and that the Woman’s had shut. There were no more declarations of love, outside the other’s window while holding a boom box, nor boxes of Parisian chocolate delivered to doorsteps. There were no more readings of sonnets or shared rides to work in the morning or strolls around the block while kissing and holding hands.
Instead, at night, the Man walked alone around the block in his endearingly disheveled way and stared up at the moon and the stars. Sometimes, when the Woman walked with her hand around the investor’s arm, they stopped to say hello to the Man, who would then glance toward the ground—shrugging, and occasionally laughing, and never making eye contact with the Woman.
Some neighbors resented the Woman for her choice—ignoring her when she said hello, refusing to attend her small block parties with the investor. These were often the neighbors who had reserved some silent reverence for the Romantics’ exaggerated displays of affection, and it startled them to think how fast they could turn against the Woman who had brought such dynamism into their lives, and how contradictory it seemed to dislike someone who once seemed to embody such classical notions of compassion.
However, such neighbors continued to find excuses to end conversations with the Woman—whether those excuses were as monumental as needing to visit a dying aunt or as trivial as leaving to shovel a driveway. The other neighbors—the ones who hadn’t liked the Romantics—went on with their ordinary lives—saying hello to the Woman when she crossed their paths, attending the block parties she threw with the investor—and, for them, all was normal.
Until, one day, a Save the Date arrived in the mail.
None of the neighbors seemed to like this, and they met silently with the investor to convince him not to throw his life away on some Woman, who was madly in love with some Man just weeks earlier, and that she could never make the investor happy with her idealized notions of love.
However, the investor shook his head and said they didn’t know what they were talking about and, sometimes, even asked for the check.
The neighbors talked about it amongst themselves as they walked their dogs each morning and as they shoveled snow and uninstalled the holiday lights flung up around their homes.
They had seen what the investor hadn’t.
They saw the Woman glance over her shoulder as she and the investor walked away from the Man. They watched the Woman read the same books of poetry the Man read to her. They heard the Woman ask about the Man every once in a while. Sometimes, at night, they could even see her sighing wistfully and watching the moon from the investor’s window.
No one wanted to tell him. No one wanted to be the one who disrupted the ordinarily so calculated and rational notions of the investor, who had never done wrong by any of them or disrupted their senses of happiness—but someone ought to tell them, the neighbors thought, someone ought to.
It was the First Day of Spring Block Party.
One of the neighbors had returned for the jacket that she had accidentally left in the host’s extremely large back closet. However, just before she opened the door, she overheard two familiar voices hushed and bickering on the other side.
Tell me you love him, said the Man. Tell me what we had didn’t mean anything.
Keep your voice down.
I know you still love me.
The neighbor slowly backed away from the closet, which had now fallen silent, and the Man and the Woman’s whispers continued. She considered the possibility that their love wasn’t love at all, but something like entitlement or duty, and then, decided it was probably best to come back for her jacket later.
Although the neighbors hardly saw the Romantics now, every conversation always seemed to turn toward them or the wedding, and when the neighbors did stumble on the Romantics, it was always when they were in some odd circumstance.
For instance, one of the neighbors found the Romantics in the park and whispering excessive compliments to each other. Another neighbor found the Romantics parked outside the grocery store and reading poetry to one another. Another was shocked to find the Romantics serenading each other with guitars at the laundromat.
However, none of the neighbors told the investor, who carried on with planning the wedding, which would now take place on the block and in early spring.
The day of the rehearsal, the investor had all sorts of stunning and fragrant flowers brought in, and the Woman laughed by his side, but didn’t say much, and when the Man wandered in, she glanced his way for a moment, but then turned back to the neighbor who was speaking with the investor.
After this we’re taking a long trip to France, said the investor. He pulled the Woman closer to him, and she was smiling, but more dimly now, and the neighbor was nodding and sipping her wine contemplatively.
When are you coming back? asked the neighbor.
I’m not really sure, said the investor with a wide grin.
Everyone knew why, of course, and the reason was standing less than two yards away, looking completely distraught and definitely not dressed with panache fitting of an esteemed investor’s wedding.
A little after dark, the investor’s neighbor stayed up to feed the dog as she normally did—if she didn’t then the dog would howl, and she didn’t want to deal with a phone call from the investor the night before his wedding.
As she fed the dog, she kept the window open for the cool evening air, which made everything feel pleasanter somehow—fresher. However, that night, as she poured the dry food into the gleaming, plastic bowl, she thought she heard voices from outside, so she stopped and listened.
Maybe we should put it off, said a voice, almost flute-like in its softness.
The next voice came low and strong and with the thud of a glass against a table: I’ve already given you my answer.
The neighbor glanced through her window, but couldn’t see past the large, neat hedge between her house and the investor’s.
Paris is a beautiful city, said the investor. There’s plenty to do, plenty to see, and we’ll have each other, and isn’t that the only thing that matters?
The Woman was crying now, and the neighbor could hear a chair drag against the investor’s wooden floor, and heavy steps move across the room.
It’s about him, isn’t it? asked the investor. You might love him more because he’s nicer than I am and he might be more endearing or something, but you have to concede that he’s not the practical choice.
The Woman’s sobs grew louder and it was clear she was trying to say something, but the investor cut her off.
I’ve arranged for the most ornate wedding I’ve ever had, he continued, more ornate than my second wedding, more ornate than my third. Think of what a waste it would be for all those floral arrangers and caterers and acrobats and DJs to show up tomorrow and then have to go home. Think of the looks on the neighbors’ faces when they’re told that we’re postponing the wedding literally the day of the wedding.
Calling it off now would also be so embarrassing for you, and you can’t tell me that you’re certain he would take you back.
The neighbor heard the sound of a chair pulling against the wooden floor as the Woman sobbed, and then, the investor’s steady pacing.
In any case, he continued nonchalantly, I’m going to sleep, and I hope you show up to our wedding tomorrow.
It would be nice, he added, and his steps and the Woman’s sobs faded.
Although it was spring now, a fresh snow had fallen.
The snow looked bright against the innumerable flowers. Everything was covered in white. The neighbors had joined the festivities quietly and courteously, only talking about subjects that seemed moderately interesting and not too demanding on the listeners, as the event seemed to weigh heavily on everyone’s mind. Even the marzipan bride and groom looked listless.
Eventually, the neighbors took their seats, sitting evenly beside each other like headstones—all facing the same way, all silent and still—and the priest stood at the front in glorious, flowing robes, and the investor stood with his hands folded together. He seemed to stare with a great focus, as though preparing to make an offer on a burgeoning new business—a sharp anxiety and enthusiasm propelling his gaze onward.
Eventually, a lovely string quartet welcomed the bride forward, and she stepped onto the beige carpet that rolled out over the snow and she wore a dress that seemed to billow out like a warm breath in the frozen air.
She walked slowly. Although, at first glance, everything about her suggested she was a bride adorned in luxury and splendor, her look was that of the most impoverished woman—a frown of agony, her eyes wide open with despair, as though each step brought her closer to tragedy.
At the altar, the investor pulled the veil away from her face with great seriousness. She also looked at him with great seriousness—the seriousness of a woman who seemed to do what she thought was necessary rather than what she preferred, who somehow made this wedding, which might have otherwise been a lighthearted day, into a great sacrifice, a significant choice.
The neighbors stirred uncomfortably, uncertain what to make of the obvious dissension between the bride and the investor, but they remained silent.
That is, until some neighbors toward the back of the audience heard the sound of steps in the snow, and turned, and started to mumble, and then, the neighbors before those toward the back turned, and so it went throughout the entire audience.
The bride, distracted, turned toward the neighbors, and the investor’s gaze followed her to them, and, there, behind the neighbors, stood the Man, disheveled, somewhat lost-looking, and breathless in the snow.
Speak now, said the priest, or forever hold your piece.
The bride gave the Man a look that suggested she didn’t know what she could say, and the Man’s expression seemed to fall with the realization that she wouldn’t stand up for them, so he lowered his gaze and turned.
I object! said a neighbor, and the Man stopped.
I object! said another.
And on and on each of the neighbors went, standing and voicing each of their objections, rising in unity before the Man and the Woman and the investor, and the neighbors stomped on the snow as they spoke and repeated themselves again and again, and the Woman smiled and shook her head and the Man gave a short laugh.
The Woman gave the investor a look and he sighed and shrugged quickly in the Man’s direction as if to say: Just go.
The Woman ran down the carpet with glee. She rushed into the Man’s arms, and he spun her round as the neighbors cheered and threw their rice at the Romantics, and it occurred to them that maybe the validity of a romance didn’t depend on whether you bought someone flowers or an expensive set of jewelry, but on something else—something deeper and more real, that existed from the days of early humanity, when people traveled together in small civilizations across bridges of ice, in searing deserts, in endless jungles, something that kept people together despite the plots against them.
And sometime later, the neighbors depart, the flowers fall onto the ice, the acrobats pack their bags, the quartet brushes the snow from their cases, the caterers repack their equipment, the priest packs his books, and all the neighborhood stands silently as the Romantics walk side by side home.
E. Y. Smith‘s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Portland Review, and The Brooklyn Review, among other literary journals. Smith’s play has also appeared at Dixon Place.
Image via Creative Commons.