Everyone in Their Separate Houses

Lily lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling. There were so many hours until her alarm. The bed wasn’t quite right no matter how she moved her pillows, and she couldn’t tell yet if it was worth deep-breathing for an hour or if she should turn on a light and start reading. She could feel the invisible rubber band around her chest getting tighter, and her hair kept being in the wrong place. Her parents thought she was getting into trouble. She couldn’t tell them the trouble was inside her own mind. She was so alone.

 

Yolanda was desperately tired, but every time she put Levi in his bed, he woke up again. She had planned to go to bed as soon as he was down, but three hours later he wasn’t down yet. Michael was snoring like a chainsaw. Of course he was; he didn’t have boobs. Yolanda dropped a tear on Levi’s head, startling him. Tomorrow she would see if the girl next door could come over and babysit for a couple of hours after school.

 

Alex was staring at the tv, but he wasn’t really watching it. It was background noise; it was part of the act. It was how he kept his thoughts from getting too desperate. He just kept going back and forth – should he or shouldn’t he? Should he or shouldn’t he? He envied Michael across the street so much. Married, and a beautiful baby, and a year younger than Alex to boot. Jenna wasn’t ready to get married, and Alex was done with going out every weekend. He wanted to settle down. Deep down, he knew that if he stayed with Jenna it wouldn’t work out. He had to break up with her. It was going to suck.

 

Henry and Agnes slept holding hands. After Henry’s heart attack three years ago, Agnes insisted on it; she couldn’t fathom life without him. Henry didn’t mind. Oh, there were times when he watched that boy next door bring his girl indoors, and they weren’t very discreet, and he missed his youth. But after the heart attack he had dropped his longing for the past and focused on the present. Agnes was no sex kitten, but she loved him, and she still made his sandwiches. And when he overheard Alex and Jenna argue, or when he saw Yolanda and Michael’s exhausted faces in the morning, he didn’t miss his youth as much as he once did.

He moved his hand; it was enough to wake Agnes.

“What is it?”

“We should have them all over,” he said quietly.

“Who?”

“The kids. On our street.”

“Why on earth have you woken me up at midnight to say this, Henry Robinson?”

Henry smiled in the dark. She wasn’t angry. “I was just thinking how lonely it was. Especially in the nights.”

“But why not just tell me in the morning?” She was tired. He felt a little bit guilty for waking her.

“Their lights are on. See? That’s the girl’s bedroom, the teenager. Her parents are downstairs worrying about her. And next door is the family with the baby. Do you remember how tired we were?”

Agnes was fully awake now, sitting up. She nodded.

“And that boy next door. His girlfriend isn’t right for him. He looks so sad all the time. He’s watching that ridiculous television for hours every night. They’re all so alone, Agnes.”

“We were alone. We managed.”

“But wouldn’t it have been better if someone had noticed?”

“Well, you’re a fool. You don’t even remember their names.”

“What difference does that make? They still need to know.”

“Know what?”

“They aren’t alone.”

 

Lily hadn’t expected to stay at the barbecue. She was fidgeting in her seat. She hadn’t said a word for the entire evening, and had felt keenly the embarrassment of her parents towards their socially awkward daughter. But she stayed. When it was over, the host, Henry, looked like he wanted to give her a hug. She dropped her eyes and picked at her sleeve. He put a hand on her shoulder, and said softly, “You’re a good kid.” Lily looked up with surprise, and so did her parents.

Agnes chatted with Yolanda, and baby Levi lay on his blanket on the grass, cooing at the breeze.

Michael and Alex had a long conversation. When it was over, Alex wiped his eyes and left, already dialling Jenna’s number.

Agnes leaned into Henry, and he put an arm around her, a comfortable, familiar gesture. “You’re a good man, Henry Robinson.”

By midnight, the street was dark.