Drought, Tuesday afternoon
I know I shouldn’t, but I’ve started watching the neighbors. From the kitchen window of our second-floor apartment I can see down into their backyard. They’ve recently had the brown grass torn up and replaced with heavy flagstones. I tell myself that I just happen to see them while I stand there washing dishes, but sometimes I am not washing dishes and am just standing there, eating cereal out of the box, and other times just standing there, doing nothing else.
I grew up in Michigan, where you kept your windows closed almost all the time, either to keep the air conditioning in, or to keep the bugs or the cold out. Here in Northern California all the apartments are close together and everyone has their windows open all the time, so I know when my neighbors in the next building over are helping their children brush their teeth or when the woman upstairs has a cough or when the woman in the front apartment is fighting with her mother on the phone. It is too irresistible to ignore these chances to see how other people live when they’re the most themselves, the way you can’t help but look in lit windows at night, at the people at their dinner tables in yellow light or on their couches in the white-blue wash of the TV.
Today the two-year-old little girl from the first-floor apartment on our east side comes out into the yard alone and climbs up onto her older brother’s orange bike. I rinse an orange bowl and pull the towel off my shoulder to dry it. The girl tips back and forth between the training wheels. She puts her bare feet on the pedals but is too small to be able to push hard enough so she screams, Maaaaaa, and from inside I can hear the brother scream too and pretty soon the mother is outside screaming that she needs a fucking break from you kids. From how often I hear her children screaming, I don’t blame her. But still, I pull myself away from the window. I shouldn’t be watching.
I take a walk up into the San Mateo hills, past houses that are labeled Estates on the map and where, even in the third year of drought, people’s lawns are still green. The houses all seem empty. If you get up high enough you can see all the way down to the bay, cars sparkling their way across the bridge, planes flying in low.
I turn to walk back down and something startles in the bushes, then runs over my feet and into the road so fast I’m not sure it happened. A black, expensive-looking car goes past at the same time.
Then the car is past and the something is a bunny, young, dragging its broken back legs behind like a sleeping bag. The bunny falters downhill in a quick diagonal line, not able to fight gravity anymore but still trying to run. I want to help it, but I don’t know how and I find I can’t move, and in a second the bunny drags itself away under someone’s immaculate hedge on the other side of the street and is gone. The whole thing is very quiet. I stand on the sidewalk for a long time.
On the way back I see another bunny—unusual in our crowded neighborhood where you never see much more than birds. A month ago a mountain lion had gotten confused and ended up in the central park next to the playground. The streets were closed for hours with wooden blockades that would’ve stopped no mountain lion. Newscasters stood several blocks down and warned people with small dogs and small children to stay inside. Helicopters buzzed overhead like a movie crime scene. Eventually the rangers caught the mountain lion in someone’s backyard with a tranquilizer dart. They tied up its front and back legs with a belt and laid it in the back of a pickup truck, where it looked like a discarded blanket.
The second bunny is little, too, with a bright white tail. I want it to somehow be the same one as before, its legs aligned the way they should be, but of course it isn’t. As I pass it hops into the bushes.
I run into my other neighbor on the way upstairs. After the bunny I don’t feel much like talking, but I do anyway because he lives alone. I know this because of how often he tells me so, with his children grown and far away, and as I am grown and far away from my parents, I always talk to him. I never know what to say so I mention whatever is within sight, like a child playing I Spy. I tell him I didn’t think the construction on our street would be done so soon. It hadn’t been clear what they were doing, but no one was allowed to park there during the day. There’s an underground river that runs right below us, he says. Sometimes it causes problems with the street.
The drought in California is so bad that reservoirs are drying up. The snowpack in the Sierras that feeds the reservoirs all year long is at zero percent. There is no snow at all. And yet, there is a river running beneath my apartment.
Upstairs I stand at the kitchen sink and feel guilty about the water running as I wait for it to get hot for the rest of yesterday’s dishes. Next door, the girl’s older brother, maybe four years old, comes out into the backyard. He shuts the screen door behind him carefully, holding the latch so it doesn’t slam. He walks to the wooden fence surrounding the yard, twice as tall as he is. He puts one foot in a crook where a crossbeam and support pole come together in a V and stretches his arms up, grasping the lip of a ledge near the top of the fence. Somehow, using his foot for pressure, the boy inches his way on top of the ledge.
He stands looking down at the pavestones, six feet below. Only an inch of the fence rises above his sneakers. For some reason it’s the sneakers I focus on, white, with blue sideways triangles, very dirty. He is trapped. I stand clutching a soapy pot. The day is hot and quiet. Mom, he says, not screaming, hardly a noise at all. I can hear the slight tick of the gate’s metal latch as the boy shifts his weight. I think I should yell, I should run downstairs and pound on my neighbor’s door and tell her her boy could fall, but by then it will be too late, and this mother who just wanted a break will hear her son’s scream for a long time, and so I stand there, once again doing nothing, my hands in lukewarm dishwater.
The boy does not fall. He squats and climbs his way down. He does not fall. He even skips toward the door on his perfect intact tiny legs. He lets himself into the house. I dry off my hands and make myself leave the window.