The woman grunted and folded her hands on her laps. Then, she leaned in and she gave her piece of advice. "On the subject of love matters, stay away. No one of those men is good."
The other woman smiled and shook her head. "I don't think so, Nora."
Nora snorted and raised her hands. The group leader was still talking but Nora would not drop her hands. It was against the rules to talk when the leader was still by the window giving her speech but they knew Nora and they knew she would not give up.
"Nora?" the leader closed her eyes for a moment. Nora tried not to smile but she could not help it. It was funny to be the nuisance in the writing groups mostly because they couldn't push her away. She was as much a writer as all of them. "Do you want to add something to what I was saying?"
Nora could tell sarcasm from truthfulness but this night was not the sort of night to get involved in awkward fights. Nora stood up and stretched her hands. It was problematic sitting in her chair and listening to quiet old music filtering through from the living room like something forgotten.
She'd asked, on her second visit, why they couldn't shift the music to the main room but she'd been turned down. It was a wonder she was still among them, laughing when it was time to, and reading when it was.
They were eight of them in the group; eight females who left their homes to sit and drink and talk about books. They would meet at Suzan's because her house was the loveliest. And because her husband was hardly ever home. Sometimes, Nora doubted if she was married at all but there were pictures on the wall; pictures of Suzan in a white dress, hands wrapped around a man, lips wide apart in a smile that could break hearts.
It was the house Nora liked most. Outside, the walls were painted white like in a museum. It was so white Nora thought she could see through, into the hallways and the rooms and the unspoken secrets laced in the building. Red bricks lined the outside, towards the rose garden. Often, it bled into the white roses so that they turned partly yellow, partly brown, like rust.
"They withered," somebody said, once.
But, Nora was not like them, being confined in a box. She liked to think they bled and so that was how they were: bleeding and cold and dying.
On the porch, there were a wild display of neon lights
"My husband likes them," she told the group.
Not all of them were whites. Nora would stand at a corner and count them. She knew they were eight, knew that soon, somebody else would join and be introduced, but still, she would count. It was how she knew she was sane.
Susan, as expected, was blonde. It was expected. Nora had never had a particularly horrid experience with blondes but she knew that they liked being in control. Susan was tall but she wore heels doing the meetings. Her clothes were always too tight, pressing into her skin like maps. She wore her red lipstick too obviously and when she stood by the window, always by the window, it was as though she was screaming: notice me, please!
Then, there was Patty with her green hair. She lied once, said she'd been born with it but everyone knows people don't come into the world with green hair. None of that mattered anyway. They were friends only in the big house. Outside, they were strangers, each soaking up the sun, living in the cold, dancing in the rain in their ways. On the subway, when they passed, she would wave with a smile that looked pale, but Nora would not wave back.
In the group, five were whites. Nora included. One was brown, her skin so smooth Nora was almost tempted to run her hands through. Nora envied her sometimes when she was trapped in her chair and she was thinking about her childhood and heartbreaks and setting suns.
Of course, Nora was the conservative type. She was the only one in the group who still had the decency to shun romance.
"No use," she would tell herself.
Tonight was not the kind of night to get caught up in the drama. But Nora was not a stickler for rules. She stepped gingerly to the front, by the window and she smiled.
"Thank you, Suzan."
Susan grunted. And moved away to her seat. Music was still playing, softly, from the other room.
"I don't have much to say," Nora chuckled when somebody rolled her eyes. She'd forgotten what her name was. It was hardly something to remember. The woman had the most forgetful face. Her face was probably too normal, like something a child would mold in painful quietness. "I just want us to take a moment to appreciate books and stars."
"Unrelated stuff, Nora," the green-haired lady said.
Her voice was the loudest. Nora scowled. This night was not the night to get messy. "The stars are out. We should go outside. See it. Feel it."
Susan stood up and clapped her hands. Sarcasm dripped from the gesture. "Perhaps some other time, Nora."
Nora nodded and sighed. "Probably."
On her seat, her only friend leaned in. "Don't let it get to you, Nora."
She'd told Nora that she'd been raised in a small town in Arkansas. But her father was Kenyan and her mother was English. She was the only friend Nora talked to even though, occasionally, she wondered why her friend had so many different roots.
"I know, Fey."
Susan tapped her foot on the rug. It was something she did on nights when she was anxious. Like she was waiting for something.
"Tonight we'll have someone joining us," she said. "She's a dear friend."
When Nora had been introduced, Susan had called her a dear friend. But they were not friends, would never be dear friends. Nora already knew what to expect: the night would be long and boring.
"She's a mystery lover. Gwen is her name. You'll all love her."
Love was a gigantic word. It was not as easy as running down a hill or laughing into the wind. It was a deliberate pull into an abyss with no way out. Love was a treacherous game and one Nora was not ready for. Still, she relaxed and she waited for Gwen. When Gwen finally arrived in flowing skirts and a woolen shirt, Nora sat up.
On her first visit, Nora said, "I love a good ol' mystery story myself but it's a genre I don't see myself writing anytime soon."
Now, though, Nora ached to put pen to paper and to discuss the mystery behind Gwen's eyes. She would write that her eyes —grey and comely—sparked a fire in the room. That her eyes made everyone feel so small and dirty and substandard. That her eyes were like the sun that washed over her when her mother died. She would write that her eyes captured all the mystery the world had to offer and she ached to know.
"Hi, everyone. My name is Gwen."
But Nora was more concerned with the way her hands shook as she talked. Nora was in a movie, letting it unwrap itself in front of her, gliding gently along with the quiet symphony of her voice.
Gwen came to sit in the empty seat beside Nora. It was always empty because no one wanted that seat and no one wanted to hear what Nora had to say. Fey was her friend only because they were almost alike in the way they viewed life. Almost. Because Fey had a husband and a son. She was a mom, the kind that drove minivans and stuffed herself full with coffee and bacon.
At the end of the meeting, Gwen turned to her. "Hi. You're Nora, right? I've heard so much about you."
Nora rolled her eyes. If Gwen had truly heard about her, then there was not much to talk about.
Nora took her bag. Then she walked out. Just like how she'd been walking out of things recently. Because walking out was so much easier than staying. With staying, she became vulnerable, so vulnerable that when he left her, she had not known it would happen. She'd come to realize that those sorts of heartbreaks were the worst. Walking out, on the other hand, was alright for people like her. It was expected. It was not a circle or a roller coaster of twisting trees. It was the slow fall of snow and the soft smell of autumn.
She heard footsteps behind her. She stopped. She sighed. She clutched her handbag by her side and she swallowed. Then, she turned around sharply. Gwen stood there, hands raised, unarmed.
"Sorry I startled you," she said. "But Suzan asked me to hand this to you."
Nora took the box. She'd forgotten. At the end of every Friday meeting, Suzan would each hand them a box of chocolates. "It's stupid," she told Gwen.
Gwen laughed. Nora listened. She sounded like the sea, the kind that had surrounded her childhood home. When she was younger, she thought it was the sound of laughing children, running down a hill. Now that she was all grown up, she knew what it was: the pained scream of a young man.
Gwen felt like that too. "May I walk with you?"
Nora said no as politely as she could.
"Susan told me you lived at Limit road."
Nora started walking knowing that Gwen would follow. Then she answered, "Yes. Just after the bookshop."
"Well, I just moved to the house opposite," she said. "They tell me it's been empty for a while."
Nora paused. "How much did Susan tell you?"
She laughed. "Just enough."
They rounded a corner. The path was relatively empty. Nora was used to walking it alone. With Gwen by her side, it felt strange. Like she was walking a path she'd never crossed before.
"We are neighbors, then," Nora told her.
"We are," she agreed.
"Then you must know I don't want friends."
"I'm not asking to be one."
By the bookshop, she crossed to the other side. Nora slipped her key in and turned back to look at Gwen. She waved but Nora did not return the grand gesture. She called it grand because it was that: waving someone felt like exchanging burdens for just a moment. It was grand. And Nora did no such thing.
It became clear they were neighbors in the morning. Nora found Gwen outside, stuffing her thrash in a can. She waved. This time, involuntarily, Nora found herself waving back.
"It's a beautiful day, right?" Gwen called.
Her voice was almost muffled by the space but Nora caught it. "It is," she replied.
Gwen crossed the street to her. And Nora let her into her home. She would tell herself, later, it was because of the peaceful way Gwen had crossed the street that had led to that point. The house was bright and warm. Nothing like Suzan's. But it was hers.
Gwen followed her into the living room where she found books scattered on the floor and the shelves.
"You have a pretty place," she said, pointing to the books.
Nora held her breath in, holding it until it felt like she would burst from the intensity. Then, she released it. She was falling suddenly, from rooftops and pine trees and chimneys and she was falling into something so dark, so intense and so astonishingly beautiful. But she would be careful.
"Thank you," she said. "I was just making breakfast. Join me."
As they ate —bacon and eggs and coffee—Gwen said, "I love mystery. I write about it. It's what fuels my daily existence."
Nora talked. "Sounds logical."
"What about you?"
Nora did not need to think hard. She already knew. "I like anything sad."
"That's...good. A way to express yourself, I think."
The next Friday when they walked together to Suzan's, Gwen said, "I'm unstable."
Nora did not know what she meant but she nodded and let her walk beside her. The meeting came and went like it usually did. But, for the first time, Nora waited for Gwen so they could walk home together. They followed the same path home, said the same thing, laughed the same way. But, at the bookshop, Gwen did something else, something different from what Nora was used to. She picked up a stone and threw it against the window of the store.
It cracked, lines spreading like angry vines along the glass.
"Why'd you do that?" Nora struggled to understand.
"I told you I was unstable."
Nora watched her cross the road again to her home. She stood there, by the bookshop with the cracked window, watching as Gwen got into her house. Alone, she turned to face the window. Gently, she trailed her fingers along the lines, like she was touching something delicate. Like she was stroking her broken heart. Tomorrow they would replace the window. Tomorrow it would be as good as new.
Nora's heart gave in and she knelt there and she cried. The moon was high in the sky, bright and adventurous. And she was alone. She cried because she understood, finally, that she was cracked but she would heal.
In the morning, Gwen brought homemade pie. They sat on the floor in the kitchen and ate and talked about books and broken windows.