She’s there. She’s always bloody there. In the driveway, with her white hotpants and pink oversized tee sloping off one shoulder at a jaunty angle.
I slow to a jog and wipe my forehead. My face is hot. Probably red. And blotchy. Running doesn’t agree with me.
I avoid eye contact as I turn into my driveway. She’s standing by the roses, secateurs primed, deciding which beauty she’ll castrate from the bush.
Their garden is all straight edges and manicured lawns. Roses and dainty flowers jostle for space in the crisp flowerbeds. All pink and perfect. My stomach twists and I cough at the sour taste in my mouth.
She sees me. Our gazes lock. I stifle a cringe, and it morphs into a grimace.
Her husband is washing the car. Bronzed arms and rippling muscles, sloshing soapy water over the Mercedes. She holds my gaze while she delicately snips at a rosebush.
Instagram worthy life.
She steps towards me, her features shifting into a plastic smile, straight white teeth, hot pink lipstick, predatory eyes.
I want to run into the house. Pretend I haven’t seen her. Avoid the onslaught of patronizing judgement trussed up as neighbourly pleasantries.
“Annie,” she calls. “How lovely to see you.”
I look over my shoulder, but alas, I am the only Annie in the vicinity. I try to smile and fail.
“Roz,” I say with a nod.
“You’ve been jogging.”
Points for stating the obvious. But in honour of neighbourly relations, I settle for another nod and shuffle towards my front door.
Her husband stops washing the car and stretches, flexing his bulging muscles. He’s much nicer than her. He flicks me a wave and I tinkle my fingers in an almost invisible reply.
She glances over her shoulder, catching the interaction. And I sense it. Her plastic smile loses any semblance of warmth, and her focus sharpens. On me. The raptor has spied its prey.
“Good on you, Annie.” She steps forward, holding my gaze. “You’re looking trimmer already.”
The backhanded compliment. The primary food group of high school mean girls and trophy wives alike. Still, it stings.
“Thanks,” I reply.
“Keep it up. You’ll have a man in no time.”
In a feat defying all laws of physics, my face gets hotter, and I stumble across the drive, desperate for the door. Away from her. Away from their sickly sweet display of Instagram worthy domestic bliss.
I stop at the bottom of my stairs. A dandelion is growing through the cracks in the concrete. The only colour in the haphazard assortment of weeds in my sad excuse for a garden.
I bend and rip it out, throwing it onto the lawn to wither and die.
A perfect figure. A perfect husband. A perfect life.
I watch the clock and the big hand drags itself to twelve. It’s time to take out the bins.
I trundle down the drive, dragging my bin and watching the orange glow from their house. Wheels rattle, and the husband appears, his bin in tow. We walk side by side, separated by the perfect white picket fence and fragrant roses.
We pause at the curb.
“Annie,” he says, doffing an imaginary cap.
I smile. He’s much nicer than her.
“Nick,” I say, giving an imaginary curtsey. Our weekly ritual nearly complete.
“How was your day?” he asks. “You look tired.”
His genuine concern presses against my chest. “I—”
Their front door bangs and I look over my shoulder. A petite silhouette leans against the door frame.
“What are you doing, Nick?” she calls, slender fingers resting on a razor-sharp hip.
“Putting out the bins, Roz.” His voice carries across the garden, his tone short, fragmenting their carefully cultivated picture of domestic bliss. “I’ll be in a minute.”
“In a minute.” He cuts her off.
The door slams. He looks at me and shrugs. Something has irked her. Probably his convalescing with the frumpy neighbour.
“I’d better go.” He pauses. “Next week.”
I nod. And watch him return to his not quite so domestic bliss.
I shouldn’t feel smug, but I do. A crack in their perfect life. It’s just a perfect lie.
I wait until dark to check the mail. My sneakers whispering on the drive as I smooth my hair.
And she’s there. Leaning casually against the mailbox. My stomach clenches. She’s always bloody there.
Checking the mail is his job, not hers. I shuffle back towards the house. The mail forgotten. But she sees me. Our gazes lock. I swallow.
“Annie,” she says, her voice dripping with plastic. “I love your outfit. It’s so… quaint.”
My face burns. It always does near her.
“Roz,” I say, with a brief nod.
I glance over my shoulder at their house. Twinkling fairy lights, orange glow, curtains open. Their Instagram worthy life on display for all to see.
She’s wearing black strappy heels, and a hot pink mini dress that screams of a need for validation. And a thousand uneaten dinners.
“Nice dress,” I say, pulling the circulars from my mailbox. I can’t resist. “It might be a bit overkill for checking the mail, though.” I soften the spar with a laugh.
Two neighbours sharing a joke.
She freezes. Her raptor eyes focus on mine. I suppress a shiver.
“I’m going out.” She flicks her hair over her shoulder, and it swishes dramatically into place.
A well-practiced move. Dismissive and dominating all at once. The staple diet of high school bullies and possessive wives.
I glance at their house. Her husband is in their bedroom, standing in front of the mirror.
“A night with the girls,” she continues. “I’d offer for you to come but”—she casts her gaze over my body—“it wouldn’t be your scene.”
I run my hand over my hair, just thinking about a shoulder flick has made it erupt into a puffball. My cheeks burn. I don't know what to say. All the truths I’d like to tell her.
She gets in first, resting her hand on my shoulder and leaning in. Her breath smells of wine.
“Annie. I’m only saying this because I care.”
My throat tightens. Nothing positive ever follows that phrase.
“You need to put in the effort if you want a man. You know, makeup, a haircut.” She pats my arm. “Just some friendly neighbourly advice.”
“Thanks. Have a good night.” It’s hardly a comeback. My face burns and somewhere under the broiling emotion, I realise I need to find my spine.
A car pulls to the curb, and she climbs in with her impossibly short dress and ferocious heels. She waves as the car reverses, her Instagram worthy smile glinting in the moonlight.
I turn and sigh. Her husband is in their bedroom, splashing aftershave on his cheeks. He peers out the window, his gaze following the departing car. He disappears for a moment. When he straightens, he’s holding a shoebox, and he sprinkles rose petals over the bed.
How sweet. He’s much nicer than her.
He scatters tea lights over the dresser and the bedside table. So romantic. I wonder if she deserves it.
He lights them. My stomach twists in anticipation.
Aftershave. Rose petals. Candles. Wife out for the night. A warmth spreads through me, and a smile tugs at the corners of my lips. I shouldn’t be enjoying this, but I am.
A perfect life. It’s just a perfect lie.
Her husband is having an affair.
Fancy cars line the street, and a plethora of manicured guests are scattered through their yard. I didn’t make the cut to their afternoon garden party. Not enough Botox, perhaps. Or effort. Maybe, she just figured, it’s not my scene.
I sit in my upstairs bedroom, sipping my tea. The guests mingle amongst the roses and fairy lights. Waiters in tuxedos waft about serving expensive champagne.
She’s there. The centre of it all. Her carefully cultivated world, where she is admired and adored. Her ball gown is pink. Off the shoulder, tight, cleavage on display.
He’s there too. Slacks and a linen shirt. I cast my gaze over the guests. Do any of them know his little secret?
Another thought strikes me, and I lean forward, my breath casting misty snowflakes on the window. I could end this charade. Stalk down there with my puffball hair and fluffy slippers and shatter their carefully cultivated lie.
But I’d look batshit crazy and no one would believe me, so I sip my tea.
I’ve lost sight of him, but the party keeps me entertained. All those people. Terrified of being less than perfect. Of being human.
Footsteps clump on my stairs, and I straighten. My door swings open. And he’s there.
My heart pounds. He looks out my window and follows my gaze to the party.
“I’m sorry you weren’t invited,” he says.
I set down my tea.
“But I brought you champagne.” He holds up a bottle.
The champagne is pink. Of course it is.
“Your perfect life.” I gesture to the party. “It’s just a perfect lie.”
He draws in a sharp breath, raising a manscaped eyebrow. And waits.
I sigh. He makes a fair point. I’m hardly the perfect neighbour. The frumpy neighbour with the unruly garden. That's just a lie.
I watch his wife holding court in her garden, cultivating roses and an Instagram worthy life.
The perfect life.
The perfect lie.
I judge her because she judges me. But that’s to be expected. Her husband’s having an affair.
He’s having an affair.