The thing about the very beginning was how we were neighbors again, weren’t we?
Maria down the street, walking her girls in the mornings, and that spot on the bridge
where we’d newly cross each day, how we’d know now when Phyllis got home.
How smooth she was when little Leah asked
across the back fence why she didn’t have a daddy;
how smooth you were
when Liza asked what to do with the mezuzah
that her tenants had suddenly left behind, and ours had packed up a week earlier,
remember, how Nate left before the rest?
It was a basement exodus
from the city to New Jersey, or further north, or south,
Short Sadie wasn’t gone though, and she had that garden full of pots
in the back yard to capture the light
of her older sister’s praise,
could drink in their approval from the back porch
Pasquale offered us arugula that spring.
He told us Italy had made it through
so it wasn’t so bad,
and so we gave basil to Harry even though he’d cut down a beautiful tree
last year and our pea-plants grew
huge as bushes.
The fundamentals were in doubt:
particle physics, poetry, our well-being in the morning.
Maybe the questions would break down, we thought,
like a virus breaks down in sunlight,
like despair breaks down in the voices of protest; like concentration breaks in the song
of an ambulance; dialogue breaking in an embarrassed reminder
when we’d cross the street,
as though only our masks held us separate that season.
All the while, the sun blew soft and gold around every leaf and around every blade of wild
or trampled grass,
so rose and golden and kind to our better natures, we could almost un-remember
in the confusion of that light, in the aura wrapping the tree trunks, in that mote-colored sky and how
it seemed to pool around our sandaled feet as we walked in the evenings
before it slid below the row of houses we called a horizon
that there were no shift workers walking home and
that every voice and tin pan could become a particle in a wave of fear
while science and politics skidded along the skateboard edge of research and subjectivity.
Just before summer, Jeb and Sarah left.
So we took in their mail.
Then the birds moved in, and then there were the birders,
and fisher people appeared in the park.
Eventually, even the next door puppy moved upstate; still, there were enough of us really,
to keep company, so that when the neighbors gave a thought to deck design
we thought right alongside them,
didn’t we, and then
we tracked how the ukulele player got better
though we couldn’t see him from our second story window.
Didn’t he practice every day, though
Didn’t we hear him call out, “Thank you! Thank you!” one afternoon?
Fernando and the girls ate dinner in their back yard all summer long,
we could see from the kitchen window
even two doors down, and a neighbor proposed
a sing-along since Amalia knew guitar,
and when the boys next door dyed the tips of their hair all pink, since no-one else could see,
didn’t we wonder whether we should do this too?
In time, the basements all emptied out.
The very island of Manhattan seemed to thin.
The parking got easier, and walking in the mornings
easier, crossing the street got easier
butterfly watching in the back yard,
and maybe because, like us
it couldn’t really go anywhere at all, beside the neighborhood,
didn’t wonder become a little bit easier too?
Michelle Frank is a Brooklyn-based writer pursuing an M.A. in Biography and Memoir at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her poetry has earned writing grants from Sundog Poetry Center and the Ossabaw Island Writers’ Retreat. She is inspired by connections between science and the arts. Her graduate research focuses on science biography, with an emphasis on underrepresented voices in physics and ecology.