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Excerpt

Small World

Laura Zigman

January 13, 2023 
The following is from Laura Zigman's Small World. Laura Zigman is the author of Separation Anxiety, Animal Husbandry, Dating Big Bird, Piece of Work and Her. She has been a contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I start turning posts on Small World, the neighborhood site for people in search of local goods and services, into prose poems before Lydia moves in. The fact that I once wanted to be a writer is only part of why I develop this secret habit of making pretend poetry. The bigger part is a childlike desire for comfort. Little problems getting solved all day long—strangers in need, getting answers from strangers in the know—gives me hope. I grew up feeling like there was no one looking out for me when I felt lost or sad, so this allows me to believe otherwise. Helpers are out there. All I have to do is look for them.

Both of us are divorced and childless when she finally comes back to Boston from LA after almost thirty years. I say finally when I tell friends because, really, it was time already, wasn’t it? Lydia had moved away as soon as she graduated from college, leaving me alone with Louise and our sad family past, and a tiny part of me had been waiting for her to come back and make it up to me ever since. Not that I’d ever admit that to anyone. It’s such an infantile and entitled thing to say that I can’t even believe I said it right now. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever stop thinking that my sister should apologize for leaving me behind.

Especially since Lydia’s not even the one who owes me anything— she got as little as I did in terms of emotional support. If anyone owes both of us something, it’s our parents, but they’re both dead now, so it’s too late, and even if I allowed myself that equation—of being owed—it doesn’t seem fair to hold them accountable for payment. It never has. No one could blame them—two good people who had cared for a disabled child for almost ten years at home, then institutionalized her, then grieved when she died only a year later of the flu, of all things—for not giving us their full attention. How could they have? I never really expected Lydia to come back, because there was nothing much for her to come back for. Plus, she’s always done her own thing. Until now, that has never included me.

*

When I first joined the Small World site—the Small World “community”—I needed advice on recycling and parking permits and handymen and car mechanics. That was a year after Tom left and a year before Lydia moved in. He had taken care of those kinds of things, as well as almost all the cooking, when he was still around, but once he was gone, I had to figure all that out for myself. Which was fine. I was single again now, and while a part of me was deeply ashamed and devastated—it was Tom who left me, not the other way around—I was game to start over. Because when you start over you get another chance to make things right. Because what feels like the end is often the beginning. Isn’t that what all the stupid divorce books and social media affirmation posts promised? With Lydia here, I have different needs: her needs. Museums, art supply stores, barre and yoga classes, and lots of takeout choices, since she is as uncomfortable and uninterested in the kitchen as I am. Small World is another world, an endless rabbit hole to disappear into and get lost in where no one can find me. It’s the perfect hiding place, even from myself. Especially from myself.

But I never post questions of my own on Small World. Letting my neighbors know my business—my odd jobs in need of doing, my dietary cravings, my sister issues—would be too revealing. Instead, I lurk, stealing answers from other, similar posts. It feels like cheating, because it is, but eavesdropping on the site is better than getting involved online or in person. I grew up with people constantly in our house, in our living room—crying and sad and desperate for comfort. Now that I’m in charge of my life, I prefer to keep to myself.

*

Sometimes I look for apartments on Small World for Lydia. Not for now, since we’re having such a great time together getting to know each other as adults, but for later, down the road. Just in case. There aren’t many rental leads on the site, which is surprising, and dumb: finding apartments seems like a big problem that it should prioritize solving. But, like so many things in life, that’s the way it is. I’m not desperate for her to go. In fact, the constant challenge of trying to get my sister to pay attention to me so that we can finally be close gives my life purpose and focus in this strange postdivorce phase, and I’d be lying if I said having someone to share expenses with again hasn’t been a relief. So it’s nothing like that. I’m thinking ahead, planning for our futures, which are now, finally, connected.

Maybe someday I’ll write to the developers of Small World, suggest they ramp up their local real estate listings—neighbors seem more reliable than those online rental sites when it comes to hearing about available apartments and places for sale. They could provide a valuable service to people like me trying to help friends and relatives move out and transition from dependent houseguest or codependent roommate to independent renter or homeowner. Until then, I’ll keep looking. There are a few listings here and there—mostly short-term sublets, in-law suites, rooms in basements or third-floor attics, the occasional decent studio or one- or two-bedroom—nothing great, nothing that would appeal to Lydia and rise to her high design expectations, even temporarily, I’m certain of that. But you never know. It doesn’t hurt to check.

At some point during all that scrolling, a totally unrelated post catches my eye:

ANYONE KNOW IF THIS CAT HAS A HOME?
A stray cat sneaks into our backyard all the time now, eating the birdseed that falls from the bird feeder hanging on the tree. He/ she is obviously hungry. I’m worried that he/she will get into the neighbor’s rat-mitigation bait—that curiosity (and hunger) will actually kill the cat. The city has a stray rehoming program, but I wanted to first see if this is anyone’s beloved missing kitty.
(see photo)

I don’t usually read lost-cat posts. I’m not a cat person, and there are so many lost cats in the neighborhood I can’t keep them straight (I hate to judge, though of course I do: Why can’t these people manage to keep their cats inside?), but I think it’s funny that I’ve come across a post about the “stray rehoming” process of cats when I’m thinking about the future “rehoming” process of Lydia. Mostly I’m intrigued because the post seems more concerned with misgendering the lost cat than with finding its owner. I’m mildly annoyed, too, to be totally honest, since there was recently a whole thing about pronouns at work with a colleague (he/him) who manages to work the subject into almost every meeting about every project the company (they/them) is working on. And I’m someone (she/her) who couldn’t possibly be more pro-pronouns! Maybe that’s the unlikely spark that causes this strange new habit to form—the habit that makes me cut and paste and reformat and retitle Small World posts into poems on my computer:

Pronouns

A stray cat
sneaks into our backyard
all the time now,
eating the birdseed that falls from
the bird feeder hanging on the tree.
He/she is obviously hungry.
I’m worried that
he/she will get into the neighbor’s rat-mitigation bait
—that curiosity (and hunger)
will actually kill the cat.
The city has a stray rehoming program,
but I wanted to first see
if this is anyone’s
beloved missing kitty.
(see photo)

I love my new little prose poem. It’s so cute I can hardly stand it. In my job, the one I’m supposed to be doing when I’m wasting time on Small World—as an archivist for EverMore, a local company that digitizes photos and documents for families and institutions (that’s the short version)—I’m always trying to figure out the value of various pictures, papers, and film clips that arrive on my desk in boxes: what to include in whatever family legacy project I’m working on, and what to leave out. It’s the perfect job for me. I seriously can’t believe I get paid to indulge my extreme curiosity about other people’s families, who they are and where they come from, how their parts—their parents and all their siblings and all their siblings’ spouses and children—fit together, or don’t.

But it’s stressful sometimes, too. How do I know if I’m getting another family’s narrative right? Who am I to determine what’s important to people I’ve never met and know only through their photos and videos? I’m not exactly an expert in this field, given my tiny family of origin. Which is why making my little poems feels like such an escape, especially when I craft this first one. It reads like a super-short story, full of tension and action and pathos—in only a few lines. All I want is more, so I reformat one of the replies and make another poem out of it, too:

Their People

I’m an ornithologist at Harvard and,
in case you haven’t heard, birds are dying
in record numbers and stray cats—
unhomed, unhoused, uncontrolled—
are to blame.
Animal Control suggests spraying them
with a garden hose
which I sometimes do out of desperation
(my partner is allergic so we can’t risk feline allergens
seeping in through open doors and window screens),
but I’m not a believer in
injuring cats
even if they’re loose
and causing trouble.
First, I try to figure out who owns them
so that I can return them
to their people
even if their people don’t deserve them
since they’ve failed to keep them safe inside.

*

At some point after Lydia arrives and once I realize she doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and might never leave—this is now the time period around which I frame everything—I begin copying my Small World “poems” into notebooks. It calms me. I copy them with my favorite black pens, the ones I use for work and the ones I used to use for my own work, a long time ago when I still wanted to be a writer. Bad teenage poetry and then some short stories in high school and college. Not to brag, but I showed promise. When I told my mother about my ambitions back then she said: I hope you’re going to tell important stories. Which was her way of saying, I hope you’re going to tell other people’s stories. Louise was an advocate, a solver of problems, a fighter for the rights of others. But I wasn’t that kind of person, and I wasn’t interested in becoming that kind of writer. I was too shy to knock on people’s doors and ask them questions they didn’t want to answer. And besides: I had my own problems. Someone had to advocate for me.

Making my Small World poems has become a kind of therapy, a form of silent meditation. Obviously I don’t show them to Lydia: in fact, I hide my habit from her, being careful to put my current notebook under another notebook in the drawer full of notebooks even though the notebooks are full of other people’s words, not my own, and don’t actually need to be hidden like my own writing would, if I even did it. Maybe my behavior is less about what I’m hiding and more about wanting to keep things hidden. Secrecy feels like power. And safety.

Writing these mini-stories down, collecting them in notebooks— these little problems in search of solutions—is a way to contain the anxiety of the people who originally wrote them. And my own. Because at a time when I thought my life would be settled—I’m a year away from turning fifty—I’m single again and engaged in a complicated and somewhat demanding rebound relationship: with my sister of all people. She’s not easy, and neither am I, but what I once wished for—reconnection with her, a do-over life with her in it, the friendship I hoped would develop if only we’d lived in the same place—is actually happening. Sort of. Sisterhood, like marriage, takes hard work. And, like marriage, both sisters have to really want to be in the relationship to stay together.

*

Every now and then, among the Baby Blue Jay Injured, Seeking Free Prom Dress, Are These Your Goats?, Flying Squirrels?! headlines, I find a post that transcends the genre:

Egyptian Man, Looking to Make Friends

I ride the bus for work every day
I smile and wave and say Hello
to people I pass
but almost no one answers.
I still don’t know anyone
after ten years.
I wish someone would say something.
I am lonely.

And a response that transcends most second chapters:

Response to Egyptian Man

I’m a foreigner too
and had the same experience as you.
It is still a mystery to me
as I have lived other places
all over the world
where people are pleasant
and kind,
if only just on the surface—
a smile at the bank or
supermarket—small gestures.
I have one friend now
and have stopped trying
for more.
I am happy alone.
My advice to you is:
Don’t try too hard.
Don’t be too friendly.
Don’t smile too much.
I was told once, years ago,
that “only idiots smile all the time”
We may be lonely foreigners
but we are not idiots.

“Egyptian Man” and “Response to Egyptian Man” are the saddest things I’ve ever read on Small World. Sometimes I think they’re the saddest things I’ve read anywhere. Does it get more tragic than wanting to connect but being told that people who try too hard are idiots? Maybe I’m meant to read this right now. Maybe I’m meant to understand that I shouldn’t risk looking like an idiot with Lydia. That decades of long-distance living can’t be bridged in only a few months’ time. That closeness will come, or it won’t, but forcing it might be worse than not trying at all.

__________________________________

Excerpt from Small World by Laura Zigman. Copyright © 2023 by Laura Zigman. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.




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