City Mouse Country Mouse


by on May 8, 2014


photo by Dorie Hagler


Oliver is moving and I am sad. Not a wistful, sentimental, sweet kind of sad. This is a flattened, weepy, unable to go food shopping, exhausted, grief ridden, my- husband’s-getting-uncomfortable-with-it kind of sad. Oliver, our nine-year-old neighbor, hasn’t (God forbid) died. He hasn’t even moved back to Wisconsin. He’s moving ten miles away and I am wrecked.

At first I thought I was losing my mind and then (after a neurotic googling of my symptoms) no, I realized, I am losing Oliver.

Oliver is in many ways critical to my everyday sanity. His nine a.m. knock on our door every Saturday is practically Pavlovian in the response it elicits from our family. He comes in and out of our house after school all week long, but at his parents’ insistence he waits until 9:00 come over on the weekends, often restlessly pacing in front of our house or riding his bike up and down the road, waiting. His loud rapid-fire rap at the door has conditioned us to expect the sound of his laugh – a hearty, head tilted towards the sky, eyes closed guffaw, and when it didn’t come this past Saturday, a hollow sense of emptiness descended upon our house.

He didn’t always knock. He used to crawl through the dog door in our kitchen when he first moved into our neighborhood (which was not exactly a neighborhood until his family’s arrival.)  He was three years old and pulled like a magnet to our five-year-old twin boys. We live on a dirt road in Taos, New Mexico and in typical Taos style it was a mix of rural, wabi-sabi enchantment and disconcerting Breaking Badness. We were sure that the tenants who Oliver’s family had replaced had been dealing drugs from the house, with cars floating ghostlike down the road at all times of night. And our old neighbor Eddie, who had barely survived being run over by his own tractor, had been harboring a mountain lion cub in his garage while I unknowingly pushed the stroller of my preemie twins past it every day. This was not the kind of suburban block I had grown up on, on Long Island. Oli made it all better.

For the next six years, the three boys played effortlessly, for hours to days at a stretch. They roamed between our houses and sometimes into the adjacent fields, destroyed countless colonies of red ants, bounced on Oliver’s trampoline, built forts, wrestled and pillow fought, played all manner of war and battle with swords, light sabers and sticks, and introduced me, one of three sisters, to the imaginary world of boys. “We need reinforcements!” Oli would shout. As neighbors, the boys managed to escape the structure and parent involvement of “play dates” – a term to which I’ve never warmed. They came and left as they pleased, rarely pausing even to say hello to each other, entering and exiting each others’ worlds with a tender confidence.

Oli has a round-faced, Midwestern wholesomeness, a sturdy build, and the nature and syntax of an old man. It seemed fitting that his favorite costume in Jack and Liam’s costume box was a foam penguin, and we referred to him as “the sweaty penguin” in conversation for months after a particularly hot and rowdy dinner party. Liam preferred shy, burrowing animals, like chipmunks and skunks. Jack always identified with blue birds and other lithe, flying creatures like Peter Pan. When Oliver first told me a few months ago about the new house his parents were considering buying, after the offer they had made on the house they rent on our street was turned down, he said, “It’s essentially in the middle of nowhere.”   I tucked his “essentially” into my memory like a gift.

From the beginning Oliver was able to interject himself into the secret life of twins. He and I watched and observed, equally mystified by the intimacy and intensity of the twin dynamic. With surprising competency, he waded into the deep twin waters, or danced around its edges, never playing sides, and befriended them as individuals, while also respecting their oneness. Somehow he gave them a break from each other, even when they were all together. Mostly, they laughed.

When Oliver’s baby sister Mae was born, the three boys were shocked.   It seemed incomprehensible to them that this newcomer had dared to arrive as both a baby and, even worse, a girl. It turns out they had expected a bow-and-arrow wielding boy to join them on what Liam by then referred to as “the magical road.”   When we first went to meet Mae on the day she was born, Oliver told us he wanted to hit her on the head with a rock. Mae is now as beautiful as her mother, and for all of her thirty pounds, commands a great deal of authority on our street. She climbs up on Jack’s lap, drapes her arms over his shoulders, and calls him her boyfriend. Oliver has grown into a protective, patient brother. Intrepidly, she follows them wherever they wander.

Over the years, we’ve thought about moving but could never get past the hurdle of leaving them. When we returned from annual summer trips to family, the boys regaled each other with bragging, exaggerated tales of their adventures in Wisconsin and New York. “The water slides were sick!” Oli would say.

At first I mourned for Liam and Jack, who grew sadder and more anxious as Oli’s impending move grew nearer. I watched a wounded Liam retreat, slowly, from their shared existence, closing the door to his room more often and sometimes crying before bed. Still they came together to ride their electric motorcycles in another neighbor’s green pasture, to find a beaver dam in a nearby stream (returning wet and cold) or to dance in our living room. While sitting in my pajamas on our couch one night watching Oli stand before me, in aviator sunglasses and a too small blazer, shaking his hips to Pharrell’s Get Lucky, I knew that my sorrow was not just for Jack and Liam. It was me who Oli had been saving every day.

His family’s move has been a month long event, a band-aid being pulled off slowly. They stopped sleeping at the house a few days ago. That evening, I stood bereft in our driveway staring at their vacant driveway. Since Oliver has left, I’ve been losing things; my favorite sunglasses, gift certificates, keys, the thermometer, shopping lists, my cell phone. My mind feels sluggish – like is too busy processing Oliver’s absence to manage such minutia. Of course it was in the midst of such minutia, during the mundane routine – the messy, bloody, dirty, funny, holy business of everyday life, during the rests between the notes, that he was with us, that he was with me. And I can’t yet seem to locate the rest without him here.