I doubled over in peals of laughter as my boyfriend watched, bemused.
"I'm not kidding, you should have seen it!" I said as I caught my breath. "I dreamed that stupid dog of hers was chasing me ......... and the face on the dog was Marnie's!"
My boyfriend and I had recently agreed that he would move in at the end of the summer. He had met the neighbors next door, Marnie Strupp and her husband Karl, but he had no idea what he was in for. I jokingly referred to them as the neighbors from hell. Their property was an eyesore, and I was thankful that at least there was a row of thick evergreens separating my back yard from theirs, although the front yards abutted one another with no such cover.
Actually, Karl wasn't that bad. He was a trucker and was only home every other weekend or so, which was fortunate for me, and no doubt for Karl as well. When he was home, I always knew it right away. For whatever reason, and for no reason at all, Marnie screamed incessantly at Karl. I mean screamed! Her voice was shrill and screechy, his infrequent protests a loud lazy baritone. Yes, I always knew when Karl was at home.
The Strupps had a daughter named Stacie, who was grown and blessed to have gotten a job and moved out a few years prior. She came by every so often, and when she did, her annoying strident whine added to the cacophony of her parent's constant bickering.
Marnie was a woman of maybe 60 or so. It was hard to tell. She had been a heavy smoker all her life, and had the leathery wrinkled face of a smoker as well as the wet hacking cough to go along. Her hair was bleached almost a platinum blond and her blue eyes were watered and bleary. She was not a tall woman, and somewhat frumpy, her hips and thighs bulging under the stretch pants she liked to wear with oversized sweaters.
Besides being unable to escape the perpetual arguing whenever Stacy or Karl was around, the only sign that Marnie was there was her car coming and going to work and that stupid dog. She had a white miniature poodle, a ridiculous barky thing, whose high-pitched yipping hurt my ears. The perfect companion for Marnie. She was named Sasha, an oddly delicate name I thought, for someone like Marnie to have come up with.
A few weeks before my boyfriend was due to move in, I found myself still awake quite late one night. Karl was on the road. For once it wasn't the neighbors keeping me up. I was restless, and not sure if I was having second thoughts about my boyfriend and me living together. Besides that, it was so darn hot. I decided to go out and have a walk around the neighborhood, maybe that would tire me enough to get some sleep.
I put on some sneakers and headed out the door, surprised at how much cooler it actually was outside than in my house. My neighborhood is a tidy, insular arrangement of modest homes, formed into a maze of quiet streets. There is only one road in or out of the neighborhood, so the traffic is mostly kept to those who live there. It is a good area for biking, and for walking late at night.
I breathed deeply and began to wend my way through the darkened streets, trying not to think my uneasy thoughts. The soft humidity of the sultry summer evening caressed my skin, and the faint smell of the pavement, still warm from the heat of the day, wafted up from the street. There must have been a million stars, and I slowed my stride to tip my head back and gaze heavenward. Having rounded the nearest block of streets, I decided I could probably get to sleep now, so I turned down my own road and headed home.
A few houses down from my house I began to hear the strains of music, playing loudly somewhere.
Who would be playing music so loud at this time of night? The two houses before mine, from this end of the street, were dark and silent, as it was just after midnight. I reached my front yard and recognized the lilting classical melody of Mozart's famous serenade "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" (translation: "A Little Night Music"). It was one of my favorites. Walking across the damp lawn, drawn towards the music, I was astounded to discover that it was coming from Marnie's back yard!
I advanced cautiously through the straggling hedges that separate my lawn from Marnie's mostly dirt front yard, unable to comprehend what ever Marnie could be doing playing such lovely music at midnight. Feeling stealthy, but still confused, I crept up the driveway past the dilapidated porch, noticing a faint glow issuing from
behind the house.
My eyes could not believe what I found there. A large white painted arbor, covered in green creeping ivy, with tiny white lights blinking from amongst the leaves, framed a narrow pathway leading further behind Marnie's house. I stood stunned for a moment, feeling slightly disoriented.
Unsure what to do next, I considered turning back down the driveway, but something made me stay. The cool blackness of the night behind me, contrasting with the warm twinkling light of the arbor collided with the heady swells of Mozart, convincing me to linger. The music was much louder here, evidently turned up to high volume, and the melodic tune momentarily lulled me into a trance-like daze. Curiosity finally overcame my enjoyment of the serenade, and I inched hesitantly through the shimmering arch.
A few steps down the narrow pathway revealed Marnie's back patio. Softly lit by flickering candles in reflecting globes, set on glass-topped side tables, the first thing I noticed was the flowers. Marnie's patio was surrounded by an effusion of blossoming plants, bushes and ornamental grasses that would be the envy of any dedicated gardener. A sweet scent, reminding me of Easter lillies, made me turn and gaze in amazement at the lush beauty of a wide variety of blooming plants.
It took me a moment to notice her, seated on a cushioned wicker chair in the shadows on the far side of the little terrace. She seemed to notice me at the same moment and stood as I squeaked out a surprised
"Oh, hi Kate, you scared me there for a second!" she chortled in her raspy voice, "Come on, have a seat!" She leaned over to adjust the controls of the CD player on a table.
"Oh, please don't turn it off" I said quickly. "I heard the music and I had to see where it was coming from.........." my voice trailed off as I took in the sight of Marnie before me.
Her brassy blond hair was muted in the candle light, looking almost pretty, and was pulled back in a bun. Curling tendrils falling loose framed her face. She had lipstick on. This threw me more than anything. I had never seen Marnie with lipstick! She wore a loose caftan shift with a swirling Indian print in browns and deep reds, and her feet were bare.
She turned the music down just enough for easy conversation, but without ruining the classy mood that it set, here on Marnie's secret patio.
"Have a seat" she repeated, "would you like a glass of wine?"
I noticed the long-stemmed wine glass on the table next to her chair, half full of pink blush, with a hint of tiny bubbles clinging to the inside of the glass.
"Umm .... sure" I said bluntly, thinking how bizarre this scene was becoming.
She drifted into the house, leaving me a moment to wonder at the stunning gardens, tastefully decked here and there with the same tiny white lights as on the arbor. She returned with a glass of the pink sparkly wine, and the bottle, which she set on her table as she sat back in her chair. I settled awkwardly on the edge of another painted wicker seat across from Marnie. She sat there gazing steadily at me, not saying a word.
"It's Mozart" I blurted, "this is one of my favorite pieces."
"Yes" Marnie answered smoothly, "mine too - one of Mozart's best I think, although I do love the Requiem."
"Right" I replied, wondering what planet I was on, discussing classical music with Marnie, "I love his Requiem too. It is so ironic that he died before it was finished."
"Ironic and sad, I agree" she answered. "My mother was especially fond of his piano concertos."
"Your mother?" I croaked, still in abject disbelief over what I was experiencing.
"Yes, my mother was a woman of great culture." Marnie continued, "She was an historian, knew more than anyone I know of about the Russian Czar and his family."
"The Romanovs?" I asked.
She smiled, pleased that I was familiar with this portion of Russian history, "Yes, the Romanovs. Such a tragic story" she went on, "and so many mysteries remain, even after all this time has gone by."
I had heard on the news not too long ago about the elderly woman in a nursing home who had claimed for years that she was the Romanov princess Anastasia, and that she had actually survived the brutal massacre of her family and escaped to Germany. DNA testing had proven once and for all that she was not related. I mentioned this to Marnie and she nodded pensively.
"Don't you think that in a way, it is not such a good thing that we have some of these advances like DNA testing nowadays?" she mused. "So little true mystery left in our modern world. Do you know that they even identified the soldier in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C.? Changed the whole meaning. Such a shame, I have never felt the same about that memorial since then." She looked down at her glass and swirled the wine. "I think that sometimes .... you can know too much."
I was astonished into silence, having as yet been unable to square this Mozart-loving student of Russian history with the noisy nattering Marnie that I had thought I knew.
She didn't seem to find my lack of words disturbing at all, but rested her head on the flowered cushion behind her and closed her eyes, listening to the music. After a few moments she said,
"My daughter is named after her you know."
"Um - what?" I said stupidly.
"My daughter Stacie" she replied, "Her name is Anastasia."
"Oh" I replied, "Is your family Russian, Marnie?"
"Yes, both my parents were. My name is actually Marina. Marina Petrovich. I don't even remember when they started calling me Marnie." Her brow furrowed at this thought, as if she had lost something. She sighed and stood up, swaying softly to the music as she picked up the wine bottle and glided over to me, holding it out to refill my glass.
"Oh, I wish I could still dance" she said wistfully, "and Stacie never wanted to learn. If I have a granddaughter someday, I hope she lets me pay for her to have lessons. My mother was a dance teacher in St. Petersburg" she explained. "When I was growing up I studied ballet, year after year, and I loved to dance. Arthritis kicking in now, and I'm out of practice anyway." A fleeting look of sadness crossed Marnie's eyes.
I found myself telling her how my mother and I get season tickets to the Boston ballet every year, and how I grew up loving the ballet and wishing I could dance. Marnie listened and nodded slightly, quietly taking in what I was saying with apparent interest.
She reached for her cigarettes on the table. "Mind if I smoke?"
"No, that's fine"
She lit her cigarette with a zippo lighter, inhaled and blew a thin stream of smoke out towards the darkness of the garden, away from my direction.
We sat in companionable silence. Mozart had moved on to a symphony. I wasn't sure which one it was, but it was beautiful and heartbreaking. It poured out its melancholy measures in soaring crescendos, as Marnie and I sat in her softly shining garden, sipping bubbling rosé.
Half an hour later, I left Marnie, with promises to return with my boyfriend once he had moved in, and have some more wine in her garden.
Entering my front door, I flipped on the living room light. It seemed so harsh and unnatural. I quickly went to the linen closet in the hallway and fumbled around, coming up with two votive candles. I set them on saucers from the kitchen and found some matches on the fireplace mantel to light them. I turned off the offending lights and instead turned the radio on, tuning to the all-classical station.
I settled on the couch and put my feet up, hands clasped behind my head and marveled at all that I had seen and heard and learned this night. Sinking sleepily into the cushions, I pulled a light throw over my legs and drifted off on an exquisite melody of Vivaldi, embracing welcome sleep.
I dreamed of a graceful Russian Princess with a glittering tiara, drinking pink wine and dancing to the elegant refrains of Mozart. And the face on the princess was Marnie's.
© 2009 Katharine L. Sparrow