Carolyn turns down the tiny coiled one-way street, delighted as always that her city of urban grit holds such an exquisite leafy secret. The street is carved into the profile of a hill; to her right are the tops of ornate houses set sunken low to hug the rising earth, and to her left a row of gorgeous Victorians sit high above, the verdant hill rising still farther beyond. A sidewalk is carved into the hill, parallel to the street but perhaps 15 feet above, and each residence has its own set of iron-runged cement stairs that run from the street to the sidewalk and then continue up to each front door. Everywhere is greenery and flowers and the interplay of light and dark, and through the framing arms of the trees, one can see the sparkle of water as it dances below in shades of brown and green rustle.
She parks the car and takes a moment to collect her thoughts.
The first time she drove up this street, she had been filled with a childlike certainty that a place like this must be filled with happiness. How could despair live amidst perfection? Surely such beauty meant that all was well here, that these houses contained happy families living contented lives from which they would not be detoured by the simple uglinesses that smeared the existences of lesser others.
So that first time on this small leafy street, Carolyn parked the car and walked up the steps, her daughters’ hands in hers. Past the sidewalk and toward the front door she walked, greedily eager to meet and befriend the woman who lived in such a lovely place. As she stood at the front door, she paused for a moment to turn and enjoy the view, and that’s when she saw the small wooden sign, hand-painted white with a red arrow beneath red letters that said simply, “Agata.”
It was Agata she was here to see, and so she turned with her daughters away from the house’s front door and followed the arrow around the side of the house. The girls released her hands and bent to scrounge in the greenery as Carolyn walked ahead. A small graveled footpath curved through shrubbery and ivy to another smaller white door, AGATA painted in sloppy blood-red letters across its surface. Carolyn tried for lightness as she turned to speak reassuringly to her daughters, “This way she always knows which door is hers.”
Carolyn’s younger daughter looked at her and then uncurled her chubby toddler hand to display a snail she had found and crushed in her grasp. Wiping at the bloodless gore and sharpened bits with her sleeve, Carolyn sighed, “Gentle with the snails, baby. They carry their houses with them, remember? Gentle.”
Leaning in to inspect the damage, Carolyn’s older daughter, who had just turned four, addressed her sister for their mother’s benefit, “Did you try to knock on his door?” The smaller girl nodded. “And did you ask him to come out and be your friend? Did you tell him you were a friend?” Another nod. “Well, then . . . sometimes things break when you don’t listen to friends.”
The girls stood side by side and stared at their mother, and Carolyn sighed again, “Just leave the snails alone, OK? They don’t have to come out. They don’t have to let you in. They get to decide. Leave the snails alone.”
The older girl took her sister’s hand protectively, “Friends don’t leave friends alone.”
Carolyn made a mental note to come back to this discussion when she wasn’t standing before a red-scrawled door, “Just leave the snails alone.”
She straightened her blouse and knocked on the door. There was no answer. She knocked again. Still no answer. She turned and looked around; maybe she should try the front door of the house? Except the door on which she was knocking was clearly Agata’s door. She knocked again, and this time a woman’s voice answered, rough and sleepy, “Go away.”
Carolyn knocked again and leaned to speak against the red letters, “I’m Carolyn. You asked for me to be here.”
“Go the fuck away. I don’t want any.”
Carolyn paused. This was not going at all as she had imagined. This woman was supposed to be delighted to see her. She raised her hand to knock again and caught the silent appraising looks of her two daughters; she spoke defensively, “This is not the same thing as the snails. It is not the same.”
The older girl looked at her with serious eyes, “Because you are not big enough to crush this house?”
At a loss for words, Carolyn decided to say none, turning instead to knock on the door again.
She continued to knock on the door until Agata answered it.
She spoke reassuringly about her intentions.
She asked this stranger to trust her.
Carolyn parks the car and sits for a moment, alone beneath the shadowed interplay of light and dark, and considers the broken woman who waits for her at the top of the stairs.
What was it her daughter said?
“Sometimes things break when you don’t listen to friends.”
She stares down at her hands, imagining them covered in bloodless gore.
It’s just like the fucking snail.
Maybe she should just drive away.
“Friends don’t leave friends alone.”