Monica Dagwood always stopped to tie her shoe in front of 301 Seneca Ave during her evening jog. Even if her shoelace wasn’t untied and flapping around—aglets whipping at her ankles—she would stop at the tree stump across the street from the 301 Seneca Ave house and retie them. This stopping place was at the top of a hill and by the time she arrived here, her breaths were gasping from the ascent, and the warmth in various parts of her body began to feel uncomfortably humid. After this break, the tightened shoe stimulated the energy in her feet and she imagined flames shooting from her pink Nike’s as she continued her jog, now in the home stretch back towards her house.
Monica always stopped to tie her shoe in front of 301 Seneca Ave, but it wasn’t just because she needed the shoe-tying boost to power through the rest of her run; no, it actually had more (or everything) to do with the 301 Seneca Ave house itself: Monica was in love with it. She never spoke about it, though—Monica kept her obsession quiet and strictly within the scape of her fantasies. It seemed silly to her that she idolized a stranger’s house so religiously, but yet, it was the kind of house that demanded to be idolized.
The 301 house sat upon the corner of the hillous Seneca Ave and the considerably more level Oakes Drive. Then, as though being on the summit of the hill wasn’t enough, the house was perched upon an even more elevated plot of land, so that it literally raised itself above the neighboring houses. The house was not incredibly grandiose in size, but it was the way the homeowner had so elegantly decorated the landscape that produced its brimming charm.
It was a white cottage with sky lights and a red chimney, and beautiful expansive windows with white lace curtains clandestinely obscuring the house’s interior. The property surrounding the house was entirely landscaped with flower beds of all different species: black-eyed susans, daylilies, bellflowers, peonies, coneflowers, marigolds, angelonias, pansies, and beside the house was a massive rhododendron. Monica referred to the house as the Haven in her mind, because it looked like such a divine sanctuary, all the colorful and brilliant plants growing lusciously around the house. A white fence traced the yard’s perimeter and wrapped around a large shed to the left of the driveway.
Ever since she had moved to the neighborhood earlier that year, Monica had kept her eye on this house. She had first noticed it when she and her wife were using the GPS to route them the quickest way to Aldi, and the route had taken them through low-traffic side streets displaced from the main roads. Once she developed her jogging routine, she deliberately routed herself to pass this house so she could see it again, and now, a year later, even if she changed up her main running route, she always made sure to pass the Haven. Her job in the city kept her behind a desk all day, fixated on a computer screen solving customer service requests from the IT company’s users, and so after hours of sedentary working, Monica was typically bursting for some physical activity. She had grown up as an athlete in school, so running was a hobby she had had for years.
In comparison to the Haven, Monica’s house was, um, er, quaint. And actually, it wasn’t even technically Monica’s house, but rather a rental, one that would “do” until she and her wife Tiff could afford something more permanent in that neighborhood. The house—the Love Shack as her wife endearingly referred to it—was a typical 2-bedroom, 1.5-bath unit, just enough room for two adults and a cat, but already it felt a bit cramped with their furniture, and the lack of closets and pantries made every room feel that much more cluttered. This contributed greatly to Monica’s resentment of seeing former classmates post on Instagram “We did a thing!” with a key emoji and a picture of their new house. Lucky bastards, she’d always mutter.
It’s not like Monica was typically a jealous person, it’s just that she had never lived in a beautiful house before and was beginning to feel like she was doomed to dim, cramped, leaky houses, forever deprived of luxuries such as a pull-in garage or properly insulated windows. Growing up, her mother—on account of being the sole breadwinner and life being generally tumultuous—moved their family amongst many duplexes and rentals, and since Monica had three sisters, they always had to share rooms, and consequently everything Monica supposedly “owned” was up for grabs to her siblings. As a teenager, Monica loved watching “MTV Cribs” and “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” and dreamt of a TV-worthy house, and even now her favorite channel was HGTV. What she wouldn’t give to live somewhere that she felt proud of.
That’s really what it came down to: Monica craved space, and beautiful space moreover. When she had moved into her first college dorm room, she was already accustomed to sharing her living quarters, whereas her new roommate was constantly groveling over the shared bathrooms, lamenting the loss of her personal bathroom back at her “Daddy’s house” (which Monica certainly scoffed at). But now Monica was reaching her thirties and was ready to settle down and spread out. Which she couldn’t do with her wife’s boxes of magazines and tubes of paint tripping her every time she stepped in their living room. But there wasn’t really anywhere else to put all their stuff, and she knew her wife was just as annoyed as she was that they couldn’t each have their own workroom.
But 301 Seneca Ave inspired her. Oh, she loved fantasizing about waking up in the east-facing room, stepping out onto the driveway in a bathrobe to pick up the daily newspaper. Maybe she and the Ms. would even get a dog!
Because this house was situated in a “nice” neighborhood—one with signposts reading “Report suspicious behavior” staked throughout—and since she could never know whose eyes were peering out at her from behind curtains, she tried not to ogle at it too much. It seemed to be a pretty blended city, but Monica had had the cops called on her for Loitering while Black before, and that conditioning was hard to shake. Plus, Monica had to consciously restrain herself from pulling out her phone and photographing the house every time she passed it—but she was cleverer than that, and since she saw the golden numbers 301 glint at her every day from the house’s front, she bypassed this small issue by looking it up on Google Maps and screenshooting the “street view.” Gah, I’m such a creep, she thought as she set the image as her desktop background on her work computer—but it was motivation, she told herself. On the days she felt like browsing Facebook instead of completing cases, she only had to see the Haven’s elm with the tire swing in the front yard to remind her to keep her nose to the grind stone: maybe if she worked hard enough, she could have her own 301 Seneca Ave one day. One day…
On her jogs, Monica wondered if she could ever be friends with the person who owned 301 Seneca, if she could somehow catch the owner outside and hit it off so swimmingly that she’d be invited inside to see what it looked like from within. If the outside was divine, she could only imagine how elegant and sweet the decor was—and imagine she did. She figured there had to be indoor plants, devil’s ivy draped over window sills and kitchen cabinets, a ficus in the living room. It also seemed probable that the fireplace had either a mirror or a featured piece of art above it, and she crossed her fingers that the floors were hardwood. Maybe the kitchen had an island in it—Monica always loved kitchens with this bonus counter space—and she went back and forth on whether she thought it opened to the living room or was its own separate quarters. During some of these obsessive fits, she thought about how she could obtain the floor plan from the city’s public records, but decided against this; she had to draw the line somewhere.
But she rarely did see the owner. Monica assumed this had to do with the time of day she jogged—in the evenings, when people were more likely to be eating dinner or settling down for the day. The backyard was also partially obscured by the house, so she’d never know if its residents were seated at their patio table or sipping iced tea on their garden’s bench.
Monica was thinking about this, mindlessly retying her shoe one evening, stooped over the sidewalk across from 301 Seneca Ave, when a voice first called to her, “Whoooo-eee!” At first, Monica looked towards the Haven, but when it added, “You take no days off, huh?” she realized it was coming from the opposite direction of 301. A little bit startled, Monica spotted to her left the old woman on the front porch of the house facing the Haven, casually rocking in a chair. Her porch was partially obscured by overgrown hedges and some low-hanging tree branches, and the woman was shadowed in the waning evening.
“I like running!” Monica lamely called back, standing up and shifting her weight between her legs, trying to keep her heart rate up. She glanced down at her feet, which were standing on blades of grass blown onto the sidewalk, and looked back up, squinting. As she fingered her head band and pulled it down from where it had slipped up, she took in the woman’s house.
It was funny—she had never noticed it before. There wasn’t much to notice about it, though, other than what it lacked. The paint was faded yellow and flaking, and the roof was moss-covered, partially obscured by the pine trees and the oak that secluded the house. A cracked sidewalk led up to the front porch, which was a slab of concrete cluttered with mismatched lawn chairs, a sloppily coiled garden hose, and stacked empty planters. There were scattered patches of bare ground amidst the yard, pine needles littered in groups.
“You always check out Donna’s house; are you a private investigator?” the woman asked, punctuating the question with a cackle. She rocked on her chair, seemingly pleased by Monica’s stricken expression.
“Oh, uh, no no!” she replied, wishing her voice didn’t sound so stuck in her throat. Monica waved awkwardly and then turned to jog away, embarrassed to have been called out and skittish to exit the conversation. Before she knew it, she was back home, her mind having raced the entire trek home, caught up on that exchange.
Did that lady watch her run by there every day? Was Donna the person who owned the 301 Seneca? Would she call Donna and tell her some weird girl was always passing by? Monica anxiously deduced what she could, until the smell of Hungry Howie’s pizza and sandalwood incense welcomed her home, a notably odd combination. Monica’s wife pecked her a kiss and happily squeezed her sweaty tush in greeting as Monica breathlessly entered their kitchen. “I got pizza!” Tiff beamed, presenting the yellow, grease-stained box which was set open on the counter. “Wanna pair this with some wine and cartoons?”
Monica laughed and went to the faucet for some water as their cat trotted up to rub against her leg. “Absolutely!”
The next day on her jog, Monica considered avoiding 301 Seneca Ave altogether in case the neighbor lady tried to engage with her again—but ultimately, she asserted to herself that the sidewalks were public property and she had every right to dawdle where she pleased, and moreover, it would probably be even more suspicious of her to be scared off by the woman’s joke. I don’t have anything to be shy about, I’m just jogging, Monica assured herself as she rounded the hill towards 301 Seneca.
Today, the woman was underneath a tree, bent over a pine comb in her long, tie-dyed blue dress and hair wrapped up in a marble purple headscarf. Monica’s ear buds were securely nestled in her ears, and as she passed, she didn’t linger to admire 301 Seneca but forced herself to keep moving her legs. When the woman noticed Monica jogging by, the two of them slightly waved to each other in awkward acknowledgement.
Monica tried not to stare as she passed this woman’s house, which was practically the antithesis of the Haven—it was really quite downtrodden in contrast—but she couldn’t help but assess it, now that she noticed it. She took in the twiggy “Welcome” wreath nailed to the door, the faded “302” on the mailbox, the dirty white garage door at the end of the sparsely graveled driveway. But moreover, she also noted, whipping her head to look up at the Haven, that this house had the perfect view of 301 Seneca. The trees’ branches were cleared just so that the porch had an open visage of the Haven.
After that, Monica and the woman of 302 Seneca Ave fell into a routine of nodding or waving to each other when they crossed paths—Monica began looking out for her, and only if the woman was out of sight would she linger to admire the Haven, in a manner as coy and brief as she could. Some days she changed it up and instead of retying her shoes, she pretended to straighten out her ear buds’ wires or readjust her hair.
During that following month, their year anniversary of living in the rental approached and Monica and her wife faced the option to renew their lease. Money was comfortable for them, but they didn’t have a lot of financial wiggle room and were nervous about blowing their savings on a house, which they knew would come with added expenses and maintenances (“I’d have to buy a fridge for the first time in my life,” Monica despaired, scrolling through Lowe’s website) yet their current house’s leaky washing machine, weak pipes, and lack of closet space were certainly wearing on their patience. Monica kept a Zillow tab open on her laptop at all times, constantly refreshing for new listings.
To clear her head that weekend, Monica decided to take a Saturday morning jog. Characteristically she only jogged on weekday evenings, but the clouds overhead that morning threatened rain, and if she was going to be pent up in the house the rest of the day because of a thunderstorm, she wanted to stretch her legs first.
This time, near the end of her jog, as the sky darkened with clouds and the warm breeze became more urgent, when she approached 301 Seneca Ave she noticed a gold SUV in the driveway and a middle-aged Black couple getting out of it. The man was carrying arm loads of shopping bags up the front walkway and into the house, and the woman was pulling a flower arrangement out of the back seat. Before Monica knew what she was doing, she paused her jogging playlist and seized the opportunity. “Excuse me ma’am?”
The woman had short, buzzed hair and was wearing khaki capris and a sheer button-down shirt. If she heard Monica, she made no indication, so Monica trotted nearer and said louder, “Excuse me!”
Taking a few steps up the driveway towards the woman, Monica sheepishly repeated yet again, “Excuse me?” Finally, the woman turned, sunglasses perched upon her head, and answered, “What is it? I’m not interested, sweetheart.”
Fumbling her words for a moment, Monica tried again, “Oh no, I was wondering if you lived here! It’s such a beautiful house.” She fully removed her ear buds so that she wouldn’t miss anything this dazzling yet distracted woman said.
“Yes, this is mine and my husband’s house. Why do you ask? We’re not hiring anymore gardeners this year.” With her foot, she kicked the car’s door shut and pointedly cocked her head at Monica, eyebrows raised.
Shaking her hands, Monica said, “No, that’s fine. I’m—I only wanted to tell you how much I love your house. I mean, the yard, all the flowers—it’s just so lovely to look at—“
This woman exhaled and feigned a trace of a smile. “Thank you dear, it is quite a lot of work to keep up with. Constantly cleaning and pruning, I barely have a moment’s rest. Is that all? I’m busy at the moment. Are you trying to interview me for some home journal?” Her weight shifted to her other leg as she heaved the flower arrangement up higher in her arms and peered over daisies and lilies.
Once again, Monica insisted, “Nope, just an admirer—“
“Well be a doll and open the door for me. My husband’s absolutely useless.” She turned and headed towards the house, and a moment later—after her words sunk into Monica’s brain—Monica scurried after her, awkwardly trying to pass her to reach the front door first.
If 301 Seneca Ave looked lovely from afar, it looked even lovelier up close. She had no time to take it all in, but Monica did her best to glance through the screen door as she pulled it open for the lady, who brusquely stepped over the jam and called “Toodle-loo!” before kicking the main door shut with a cool gust of air conditioned breeze.
On the front porch by herself now, Monica lingered for a moment, as she was always compelled to do with this house. The wind chimes hanging from the porch tolled in a twinkling cacophony; the white wicker porch furniture braced against breeze. She could hear the woman inside shouting to her husband, “Jim! Have you seen my—?”
Embarrassed by how poorly that interaction went, Monica’s heart skittered and sank. Donna was not who she expected her to be at all—suddenly she realized that in her head, Monica had built up 301 Seneca’s owners to be something more like charming hippies, or cordial neighbors who embodied the phrase “Live and let live.” Never had Monica imagined that snooty people would live here—but why hadn’t she?
Turning back to the driveway, Monica looked out to the street for the first time from this vantage point. There was 302 Seneca across the road: dingy, even smaller from this height, and tucked within the trees. It wasn’t necessarily a pretty sight, and this realization struck Monica as funny: the prettiest house in the neighborhood, and it didn’t even have the prettiest view!
There was something rather intriguing about 303 Seneca’s house, though. Certainly unkept, but it had what people called “character.” For the first time, Monica wondered what it looked like inside, if the interior was more loved than the exterior. She began to imagine it full of people like her mother and her sisters, a family without much other than each other and their chaotic love.
As Monica walked down 301 Seneca’s driveway and back to the sidewalk, she realized the lady from 302 Seneca had come out onto her porch and was beckoning Monica with an urgent wave. Oh boy, she thought, partially wondering if she could just pretend she hadn’t seen her and jog away. But her curiosity was more courageous than her social anxiety today, and so she crossed the road and met the woman who was shuffling out to see her on the sidewalk.
“Oh, Donna’s fun, isn’t she?” the woman said with a gummy chuckle, apparently only having called her over to gossip. “Do you know her, or was that your first time meeting her?” Lavender wafted from the woman to Monica’s nostrils.
Clearing her throat, Monica glanced back to the Haven, now rightfully reigning above her, as usual. “Uh, yeah actually that was my first time. Do you know her?” She made eye contact with this woman for the first time with some effort, the woman being nearly a foot shorter than her.
The lady laughed again. “Oh, we been neighbors for a long time, honey. I know she turns her nose down at us, thinking she better because she’s got a perfect yard or what have you. But don’t worry about her bark, it’s not personal. I’ve never seen her look happy once. And you seem like a nice girl, so I don’t want you walking away with that tail of yours between your legs like a kicked puppy.” She winked at Monica and put a hand on her hip, then craned her neck to peer at the dark clouds above, eyebrows rising.
“Oh, uh, thank you…” Monica didn’t know what to say to that. She appreciated her kindness and clung to the phrase “nice girl,” glad that Donna wasn’t exclusively rude to her, yet also a little bummed out to have her fears of Donna’s personality confirmed. Not sure what to say, Monica asked, “And what’s your name?”
“May, and yourself?” the woman asked, smiling and extending a hand.
“Monica,” she said, and went in for a firm handshake—until she realized how slack May’s grip was, and she eased up. “So, have you lived here a while…?”
“Oh yes, me and Earl bought this house after we married and raised our family up in this home. Churned out three beautiful babies, who now all grown up and startin’ their own families. My youngest says he’s gonna buy us a mansion once he owns his own company.” May’s deep brown eyes shone as she said this. “I tell him, I don’t want all that moving hassle at this point in my life. I’d rather he bought himself a mansion for him and his sisters. Plus, this house has so many memories, I don’t know if I could part ways with it. She’s rough around the edges for sure, but my feet know the floors so well I could walk those rooms with my eyes shut.”
May looked up at the sky again with her soft, sweet face as Monica struggled to find a reply to all that. But right as she was saying, “That’s nice,” May turned to her and interjected, “You better get going, dear, rain’s for certain. I’d say you got four and a half minutes to high-tail it home.”
“Thank you,” Monica choked out, smiling for the first time. She, too, glanced wearily upwards and felt the impending downpour in the air, the wind kicking up with even more tumult, tree branches swaying with an ocean-like whoosh. “Thank you, uh, so nice to meet you, May!”
Already heading back towards her house in a shuffle, May called over her shoulder, “See you Monday evening, baby!”
The low rumble of thunder boomed in the distance, and Monica stuffed her muted ear buds in the pocket lining of her leggings before bounding away, once again mulling over her encounter with May.
Of course, it was only a coincidence, what May had said to her—how it was so eerily well-timed, as though it were exactly what Monica needed to hear, sent to her by the universe’s messenger. However, Monica was exactly the type of person who heralded signs, because if she listened to these signs and trusted their instinct, then that relieved a lot of the pressure from her own quivering mind.
But the question that wormed its way to the forefront of Monica’s mind, rooting through the new perspectives she just witnessed, was this: Was it better to live in the pretty house, or be the one who got to enjoy the pretty house from afar?
Almost four and a half minutes later on the dot as Monica’s sprint brought her to the end of her house’s driveway, and with only a brief speckling of drops as a prelude, the sky released its torrential rainfall and soaked her in the last ten seconds of her run up the gravel; the cool water seeped into her clothes and ran down her neck. As she ducked into the front door, her tennis shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor, Monica was surprised by a giggle that bubbled out of her, building into a laughter. Her clothes dripped, pooling water beneath her, and as she peeled—literally, peeled—the spandex off of her, she dropped each article of clothing carelessly on the floor.
“Oh my,” her wife sang when Monica passed by her in the living room. Tiff lowered her glasses suggestively and sat back from her painting. “You’re nude and hysterical! The rain got you after all?”
“Yes, but I don’t care!” Monica proclaimed, the cat now licking at the puddle by the front door. “And I don’t care where we live, so long as we love each other!”
Tiff scoffed and flashed a teasing smile, now removing her glasses entirely. “Isn’t that what I’ve been saying this entire time?” she asked pointedly.
“Great, so you agree with me!” Monica called cheerfully, now heading down the hallway to the bathroom, leaving Tiff to smile and shake her head, the rain beating on the roof and the cat’s tongue lapping at the floor.
There would always be something more to want; Monica saw that now. It was fine to dream, fine to want and have nice things, a nice place to live, a nice yard. But there was a certain freedom in being messy, a little careless, never claiming perfection—something beautiful in doing what you could with what you could get and shrugging through the flaws… and maybe having the occasional breakdown before realizing what was actually important. May’s house may look shoddy next to Donna’s house, but it was still more of a house than what Monica had, and May was clearly content with that.
Monday, when Monica’s evening jog brought her to 301 Seneca Ave, instead of stopping in the sidewalk to tie her shoe and ogle, she joined May to chat on the porch of that dull yet inviting home of 302 Seneca Ave.
Author’s Note: I began writing the first couple paragraphs of this story over a year ago and finally felt inspired to finish it this week. I have to say, it feels so good to complete Monica’s story and share it with you after it existed in “story purgatory” for so long. Hope you enjoyed!
For more stories by Slanted Spines, check out the Short Stories page!