AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Anthony Tognazzini’s “Neighbors” is a story of watching. A group of undistinguished townspeople stalk a woman whose great sins are that she is unmarried and lives on the outskirts of town. Her base offenses are compounded by further peculiarities: Sheila does not work for a company (she freelances!), she has a cat (“we are dog people”), and, according to the police, “she might be a lesbian.”
Tognazzini writes beautifully, unflinchingly, and with humor. The story reads as if it were written effortlessly, though I would not deny him the effort he surely must have put forth to achieve such impact.
It has been 40 years since Laura Mulvey coined the term male gaze in her essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly,” she wrote. The idea — once groundbreaking — that the complete integration of heterosexual male preferences determines not only how women are presented by other men, but how they present themselves, has become widely accepted. Worse, it’s a deliberately appealed to as a marketing strategy. Not much has changed since 1975 — an Academy Award was not given to a female director until 2009, after all — yet critics rarely use the term today without first acknowledging it’s well-trodden territory. Maybe they’re right to be self-conscious. A lot has happened in those four decades to complicate the term’s meaning. Namely, the Internet.
Though Twitter is not primarily a visual medium, online, images and words are inextricably tied. A Google image search is never farther than a new tab away. Just ask any woman who has ever Tweeted an opinion: the backlash they receive is targeted at their bodies even if it is triggered by their minds, vitriol born of something more sinister than the determining male preferences observed by Mulvey. The male gaze has morphed to a collective, anonymous court of judgment — a poisonous mix of futile desire and unacknowledged envy.
The townspeople in “Neighbors” aren’t gendered, and yet their voice is certainly male. Sheila’s life is unremarkable, and yet it attracts their interest, innocuous until it isn’t. “The police told us we should respect Sheila’s privacy, then gave us her address,” Tognazzini writes. I don’t think he was reading Mulvey or responding to Gamergate headlines when he wrote this story; he has done better. He has written a porous work, absorbent of its time, yet not beholden to it.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
by Anthony Tognazzini, recommended by Electric Literature
We in town are not meddlesome, and as a rule we try not to gossip, but when someone new enters the community, we notice. It’s only natural to keep an eye out, to stay informed. We have jobs, wives, and husbands here.
Our first sighting was on Monday. She was coming out of the dry cleaner’s at a good clip, carrying a dress wrapped in plastic. She wore jeans and a black leather jacket, clothes that seemed strange to us. She got take-out from Thai Kitchen, and at the pet store bought what we assumed were tins of fancy cat food.
This woman looked different. She was tall, for one thing, with short hair and a flat, unflattering nose. Her walk was fluid, smooth, not harried and erratic like some of us in town. The way her heels clicked concrete was irksome. Even so, we offered the woman a smile, but she moved past without so much as a glance in our direction.
The police, who had stopped and questioned her as she waited for the bus, told us the woman’s name was Sheila. “Where do you live?” the police had asked. Sheila told them she lived on the outskirts of town, near the water tower. “You live alone?” the police had asked, and Sheila, in what the police informed us was a peevish tone, said yes. That Sheila chose to live alone on the outskirts seemed odd to us, when she might easily have chosen to live in town where the apartments are nicer, and where community areas encourage socializing.
We guessed that living alone in a one-bedroom apartment probably meant she was single, whereas most of us in town are married. “She might be a lesbian,” the police suggested. “Oh,” we said. The police added that Sheila got angry when they asked what she did for a living, and for how many hours a day, and when she finally told them, after repeated questioning, that she was an editor, they asked, “Which company?” and she said, “freelance.”
“Makes her own hours?” we said to each other. “Never goes to an office? Isn’t a team player?” We decided to go straight to her place of residence and investigate. The police told us we should respect Sheila’s privacy, then gave us her address. “Thanks,” we said. “Sure thing,” said the police.
That Sheila was able to afford an apartment by herself was impressive, and we wondered if she had received an inheritance or a private allowance, but we hadn’t ruled out the possibility that her job simply paid well and allowed her to be self-sufficient. These are modern times, after all, and independent women aren’t unusual, though they are unusual here in town.
The outskirts of town aren’t appealing, and we avoid them as a rule but we boarded the bus regardless and soon found ourselves milling around the sidewalk outside Sheila’s apartment. The building had five floors, and Sheila’s apartment was on the third, with front windows that were mostly blocked by trees, so we crept around to the back courtyard. We respect people’s freedom to do as they wish, but in the interest of the town’s collective wellbeing we peeked through her back window with binoculars.
We suspected she might be doing something inappropriate, something distasteful: she might be sprawled across the floor in a silk bathrobe, eating pineapple while masturbating to a lesbian fantasy. But through the binoculars we saw only a high-backed yellow armchair in which Sheila sat, fully clothed, reading. We felt relieved by this discovery, and strangely deflated.
Through the binoculars we also saw that the apartment had an eat-in kitchen, and was tastefully decorated with framed prints and objects that made her place seem fancier than any of our apartments in town. As the day wore on we noticed her apartment got excellent sun in the morning but none in the afternoon, which obstructed visibility and forced us to constantly change position in the courtyard. We climbed the trees to improve our view, but wind and the dangerous thinness of certain branches made our perches unstable, so we took the bus back to town and bought a ladder.
The ladder, it turned out, allowed us to remain concealed but to gain excellent vantage just below Sheila’s window. We saw her legs where the robe opened to reveal a caramel thigh, a sculptural ankle. We watched one foot slowly rub the other. Viewing was done in rotation: one of us stood on the top rung while the others waited below, holding the ladder in place.
We began then to study her in earnest, and record details in a log. She used a green emery board to file her nails. The tea she drank varied daily: vanilla jasmine, honey chamomile, Moroccan mint. Sometimes Sheila wore fuzzy slippers, and we wondered if this was part of some unspeakably perverted fetish.
Sheila did, in fact, have a cat: a gold tabby was curled in the armchair beside her. The presence of cats is rare enough in town, since we are dog people, plus Sheila’s cat was fat, lazy, and yawned a lot. We disliked it immediately, and recorded these feelings in the log.
With the help of the binoculars and the ladder we were able to more closely study Sheila’s face, which bore expressions that confounded us. Her mouth was full, and we sensed from the set of her jaw that she was driven by a purpose we couldn’t recognize or name. Sometimes if a thought amused her, or her tabby did something funny, she would smile, revealing bottom teeth that obviously had not been tended by a dentist. More often her face was thoughtful, preoccupied, as though she were thinking intently. We could not understand why she didn’t smile more, though we suspected it was, at least in part, because she did not have a husband and did not live in town.
The police pulled up outside Sheila’s apartment and asked us what we thought we were doing. When we told them, they offered to keep an eye on our encampment and help out any way they could. Our work began to feel important. We thought of ourselves as scientists, analyzing Sheila from a clinical distance, looking through her window as if through a microscope. We thought of ourselves as operatives, collecting intelligence for the sake of national security.
In the courtyard outside her building, we swapped ideas for alternate, healthier lives for Sheila. She might become a secretary in an office, we said, and learn to give delicate, professional handshakes. She might host Waffle Night at the rec center, and wear heels that allowed us to admire, at closer proximity, her supple calf muscles. We listed events we might invite her to — dog shows, fundraisers, parades — but could she put her past behind her?
As we set up tents in the courtyard, we talked among ourselves, assuring each other that the next day there’d be scenes with olive oil, restraints, and feathered costumes. We’re heterosexual, but we recited graphic fantasies about Sheila with another woman: their bodies smeared together, breath fogging the window, their hair a volcanic mess.
We became depressed, and complained to each other about Sheila’s behavior. “If you don’t like it, why don’t you just ignore her?” we said. “Why don’t you?” we said. We threw rocks at her building and ran.
The next morning, after rigging surveillance equipment along the window and feeding tiny microphones through lighting fixtures on snake tubes, we heard Sheila speak for the first time. Her voice was measured, confident, not grating or shrill like some of our voices in town. When Sheila spoke on the phone, she said things like, “I don’t think so,” and, “Goodbye, then,” which to us seemed odd. She also said, “Forget it,” and, “We’ll see about that.” We copied these words in the log, so we might study them later and learn.
Historically, things in our town have been harmonious. We’ve always mowed each other’s lawns, smiled incessantly, and been, by nature, cooperative. Even after Sheila arrived we helped each other on the ladder and cleared way so everyone could see, but soon we began to squabble about whose turn it was at the window, whose shift to watch the monitors. We pushed, and called each other names. “I don’t think so,” we tried saying out loud. “Forget it!”
The police escorted us back to our apartments. We struggled to stay calm, to breathe deeply on our sofas, but the next time Sheila came to town we couldn’t contain ourselves. We ran about jerkily, yelling, “She’s here! She’s here!”
She had on a sleeveless dress, blue high heels. Her black hair was cut close to her head. We were thrilled that she wasn’t behind glass, a creature in the zoo, that she was moving through our world now, one of us.
Standing in line behind her at the bank, we smelled her coconut shampoo. We followed her from the bank to the hardware store and there, in an aisle with hasps and ratchets, we approached, slowly. Her shoulder beckoned from her sleeveless dress, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to touch it. If we ever lost control and actually touched? No, we couldn’t let that happen.
We went into the street and cried. We shared Kleenex. We comforted each other because it was clear, finally, that Sheila would never move to the center of town, would never work in an office, would never marry a man. She had no intention of doing these things and her presence among us could only mean the worst. We understood that now.
Distraught, we punched each other hard, leaving welts. “I don’t think so!” we yelled, and, “Goodbye, then!”
An employee at the post office came by to inform us that a package had been delivered to Sheila’s apartment. Handguns? we wondered. Anthrax?
We took a bus to the outskirts, and scrambled up the ladder. Sheila was opening a box that contained dishtowels and cookies in Tupperware containers. We knew immediately the package was a decoy, and the real package, the one containing the materials with which Sheila intended to destroy us, was hidden in her apartment, in the closet maybe, or beneath the high-backed yellow armchair.
Clearly she was on to us, and knew she was being watched. We understood now that every move was a performance: the confident voice, the unsmiling mouth, the modesty thrown over her sexual threat like a sheet. We marveled at her genius. No outward sign of her mission, her intent to subvert, could be detected.
We stayed in the courtyard all night. We manned the surveillance feed, climbed up and down the ladder. We loved and resented her more than ever, jotting every detail in the log: mint tea, long hours at the computer, silk robe cinched tight, and beside her, purring contentedly, the fat, lazy tabby. We wanted to exterminate that cat. We wanted to dip that cat in boiling water.
We pushed each other off the chairs at the soundboard and multi-screen consoles, bitterly disappointed we’d never see bondage or leather whips now, wounds or humiliation; she was too smart for that. “Sheila,” we repeated to ourselves. “Sheila, Sheila, Sheila.”
What had to be done was clear, and we decided it would happen when she was next in town. We dismantled our equipment, and went home.
Two nights later word spread that Sheila had arrived and was outside the theater, buying a ticket to see Portrait of a Lady. We gathered in the street, astonished by her nonchalance. The police were with us, bus drivers, postal clerks. We bought tickets, followed her in, and sat three rows behind, fixated on the black outline of her hair. We hushed each other, and could barely catch our breath.
After the film, we trailed her to a bar, where she ordered a vodka martini. We ordered vodka martinis and studied her from across the room. The rim of Sheila’s cocktail glass was cloudy with lipstick prints, and by the time she set the glass on the bar, and walked through the front door toward the bus stop through the park, we were already hiding in the bushes, crouched low among the hydrangeas, sweating heavily.
Her heels clicked the concrete as she passed. Stealthily, at a distance, we followed. Leaves crunched underfoot. Sheila turned, saw us, and ran. We ran too, gaining on her.
When we reached out and grabbed, tackling her to the grass, Sheila’s face wrenched to the side, and her mouth, which we’d studied day after day like a difficult text, twitched with fear. “What do you want?” she whispered.
To our ears, her frightened voice was like a bell.
We put a hand over her mouth. We pushed our forehead into hers, pressing her against the earth. Our fingers traced cheekbones, lifted her skin, gripped her hips and throat. She tried to kick us off. A leg flailed. Teeth sank into our palm. Through shadows we saw her shoulder, the flash of her wide, dark eyes.
On the damp grass that receded toward darkness in every direction, we drew close to her ear and told her what we wanted:
We wanted her to leave town and take what she’d brought. We wanted to see her stripped bare in the circle of streetlight. We wanted fistfuls of her short, curly hair as she writhed under us, gasping. We wanted to go so deep inside that we disappeared, that we became her.
Read Electric Literature’s interview with Anthony Tognazzini here.