l.i.c., new york
Down in Maryland, where I was last Sunday, there were still tomatoes on the vine. Here in New York, the tomatoes are long gone, and with them the golden days that colored them red and warm like the sun. There are a few, here and there, enough to slice over a sandwich, but the last real final harvest happened several weeks ago.
It was a quiet September night, before the clock turned, before our neighbors Hameeda and Fahmeda went back to school and before they moved to the apartment upstairs, where we can no longer count on seeing them waiting for us on the sidewalk when we arrive at home.
Earlier that week, András and I were taking the kayak down the block to Two Coves beach for the last spin of the summer. The 8-foot bright-orange boat must have drawn some attention, because just as we passed their house, Hameeda and both of her brothers flew to the front door. Hearing the commotion, their father came out, followed by Fahmeda who seemed to glide toward us, her pretty head covered with a veil.
The girls ran to me, and I gathered them in my arms.
“What’s this?” I asked, touching the cloth framing Fahmeda's face. “Does this mean you’ve had a birthday?”
Fahmeda is Bengali, and Muslim, and what little I do know about the Muslim faith told me this new cloth marked a coming of age.
“It’s Wednesday,” Fahmeada said.
We three walked together toward the water, Hameeda’s little hand in mine, trailing András, the kyack, the boys and their father down to the water.
The kids and I lapped in the current and waded to our kneecaps while András practiced eskimo rolls. I held Hameeda out of the water when it came too high, and we all soaked in what was sure to be the last sunset of summer.
“So how old will you be?” I asked Fahmeda, picking the conversation back up.
“Eleven.” She said.
“Eleven, that’s a great age!” I said. “Will you have a party?”
“We’ll have a dinner. Upstairs, in the new house.” She said.
Secretly, I hoped to be invited to that birthday dinner. I imagined myself sitting at the table with the children and András, our arms swinging up in down in a prayer before we devoured a table lined with dishes, flavors and spices from Bangledesh. I wondered, if in Bengali custom, it would be impolite to invite myself to dinner.
That night when we came back home, I asked their mother if she thought Fahmeda would like a cake.
“No, no, you don’t need to make something,” her mother said.
“We should cook together,” I said, changing the subject. Fahmeda’s mother is my age, and I fancied us becoming friends, rolling Parothha bread and seasoning vegetable stews with cumin, fennel, fenugreek, and black mustard. “I would like to learn from you. We can go to the garden. We can harvest and bring back vegetables and cook together.”
She laughed, warmly, but as if to change the subject. She has five mouths to feed and likely no time to give lessons.
That Wednesday night, I came home from work to find Fahmeda sticking her head out of the second floor window.
“Happy Birthday!” I called up. “Come down, I have something for you!”
“You remembered!” She tucked her head back in, ran down the stairs to greet me. Hameeda followed.
“Come, let’s go to the garden,” I said, handing her a bushy lemon verbena plant. “I brought you this to plant in honor of your birthday.”
“What is it?” She asked.
“Lemon Verbena. Smell.”
She enhaled. Hameeda imitated her.
“It’s a very lovely herb, for a very lovely girl.”
In the garden, we talked about every vegetable, and snacked on green beans and lettuces. Fahmeda and I dug a deep hole, planted the lemon verbena and patted the soil around it. Then she watered, patiently, suddenly looking more like a woman than a girl, the bright colors of the fabrics surrounding her popping off the graying sky. The sun went down far too fast that night.
Hameeda danced around the garden, touching every plant. She picked all the tomatoes and lined them up in neat rows along the path, then tromped all over them as she watered, making the best of her four-year-old motor skills and splaying water on anything in her path. Fahmeada and I smiled at each other, grown-up girls, enjoying Hameeda’s playful spirit among us.
After dark, I walked the girls to meet their family at the Mosque, despite Fahmeda’s insistence that they’d be okay on their own. I wasn’t ready for her to be that grown up, so she humored me as I guided them the two blocks, then headed home with the crushed tomatoes to make mashed buschetta with aged gouda for András. We drank rose, and toasted to our favorite neighbors, wondering how even when our little shoe box studio gets a little tight, we could ever move away from them.