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Set against the backdrop of the deadly 2007 wildfires that forced the evacuation of half a million San Diego residents, Debra Ginsberg’s new novel, The Neighbors Are Watching, examines the dark side of suburbia—a place where everyone has something to hide.
Aside from their annual block party, the neighbors on Fuller Court tend to keep to themselves—which doesn’t mean that they aren’t all watching and judging each other on the sly. So when pregnant teenager Diana Jones shows up, literally, on her biological father's doorstep, the neighbors can't stop talking. Joe Montana is a handsome restaurant manager who failed to tell his wife Allison that he fathered a baby with an ex-girlfriend seventeen years ago. Allison, already harboring her own inner resentments, takes the news very badly. She isn’t the only one. Diana's bombshell arrival in their quiet cul-de-sac sets off a chain reaction of secrets and lies that threaten to engulf the neighborhood along with the approaching flames from two huge wildfires fanned by the Santa Ana winds.
A former reality TV contestant who receives a steady stream of gentlemen callers at all hours, two women forced to hide their relationship in order to keep custody of their children, a sanctimonious housewife with a very checkered past, and a family who nobody ever sees—these are just a few of the warring neighbors struggling to keep up appearances and protect their own interests. But when lovely, troubled Diana disappears in the aftermath of the wildfire evacuation, leaving her newborn baby and many unanswered questions behind, the residents of Fuller Court must band together to find her before all of their carefully constructed deceptions come unraveled.
A potent blend of domestic drama and suspense, The Neighbors Are Watching reveals the secrets that bloom alongside manicured flowerbeds—and the truths that lurk behind closed doors.
From the Hardcover edition.
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San Diego–based writer DEBRA GINSBERG is the author of the memoirs Waiting, Raising Blaze, and About My Sisters, as well as two novels, Blind Submission and The Grift, which was a 2008 Notable Book selection by The New York Times.
From the Hardcover edition.
There was a breeze high up, rustling through the palm trees, but the air below was still and hot. There was no shelter from the bright sun that beat down on her outside the locked front door of the house that belonged, according to its mailbox, to “The Montanas.” She could see that some of the other houses on the street had little overhangs on their front doors; a good thing if you didn’t want to roast to death while you stood outside in the summer waiting for someone you’d never met to come home.
But this door had no shade, nowhere to rest, and nothing to hide behind. She was tired and overheated. The initial rush of adrenaline she’d felt when she first knocked on the door?—?not knowing who would answer or how that person would receive her?—?had worn off, leaving her feeling sweaty and tense. She hated just standing there, her broke-ass suitcase propped up next to her and her worn-out purse on top of it. No way she fit into this neighborhood?—?that much was obvious.
She waited. Five minutes. Maybe ten. Finally, she had to sit. She eased herself down on the burning concrete driveway, folding her thin skirt under her, more out of a need to protect her legs from the heat than a desire for modesty. Her feet were dusty?—?dirty, really. She needed a shower and some water to drink. Who would have thought it would be hotter here than in Las Vegas? Or maybe it just felt hotter because you never sat outside in Vegas in July and cooked yourself like a chicken. The baby kicked hard as if agreeing with her. “Sshh,” she whispered, hand to her belly. “You don’t have to tell me.”
The longer she sat, the more nervous she became, and she couldn’t understand why. It was a quiet street, peaceful. No dogs barking or lawn mowers running. Just that little whisper of a breeze up high and that tiny hum in the air you could hear when it was superhot, as if things were growing or stretching. Maybe it was too quiet here, like there was no human life to make any sound. Like everyone had disappeared or been vaporized and she was the only person left. But no, of course not. For sure there were people behind all those closed doors. It just seemed unnaturally still. Wrong.
She wished she could listen to her iPod?—?just drown out all this silence?—?but between packing and fighting with her mother this morning she’d forgotten to charge it. She hadn’t even made it through the short flight over here before the battery died. She wondered if you could actually get addicted to an iPod because she was definitely having some kind of withdrawal from hers. Without her music, she barely even knew how to think in a straight line. She pulled herself in, tried to fix on a mental point in space, and came up with how much she hated her mother. That feeling was so strong, so big, it allowed her immediate focus.
How could a woman be so heartless as to kick her own child out of her house?
This was the key question and everything else?—?the hurt, the anger, the indignity, just built on top of it.
It wasn’t bad enough that her mother had pushed her out?—?given up on her?—?or that her mother was sending her to the home of some asshole white guy who obviously had never even given half a shit that he had a daughter at all. But when her mother had resorted to used-up clichés to defend her actions, that was the worst. Because that made everything?—?her entire life?—?meaningless.
It’s for your own good, her mother had said.
I’m at my wit’s end with you.
You need to learn some responsibility and get your head on straight.
I’m so disappointed in you.
What was her mother most disappointed about, really? That she’d gotten pregnant? Or that she wouldn’t have an abortion? She didn’t know if she’d ever get an answer to that question, not that she was going to try. It was almost funny how wrong she had been about her mother. You’d think you’d know the person who’d birthed you, wouldn’t you? Before telling her mother she was pregnant she’d imagined all kinds of scenarios: She started with the one where her mother cried at first but then took her in her arms and made it all right, the one where her mother shouted and stayed angry but dealt with it, and the one where her mother got disappointed and sad and wanted to discuss “options.” But she never would have imagined or predicted her mother’s quiet disgust upon hearing the news or her explosive rage when she refused to have an abortion.
“How can you even say that?” she’d asked her mother. “How could you even suggest it? What if you’d aborted me? Do you wish you had now?”
“Was I a stupid seventeen-year-old when I had you?” her mother countered. “No. I was a grown-up and fully aware of what I was doing. Not you. You have no idea what it takes to raise a child or what it means to give up yourself for another person.”
“So you’re sorry you had me? That’s what you’re saying?”
And it went on like that for a long, long time. Every day she found herself hating her mother a little bit more and that went to the littlest things: her clothes (matching synthetic old-lady-looking tops and pants, ugly white bras bought on sale), her habits (that one cigarette and that one glass of wine every single night), even the way her mouth moved around the food she ate. Every word out of her mouth became a jabbing needle, every freshly disappointed sigh a scrape against her skin. Then it got to where they just didn’t talk at all, her mother’s disgust getting harder and quieter until it was a thick rock wall between the two of them. It must have been during those silent angry days and nights when her mother hatched this plan to get rid of her and the baby together. Away, shame and disgrace. Though, come on, who even cared about this crap anymore? Who paid attention? Were they such celebrities that it made a damn bit of difference if one single mother raised another single mother?
She supposed she could have fought it?—?refused to go. But by the time school let out she was more than ready to get the hell out. That she should leave?—?and show up unannounced on this very doorstep?—?was the only thing she and her mother had agreed on in months.
She held the hate close, burrowed into it, felt its white-hot points stab the backs of her eyes. She would never forgive her mother, no. There was some comfort in that, even though she could feel the tickle of tears starting then oozing down her face. Damn, she hated that too?—?the crying. Stop it. Stop acting like such a girly-girl.
She looked up and out, desperate for distraction, and two things happened at once. The first was the sudden sound of a piano coming from somewhere down the street, behind one of those open windows. She had taken piano lessons herself a long time ago when her mother still cared about enriching her, and so she could tell that this performance had nothing to do with a desire to play and everything to do with the command to practice. She recognized the music too, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” which could be the most beautiful piece to listen to, but in this case, sounded like a home invasion. The pianist was technically good, but there was no love in the music. He?—?it was probably a he, she decided?—?banged the keys as if he were trying to break the piano. And as the music went on, swirling through the hot summer air, anger and frustration swelled, gaining strength with every note. So much for silence.
At the moment her ears had picked up the sound of the piano, her eyes had caught sight of a woman crouching in front of a bush of purple flowers at the end of the street. It took her a second to realize that the woman was not hiding in the bushes but pruning them with a large pair of scissors so brightly colored that she could see their yellow glow all the way from where she sat. And then, after she’d stared long enough to put all the information together, she realized that the woman (who was wearing what looked like a pink velour tracksuit) was staring at her. Her reaction time was slowed by the heat, so it took the baby giving her another hard kick for her to break the stare and look away.
“Sshh,” she said again. “Quit it.” But by then she was talking to herself as much as the baby. She was so uncomfortable again?—?this was happening more and more frequently?—?and she had to pee. If somebody didn’t come home soon, that was going to be a big problem because there was only so long she could hold it. She thought about knocking on doors, asking for a bathroom. Hey, welcome to the neighborhood, pregnant girl, come on in and piss in our pot. Sure. Maybe she’d follow the sound of that raging piano. Whoever was playing might be able to understand.
She stood up, looked down the street. Gardening woman stood up too. Wow, there was an ass on her?—?she could see that even from one, two . . . seven houses down. Gardening woman looked away. A garage door opened across the street. The noise, a creaking hoist, startled her. A woman in spike heels and a very short white skirt opened the trunk of the car inside the garage and leaned in. She could see the outline of the woman’s red thong underwear through the too-sheer material of her skirt and the tight muscles in the back of her spray-tanned thighs. The woman straightened, slammed the trunk shut, walked around to the driver’s side, and got in. If that bi-atch wasn’t a hooker, she played one on TV. No question. The woman peeled out of her garage so fast she was down the street before the garage door finished closing. Exhaust and noise filled the air, and by the time it settled, the pianist had switched tunes. He was on Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” now, murdering it deader than he had the Beethoven.
Now there was something else in the air too?—?the faintest whiff of cigarette smoke. She held her breath. Ever since the baby, cigarette smoke made her sick to her stomach, which could be a bit of a problem in Las Vegas, but she hadn’t expected to find it here, in San Diego, where apparently you weren’t allowed to smoke anywhere. Good thing weed didn’t have the same effect. She knew that was weird?—?weed smoke was still smoke?—?but it was true. She could be standing in the middle of a weed bonfire and it wouldn’t bother her in the slightest. Quite the opposite. In fact, she could really use a nice weed bonfire right about now or even just a goddamned hit. She wondered if the Montanas were weed smokers and if there was a stash somewhere she might raid. She’d have to look around when?—?or if?—?she finally got inside. They’d have something, even if it wasn’t weed. Everybody had something.
The wafting cigarette smoke hit her nostrils again and her stomach gave a slight lurch. She turned her head, looking for the source, and found it halfway down the street. A skinny woman with short black hair stood at the edge of her driveway, leaning against her mailbox, puffing on a smoke like her life depended on it. Maybe she could feel the weight of a stare at her back because she turned, registered, and smiled, waving the cigarette-holding hand as a greeting. As a response, she waved her own hands in front of her face as if to get rid of the smoke, which was rude, but whatever, because it was also rude to stand and smoke on people. Why didn’t the woman go do that in her own house where she couldn’t pollute other people’s air?
She hated people who smoked.
No, she didn’t hate people who smoked. She hated her mother. Who smoked one goddamned cigarette?—?just one?—?every goddamned day.
Her bladder was totally full now and threatening to burst. She was sweating again and feeling anxious?—?heart racing. She was seized by something close to panic?—?maybe it was panic?—?feeling hemmed in suddenly by this street with its garage doors and crazy piano and whores and weird women. The air felt sharp and hot in her nose. Her head pounded. The baby kicked in a flurry like it was trying to get out. Or get away.
I don’t want to be here.
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