In the pharmacy drive-through, a man pulls his car up in the lane next to mine, turns, looks at me, and smiles.
“Why is he smiling at me, you guys?”
Two kiddos in the backseat shrug in response.
“Maybe he’s just being friendly,” offers Sylvia.
The suggestion perplexes me. “Why, though?” I ask. “He has nothing to gain from it.”
At the grocery store, a kid who can’t be older than 16 scans our coffee, buttermilk, goldfish crackers, and an impulse-buy bouquet of flowers. He smiles, asks how my day is going so far, shows me the kumquat a customer gifted him earlier. It is a tiny, egg-shaped fruit, like a stunted orange. He grins, hands me back my bundle of carnations. “You don’t want these in a bag, do you?” The bagger is a middle aged woman with earnest, searching eyes. Once she’s locked my gaze, she, too, gives me a big, genuine-seeming smile. I wheel the cart away with a jolt, catch my coffee a split second before it tilts over the side.
“What’s with people being so nice?” I ask Sylvia. “It’s unnerving. What do they want from me?”
She laughs and sing-songs, “Mo-om! You are SO awkward.” She’s wearing knitted slippers stuffed into flats with cats on the toes and her brother’s Superman shirt. Her bedhead hair is a craggy terrain. All told, she owns the look, and people beam at her, carefree 11-year-old out with her mom buying ingredients to make pancakes for our first home cooked meal at the new house.
She breezed right into this new city. She has exactly three friends at her new school she’s only attended for two days. She’s got this. I should be more like her, I think.
Instead, when someone’s nice to me I glance around making sure I was the intended audience.
It happens again and again. People not only acknowledge me, but shoot great big smiles at me, too, from across the bedraggled, frozen lawn of the nearby park where I walk Pippa to fetch the kids after school. I amble past a huge conifer decorated with handmade Christmas ornaments, traverse a little sidewalk thoroughfare that shortcuts the girth of the neighborhood’s omnipresent water tower and ends at a quaintly decorated “Little Free Library.” Pippa and I continue down a street lined with midcentury homes, each unique, tidy, and featuring original folksy outdoor art or hand-painted holiday decorations not yet disassembled and stowed away. At the entrance of the school, a line of carpoolers waits for the bell to announce the onrush of kids. Parents look at me through windshields, great puffs of exhaust swishing with the freezing wind around the procession of cars.
Except when the school day ends, children don’t cascade from the doors noisily the way they did in our old town. Instead, they trickle, seeming in no particular rush. They’re calm. They talk quietly in groups. A little boy winnows through the stream toward me where I stand holding Pippa perched firmly in my arms siphoning off my body’s heat.
“Can I pet your dog?” he asks, and smiles up at Pippa. The boy is all bundled up in a tufted coat, a tiny, waddling Michelin man made of stuffing. Pippa wears a tiny yellow sweater over her paper-thin skin.
“Sure,” I say. “Her name is Pippa.”
Pippa shivers when the boy reaches to touch her. Her ears go flat and her body wriggles free from my grasp so she can freely whip her skinny tail. Soon her whole body wriggles with excitement. This is the doggy version of a big ol’ grin. I should be more like her, I think.
“It’s so quiet here,” I say to my own kids as we walk the same charming shortcut home. “And calm.” The kids agree, and tell me how eerily quiet their classrooms are, too. Further into conversation, the kind that only happens in the quiet oases of walks or lengthy car rides, I learn that my children feel suddenly messy and weird amongst their new crew of composed classmates. Back in our former city, they’d been the “good kids” — the role models who shushed right up when required to, who never failed to arrive with permission slip in hand, who tried their hardest at every endeavor, and whose flaws were easily overlooked: Untied shoes, messily organized desk, occasionally forgotten homework folder.
On the third day, when my next door neighbor arrives on my porch huffing plumes of hot breath into thin air, I begin to understand one reason why my new neighborhood features people friendly and perpetually at ease: relative economic security. Later, during a white-knuckle drive witness to an erratically weaving Honda in the lane ahead of me, I discover the second factor: Temporary ebb in human population.
To be continued