I’m at home, alone for the first time in what seems an eternity. The kids are at school, scooted up to their communal workspaces, enjoying the versatility of their exercise ball-esque chairs, gazing in awe at their minimalist (with a touch of whimsy) architectural surroundings before engaging in student-driven learning opportunities then filing into a sunlit cafeteria for their choice of hummus & pita, PBJ & string cheese, garden salad with breadstick or hot meal du jour (vegetarian and kosher versions identified as such with color coded placards).
I mention these details because the volume of accoutrements in this new town seem over-the-top. The public school in our former city was packed to the rafters with children from economically insecure backgrounds overseen by anxious, resource-strapped teachers in a correctional facility-esque atmosphere. That assessment is perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but for a third-grader with ADHD and an anxious, people-pleasing fifth grader, school in our previous life was the source of agonizing daily struggle.
By contrast, the new environment is almost too precious. An iPad for every child? Learning pockets and a hip-hop dance unit in PE? Vegetarian lunch options? All strike me as amenities of the eye-popping variety. The privilege here is palpable. The serenity, deafening.
With my kids locked into their newly luxurious environs, I’m finally alone and surrounded by mammoth levels of household objects needling at me to tuck each into a proper new place, I retreat into my bedroom and hole up in a corner to assemble my little happy place: a large plank of wood perched on two saw horses; A medium-sized desktop computer wired up and fired up; Art supplies and books in the shelf beside me, podcasts queued up, handful of truffles left over from Christmas set beside the keyboard. In short order, my office exists yet again.
I want to return to doing some personal projects but guilt prevents me. Instead, I pull up my to-do list where I spot an item that fulfills my desire for diversion but still allows me to reduce the number of obligations accrued during the tumult of the recent move.
“Card of introduction to new neighbors” the past, not-yet-beleaguered version of myself had noted in an aggravating tone of optimism. I’d envisioned it originally as a simple note on nice paper. Announcing our arrival would allow us to avoid being cast as “the shadowy souls who just arrived in the ‘hood, probably noisy college students, i.e. we already hate them preemptively until they prove their worthiness.”
Typical. My confounding brain had drummed up an overblown worst case scenario wherein my new neighbors were bound to hate and distrust me and my horde. My thought processes about the future tend to erupt from the place in my brain where cobwebs are strung with sticky swaths of anxiety and where my insatiable, reckless imagination tends to careen wildly off the nearest cliff. To pre-empt even the slightest possibility that my doomsday scenario would, in fact, prove to be true, I’d devised the task of creating simple card to tuck into the mailboxes of a few of our neighbors. I mean, I don’t know what your version of hell looks like, but in mine, it’s one in which the sanctity of the introvert’s home is punctured by people who disapprove of me dwelling in close proximity, observing my comings-and-goings with disdain and downright disapproval.
In this moment, the task of unpacking is insurmountable. I seize upon the task of creating a neighborly note, obviously the more pleasurable option here. I decide to re-create a recent photo of the kids and I that is miraculously not a selfie, so, I reason, my new neighbors can put a face to our names.
Within an hour, I’m deep into making a simple drawing of the kids and I, complete with captions. I plunk in old portraits of Toby and Pippa to show that, yes, we have dogs, too, which they most likely already know by now.
Toby is racked with anxiety at the new house. All day, he pins me with giant, panic-stricken eyes, beseeching me to explain the abrupt overthrow of his entire world.
When tethered outside in the yard where I haven’t yet installed the whistling device that activates with barking to dissuade him from his most primal tendencies, he growls and hollers at every passerby sensed just out of sight (there are many, many more pedestrians here, all seemingly unfazed by the assailing cold temperatures). Once Toby gets going, Pippa inevitably chimes in with her own high, shrill yips. I’m quick to chide them when they bark and rush to bring them back indoors. Toby had an unfortunate experience at our last house that forever changed his behavior toward strangers. I do my best to explain this tendency of his to protect us in my note of introduction.
Amidst putting this card together and thoroughly enjoying the indulgence in some long-awaited downtime, I hear the doorbell’s halfhearted, rusty clunk, then harried knocking at the front door. The dogs quickly access their overstocked stores of anxiety and erupt into yips, howls, and snarls so eardrum shattering, I deduce immediately it must be the dreaded mail carrier, Toby’s solemnly sworn enemy.
But, no, it’s a small-statured woman several decades older than myself, bundled into a jacket with faux fur or maybe even real fur trimmings, head boxed on either side with white ear muffs and two flinty black coins for eyes. Her face is pale, and rumpled as an unwashed pile of dish towels. The various wrinkles around her mouth dive-bomb in synchrony toward their genesis: a tight, lipless frown.
Being slow to wake from the delicious, meditative state of making art-like things and writing, I peek through the window with a big, dumb, default grin for the person on the porch, failing to immediately register her posture of displeasure as not being entirely the result of the day’s record-breaking low temperature and off-the-charts windchill reading.
I rush Toby by the collar into a back bedroom and shut the door against his wildly bulging eyes that had witnessed, no doubt, the four horsemen of the apocalypse at the door rather than a small, frowning woman. The introvert housed deep in my heart of hearts shrieks for me to lock the thumb bolt and run away, but, instead, I open the door with an expectant grin springing unheralded back onto my face.
The small-statured woman then opens the storm door and peeks around my shoulders like she’s trying to get a good look at the interior of the house to gauge what kind of person I am before deciding whether she wants to proceed with the matter at hand. I’m mystified as to what that matter might be. The house, by the way, or at least the piece of it she can appraise with a crane of the neck, presents itself thusly:
Boxes of random belongings, especially wires, implement handles, and bulbous, unidentifiable objects wrapped in Wal-Mart bags and half-masticated (culprit: Pippa) bubble wrap spilling from open flaps
Washed but yet-to-be-folded laundry stacked in precarious tiers two and three baskets high or else stapled haphazardly, in the case of the bedsheets, against the front windows in temporary approximation of curtains
Dog hair and random detritus tumbleweeds windblown against the baseboards by cranked-up-thermostat-fueled emissions of dry and slightly burnt-smelling air that, the following day, I will recognize belatedly as a sign the furnace was about to kick the can
In this moment I realize through observing the woman’s bare and unashamed curiosity at my living quarters that she must be a neighbor. Either that or a door-to-door proselytizer wary of dogs, but probably not the latter because of aforementioned frown.
Pippa senses an opportunity to fling herself into a new human, whose limbs and appendages might embrace her free from the reluctance of familiar limbs and appendages tainted by having to clean up countless piles of her surreptitious poops as of late. But Pippa’s instincts, too, are off. The woman scowls at her so fiercely that Pippa doesn’t wiggle a lick with her usual defiance when I scoop her into my arms.
By now, I’ve determined that my default, expectant smile won’t be returned, and when the woman makes like she’s going to take a step through the doorway, I stand my ground. Seeing my refusal to move aside to let her into my not-yet-fully-assembled living quarters, the woman backs away and lets the storm door close between us. The conversation that follows happens through a storm window slowly fogging over with our breath.
“Are you going to live here?” she demands in perfunctory tone like a switchboard operator.
“With those dogs?”
To be continued …