I watched the house from the time the sour old owners, the ones with the massive credit card debt, had moved out. For a couple of weeks, through the dappled shadows of the maple tree growing between the sidewalk and the street, I monitored the side-stair colonial as realtors and their client toured it, wondering if the inspector caught the foundation trouble in that one corner.
But then the new occupants, with their moving van and bustle, arrived, and the realtor sign came down.
They included a 30-something woman, her spiritless husband, her baby, and her dog. That day they moved in carried a hope for me; it’s perfection, it’s brightness, all of it, assured me completely, that these were the neighbors I had desired all along.
She was a thin, plain, brown-bob woman with a determination about her. She directed movers, shouted to her husband, and disappeared inside with boxes in her hands, only to come out later, wiping the sweat from her brow. I knew, though, that the movers would bang up the edge of her dining room table. I also knew the dog would stain the carpet before the night was out.
There’s much to change when you move: new points of view on how to get to the grocery store, the post office, how far you have to walk to get to the bus. What you don’t look for, and never know you really need, is a fresh person in your life to direct you. New mothers like her need that person even more. I know this because I had needed it. We never had it. It would be nice if she could have what she needed in me.
I had practiced what I would say when I met her. Of course, I’d bring something with me. But I laid awake wondering if the banana bread from my freezer wasn’t too predictable, too much like my mother’s generation. I saw myself handing it to her, telling her my name, pointing to the mint-colored house on the other side of the street and mention, with the right tone of pride and exhaustion in my voice, that I had four children under the age of seven.
She would direct me into that flowery kitchen, offer me coffee, but I wouldn’t expect her to be so organized, so the kind thing would be to refuse. No matter, the coffee would come because eventually, in a few weeks, we would lean across the kitchen island and she would tell me her family plans, (more children, for sure) explain where she went to college, (I’m pretty sure it was Purdue) and then ask me about something I know better than she does. Perhaps toilet training, or kindergarten registration, or the best pediatrician. This is what it takes to be friends. Exchanging information. Sharing what you know.
I knew, or at least I hoped, with all my heart, that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d sit there. As the summer progressed, I expected her to pop over to my house for a cup of sugar, and I would go to hers for a recipe. Then, maybe by September, there would be margaritas on her back deck. Perhaps in the fall we’d organize a neighborhood yard sale. I could see this. She probably could too. Why wouldn’t she?
I waited until the first Saturday after she moved in to bring my banana bread and begin this friendship. My husband watched our kids. I brushed my hair and changed my top twice. I was ready to make an investment in future kindnesses.
I walked across the street, up her steps, to her door. I rang the doorbell. She was upstairs with the baby.
Her husband opened the door. Without addressing me, he yelled. “Kelly? The cleaning lady is here!”
“I’m not . . .” I mumbled. The screen door closed between us.
He didn’t let me in. She approached the door.
“You’re early,” her androgynous intellectual look was indifferent. “We weren’t expecting you until two.” She opened the screen with a sigh.
“No,” I pointed to my house across the street. “I’m Dara, I live there.” My chest tightened. “I brought . . .” I handed her the loaf. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
She took the loaf. From the kitchen, I heard a dog barking. She turned, snapping at her husband.
“What’s wrong with Daisy now?”
The husband yelled back something indistinguishable.
She should have asked me. The dog barked at the birds he saw through a window.
“I’ll be right there!” She returned her gaze to me. “It’s nice to meet you, I guess.” She lifted the loaf up a little, as if to keep from dropping it. “Have a good afternoon.”
She shut the screen door, and rushed, it seemed, to shut the wooden door too.
I thought I could hear her. “Just a neighbor.”
I walked across the street, pausing at the point where the noise from her dog was drowned out by the noise of my toddlers. I wanted to know what I did wrong. This spot, in the middle of our street, was the only place I knew that was an equal distance between her house and mine. How would we have a future of mutual crossings, mutual enjoyment, mutual dependence if we had begun so awkwardly?
And there hasn’t ever been a balance, where what I gave and what they gave was the same. I had the advantage, or at least I appeared to, until they stopped answering their phones or blocked my texts.
When I crossed this point again, perhaps she and I would . . .
I don’t know.
It took time before I could explain the visit to my husband.
He didn’t say what I wanted him to say. Instead, he said the next morning, “She just moved in. Give her some space. Don’t take it personally.”
He paused because he was afraid to start an argument, but he said, “You know you’ll have more success if you listen more. And don’t tell everything you know.”
I don’t like it when he says this. I knew it was wrong to take comfort in knowing what kind of day he would have, but I did, a little.
He would have a bad enough day as it was.
“I mean if you’re going to blab, at least pull out Tarot cards or offer to read their palm or something. It makes everything less weird. And who knows? You might make a buck or two.”
I can give people space. All around me I have spaces saved for women who will listen and allow me to talk. No one yet has filled it. My noisy parade of children has made that space a necessity and a curse. I have a space for my neighbor if she’ll take it.
But this is what I have to be careful of, what my husband warned me about. To know means you are in a position of power, and it takes time to be trusted with that power. I hate it when he’s right, but I guess if anyone would understand this it would be him.
But I didn’t give up. I learned her routine day after day, week after week. She worked as some administrator in a taller building downtown. She took her baby to a disappointing daycare. Her husband came home late, almost always suspiciously.
If she was in the yard or at her car, I waved. Sometimes she noticed me. Most times she didn’t.
In the fall, my oldest child offered to rake her leaves. She was lying when she said she planned to do it herself. In the winter, we had another offer: to shovel her walk. She refused that one too. One snowy morning, I backed my car out of the driveway and bumped hers, parked in the street. We had to speak, for I insisted on apologizing.
But she nodded at it and shut the door. It was weeks before I heard her call my name. My children threw snow in their innocent way, and her nervous dog didn’t like it. She shouted with anger. I didn’t, but I wondered if she was really so bored and tired of winter, she could come this way and we’d talk over coffee. But she never did.
Someday there would be a more positive connection, at least I believed so. One like the wires strung in our old neighborhood with the glaring poles at every corner. She would see my value and seek my advice. I would be a friend to her. She would be a better person because of me. I knew she would.
I even took that package over myself — the one that UPS had mixed up, a couple of best-selling novels with weak endings — and gave it to her in person, rather than leaving it on her step.
“Are you parking your car in the street now?” She asked me after she took the package.
“Cassie twisted her ankle on the ice. It’s easier for her to get into the front door, than hobble along the back way.” My voice was smaller than I had intended.
“When you park like that, you know we can’t get our cars out. It’s bad enough that we have to move them around so that the Kia is on the outside. We don’t care if it gets stolen. Now we have to watch for your car too. You know it should be in your driveway in the first place.”
“It was that one time.” I muttered. “Her ankle.”
I clenched my fists together. I saw into the future clearly. I would never drink coffee in that kitchen.
Then I saw something beyond her on the floor of her hallway: a For Sale sign from a local realtor.
She huffed. “You wouldn’t want me to hit your car like you did mine, would you?”
And I saw something else, something in her eyes. I understood then why she hadn’t allowed me in her life. There was no space for me. She had never wished it. My hopes of sunny July were now frigid.
I could make her pay for what she hadn’t done. I could. Right then, I could stand in her space and reveal something as clear to me as the winter sky.
“Don’t do it.” I don’t know why I said it this way. She had made no effort to allow me this liberty, but I knew anyway. I saw precisely what would happen, and I saw how painful it would be.
“Don’t do what?” She snapped.
“Don’t leave your husband.” Somehow I knew her entire plan. Perhaps if she had been kinder to me, I wouldn’t need to say these words now.
I no longer muttered. “You’re planning to go back to the Midwest with your baby because your family is there.” Would this sting? Even for a moment? “You think you’ll be happier without him, but you’ll just have more pain. But I don’t guess you care who you hurt.”
She dropped the package and pursed her lips together. Then she took a step back. “How did you . . .?”
“Get some help. Your baby needs both of you. And you could stand a few more friends.”I didn’t wait for her to shut the door. I went back across the street, to my cozy home, to the people who knew me best.
And I locked the door behind me.
Katherine Grubb is a homeschooling mother, poet, hybrid author, camping enthusiast and confident home cook who thinks she is the funniest person in her family. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and five mostly grown children. She is the author of Write A Novel In Ten Minutes A Day (Hodder and Stoughton, 2015).