The moment my husband pulled the rental car on the driveway of our future home, I saw our new neighbor look at me through the windshield and assume I do not speak English. When people think you don’t speak their language in their country they miss-judge that you do not have the ammo to judge them and allow themselves a longer stare at you. I have seen those kinds of eyes lay upon me so many times before, brazenly studying me, their superiority making them believe that the longer they stare they will learn how to pigmy communicate just like that, out of the blue. So they start shouting in slow motion, wanting to help you, accommodate, assimilate, elevate you, but only to the clearly drawn line of being their subordinate.
He had already seen my husband, when he had come to scout the house, and now needed to acquire data that could help him to process what kind of pair we might be. Well Sir, a couple with three li’l kids, I answer the never stated question in some parallel domain running its own life somewhere in my head.
I might have frowned contemplating the stares I had received over the years, and the snappy comment I offered to this man’s nonexistent question, and now saw that his eyes were not watching me. Did he ever did? Watched, looked, glanced, examined, observed, scan, stare, regard? In the pond of my gray mass I fished for the right word to describe the act, but on the tip of my rod I only fished out the conclusion that “regard” was certainly not the most pertinent one for this act of contact.
Hello, my husband was the first to greet the neighbor.
Hi, I said and waved a hand. We are new here. I offered to establish a working communication channel with him.
The word echoed in my head seeing the interaction from afar, so I could memorize it, and study it afterwards. Our first home in the USA.
Heillouw, the neighbor said. His tongue climbed stairs in his mouth.
This is new, I thought as I analyzed to predict in what way he would english-splain me from now on.
We just moved to the USA, we will stay for a few years and then leave again. I said and my husband turned towards me questioning my need to say what I said.
WaiT fiiiirst four me toooo staaahand up, the neighbor said.
I felt like I gave enough for him to do his assessment of our language skills, and our intention, which were: We-came-in-piece. Pee, i, e, cee, e or Pee, e, a, cee, e, I ran the auto spell-check in my head, but quickly gave up on it concluding that it did not matter, in our case both words were correct.
As I refreshed, my preoccupation with the semantics, and the semiotics of this primal meet-up stopped running and I saw that Instead of the new neighbor sizing us up, we ended up doing that to him. We occupied more space in his front yard than himself too, and moreover we stared at him. I did not like that about us.
He extended one leg - texture of the denim of his jeans unknown to me; swayed his body like a snake to fight his inertia. He appeared ready to jump instead of to stand up, but he seemed to have to lean with his left hand to the bench. His t-shirt, soft from overuse, caught between the bench and the hand. I zoomed to his nails. At that moment I decided that no nails on this world ever again would be in worse shape than the nailless fingers of the addict who leaned next to me a few days ago to scrape a half smoked cigarette that someone had thrown it on the ground, but the wind had pushed it in between two cement blocks. I waited in a line to obtain my no-social-number document in Paramus, reading a book in the line to pass the time.
What are you reading? The addict asked me spreading a toothpaste commercial teeth on the bright day, contradicting his wretched state. His forehead split vertically on the right side. The blood still fresh. I imagined his flesh pulsing, or did I not? I sucked inward my cheeks and bit them in my mouth. How was it possible for him to have those teeth, and that orderly hear, how did he end up like that, I started wondering in an effort to unsee his fingers.
I turned the cover towards him to see for himself. I could not bear to speak. Never in my life I had seen such a sight. I imagined my husband saying something like “You are so white,” when later on I will tell him what I saw, and whether it was a good idea to leave Scandinavia for the USA. “But he did not have nails, he had red stains instead, they were peeled off, scraped off” I continued convincing my husband in the imagined report. “He barely managed to straighten up once he scraped off the cigarette but. I was ready to help him. Nobody else in the line moved - that was devastating.”
A,R,A,I,S,I,N I,N,T,H,E,S,U,N, the addict read, his eyes hot chocolate too liquid to focus at one spot. He bobbed his head, the curls on his head dangled up and down like kids on a trampoline, he approved of the book for me. Does he know the play, I wondered. What for, what for, I wanted to yell at him, if he did.
Our neighbor was helping himself to stand up. My eyes widened, I felt fresh air encircling the periphery of my earlobes normally covered with lid parts.
For a moment of his standing up I fought my urges not to help him, surreptitiously working on my life long mission lest I become like my mother, unsolicitedly helping everyone, but myself. However that was about something else, yet played a crucial role in not helping him. Help that it turned out he did not need after all. I made a mental note to remember that in this country everyone is their own friend and enemy, and that everything humane that is on the blurred line, you pass it on to the police. Who was I to help the addict to stand up from the ground, when the guard of the institution chased him away. He did though granted him a single wish before that, to go inside and pee.
Do you have a lighter, the addict yelled after me as he was carried away from the institutional building.
I shook my head in a “no,” he better be burning down the play in my hands, than smoking and ruining those teeth, I thought. I could not bear to read any longer after that and marked my page with the bookmark I got as a gift once in Sweden that consisted of recycled paper with seeds inside, for if one day, someone loses it, a plant grows out of it, I wondered if someone could do that with cigarettes buts too.
With our neighbor we said our names.
A week afterwards I got a single ticket to see Plaza Suite, and sat next to a nice lady with whom we clicked immediately. She explained to me what galoshes are. On the intermission I inquired to her:
Where I come from, we call old people by their first name, everyone actually, teachers, priests, doctors, so how do I address our neighbor, when he did not tell me his surname, and would he get mad because of me calling him by his name? I asked my newly appointed cultural mediator lady in Hudson Theatre.
Yeah, that could be considered quite impolite, just explain to him, she said.
I cannot. He turns his head on the other side when he sees me, or when I call his name, this is why I am asking. I stopped greeting him too, he is always outside, I forget if I had already greeted him for the day, and besides he does not reciprocate. Do you think he might think I am inappropriately dressed, and here I cut my question in two half: sometimes I am in my pajamas, I slapped the nice lady with all of my recent inconveniences.
Just put some robe over, she suggested.
I do not have, we just moved, I said.
Oh, yes, the woman said. Are they, like lace and a bit too short maybe, she asked?
I cut my leg with my hand close to my pelvis, she widens her eyes and takes a sip from her glass of white wine.
Maybe sneak to the front door, it might be written somewhere, she said, once she swallowed.
What that, I asked?
Oh, I can’t.
Oh, right, because he is always outside. Well then just stop him and ask him.
I’ll do that, we resolved the problem
When he was finally up, he put his hands in his pockets. We withdraw from his sight, and he approached us while limping.
We are supposed to move in, but they are not ready, my husband said.
The neighbor nodded his head.
They have been working for the whole summer, I do not know how far they had gone, his speech seemed improved.
Have you been inside, my husband asked.
Before they sold it, and before I had the stroke, I was maintaining the electricity, I was an electrician, he said.
Who did live in the house before, I asked?
He looked at my husband and explained the whole family tree of the previous owners.
Did they have kids, I asked?
They did, the mother lived on the right side of the house, her daughter with her kids on the other side, he said, he only once glanced at me.
Were they playing often outside, I asked?
All the time, he said.
I did not have another option but to do that myself as well, as we did not had furniture, and the ordered one was arriving in a month and a half from then.
The next few days he was alway outside, whenever I went out with the kids. At first he was watching them play, and me reading on the ground. He did not say anything when we gave food to the squirrels and the chipmunks, even though later on I found out that he hates them.
The days were repeating, and I repeatedly looked for outdoor furniture on my phone that would not need a month before it arrives. Heartbroken for the northern hemisphere, I could not bear the warmth, and outside of clean laundry I sometimes wore my husband’s boxers. I always had a glass of something in my hand. I rolled up the hill in which the yard was falling like a waterfall and brought to the upper part a wooden log to sit on it. There we couple of them down there.In the other backyard, identical to ours, oak trees reaching for God in the sky, over the chain link fence, he sat in a comfy chair and did nothing: no book, no phone, no glass in his hand, no magazine, just periodically getting his baseball cap off and on again. He was bold.
A while after, he started turning with his back towards us, and I do not know how he succeeded in not turning around when the kids were yelling, or bothering his plants leaning on the fence.
My husband, still not knowing New York City like his hand, where his work was, was going out to work in the morning, and coming back late at night, always taking the wrong turn or car. I was dying from tiredness every night, and rising in the morning for another sacrifice. His eyes were saying what-have-we-done, but the skyscrapers were frozen in them, like a fence preventing the truth from coming out. We had to pretend that we were fine. In the mornings, I strolled with the kids to a forty minute walking distance to the nearest Walmart, the kids in boots late June, to buy summer clothes, and whatever I could have carried back with me for the house. I found a store that was selling toys for a dollar each. I bought everything the kids could hold in their hands. They played with it in the morning, and they broke before the night came. My soul was one unit of sadness away to crush in pieces as well. The neighbor just sat there.
From a gardening store I bought seeds. Watered them with the kids every day. I chose a parcel near to our neighbor’s side. Nothing came out. One day I found the middle son peeing over the plant’s bed.
What are you doing, I asked him in disbelief?
I am watering the plants, he said.
We pee inside, not outside, I said.
The older boy said that this is not his first time.
That explained our neighbor’s sudden disinterest in us. It had not been my short pijamas after all. Where have you been to notice this, I told myself. I gave up on reading for a couple of days, so I could only play with the kids, and prevent the middle child’s exposure.
Anyways, the neighbor had switched his place of relaxation to the front of his house.
The grass grew, the plants did not. My husband said that it is because there is no sun. There is when you are at work, I said. He lifted his head towards the sky to imagine in which part of the backyard the house might not cast a shade.
I listened to him, and planted another round of wild flower seed directly in the ground in front of the house. The grass there was wild. The rental agreement said that the owners are responsible for matters of gardening. We sent a couple of bids, but no result came. I took the scissors and started to cut bundle by bundle.
Have you lost your mind, my husband said when he saw me when he came back from work.
I just want to be in control of anything, I said, my earlobes swimming in their salts.
The next day a familiar noise from an unfamiliar place woke me up. I looked through the window and saw our neighbor mowing our lawn.
What is happening, I asked my husband who was awake for his weekend shift to look after the kids.
He is mowing our lawn, he said.
He barely walks, I said.
I offered to take over, but he refused, my husband said.
I went outside to admire, started sleeping in my jeans, so I did not have to change.
When the mower stopped working I thanked him and did not use any name.
He just lifted his hands, and for the first time I saw he was as old as the trees in the backyard.
Have you always been living in this area, I asked?
I was born in this house, he pointed towards the bench, and then looked at the only two conifer things growing in our lawn, I was here when they planted those two, they were so little, look at them now.
I cannot say that for whatever I plant, I said for myself, in the first one the middle child had been peeing in so nothing came out, and now in these, I do not know, there is sun, I hope they will come out.
They won’t, he said.
I curved my chin.
The squirrels are eating the seeds, I hate them, he said, they ate all of my tomatoes, they don't even like them.
He held himself on the lawn and looked at the ground absentmindedly as though contemplating a plan on how to get rid of the squirrels we had been feeding over a month.
Something cracked inside of me, and a loud laugh burst like sprinkles out of my mouth. He woke up from where he was and joined the hilarious event.
And it is too late to plant those flowers from seed at this time of the year, he said.
I do not care what it is, I just want something to succeed in life.
Then he breathed in the laughter and said with a serious voice. Then go in the backyard, and find a branch that is growing from the ground, nearby the trees, unearth it, and come with it. With roots. You know what roots look like, right?
Of course, I said, and so I did.
I started digging to the place where he instructed me, and we placed three trees to guard the freshly cutted grass.
We are not supposed to have these specific trees in the front yard.
Was he joking, I thought - worry in my eyes.
Don’t worry, he said, I will unearth them when you move out. Don’t you only want something to flourish on your own behalf?
I do, I said. Thank you. Stared at him and this silliness.
I never asked you, if you prefer to be called by your name, or your surname.
As he was tapping the earth over the newly replanted trees, he pointed with the spade he was holding towards his house. The surname of this house hangs on that plate over there.
Bena? I read the eye blinding plate.
Yup, me and my brother, and everyone ever lived in it, he said.
Well, thank you so much Mr. Bena for everything you did for us.
He was a man of no “don’t mention it,” so he just blinked with his small eyes.
The middle child came to the door, and asked for a pizza. Inside, I put two doughs to raise up. One for us, and one for Bena's house.
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