She is quite content to sit and watch crime shows all day, every once in a while, putting in a load of laundry, wiping down the bathroom, maybe even trying out a new bread recipe or dessert. When the clouds set in by late afternoon, she might move to the second level of her home to read or maybe pet the cat or play with the dog. Sometimes, she looks up at the ceiling and marvels at how great it is to finally be able to stay home and relax, move at her own pace and decide when it is that she will check in with work or go through the online documents that need to be reviewed and returned to clients. She always gets things done no matter what. Quite to her surprise, and up to this very point, she never knew how much she needed to do around the house nor how much her pets had been missing her after her all of these years.
Once a day, she decides to step out into the backyard to work on several projects which are written on a to-do list in her mind. She knows that someone is watching, but there is no face to match the glare when she turns around. There is no evidence of curly gray hair standing up on end and eyes peering from the balcony of the house next door. Now that there is a fence on the other side of the yard too, she gets no impromptu invites to catch up to the drinking that has been going on since late morning/early afternoon. For this, she is grateful. She can move around as she pleases in the back. The front yard? Not so much.
After leashing her trusty pup, she sits at the edge of her front porch steps contemplating if it’s the right time to go outside. If it’s around 10 or 11 am, Gertrude, the woman’s neighbor, may be getting her mail. If it’s in the afternoon around 2 pm, she might be sitting on her porch reading. Other times, and there is absolutely no rhyme or reason for this, the neighbor may be sitting on her curb waiting for someone, anyone, to walk by. Once, during an afternoon cleaning, there were several voices heard on the street, an unusual occurrence during the city’s stay-at-home order. The window curtains around the block opened just a sliver only to discover that Gertrude was standing by her mailbox talking to some new faces who ventured out of their homes from the bottom of the hill. With children on their bikes and friends and family all standing six feet apart, they listened as Gertrude spoke passionately about the street they so happened to stumble upon.
“This house, my house, was built in the late sixties and back then there were no houses on that hill or that one either. Oh, thank you for that compliment. Yes, those shutters have hearts on them because we are of German heritage. My husband designed this house to look like a typical mountain house you might find in the mountains of southern Germany.”
Every once in a while, the visiting group would move back or step to the side as Gertrude moved toward them while she spoke, but the children never looked bored or seemed to mind. They welcomed a new voice speaking to them now, a voice different than others they heard at home. Gertrude felt their longing and continued. Had this group realized that this street they were on was a cul-de-sac? If they were to walk this long stretch a bit further down, they would find a circle at the end. If they did this whole straight road plus the circle five times, Gertrude was sure that they would end up walking about a mile. She was sure of it. She’d done it. And judging by her pace and time, she knew it was a mile. No fancy pedometer needed. She was sure of it.
More recently, when needing to take out the garbage, the woman who lived next door to Gertrude contemplated stepping in the new melting snow. She needed to go around the corner to the trash bins and with each step she took, she could feel the coldness seeping into her shoes. “Hi!” The familiar voice shouted from about 50 feet away and the woman’s feet seemed to want to jump out of her shoes. Instead, she hunched over slightly and grabbed hold of the ties to her hoodie, the exact location of her quickened heart-beat.
“What’s wrong, dear? Are you OK? How’s the hubby? We haven’t seen you.”
The woman told Gertrude that she was just working from home and that everything was fine. Both she and her husband were also catching up with a bunch of little projects they hadn’t taken care of since they moved in last summer. Bernard, Gertrude’s husband sat on the porch with his back to the woman. He waved by throwing up his arm and spoke by nodding his head or laughing every once in a while. Gertrude talked for both her husband and for the neighbor woman. She detailed what she had been up to, mostly shopping. Immediately, the neighbor woman could hear all the news warnings about how senior citizens were not supposed to be in public. They should wear masks. They should not expose themselves to the Corona Virus lurking in plain sight, invisible, invasive, waiting to enter the unsuspecting bodies of the innocent. Instead of saying any of this, the woman kept her mouth shut.
“Well, what are you getting ready to do?” Gertrude asked. “You look like you’re going somewhere. Are you going for a walk? Can I join you? By the way, honey, call me Gert, OK?”
The neighbor woman nodded to all these things and agreed to call her neighbor the nickname that only closest friends and family called her. She drew in a deep breath and went back to her house to get her dog. At least with the puppy at her side, the woman could be distracted beyond the conversation that lay ahead.
The two women, walking six feet apart, left the cul-de-sac and turned left; it was the way the woman and her dog always went in this new neighborhood. They knew where the Doberman Pinscher lived. They had a strange encounter with the pit bull once. And they even knew of the strange lady who always walked her dog in the park with no leash, but commanded her Australian Shepherd with clicks and whistles. Gert inquired about whether the woman had ever walked to the water levy which was located in the opposite direction they were now walking. In a cooing voice, she said it was such a nice walk and not too far, but the neighbor woman just ignored her and shook her head as if to say that she would have to try that sometime. Hadn’t Gert just invited herself to go on a walk with the woman and shouldn’t she follow her lead?
All the way down the hill, Gert talked about finishing a scrapbook, finally. She talked about how she was tired of being cooped up and wanted to take off and go to her mountain home with her 83-year-old husband. At least being out in nature, she could feel a bit freer, and she could hear the sounds of birds, and maybe even with her binoculars, catch a glimpse at a Wood Thrush. They were back, don’t you know? She talked about being cooped up inside and sitting too long, but mostly she talked of other things she’d done to keep busy such as cleaning and preparing her study so that she could bring up her electronic keyboard from downstairs in order to help accompany her singing practice and prepare for church concerts in the very near future.
The topics the neighbor woman loved to hear most were the ones Gert devoted to the many facets of baking and cooking meals. Just yesterday, she’d dug out her delicious Christmas cookie recipe and almost as soon as the pans came out of the oven, her husband took most of them and hid them in the garage so that the grand-kids would never find them. She talked of making schnitzel again soon, and the woman remembered when Gert and Bernard had invited the woman and her husband over for a nice winter meal. They had graciously opened a bottle of red wine from Illinois, a present Gert had received from her sister when she visited a local winery. The woman had no idea that grapes were even grown in Illinois, and after she got back home, she had to Google the bed and breakfast located near Springfield that sold that particular wine.
And finally, there was the one story that Gert told about how she and her husband Bernard had been ordering out and picking up some of their dinners at restaurants around town. “Didn’t you know you could do it during the quarantine? What a lifesaver to have an excuse to go outside.” Gert chuckled at herself. The woman started to think of how much she really missed going out to Las Fuentes or freely walking into a sandwich shop and grabbing a quick sub with her husband as they spent the morning browsing the aisles of Ace Hardware trying to find the best paint for the new door, the correct air filter for the heater, or a throw rug for the entry way.
How had the neighbor woman forgotten to live in this world after being holed up during the pandemic for a month? She loved the quiet, the comfort, and the familiarity of her home. For a month, and looking into future and foreseeable months of the city’s lock-down, she trained herself to never desire a trip to an antique mall or greenhouse. She looked at pictures of beautiful things she loved on the internet, and that was enough to satisfy her. She could shop online and even bought a Glocusent reading light for her mother for Mother’s Day. She and her husband browsed through the pictures and found the best one that charged on its own and could just lay around her mom’s neck for better reading. What a find, she’d thought.
The weekend finally came when Gert and her husband were to leave for their mountain home. The neighbor woman sighed with relief as Gert and Bernard put their last bag of clothes in their SUV and then waved. A sudden rush of peace moved over her. It was quiet and peaceful all evening and no light shone from the staircase window where Gert had explained that her son and husband had nailed each board in its place so meticulously that over the years, there would never be creaks to settle into the steps. Since 1974, no stair had ever made a peep. Now in the stillness of the night, the woman laid in bed wondering about the empty house next door and the evening raccoons that visited the bird feeders, the rats that would be drawn to the dry moldy bread crumbs thrown out before the weekend trip. It was enough of those thoughts that led the woman to think of something else, something positive.
Soon, she thought, the day would come when the quarantine would be lifted and everyone could be outside again. Most likely masks would become trendy. People would be stared down if they didn’t keep distance and wash their hands. But at least, people would be outside carrying on with their lives, and the 50 feet between the woman and her neighbors wouldn’t be a booby trap of awkward invites and hello’s. The woman would welcome the invisible fence between the two houses, the one created by busyness and appointments. The woman would have her own life and Gert was sure to be much happier buzzing around town actively pursuing her interests in town politics and church functions.
Quite possibly Gert was certainly the most extroverted person the neighbor woman had ever met, but possibly she was a good neighbor as she reminded the woman that it was OK to jump back out there and connect…even under the strange circumstances under which everyone fell. Even when the neighbor woman rushed to her husband’s study to see if Gert was on her porch, and if the porch was clear, and she could go outside in her front yard, she now giggled to herself over how weird isolation could drive her further and further into herself. The woman fell asleep to a dark room and dreamed more freely than she’d ever dreamed before…that is, more freely as a woman bound physically to the house can dream. Honestly, she always wanted to remain a home-body for the most part, but dedicating herself to this lifestyle for many days on end was not welcome in the long-term scope of things. Not yet, anyway. She was taking the quarantine seriously; she was obeying every rule. She was also connecting with herself and moving freely around her nest, making the most out of her once-in-a-lifetime chance to recharge. She sympathized with the awkward and itchy feelings of those who were cooped in what they felt were their cages. All of this was temporary though, and that idea, the temporary aspect, made her very, very happy indeed.