No one was worried at first. The minivan lulled them into a false sense of security. Normal has a certain taste and color. It's a perfume that lingers. The neighbors sniffed at the air.
The house looked the same as everyone else’s. The beauty of the homeowner’s association’s iron fist over the subdivision. The tan porches blurred into eggshell garages that contrasted subtly with the off-white of the doors. All with more pigment than the residents of the community.
The woman carrying the boxes into the home had a few tattoos on her arms. People reminded themselves that Mr. Fitz, the local mechanic and usher for Easter services, had tattoos. Nothing to worry about.
They remained unworried. Newcomers didn’t have to mean change. They continued on business as usual. People washed their cars because the news about the drought didn’t concern them.
Another woman drove up a bit later. They embraced. Arms lingering around each other’s waist. No one acknowledged the intimacy of the gesture. Women were always more affectionate with their friends. It’s just the way of things. Hugs were not uncommon here. When everyone knows everyone and their grandmother’s grandmother’s taste in dining ware, you embrace in the grocery store and ask about their health. No, it is fine to hug. Nothing to worry about.
The child that bounced out of the car had curly hair. Neither woman’s hair curled with the same bounce. The neighbors could relax their shoulders. There was clearly another part of the equation that created the little boy. All was well. All was normal.
Sounds of happiness wafted from the home. The neighbors heard laughter. The laughter that comes from pure exasperation when a child just won’t nap. The laughter that comes when your only options are to laugh or cry because the dog ate the chicken right off the stove. A whole life was being lived inside the home, but the neighbors could not pin it together. No, it is not that they couldn’t. They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t think of it. They continued to believe that their small slice of the world would remain unchanged.
The local banker liked his mornings. Most people came to the bank before too much of the day passed them by. He liked human interaction. He found comfort in the banality of chit chat. As he cleaned his already meticulous front counter, the front door bell chimed. A familiar stranger walked in. She must be the new neighbor that he’d heard about. The one no one was talking about.
She asked to start a joint account. He asked the other person’s name. “Erin”. He input “Aaron”. She asked him to correct it. She spelled it for him. Her voice is gentle, accommodating “E-R-I-N”. The banker changed it. He handed her the paperwork. He went into the back without any conversation.
She looked incredibly stressed when she walked into the doctor’s office. The child in her arms had that glazed, feverish look with flushed cheeks and droopy lids. The child’s dark curls and deep brown eyes showed no genetic similarity to this blonde, blue-eyed woman. She asked for something to help the child’s stomach flu. She had that frazzled look of mothers who can’t take away their child’s pain. The doctor had seen the look a million times. He knew the stress of young parents as they cared for their fragile offspring. Normally he would put a hand on the woman’s shoulder and say that all kids get sick, she was doing the best she could, that she was a good mother, that the flu would pass. He just couldn’t. Not after everything he heard. He hoped the child would grow up alright. But how could he?
“Did we make the right decision moving here?”
It was the kind of vulnerable question one can only ask under the cover of darkness. The kind of sentiment only safe without eye contact or accountability. She pulled her wife into her. Their bodies fit together like perfect puzzle pieces. She kissed her shoulder letting her lips linger.
Today was a hard day. Their child had been the only one in their preschool class not invited to another child’s birthday party. It had been months in their new home. They’d moved here with all the optimism of pioneers exploring the wild west. They knew they’d be different and that they’d be shaking things up just by existing. They thought people would get used to them.
“It’s like boiling a frog. We are slowly raising the temperature of the water and they won’t even realize they like us until its too late.”
"What if the frog just jumps out?"
There was nothing to say to that. Acceptance was never a guarantee. Here or really anywhere. At least here their child could get a good education. They could afford a house with a yard. They'd been priced out of the places that would "accept" them, so they paid the emotional tax here instead.
Mrs. Oglethorpe had lived on the outside of town all her life. She’d worked as a maid in most of the large homes that dotted the streets. She knew the dirty secrets of the imperfect people who she called her neighbors. Everyone treated her with a mildness. No one was overtly rude or blatantly racist, but she was the fly who’d fallen into a bowl of milk. She wore her difference wherever she went.
She’d seen the cold stares. The subtle rejections of those new neighbors. She understood it, but she also didn’t. She lived here all her life. She had nowhere else to go. They chose this place. Regardless of that insanity, she parked her car next to the minivan. She got out of her car and walked up to the front door. Before she could even knock or ring the bell, the dog started barking. One of the women opened the door. A confused smile on her face. Had anyone ever come to their home?
Mrs. Oglethorpe handed her the pie she made. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
The woman smiled at her. They both ignored the small pool of tears that formed in her eyes.