I lived in my old apartment for twelve years. Intimate with every corner and creaking board I could walk through it blindfolded. I knew the sounds the building made, how it smelled and where the light and shadows fell. Familiar with my neighbors’ schedules and habits, unfamiliar cars and strangers always drew a questioning glance. Traffic sounds from the street flowed through my body like blood and my town’s rhythms were as familiar as my heartbeat. I’d usually sleep soundly at night, knowing that I’d awaken at the first odd vibration.
Now everything is new and different. I don’t know where anything is. On the first night in my new house I fell and banged my head, necessitating a trip to the hospital and a CT scan. A concussion wasn’t the house-warming present I was looking for. Even the dogs are a bit stressed. On the rare occasions Buster got loose he always knew how to get his old home. Two nights ago he wandered off and I found him in a backyard three houses away, circling around wondering where the hell he was. I hear you pal.
Since 1973 almost everywhere I lived fell within a fifteen-mile radius. Now I live in what could be called “the country.” My new neighbors warned me never to leave my dogs unattended outside. “We’ve got bears and coyotes out here,” they said. One night I found a herd of deer grazing on my front lawn. The only wildlife I used to see in my old town was skunks. My wife grew up around here and knows her way around. I have to rely on Siri to get anywhere.
I also have new neighbors to contend with. While they’ve all introduced themselves and have been quite nice I’m sure they’re wondering who the hell we are. We’re the newcomers, the strangers. What’s going to happen when they see the less than stellar aspects of my personality? Like when I yell “FUCK!” at the top of my lungs when I stub my toe? Or when my wife and I have the inevitable argument? What if they think I’m odd? It was then I realized the difference between renting and owning. If I pissed off the neighbors in my old neighborhood, I could just move. If my new neighbors show up with pitchforks, realtors and lawyers have to get involved.
My neighbors and I will slowly dance around each other, eventually establishing a agreement of sorts. Intimacies will flash past our windows but we’ll just forget what we saw and heard. They say fences make good neighbors and that’s true, but that fence isn’t a physical structure – it’s all in your mind. You just have to figure out what you’ll put up with and what you won’t. Neighborhood fences are built with trust, tolerance and a touch of psychological razor wire.
For now my neighbors are strangers. My house is a stranger. I don’t know its sounds and smells; I don’t know where the shadows and light fall. Last night I leapt out of bed without knowing why. After checking on my daughter I swept through the house looking for danger. There was none. The vibrations were just different. Standing in my kitchen I listened as a train rumbled in the distance, it’s horn dopplering forlornly in the humid dark air. Feeling uprooted I considered my newfound vulnerability. I have no fences to hide behind.
Buster rubbed against my leg, whimpering for a treat. This will be the last house he lives in. Feeling a twinge of sadness I refilled his water bowl and went back upstairs. As I watched my daughter sleep I realized she will know this house in a way I never will. For me this place is an adult responsibility. For Natalie it will be the foundation of all her memories. This is where she will plant her roots. When I’m long gone she’ll drive her own children past this house and tell them, “That’s where I grew up. That’s where your grandfather lived.” Maybe a neighbor will speak fondly of me. Maybe he won’t.
In the end my wife and I will be responsible for making this strange place our daughter’s home. Without love a house is just a box to hang your hat. I hope we don’t screw it up. Getting into my bed I hope Natalie creates happy memories here. I pray more light falls on this house than shadow.