First comes love. Then comes baby. Then comes the all American question: Suburbs, maybe? Parenthood instantly propels us to superhero status…called on to protect and serve that perfect little mini-me. We do anything and everything to keep him safe. We put up baby gates, cover outlets, lock ourselves out of our own kitchen cabinets, and become human security blankets magically resistant to anything from the the boogeyman to the boogie wipe. But sooner or later, he’ll want to venture out into the wilds that await on the other side of the door we’ve so carefully baby proofed. Now easy peasy electrical outlet covers, cabinet door locks, and staircase baby gates are menacing streets filled with unpredictable drivers, strangers with candy, and shady slow-moving vans on the prowl. If you have kids, you got the memo. City bad. Suburbs good.
They say birds of a feather flock together. We parental birds make this suburban migration in droves for the well-being of our little people. So that we can shield them from danger. So that we feel comfortable letting them play outside without constant supervision. And so that we can put head to pillow at night knowing we’ve done one more thing to keep them from becoming the misery-spreading anti-family rebel with fangs that every teenager is destined to become.
It wasn’t long after I jumped on the manic mommy wagon that we did the inevitable and followed the droves. We bought…a neighborhood. I say neighborhood because, as any of you who have bought a home knows, it’s akin to getting married. You don’t just buy the house. You buy the whole damn neighborhood. The cookie cutter houses, the manicured lawns, the white picket fences, the neighbors’ dog doo on your shoes, the forced neighborhood how-do-you-do’s, and the futile attempts to avoid the obligatory gossip news. It’s a deceptively package deal. And the day we sealed the deal and moved into our white picket fence ~ homeowner’s association ~ gated community ~ neighborhood was the day we were to begin our purchased “safe haven” life. We were naively giddy with newbie enthusiasm.
They say it only takes one rotten egg to stink up the joint. And the stench was wafting in our direction. Pulling the overstuffed U-Haul up to our exciting new abode, we were happy to see a child’s birthday party underway…complete with the blur of running kids, the sound of contagious laughter, the rented bouncy house, and the child’s parents…a twosome that would soon make me grapple with why my dream of moving to the city was ever deemed a bad idea.
My first impression of him was one of “What..the.. hell did we just do?” And as time marched on, he managed only to validate that impression. Sluggish, overweight, beer in hand, a slight buzz, and an obvious itch to stir trouble. The kind of trophy neighbor a realtor pays to stay clear of the hood until the ink is dry on the loan papers. With a cocky demeanor, he strutted over to me, introduced himself, and proceeded to brief me on his wife’s name. He took a hearty swig from his beer, gave me a manly punch on the arm, and verbally trashed her like day-old empty beer bottles. On the outside, I was smiling and feigning understanding. On the inside, I was planning my escape route. He was, and is, your typical neighborly nightmare. After executing my escape plan, I turned to introduce myself to what I hoped would be his polar opposite, a fellow mom I could befriend. But when she refused eye contact with me, left me hanging, and darted in the other direction like I had bared my fangs and taken aim at her throat, I watched my white picket fence fantasy go up in flames. And I wondered who lit a match?
Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months. Being the new kids on the block, we were privy to our fair share of rumors swirling about the couple in question. All coinciding with my original impression. But I tried to keep an open mind. Remain neutral. I failed. Neutral is hard to pull off when I walk outside to hear him barking profanities in one of the faces of his many children, when I hear him -over my television- in the wee hours of the night standing in the middle of the street ranting drunken insults at a neighbor who is inside asleep in his bed, or when I realize that politely asking him to keep his large dog from peppering our front yard with T-Rex sized crappy patties signals -to him- a war of not-so-clever words that may end with his waving of the rebel flag and the threat of his 12 gauge shotgun between my eyes. Clearly, the last thing I want to do is enrage a drunk redneck exercising his right to bear arms.
Bumping into his wife at our nearby grocery store or in the neighborhood was a routine occurrence. Eye contact and conversation were still, apparently, off limits. Word of my Medusa stone turning abilities had somehow been leaked. Nevertheless, our kids had become fast friends and wouldn’t see each other without speaking. So completely evading the situation wasn’t an option and chance encounters with her became an awkward game of chicken. Who would speak first? Who would look down in avoidance first? She had mastered the role of chicken well.
I gave up trying to talk to her, settled in the notion that she hated me. But I do think about her often. As a woman, I wonder if she’s happy? Miserable? Afraid? Stuck? As a mom, I wonder if the kids are happy? Miserable? Desensitized? Resigned? If his drunken public persona is so unsettling to the rest of us, what was living with him like? I presumed happiness wasn’t an option. Maybe avoidance was her defense mechanism. A way to keep new unfamiliar people at arms length to project the perception that all was good. That she had everything under control. Maybe it wasn’t me she hated at all, but the threat of yet another neighbor witnessing the very things she was so desperate to hide. Not only from the outside, but from herself.
While I prefer to avoid them, my kids want to play with their kids, putting them directly in his path. So, here we are in a house, in a neighborhood, that we’ve bought for the peace of mind that our kids could play without threat. But within months of escrow closing, rumors of the unstable “father of the beer” were joined by those of drug dealing neighbors and the realization that registered sex offenders lived too close for comfort.
So it turns out our neighborhood is just a hood, like any other. A white picket fence is just wood and nails. HOA rules are only as good as a handshake and a neighbor’s word. An electric entry gate is easily broken away. And the people we’re so desperate to protect our kids from live on BOTH sides of the gate.
A gate that serves no real purpose aside from perceived status.
On my side of the gate, I continue to avoid him. There’s a tangible tension between us that is challenged daily by our kids’ friendship…a friendship that reminds me that young innocence without judgment does exist…prior to life’s jading.
She speaks to me now, although her dislike for me proves hard for her to hide. We fake it anyway, as do most neighbors. And every so often, I look out toward her house and wonder what I may do if I were in her shoes. Is she simply out of options? Or does she truly love him and lead a happy life? Am I being presumptuous in assuming her misery? After all, the only thing I really know about her life is what I see playing out in the streets of our little utopia.
And then I wonder if she wonders the same about me.
Is her perception of me just as haunted by questions? Does she see my skeletons peeking from my closet as I do hers? Does she presume to see through me as I do her?
Am I too living under white picket pretense?
Of course I am.
But at least for now, our kids are youthfully unaware of what lies beneath our pretense. And to them…
The wide world is all about you; you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.” J.R.R. Tolki