Fences for Neighbours | Rebecca Davey
*Pseudonyms are used.
“We’ll do it quick,” I say. “So quick, they won’t even know it happened.”
I’m trying to convince my husband and father-in-law to knock down our decrepit old plaster kitchen wall. The goal is to beautify the wall as well as put up new layers of soundproofing—all in the space of a weekend while my neighbours are away. My husband acquiesces and picks up the sledgehammer. Boom. Right away we discover (as is the way with renovations) that this quick and dirty job is not at all quick, and is exceptionally dirty. With the knocked down wall comes many layers of plaster dust, along with a thick layer of black charcoal. Who knew the wall was covering up a chimney?
“Will some of that black stuff land on their side?” I ask my father-in-law as he reaches for the broom, his body covered in soot.
“A little,” he says. Which means A LOT. Dread creeps into my belly as they dig around in the wall muck, feeling the implications of our rash act. Indeed, the neighbours come home to their entire kitchen sprinkled in a black dredge that has settled on both sides of the wall. I know this because when I put my ear to the fresh drywall, now adorned with a triple layer of insulation, I can still hear the upswing of Jeff, my neighbour.
“What did they do?” he asks, at which point the terror starts to course through me. How is it possible that I can hear him more clearly than before? The triple layer of soundproofing was supposed to fix that. Now it’s as if there’s no wall at all.
My fraught relationship with my neighbours—Jeff and Mandy—has taken up many years of brain space—eight years to be exact, as I try and guess what they’re thinking, wondering constantly if I’ve upset them, if they like my bangs, how I could bring up the sharing of the cost of porch paint.
“You’ve always been like that,” my friend Sarah says, “a little obsessive.” We are sitting in her backyard eating bran muffins as I try to pick her brain for memories of me. Is this who I am, I wonder. Obsessive? I’m tempted to defend myself, but it’s true, certain people do take hold.
It’s another Sunday and the service has just ended. Everyone is milling about the way it happens in evangelical churches. I see my childhood friend across the sanctuary. She has long wavy hair and just discovered she has a long-lost dad who’s also an actor. She also has a singing voice like vanilla pudding, which makes me totally jealous. I too want to be an artist but only consider myself a solid medium. Nice church people like Thomas and Ruth and Renfrew Bently—all come up to shake my hands. People are friendly and interested in my life here, but I’m only half listening to everyone because I have one eye on my friend and who she is talking to. Who is the person that is interested in her life? Whose orbit is she moving into next, and will I be excluded? I want to be her.
“Sam was another obsession,” Sarah says. “You pursued him with an unwavering focus too. Remember all those letters?”
“I signed them with a star instead of a heart.”
“Sounds like you. You just weren’t particularly interested in the odds if you wanted something.”
I think it’s a family trait this intent focus—animal-like—compelling us to seek out our prey, but with soft loving hearts.
Jeff and Mandy move into the Victorian row house next to ours a year after us and I’m instantly enamoured. She’s in fashion and wears surprising combinations like sky blue shorts and a yellow t-shirt with brown leather loafers. Her hair is cut into a sleek bob and sometimes she ties it all together with bright red lipstick, setting off her perfectly imperfect front teeth. I can’t take my eyes off her. He makes high end shoes from scratch and sometimes wears a smoking jacket. I tell all my friends that my neighbour makes shoes. I feel cool to be orbiting so close to them, the same wall.
It’s ludicrous the proximity—practically incestuous—sharing the same wall. I think about how with the right tools I could cut a hole in the wall like they do in movies and walk right through. If I put my ear to the wall in our kitchen, I can hear their banal conversations, but I listen anyway. Until their voices start to make me feel sick, from the over extension of my neck! Why am I standing there? What am I hoping to find?
One time, Jeff sends me a text in the middle of the night. I was in Winnipeg, staying in an unglamorous dorm room with my family during a weekend break from a summer course. There were no students in the dorm because it was the summer, so we had been running the bland halls with our toddler. My older daughter, who we had unfortunately trained to love fancy things, found the dorm disappointing. The duvets weren’t cozy and the bathroom didn’t have a TV. She acted disgusted the way I felt inside. Plus, the only take out we could find was less than average. We ate it on the bed, and nobody thought it was delicious. My toddler managed to slurp the occasional piece of noodle; the rest getting ground into the industrial carpet.
“It’s a full moon tonight,” he wrote, taking me by surprise. I was just getting up to go to the bathroom when I saw my phone flash. I took my phone into the bathroom to read it a couple more times. My heartbeat accelerated. Up until now we hadn’t spoken more than five words to each other alone. I didn’t even know I registered on the radar of the dapper man with the homemade shoes, so specific in his taste and moments of kindness. So, a sudden text at night about the moon? I’m making headway.
“Yeah, great moon from Winnipeg,” I wrote back. I wonder if he thought I was on the other side of the wall that night. I sat on the toilet and waited for a response, but nothing came.
It takes me a while to accept that Jeff and Mandy are actually terrible neighbours. Their intimacy is inconsistent, always on their terms. She texts me when she needs something: an onion, ice cubes (it takes them three months to return the trays), a lemon, ketchup. I keep telling myself we’re in the building stage. This is us getting to know each other as I give her my last egg. He texts me when he’s bored, starting the conversation with, “Hey. What are you doing?” which dupes me into thinking he really wants to know. It takes me a while to learn what he’s really after.
When she says at a porch party early on in our relationship that we should go to Cape Cod together as families, I’m ready to go inside and start packing. But the next morning and every other time we meet it never seems to come up again. Even after she blows off our early morning yoga date, our park date, and our wine date, I continue to dream about Cape Cod—a symbol of what could still be.
“Are you mad?” is her constant text refrain.
Of course, I’m effusive about saying how not mad I am. I don’t want conflict. Plus, I have reciprocated a few texts to her husband. I’ve stepped over a line. Good people–neighbours aren’t supposed to do that. I have no moral ground to stand on and the quality of the ground beneath my feet has always been a concern for me. I’m a church girl after all. I have been trained to worry about others. Especially my neighbours. To think about my output. Now everything is getting marred. The pristine leather shoes are covered in scuff marks—some of them mine.
Once there was a pair of narcissists who lived right next to a naive Christian girl, who was wracked by guilt for receiving their attention. Or was their attention more like ignoring? More likely they were too busy staring at their reflections in the kiddie pool in their backyard while she obsessed about her ranking on the scale of good to very, very bad.
If you climb into our attic, you will find that it is completely open across six houses, meaning, if you don’t slip through the floorboards to your death, you can run from one end to the other. I imagine avoiding near death and climbing down on their side. I will find them at the dinner table, “Surprise, it’s me! Remember me? The neighbour you dangle like a cat toy.” They will look confused because they don’t have a cat, but my point will be made.
I make a short film in our house and get caught up in the moment of the scene. I let the actor sing her climactic aria over and over ending in a high-pitched squeal. This is my first time directing and I love every second. Again! Again! More squeal! It doesn’t occur to me until Jeff knocks on the door in the middle of the scene that the actors’ voice has been breaching our shared wall for hours.
Maybe that’s when they decide to go to Cape Cod by themselves. I imagine them walking around Commercial Street in matching salmon pants and chewing on saltwater taffy. I feel left out because there was that one night of drinks where she said we were going to be best friends, two cool couples living side by side in a Victorian row houses. Also, I love the chewy tang of saltwater taffy. I thought they knew.
Jeff leaves a vase of lavender on our porch for Mother’s Day one of those years, which feels like an olive branch, but then they don’t look at us for the next four months. That typical push and pull that reels me in over and over—the sucker that I am—disappointed by their stabs of kindness. Puncture, then a jab.
Somewhere along the line, I stop responding to his texts. Maybe it’s because my mind is full of grief? We have just received the news that our baby will be born with a heart defect requiring open heart surgery at six months. I’m grieving in my usual obsessive way—constantly, a writhing sort of agony—at which point the NEIGHBOURS deign to have a party. I make Sam go over to knock on their door and put an end to their music that is echoing through the walls. (Did they install a speaker system along the stairwell? My god, they’re satanic!) Jeff tries to divert Sam by inviting him in for some chocolate fondue, but Sam stays strong,
“My wife is weeping upstairs because of your reverberating bass.”
Boom. Boom. There it is again.
We each build up our grievances, like an osprey building its protective nest. Stick after stick. It’s easier to hate than love. Jeff tells me that he despises opera. I leave them an expensive bottle of wine to apologize. They never say thank you.
It’s around the time that I stop texting that I start listening avidly at the walls. I want to know if I’ve been found guilty. Also, to see if they are drinking my wine. I am certain that they are talking about me and I need to know what, precisely, they are saying. I have to listen a lot—every chance I get—to confirm my suspicions. It’s making me ill. The knot in my stomach is constant as I strain my neck to press my ear flat. The cup technique is a ruse. I can only ever make out a few words but it’s enough to keep me coming back for more. One time I hear them say “Emily.” And more than once I hear “her.” Her. I am her. For a while I think I might die when I come in my house because the neighbours are so close. I can hear their front door open and close. I can hear their footsteps on their staircase, their lives on the other side of the wall.
I read a poem recently called “In Praise of Pain”—it seems relevant to those fanatical years, where I returned to the discomfort again and again.
The obsession seems to wane on both sides when we have kids, but I’m still a little too interested in what they think, still hoping that Cape Cod can happen—the symbol of what was gained and lost in a matter of minutes. Let’s chalk it up to my faith-based naiveté. God can move mountains. Noone is irredeemable.
We are no longer filming shorts in our houses or throwing chocolate fountain parties because now we are doing other annoying things, like sanding our floors at odd hours of the day and night to save money. We don’t give the neighbours any warning because it takes too much effort to talk to them, to deal with their inconsistencies. It’s also our histories that prevent us from speaking clearly. When Jeff is feeling empty inside, he still sends me a random text. He finds me when I’m rocking my baby to sleep, when I am just about to get into the bath. I listen at the wall to see what he might be doing when his voice pierces through the drywall interrupting my life. I listen for the ice cubes clinking into his glass (he must be drunk!) or the snorting of cocaine (he must be high!).
And yet I have envied how Jeff and Mandy look at each other, able to shut the whole world out, while I am clawing at the walls trying to find a hole so I can see what they’re doing over there. Just like I looked for my friend across the sanctuary. Always longing to be somewhere else, to be someone else, convinced that “there” was better than “here,” “she” better than “me,” even if I know I’m staring at people who don’t deserve all this time and energy being expended.
I forget which particular construction project is the last straw for Mandy. Is it the charcoal detritus or the sanding of the floors? Or is it Sam asking to see the plans for their basement excavation? Definitely our contractor coming to cut a single piece of wood for a window trim is the catalyst to let it all out. When his jigsaw rings we receive a sharp text saying,
“From now on we need 24 hours’ notice for ALL work.”
We’ve never sent these kind of acrid texts; we’ve never spoken our disdain out loud. Something has been unleashed. The walls become hot to the touch and I don’t even dare listen. I’m afraid of burning my hands, my ears on her wrath. But the world conspires and we run into them in the park that same day. For 45-minutes Mandy yells at Sam about our insensitivity and bad behaviour. The floors, oh how she put up with the sanding of the floors at every hour. And the random banging without warning. And our happy times too—they rubbed her most of all! I watch the scene play out from across the park, unable to move my body over to where they sit and support my husband who is graciously taking the fall. I watch human behaviour—petty and wounded—spread itself out like the chalk markings of a dead body.
“Good fences make good neighbours,” says Robert Frost in his poem “Fences.” The inverse is also true: no fences at all and a shared wall make for bad neighbours especially if you’re a masochist who gets enamoured with people to the point of obsession and can’t find relief even in your own home. Also probably true if you’re just a normal group of humans causing normal levels of irritation. A lack of boundaries, aka, human beings sharing the same wall is a recipe for danger. Messed up humans. Full of good and so much bad, full of holes we think texting about the moon will fill up. Thinking we are doing a good job loving because our families are okay, but forgetting to spread the love just five metres to the right.
The first time I remember eavesdropping was in grade three. I had won a hands-free phone from “Jump Rope For Heart” and discovered that the flimsy phone, when plugged in, could listen in undetected on all my mom’s calls. I heard her cry with my aunt about my dad who wouldn’t talk to her, the genesis of my worrying about their marriage. Another year, I “eavesdropped” on all my Christmas presents, unwrapping and then subsequently rewrapping each one. None of them were what I wanted. Merry Christmas, Emily.
Curiosity kills the cat.
Curiosity feel like a restless hamster rooting around in my belly.
Curiosity, what some might call obsession, has been my nemesis, even before I met Jeff and Mandy.
Now that we’re forty and mellowing with every year, texting is boring. We each have a few failures under our belt. We’re getting a little more body fat that we can’t get rid of which makes us humble. Our kids have exposed our inconsistencies, our parental inadequacies for all the world to see. They have heard me yell. I have heard their repeated door slams. It also helps that Mandy has quit her high paying job in the fashion industry and started listening to Tara Brach. She posts about the environment now and how she lets her children be sad when they need to. I am mixed about the changes I see in her—not sure if this new better person will extend any of that grace to me, her neighbour. I still brace when I get a text from her, knowing she probably needs my penultimate lemon.
But even still, I am tired of slandering them to anyone who will listen, “My neighbours. God, my neighbours!”
Sometimes I try to cross the expanse between us by chit chatting about the things I know she cares about now. In my mind I imagine also talking about the things I still care about: Remember when you didn’t come to yoga? Remember that interminable yelling session in the park? Remember when you took three months to return our ice cube tray and as payback you offered to fill them up with water first? I would accompany these questions with the beating of my breasts. I would confess that I have texted her husband. I would invite her to church. I would say “I love you” and “I’m sorry” at the same time, which would sound like another language, “I slorry.”
Maybe we could laugh about how good fences make good neighbours, but we share the same wall! The joke is on us!
I don’t want to feel that anger toward my neighbours anymore. I don’t want to feel that anger toward myself. I want compassion and empathy in my life, to transform myself like psycho Carol who returns to the Netflix show “Superstore” dramatically as the “empath.” I want to be this empath, to take long slow breaths with my back to our shared wall and wish them well. A long inhale and an even longer exhale. I think if I must put my ear to the wall, it should be to listen for something to pray for. What if I eavesdropped in order to pray more specifically? I’ll have to see what my God thinks about that idea.
This morning I still crawled out of my bed when I heard them talking on the street—just to see what they were wearing. A compulsion in my body that I haven’t quite evacuated. Obsession is a habit. I have considered moving to get away from them. But I know that I will just find other neighbours to problematize. Relationships are always quandaries because they are dictated by broken people. If you interact with another human, you are at risk. Relationships, half-relationships, waving from across the street—it’s all risky. Exposing ourselves a bit or a lot. And doing it with shared walls? It’s going to be hell. Sometimes at least. Unless we stick it out until we’re seventy, at which point maybe our conversations start to resemble heaven?
But I can also feel myself backing away from the drama. Will she disappear completely, the youthful me who could get swept away by a text, who could fall in love with a shoe man for a few months without worrying where it all might go wrong? I have seen and experienced too much. I have lived through a pandemic along with the rest of the world. I have woken up too many times to the news of ten more deaths in a mass shooting. Today the victims are in Boulder, Colorado.
With these newer older eyes, I see the dapper man’s fuller humanity. Cocky, a bit narcissistic, but also just a human, made in my God’s image, getting more and more normal with each passing day—especially in his new dad costume: running shoes and the same drab vest. Just an average man wanting to blend into a crowd. Not the decade ago shoemaker man who texted me about the sky. Who were we then? Where did we get that energy to love and hate each other? From the upstairs window I can see Mandy walking with her dog. Her hair is thinning and she badly needs a haircut, like everybody else. Also, a hug.
Unearth a rusty nail here, tighten a screw there: we are all works in progress, under construction, full of charcoal dust if you dare to cut through a layer.
About the Author:
Rebecca Davey is an actress, writer and producer and founder of Ceres Productions Inc, a multi-media company which fills its expanding creative universe with diverse projects big and small. She has written several web series including Running With Violet, which has garnered over thirty awards and nominations and is available on OUTtv and Amazon Prime. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of British Colombia and is working on her first middle grade novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters, but is actively discovering what more time in nature brings to her creative work.