Neighbors – Not What They Appear

A couple of months ago I was at home to recover from my foot surgery. My afternoon routine involved small amounts of rehab and a lot of lying spread eagle on my front driveway. Don’t judge, zoning out and getting natural Vitamin D is integral to healing.

About 20 minutes into my sun session I heard something that snapped me out of my zen state. It was the unmistakable hum of my neighbor Belle’s tan Honda sedan. Melvin, her husband, was probably with her. (Names changed to protect the innocent.) They are both small and stout and approximately 72. More importantly, they were pulling into their driveway. I had to think fast.

My brain went into overdrive cycling through possibilities. Can I get up and hobble into the house? Impossible. Otis the family dog was wagging his tail and walking toward their car, a sure tell that a human is in the vicinity. Lie perfectly still and pretend to be in some unalterable meditative trance? It would not deter them from walking over anyway. Start moaning in pain, make them think I am in grave danger, crawl inside after convincing them to call an ambulance, then say I am recovered by the time the medical personnel show up? A tad dramatic, and it still had the chance of ending in a conversation with them. Sit up, wave, and brace myself for the inevitable? Sadly, this was my only real option. They had seen me. I was caught.

Seeing a Housman in the driveway has long been a huge conversation trigger for Melvin and Belle. Ever since we moved in back in ’95, they have taken every opportunity to engage with our family. In my memory these exchanges always took the form of a couple of neighbors sharing a few pleasantries. Perfectly friendly behavior. It was only as I grew older that I realized M&B were playing the long game.

I have no doubt that they understood the ramifications of having brisk, concise conversations with the boys next door. Surely they were thinking “Make them believe we merely want to say a quick hi and bye. Appear to be all business. If we do that for the first 8 years or so they will never see it coming when we decide to turn every conversation into a one act play, starring us. We can wax poetic about politics, travel, our son, our many and various adult education classes, basically whatever we want! They will feel rude if they cut us off because we are old! We will ignore all hints that they want to terminate the chat. If all goes well we can talk with them uninterrupted for hours. It’s the perfect plan!” And it has worked marvelously. They continue to hone their craft, and in order to do so the seek out interactions.

I guess it is possible that we just happen to be outside at a lot of the same times, but I doubt it. I swear they keep a watch over our front door. If I so much as turn the knob one of them will causally saunter outside to “garden”, “get their mail” or “get in their car and drive away.” They are such good actors that sometimes they make it seem like they actually want to be doing those things. Ha! Surely they only feign interest in leading a life that doesn’t revolve around speaking with me.

So imagine their joy when they not only saw a Housman exposed on the driveway, but lying down with a cast on his foot and no crutches in sight. I could not even stand and face them eye to eye. They would loom over me.  I was like an infant in his high chair who is done eating and wants to leave but has no choice but to sit there. Add in the fact that my brother had successfully avoided them for his most recent visit and the effect was like a herd of African hunting dogs stumbling upon an incapacitated impala. The icing on the cake was a happy looking Otis standing beside me. It was almost too easy for them.

Otis’ presence is often the flimsy excuse M&B use for coming over and starting the marathon chat sessions. They do a phenomenal job of feigning that they enjoy his company. Oftentimes they bring him treats and play with him for long stretches. The whole thing can look adorable to the untrained eye. Most people would never suspect that their elderly neighbors would pretend to like a dog as a means of furthering their own narcissistic agendas. Thankfully I am able to see through their ruse. I now use my knowledge of their true motives to better protect myself.

It really is about protection, because a few minutes into their story about how their cruise ship ran out of iceberg lettuce you begin to lose your will to live. Some might say “Drew, what were you really going to do for that 5 minutes? Have you not recently spent 5 minutes literally staring at a wall?” To which I say it’s about personal freedom. I had a choice to stare at that wall. They leave me no easy way to get out of the talks. If I have to sacrifice making them feel a little better in order to maintain complete autonomy over my actions than that’s what I will do.

Did I live by that creed on this particular day? Of course not. I readied myself to nod, smile, and ride out the storm.

They ambled over with their seemingly warm hellos, but I knew what was lying beneath. They sensed that they had a captive audience. It took them about 30 seconds to get past the initial pleasantries and start the real conversation. The one that, as if by fiat, revolved around me asking them questions and then patiently waiting as they told horrifically boring stories.

I got a 5 minute discourse on every injury they have ever sustained and how one of them has an impending knee surgery. Next was a story about their visit to a museum in Israel, an anti-riveting 10 minute saga that somehow became about family values. Are they teaching me now? Do I need to pretend they are wise because they remember a time when you could say that cigarettes treated asthma?

What makes everything worse is that the situations the stories derive from usually contain a hint of something I might be curious to hear about. The problem is that their delivery is unfathomably monotonous and plodding. The words start to lose meaning. The tiresome anecdotes and unnecessarily long pauses pile up until any last vestige of interest has been mashed into a fine dust.

M&B can usually recognize when that point has come, and I think they consider their work done. They retreat back to their home, successful in having made someone listen to them. I can’t hate them for it. In fact, I admire their persistence and the way they were able to execute their decades long plan. All I can do is work on ways to avoid the talks. I also hope to warn other young people of what can happen if they fail to recognize the signs of a neighbor who is out to cannibalize their mind, spirit and time to fuel their own deep rooted needs. Stay strong out there.

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