I heard the footsteps make their approach, knowing my time alone was about to meet an abrupt end. I slid away from my desk, anchoring my right toe into the carpet to send the swivel chair pointing at the door. My eyes were fixated on the knob as I anticipated her entrance. She always entered with dramatic flair. I loved it each and every time. The repetition of it never grew old.
The door flew open in haste, the pile of the carpet impeding its pace and saving it from a personal encounter with the wall. She stood there in the entrance, pictured in between the jambs and dwarfed within its framing confines. We shot glances at each other, challenging one another to see who would cave first. It was me. It was always me.
She ran over, teeth gleaming with joy, and lobbed herself at me. I flung myself from the chair. Athletic pursuits were never my thing, and it showed in moments like these. But she didn’t care. I wouldn’t ever dare miss her, and this time was no different. She fell directly into my arms, and swam about in my oversized, woolen cardigan, her hair splashing about like wisps of breath on a cold winter morning.
Working from home has its benefits. And it does have its distractions, which I have come to appreciate. Especially from her; no matter how entranced I was by my work she always pulled me back into the real world.
“How is my little baby girl today? Did you have a fun time at Maddie’s house?”
She looked past me towards the desk. It was a treasure trove to a six year old. Pens, highlighters, and sticky notes; they were all there, and all catered to endless possibilities for the arts and craft projects occupying her mind.
She continued looking around me, peering at the contents of the desk, and asked, “Daddy, what’s a radical?”
I suppose there could be much tougher questions to answer. Fortunately it wasn’t one of those questions leading to “the talk” at an early age. Or even worse, to lie and postpone “the talk” and suffer the consequences of confusion somewhere in her fast approaching future.
“Now why would you want to know that?”
“Maddie’s Mommy said you and Mommy were radicals.” Her recount of the experience was so matter-of-fact, and the innocence of her speech melted any sense of indignation the remark brought to me. Getting to the items on the desk seemed more of a challenge to her than asking the question she posed. Fortunately the gallery of items on the desk distracted her long enough to forget that she was owed a response.
My wife stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, and watched our interaction with a smile.
“Come on Amelie. Let Daddy get back to work.”
She managed to finger a stack of sticky notes and my red pencil before leaping down from my lap. My wife eyed her with amusement, enjoying the delight that Amelie took in my work. Still, my wife’s eyes rolled as Amelie mimicked my scribble that passed for handwriting on the sticky notes cradled in the palm of her hand.
“We already have our Hemingway in the family. Now let’s let him be. By the looks of it we may have ourselves another Woolf, too.”
“Now that wouldn’t be all bad,” was my reply, which I delivered with a bit of jest. My occupation was always the source of jokes and jabs at family gatherings. I was a writer, and I knew that my wife’s family was shocked when she first announced what I did for a living. Sometimes I wondered if people thought that we were just imagined romantic concepts: nocturnal beings downing coffee by the gallon late into the night, penning the words that fueled movie scripts and novels. I was none of that. I was just an average guy, fortunate that what I did continued to pay the bills.
I flung my chair back around to the desk and planted my chin in the palm of my left hand, deep in thought. “Radicals.” I laughed to myself just thinking about it. We were radicals, the people the right feared: me at five feet, eight inches tall and one hundred forty pounds, and my wife who measured up to a mere five feet. We were the threat to their agenda. I laughed again and shook my head.
In reality we were misunderstood more than anything else. A few years earlier we moved to this town that was conservative in contrast to the urban center from which our lives were transplanted. It wasn’t our first choice of location—that was certain. But it afforded stability for my wife’s career as an associate professor of economics at the local community college. The promise of a professorship at the universities located just an hour away never panned out. The life of an adjunct had become too unpredictable, especially with the little miracle of our love, Amelie. Having a child halted our dreams of becoming idealistic academics, living and working within the sheltered bubble of the academic world. Dreams could be realized anytime, but raising Amelie was a gift that couldn’t wait to be accepted.
I reflected on our situation and how we must have appeared to our neighbors. It was an election year when we arrived, and I didn’t hesitate to place a few campaign signs in our front yard supporting the Democratic candidates. Our property was a lonely blue island in a sea of red. It was an isolated outpost, and the only location openly supporting the Democratic candidates. Everywhere else I turned, the signage supported only Republican candidates. All our neighbors knew about us were our political leanings and a smattering of details about our careers. Without opening any dialogue, I made our introduction with a taboo I was told never to discuss in polite company: politics. By some act of grace I was wise enough to reserve my thoughts on religion for another day.
To them we fit the stereotype of liberals. Our agenda clashed with their world view. I wasn’t the type to stifle my opinion to fit in, but this was our home, and these were our neighbors. These were relationships that would matter regardless of opinion. In some ways our new neighborhood had become another family unit. Like being in a family, it was a place where we were unable to choose who came and who went. We would need to coexist, and accept with dignity and understanding, the opposing viewpoints outnumbering us.
# # #
Later that night, after our evening bedtime routine with Amelie, I found my wife in the kitchen. She draped her arms around my neck, tethering her body to mine, her arms wisping about like the gossamer threads of a spider’s web in the breeze. She swayed in slow, pendular movements that placed me in her trance, keeping me always under her spell.
“You know, it couldn’t hurt to get to know our neighbors just a little better.”
She was right. We were so busy that it was hard to find the time. Everyone in our neighborhood must have been busy, as there was very little life going on outside after the work day ended. Life sometimes passed by as a mere course of our daily actions. We were all at a loss for our daily routines dictating our social schedules. Life happening always interrupted the interactions that defined true acts of living.
Elizabeth continued, “We accuse them of stereotyping us, and you know—we do exactly the same when it comes to our opinion of them.”
“Yeah,” I responded, “here we are, idealists in our ivory tower, wondering what is wrong with this country. Why no one gets along. We’ve done nothing to make things better.” With all the years of education that resided in our home we were still blinded by our own ideology, of what we thought needed to be done. We were waiting for someone else to make the first move. In that regard we were no different than anyone else.
“Well, dear, maybe that can change. I invited Maddie and her mom over for a play date tomorrow.”
“Cool. Kids are the best icebreaker I know of anyway.”
We hung on to each other in silence and enjoyed the moment. Our front window was open to the world, still waiting for the curtains we bought to be hung. It was an aperture to the neighbors, one that invited curious eyes. We were never afraid to show our affection. For the years spent toiling through graduate school and living off ramen, it was all we had. Sharing just a little of that tenderness, a kind neighborly gesture, maybe that was all it would take. Someone had to break the ice. Why not us? If not, we failed our education.
Just maybe we could all realize what we had in common. We all worked and struggled to make ends meet. We placed our children first and sacrificed to provide for our families. This neighborhood was everyone’s home. Our houses were just our own private spaces inside this small world.
Elizabeth and I weren’t wealthy by any means. The years of higher education equated to enormous student loan debt, and our vocations didn’t guarantee an income to offset those expenses. What opinion of academics our neighbors had, it was our obligation to share with them that we were no different in the struggle to survive. We worked hard to meet our mortgage and to fill our refrigerator. Our needs, and our challenges, they were all the same.
# # #
Maddie and her mom arrived at their appointed time the following morning. From my window I observed their minivan creep up along the curb and take its spot in front of our home, settling in with a squeak of the brakes. I saw Maddie’s mom check her phone to delay the inevitable. I wondered if she was looking over her shoulder, making certain that no one was about to witness her entry into our home. But that was my ego taking control. Who could think ill of her?
The front door creaked open, signaling me to make my way out to greet our visitors. Amelie and Maddie were prancing about, their chirpy voices adding a spring like feel to the cold air that ushered them inside. The sound of their voices warmed us all. They were the hearth of a possible friendship between their parents, two different worlds joined by their children’s liking to one another.
“Addison this is my husband, Blake.”
“It’s so nice to finally meet you and Maddie.” I was as sincere as could be, truly thrilled to finally meet some of our neighbors. I looked forward to talking to Addison to see if I could dissuade her from applying the radical label to us again.
We shook hands and Addison opened with a genuine comment on our recent renovations to the old home, “Elizabeth, I love what you’ve done to the place. Don’t these older homes have so much charm?”
“Thank you so much, it’s been a real labor of love, pouring what we can into it.”
I saw my opportunity and chimed in, “We wanted to maintain the character as much as possible. We didn’t want to go and throw out all this charm with some radical design changes.” I drew out the “radical” as long as I could, as I pointed to the rich woodwork that abounded in emphasis to my comment.
I felt a finger drill itself into my lower back. My wife shot me a smile that could kill. Daggers they were not—these were sabers. I sunk back into my smile as we settled into the living room while the children romped about.
Aside from my near-sabotage of the encounter, our visit was a success. It reinforced what I thought earlier: we did have more in common than we all let on to believe. We couldn’t place each other into a neat package labeled liberal or conservative, radical or mainstream. Our lives weren’t heterogeneous circles that deflected from one another. They were instead malleable masses that had no definitive shape. All of us morphed, our opinions shifted, and our similarities waded together in the same pool of human experience.
It was the shallow end, but as we came to know each other, we found the courage to wade out further. Our differences in opinion no longer cast us apart. Rather they became our understanding of each other. We weren’t the ivory tower on our block. We just respectfully disagreed on some things. That was it, nothing more. Our place in the neighborhood became accepted and we were welcomed because of our personalities, not because of what we believed in or how we cast our ballots. Elizabeth’s true idealism opened up the conversation with our new neighbors, and in return we were invited to join in as members of this extended family of sorts.
# # #
A few months later a new neighbor was moving in across the street. The car bore a “Jesus Saves” bumper sticker. Thinking I was alone, I thought aloud, “Looks like I’ll be able to have that discussion about religion.”
“Or you can grab a box and introduce yourself,” quipped Elizabeth from behind me.
She was right.