Now that I think about it, it was really only this fence, this divider between our homes, that connected us.
You see, my neighbor and I seemed to have nothing in common except for a fence. The truth is that I never knew her.
We never enjoyed any neighborly talk. She never asked about the kids. We never swapped recipes. I never loaned her sugar. She never picked up the newspaper on our driveway while we were out of town. Or vice versa.
Like anyone, we just wanted to live somewhere safe, in a neighborhood with good schools and some coastal air. Nothing especially fancy. But when we settled in our home, I had no idea that a neighbor I would never actually know would leave me feeling so unsettled.
I would never know her because the year we moved in, was the year she fell in her living room and needed to move into a care facility. All we ever knew of her was what the neighbors would whisper. Reclusive. Eccentric. Smart as a whip but cantankerous.
We were told she kept to herself. For decades. And to the aggravation of the neighbors who tended to their roses, she cared nothing for her property. We discovered her only family was an aging sister who lived states away.
So her house remained empty, forgotten, without any hope of life. I’d go over there sometimes and take off the accumulation of flyers on her front gate. Sometimes I’d pick up the trash off her driveway.
But though I didn’t know her, it became clear that I had to care about her.
One spring, the wisteria that had been crawling thickly on the top of both of our fences became too heavy, and her termite-infested fence collapsed. And what do you know? It brought our fence down with it.
I felt sad for her. Very sad. But I won’t lie– it was aggravating to live next to a disaster. I pathetically wondered how it reflected on me.
Her fallen fence, our fence, was the thing that pushed me over the edge. I decided something had to be done.
I had to talk to her.
I walked into that care facility one afternoon, and despite the unmistakable staleness in the air, I felt hopeful, armed with a bouquet of freshly cut flowers.
“Hi, I’m Kim,” I introduced myself, finding a slender woman curled on her side in a bed, her sparse whitish gray hair pulled back.
She just grunted.
“I’m your new neighbor,” I said. My cheerfulness was clearly out of place. “I brought you some flowers?”
“Just put it on the table,” she muttered, not bothering to look up.
I glanced around her sterile quiet room, not sure how to say what I was supposed to say. “I just…umm…wanted to let you know about your fence.”
“What about it?” she asked, annoyed.
Somehow the fence was feeling less important now. But I took a deep breath and continued, “It fell down. I’m sorry.”
“We want to help you,” I jumped in quickly. “We’ll fix it for you?”
She lifted her thin face tiredly, looked at me with surprisingly clear blue eyes. “I don’t need your help.” She made some indistinguishable disgruntled sounds. “How do I know I can trust you?” Her thinning voice went even more quiet, “I don’t trust anyone.”
Certain that I had made a mistake by coming, I apologized for bothering her and turned to leave. But something made me turn back to ask, “Is there anything I can bring you?”
“Crossword puzzles,” she answered matter-of-factly. Then she added, “And not the ones that are too hard.”
That was it.
I never found the courage to visit her again. But I did leave some crossword puzzles at the front desk.
Four years later, she’s gone. And her house is up for sale. Some workers came by and emptied everything out, piling up a truck with her old, rusty, broken possessions.
Her house did get a quick paint over and gardeners finally came to cut back the overgrown trees that shrouded her front window all these years … and the fence was fixed.
Yesterday, as I was pulling up into our driveway, a realtor came up to me. There was a young couple with her, presumably prospective buyers.
“Excuse me, did you know the person who used to live here?” the realtor asked me.
What was I to say? I knew about her. But I never knew her.
I stood there, absent-mindedly staring through her front window now shadeless and unobstructed, my eyes tracing the sadly neglected interior.
Her space had been hollowed out, exposed for anybody’s curiosity now – left open despite a lifetime of living closed.
They say we all build walls around ourselves.
God knows there’s nothing safe about being connected.
But some fences, I believe more than ever now, need to fall.