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By DeAnne Neilson
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Ever since my friend Doreen had had the absolute nerve to move to Texas, the house next door had been vacant. I'd gotten into the habit of waltzing around in my undies or a towel (or less) on the way to the shower. After all, our master bedroom is upstairs and the bay window faces to the side. Why close the curtains when there's no one to see?
In retrospect, I realize that being so far above street level may have given me a false sense of security.
One Saturday morning, as I was enjoying a leisurely unclad stretch in front of that fateful window, I looked down to find a curly-haired blonde woman staring at me from Doreen's kitchen nook.
I swooped the curtains shut and dashed into the bathroom, where my husband, Richard, was shaving.
"I think someone is moving into the house next door!" I announced, slamming the door behind me and locking it. "There's a blonde woman in Doreen's kitchen and she's spying on me!"
The absolute worst thing about my husband is that no matter how unraveled I become, he always remains annoyingly calm. And self-righteous.
"Maybe now you'll close the blinds when you're in a state of undress," he said.
"It's too late, for your information! I've been seen, and she didn't even have the decency to look embarrassed! Oh, Richard! I've been seen stark raving naked by my new neighbor who is blonde and obviously has a sensational body and a marvelous tan and sits around all day sipping Crystal Light!"
I yanked a towel off the linen shelf, slammed it over the shower door, and turned on the water before continuing.
"That's not the kind of neighbor I need! I need someone who sleeps in, someone who leaves the breakfast dishes. I need someone with flab! I can't possibly have a sophisticated, blonde, California beach-person for a neighbor!"
Richard gave me an affectionate look in the mirror.
"Has it occurred to you that the person you saw may actually just be a realtor?"
He was right. The woman was quite possibly a realtor. Quite possibly a person I would never have to come face to face with. I could put this unfortunate episode behind me and go on with my life. I could.
Nevertheless, I raced through my shower, dug out my girdle, and dressed to the teeth. Then I hustled downstairs to attack the clutter, just to be safe.
As I scurried through the dining room with my arms full of old newspapers, I caught Richard trying to hide a smirk that said he was infinitely amused by my panicked and humiliated state of mind.
"You'll pay for that look," I said scathingly, then turned and tripped over the mat on the way into the laundry room. He laughed.
"And you'll pay for that, too!" I yelled over my shoulder.
Little did that brat realize I was throwing away all of his unread sports sections. Ha!
The blonde disappeared.
I peeked through the downstairs venetians and there wasn't even a car. Obviously just a passing realtor; no need for me to go into permanent seclusion.
All the same, as I got in my car to run errands later that morning, I found myself trying to formulate a plausible explanation for my indiscretion.
The best I could come up with (if Blondie really did turn out to be our new neighbor) was to have Richard take over a plate of brownies, and bring up in casual conversation that we occasionally rent out our home to my bizarre twin sister who is a lifeguard at the local nudist summer camp.
Of course, if that story didn't work, we could always move to South Dakota.
The following Saturday morning, after a casual brunch, I headed outside with the half-hearted notion that I might do a little weeding in the front planters. Then I saw the U-Haul truck. Leaping back inside the garage, I adjusted the curtains over Richard's workbench so I could watch next door. There was nothing to do but rearrange tools and patiently wait. Sooner or later, Mrs. Neighbor would appear in all her brunette majesty, and I could skip next door with a sunny smile and a loaf of bread.
The only thing wrong with my plan (besides the fact that Shop-Mart's "three-loaves-for-a-buck" bread makes only a so-so welcome gift) was that down the U-Haul ramp came a lamp-toting woman with that same wild blonde hair, not brunette. It was her. Just my rotten luck.
I decided that if she could spy, so could I, so I unashamedly peeked as they began unloading their belongings. You can tell a lot about people from their stuff. Within five minutes, I had a pretty good idea what our new neighbors were like, based on the style and approximate price of their furniture. (It was decent stuff, but none of it matched.)
And I also noted that Blondie did not have a "sensational body" as I had previously thought. She had flab, alright. And more than me. I took great comfort in the fact that, as far as I could tell, no tanning beds or major exercise equipment were carried in.
I almost jumped halfway across the garage when I realized Richard was standing right behind me.
"You little chicken," he whispered.
I jabbed him hard in the ribs with my elbow.
"You men just don't understand how it is with us women and our bodies!" My turn to be self-righteous.
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"It means I'm not ready to go and unpack boxes with a total stranger who has seen me in my birthday suit."
Richard gave me that benevolent look that always precedes one of his borderline-chauvinistic mini-lectures. I decided to cut him off at the pass.
"Face it, Big Boy! The disgusting lack of privacy in men's restrooms is a pretty good indicator that your half of the human race is still living in the Stone Age!" It wasn't the best I could have come up with, but it would have to do.
He furrowed his brow in mock concentration.
"Deep, Kate. Very deep." Dodging another jab from my elbow, he chuckled. "All I can say is I'm glad men aren't this obsessed with body image."
He plunked an instant chocolate cheesecake mix down on the workbench in front of me.
"Here." He gave me the kind of kiss that always dissolves my agitation. "Now go into the kitchen and put this together like a good little neighbor, and act like Sister Thurston or Thurman or whoever the bishop said she is, never saw you in a state of nature. I've got to go call a couple of the other elders, and get over there to help unload that van."
"You know the family already?" I exploded. "Why didn't you say something? Not only do I have to hide from her at home, but now I find out she's a member, so I'll have to hide from her at church, too! I hope they put her in the nursery!"
Richard laughed and gave me a squeeze.
"The Lord is always listening, dear. Now he'll probably put you both in nursery until you overcome this little difficulty between you!"
As I put the cheesecake together, I reflected on my husband's suggestion. Maybe Rich was right. Maybe I could carry this off by acting as if being seen in a state of nature was no big deal to a totally hang-loose woman of unflinching self-assurance such as myself.
But I wasn't going over there until I absolutely had to. No, I would wait until she was settled in a bit first. Everyone knows women like to organize their spice racks alone.
No sooner had I hidden the cheesecake in the fridge to set, than there was a ferocious pounding on my front door. I opened it to find Blondie standing there. She thrust out her hand, and I grabbed it to shake it, but she unexpectedly pulled me out the door and we headed at a dead run across my lawn and around the side of her house.
"Hi! I'm Sydney Thygerson, your new neighbor!" she said breathlessly. "Sorry to have to meet you like this, but I think our sons are in a bit of trouble!"
We skidded around moving boxes, leaped over scattered lawn furniture, and finally came to a halt in front of a big stack of redwood timbers and bright yellow canvas.
At first, I couldn't figure out what in the heck the problem was. Then I saw, sticking out from one side of the pile, four skinny legs with matching Reeboks kicking furiously. And I heard the unmistakable muffled giggles of one of my offspring.
Sydney directed me to one end of a log.
"Can you lift that end on the count of three, and hold it up while I pull the kids out?" she asked. Sweat poured in little rivers down her face.
I nodded, and she counted.
The log was heavier than I thought it would be. I imagined my upcoming chiropractic bills as my wimpy, quivering muscles did their darnedest.
Sydney grabbed one set of ankles and carefully pulled out a skinny little guy about the same size as my nine-year-old son, Austin. Just when I was sure my back would snap in two, I heard Richard coming at a run. Thankfully, I shifted the log to him and bent to help rescue my son.
As it turned out, the boys weren't badly hurt. The injury count only added up to one lump on a head, one scraped knee, and about a dozen splinters between the two of them.
"What on earth were you doing over here in the first place?" I demanded of Austin, after examining his already-purpling goose egg and determining he would probably live.
"My new friend Kyle invited me over to see their new play-chalet. We were going to surprise his dad and set it up while he was gone to the store."
I restrained a look of incredulity as I glanced from the heavy redwood beams to the two sets of scrawny arms.
"And then part of it fell on us," finished Kyle, rubbing a little spit on his scraped knee.
"Well," said Sydney, giving them both a simultaneous knuckle-rub on the head. "How about if you two men go in and grab some Gatorade, and when our dad gets home, you'll be ready to give him a hand."
The boys raced into the house, leaving us sweating unglamorously in the hot sun.
Richard, evidently remembering my anxiety at formally meeting the woman who could sell my story to the tabloids, eased into introductions for us. (I made a mental note to go dig out those sports pages and put them back by his La-Z-Boy.)
Sydney shook Richard's hand and introduced herself.
"And my husband, Sheldon, will be back any minute from the hardware store," she said. "He's the tall blonde one with the big mouth. Come on in. I think all of us could use a shot of Gatorade." She bent and wiped her sweaty face on the hem of her t-shirt, just like I've seen my boys do hundreds of times. Something in that gesture broke the ice for me; it just didn't fit the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous image I'd been busily conjuring up.
We stepped over and around all the boxes as Syd introduced us to her older son, Keldon, and poured Gatorade into Dixie cups.
"Don't mind my fingers," she said, plunking an ice cube into each cup.
Keldon would probably be in the same class as my daughter, Kammy. One look at his face and that gorgeous mahogany hair, and I knew that Kammy's life was about to change forever. What a hunk.
"Two kids?" I asked.
"Two. And you?"
"Four. Two girls and two boys. This is Austin. Our two teenagers went to the late movie, so you may see them sometime around noon. And our youngest, Amber, spent the night at her friend Caitlin's house."
Sydney pushed a couple of sturdy-looking boxes together and motioned us towards them.
"Best seats in the house." She sighed. "In fact, right now they're about the only seats in the house. Here comes my hubby."
The door behind us opened, and a voice boomed, "Got the truck unloaded yet, sweets?" Then Sheldon saw Richard and I and said, "Ah, this must be the neighbors, mooching off us already!" He had the same kind of mischievous face as a boy I sat next to in sixth grade, the face of a rascal.
Setting the hardware bags on the counter, he reached over and vigorously shook our hands, introducing himself.
"Sydney and Sheldon. Sounds like a law firm, doesn't it?"
A voice like that never needs a microphone.
Syd poured him a drink and handed it to Richard to pass across the counter.
"So, tell us about yourselves," Sheldon said, as he unloaded the bags. "And tell us about the ward. We've talked to the bishop on the phone, and he says this is a great area."
"Well," Richard grinned. "The true stalwarts of the ward should be here any minute to help unload the rest of the van. It might be best to let you judge for yourself."
As if on cue, we heard a whoop and the squealing of brakes on pavement. There could be no mistaking our first arrival. Clyde Frisby (no kidding, that's his real name) made a habit of always arriving in style.
"That'll be Brother Clyde Frisby, our most recent convert and a true Saint," Richard said. "Don't let the tattoos fool you. He got all of those when he rode Harley's with the Hell's Angels. Of course, the bishop has asked him to wear proper clothing at all church-related functions so the naked-lady tattoos don't show."
Richard gave me a sly wink when he said the words "naked lady," and I hurriedly choked down the rest of my Gatorade in an effort to hide my red face. I had chosen the wrong moment to sidle over to the kitchen nook to see if Sydney really could see in through my bedroom window.
(Sure enough, I could clearly read rosignol in big red letters across Richard's skiing poster. My fate was sealed.)
Clyde pounded on the door and bellowed, "Yo!" then let himself in. Clyde's not big on social graces.
A moment later our ward clerk, Brother Ed Wycoff, and his son Devin sauntered in and glanced quickly around the room. It was well known they only came to service projects if there were good refreshments. Disappointment was evident on both their faces when their eyes rested upon the near-empty Gatorade bottle.
Richard made all the introductions, and at Ed's request, it was determined that I should "run down to the Seven-Eleven for a little something." I'd been waiting for that suggestion, and I was ready with a well-thought-out comeback.
"Oh, let's save the trip. I made whole wheat fig and molasses muffins last night, and water is just fine in weather like this."
It was worth it to see Ed and Devin turn pale and all but break out in hives. (Ed's wife, Pamela, was notorious for trying to cook without sugar, salt, or oil. My fifteen-year-old son, Chad, who spent a lot of Saturday evenings at Friscoe's Pizza and Ice Cream Palace, had reported the extraordinary frequency with which the Wycoffs - sans Pamela - furtively crept in and gorged themselves silly. And Pam, ignorant of the dual lives her family led, was constantly bragging in Relief Society about how exceptionally healthy her family was.)
Richard, the killjoy, caught on to my tactics, and cut my game short by ordering pizza from Friscoe's, and the Wycoffs set to work with gusto.
Clyde stepped over and guzzled the last of the Gatorade from the bottle, and announced that he didn't drink the stuff much at home since it gave him gas. My husband, soon to be confined in small places with Clyde, skillfully hid a sudden look of extreme alarm.
News got around fast that pizza was to be had, and more and more of the ward showed up to help - help out eating, that is. As Richard had said, the true stalwarts came to work; the rest of the crowd were actually hangers-on with healthy appetites. I noticed with no small degree of pride that my four children did more work than some of the grown men and teenagers present.
And I was right about Kammy; it was definitely love at first sight. She and Keldon spent the entire afternoon carefully ignoring each other. I watched in amazement as she who was the champion of many an Adolescent Pizza Porkout Contest at our house, sat and took twenty minutes to daintily pick at one piece of pizza at Keldon Thygerson's house.
By early evening, the Thygersons were pretty much moved in and the crowd dispersed. The pizza mess was cleaned up and the two dads loaded up all the kids to return the U-Haul, while Sydney and I put the finishing touches on the kitchen.
"I'd offer you my hot tub for the evening if I had one," I told Syd wearily.
"I'd be willing to settle for chocolate," she answered.
The chocolate cheesecake! How could I forget?
"You're in luck! Follow me."
I admit, I was looking forward to collapsing on our sectional sofa. My back was done for.
"You've got good timing," I remarked, as we climbed our front steps. "Rumor has it tomorrow they're calling a new bishopric."
She laughed. "Isn't it funny how Mormons can't keep secrets? Who've you got picked out for replacements?"
"I'll never tell."
"Give me the ward roster, and let's lay some bets!"
In the kitchen, I opened the refrigerator door and brought out the cheesecake with a flourish. "Welcome to the neighborhood!" I said, bowing elaborately as I handed her the plate.
"What an honor, Kate."
At that moment I noticed that some horrible person in my household, probably of the teenage persuasion, had snitched a major portion of my beautiful chocolate-swirl creation.
"Aughhhhhhh! They got into it! Oh, Syd . . ."
"Think nothing of it," she laughed. "I've got sneaks at my house, too. My mother-in-law taught me to hide the good stuff in dark containers and label it ‘zucchini.'"
"My mother-in-law is still trying to convince me zucchini is the good stuff." I sighed. "I feel rotten giving you only two-thirds of a cheesecake. There's hardly enough to go around."
She gave me a downright mischievous look.
"You're right." Her eyebrows shot up wickedly. "The way I see it, there's only one solution."
I grabbed plates and forks and we made a dash for my bedroom just as we heard the kids coming in the front door.
"Chad, honey?" I called over my shoulder. "Why don't you guys take out some of those day-old cinnamon rolls from the freezer, and heat them up in the microwave?"
Chocolate cheesecake is too good to waste on kids.
Giggling, we locked ourselves in my bedroom.
"Oh, I love your wallpaper," said Syd, running her fingers lightly over the velvet floral pattern. "You ought to see what's on the walls in our master bedroom. Doesn't match a thing we own."
"Black and white diagonals with silver edging." I murmured, as I set the cheesecake on the table in the bay window. "I helped Doreen put it up."
Sydney laughed a small laugh. "Major blunder," she said. "I always forget to take my foot out of my mouth before I say something stupid. It really is nice wallpaper, it's just . . ."
"Don't worry," I soothed. "Doreen was more . . . futuristic, whereas you're more . . ."
"Early Yard Sale." She sat in Richard's recliner, kicked off her sandals, and took the slab of cheesecake I dished up for her. "So, tell me about Doreen. Besides being into metallic wallpaper," she winked, "what was she like?"
My thoughts flickered over the years of friendship.
"Actually, she was wonderful. We planned our last pregnancies five months apart - well, it wasn't really planned, but it sure worked out great. I cooked all of her hamburger when she had morning sickness, and she scrubbed my tub when I was too huge to bend over." Noticing that I'd cut my piece of cheesecake unevenly, I reached over and sawed off the crooked edge, adding it to my already-healthy portion. "And Doreen hated ironing, so I ironed all of Wayne's shirts, and she put perms in my kids' hair. I must admit, it was nice being able to just trade for things, instead of always writing checks like everyone else in this neighborhood."
"There's a lot to be said for the barter system," said Syd, licking the last crumbs off her fork and allowing a quick glance at the rest of the cheesecake. I waved generously towards it. I had to admit, I'd really outdone myself this time. For a mix, it was spectacular.
"Doreen was constantly remodeling some room in that house," I continued. "I used to really envy her nerve. I've never had the guts to go beyond wallpaper borders. She could knock out walls! We used to love that scene in Fried Green Tomatoes where . . ."
"MmmmmHmmmmmmmm!" Syd, her mouth full, nodded vigorously and waved her fork. She swallowed and launched us into a comparison of our favorite movies.
"Did you ever see that one Pink Panther movie where . . ." she'd begin, and we'd die laughing. Then I'd start one, and we'd lose control.
Finally, she set her plate on the table and fixed me with a serious stare.
"Kate," she said. "I'll be honest with you. My bladder will not last another second. I'll never make it downstairs, much less all the way back home. Could I . . ."
"Go! Go!" I pointed to our bathroom behind me.
She ran in, bolted the door, and then unexpectedly opened it again.
"No listening!" she said, pointing in my face.
Dutifully, I saluted and switched on the bedside radio.
As I stood by the window, bloatedly gazing at the empty pie plate, I realized with a start that we'd managed to make it through the whole evening without one reference to My Embarrassing Moment in the Window. What luck for me to have flashed a person with too much social decorum to cause me further humiliation.
"You know," said Sydney, reappearing. "You know, I think we'll manage to get along just fine, Kate. Not only do we both love chocolate cheesecake and the same movies, but just think, we've both survived one of life's most humiliating events." She put her hands on my shoulders. "Did I ever tell you about my moment of crisis?"
My heart began to pound as I felt a blush start at my toes and move mercilessly upwards.
"Mind you, I don't share this story with just anyone," Syd said in a solemn voice. I caught the twinkle in her eye and was able to start breathing again.
"It was the last day of school. I mean the last day. The day of the Senior Swim. In small towns, you get creative after commencement exercises. We all went down to the Jewelsville city pool, had a mammoth picnic, and then changed and went swimming. Everybody took turns clowning around on the diving board. We had a couple of kids who'd been on the swim team, and they did some real neat flips and dives, but the rest of us just had to improvise something silly."
She sat down on the edge of my bed, ran her fingers through her hair, and continued in a subdued voice.
"My best friend, JoBeth Alexander, told a boring joke and pretended to fall asleep during it. Then I got up there. And you know what, Kate? I had planned a nice little dive I'd learned at girls' camp one summer. But when I said, ‘Hey, everybody! Watch this!' and raised my hands over my head, the strap popped on my swimsuit, and it dropped clear down around my waist." The twinkle in her eye had brightened into a tear.
She sniffled, and I ran for the box of Kleenex.
"And so," she finished, after blowing her nose. "I know how you must have felt last Saturday. The only difference is, I'll never, ever tease you about it, the way my classmates have teased me. I've never even been to a class reunion, but they've all managed to keep the story alive every year by calling me or sending letters with lewd cartoons drawn in the margins."
Impulsively, I hugged her, though I'm not normally the hugging type. It's just that I realized in feeling Syd's shame, I'd had to feel a bit of my own. All jokes aside, it really had been humiliating.
And it somehow felt better after we'd shed a couple of tears together.
Syd put her sandals back on with a sigh. "Don't get the idea that I'm an emotional basket case," she said, mirroring my own thoughts exactly. I had to laugh.
"I was about to say the same thing. Let's just blame it on exhaustion and chocolate overload."
"Deal." She glanced at her watch and rolled her eyes. "Sheldon'll wonder where I disappeared to. Please tell me we're on the late schedule tomorrow."
I shook my head. "No such luck. The Lord is obviously going to put you right to the test here. Nine a.m. sharp."
I could hear Richard coming up the stairs, and opened the door just as he raised his hand to knock.
"Just as I thought," he smiled. "It doesn't take them long."
Sheldon appeared behind him. "Come home, wife," he yawned, extending his hand to Sydney.
We descended the stairs like old friends, the men making plans to discuss computer software, and Sydney whispering that she'd hidden the "evidence" under the bed.
We found the kids scattered around the downstairs in varying stages of alertness. Chad and Keldon leaned wearily over the Battleship boards, while Austin and Kyle snored a duet by the Nintendo controls. We had to step over Kammy, who was wearing a headset and painting her toenails at the foot of the stairs, in order to find Amber zonked out amid a pile of dolls and kittens.
We four parents stood surveying the little sleeping darlings the way parents do, then began the task of untangling limbs and toting the limp, sweaty bodies off towards their beds.
All in all, it was an exhausting but wonderful day.
It was well after midnight before Richard and I finally dropped into bed.
"You and Syd sure seemed to hit it off," Richard murmured. "I told you the cheesecake would do the trick."
He was quiet for several minutes.
"Hey! You guys never brought us any cheesecake!"
No one can fake a snore better than me.
Copyright © 1994 by DeAnne Neilson