Lincoln Heights is a suburb in its most banal sense. Busy eight-lane roads lined with the sort of stores that would not dare open a branch in my old neighborhood. There were the home electronics "super stores" where you could buy everything from a computer to a CD of your favorite music (provided your tastes in music weren't too obscure). Fashionable hardware stores; quite different than Tom's Hardware in my neighborhood -- where Tom actually remembered your name. And, of course, there were the trendy purveyors of Seattle-style coffee.
To be fair, the town wasn't as bad as some of its neighbors, where every house was an identical copy. There were sidewalks, and the street was paved with blacktop rather than asphalt. What really sold me on 341 Bell Drive was that it near one of my favorite shopping malls. Just a pleasant five minute walk along tree-lined streets without having to cross anything larger than a quiet side street.
We moved there in early Spring. Mina and I both came down with mild cases of post-moving sickness. For her it was more physical, almost as though she had become allergic to the house's former owners and was determined to exorcise their presence from the house. She'd spend hours cleaning, re-arranging furniture, and painting over recently-painted walls.
For me, it was more a mild, but persistent melancholia; realizing I was no longer 'at home'. I'd find myself walking aimlessly from room to room, still feeling like I was simply visiting, and would soon be returning to my old cramped house.
Our first day there we playfully "broke in" the house by having sex in the empty living room while waiting for the furniture to arrive. Yet almost immediately there seemed to be a distance between us that had never existed before. Perhaps it was the need for both of us to hold both day jobs and at-home jobs in the evening to afford the mortgage. Maybe it was still the stress of moving. I gave the matter a lot of thought, and felt it had to be something else.
One Saturday afternoon in mid-June, I decided to finally take that walk to the mall. Mina and I had different opinions about weekends. She felt these were still work days: "The Internet does not take Saturdays and Sundays off," she'd remind me. The Internet may not have, but I did. Weekends were a time to remind oneself that labor is a means to an end, not an end in itself. So I asked if she wanted me to get her anything from the mall and stepped outside.
It was a very pleasant day; warm with a nice breeze, and very peaceful. Too peaceful, I quickly realized as the only sounds of human activity were the cars that occasionally drove by. I looked around and realized that I was the only person outside. There were no children playing, nobody working on their garden, not even anyone walking to the mall.
As a car passed by, I looked inside. One man, apparently heading to the mall. Another passed, and a woman and two small children were inside, the car moving toward the main street. As I came to the corner, I looked at the small park across the street. The swings, slide, and intricately-latticed gazebo were all empty. It was only as I reached the mall that I saw any human activity -- and this was only of people going either to or from their car.
The mall had its share of activity; kids hanging out at the food court, parents telling children they didn't need $150 athletic shoes (but giving in a minute later), people checking out other people according to their sexual orientation and personal tastes.
I was browsing through the shelves in a book store when a well-dressed woman of about 30 approached. She had 2 children with her and appeared angry. It took me a moment to realize she had been in one of the cars that had passed me as I approached the mall.
"Were you looking at me?" she asked, nervously, her hand fumbling with her purse, as if about to pull out a can of Mace.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I said, half-laughing. "I'm new in town and was curious about the people who lived here."
"You were walking," she said, slightly more assertively. "Is your car in the shop or something?"
"It's like five minutes from my house to here," I said, amused.
"You're new," she said, walking off, kids in tow. "Yes, that explains it."
For a moment, I felt as if I'd fallen into some horror or science fiction movie where an outsider moves into a community of either vampires or aliens. I felt like looking for fangs and antennas. But if simply looking at her while she drove was enough to spook that woman, examining people's heads and mouths would likely have Security questioning me in a matter of moments.
I really didn't need, nor could afford indulging, in my book-buying habit. I did, however, need ink for my printer. So I went to a computer store and picked up a pack of ink-jet cartridges. I handed my credit card to the clerk, a young guy of high school age, and decided to ask a question. "Don't people in this town do anything out of doors?"
"Huh?" he asked, initially befuddled by the question. "Why should anyone?" he asked, uttering a monotone chuckle. "If you have cable and A/C, what's the point?"
"Don't you have any interests? Things you like to do?"
"Got the Internet and a video game system for that," he replied. "Every few weeks a friend will have a LAN party and we all bring our computers." He handed my my card back.
"Thanks," I said, as he stapled shut and then handed me my bag.
I walked back home realizing that I was an anomaly to the people in the cars that passed by. I could almost imagine parents playing zoo tour guide. "And to the right, is what is called a pedestrian. They are almost extinct and particularly rare to these parts."
I began to realize what was wrong. Mina and I could find common ground through shared interest and intimacy. But we were both products of our upbringing. I was a city kid, used to beeping horns and the smells of the steel mill. Her world was one of wine-tastings and walks along a beach. Neither of us truly fit in with the insular, anonymous lifestyle that was living in Lincoln Heights.
"You're probably right," Mina said, as I told her my epiphany. "Moving here was a compromise, after all. You dislike having too many cops around. I dislike having too few." Then she looked up at me and smiled. "Maybe I did freak out when I realized how much it would cost to live here. I guess I could be a little less a zombie if you could become a little more professional."
Things improved somewhat over the next few weeks. I put in a few hours work on Saturdays and Mina was able to find a little free time, even walking with me to the mall one afternoon.
Yet Lincoln Heights was driving us in opposite directions. I began spending more time outside, willing to be seen as a freak. I began going for mile-long walks at sunrise. One afternoon I repainted the garage door on a little more than a whim. I was even considering buying a tent to sleep in on occasion. It was only our financial realities that prevented that.
Mina was now spending most of her time in front of a screen -- either that of her computer or the television. She'd rent a few DVDs and spend most late evenings watching them. There was now a clear division between "her time" and "our time". Monday through Friday was hers, a couple hours during the weekend were all that was ours.
I am not one to hold in my emotions very well. Sadly this affected our weekends as it was apparent that I was unhappy. Neither of us, though, wanted to discuss the matter. We had made our positions clear, and that was that.
That was until one stormy Saturday afternoon. She was at her computer when suddenly the power went out. "Son of a bitch!" she shouted.
"Didn't the backup kick in?" I asked.
"Yeah, but twenty minutes to finish this?" She growled as she shut down her computer. "We splurge and buy a video game when we should have been saving up for a laptop computer.
That hurt a little. Getting the video game system the day before had been my idea. But in the few hours after bringing it home, we laughed more than we had in months.
"So you'll finish up later," I said, unintentionally minimizing the situation.
"Oh yeah," she said, angrily, "my work is so trivial I can just turn it on whenever I feel like it."
"That's not what I meant," I said, unwilling to give up any ground.
"You say you want us to spend more time together. We'll have plenty of time together if we don't pay the bills. Though you'd like that, having to move back to the slum."
"It would be better than living here; where people seem afraid of fresh air." I shook my head. "Though it seems to have gotten to you."
"What's so bad about it?" She asked, walking over to the window and pushing back the drapes a little. "Oh wow," she said, her voice more cheerful. "Power company is out already."
Power was restored a few minutes later. But instead of going back to work, Mina sat quietly at her desk, computer still turned off.
I looked at her sad expression. "I'm sorry," I said, walking over to her. "Still pouring, but the thunder has stopped."
"It's okay," she said, softly. "Do you really hate it here that much?"
"The house is great," I said, regretting the argument. "The street is nice. It's just so empty. I mean, with this rain, no one is even driving. I could go out and walk around stark naked and no one would notice.
"I used to love walking in the rain," Mina said, wistfully.
"Used to?" I asked.
She was silent for a moment, her expressions showing intense concentration. "Were you serious?" she asked. Suddenly her clothes flew off and she was opening the front door. "What are you waiting for?" she asked, looking back at me.
A moment later, I was stepping outside and felt the warm rain against my skin.
"Feels good, doesn't it?" she asked, her skin glistening in the rain.
I took her hand and we walked toward the sidewalk. "It feels great," I replied.
We walked down a street of houses all with their drawn drapes and their complacent inhabitants, oblivious to our presence. Nobody would look outside; nature was an inconvenience they chose to ignore as much as possible.
We crossed the street; the smooth blacktop felt cool and rather comforting. I was a bit concerned as we approached the park and the gazebo. I'd imagined there might be a dozen or so people seeking shelter from the rain. Mina and I would be met with puritanical head-shaking from most people. I also imagined two or three people there undressing and joining us on our stroll. I was both relieved and a little disappointed to find the gazebo empty.
Mina was clearly enjoying the walk, joking about my being lucky the rain was warm or kicking up some water, splashing me. As I put my arm around her shoulder I realized this was the woman I had fallen in love with; unconcerned with the mortgage or her sense of professional discipline. We arrived home a few minutes later, standing outside a few minutes, simply appreciating the moment.
A while later, we were sitting in the kitchen, still naked but for the towels on our head. "That was fun," I said, sipping coffee.
Mina nodded. "I've been thinking," she said, wrapping her hand around her coffee mug. "There are a lot of things we can do to make living here a lot better."
"Like what?" I asked, pleasantly surprised by her comment.
"Maybe a Jacuzzi, picket fence -- in this neighborhood it won't have to be too high."
"When we can afford them?" I asked, somewhat concerned.
"Sometimes you have to indulge a little," she said, giggling softly. "But," she said, standing up," I do need to finish up work. Later I can kick your butt again at that video game."
-- Dan Mulhollen