As she walked along the streets of her former neighbourhood, Sondra found it hard to simply enjoy the beauty of spring. Her mind was busy, far too cluttered. When she felt like this, she would remind herself to ‘turn down the radio,’ a tip she had read in one of her many self-help books – reduce stress by quieting the mind. In order to do so, she visualized herself shoving her hand inside her head, reaching for the round volume dial, turning it counter-clockwise, while simultaneously whispering, sh sh to her mind as if trying to calm a cranky infant.
She and her young family had moved to Willington some twenty years ago. One of Willington’s calling cards had been the beauty of the yards. Mature neighbourhoods like Willington, with their graceful trees and play of light provided Sondra with a certain stability that she did not feel in new subdivisions, where she felt houses, yards and people were fully exposed, semi-nude.
She had been on these gentle streets so many times, in so many seasons, so many weather conditions and in many moods. When they had first moved there, she had proudly pushed Daniel, her infant young son in a beautiful pram, a Perego lent to her by a wealthy friend. Before long, he was riding those roads on a three wheeler, then a two wheeler with training wheels, then a ten speed, then roller blades and so it went. She was even thinking about the few times when they dug out their cross country skis, to take advantage of a heavy snowfall before the sanders and salters turned the snow into what she and Daniel affectionately called, salt and pepper slushies.
So familiar, yet since she had moved from the neighbourhood two years ago, she felt so unsettled when she came back. How is it that she felt she did not belong in a place that had been home for so many years? Maybe, she thought, there is just no going back in life. It is safer and gentler on the soul to only go back in one’s mind and to enjoy memories. To physically go back to where you lived or worked is sometimes too painful.
Almost every house in the neighbourhood had a story or some history. Most of the same people were still living there. In this neighbourhood they tended to stay for many years. She was one of the first to go. They had to move. Matt had lost his job and her work was unsteady, so they simply could not afford to live there anymore. Even though she felt people understood, she still felt like a traitor, leaving this idyllic neighbourhood. Looking up, she saw a baby stroller on the front porch of a house she knew well. She knew the same family still lived there and the couple was only a few years older than she and Matt, but it was clear that grandchildren were now in the picture. This was supposed to be a quick walk to the corner store to pick up a few groceries. Suddenly, Sondra was feeling overwhelmed with emotion. She picked up her pace and put a smile on her face. She focused on her breathing (another tip from a self-help book) and her brisk steps.
Back in her friend’s house, Sondra was wiping out the sinks and filling the fridge with milk, eggs and juice, so that Michelle and Chad would come home and find things in order after their two week sailing trip in the Caribbean. Since she had moved, from time to time, Sondra had agreed to housesit for a few of her former neighbours, the ones who had become more than neighbours, they had become friends over time. It started out as a bit of a favour for one family, but recently it had evolved into part of Sondra’s identity – Sondra the house sitter. Sondra thinks that initially people felt sorry for her, having to move away from the area she loved so much. Not long after they moved, Matt had left her, predictably for a younger woman, not exactly a trophy wife, but still technically younger and certainly much younger looking.
Whenever her mind started to wander to Matt, she tried hard to distract herself, because inevitably she would go to the real horror of the story. Their one and only child, Daniel had left home and quit university to ‘work’ in Whistler, town of the young and hip, or as Sondra sarcastically referred to it, the well hung and flip. He thought that getting away would help him over the pain of Matt and Sondra’s divorce. Matt, kept trying to assure him, that all would be okay and that he was not losing a father, but he was gaining a brother. This is where the horror comes in. Not only did Daniel gain a step- brother, he gained his first real lover. Yes, Matt’s new live-in came with a son, David. Unknown to all the parents involved, evidently, Daniel and David both had been struggling with their sexuality, and of all unpredictable things, they fell in love with one another. This,in spite of their early misgivings about their respective father and mother shacking up together. Sondra rarely discussed many of the details of these torn relationships anymore, because she knew that most of her friends simply could not cope with the facts. Sondra herself often felt that her life was playing out like a Harlequin novel; a bad one at that.
In her new life, Sondra was very much alone now, living in a walk-up in the center of the city, some 20 minutes away from Willington. The first house sitting was a result of an urgent request from a friend who was in a real bind. She had someone lined up to come in and look after the dog while they were away. The dog sitter had a family emergency and so, Sondra got the call. “It would be so great for me, and Sondra, it will give you a chance to be back in the old neighbourhood. You can visit with your friends and go on your long walks. I will be forever indebted to you.” It all sounded pretty good and for the most part it was.
The last few times she had done these different house sitting gigs, she had started to feel more like the hired help. Providing this service for friends on a regular basis had changed the fine balance or the equality in the friendship. For some reason, the feelings of being something less than her friends started when she moved away. Suddenly, she was living in a comparatively low-end neighbourhood. Next, her husband left her. She felt that “less than” feeling again as she again moved, and again to a much smaller apartment. Soon, came the entanglement of Daniel with David. Each family crisis seemed to leave Sondra feeling quite insecure around friends whom she had always considered equal. This is not how she had imagined her life playing out.
The telephone ring, customized to play an annoying version of Fur Elise, jarred Sondra out of her dark thoughts. On the other end of the line, the caller who first thought Sondra was Michelle, asked several questions about Michelle and Chad’s return. Feeling like she was being interviewed, Sondra stopped answering questions and introduced herself as a family friend staying in the house while Michelle and Chad were away. “And who am I speaking with?” asked Sondra. “My husband and Chad are both surgeons at the same hospital,” this woman extolled, still without giving her name.
“Sorry, I did not catch your name,” asserted Sondra with some annoyance in her voice. “Oh, I am Janice, a good friend of Michelle’s.” In that split second, Sondra could feel herself having a meltdown. How is it that she recognized Janice’s name, as they had met socially a few times. And how is it that Janice seemed to have no recollection of Sondra? And where did Janice, first and foremost, a good friend of Michelle’s get off trying to introduce herself by way of the career status of her husband? She doubted that this Janice would have ever said that if her husband worked with Michelle’s husband as garbage collectors.
With her la-di-da introduction out of the way, Janice’s line of questioning got around to the cleaning lady. Evidently, Michelle and Janice shared the same cleaning lady. In a hushed tone of voice, almost as if she was on the verge of revealing some gossip, she asked Sondra, “Is Maria coming to clean tomorrow?” Before Janice had a chance to continue, Sondra blurted out that Maria had changed her days and that on a day Sondra had gone out, Maria had been in and out already this week. Sondra knew there was some confusion with how Maria had switched days with no notice, but Sondra was grateful for the cleaning all the same. With an odd tone, Janice said, “Great thanks, no need to leave any message for Michelle.” And with that she hung up, leaving Sondra wondering about the real purpose of her call. Her annoying way of introducing herself via her husband’s profession had left Sondra feeling irritated and more like the hired help.
Sondra shuffled through her purse, looking for her list of things she had to do before leaving Michelle’s. In recent years, she had become such a list maker. Lots of people teased her about her habit, but she found it was the only way to get things done. Ever since all the upheavals in her life, Sondra found it almost impossible to remember things in her life, daily things, the things that simply have to get done in one’s life, if one hopes to have a life.
Funny, she was able to remember so many other things – painful things, details from the ruptured relationships. In fact, as hard as she tried, she could not forget those things. She often wondered if there really was a God, why wouldn’t he help her to remember the things that she had to do, the appointments to make, the bills to pay, the family birthdays, and help her forget the things that seem to swirl around in her body like some slow-acting poison, killing off her spirit cell by cell.
Methodically crossing out things on her list, she congratulated herself for having done the shopping, changed the linens, put out the garbage, written a welcome home note, watered the plants, twice re-written the list of callers and voicemail messages, sorted the mail into urgent looking mail and junk mail and was just about to make a homecoming meal for Michelle and Chad. Cooking the onions, taking care not to cook them beyond transparent, Sondra asked wondered why she was going to this extra effort. She really enjoyed cooking, but at this moment she wondered if she was cooking for the love of it, or was she cooking for some other reason? Recently, she had heard Jane Fonda on every television and radio talk show going on and on about the details from her new tell-all book. Sondra had never fully concentrated on any of the many interviews, but rather they were always playing in the background, while Sondra was doing other things. She found she would miss half the interviews, but inevitably, one message that she never missed during these interviews, was something about Jane suffering from the ‘disease to please,’ also known as the ‘people pleasing syndrome.’ Ever since Sondra had heard Jane talk about that, she was sure that she too, suffered from this need to do things, simply to please others. Whenever Sondra picked up a piece of pop psychology, she would try to incorporate it in her life. Recently with her awareness of the disease to please, whenever she now did something for someone, she would question whether it was an act of genuine giving or an act of pleasing. Ironically, this type of thinking was taking the pleasure out of most things.
Exhausted from leaving things around Michelle and Chad’s home just so, Sondra turned on a few lights and checked everything one last time. As she did her final peek around, set the alarm and quickly locked and shut the door, she considered that this may be the last time she would do this for Michelle and Chad, or perhaps for anyone. She was slowly realizing that it was a big responsibility. She always worried about something happening under her watch - a break-in, a burst pipe, or God-forbid, browning the perfect lawn or killing the prize perennials. She did not feel great in her old neighbourhood, in fact quite the opposite. Also, when she got back to her little walk-up, she had to then figure out what she needed at home, and head back out to the grocery store. She knew she should have made two casseroles when she was cooking at Michelle’s but at the time, she felt lazy.
In her mind, Sondra had decided that unless someone urgently needed her to housesit, her house sitting days were done.. For reasons she did not understand, she felt a huge relief. Once she had declared “my house sitting days are done, done like dinner” aloud to herself, she could almost feel the tension oozing out of her shoulders.
It had been almost a full week since she had left Michelle and Chad’s house with such great care. Sondra realized that she had not heard a thing from Michelle. Usually Michelle would call within 24 hours to tell Sondra they were home safely, the trip was great and everything was ship shape at their home. For a split second Sondra worried that something had happened and they had not made it back. As quickly as she processed that thought, she dismissed it, knowing how stupid it was. She would have heard from someone if the sailboat they leased had dumped in the Caribbean or if their charter flight had been hijacked.
Somewhat concerned, Sondra waited until 8:45, as early as she considered that one can possibly call someone on a Saturday morning, other than in an emergency. Michelle answered, “Hullo” with the low, morning drawl, of one who had not had the benefit of a morning coffee to do the voice magic, preparing it for the day ahead. “Oh Michelle, I hope I did not wake you up. Is everything okay ? Did you and Chad have a good trip? I have been worried, because you never called me..” In four short sentences, that ripped over the phone lines like a misplaced cross-examination, Sondra instantly regretted phoning. She knew she had not only called too early, but she had put Michelle on the defensive. Michelle curtly explained she had come back to some difficult situations at the office, and muttered something about at home as well, and that she was tired and had barely unpacked the suitcases. She half-heartedly mumbled something about being in touch in the next few weeks. Sondra had never heard such a distant tone from Michelle. And that was that. No word of thanks for the way things were at the house, for the homecoming meal or the bouquets of flowers cut from her garden. Bewildered. Still holding the phone in her hand, the dial tone now blaring out into the quiet of her tiny kitchen, Sondra felt totally and completely bewildered.
A few weeks passed. Still no word from Michelle. Sondra was getting ready for an open house party for a friend’s 55th. Driving back to the old neighbourhood, doubts were swirling in her head. She really did not want to be with the old gang anymore. They seemed all the same, she felt she was the only one who had really changed, and she felt like an alien among them. Most of them were afraid to ask her anything personal, in case there was some new shocker in the saga that had become her life.
She needed to return to some real psychological counseling. She needed help. She was dreading seeing Michelle, because she really did not know what had happened between them. She had also heard that Michelle and Chad were going away on a business trip soon. Even though Sondra had made up her mind that she did not want to do any more house sitting, she had only told herself. Why, she wondered, had Michelle not called her to housesit?
She flipped the car radio to a classical station, concentrated on her breathing, tried to stop thinking about anything but her driving, and darted her way through the city roads, back to Willington. Knocking at the front door, she repeated her mother’s words of wisdom from long ago: ‘Even if you don’t want to go somewhere, if you decide to go, put on a party dress, put on a party smile and act like you want to be there.’
Thankfully, the evening was winding down. It had not been as horrible as Sondra had imagined, other than the deep freeze, cold shoulder she got from Michelle, who had treated her as if she had committed something absolutely horrible.
Driving home, Sondra entertained herself by pouring over the details of the party in her mind. This was one of those moments she missed Matt, or having any man in her life. Driving home from parties, Sondra used to love how she and Matt debriefed, how they compared notes from their various social interactions, giggling and gossiping.
As she turned down the back laneway that led to her underground parking spot, like a bolt of lightening, she began to understand the significance of a conversation she had overheard. She loved to eavesdrop, something Matt had always found distasteful and sneaky. She had heard that Janice woman and another woman yakking about cleaning ladies, a subject Sondra found so annoying and rather arrogant. The one woman asked Janice if she and Michelle still had the same cleaning lady and if so, did she know if Maria had any days available? Lowering their voices to a near-whisper, a clear signal of an impending indiscretion, Janice confessed, “I had to get rid of her, I found things missing in my home, but please whatever you do, don’t say a word to Michelle, because she has Maria, on such a pedestal, she would never believe me.”