Lisa nearly dropped the plate she was cleaning when she heard a large truck door slam shut. It was the new neighbors at last. She opened her curtains wide, allowing sunshine to burn the dark, dustless countertops, and peered out of her kitchen window. They were a typical young family: a husband, a pregnant wife and a toddler in a stroller. They looked nice enough, but she couldn’t tell much about them yet. She just hoped that they wouldn’t be anything like the last ones. The husband put his arm around the wife. He stood half a foot above her, just enough so that she could place her perfect, brown curls on his perfect, sturdy shoulder and look longingly at their new house together. They stared at the two-story house, and Lisa stared too. It was similar to Lisa’s house, just like all the houses in the neighborhood. The outsides looked different of course: different colored brick, different shapes of windows and sometimes a different colored door. Yet, the insides were all the same. The staircase was on the right just as you got in, the living room on the left and the kitchen straightforward. All relatively the same size and structure, but you wouldn’t know from looking at just the outside. The husband and the wife turned back to facing each other. They stared longingly at each other, stared longingly for their future together. Lisa stared, too.
When Jill and Todd, the old neighbors, moved out, she was so relieved. She could breathe the fresh, free-of-Jill-and-Todd-air now when she stepped outside. The new “sold” sign in front of their house created such an excitement in Lisa that she made cookies to welcome the new neighbors. So far, she had made four batches. Batches one and three were too burnt, batch two had fallen to the ground and batch four was perfect but made prematurely. This fourth batch had been sitting in a Tupperware bowl waiting for the new neighbors for three weeks until they got stale and it was time for them to be thrown away. Now, after six weeks, the neighbors were here, but she had no cookies for them.
A new list of priorities instantly appeared in Lisa’s mind. Her unfinished dishes fell to the bottom of the list and a fifth batch of cookies for the new neighbors rose urgently to the top. She gathered the materials, followed her recipe, and mixed the ingredients together while looking outside her kitchen window.
Light from the outside could barely sneak past the thick curtains of Lisa’s window into her dimly lit kitchen, but she adjusted them just enough so she could peek through and watch the neighbors move in. The stacks of boxes getting unpacked made her question if moving was ever really worth it. There was the physical labor of moving everything, of course, but there was also the mental labor. Leaving a place that’s comfortable, a place that makes sense, and going to a place where your whole life just becomes about trying to adjust to it. She was just happy that Jill and Todd made this sacrifice.
The neighbors were on a break now. She watched them chat and monitored their expressions. The couple was socializing with the movers. They all had bright eyes, glowing faces, shining smiles. When they laughed it looked genuine, like they were actually enjoying themselves. The wife’s hair would fly through the wind as she threw her head forward with laughter. The husband’s strong hands would slap his thighs as if the laughter was too much for him. She wondered what kind of jokes existed that would create so much laughter when first meeting someone. The neighbors began to point out things to the movers, asking them questions, or something, but suddenly they looked at Lisa like they could see her right through her window. She could swear right then that their laughter turned to frowns, disgust and irritation. The sun burned their faces. Their skin turned a bright red. Maybe they knew this was her fifth batch and the cookies weren’t ready on time. Whatever it was, Lisa knew she made a bad first impression and all she could hope for was that the cookies would taste good enough to make up for it. When the neighbors turned back away, Lisa closed the curtains and began to mix with more fury.
Soon enough all the ingredients became one consistent bowl of dough ready to again be separated from the rest onto a pan. Lisa scooped the mixture out, making several even piles of dough one and half inches in diameter. She had such a good eye for measurements that she didn’t need a ruler anymore while she baked, but at that moment she was having trouble seeing. The brightness of the sun was still affecting her vision, creating more and more dark spots every time she blinked. Lisa placed the spoon down back into the bowl and pressed her fingers to her eyes trying to get them to adjust. Each time she closed her eyes for too long, the sight of the neighbor’s frowns would appear and take over her vision. She had trouble remembering the size of their noses or the width of their eyes, but she knew exactly what their frowns looked like.Judging frowns, hateful frowns, they burned her brain.
She opened her eyes back up and felt adjusted to the comfortable, dim lighting of her kitchen. However, even when she went back to scooping, she couldn’t get the image of their frowns out of her mind. With each scoop, Lisa couldn’t help but continue to ponder the details of the interaction she just had with the new neighbors. With each scoop she became more anxious to know why on Earth her new neighbors reacted this way. By the time she was at the scoop that ended the third row of cookies, Lisa knew why the neighbors were disgusted by her. She started to slam the cookie dough onto the pan, careless about the evenness, and imagined each one as the heads of Jill and Todd. Every other scoop would be Jill then Todd, Jill then Todd, getting what they deserve. Because Lisa knew it was their fault. They had told the neighbors every bad thing about her, lies about her, just to get back at her. This infuriated Lisa, but still, she had hope that the sweetness of the cookies would change their mind about her. She quickly fixed the unevenness in the last row and threw the pan into the oven.
The question continued to pound inside Lisa’s head. She didn’t actually know what Jill and Todd would’ve told the new neighbors, since she rarely allowed herself to be seen by them. But maybe Lisa was a bad neighbor in ways that she didn’t even realize. Maybe they could hear her TV playing too loud, too late on those nights when she couldn’t sleep or they could tell when she was late mowing her lawn and her grass had grown too long next to theirs. Every morning when she left early for work, she could see their lights turn on as she pulled out of the driveway as if the sound of her car had woken them up. And every night when she came back home late and they were sitting on their porch, Jill and Todd would wave to her. The wave itself was like any friendly, neighborly wave, but their eyes were squinted as if they were focused on something else. Sometimes it was staring at her grass that was too long, or her car that was too loud, and sometimes it was just an exhausted look that told Lisa that their misery was her fault.
Her own confusion is what bothered her the most: the fact that everyone saw something in her that she herself couldn’t see. There was a certain, cold way people acted towards her. Whether it was the cashier at the grocery store, her coworkers at the office, or people in the neighborhood, this coldness followed her. What was this aura around her, this layer over her, that drove people away, that made people look the other way, that made people forget her? It felt stuck to her. She used to have strategies to try and change this part of her, but in the end it would make her feel more out of touch than she did before. The frustration of trying to fix something she didn’t understand became too much for her. There were some people, of course, that made her forget that this layer of her existed. They saw through it. Whenever Lisa had the pleasure to meet someone who could see through her, it turned to love, and they would become her whole entire world. But some people just took longer to see it, for it seemed that time was all that was needed for the layer to be seen by even the most trusted people in her life.
The latest person this happened with was Simon. They fell in love, he moved in, then of course time lead to him leaving. After he officially moved out, she threw his stuff that he forgot in the spare room in case he came back. But even once she accepted he wouldn’t return, the room became his, and she felt unable to open the door. She couldn’t even look at the door. When she passed by it she could smell him, hear his soothing voice, so she always walked by with a hop in her step to avoid him. She was trapped outside the only spare room in the house, and it was right across her own bedroom.
Her train of thought was interrupted by a new voice outside. Lisa’s neighbor on the other side of her, Liam, was visiting the new neighbors. Liam was young with wavy bright brown hair, ragged clothes, and he had a knack for meeting new people. She just began to feel weird because she was more of a neighbor to the new neighbors than Liam was, considering she was actually next to them, but he was visiting them before she did. The thought of visiting them hadn’t crossed her mind because she thought it was still too early and her cookies weren’t done yet. However, Liam had no cookies or anything to gift them with, yet he seemed to be confident about his decision to go and welcome them.
Lisa created a small opening in the curtains of the window to watch Liam. He talked with the new neighbors flawlessly and with enthusiasm. They were all full of smiles, animated hand gestures and praise for the new house. The common introductions and polite questioning seemed to be taking place. Liam was pointing towards his house, presumably telling where he lives. Then the new neighbors pointed to Lisa’s house, curiously squinting their eyes and tilting their heads, like they were asking about her. Liam’s smile straightened and body tightened. His hands no longer moved as he talked. Lisa couldn’t read lips, yet somehow she knew what they were saying. From the shape of their mouths, from the expression on their faces, she could almost hear their voices in her head. She could hear Liam telling the new neighbors to stay away from her. She could hear the neighbors agreeing with Liam and explaining what Jill and Todd had already warned them about. Then they began to laugh. A loud, out of control laughter that rung inside Lisa’s head. They were laughing at her. Lisa closed the blinds all the way and ducked down, fearing their gaze, then made her way to sitting on the floor. She could still hear their laughter in her head. When she buried her face into her hands, and darkness became her view, she could see their laughter, too. It filled up her head and surrounded her. She saw their open mouths, bright teeth, their burning eyes staring at her. The new neighbors were there. Liam, Simon, Jill and Todd were also there, all together in her head, laughing. It was then that Lisa realized these new people were just the same as Jill and Todd and she wouldn’t ever be able to go shopping or have a neighborly evening drink with them. She knew what they saw her for and she knew even her cookies could never sway them. The timer for the cookies went off, but Lisa sat still, and the ringing mixed with the sights and sounds of laughter in her head.
Outside the house, the sun shined down on the new neighbors who had just settled down from laughing at a squirrel that was chasing its tail in front of Lisa’s house. A breeze came through, settling over the squirrel’s fur, the green grass, the couples thin, summer clothes. They wondered who lived there. Then the husband smiled, looked up at the still clouds, and asked his wife if they should invite them for a drink. The wife nodded and started to sniff as she looked around, wondering if what she smelled was burnt cookies.