The New Neighbor by David Lanvert

When new neighbours move in next door, Phil gets a shock from his past that sets him on a rollercoaster of emotion; by David Lanvert.

Early on a Monday morning, Phil stood upstairs in the master bathroom when his wife Pam shouted from the kitchen, "Phil, I see a moving van parked out front. I think it's blocking the driveway."

"Damn it," he said. He finished knotting his tie and jogged downstairs to the kitchen. "What did you say?"

"Don't yell at me," she said. "People are moving in next door. Their van is blocking the driveway."

"Oh. I'm sorry I shouted. I'm late, again." He whirled around and headed for the door, grabbing his keys and his briefcase.

"At least you're the first to meet the new neighbors," she said.

"Yeah, I guess," he said. He twisted the doorknob and leaped out with a quick, "Love you," aimed back over his shoulder. He caught a glimpse of his young wife in running tights and a sweatshirt, hair in a ponytail with a pencil between her teeth, coffee cup in hand, sitting at the kitchen table staring at her laptop. Pam did freelance graphic design work at home, having given up on corporate life. At the time, she said, "This will give me more flexibility." Phil thought "flexibility" meant she wanted a baby. He wanted a baby too, but thinking of it always left him befuddled.

A few months earlier, their neighbors moved to Florida, selling the house and leaving it in the hands of a mysterious absentee owner with an army of contractors. For weeks, a constant stream of workers conspired to demolish, refurbish, re-paint and wreak havoc to the tranquility of their street. The noise, dust, and tumult were non-stop. The work ended without ceremony about a week prior.

Phil jogged down the driveway, glanced at the enormous orange semi-truck parked in front with doors swung open and hazard lights flashing. A leather couch, end tables, and various boxes sat in the yard. Glancing at the items for a moment, he glanced away, embarrassed at the intimacy of seeing someone's life on display, open to the elements. Then, he remembered to walk on the sidewalk and not across his neighbor's yard. The front door was cracked open. He knocked and said, "Hello?"

A woman answered the door. Time stopped, and Phil's breath caught in his throat. Faint freckles like sprinkled cinnamon-dusted her nose and cheeks, blue eyes that reminded him of old denim looked up at him. Phil didn't so much as look at her as fall into the memory of her.

A familiar ache throbbed in his stomach, unbidden and as vivid as if she'd punched him. Everything around him faded into a blur as he focused on her face, managed to say, "Your truck is blocking my driveway."

Julie gazed up at him, her eyes widening. The color and heat came into her cheeks, a bit fuller than he remembered. "I'll ask one of the guys to move the truck," she said.

"Thanks," he said, leaning back, starting to leave but somehow staying put. He glanced at the new walls in the entryway. The fresh paint intermingled with Julie's lavender-scented perfume. Phil knew the paint color as 'Swiss Coffee' but always thought of it as off-white. Julie glanced past his shoulder to the boxes in the yard, leaned against the open door, looked back at him.

"You've gained a bit of weight," she said.

"Well, the years do go by. You look the same."

"Wow. Be still my beating heart. We haven't seen each other since college; ten years, Phil. All you've got is, 'You look the same?'"

"I live next door," Phil blurted out.

"I guessed, given your comment about the truck blocking your driveway."

Phil took shallow breaths. His hands began to shake, so he shoved them in his pockets. Julie saw his hesitation, raised an eyebrow. He was always tongue-tied whenever he fought with her.

"How can you be so unaffected?" said Phil. "Why aren't you as upset by seeing me as I am by seeing you? I should have the high ground here; you left me."

"Geez, Phil, you are upset, aren't you?" Julie tilted her head, contemplated Phil from a different angle, her eyes directed at him but her gaze distant at the same time. "Why are you so upset? By now, you should be over it. I'd have thought you'd be all - I can't think of the word."

"All what, Julie? What word would you use to describe how you think I should be, years after you broke up with me?" Phil's words flowed, channeling old wounds and rehearsed responses.

"I don't know. I guess smug," said Julie. "Yeah, Smug. Happy here in your little suburban enclave, married now judging by your wedding band. Why are you acting like all this happened yesterday?" She folded her arms across her chest, settling into the doorway for a more extended conversation. "We were adults in college, not teenagers in high school. You act as though I dumped you before your senior prom." An errant lock of hair fell across her eyes. She blew it away and smiled.

"Because that's how it felt, Julie," said Phil, calm now, suddenly tired of the conversation. All his self-esteem had evaporated over the past few minutes like the dew on the grass behind him.

"Well, it was a long time ago, right? Plus, you were never going to leave me, so I took care of what needed to happen."

Phil wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, realized he'd run out of things to say. Julie backed away from him, closing the door without taking her eyes off him.

Whirling away, seeking the grander exit, he tripped over a sprinkler head. He made it back to his driveway, stood staring at her house, scrutinized the furniture and boxes in the yard with a proprietary eye. He didn't recognize any of it, then wondered why he should. Glancing at his watch, he thought, five minutes ago, everything was normal. I was happy. He turned and stared at his front door, pictured himself running out of it, saying I love you to his wife on his way out. He climbed into his car, watched in his rearview mirror as someone started up the van, pulling it out of the way.

Phil called his best friend Dave when he got to the office. Friends since high school, Dave answered on the first ring. "Hey Phil, to what do I owe the pleasure first thing in the morning on a Monday?"

"Julie's moved in next door."

"Uh, what? What did you say?

"Julie, my ex-girlfriend, has moved in next door." Phil filled his friend in on the van blocking the driveway, the big scene in the doorway.

"Crazy Julie from our college days? The girl I nicknamed "Fatal Attraction" after the movie? She was next door?"

"Yup. She's setting up the house as we speak."

"What does Pam think?"


"Yeah, Pam, the love of your life, your wife of five years, etc. What does Pam think?"

"I haven't told her yet. I just got in the car and came to work after they moved the van."

"You need to have this conversation with Pam. Right now, forget you even called me." Phil thought Dave had a crush on Pam. He once caught him ogling her from behind in the kitchen during a long Sunday afternoon punctuated with football on TV and beers on the couch.

"Well, make yourself useful; how do you think I should handle this? You know as well as anyone what Julie's like." Phil had spent many nights on Dave's couch after arguments with Julie during his last year at the university. Phil had kept track of these with hash marks on a small blackboard on the back of his apartment door.

"How do I think you should handle this? Pam knows about Julie, right?"

"Well, yeah, the basics, we were together, we broke up..."

"Okay, stop there. So, you had nothing to do with her moving in next door, right?"

"Yes," said Phil, "Of course not." He took a deep breath.

"Okay," said Dave. "You see, you haven't done anything wrong. You don't need a story. Just tell the truth."

"Then why do I feel so guilty?" Phil's fingers ached from the death grip he had on the phone. The entire relationship, his history with Julie always reminded him of a thrill ride at a theme park. He stared at a spot on the wall of his office but was somewhere else. He remembered a time when he was five years old, on his first rollercoaster, holding the padded safety bar locking him in place as they ratcheted over the top of the first climb. It was hard to breathe with the bar pressing into his stomach. The clicking sound of the cars ticked off as a countdown until the moment of weightlessness, the pause before gravity took over, and the thrill began. The sun had been in his eyes. He looked away to the side and downward at the amusement park, all those tiny people walking around, then back again at the blue sky straight ahead, as the car pitched downward. He stared over the front as the view changed to the impossible corkscrew of the rails twisting beneath him.

Phil said, "I'll call you back." He grabbed his keys and retraced his path home, telling his assistant something or other about a modest emergency at home. He pulled into his driveway a half-hour later. The sprinklers had run in the meantime, wetting both his yard and driveway. It was quiet, the commuters had left, and the neighborhood kids were all in school.

He came through the front door at a jog, yelled, "Pam, I'm home."

"What's wrong," she yelled in response.

"Nothing's wrong; I thought of something, something came up I needed to tell you."

"I bet," she said. "We're back here on the patio."

Phil heard laughter. The laughter was Julie's, not Pam's. He jerked to attention; the hair on the back of his neck stood up.

He came through the house to the kitchen and looked through the screen door into their backyard, the small concrete patio with the barbecue off to the side. His wife and former girlfriend sat across from one another in lounge chairs, drinking coffee like old pals.

"Well," he said. "So, you've met."

"No thanks to you," said Pam. "I've been getting acquainted with the famous Julie," she said through clenched teeth.

"Hello again, Phil, kind of short workday for you, huh?" said Julie. Then, rising from her chair, she said, "This has been great Pam, thanks so much for the coffee and conversation. Phil looks like he has something on his mind, and I've got a lot of work to do."

"It was great to meet you, Julie," said Pam, who not only didn't stand up but settled back in her chair catlike, stretching her long legs in front of her.

Phil's eyes ping-ponged back and forth; he managed to pivot to let Julie pass as she floated by and said, "I'll let myself out." She walked past Phil trailing the essence of shared memories, thoughts, and emotions, like static electricity before a thunderstorm. Pam sat staring holes into the back of the chair where Julie had sat. Phil imagined smoke rising from the wood.

"So, I decided to come back and tell you Julie's next door," he said. "I started to call but then thought it would be weird because, because a half-an-hour had gone by, and I could have mentioned it before I left. So, I thought I should just come back and tell you." He tried to remember Dave's advice about not having anything to feel guilty about, but all he could think of was Julie in his house.

Pam turned, stared up at him, emerald eyes glowing, and said, "I get it. You don't need to explain. I get it."

"Oh, okay. So, Julie came over and introduced herself?" Pam didn't respond. She turned her gaze back to Julie's chair. "I guess I should head back to work. If you don't want to talk about it?" He said, making a tentative move to leave.

"You tell me," said Pam. He wasn't sure he heard her. She was facing away from him, and a leaf blower was going a few houses away.

"What? Tell you what?"

"You, tell me. Do we have something to talk about?"

"No, I don't think so. You guys have met, so no point in telling you she's our new neighbor."

"Well, I think there are some things to discuss, but you should go to work." Pam popped up, grabbed her coffee cup, kissed him on the cheek, headed back into the house as the sweat began to cool in the small of Phil's back. He stood there, inhaled the scent of the wet grass. It was humid, and the day was turning hot. His glance fell on Julie's discarded coffee cup, left by the side of her chair. A red slash of lipstick was on the rim.

Phil drove back to work in light traffic, signaled every lane change, kept his speed within five miles an hour of the limit. One foot in front of the other was his mantra for the balance of the day. Phil was a checklist kind of guy. The to-do list he wrote out later at his desk was as detailed as it was mundane. But, on the other hand, it contained things within his control, no matter how trivial. He tried to put Julie out of his mind, but it only made things worse, like the thing you did when you were a kid with the magnets facing the wrong way. The more you tried to push them together, the harder they resisted. So, when his mind started to wander to the inevitable conversation to come, he focused on his checklist. Each completed to-do item was a minor victory in keeping his wits about him.

Phil sat, the list in front of him, twiddling his pen. Why did Julie wear the same scent? Phil thought he could handle seeing her. But seeing her and smelling her was too much. He always had a thing about smells. The slightest hint of jasmine would bring forth memories of summer vacations when he was a kid at his grandparents' house. A dusty book from the used bookstore brought back memories of reading "The Call of the Wild" when he was ten. Julie still wore the same scent, had the same walk, the same self-awareness. Standing near her was like standing on the edge of a cliff. The problem in their relationship had been the intensity. He knew he was over her. Well, he thought he was over her. He went to the restroom and splashed water on his face, looked at his haggard reflection in the mirror, said aloud, "Now what?"

He called Dave and relayed the story of what had happened. "I need you to come by tonight. I'll text you and tell you when," said Phil.

"What, why?"

"I need a distraction, Pam will ask you to stay for dinner, and you'll say yes."

"I don't think that's a good idea. Pam's not going to ask me to stay, and if you do, she'll know you're trying to avoid a confrontation. You're just delaying the inevitable. Remember, you are not in the wrong."

"I know, but I still feel guilty. Julie, you know - Julie sort of carries a lot of impact with her. It was like an out-of-body experience seeing her on the patio talking with Pam."

"Hey, it's an awkward situation. Pam knows you love her. It will end up being a funny story in hindsight. Is Julie married? There might be a husband next door too."

"I don't know; we didn't get into a lot of small talk."

"You're thinking of her as you last saw her, years ago. You're different; therefore, she's different. So, bring yourself back to the present and stop thinking of her the way she used to be and the way you used to be around her."

"Okay, you're right. But I still want you to come over. Return something you borrowed, some excuse. It will be lame, but I need a buffer tonight. I'm a coward, but there it is."

"Phil, you're my best friend in the world, but I'm not coming over."

After one glass of wine over dinner, Phil tried to make a speech but couldn't get going, started in mid-thought, "It was just a shock, I'm sure it would be awkward for you if your ex-boyfriend moved in next door."

Pam jumped in, "If my old boyfriend moved in next door, the two of you would become bosom bodies. It would be just my luck. But look, there's what happened, and then there's your reaction to it - outright panic. Your reaction screams 'unresolved feelings.' And don't just start talking, filling the air with a bunch of words to hide behind."

"Well, she was the one who broke up with me. I guess it left more of a wound than I imagined. And her reaction was just so matter of fact this morning. It set me off. Plus, she has a dramatic personality, a way of getting under your skin. I mean, you met her, you must see what I'm talking about. I'm sorry I didn't handle it well. I'm embarrassed about freaking out."

"After spending half an hour with her - I can say that I understand the dramatic part. But it was a long time ago, Phil. Your reaction is not the kind of thing a wife wants to see. I'm not asking you to reassure me. I love you, and you love me, but come on. Your reaction was a bit over-the-top."

"You're right. And thanks for being so reasonable about this. Why are you so calm? I thought that we'd be yelling by now. I tried to get Dave to come over for dinner as a kind of a buffer."

"Well, Dave's not here, which means that he's smarter than you are. I am going to ask you one thing, though. Are you happy? This isn't about loving me and all that, but are you satisfied with your life, all of it, work, me, everything?"

"Yes," said Phil, relieved. The conversation was going better than he expected. The knot in his stomach faded. He took a moment, sipped his wine, smiled. His gaze wandered over his wife, took in his surroundings, his comfortable house. A bookcase was across the room; his eyes caught a book sitting there on a high shelf, "Pride and Prejudice," one of Julie's favorite books. That copy was hers. The book had always been on her nightstand in their old apartment. How it ended up in a box with his stuff, he never knew. What else was around that was hers? His key ring still had the mailbox key on it from their apartment. Some of his old t-shirts were from her.

"Okay then," said Pam, snapping him back to the here and now. "There is something I should tell you. I'm calm about this because she's not moving in next door."

"What? What did you say?"

"She's an interior designer. The owners are her clients. She was there to stage the house. They're not going to arrive until later in the week. Something got delayed with their travel, and the van arrived early. The bottom line is that you're not going to see her again. How's that strike you?"

Relief swept over him, a profound sensation of his body unraveling deep into the chair. He gripped the armrest so he wouldn't end up slipping under the table. "I'm fine with that." he managed a smile. "You could have told me that maybe half an hour ago."

"Are you kidding?" said Pam. "Is this your first day being married? At any rate, game over as far as she's concerned. But there's one more thing."

"Oh, okay, let me guess. You're pregnant?" Pam recoiled as if slapped. Her eyes filled, unblinking. She pushed back, started to get up. Phil went from relaxed and flippant to alert and apologetic. Somewhere deep down, he had known. He was going to become a father. He moved to her, tried to embrace her. Pam resisted but softened when she looked up at his face, seeing him start to speak. She held her index finger to his lips, said, "Trust me, it's better if you don't talk." Enveloped in his arms, Pam relaxed. They rocked back and forth.

Phil stared straight ahead and thought again of the memory of the roller coaster. He remembered when the ride ended; the cars whooshed to a stop. The sensations of the park returned, kids yelling, music, the smell of corn dogs, and spilled soft drinks. Then, the safety bar swung up, releasing him. He took a deep breath as he climbed out, knees shaking, happy the ride was over.


  1. The story used a good metaphor of a roller coaster ride, and that's what the story felt like with all of Phil's nervous energy and with all the rises and falls of expectations. Fast paced, turbulent fun.

  2. Definitely a rollercoaster of a read. A very human story. Phil was so screwed up inside that he couldn't grasp the fact that he hadn't done anything wrong.
    Unexpected twist midway through.
    Well-drawn and distinctive characters.

  3. Thanks Rosemary for reading and for your comments!

  4. The story drew me in to Appalachin life in the thirties and the protagonist trying to leave his childhood behind. There are the unanswered questions .... the story weaves its way into my mind with its mood capturing the place and time, and a sense of mystery. Dad is a pretty spooky guy.