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The Lonely Neighbour

Sign at the entrance of Madison Park, Ottawa, May 2018

“Please, don’t call the police!”

This is the first thing she ever said to me when, one evening, I passed her on the pathway leading up to Madison Park, one of the neighbourhood’s playgrounds.

We locked eyes for a few seconds, her pleading and me completely puzzled, wondering why I would call the police on a respectable senior citizen taking a late-night walk, and…—

“Woof.”

I looked down. A dog.

I glance at her right hand, playing nervously with both ends of a leash. And I got it.

“No, no, of course, I wouldn’t call the police! It’s okay if she isn’t leashed, really! Tell you what—you could call the police on me,” I joked. I pointed to the sign behind me. “See, I was clearly trespassing, walking through the park even though it’s past 9 p.m.”

She finally smiled and relaxed.

“Plus, your dog is a cutie,” I added. I don’t particularly like dogs but this one barely qualified as one. The rodent-sized pooch with a pink hair clip gazing protectively at her owner looked like the Zhu Zhu pet Feng bought me a few years ago (because my Chinese name is “Zhu,” get the joke?)

“You’re kind,” she replied in a strong European accent I couldn’t place.

“There’s nobody around! You’re not bothering anyone, don’t worry. I doubt anyone would call the police on you.”

Gee. There are way too many rules in this city—and way too many people enforce conformity on everyone.

I saw her a few times over the months, taking her night walk around the neighbourhood, just like I do. It’s funny, it’s a thing immigrants do—when I pass people strolling around at this time of the day, I always hear “lightly encrypted” conversations in Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Hindi or Tagalog. Maybe we’re not that into watching Hockey Night in Canada, maybe we feel trapped in these practical, if soulless suburban homes, maybe we all kind of miss that place, a few thousands of kilometres away, where people actually spent time with each other in public spaces.

Or maybe everybody is trying to squeeze in some light exercise at the end of a sedentary day and I’m just projecting. Yeah, it may be just that.

No matter where I’d bump into her, I was always faster. She uses two sticks and walks briskly but the dog has tiny legs and she waits for her every few metres. This didn’t seem like the traditional just-find-a-goddamn-tree-and-do-your-business walk dog owners all signed up for but an important human-and-dog activity.

Some of us actually enjoy walking around for no reason. I do. And I don’t even have a dog or a conversation partner.

We never really talked. Occasionally, she would say something vaguely encouraging but hard to interpret, like “you look good!” I really don’t at 9 p.m. in the dark, so I assume she meant taking a walk was the right thing to do, even if I’m smoking at the same time. One time, she mentioned my figure—or maybe it was my future.

I saw her again the other day. It was the first warm evening in Ottawa, which means that absolutely everyone was outside—and by “everyone,” I mean the five people who live in the neighbourhood. I’m almost convinced half of the houses are empty, I rarely see or hear proof of life even though there are one or two cars parked on each driveway.

“How are you?” I asked.

When I said these words, I realized I had never actually greeted her like this before.

“Meh,” she shrugged in a very honest European way. “Long winter.”

“Indeed, it was.”

We were back on safe Canadian ground, talking about the weather.

“By the way, what’s your background?”

I suddenly wanted to know.

“Croatia. Well, back then it was called… well, it’s complicated.”

“I know. We were almost neighbours, I’m French.”

“Do you like it here?”

It was my turn to shrug. “Depends. Depends on the days.”

“How do you like the weather?”

“Never got used to it.”

She laughed. “Me neither. And I’ve been there for twenty years! I came as a refugee. There was a war…”

“Oh, I remember,” I said.

I do. I remember news anchors stumbling over “Bosnia-Herzegovina.” I remember that madness, just next door. I remember the refugees begging us to take them and the rest of us, safe behind borders, arguing over the number of them we could accept. Reminds you of something? Yeah, me too.

“It must have been difficult.”

“No one asked me where I wanted to go. Canada took us.”

“Are you alone here?”

“My husband died. Three years ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Meh. I was alone even when he was around anyway. Husbands… I have a son. He lives in Ottawa.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

I felt oddly relieved that despite everything, she had someone, that life had gone on in Canada where she clearly didn’t think she would end up and be expected to stay.

“Come, I show you where my house is. Or maybe you know, already…?”

I kind of knew but I feigned ignorance. “No, I don’t!”

“Here. Number 8. If the car is here, it means I’m here. Well, I never actually go anywhere. So I’m always here.”

We stood on her driveway, the dog catching her breath.

“Life is funny,” she finally said. “I’m a Croat, my husband was a Serb. We nothing in common. But a lot too.”

The dog barked.

“It was nice talking to you,” she finally said. “I haven’t talked to someone in… yes, ten days.”

“Anytime!”

I know how lonely it can feel here.

 

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