I didn’t even know her name.
She moved into the house diagonally across the street from me. She seemed harmless, an older lady who lived with her husband and adult son. Sometimes they yelled at each other, the noise bouncing off the side of my house and sneaking through the cracks in the windows. Her husband seemed to do most of the yelling, but occasionally she would chime in and yell right back at him.
Their son seemed to get in trouble a lot, mostly from petty burglaries and possession of marijuana. Those were the rumors I heard from our other neighbors. Everyone on our block unilaterally decided they were troublemakers, but I barely noticed them as I went about my business.
Everything changed on a spring afternoon in May. I spent the day playing with my son Brendan on the living room carpet. He was just learning to walk and climb up on everything, and I hovered over him like a hawk every second to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. The time I spent with my cute and cheerful baby was the happiest part of my life. I wanted to freeze the moment and remember it when he became a grown man who didn’t want to play with me anymore.
While I was cleaning up Brendan’s toys, I heard a loud banging on the front door that made my ears ring. It startled both of us, and Brendan hurriedly climbed up into my lap for safety. I carried him towards the front door and peeked out the side window to see what was going on. My next-door neighbor stood on the other side, but it was hard to see her expression. At least it’s somebody I know, I reassured myself as I opened the door.
“HOW COULD YOU?”
The woman was red-faced and screaming at me, stinking of peanut butter breath that almost knocked me over. She clenched her fists at her sides, and for a moment I thought she might hit me. Poor Brendan was so scared he lost control of his bowels while still in my arms. She cussed at me for reasons I didn’t understand. I’d never had a conversation with her in my whole life before that day. Fearing for Brendan’s safety and my own, I shut the door on the woman quickly and locked it, closing all the blinds in the house so she couldn’t see in.
The pounding started again, and by this time I was both fed up and terrified. I called the police, but by the time two officers arrived at my house, the woman was no longer outside. One officer walked over to knock on her door. I tried to listen to the conversation that followed, but she spoke too quietly for me to hear what she was saying.
“Wow, she’s really got it out for you!” the officer told me when he returned. “You could try a restraining order, but she hasn’t really done anything bad yet.”
When my husband came home from work, I cried and told him what happened. He waited until he saw the woman’s husband come home and went over to talk to him in the driveway. I followed behind and stood back a good distance in case the woman came outside.
“She wouldn’t hurt a fly,” the husband said. “You know she’s crazy, right?”
It was news to me, but it wasn’t hard to agree with. What kind of person goes off on a total stranger?
In the days that followed, every time I went out to my car she was sitting on her front porch facing me and giving me a dirty look. I didn’t take Brendan out to play on his jungle gym in our backyard anymore, fearing she would spot us through the slats of our surrounding fence. It made me feel trapped in my own house at the mercy of a woman who could jump out of her chair any minute and attack me. When I finally had enough, I went down to the courthouse and filed for the restraining order the cop recommended. The court set a hearing in three weeks. I tried to keep a low profile until then.
On the day of the hearing, my husband and I arrived at the courthouse early. It surprised us to see that our neighbors were already there. The woman stood on the other side of the hallway next to her husband. She looked nicer than I’d ever seen her, wearing a business-type suit with her hair done up in a bun. When she spotted us, she came over to the bench we were sitting on and sat right next to me without saying a word. With my heart pounding, I stood up quickly and walked away. Why was this person obsessed with me? What had I ever done to her?
The judge asked me to speak first in the courtroom. I told my side as clearly as I could, trying to keep my composure, but my trembling voice gave me away. I let the judge know the neighbor scared me, and I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t bother me or my family anymore. When I finished, it was the woman’s turn to talk. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her sit up straight, adjust her outfit and clear her throat before she started.
“Your Honor,” she said, her voice loud and direct. “I appreciate the opportunity to tell my side of the story.”
Oh God, she seemed perfectly sane. What if the judge believed her? What if he thought I was the problem and dismissed the restraining order?
My neighbor cleared her throat again and continued.
“Your Honor, a few months ago the government began sending men to my house. I’m supposed to pick which one I want to marry. Last time they sent someone out, SHE intercepted him and kept him for herself.”
The woman was pointing directly at me. The judge seemed to have heard enough and tried to interject.
“Ma’am, could you please calm down?”
“SHE KNOWS WHAT SHE DID!”
She screamed this and then rose from her seat. A bailiff appeared by my side in an instant, blocking my neighbor from a good view of me. Once the judge got her to calm down, he approved the restraining order.
I still saw my neighbor after that day, but things were different. When I went outside, she had her patio chair turned around facing the wall. When she turned her head towards me, I saw a look of stark fear on her face. Her husband told my husband that the thought of jail terrified her. My first thought was “good.” Maybe now she would leave me alone.
After a few weeks of seeing my neighbor sitting with her back to me, I noticed I felt a little sad. What could she be thinking? Did she really believe the government was sending men to her house? Was she worried about being arrested now because of my restraining order? I wondered how much of her stress and anger were because of mental illness wreaking havoc on her mind. Her husband didn’t seem to be much help. He laughed it off when she got in trouble for stalking me, and I’d seen him yelling at his wife more often than being kind to her. Her son was a troublemaker on top of everything, and that had to contribute to her stress.
It occurred to me that I never stopped to think once about what my neighbor was going through. I didn’t even pay attention when the judge mentioned her name in court. What was her life like trapped in her own delusions? Was her family helping her at all? I never got to ask those questions because she wasn’t allowed to approach me anymore. Her hatred of me still appeared to burn bright inside of her, but I was no longer afraid. If I had another chance, I’d try to make things right with her so both of us could be at ease. It would have been the neighborly thing to do.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to the woman who tormented me. We moved away after about six months of the court hearing, partly because of her hatred towards me. My home no longer felt like home. Instead, I felt like a sitting duck. Still, the day we moved out, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. I could just pick up and leave, but nothing would change in my neighbor’s situation. She’d still battle with her mind every single day with little to no support around her.
I wish things were different. If she hadn’t fixated on me, we might have been the kind of neighbors that wave hello in their driveways and borrow milk from each other. Maybe I could have offered support or at least comfort to a fellow human being’s suffering. It still bothers me that I likely added to her stress by getting the restraining order in the first place, but I felt I had no choice.
Having suffered from mental health issues of my own throughout the years, I can relate to why my neighbor acted the way she did. Her mind was playing tricks on her that ended up in serious trouble. I don’t blame her anymore for stalking me. It’s horrifying when your mind turns on you and skews your perception of reality.
Instead, I pray for the woman I’ll never see again, hoping she finds the peace she needs.