Alexandra Kaul

The day I moved in, Jean warned me that she was coming, the HOA President, and that she would yell at me. We bonded immediately over shared disdain for bureaucracy and that need to surveil the intimate that HOAs represent. Then Jean yelled at me because I was wearing sandals in January.

Jean told me she grew up in Chicago, in Hyde Park. Her parents bought the house at 5422 South Kimbark Avenue when she was six.

Jean taught second grade at Ray Elementary School. She tells me it’s the best grade, because the children aren’t scared of school anymore and aren’t scared of the world yet.

Jean wears green-tinted translucent glasses, wraps her head in a scarf, often green, and wears a green coat when she takes off on her green bicycle.

Jean knocked one of my friends off the sidewalk when she was racing down the street on her bike, but he couldn’t be mad, because it’s Jean.

Jean wears a women’s march pin on her coat every day, sometimes she tells me about the marches against Vietnam and the invasions of Iraq. She reminds me of all the old ladies that have told me their stories. To me, she belongs in Berkeley or Biarritz, anywhere but here.

Jean tells me that she doesn’t want to leave this world while it’s this bad. Jean tells me I have to be the one to change it.

A couple months ago Jean fell. She takes turmeric for her broken rib, because her kidney can’t take the ibuprofen.

She tells me I am thoughtful, because I remember.

Jean deals with us grad students, she folds our clothes when we pass out and don’t take the laundry out of the dryer.

Sometimes when I’m on the balcony smoking I hear her talking to her son on the phone. He tells her to be careful, that she should consider moving to a nursing home. She tells him to fuck off, essentially.

Sometimes Jean calls me Tara, and when she does our conversations gain a certain intimacy. I wonder who Tara is, or was, because I like being Tara to Jean. I like who Jean thinks I am when I am Tara.

Sometimes, Jean catches me smoking on the street. I try to hide the cigarette but I know she knows, and I see her wanting to say something but she doesn’t because she knows I know and she knows that shame doesn’t do the work. There’s an intimacy, and a sense of being seen, in this willful act of pretending not to see too.

Once, I ran into Jean on the street late at night. It was one of those nights when the moon is so full and bright that the silver bleeds into the blue and forms my favorite color. She told me to be careful not to stare at the moon for too long, that it would destabilize me and I wouldn’t be able to go back to my work. It was a bizarre thing to say, but I knew she was right. So, we stood there and stared at the moon together for what seemed like a long time.

Once, when I just moved in and it was -12C and my key didn’t work and my hands were frozen from trying to wrestle the keys that didn’t work because the building is older than Jean and things warp when it’s that cold and my roommate wasn’t home so I desperately rang all the door bells so someone would let me in. Jean buzzed me in and ran down the stairs and yelled at me “I don’t know you, why are you ringing my bell?” with her eyes wide open in terror. I had to murmur “no, you know me, your name is Jean, your dogs’ name is Terry.” I pointed at the overfed snarling little creature next to her, he’s white and his face is too small for his spherical body, but he’s cute and I like him. She remembered and apologized, and since that day we’ve been friends.

I think about knocking on Jean’s door and trying to interview her for this project, but I decide against it. There’s a certain trepidation, a shy sort of intimacy, because I’m not sure she’d remember me today and I don’t want to disturb her. She always tells me her dog is a bad dog because he barks at everyone, but I think he’s just trying to protect her. In a certain way, I’m trying to, too.

Alexandra Kaul is a writer, anthropologist, and community organizer currently based in rural Oregon. Her work focuses on memory, trauma, police violence, ecology, and white supremacy in Germany and the United States. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley and a Master’s degree in Anthropology from The University of Chicago. She was born in Germany and raised in Germany, Malaysia, and California.