5 min read

Neighbors

Up until this week, my relations with my neighbors amounted to hellos and how’s-the-weathers in the hallway

I continue to be surprised by the friendliness of everyone I meet in Medford. Even the women at the town office when I called to ask how to pay the property tax. My dentist, eye doctor, and voice teacher are now a ten minute walk away in the town center. As are the post office, library, and one surprisingly decent Szechuan restaurant. I’ve been to the liquor store twice, and the man behind the counter already knows me—as I passed by on the walk home from a voice lesson once, he happened to step outside and we smiled and said hello.

(A few days ago, a friend asked how many cats I own now, and it’s a fair question.)

My neighbors in this 80+ unit apartment complex have been no different. It’s a staid concrete building built in the ‘70s with mostly residents born in the ‘50s. Here, people stand in the mailroom and chitchat, sometimes with the mailman; one of the Trustees, Anthony, hand-delivers packages from the mailroom to our doorsteps as a community service (and as a way, he says, to abide by his wife’s orders to stay off the couch); news travels by bulletin board, paper newsletter, and word of mouth.

Definitely word of mouth, and maybe osmosis. When I met the mailman, he just knew: “You must be that new person in unit X.” When I met Olga and Andrea—in the mailroom too—Olga said, “I hear you play violin beautifully.” Oops, she could hear me from two floors above? “Oh no, your upstairs neighbor Nancy tells me!” Andrea added, “In the summer, what if you two play together by the pool?” For what it’s worth, I have not yet met Nancy, but I do hear her play piano sometimes, mostly Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes. (Yes, including Memory.)

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Up until this week, my relations with my neighbors amounted to hellos and how’s-the-weathers in the hallway, even with the folks in my four-unit wing: Linda and Loren; Kathy Ann; Carmela. When I moved in six months ago, they’d left a welcome note and chocolates at my door; I’d left thank-you notes at theirs; then a bouquet appeared with a note from Carmela (and boy are flowers my weak spot); I’d rushed out to get a bottle of wine to return the volley.

Until Loren died this week, there hadn’t been any reason, I suppose, to talk about anything deeper. There were reasons not to: I didn’t have their phone numbers, I was unaccustomed to knocking on doors, I was Busy.

I found out about Loren Saturday morning when I ran into Carmela on my way to the trash room with a bag of recycling. Carmela, on the cusp of 81 and about four feet tall, is both the oldest and most spiritually vital amongst us in this wing. I felt, as the new person, and the one young (age-wise) person, it was my turn to do something. Plus, Linda had given me one of her extra wire grocery push-carts a few weeks ago. (I really do just need some cats now.) I’ll get a card and pass it around, I said.

On Sunday, I went to CVS and chose the least unappealing card, and put in an order at the local flower shop (which is across the street from CVS, a few doors down from the liquor shop and dentist, and is run by a guy named Ray).

On Monday, the card had been passed around and signed and slipped back under my door. I went to get the flowers. On the way there, I passed Kathy Ann on the sidewalk, and on the way back, I passed Carmela with her daughter and grandson. It was his graduation weekend.

Back home, I went across the hall to leave the things at Linda’s door. Just then, down the hall, Kathy Ann popped out of her apartment. (Are you wondering when the coincidences stop? Me too.) She saw me and asked, “Why don’t you knock? She might be home.” I hadn’t knocked unannounced in years and forgot you can do that. I tap-tap-tapped a Morse code hello, and a few seconds later, there was Linda, eyes pink, cradling a phone mid-call. “Oh,” she said, “how did YOU find out?” Her way of saying, pssh, this is too much. She said thank you, and I left, because she was on a call.

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I expected this to be the end of it. I guess I don’t often see my neighbors; it was bewildering to suddenly run into them multiple times a day by accident. Weird, right? Or is it? I realized I couldn’t be sure, because the sample size (of me leaving the house during the day) is too small. (Ok, at the very least I ought to have one kitten.)

A few hours later, I was coming back from the mailroom as Linda left her apartment with her trash. We met in the hallway. How are you doing? I asked. Linda, holding the white trash bag, started to tell me the story of the last few days, which really began five years ago when Loren got a liver transplant, and escalated in January when he got COVID, which led to sepsis which led to his toes being amputated. She talked about carrying him, helping him to the bathroom, bathing him, changing the bandages on his toes. They had been married 51 years. Two weeks ago, things really started to go downhill… He stopped eating.

We walked to the trash room and back.

Then, as if summoned, Carmela appeared.

Carmela knew all the right things to say, and I fell quiet, to observer. She didn’t shed a single tear but somehow conveyed she understood everything.

L: The oldest [daughter] is taking it the hardest. She can’t sleep or eat.
C: Oh I would have thought it’d be the youngest.
L: Me too.
C: Oh that’s how it is. You never know.

C: Did he suffer?
L: He was put on a ventilator. Those things—I think, if I ever get there, just shoot me. Like this. (She pointed her finger like a gun.)
C: He fought. He really fought. And he had fought enough.

L: At the end, he was funny. You know, he’s a funny guy. He woke up. He said, “God is reasonable. See, I’m a Protestant, and she’s a Democrat. We all make mistakes.” I was going to smack him! But then he asked for the chaplain.
C: It’s good, he knew to ask. Some people, they know too, but they don’t or can’t.

They talked and talked. They recounted a story from around the time Carmela moved in, when Loren fell. Linda went into such shock she had temporary amnesia. She forgot who her family was. The only thing she remembered was she had to come home to feed her cat.

We finally seemed to have come to the end. There was a pause. A shared silence.

Then Linda cried, “I’m a widow now,” and threw her arms around Carmela.

“We’re widows,” said Carmela, leaning in. “I miss him. It’s been 23 years, but I miss him. I miss him every day.”

I was suddenly the least put together among us. I didn’t understand it. Linda had the same pink around her eyes, Carmela was her stoic self. Out of politeness, they tried not to look at me.

Forty minutes after going out for the mail, I returned to my apartment.

A few hours later, I suddenly thought, oh, I’m going to grow into them, I’m going to fall in love with them a little, and then…

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In the days since, I haven’t seen any of my neighbors. Well except once. I was taking my recycling out again one evening when I ran into Linda with her two daughters and one granddaughter, all dressed in black, walking back to their apartment. Thus I met her family. Linda took one look at my recycling and said, “Don’t tell me you haven’t finished unpacking!” I denied it, but it’s true. I am still unpacking. But some things are settled.