Thursday, May 16, 2013

In the Neighborhood

We have lived in our house for over 25 years. For most of these years, we have been blessed with great neighbors on both sides--people with whom we've had more-than-cordial relationships, people who we have helped, people who have helped us, people we've laughed with, communed with, dined with, and so forth. At the same time, we have always respected each others' privacy--maintaining a cordial distance, as seemed appropriate. We're not in each others' face, or business.
     A couple of years ago, a new couple moved in, and we attempted once again to reach out, to be welcoming and friendly. Perhaps our reaching out was a bit much by their standards. So although they seem to be fine people, we have not gotten to know them very well, at least not nearly as well as the others who have lived in that house before them, and this has left an unsettled feeling in me--as if an empty spot of unknowing lies to the south of me. The story I am about to tell relates to this empty spot.
     A few years back, I flew to San Francisco to visit my sister. On the airplane, I was seated on the aisle (my favorite position), a man was seated at the window, and the middle seat was empty.

As the plane filled up, a large man with a shaved head and sophisticated earphones stopped at my row and indicated that the center seat was his. You know how it is on airplanes--tight quarters--and most often my strategy is to simply withdraw as much as possible so I can avoid awareness of the discomfort of the experience. Part of this withdrawal involves not looking very closely at the people around me. But as the head-shaved man settled in, then began a long phone conversation while we waited for the plane to take off, I began to wonder whether he was actually my neighbor. My neighbor is a large man with a shaved head. My neighbor is a sound technician, so the fancy headphones would make sense. From the phone conversation, I gathered that my seatmate was not happy being in a center seat, but that he had overslept and missed his real flight, which was how he got stuck with such a bad seat. This might fit my neighbor as well, since he works late nights, sometimes not coming home until 3 or so (he has told me this in the few conversations we've had; I don't spy on him). So oversleeping . . . check.
This was so very odd. Could I actually be seated--squished actually--beside my next-door neighbor and not know it for certain--all the way to California? Could I actually be that unfamiliar with my own next-door neighbor--me, who considers herself to be so community minded? The answer to both questions was an uncomfortable yes.
     I was thinking that that the look of this guy was somewhat generic--the shaved head (a lot of guys have them these days), the largeness, the headphones. Which could have been an argument for or against. But I was thinking that I too have a somewhat generic look--that everyone sort of does when it comes down to it. It's only by really looking into the face of another, engaging with them, that we are able to recognize all their unique characteristics.
     I could not bring myself to say, "Excuse me, but you don't happen to me my neighbor by any chance?" So I sat. I focused on my book. I focused on my withdrawal techniques. I tried to steal looks at him without seeming like a weirdo.
The crucial moment arrived when he ordered his second vodka with soda, and I was able to catch a glance at the name on his credit card as he passed it to the crew member. It was not my neighbor's name. And this was a great relief to me. So I loosened up, and actually told the guy next to me that for a while I had thought he might be my neighbor, which we laughed over.
     Now, today, a couple years into being neighbors with these people, I do believe I would recognize the husband on the street (or an airplane), but the wife . . .  I don't think so. And this is not a happy thing for me.