Hadn’t seen him in a while, but I wasn’t concerned. I was busy and I’m sure he was too. I'd typically see him on Saturday mornings, scurrying like a squirrel, back and forth to his car where he’d grab another large brown paper sack of groceries before striding two steps at a time up to his apartment.
I knew him as Gary. No last name. No present. No history. The only thing I knew about him was that he’d had a play produced in New York, off-Broadway.
Likewise, he knew me just as Vicki. He’d watered my plants when I flew to England to help my father through his last days. And when I returned, he expressed his sympathy, not in person, but by voicemail. I sometimes overheard him laugh on the phone, but I never saw visitors and I never heard him open his front door to anybody’s knock—not even mine.
We’d been neighbors for six years, which takes into account the time he'd left and lived in New York—presumably when he’d had his play produced. But he’d returned 12 months later and I was flattered when the building manager told me that he’d asked if I still lived there, and if so, was his old apartment next to mine vacant. I was flattered not because I thought he had a thing for me, but because it meant I was a ‘good neighbor’.
We talked little during those six years, partly because he was painfully shy; partly because I need space and guard my privacy. But I liked and respected this quiet man who minded his own business, and we engaged in polite, albeit superficial, conversation whenever we passed.
A creature of habit, he’d leave every morning at 7 am, warming his green Neo’s engine for exactly five minutes before engaging first gear and taking off down the driveway. He’d come home every night at 4.30 pm, reverse into his parking port, and skip up the stairs where he’d slip invisibly behind his olive green door. At 7 pm, he’d tie some kind of exercise equipment to that same door and work out for precisely 15 minutes every day. Not 17 or 12 minutes, always 15.
With barefaced humiliation, I confess that the only cross word we had in six years came from me. As I said, he was a creature of habit. He’d take the trash down to the dumpster every morning at 6 am, thumping the door behind him, rattling my windows, shaking this sleep-deprived night owl from a measly four or five hours of slumber.
One morning, void of make up, hair stood on end, bare shouldered and bare footed, I waited at the top of the stairs for him, trying to contain myself. I explained how I’d been working on a TV commercial script until 3 am…not his fault. But could he please close the door more quietly in future. He must have wondered what planet I’d dropped from, standing there half naked, and not even aware of it.
He was very apologetic. I was equally apologetic when I saw him five days later and he said in all sincerity that he hoped he hadn’t woken me since we last talked.
“I’m so sorry” I groveled, “I must have seemed like a raving mad woman…” “To the contrary,” he assured me “you were quite charming…”, which says far more about him, than it does me.
So, as I said, I hadn’t seen him in a while. Not since he’d left one morning in a freshly pressed shirt and neatly tailored business suit. I was watering my winter pansies as he rushed downstairs, disappearing like Alice in Wonderland’s white rabbit. “Have an interview…” was all he said. “Good luck. I’m sure you’ll ace it,” was all I said.
I started tracking the days. His car hadn’t moved since at least the Monday before Thanksgiving. No sounds or vibrations from next door. Hadn’t heard his joyful trill (not exactly singing, more like a warble of glee which often drifted through our shared living room wall and never failed to make me smile).
November ended. Another couple of weeks came and went. We were heading towards Christmas. I called the police. “It’s probably nothing ... torn between invading his privacy and being a concerned neighbor and … he’s very, very private … is there anything you can do?” No worries, they said. They’d call around in 20 minutes and do a courtesy check.
I heard them come. Even peered surreptitiously through the Venetian blinds. I stuck my ear flat against our shared living room wall—our sofas, back to back. Then someone knocked at the door—and as I turned to open it, I knew. My quiet, respectful, polite, shy, considerate neighbor had blown his brains out. So considerate, that he’d ended his life on his bed, to contain the mess.
After the initial shock, after the initial upset, I was flushed with waves of anger. I was angry with the hazardous materials clean-up crew. Angry that he’d lain there, right next to me, for almost a month. Angry with him for not reaching out. Angry with myself for being too independent, too protective of my privacy, too self-absorbed to know he was in pain. Angry with the apartment owners who, I'd learned, were evicting him for non-payment of the previous month’s rent. Angry with a system that couldn’t provide a fulltime teaching job for an intelligent man who had worked every single day of his adult life to educate our youth. Angry that the only flowers on his doorstep were the ones I placed there. Angry at the loss of life of a healthy human being. Most of all, I was angry that he felt this dark, irreversible path was the only way out.
As days passed into weeks, I realized that this was his choice. It’s not one I understand. And maybe it’s not mine to understand. But I no longer blamed myself for not being able to prevent his death. For not knowing he was hurting.
I no longer felt angry with him for not speaking up or for making the choice that he did. In his darkest hour—my good neighbor did like all of us do—he reached deep inside himself and did what he knew how to do.
Maybe some of us are meant only to flicker, never to flame.