Saturday, September 30, 2006

the good neighbor

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.

24 comments:

Ant said...

Holy crap - that's horrid. I don't think I'll ever understand the suicidal impulse - no matter how dark, horrible and miserable things appear to be, there is *always* a way out. You just have to look hard enough.

Of course, not everybody sees life that way and hence stories like this (and it's maybe a bit macabre to say this but: nicely written. You capture that strange "sort-of-know-the-person-but-don't-really" relationship well...)

keewee said...

What a sad life he lead, no real friends, and there you were right next door. He just had to reach out.
I had an experience years ago, where a very sweet elderly lady used to visit where I worked every day or so. I had not seen her for about a week and became concerned, so called the police to see if the could check on her. The police found her dead on the foor of her home. It was a very sad time.

andrea said...

That was very powerful, Vicki. I felt a tiny thread of kinship to the poor guy, which is a testament to your writing!

Adarsh said...

too dumbstuck to say nething....
these flickers remain engraved... forever.

Bibi said...

Ant, yes it's very difficult to understand that desperate sense of despondency.

Kewee, that must the dread of everyone who lives alone!

Andrea, thank you! Thank you!

Adarsh, that's true, he will flicker in my memory.

twitches said...

Wow - good writing here, but a tragic situation. It's amazing how little we know about each other.

paz y amor said...

I'd have to agree with twitches- we don't know each other like we should, and the days of the friendly, concerned neighbor are fleeting yearly. What a sad and powerful story!

Anonymous said...

I was riveted by this story from the beginning, although fearful that I already knew what the ending would be. You wrote about your neighbor so well, and the relationship you had developed with him, which might have seemed tenuous on the surface, but obviously meant more to you than you realized.

Earlier this year, an extremely talented young man (who was once a student of mine) also died by suicide. I have felt such helplessness, as if he had only reached out, surely someone could have prevented such a tragedy.

John Ivey said...

I was extremely impressed with your nonjudgmental attitude towards your neighbor's suicide. I think it is much too easy for people to judge those who commit suicide, to say it is the coward's way out, while you so succinctly put it in your article, "...he reached deep inside himself and did what he knew how to do."

I applaud the author for giving us such a well written and poignant story. I have only one question: why didn't anyone hear the gunshot? I can only suppose the ever thoughtful neighbor picked a time when no one would be disturbed by a gunshot.

TI said...

Your post about your neighbor is a great tribute to him. You tell the story very poignantly and show a lot of compassion. You also do a great job of capturing how helpless we all feel when someone we know, even a little, commits suicide. Suicide has touched me and my colleagues recently as a dear former student of ours who seemed to have everything going for him drove into the woods and turned the exhaust into the cab of his truck. Your post has helped me to think that he did what he knew how to do. Thank you.

Bibi said...
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Bibi said...

Twitches and Paz y amor - That's right, we go about our lives and have no idea how someone next door can be suffering. I would gladly have let him camp on my sofa while he got things back together, “if only” I'd known.

Becca, thank you for your comments - it does render one feeling helpless. Sorry to hear of your student.

John, thank you for your feedback. The police did ask if I'd heard a gunshot ... I'd actually heard several over a couple of weeks, which were late at night and most likely kids. But I do not believe I heard his (those walls were thin and I would have known it was from next door). And even though the apartment was well locked up from the inside, they'd also asked if I'd heard people calling for him since it was such a violent act. But the evidence all pointed to suicide. And yes, I assumed that Gary shot himself during the day when everyone else was away working.

Ti, thank you also. At the time I questioned why, why? Which of course does no good. But I had to believe that in the end, this was his choice, albeit not the solution I would have chosen for him. So sorry for your situation too.

The Writing Muse said...

I used to work ambulance/police dispatch in my days before writing--I talked a man out of going to the other room to get the gun to kill himself. The things he was saying to me didn't even make sense...maybe things were no longer making sense for your neighbour. By the way, thanks for stopping by my blog.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

Wow.

Words fail me.

Yasmine Galenorn said...

Has it really almost been a year? I'm glad you've moved beyond blaming yourself--for anything. You did everything you could at the time, Vicki. If somebody is determined to end their life, nobody will be able to stop them--if you'd stopped him (somehow) then, it would have happened later.

Go sit by the water, listen to the gulls, say a final farewell to him at the inlet and let go. He did, now it's time for you to.

Hugs,
Yasmine

Within Without said...

Words almost fail me, too, Bibi.

But that does no good.

I salute you for your caring and your insight into who he was, based on what you COULD know.

And your honesty about your own feelings and regrets after he killed himself.

There is nothing you can possibly blame yourself for here. All you can do is know what you have said, that you would have helped if you could.

But you could not.

In the absence of that, you felt for this man. And that's all he could hope for and all you can do.

They say 30 per cent of the population is depressed. I think all we can do is try to understand that and have some empathy for them, or at the very least respect them.

It appears you had some of both for this man, and some compassion. Those are good, meaningful things.

I appreciate you visiting my blog and invite you back again.

Kiyotoe said...

I know from experience that one of the hardest things to do is convince yourself that it wasn't your fault and that there was nothing you could do.

In my case, still don't know that i believe that all that much.

Lisa Goldstein/Kelly Kelly said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your neighbor. But this story is told incredibly well.

--kelly

Anonymous said...

Very touching story. My brother committed suicide 5 years ago. I wish he had been shown the same compassion and understanding that you show for your neighbor even though you did not really know him as a friend. Thank you. This helps me a bit to know that other people feel the same.

gincoleaves said...

Bibi, after reading this, I feel goose bumps all down my back. We are very quick to say "There's a weirdo living next door" I am very quilty here, because people act so strangely, and we have to respect their privacy, and leave them be.
But in your case, the neighbourly contact between the two of you - obviously meant something to him.
What a story! Thanks for sharing that with us all. :-)

Bibi said...
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Bibi said...

Thanks everyone for your feedback.

I'm sure you're right 'writing muse'!

Ultra toast, seems words failed us too.

Yazza, 2 years! … you know us writers...the mood suddenly grabs to write about something/someone and sometimes you need space betwen an event and writing about it. Last Xmas was Danny's suicide ;-/ another waste of life. But again, his choice.

Within without - do appreciate your kind words and sentiments. And you're even shaven! (You'll have to check out his blog to understand that.;-)

Kiyotoe, maybe with time. Don't be hard on yourself. Other situations taught me you can't save anyone from themselves,even though we still try!

Thank you, thank you Kelly and Ginocleaves...you're right, too easy to label people. And Anon, if this story helped even a little, then I'm glad. Hugs.

MSUgal86 said...

WOW! Incredibly well written. Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

So beautifully written that I picture him without ever having seen him. This is so sad but at the same time is very enlightening. My best friend killed herself when we were 22 and I have never really gotten over it. Thank you Bibi for sharing this story.