I thought I’d left my college sweetheart behind me, but it wasn’t until he moved in right next-door that my healing truly began.
Watching the slow creep of the blood moon this past April was one of several recent events I experienced with my ex. We shared that magical moment because, over a decade after our breakup, he moved in next door. Right. Next. Door. In Los Angeles — population: 3.8 million — he and his girlfriend randomly chose the apartment overlooking the sanctuary my husband and I have called home for five years.
On an early fall afternoon in 2012, I’m with my husband Ben and my best friend Katie at the Santa Monica farmer’s market. It’s typical Los Angeles weather — sunny and seventy-two. Katie and I are happily chatting, going straight to the heart of everything with a generous sprinkling of inside jokes. Katie, apropos of nothing, asks if I’ve recently run into my ex, Nate (not his actual name). I answer “No.” Just then, he walks right by us wearing the same high black socks with shorts he often sported back when we were together. (I’m pale-skinned, so black socks on fleshy calves are never a consideration; consequently when we dated, I was intrigued by this exotic dark-sock-wearing ability.)
Nate and I have seen each other occasionally over the decade since we’d broken up, but it has been a while. Things are cordial. Run-ins, generally at mutual friends’ parties, were at first loaded, then progressively not. We’d casually share a laugh as I peppered him with questions about family, work and friends. I’m generally more social and hardly noticed I carried the lion’s share of the inquisitiveness. (I’d started carrying that load back when we were together.)
This time, at the farmers market, my stream of inquiries — “How is work?” “How are you parents?” “Your sister?” “What’s new?” — leads to a casual mention that he and his girlfriend are moving into a new place. “Whereabouts?” I ask, since we live in L.A., a town ruled by geography. The cross streets he answers with are alarmingly close to mine. I think, “No, this cannot be,” but only say, “What’s the address?” The house number is unbelievably close to mine. Not satisfied with the address alone, I describe the particular two-story apartment building I think he’s moving into. “I don’t know,” he laughs “My girlfriend picked it out. I’ve barely seen it enough to remember what it looks like.”
Still, I feel increasingly sure. Sure in the same way I’d been when I first saw him, only this time, I was certain it was all a cosmic joke.
* * *
I don’t let on that we are going to be direct neighbors. I leave it at a vague, “Oh, I live very near there…” Maybe I’ve misunderstood, or maybe they won’t actually move. As we walk away, Ben, who never showed an ounce of jealousy and, in fact, seemed to forget who this ex was every time we’d seen him, says, “We were planning on moving anyway.”
Ben’s reaction takes me by surprise. We’ve talked about moving before, but I thought it was mostly theoretical. I love our quaint and cozy home, our beachy Santa Monica location, the clarifying sea breeze, the view of green trees year round, the grey wooden façade of a building across the way with a high red barn door. Ben, less sentimental, is always thinking of ways to improve our financial nest egg and has been toying with the idea that we sell. It’s a debate we go back and forth on, but I fall on the side of staying put and thought he agreed.
“This is our neighborhood,” I answer. “Let them find someplace else to live.”
* * *
Nate and I started dating our senior year in college and stayed together for over two years after graduation. He was tall, dark and handsome with the kind of strong jawline that men grow into. While he leaned towards the sciences, I leaned towards the humanities. He was a Republican with Libertarian tendencies; I was a staunch Democrat. We connected over an African art history class and an enthusiasm for things outside our experiences. One of our first dates was a trip to New York City to take a class in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. He was enthusiastic, kind, and had a quirky sense of humor that I shared. He once gave me a beautifully crafted card that opened into a paper cut-out of a Victorian house labeled in letterpress: Victorian Gothic. He hand-wrote “House Party” underneath, so it read “Victorian Gothic House Party” and drew dozens of stick figures all over the house, hanging out of windows, dancing on the roof, retching on the lawn, generally having a rager.
When I first saw him freshman year, I told my roommate, in an uncharacteristically public declaration, “There’s the boy I’m going to marry.” I mentioned this to him once we got serious our senior year, and he misunderstood that to mean I had spent the past three years establishing a Voodoo shrine to him. I assured him nothing tangible like that existed, and that I just knew we would be together eventually. I didn’t have to make it happen, it would simply be. And, in good time, that was pretty much how it went.
I was full of steadfast trust in everything then. I believed in God, my intuition, fate, security, a plan. I believed strongly in an idealized version of adulthood in which I would marry my college sweetheart — this outline tracked both my mother’s and my two older sisters’ lives — and in which grief was kept at bay in perpetuity. It was years into our relationship before I realized I was playing out a through line I didn’t even realize existed. My mother had also said “There’s the boy I’m going to marry” when she saw my dad for the first time at seventeen. They were together for forty-five years.
* * *
A week after the encounter at the farmers market, on an unseasonably hot Sunday, I spot a truck emblazoned with his parents’ manufacturing company’s name ahead of me, parked at the bottom of the hill that takes me home nearly every day. I’m coming from a formal afternoon event, dressed up. As I drive down the block to my house, there they are: Nate and his dad unloading a piece of furniture — a dresser I recognize from his parents’ house.
I stop to say hi. I’m not going to be the only one of us forced to carry the knowledge that we are now neighbors.
Nate and his father, an ex-fireman, are drenched with sweat. Their rueful dabs at their wet shirts confirm a bit of bashfulness about their disheveled selves. I feel completely confident. Let them think I look picture-perfect all the time. So effortless!
As soon as I get out of the car, we all laugh. This manner of meeting is too absurd — and they still only know half of the reality. I ask, innocently, “So which apartment is your place?” even though the sense of surety I had at the farmers market has only increased. He points. “Oh, that one—?” More laughing. Laughing had always come easily with us. “Look,” I say, pointing at my front door, clearly visible from his driveway. “That’s my front door.”
Their big friendly dog bounds up to us, followed by his girlfriend, Julie (not her real name), in jeans, a baseball cap and T-shirt. It could be the effects of a long, hot day of moving, but she really doesn’t seem pleased to meet me.
As we chat, I hear myself saying, “We’ll have to have you over to welcome you to the neighborhood,” and then wish I could take the words back before they’re even out of my mouth. I don’t want them inside my apartment any more than they want me inside theirs.
* * *
Despite the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, our quiet Santa Monica neighborhood is full of low, small apartment buildings and single-family homes. My second-floor condo looks directly over a fence at his. There’s about twenty-five feet of space between his back porch and my door.
Here’s the lay of the land:
Imagine a couple in bed lying back-to-back on their sides, their bottoms and feet touching. We abut each other. His porch, bathroom and even bedroom overlook where I park, where I walk up the stairs to my apartment, and where I enter my front door.
It’s not clear to me why I feel he’s become the newly appointed prison warden of my life, but I do feel there are some things I can no longer do: casually run out to our garbage cans directly below his porch in unbuttoned shorts, an old T-shirt and no bra (message: I’ve given up); come home from a run with a tomato-red face (semaphore: I’m massively out of shape); open or close my front door without hearing the snap of the lock magnified across the yard (invitation: here’s my schedule — write it down, why don’t you?); sing with abandon while pulling into my parking spot (implication: I’m a showoff); feed the neighborhood bunny who regularly visits for food (allusion: I’m Snow White); wear clickety-clacky heels (innuendo: I’m a sexy attention grabber); yell up from the car if I forget something (memo: I’m both loud and forgetful); talk to anyone outside, ever (dispatch: I exist).
When my friends come over they’re aghast at how close our apartments are. They say, “You said he was next door, but I didn’t understand.”
* * *
Soon after my new neighbors move in, Hurricane Sandy hits the East Coast, and the New York Marathon is cancelled. The news brings me back to when my ex ran the New York Marathon our senior year of college. We took the train from New Haven to Manhattan and stayed on a pullout couch in a friend’s spacious Chelsea apartment, which he shared with an artist. The place had a warehouse-sized room for her art, including a wagon-wheel mixed media piece made from used tampons.
The harsh electric light was bright when the phone rang that evening. I knew what the call was as soon as I picked up. It was my dad telling me my grandfather had died. His voice on the line was clear and reassuring. My dad was exactly who I wanted to hear from right then. My mom had just lost her own father, but mine was still there to be our rock. He was an amazingly loving and unwavering parent and already a grandfather himself to my nine nieces and nephews.
Just a year later, he too would be gone, but over the phone that day I remained his little girl. My ex held me all night on that pullout couch while I cried and felt guilty for keeping him awake the night before the big race.
I remembered my parents running the New York Marathon together when I was four. I sat wrapped in a blanket on the bleachers near the finish line with my grandmother. My grandfather, the one who had just died, must have been there, but he would have been making friends with the people working the race. We watched my parents cross the finish line together. I understand better now what it meant that they had trained together; that my dad, nearly a foot taller than my mom and already a marathoner, proudly matched her pace. Would Nate and I run together, too? That day I discovered the metallic paper used to keep runners warm after the race. I loved taking it out later at home and feeling its crisp thinness. It was strong yet fragile in a way that was both mesmerizing and unsettling. Pull it one way and it keeps you warm; pull it another and it breaks.
A year after Nate’s New York Marathon, and two weeks before I left for Dublin to run my own marathon, which was to be held despite its own hurricane-like conditions, my dad died. I called Nate, still my boyfriend, throughout that day and got only the answering machine.
My blind faith in a well-intentioned universe blossomed in that first true love. We were head over heels and blissful for just over the first year and a half of our relationship, but we only spent about thirteen of thirty-six months in the same place. After graduation, I moved to Los Angeles and he enrolled in graduate school in Virginia, across the country. He stayed there for the summer after his first year of law school at a time when he could have chosen to take a job in L.A. That was the first crack in the foundation, a moment I started shouldering more of the burden of the relationship. The next year he transferred to Stanford, but even in the same California time zone, we started to flounder. He found his work stimulating while I had a thankless job in film that required massive commitment but little intellect. I relied on him for fulfillment I wasn’t getting elsewhere: I needed us more than he did. He gradually withdrew, as I grew smaller and smaller until I finally admitted I couldn’t exist in that state anymore. The breakup was mutual by the time it happened in his third year of law school, but essentially we split because he’d fallen out of love with me. I found this incomprehensible. No one had ever stopped loving me: love, once shared, was permanent.
Anyone who’s had his or her heart broken knows the ache. But it wasn’t simply the breakup that left me reeling. The deaths of my grandfather and father were followed soon by the deaths of my grandmother and uncle within two years of our breakup. All these losses could have been bearable, except that I was shaken to my foundation by the fact that life not only hands you abandonment by death, but abandonment by choice. I was shell-shocked. I lost my bearings, my faith and my appetite.
At my father’s funeral, my sister-in-law pulled me aside and told me, “Your dad was so happy to see you in love.” I started to say something about how he liked Nate, who was there at the funeral, and she corrected me. “No, it was about you, not you with Nate. He was just happy he got to see you in love.” My dad knew that our young love might be transient. He knew the future I was imagining for myself then might not actually become a reality. He also knew that the future I could not yet see would be the better one.
I didn’t date seriously for five years until I met my future husband, who confidently and generously reminded me what it meant to have faith in love, to believe again in my intuition, to trust in someone else and in the future.
* * *
The day after my ex-boyfriend’s move, a dog cries mournfully in my neighborhood. The incredibly sad whine is persistent enough that I step to the window to pinpoint where it’s coming from. It seems to come from multiple directions. Finally, it dawns on me: It’s Nate’s dog. I look across to his porch and lock eyes with hers. She looks like she hasn’t just been crying, but I know she has. She is disoriented and unsure if the people who love her are coming back. I can’t ease her suffering. But it hits me that I can, in fact, ease my own. I can still nurture the once starry-eyed girl, the same girl who spent years weighted by grief, who reappeared, uninvited, at my doorstep when the past moved in next door. This turn of fate that left me vulnerable to buried emotions could serve a purpose. It could allow me to let go of lingering layers of loss. Time to tell the wounded girl inside she was okay; she had mourned enough.
* * *
I’m getting out of my car and I hear dishes clinking and light laughter. My new neighbors are making dinner. In my parking space I’m naturally hidden from their sight by a fence and heavy layer of morning glories draped over the trees. I linger long enough to turn my insides over once, which is, I feel, totally practical of me. Aren’t I just learning the boundaries of our worlds? How much can I tolerate? When will this become just another insignificant neighborhood noise?
I go inside feeling aggravated that I am bothered at all and guilty that by simply having a past I have somehow brought this intrusion into the life my husband and I share. It feels immature to be upset by it, as if I am wrestling with my younger self.
I apologize to Ben, not for the first time, that my ex had moved in next door. He gives me a hug.
* * *
Notwithstanding my feeling that they could be watching or listening at any time, Nate and I don’t actually see each other for about ten months. He and his girlfriend put out planters with cords running from the deck to the roof of the porch. Vines should have sprouted along the cords to block the view between our places, but they never grow.
When we eventually end up outside at the same moment — Nate on his balcony, me in my driveway in a reverse Romeo and Juliet — I’m relieved to finally get the encounter over with. Ben is nearby, but out of sight working on my car. His being within earshot adds a level of self-consciousness to my end of the conversation. I imagine Julie is inside, probably able to hear us, too, and wonder if Nate feels the same way. Relieved that I’d bothered to change out of my pajamas and into a summery checked button-down before running outside, I stop when Nate waves. We catch up, much like at the farmers market — “How are you settling in?” “How are you parents?” “How’s your sister?” And at the end of the conversation I hear Nate say, “Well, we’d love to have you over sometime…” I’m certain he is willing those words back into his mouth as he says them just as I wished mine ten months ago. I know this is just something people say.
Nate goes about his business and I stick my head inside the car door, whispering to Ben, “Well, that was awkward.” What I mean is that it was awkward for me that he had to hear the conversation. What Ben hears is that I wish I’d handled it differently. And in classic husband-to-the-rescue fashion, he jumps to solve the problem before I realize there is one.
Inside, Ben lays it on me as diplomatically as possible: “You could have just waved and walked away. No need to stop and say hello.”
“That would have been rude,” I say. “And totally out of character for me.”
I thought it would have conveyed anger or resentment, and leaving that impression would have left me even more uncomfortable. I like for things to be copacetic.
“Saying hello had to happen sometime,” I say.
Ben simply would have handled it differently.
“Second,” he goes on, “there were a couple times when the conversation could have been over and you asked another question.”
Ah. I have no defense there. I fill in gaps with chatter. I make other people feel at ease, and I get stuck in conversations that I wish I could get out of. Ben has said it’s hard to tell, even for him, when I’m trapped because I always appear interested. He’s tried to get me to act like Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock, who, in order to get out of a tedious conversation, deadpans answering a fake cell phone to a ring that never happened. “I have to take this,” Donaghy says, pantomiming a phone with his extended thumb and pinky as he turns away speaking into his own fingers. I haven’t tested that strategy in an uncomfortable situation yet, but I’ve been meaning to practice.
In reality, I feel less trapped by running into Nate than by the constant possibility of engaging with him.
* * *
Just ten days after my little chat with Ben, I’m walking out of a movie at the Hollywood ArcLight Cinema, fifteen miles from home, when I hear a laugh I know and turn to find Nate and Julie walking next to me. We are all headed to our cars in the theater parking garage. I think Nate’s guffaw is prompted by spotting me in yet another unlikely encounter. Had I paused to talk to my cousin one minute longer after the flick, or chosen a different machine at which to pay the parking fee, we would have missed each other. But here we are.
Julie is bundled in a lightweight down jacket. They’ve walked far by L.A. standards to get back to their car from a philharmonic concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
“This is a ridiculous carpool situation,” I say, joking that we could have all driven in together.
I ask how the concert was, and we compare notes about the movie I’d seen. This is the most I’ve ever talked to Julie. I like her. She’s friendly and chatty, just like me.
* * *
Our neighbors are already sitting on their porch when we arrive home late from a night of bowling to watch the April 2014 blood moon. I see the outlines of Nate, Julie and their dog on the porch. I mention to Ben that they are already settled outside to view the eclipse, but without hearing me, he steps out on our balcony alone. Nate calls hello. Ben promptly comes back in. “Guess who’s outside,” he says, not really needing me to guess. I can see the appeal of the eclipse is rapidly waning for him. He just wants to watch the moon with his wife, not his wife and her ex-boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend.
It’s my turn to give him a hug. But I’m not going to be stuck inside any more.
I step on our balcony and shout over about the disappointingly sandy-colored moon: “It’s not nearly as bloody as I’d hoped!”
Nate calls back, “That’s exactly what my dad just texted me.”
We are connected and disconnected.
* * *
Freedoms have crept back into my daily life over the nearly two years we’ve been neighbors. I’m not compelled to look at their windows or porch when I drive into my own driveway. I don’t lower my voice when I’m talking outside anymore. Several times, in broad daylight, I’ve run down to my car un-showered in a nonsensical outfit. When I pull up to my home it doesn’t occur to me that my past is waiting above me to spy on its future. Ben and I talk at full volume outside.
My life and my marriage go on. The small business I own that provides workspace for writers in L.A. gathers steam. Ben takes a job at a company suited to his athleticism and entrepreneurial spirit. Though for years we had been perfectly content just the two of us, we start to feel ready to grow our family.
When I ask Ben if he is bothered anymore by my ex being next door, he posits a conspiracy theory beyond our control, saying simply, “It’s weird.”
But weird is now our normal. It’s become weirdly normal that we can hear when their shower is running or know when they have a dinner party. It’s become weirdly normal that when the baby Ben and I are expecting this fall arrives, our neighbors will overhear his or her cries.
A few months after the blood moon event, a dog barks at me as I drop some trash in the bins on my way to the farmers market. I can’t locate the dog barking, but also can’t blame it for doing so since I’m carrying a purse whose loose clasp rattles like a tinkling dog collar. I hear a friendly “Hello!” from beyond the fence and realize the bark is that of Nate’s dog, and he is with her out on his porch. I’ve heard barely a peep from that dog since the first day they moved in.
I’m nearly six months pregnant, only just out of the nebulous is-she-or-isn’t-she stage where I look generally thick about the middle without obviously expecting. Though I have become very used to knowing my ex could see me any time I walk outside, I still have enough vanity to want to shout during these past couple months, “Hey neighbor, I’m pregnant, not fat!”
“How are you?” Nate asks.
“Good! How are you?”
As we pause I wonder if I should have replaced, “Good!” with “Pregnant!” I guess my belly isn’t quite obvious enough to elicit unsolicited felicitations.
“What’s new?” he asks.
Here’s my opportunity to explain my expanding waistline.
“I’m pregnant!” I answer.
Nate offers sincere congratulations, and then we talk about the approach of his best friend’s wedding. I expect him to tell me he and Julie are engaged, in an I-share-my-happy-news-with-you-and-you-share-your-happy-news-with-me kind of mode. He doesn’t. And just like you never want to assume that someone who looks pregnant is pregnant, I don’t want to assume someone who should be engaged is engaged, so I don’t ask.
Turns out I was right. They are getting married. When I hear the news a few days later from a mutual friend, I am, happily happy. Happy for him, and happy to realize that our bifurcated futures can move forward — separately, but in a certain neighborly tandem.
Still, if anyone is interested in renting a condo in Santa Monica, ours is available. The neighbors are lovely.