On my way home from a networking event, I returned to my apartment and spotted a man leaning over the communal railing. He was smoking a cigarette and flicking the ashes into the courtyard below.
I offered a lighthearted, “Hey, I know you” greeting as I made my way up the stairs toward the halo of smoke. We’d first met a few weeks earlier when he knocked on my door to inform me that I’d left my keys dangling in the front door lock. The exchange was brief (OK, so I kinda slammed the door in his face) because conversations with strangers aren’t really my thing.
But the combined force of the pinot noir that I’d consumed at the mixer, plus my desire to salvage the evening with the possibility of a pleasant neighborly conversation seemed to override any lingering inhibitions.
And it was a very pleasant conversation. We chatted on that balcony for nearly an hour, occasionally straining to hear each other over the roar of every window air conditioner unit in the building.
While we talked, it was hard to overlook his bright blue eyes and faded accent, courtesy of spending the first ten years of his life in Britain before spending the next 25 in the States.
We officially started dating about a week later, and it was pretty awesome.
We didn’t need to have that awkward conversation about whether I could leave some of my things in his apartment because my apartment was only about eight feet away. If I left my cell phone at my place, I still never missed a call because I could usually hear it ring from his living room. (The walls were just that thin.) And we never had to listen to each other complain about all of the traffic we had to sit through en route to each other’s apartments on a Saturday night.
At first, we set some ground rules about maintaining our personal space, but those flew out the window pretty quickly. We’d often hang out on weeknights, and our actual dates usually took up the entire weekend: dinner out on Saturday evenings gave way to Sundays spent lingering over brunch and watching TV together. And on one sweltering Sunday afternoon, I knocked on his door to inform him that he was taking me on a day trip to a beach about an hour outside of town. We were roaring down the freeway about 15 minutes later. Dating my neighbor was like eating at a fast-food restaurant. Everything was quick and convenient.
But after about eight months I realized that this relationship had no chance of survival. I began noticing things that I wasn’t exactly comfortable with — like how those empty beer cans I’d often see in his trash had slowly started to multiply. And how the cans began to give way to vodka bottles.
We broke up, and my neighbor went to rehab a few weeks later. He moved out of our apartment complex shortly after he was discharged. We spoke on the phone once or twice over the next few months and then completely dropped out of each other’s lives.
The affair didn’t work out quite the way that I’d hoped, but at least I managed to learn a few things.
Space is a good thing.
Since this was a budding romance, we definitely shouldn’t have spent so much time together. It was fun in the beginning, but it ultimately led to partner fatigue. Unlike relationships with people who live farther apart, we would also run into each other at the mailboxes, in the laundry room, and even in the parking lot on our way to work in the morning. Especially when a relationship is in its earlier stages, too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.
Trust your instincts.
When your gut is telling you that something’s not quite right in a relationship, you should listen. I kept ignoring the empty beer cans, convincing myself that one beer in the evening did not an alcoholic make — even though there was ample evidence that he was drinking way more than one beer every night. The empty vessels mixed with what I now realize was intoxicated behavior should have compelled me to bail out much sooner.
Act like a grownup.
This break-up could’ve gotten real “Melrose Place” real quick. There was ample room for both of us to downshift into low-grade stalking and other creepy post-breakup activities. However, we both agreed early in the relationship to behave like adults if things went south — and luckily, we both stuck to our word.
Do things that scare you.
There was a lot of hesitancy and fear surrounding the idea of getting into a relationship with someone who lived so close to me. The what-ifs simply would not stop swirling around my head. What if we break up and I see him with another girl in his apartment? What if he starts harassing me? What if I have to move to get away from him? But in the end, I surmised that he probably wasn’t a serial killer, so I squelched the what-ifs and just jumped in.
And because I was willing to take a chance, I walked away from the situation with a better understanding of who I am. It turns out that I’m a lot braver than I thought was. I was strong enough to identify and remove myself from a bad situation AND to identify the traits that I would absolutely not tolerate in a life partner, which has served me well in subsequent relationships.
My time with my neighbor may have been fairly brief, but during those months, I think we actually gave each other exactly what the other one truly needed — a fun, easy relationship, and the knowledge that someone we cared for lived only a few feet away.