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I’m staring, which is something I don’t make a habit of. Eye contact typically invites people into conversations, and I’m not a fan of chit-chat. I stand in the doorway with an awkward pause, like I’m unfamiliar with waving as an appropriate means to say hello. My pause before I answer her is a pace too long, and the situation is somewhat uncomfortable as I stand there waiting for her to offer up more information. More importantly, I want to know why she’s knocking on my door, and I hope it’s not so we can get to know each other.
Since several more seconds pass without further exchange, I finally cave in and offer myself up. “Hey, I’m Ethan,” I say wanting to keep it simple. I don’t want to get sucked into a conversation with her, but I don’t want to be rude, either. She can tell I’m a little put out with her presence, so she gets right to the point. The last thing I need is an overly perky neighbor who thinks we’re “pals.”
“Sorry, I was just having trouble getting a window open. It’s going to be a hot one, you know, and I don’t have the electricity turned on yet. They want some freaking deposit since I don’t have a credit history. It’s like, ‘Hello, I’m living in a crappy house, in a crappy neighborhood. If I had good credit, I wouldn’t be living here.’ Anyway, I want to get the window open to get air moving through, and I think it’s painted shut. I don’t want to be all ‘damsel in distress,’ but I can’t pry the darn thing open…”
My thoughts trail off and I realize this is the most anyone has said to me in years. Perky girl is still talking, but I’m continuously distracted by her mere presence and the fact that her chest spills over the top of her tank. She’s pretty cute, but I try not to dwell on her appearance as lustful thoughts won’t lead anywhere good.
“So you think you could come help me?” I know I missed some information in there, but I’m not going to ask for clarification or for her to repeat it.
“Sure, no problem.”
I follow behind her, but at a safe distance. I don’t want the offer of my help and me being polite to some girl mistaken for flirting. It sounds conceited, but it’s happened before. It’s better not to give them any sense of false hope. I mind my own business and live my life; today will be no exception. She shows me the window in question, and sure enough, it’s painted shut. I roll my eyes at the incredibly inept and lazy maintenance people for doing a half-assed paint job.
“Um, I’ll be right back. I’ll have to get something to cut this open.” I turn to head out her front door, but she stops me.
“Oh, wait. Like a box cutter? I have one of those. I think the maintenance people left it here by mistake.” She rummages in a kitchen drawer then presents me with a paint covered box knife. As I work the window, she asks me several questions related to the area. My answers are succinct since I’m not really receptive to the Getting-to-Know-You game. The “Twenty Questions” moderator doesn’t get the hint though, and keeps on with the game. “So, how long have you lived here?”
“A few years.”
“Do you know many of the neighbors?”
“I don’t talk to the neighbors much, so I don’t know anything about them.” I’m hopeful my continued shortness helps her get the hint that I’m not interested in a conversation.
“Wow, you’re pretty quiet, huh?”
“So, what do you do for fun?”
I’m caught off guard by her question. I can’t recall when I’ve had fun, so I’m not sure how to respond. I stand up straight, rolling my shoulders back and craning my neck in a stretch, attempting to buy a little time for my answer. While I don’t particularly care what this girl thinks of me, I don’t want to come off like a total loser, either.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean to pry. I’ve bothered you enough this morning. You’ve been so nice, helping me out and all. I’m gonna…” she trails off and I go back to working the window, popping it open a few seconds later.
“I’ll see you around,” I tell her, raising the window to its fully open state. She quickly dismisses me with another small wave, and I leave to go back to my own little corner of the earth. Despite the fact that I’ve been in her unit for less than five minutes, it doesn’t escape my notice that there’s no furniture or a TV, just a mattress on the floor of her bedroom. Maybe the moving truck with her stuff hasn’t arrived yet, I think to myself. In the back of my mind, I know there isn’t more stuff coming. People like us don’t have stuff or the need for moving trucks.
I’m lying in bed, thinking about the stupid question she asked me. “What do you do for fun?” How could such a simple question send me into a tailspin?
That’s when I hear a whimper. It’s been a while since anyone’s lived next door, and the last guy who lived there was never home, so I’m used to quiet. The walls are thin in apartments like this, cheaply built and economically priced rental units. Much expense was spared in their construction. I’m certain we share no more than a few two-by-fours and two slabs of sheetrock as the wall. It doesn’t provide any more privacy than that found between bedrooms in the same home instead of two separate residences. I turn my head, thinking it will improve my ability to discern what I think I’m hearing. It doesn’t, but then I hear muted sobbing. That can only mean one thing – new neighbor girl is crying. I turn away, wanting the sound to stop; I don’t want to be involved.
The next morning shows no signs of life from my neighbor, but that’s no surprise. The noise coming from her side of the duplex kept me up well into the night, so I’m sure she’s sleeping in. I, on the other hand, take part in my free exercise routine – running. I do this early in the morning for two reasons: one, I avoid those who may feel the need to hassle me for money. They are not early risers, as hassling is a mid-morning and post-lunch activity. Two, it gets hot as fuck here in the summer, and running in 105 degree temperatures is just stupid.
I crest the hill on my street, nearly completing my three miles, and see her setting out the trash. New girl is looking around nervously, probably in hopes of going undetected since she’s barely dressed in her tiny shorts and tank top. It’s not leaving a whole hell of a lot to the imagination, and my mind wanders as I catch a glimpse at her ass. I see her throw a couple of empty boxes to the curb then turn and rush inside. I’m close enough that I can see the blackened bottoms of her feet as she scurries inside, then wonder how often she goes without shoes.
A few days pass before I see her again as I return from my run. This time she’s leaving a few plastic grocery sacks out for the trash. Once again, she’s dressed in the same tank and shorts she wore on Sunday. After my cool down stretch, I make my way inside and gather my things to shower. Only then does it occur to me that I haven’t heard the water turn on in neighbor girl’s unit at any point since she moved in, not even a toilet flush. The only sound I hear from her side of the wall is the crying each night. I recall her statement about not having electricity. I’m guessing she doesn’t have the water turned on yet, either.
A knot forms in my stomach.
Don’t get involved. Keep things simple. Take care of yourself!
I can’t help it and walk out my door, knocking on hers seconds later. It takes a moment before I realize I’m only wearing my shorts, but it’s too late. She opens the door a crack and eyes me.
“Ethan,” she greets, and then opens the door a little wider, looking around cautiously.
“Yeah. What’s up?” She’s smiling again, just like when we met.
“I noticed that you, um…don’t have electricity yet, and you don’t have water either, huh?” She bites the inside of her cheek nervously.
“No.” Her reply is so small, just like she is, and I can tell she’s embarrassed.
“Come on,” I say, motioning for her to follow me. “You can shower and wash your clothes at my place. I pay a flat fee for the water, so you using it won’t cost me any more money.”
Don’t get involved. Keep things simple. Take care of yourself!
It’s too late, though. I’m already involved. It’s no longer simple, and for the first time ever, I’m offering to care for someone other than myself.
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