Not long ago on a clear summer morning, I left my townhouse in the city to go to work. Mine is the middle brownstone in a block long row of brownstones. Not precisely the middle - that would be my next door neighbours, two tall women; one has to be 6’4” but the shorter of the two is, nevertheless, impressively tall. Sometimes I’ll notice the two of them standing in the window, having their coffee and looking out at the mountains. But I try not to stare.
On the other side of them, two doors down from me, lives a fellow around my age and who, according to appearances, inhabits an overall situation similar to my own: works regular hours, five days a week; rides his bike on the weekends - a touring bike like mine; even cost about the same as mine (I looked it up). We’ve never said a word to each other; never so much as a ‘good morning’ when we cross paths going in opposite directions to our places of work.
On this particular day, it happened that he emerged from his abode at the precise same time as I did mine. We closed and locked our doors in perfect unison. I didn’t look over at him. I thought that if I did, he would look back at me and we would have to somehow acknowledge the synchronicity of the situation and I didn’t want that and I’m sure neither did he.
I hoped that he would start down the stairs first. I thought if I stalled for a moment, checking my pockets to make sure I had something I was going to require, that would allow him to get to the street ahead of me so that by the time I reached the sidewalk, he would have already passed by and we would thereby avoid the awkwardness of having to ignore each other. But then he, also chose to go into stall mode. I didn’t look directly at him but he was within my periphery and probably I was in his. I started down the steps as though I were in a hurry. I looked at my watch to convey that I was only hurrying because I was late and not because I was embarrassed by the similitude of our timing.
He took his time coming down the stairs, even whistled a nondescript tune so as to accent his nonchalance. I would have been long gone in the opposite direction had my phone not rang. But then it occurred to me the phone might be a useful distraction, But as I went for it, the damn thing slipped out of my hand. I deftly caught it with my other hand and said ‘hello’ twice before I realized, in catching it, I had inadvertently ended the call.
I stepped onto the sidewalk barely a beat after he did. A beat was all I could manage. I still had my phone to my ear so I used that to my advantage , speaking into it to no one on the other end: “oh, hi. Sorry I never got back to you.”
As he started up the sidewalk towards me, his eyes averted (as were mine), I stopped and turned to face the building, presenting a businesslike profile, in spite of there being no one on the other end of the phone. “uh huh, uh huh”, I spoke into it, looking up in the window of the two tall women just to see if they were there. They were. I guess it was their morning ritual to stand with their coffees, looking out at the mountains.
I waited until he was well up the street before I started off in the opposite direction. As I walked, I checked the call display to see who had called. It was the office. They left a voice message reminding me to bring a spreadsheet that had recently been e mailed to me. And so I stopped and considered what I had to do: go back, find the e mail, then print out the document and hopefully it wouldn't be necessary to replace my ink cartridge otherwise I’d really have a reason for looking at my watch.
After creating a timeline in my head that would get me to the office with time to spare, I turned around. There he was, coming towards me! He had obviously forgotten something and would be returning home for it. He was the same distance as I was to the middle townhouse belonging to the two tall women. I saw him see me. I wondered if the expression on his face was similar to my own when I saw him. I slowed my stride to a pace slower than what I estimated his pace to be; but that was hard to gauge being that I wasn’t looking at him.
I saw him stop and take out his phone and look at it as if to give the impression he'd just received a text. I quickened my stride as I’m sure he was hoping I would. Just then, I received a text, only mine was real. I resisted the urge to take my phone out. I resisted again when a second text came through; then another, immediately after that -the last one must have consisted of a single digit - I didn’t know anyone that fast with their thumbs.
I took my phone out while maintaining a brisk cadence. The first message was a long one and I found it difficult to read on the move. I got as far as “congratulations, you have just won a free cruise” when I walked into a tree. I brushed a piece of bark off my brow and cast a sidelong glance up the street to see if he had witnessed my little mishap. He had just put his phone away and was now putting on his sunglasses.
My sunglasses were in my pocket but I wasn’t about to put them on and appear like i was aping him. I didn’t need them. There was no embarrassment in my eyes I needed to shield. I began to feel resentful.
Someone had recently asked me if I’d ever head butted anyone. I’d never even imagined head butting anyone. Always seemed like a berserker kind of move. Until now. But the way things were going, he’d likely head butt me at the same time and we’d both wind up with twin concussions.
I thought of saying something, commenting on our matching false starts. Then maybe we could share a laugh, But he might be too socially awkward to even respond. ‘What a square’ I judged. I knew, even though we had a lot in common, we were two very different personalities. I probably had way more friends than he did. Perhaps befriending him would be a great kindness.
I thought of saying ‘you again’ with a playful smirk, but he was likely too dull witted to respond. Another move I considered was to turn and walk up his stairs before he got there. If that didn’t make him laugh, then he would be officially dead to me.
Our paths crossed in front of the middle townhouse. I assumed the two tall gals were still standing in front of the window, no doubt remarking on the goings on concerning their neighbours on either side of them. I’m sure they would have found it altogether weird. Or it might have tickled their Amazonian sensibilities. I decided I really didn’t care what they thought.
I found the spreadsheet file on my computer and printed it out. The ink cartridge seemed to be up to the task. I started for the door, but then I stopped, anticipating the sound of his door opening and closing. We put off communicating for too long to start now. We had no choice but to live out our lives in denial of each other’s existence. I took a deep breath and hurried out the door and down the stairs to the sidewalk. He was nowhere in sight. I rejoiced at having broken the pattern of coincidence. Yet I felt acutely dissatisfied with the here and now. As I started down the stairs It was as if something was pulling me back; some action I’d neglected to carry out due to my haste. I looked back and remembered that I hadn’t locked the door behind me. I sprinted back, giving my head a good clout for my lapse in mindfulness. As I ran back past the middle house, I could hear the tall women laughing. I looked and saw the shorter of the two jumping up and down and clapping. I gave them the finger and they laughed even harder. I got to my front steps and I could see that my door was wide open. I felt the weight of failure upon my shoulders, failure at having gotten my day off to its usual good start. I fretted that this could be a downhill turning point in my life. But I was determined to recover my pride and so I raced up the stairs. I got half way up when, two doors down, he emerged. Before he could plant his foot on the platform, I shouted, “Go back inside!” I tried not to sound angry; I wanted to make it sound like it was for his own good. I should have said “go back inside and turn on your TV!” But it didn’t matter because he retreated back into his townhouse and shut the door.
I closed my door and locked it. I took my time going back down the stairs. I kind of wished that I still smoked so that I could stop and light a cigarette before heading off to work. I got near to the end of the block when I realized I hadn’t walked past the middle house belonging to the two tall women. I was going in the wrong direction. I had no choice at this point but to laugh. As mirthless a laugh as I ever laughed in my stupid little life.