Love thy neighbor...
My life is a sitcom…and the most recent episode could be entitled the “Christmas biscotti incident”. The woman who lives in the apartment below mine is the caricature of the crotchety old woman who picks fights over nothing. We’ll call her E. since that is her first initial…which I have gleaned from her mailbox and not from our many teatimes together. When I moved in, I had envisioned that my relationship with E. might be a variation of a previous neighborly acquaintance I’d had with the lovely Jane when I lived in an artsy community near Boston proper. Jane was a woman of fiery intellect and sparkling blue eyes. She had an exotic past, gorgeous knickknacks and craft items from her travels to South America, Africa and Europe. My tea talks with Jane had been filled with stories of past travel adventures and torrid love affairs with foreign men.
E. was clearly different from the start. My introduction note: “Hi---I am your new upstairs neighbor Courtney---I hope you’ll feel free to tell me if I’m ever being too loud---I have a vacuum and a juicer but other than those items and a hair dryer I’m usually pretty quiet and try to be respectful and to keep common areas clean. I would love to have tea sometime…” went ignored. Finally---there was a sighting by the mailbox one wintry day. I offered to go grocery shopping for her if she needed me to pick up milk or bread…I was answered with a curt and dismissive… “My doctor says I need to walk.” I remember last year asking her during another rare sighting if she had plans for the holiday…”All of my friends and family are dead and in Heaven.” was the reply on that occasion. Thanks for sharing that tidbit of gloom. I missed Jane.
I left her a gift bag of biscotti for Christmas, with a little note… “Merry Christmas…from your upstairs neighbor, Courtney.” Didn’t think about her again until she leapt out at me one Spring day in the hallway to shriek at me that water was leaking from my tub down into her kitchen. The screaming tirade lasted a full five minutes with me nodding, apologizing and telling her that I would make the landlord aware of this grievous situation. She went on to tell me that I was a bad neighbor. Yes---because I live in an old apartment with leaky pipes and floors, I invite you to tea, inquire after your health, offer to do your shopping and leave you a Christmas gift---I AM SIMPLY AWFUL.
Lest you think…well…how sad that she is old, somewhat infirm, a shut-in with no friends or family (and apparently allergic to bathing) that she deserves pity and compassion…all I can say is that, I, too suffered from these rose-colored delusions for over a year. I turned the other cheek time and again, chalking her meanspiritedness up to loneliness, her bitterness up to poverty and her lack of hygiene to depression…wait for it. So I wrote her a note saying that she had no right to verbally attack me…I reminded her that I was not a bad neighbor and that what I had been trying to show her was not pity or charity (apparently she is a proud woman according to my landlord who has also had some verbal bouts with her) but simple human decency and good neighborly manners. She left it alone for awhile. I could hear her cough-barking through the walls from time to time…but I figured maybe we had a fragile, invisible, white-flag truce sort of thing happening. Oh, no—wait for it.
For me, this Christmas was a wonderful one…spent time with family and friends and I was hauling my Christmas booty and my tired booty (my 18-month old niece decided that 4am was a fun time to wake up and play at Nana and Papa’s house and since Auntie Coco was sharing the room with her we played ‘let’s try and break everything in sight’ until the rest of the fam woke up) upstairs as well as my laundry…juggling up four flights of stairs. On my doorstep was a little gift bag. How sweet---a peace offering I thought. But I was about to have a major déjà vu moment.
In the bag was biscotti and tissue. Attached to the bag was the note in my handwriting… “Merry Christmas…from your upstairs neighbor, Courtney.” It was the same bag I had given E. a year ago. Same tissue…even the same freakin’ BISCOTTI. Who does that? Who re-gifts your own gift to you a year later?! If she is diabetic and can’t eat sugar---give it back the same day with a ‘thanks but no thanks’ kind of note…or give it to someone else…hell, throw it away…But the petty and deliberate cruelty of that one little action spoke volumes. It was match, set, point---thanks for playing and F&** YOU! Clearly---it was a living lesson that with age---does not necessarily come wisdom.
After fuming and calling a friend to vent…I thought again how pathetic and sad this woman was to be so heartless and ungracious. My compassion and my fevered self-righteous rage surged and tried desperately to cancel each other out. I thought about how Ms. “My friends are all in Heaven” would be waiting a very long time for a reunion. I tried on and discarded revenge plots…Salsa CD at 3am---after all---I had to learn Latin dancing sometime…why not in the middle of the night? Letting the tub purposely overflow might be worth the sopping towels and annoying cleanup for the further water damage it could cause…but that would be punishing my landlord whom I actually like and get along with---so no sabotage outlet there, really. Plus---she’s kind of a night owl anyway so the salsa thing wouldn’t bug her either. So the high road it would have to be…again. I’m basically just telling myself that she’s not worth it…and the truth is---she really isn’t. If I squeeze my eyes tightly I can still see Jane’s apartment. Her cozy kitchen, I can feel the warm mug between my palms and hear the hum of the refrigerator and the Spanish guitar music emanating from her little countertop radio. That was a lovely neighbor relationship…the way it should be, I think…Not this stupid warfare of needling and calculated moves designed to make one feel ‘less than’. But I’ll have to remind myself not to take it personally. Because it may be many things---immature, passive aggressive, and contentious. But personal…well---clearly that’s the last thing she wants. And all I can do is respect that and give us both our own space. She has sent her signals loud and clear. Signals received. I can’t kill her with kindness. I can’t kill her with salsa or air fresheners in the hallway. Can’t kill her at all. But I guess teatime is out. And accepting that may be the best thing for both of us in the end. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year…biscotti anyone?