See thy neighbour: A story of loneliness
Fiona Hyde writes about loneliness, and being unmoored in your own life…
My sister told me recently that she had been reading some research that showed you should buy a house in an area that is “within your means”. If you buy a doer-upper and end up living in an affluent area when you’re on a bang average salary, apparently (according to the shadowy boffins that prop up many a teetering column inch) it can make you feel angry and sad and discontented. Less-than. Always and forever less-than. A dream house that will rot your real mind and maybe even ruin your little less-than life.
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Our material surroundings and who is next door, literally or metaphorically, affect us more than we truly comprehend, I think. Community, solidarity, but there goes the neighbourhood. We’re more like moulting captive animals in the zoo than we would like to believe. Fish in a pond meets hamsters on a wheel. Not our type of people, dear, or at least not in my back garden. Anxious, jealous primates in nothing like turn-key condition ourselves, running our knuckles along the bars though the door is wide open.
Anyway, sorry. I promise this isn’t me rambling or self-indulgently mixing animal metaphors for a thousand words. It’s a simple story really, all about my silent neighbour Phil. I’ll grip up.
Me and Phil. Rest assured we both live within our means, which are fairly limited in a relative sense. At least I think they are. He sells stuff, I’m pretty sure. To be honest I’m not too up on how lucrative the side selling of contraband is these days, in terms of bumping up his overall take-home pay. I don’t think it’s a line of work traditionally associated with income bands or tax credits or diversified pension funds. That said, I haven’t asked him. So, what the fuck do I know about it?
I can’t remember when I saw him for the first time, which is what us fools always say. But really, it seems like he’s always lived in the flat across the courtyard from mine. His little balcony faces my own – separated by the narrow car park of our apartment complex, a few hundred metres across from me, but right at the same level. He spends a lot of time on that balcony, presumably because he smokes a lot of stuff out there, or perhaps he’s trying to get some air or else just get away from whatever is inside.
A few years ago, I would sit out there a lot at night alone. He used to be out there across the way, alone too. A weird, gloomy mirror. I would sit on the red wooden deck chairs I got for half nothing in IKEA and smoke and stare into space or text my friends or think and listen to my headphones, or whatever other nothing, nothing, nothing I could fill up my precious but frequently wasted free time. I was trying to get free from the job and life I hated, but without leaving my balcony.
I knew I felt sad, but I’ve always sort of felt sad. I wasn’t sure if this was unusual sad, or just the regular sad. Either way, it didn’t matter much. I wasn’t going to do anything proactive about it. Nights were the same, over and over. Joy was thin on the ground. I had started to worry my friends, even while hiding the worst. All the good stuff.
I forged a relationship with him in my mind – and because I’d like to think I’m soft and empathetic, despite all the firm evidence that actually I’m lousy and careless – I started to feel quite fond of him.
One day I tweeted: “The most ‘man in his twenties thing ever’ is the guy living across the way from me has a camping chair as garden furniture on his flat’s balcony.” A flippant throwaway line at his expense, trying to neuter our connection. But I was the joke, right? I thought he was my friend, for God’s sake. Well. Not really a friend. A silent companion. A surly uncommunicative co-conspirator who just hadn’t yet received our mission’s dossier.
Some nights I would drift and the only sounds would be distant cars and slamming doors, the buzzer clicking and gate opening. I would watch the lights coming on in a circuit around the building across from me, watch them dance on and off like a cabaret show for one. I idly guessed a switch was blown somewhere, or if it was meant to go one by one, one by one. One stairwell, then another. I sat on my small deckchair and thought about the possibility of memorising the order of those automatic lights. I imagined learning the sequence off, then surprising someone with it. Someone who might one day come to visit the balcony. I thought it might impress them.
Phil always stood to the side, with a low cap on staring at his phone. My eyesight is bad, and it’s rude to stare. As a result of these factors, but also because he mostly existed in my mind, it would have been difficult for me to pick his face out of a line-up. And hey, it was dark. We sat or stood opposite one another for years, in the quiet of the otherwise mostly deserted dark courtyard of the complex, and I couldn’t see his face, and I didn’t know his name, and I couldn’t be sure if he ever even noticed I was there. But he was my friend. I didn’t need him or anyone else to tell me that. I knew it.
Of course, I can tell as you’re reading this, you’re diagnosing me as chronically and potentially irreparably lonely. Yes. Thinking about it while writing this story, I admit I came to the same conclusion about my former self. Alright, yes. Out with it. What kind of person, ostensibly in the prime of her life, spends evenings believing that the young man across the apartment’s gorge is her silently complicit and mutually fond quasi-friend, despite the fact they’ve never exchanged pleasantries? I don’t think I understood how increasingly unmoored I was or how frustrated I had become. I never thought or said the crystallised, painful words: “I am so lonely”. But surely it’s how I must have felt.
I wondered what he thought about me. If anything. Phil. Did he notice me? It did occur to me that my feelings towards him were kind of strange, rooted in absolutely nothing. I cared about him, while wanting absolutely nothing from him – not a single conversation or hello. And yet when I walked into the courtyard coming home from work or nights out or trips out shopping, without thinking I would glance to my right once I opened the gate. I would turn, looking up to his balcony to see if he was there. Usually I wouldn’t even need to look, because the pungent stink of weed would inform me, but still my neck and head jerked like strange clockwork, up and right, up and right, every time, to check for him.
It’s not like I wanted to be his real friend. Actually I hated the idea of it. He was too young. Presumably we had nothing in common except our location. But I felt comforted by knowing he was there, a constant failsafe, a moody and lurking shadow. A comforting, wordless, utterly blank presence that shapelessly confirmed I was alive by appearing each night. Like dropping a penny down a well. I wondered often if he’d miss me if I stopped appearing.
When he wasn’t there for a few days, I noticed and felt something approaching worry.
Sometimes I’d think about how weird it would be to find out a total stranger viewed you as their friend, or felt fondly for you, worried about your absence. Imagine, I thought. Imagine if he found out that I call him “Across The Way Guy” and hope he gets access to his kid, the one that used to come around but stopped.
(Imagine, too, he knew I was writing this. Could probably be used as bolstering documentation for a restraining order. Sorry Phil. Sorry that I’m like this.)
That autumn, I moved away to travel. I told my friend who moved into my flat. “That’s Across The Way Guy,” I said. That’s my nickname for him. I didn’t know he was Phil at the time. “He’s always out there. Once he had a rollover and some girls came onto the balcony in blankets. He used to have a toddler and girlfriend visit but then they stopped. We only spoke once, when a woman crashed her car down there, about one sentence each I’d say. We thought she might be drunk. Then we both said nothing more and went inside. I don’t know his name, but I want him to be okay.
I wonder if Across The Way Guy will notice when I leave. I wonder if he thinks about me at all. I guess what if I’m just like one of the other forgettable, non-playable characters who don’t matter out there on their balconies? Who all come outside and must have lives of their own, but they aren’t Phil. Do I matter to him? To anyone? To myself?”
I’m prone to going on a bit, and I’m not a great listener, so I can’t remember what my friend replied. Maybe I never even said it to him. Actually, come to think of it: I didn’t. I never told him at all. I just made all of that up.
I realised my life wasn’t where I wanted, although I didn’t know what I needed. Just that I didn’t have it. I quit my job, I gave over my flat to my friend, and I went away travelling. I forgot entirely about Phil and tried instead to remember some things about myself.
Glorious island sunsets, and filthy beaches covered in plastic, and hot days spent without speaking, the stone arteries of Bangkok motorways rising above tarpaulin-covered food markets, carrying bags like a mule, growing my hair stupidly long and crying, staring at the ceiling of hostel a bunk bed wondering if, or when, or why. Following a man and being let down. Of course. Doing everything alone always and doing what I wanted without a second thought ever.
Many weeks and months passed, then I came home again.
I came home, back to my life, back to Phil.
He was still there, sitting on the balcony where I’d left him. I had a strange moment, the first night I went to sit out there alone, drinking and listening to music. I saw him there and I nearly started to cry. Pain and pressure rose and squeezed hard against my ribcage and every bone in my limbs itched with the need to jerk around. Everything was exactly the same as it was! Nothing had changed, here or anywhere. My life hadn’t started. How stupid was I?
It had merely been paused, and I was back to where I left off.
A rising sense of surreal panic entered the corners of my vision and focus frayed, and I feared I had invented travelling entirely. Phil sat there oblivious. In the time since I had been away, he had taken to standing with his back to the courtyard, as if he’d given up looking outward altogether. Facing into his own apartment, blinds obscuring its insides. The camping chair was gone. I wondered where. Now he sat on his hunkers.
I wondered if he noticed I was back, or if he thought about where I’d been. I had disappeared for months and returned with a tan. Surely that warranted a bit of thought, Phil. Turn back around and face me. Look at me. Think about me. See me. Have I changed? I’m not sure who I was talking to any more, or who exactly I thought had let me down.
And oh, but then my optimistic imaginings were dashed, in the most boring and flat little way possible. In the month or two after I got home, I started seeing this new guy. He was nice, and I told him about my travels, about my plans, and – naturally, in an attempt to appear as balanced and stable as possible – all about Across The Way Guy. But he surprised me. He told me that once we were walking across the courtyard, Across The Way Guy caught his eye, looked at him and me together, and then winked. He winked!
I will confess to feeling confusingly betrayed. Winking indicates that Across The Way Guy viewed himself as instantly aligned with the man I had brought into our domain. It was them against me, despite all me and Across The Way Guy had been through together. I passed this over in my mind and found that speaking about him out loud was disappointing, because there was nothing to say. A betrayal of nothing in that wink, but only how I’d seen things, and the reaches I was willing to take to make sense of things. Place meaning onto shadows standing across from me, to create a world in which I was not alone. In which connection was just in my eyeline, and easy.
I wonder if he’d notice that eventually that man stopped appearing with me on the balcony, the man he’d winked at. I went back to being alone. Did he realise that their disappearance meant another relationship had failed for me? Did he see when a new man would arrive, then laugh when he clocked that they stopped? Did he think any of them were suitable for me, or could he call my failures sooner than I could, even half in the dark from across that courtyard, did he bet on the duration or did he stand witness to terse conversations and burgeoning arguments and intone the time of death? Did he?
I started to find out a bit more about Across The Way Guy, like what he looked like and that his name was Phil. Phil. I saw him selling stuff on the road outside our building one day. He told another man on another balcony his name, and it was reported back to me. His little kid came back for visits a few times, then with more regularity. I learnt the kid’s name too. Sometimes in bed, I could hear them playing football in the carpark beneath our two apartments, and they sounded happy. Their shouts and laughs floated into my bedroom through the empty balcony. It’s the most I ever heard him speak.
A new girl appeared, and she smoked stuff too, but didn’t appear in the balcony half as much as he did. He’s still there. He’s sitting facing the wall out there as I write this, and he’d be there later tonight if I went out alone to close my eyes and think. To be alone but still observed, noticed but sealed off. He’s there. But I don’t need him so much any more.
We’re all in this together, whether we know or not. Living without our means, more- or less-than, gazing at what horizon we’re afforded from our bedrooms. Me and Phil. You and someone.
Do you understand that someone you don’t know and will never speak to – do you understand that they could still wonder all about you, and watch over you calmly at nighttime, and want you to be okay? It’s true. They care about you. They hope for you. Maybe they even love you. That’s not a strong possibility, it’s a fact.
Turn back to face your mute partner, then yourself. I’m not waiting for another Phil. Not anymore. I’m waiting for the perfect night to memorise those lights. Wink, wink.
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash