Cruising into the driveway on my commuter bike after work, I see that the new tenant has arrived—a red Nissan Xterra with DC plates, ski racks on top, and a license plate holder that reads shock, trauma team, when life is on the line. My adrenaline starts pumping; finally something exciting is happening. Calm down, I tell myself, you haven’t even met this person, it could be a girl. But my instincts tell me it’s not. It’s a guy, a guy who’s fun, maybe intense.
He’s standing at the edge of the driveway, reading Zagat’s, waiting for movers. I’m just back from the pool; it’s not even 8 a.m. He’s tall, goateed, a little dorkier than I’d hoped. His name is Adam; he’s 33, a doctor, and went to George Washington Medical School, where I got my undergraduate degree. It’s like my mom ordered him from a catalogue—boyfriend, husband, sperm donor. I want to get to know him anyway. He’s a former collegiate swimmer, he says, eyes as red as his car. He’s been up all night, driving, plus he’s got allergies. Nothing says dork like allergies.
I used to have allergies, asthma too, when I was young. My mom made me take horseback riding lessons so I could get over them. I used to sneeze in the car on the way to the stable. It’s all psychosomatic, she said. Experts say childhood asthma can be caused by your mother’s smoking when she was pregnant, like mine did.
It’s so exciting to meet Adam, it’s like I’m Eve. I could kiss him right now. I wish him good luck in getting settled and give him my number in case he needs anything—I am used to taking care of people.
On my way to work, he’s still outside, I leave him the remainders of my morning smoothie. He texts later, thanks for the delicious smoothie. I am pleased to get his approval. I hardly know him, but he clearly has standards.
The next day I leave Post-it notes on his door, listing my favorite restaurants, telling him the special at the car wash is on Tuesday and the locations of the good grocery stores. When I was ten my parents were having a custody battle over me and my mom told me to take some initiative and write to the court commissioner. It worked; writing stuff gets me noticed.
A few days later we pull into the driveway at the same time. Nice. I start unloading my car; he walks over. He’s wearing khakis and dress shoes, a button-down shirt. He looks young. We should have dinner sometime, he says. I agree. Sunday nights are good for me, he says. I’ve just been running in the Santa Monica Mountains. He says he’s a biker, a runner too; he’s been running on the beach path, but the surface is giving him plantar fascitis. I’m a massage therapist, I tell him, stretch your calves more. I’m an orthopedic surgeon in sports medicine; from now on I’m running on a treadmill, he says, dismissing me.
He follows up on the dinner idea, and I look forward to our plans the whole day, until he cancels at the last minute, and I hang up the phone and start crying. Something is wrong with me. Maybe I am getting my period. Maybe it’s good we didn’t get together tonight.
A few days later he calls to reschedule. He wants to go somewhere nice, but he wants to wear flip-flops. He wants to walk because he refuses to drink and drive. I wish he was interested in what I wanted to do.
I’m thin, wearing a black dress and a tan. I have a triathlon coming up, in Monaco, I tell him. Ooh la la, he says. He’s not easily impressed, but that’s okay, I like a challenge. I’ve made it my goal to get him to like me. I’ll just try harder. It’s like buying a present for my mother. She never likes anything I get her, but I keep wasting my money.
We walk down Main Street into the restaurant. He looks around, says he likes the place, says let’s split dinner—I don’t want to date you since you’re my neighbor. I feel a little sabotaged, he invited me and was the one who wanted to go to a fancy restaurant, now he doesn’t want to pay for it. At least I don’t have to pay for him. My mom makes me pay for her.
I’m talking fast, I’m so excited. You are going to have to calm down, he says. I guess he doesn’t care if I like him. We order gin and tonics—he reminds me that Bombay Sapphire is a kind of gin, then we devour scallops, more drinks.
He did his residency in Baltimore, in the ER. He’s done a triathlon, a 24-hour adventure race too, says he knows what a “brick” is—when a person runs right after they’ve biked. Aren’t I impressed that he knows this, he asks. At this point I’d be more impressed if he would just be nice to me, maybe pick up the check, but it feels normal to be around him, like we’re family.
Back at home we hang out at our other neighbor Ricky’s, where Adam smokes a cigarette with Kate, Ricky’s girlfriend, who looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones in her twenties. Then we go back to my place, where he asks if I have anything sweet to drink. That also reminds me of my mom, who drinks rum and coke. I don’t, so he goes home and makes a drink, brings it back in a red party cup.
Is this the nicest place in the building, what a beautiful sink, he says. My mother told me the same thing when she visited, and yet he still hasn’t creeped me out—which may be more of a testament to my denial than my perseverance. Maybe I’ve won him over. I love when you say things like that, I say. Would you mind using a different terminology, he asks, as if to chastise me for feeling.
Despite his attempts to repel me, I keep coming back for more. We end up kissing, taking our clothes off even, but we accomplish little more than an R rating since we’ve had too much to drink. He leaves after midnight and I’m glad so I can get some sleep.
Weeks go by and we pretend nothing happened. This is familiar. When I visited my mom on Christmas Day, she told me I was a distant and dissatisfied person and a disappointment as a daughter. The next day she sent me an e-mail like nothing happened.
I see him smoking again, on his balcony. He is doctor, a former collegiate swimmer. He’s watching his sodium intake and limiting himself to two caffeinated beverages per day. It reminds me of my mother who is a yoga teacher—she hasn’t had a trans fat since 1970, but she smokes too.
Clean breath is a priority for me, he says, popping an Altoid into his mouth.
Eventually, red party cups overflow with butts next to a line of empty green Stella beer bottles outside on the balcony’s ledge. I guess the time in the OR makes him crave the fresh air.
He texts, hey you, any yummy beers at your place? No, just champagne, I say. Ugh. I wish he was a little more mature.
That summer I made plans to visit my mother, but we got in such a big fight on the phone before the trip, I decided not to go. It’s been six months since my last interaction with Adam.
Hey, Adam, I say, showing him my new bike. He leans from his porch perch as I wheel it on the driveway. So is that all Dura-ace? He’s asking me if it’s top of the line. Some of it, I say. He makes it hard for me to like him but I still do.
I live one floor above him, but have to pass under his balcony every time I come and go. He texts me, pretty dressed up for a Sunday night, hot date? I answer, thanks for noticing, want to come over for a beer? I’ve just been out for dinner, I’m happy. He appears to be in a receptive mood; we sit together on the couch.
He’d been on the medical team for the cyclists at the Tour of California, he says. How are your legs, I ask, a common question in the cycling world. Stable, he says. I hate this response, it makes me feel unstable.
I get the feeling you don’t want me to be nice to you, I say. You can be nice to me, he says. I make him a small plate of food. It is sad that I rely on the two biggest female clichés to get his attention: food and sex. But I’ve convinced myself that he’s given me mixed signals, like my mom whose favorite line was, “I love you, now go away.” I know he’s not interested, but there may be a window when his guard is down. I’m not sure why I feel the need to force my way through that window—maybe I like him just because he doesn’t like me. I guess all love is longing. I try not to be needy, I say, I try to meet a lot of my own needs.
He says I can certainly understand that.
Then I say, but I do think we need each other, I mean other people. So about what happened before, when we hooked up, did you feel bad about it, I mean, can you even make good decisions?
At work, I do all the time, he says. In my personal life, no. I don’t want to make any decisions in my personal life, he says. Should I kiss you, he asks. This time we get a PG rating; when he stands up to go, he says there’s no blood in his legs.
It’s summer again and I walk down the back stairway to the stone path. The rosebush is about to die and there’s nothing in the mailbox. I take the driveway back—its grimy since everybody’s car leaks oil; there’s cat litter all over the place. Our building is painted different shades of blue; it’s older and has lots of stairs that don’t make sense; sometimes you have to go up a flight just to get down. I am comfortable with it.
Cigarette smoke is in the air, coming from Adam’s balcony. After a boring date with somebody else, I arrive at Adam’s door uninvited, he’s my go-to guy now. It’s after 10 o’clock at night, and nothing is right about what I’m doing, but I am so glad I am finally doing it. Hi, can I come in? Can I sit down? Can we talk? He’s acquiescing.
How do you like my new shelves, he says.
Very nice, I say. I take it as a sign he’s not moving. He’s been here almost a year, and I’m glad because I like to see his car parked in his too-narrow parking spot and the wet tributaries from water splashing out the window of his shower since he’s so tall. His place is orderly, neat. On the end table is a big bottle of Advil and an empty TV dinner. I’m sad at what he is eating.
Hey, Adam, why do you act the way you do, I say. What is it? You hate me, women, your mother, your sister, what? Did something happen to you?
He shakes his head, no, nothing. Try not to take it personally, he says. You have to realize, I’m still learning. I’m surprised by this answer. Learning to be a surgeon, he says.
He goes into the kitchen, then the bathroom. He comes out in a green gingham shirt, maybe from Patagonia with buttons and short sleeves. He needs a haircut, there’s a Post-it note, reminding him on the back of the door.
A small vein traverses his flesh just under the elbow. He’s sits down next to me, and when I touch his arm, he winces. What is it, I say. You don’t realize how ticklish I am, he says. You’re too strokey, he says, then kisses me, and I put my arms around his strong back as we listen to indiscriminate music from the eighties.
Don’t think I haven’t thought about it, I will do the right thing, he says, I won’t date my neighbor. In my mind, the right thing is to take me to dinner.
Have another beer, he says. See, he tells me, I’m fun. But when he smiles it’s like he’s doing me a favor, some awkward adaptation he’s working to perfect. So, anyway, I’m not going to go to the farmer’s market with you, he says, just to be clear.
After a brief trip to his balcony, he says, it’s getting late, think “school night,” the Operating Room at 7:00 a.m. He’s standing up and I’m backing toward the door. Thanks for giving me something to masturbate to, he says, you’re a tease, have a nice walk.
Wow, I say.
Well, what do you expect, he says, it’s Melrose Place.
On my way out, I add, you don’t even own your unit.
A few days later I walk downstairs to retrieve my laundry; the smell of cigarettes catches my attention, but the room is empty. I can’t stop thinking about him. I would like to call my mom and talk about it, but she doesn’t have a phone.
The socks in the dryer read “Under Armour” on them. He’s worn a hat with this logo on it and they look big so I tie them together and throw them up on his balcony, partly to mess with him, partly to look after him, and partly because I’d had a beer and it can make you do dumb stuff like that. It’s Friday night, after all. By Sunday morning the socks are rejected, the pair broken, one in the planter and one on the driveway. I’m suddenly aware that I have been trying to date my mother.
I’m a real surgeon now, pretty good for 34, huh, he says, standing at my door, beer in hand.
Listen, I’m starting to see somebody, I say.
It’s too late, he says.
If you see him around here, act normal, I say and close the door.
That’s when the phone calls in the middle of the night started. I have caller ID, but I don’t answer the phone. Physician, heal thyself.
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