few weeks ago I woke up thinking about Rachael and Thomas, my new neighbors. Both were professional architects who loved to travel and I’d been looking forward to getting to know them. They’d purchased an apartment in my complex and spent the previous nine months building shelves, buying furniture, and making the place their own. I knew the drill. I gave them plenty of time before asking to meet them socially.
As I prepared to write to Rachael, an email from her popped up in my inbox. I was startled. The coincidence was uncanny. But after reading the few brief lines I was overcome by sadness.
“I wanted to let you know,” Rachael wrote, “that we are selling our apartment. It goes on the market next week.”
I was stunned and confused, until I read the last line.
“Thomas and I are splitting up.”
I thought back to the first time I met them, how in synch they seemed. She’d told me they met in art school and had lived in Montreal and Philadelphia. By moving in together, she said, they were showing the strength of their bond and their willingness to make tradeoffs, with their companionship as a binder.
But as I reflected on my image of them as I couple I recalled a long-go relationship of mine that seemed similarly well balanced. A decade ago, Gary and I lived together in Seattle. We shared a love of music and theater. He played guitar and fiddle and encouraged me to take up the cello. He taught me the language of theater, pointing out the nuances of staging, blocking and interpretation. He taught playwriting from our apartment and I’d listen to him from a back room believing his every word was pure wisdom.
People approached us to say how nice it was to see such a happy couple, and I’d beam. But for all these appearances, I wasn’t happy. We were imbalanced in as many ways as we leveled each other out. We also suffered a lack of intimacy.
When I grew tired of the heavy leaden skies of the Northwest, we decided to move south together. But what others saw as a sign of joint strength was actually an eleventh-hour effort to make things work. After a year in our new home, things fell apart. Our friends were shocked. While I understood their surprise, I saw the breakup as part of a natural transition. It was time to stop painting it in different colors and let it be what it was.
I reread Rachael’s email and the word “splitting” stuck out. It conjured up not just an image but also a feeling. I suspected she felt much as I did, both pain and relief.
I saw Rachael on the street a few days ago and she paused to chat. “You know, Thomas and I were just growing apart. We’re different people than when we met. I thought buying the apartment would help, but it only made things clearer.”
We were both quiet for a moment before she continued.
“Now that I’ll be moving, I’m sorry we never got a chance to know each other. I was really looking forward to it.”
I nodded, “Yeah, me too.”
As she walked down the block, I slowly followed her footsteps as she became smaller and smaller and finally vanished from view. And it occurred to me that I might have known her better than either of us could have ever imagined.