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The Good Neighbor

Today a group of us gathered at the home of our dear friend. She moved away about a year ago, and they rented out their house here in Austin. Just knowing that house still belonged to her and her family was a comfort to me, some kind of silent confirmation that they would eventually come back—come home. But today we went there one last time because she and her husband decided it was time to put their old house on the market. We wandered around the house, talking and laughing about old memories of time well spent. We sat and prayed over their new adventure and said blessings for whatever lucky family was meant to live there next. I felt bittersweet—happy for her, sad for me, totally choked up. I’ve moved many times, but her move was a harder adjustment for me than any of my own. Their departure left a hole, a heart divot difficult to repair.

You see, I had plenty of neighbors, but she was a neighbor. We used to wander to each other’s houses without notice, in hopes of finding company for a dog walk, a missing ingredient for a recipe, a bike pump, a place to cry, a respite from unruly or ungrateful children, a damn good margarita made with fresh-squeezed limes, or a nice glass of red. My friend is from Mexico, so she is used to big families and busy kitchens. She never minded the chaos of my children, even when they were small and especially chaotic, and we often went to each other’s homes for dinner. She is the kind of friend who can make an amazing dinner out of random ingredients in her kitchen. And she is also the kind of friend you want to have stay for dinner at your house, even when you have no idea what you can pull together. She doesn’t care about stuff like that, the petty details that keep everyone else from inviting friends over for dinner. Among all my friends, she is the one person my age who is never in a rush—she just takes her time with everything and everyone, and the contrast to the rest of the world is rather jolting. I often accuse her of time-traveling from another era. Seeing her requires shifting gears, and applying gentle, intentional pressure on the clutch. She sees no point in small talk, preferring to dive directly into intimate matters of the heart. I tease her that her pool has no shallow end. She is the friend who taught me, “Life happens in the hallways.” Meaning it’s the little, ordinary moments that end up counting. And she lives like that, lingering in the hallways.

I walked through her house today, remembering when our kids all piled onto the same sofa bed and watched movies until they fell asleep, so we could sit forever at the dining table, sipping wine and solving everything. I remember the old record player her husband would set up, and we would drink margaritas and take turns being DJ with the old album collection, staying up too late and swaying to songs we’d forgotten we knew. She makes a mean ceviche. And some chicken dish called encilantrada that is so good that if there are leftovers at my house, I eat them for lunch the next day and call her voice mail and just moan with my mouth full. She always knows it’s me.

She is the Mary who helps me stop being such a Martha. She reminds me to kick off my shoes, to stop scurrying around making things “nice” and instead try just being nice—or even just being. She has mastered the art of preparation, as in the “pre” part. Do whatever you do before your guests come and then when they arrive, drop it and enjoy them. No one really cares about or remembers anything else.

Her house is for sale. My other real neighbors moved to Fort Worth. And we sold our house and moved to a new ’hood. In all this change, I’m figuring out that a neighbor is more than a person who lives in proximity to your house. A real neighbor is a beloved person who resides permanently in proximity to your heart.

Credits

Illustration by Joy Gallagher

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