Opening doors

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on August 22, 2014


Getting to know neighbours one post-it at a time

A tiny apartment in downtown Elsewhere, Rhode Island is now my new home. It has windows on all sides, entrance corridor, kitchen, big room, small room and a bathroom the size of a mustard seed. And it’s mine, all MINE! On rent, of course.

The building is two storeys high, has a sloped roof and a two-step stoop. In the narrow space between the front door and the inner door, there are six mailboxes. I’m on the ground floor with a neighbour on either side. Upstairs, the exact same arrangement of three units is repeated. My friend Muriel’s brother Daniel helped me move. He’s got a pick-up truck. As we staggered across the entrance hall, carrying furniture and cartons, the door to the right of my front door snapped open. Out popped a wizened little man. The same height as me, but my goodness, he was thin. Like a plucked sparrow: beaky nose, bright brown eyes, hollow cheeks and skin as yellow and creased as old newsprint.

“Oh!” he said. “You’re the new tenant, huh?” I nodded, uncertainly. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “Rose was telling me about you.” Old Mrs Rose, the landlady. “She told me you’d be moving in this week.”

Daniel came out just then. The sparrow-person’s eyes flickered towards him. “This is Daniel,” I said. “He’s helping me move.” Daniel gave a quick nod and perfunctory smile before going out to fetch more stuff.

The little man relaxed at once. “That’s right. Rose said you’re by yourself. Well ... I’m Pete. I live right next-door to you.” Then he pointed to the door across from his. “And that one there? That’s where my brother Trevor lives.” Then he handed me a blank sticky-label. “You’ll need something for your mailbox.” He pointed to the entry space where the mailboxes were. “Yours is between mine and Trevor’s,” he said, with a big grin. I noticed he was missing all the front teeth on his lower jaw.

“Uhh … thanks,” I said, accepting the sticky label. I didn’t know whether or not to feel uneasy about this friendliness. On the one hand, Pete and the brother whom I’d not yet seen would be my immediate neighbours. I didn’t want to begin my stay on a hostile note. After all, if a fire broke out, or burglars broke in, I needed to be able to depend on whoever was close at hand. At the same time, as I’ve explained to countless friends, the whole point of this move – to an independent residence on the other side of the planet – is just so that I can be ALONE. The very last thing I want is a whole new team of best buddies!

Still, it’s easier to be friendly than not. Once I’m settled in, maybe I can claim to be suffering from tropical allergies that make human contact injurious to my health. I accepted Pete’s pen and wrote out my full long name in block letters. His eyebrows disappeared into his thinning hairline as the syllables stretched across the whole label. “Wow! That’s ... all one name?”

I gave him a pinched smile. I’ve had the same name my whole life, been teased about it in schools and college, endured annoying pet names and mangled pronunciations. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. In my view, it’s not even long compared to Thai and Sri Lankan names. But I didn’t mention this to Pete. “How do you say it?” he wanted to know. I repeated it three times after which he shrugged and said, “I’ll get it eventually.”

All the while I’d been talking to Pete, Daniel had been moving stuff back and forth across the hall. I excused myself and went into my apartment. Daniel was putting the knockdown bed frame together.

I perched on a stack of cartons. “That guy Pete ... how’d you suppose he got so thin?” I asked. Was he recovering from cancer? Or maybe AIDS?

“Oh no,” said Daniel at once. “Probably just drugs.”

Then he glanced up and caught my wide-eyed expression.

“Welcome to America!” he said, with a cheeky grin.

(Manjula Padmanabhan author artist tells us tales of her parallel life in Elsewhere USA in this fortnightly series. )

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Published on January 25, 2014

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