Jolyn told her story at Strangerville Live, a storytelling event hosted by The Beehive earlier this year. The written version of this story is included below.
The worst thing in the world is when something comes out of nowhere and interrupts plans you’ve made to do absolutely nothing. This is not my opinion, this is a scientifically proven fact. Someone could show up at my door with a present, but if it is a Sunday afternoon after I’ve already taken off my bra and put on my comfy clothes and they didn’t call ahead, I’m not answering the door. In fact, I have a rule that I don’t answer the door unless I’m expecting someone. I live alone, so it’s for safety reasons.
Just kidding. I hate answering the door.
I recently learned, however, this rule could potentially cost me my life. A couple of months ago, on a Sunday afternoon during my scheduled do nothing time, I started hearing serious commotion coming from the hallway outside my apartment. I heard some people talking very loudly as they were running up and down the stairs. And then the knocking started. Not on my door at first, but I could tell it was coming as it was clear they were stopping at each and every door.
Despite the fact that this sounded rather serious, rules are rules, and I am not one to break nonsensical, self-imposed rules. So I just sat on my couch as they knocked rather aggressively on my door. And look, I’m not fooling anyone; they knew I was home. I’m sure they could hear the TV and me trying to shush my dog as she too was not a fan of the knocking. Eventually they went on their way knocking on other doors in the building, and I turned up the TV to drown out the noise and went back to the episode I was watching of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
And then I heard the sirens. And it was clear they had stopped right outside my apartment building. Unfortunately, the windows in my apartment don’t face the street so the only way for me to know what was going on was to open my door and walk outside. I really didn’t want to but what if there was a fire? I could just see the next day’s headlines, “Woman Dies In Apartment Building Fire Because It Was Sunday And She Didn’t Want To Go Outside.”
I slipped on some shoes, put on my coat, picked up my dog, and walked out my door to bravely face whatever unknown was waiting for me on the other side.
And it was very brave of me to have gone out to where the people were. I’m one of those extroverts, the hypocritical kind, the kind that hates people. It makes for a very confusing existence to loathe that which energizes you. To be honest, I don’t like to say I hate people because it makes me sound mean and cruel and unfriendly. But frankly, it’s a little easier to own than admitting the truth.
I had a therapist a couple of years ago say to me, “I don’t think you hate people; you’re afraid of them. The literal, physical walls that you hide behind are likely symbolic of the emotional walls that you put up between you and the people in your life.”
I took that information and boxed it right up and shoved it down real far so I didn’t have to deal with it. But she was right. I don’t hate people; they cause me anxiety. And while she totally called it, it still would have been nice for her to acknowledge that it kind of hurt my feelings.
I’ve been going to therapy on and off for over a decade to help manage my anxiety. Living with general anxiety disorder is challenging and sometimes it’s hard to predict when the anxiety will spike or what will set it off. And the worst is when there is nothing to point to as the cause. But thank all the gods for therapy and medication and The Great British Bake Off, because largely I am still able to live a life that is happy, fun, and productive.
One of the greatest things I’ve done in the way of anxiety management was move into my own apartment. Turns out people are the greatest cause of anxiety. So cut them out of the equation and keep all the walls up to solve all the problems.
It’s now been seven years of solo living, and I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of living alone, so I’ll just say that it is the greatest thing that I have ever done in my entire life. If I could marry living alone, I would. But you better believe if we did get married, we would live in separate houses.
I understand that living alone is not for everyone. It’s expensive, you have to do all the chores, and probably the biggest downside is the loneliness. And yes, the irony is glaring. If The Onion were to write an article about me, it would be something like, “Hypocritical Extrovert Builds Emotional And Physical Walls Around Her And Is Surprised When She Gets Lonely.”
Living alone suits me very well, but it would be dishonest for me to say that I never get lonely. It’s unavoidable. And I’m only a little ashamed to admit I have googled a time or two “how to live alone and not be lonely.”
Most of the recommendations out there aren’t revolutionary, such as “call a loved one when you need to talk to someone” or “have a conversation with yourself while looking in the mirror.” Things that we all do when we’re feeling lonely. One writer suggested putting up bird feeders outside your windows so that at least you would get some visitors to your home. If you’re expecting birds to fix your loneliness, you probably have bigger problems to worry about.
Some also proposed making friends with your neighbors. But as far as I’m concerned, that is a slippery slope. You start by taking them a plate of Christmas cookies and before you know it, somehow you’re in charge of taking pictures during the home birth of their first child. But that’s a story for a different day.
So instead of going down that slippery slope and becoming friends with neighbors to combat loneliness, I got a dog. She was 1.5 lbs when I brought her home. So small that I had to buy a kitten collar for her because even the smallest puppy one was too big. She’s now huge at 5 lbs. Piper is the perfect dog. Except for all the annoying shit about her.
She is my person precisely because she’s not a person, and at seven years, she is my longest and best relationship. For those without pets, it’s really hard to explain the bond you develop and how insanely pure the love is. But she has burrowed herself deep down in my cold, dead heart. So much so that I willingly and regularly spend hundreds of dollars for her to get her teeth cleaned and have forgone ideal apartments just because they weren’t pet friendly.
Luckily my current apartment building welcomes pets with open paws. In the 18 apartments, there are 13 dogs. I can tell you all their names. My two favorites are named Mabel and Gladys. Trust me when I say that no two dogs have ever been named more perfectly. They look exactly as old as their names sound. No offense to anyone named Mabel or Gladys. I’m sure you look great for your age. But Mabel and Gladys, the dogs, have these tiny little legs and chunky bodies, and they snort loudly with every step they take. They’re so ugly they’re adorable. They’re not very friendly, and I am obsessed with them.
Guess how many of my neighbor’s names I know? One. One person. 13 dogs and one human. I’m honestly both a little ashamed and a little proud. I am who I am.
Ryan, the neighbor I know, is Mabel and Gladys’ owner. Ryan and I see each other outside at least a couple of times a week taking our dogs potty. We chat. We’re friendly. The right amount of friendly. Our conversations revolve around our dogs and the weather. I know about the medical conditions of his two elderly chihuahuas but couldn’t tell you his last name. Again, neighborhood friendliness is a slippery slope. At first, you’re talking about the dog’s heart medication and the next thing you know you’re unofficially mediating their divorce. The neighbors’ divorce. Not the dog’s. But that’s a story for another day.
So that Sunday afternoon when I walked out of my building to track down the reason for the sirens, I purposefully side-stepped all my other neighbors until I found Ryan who was standing a bit away from the rest of the neighbors. It was kind of a chaotic scene. Lined up on the street were two large fire trucks with another pulled into the little driveway that led to the parking lot in the back, which blocked any cars from coming or going. We were all stuck out there.
Ryan told me this was all because there was a gas leak in the building. And he said, “It interrupted my plans to do absolutely nothing today.” I’m glad I ended up going outside because I could just see the headline the next day, “Gas Leak Kills 31 Year-Old Woman Who Dies Alone In Her Apartment While Binging High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Yes, Seriously, That’s What She Was Watching.”
Ryan and I chatted for a beat or two amidst all the pandemonium before I realized Gladys was outside, but not Mabel. “Where’s Mabel?” And the second the words came out of my mouth I knew what he was going to say. She had died, four days earlier.
Ryan, like me, lives alone with his dogs and he had spent 14 of Mabel’s 16 years with her. That’s 98 dog years. I think at that point you’re considered legally married and are supposed to file your taxes jointly. I think that’s what the form W-K9 is for. He didn’t have to find the words to tell me how hard it was to lose her, I could see it on his face. He did tell me having Gladys still around made it a little more bearable, but he also knew it wouldn’t be long until she followed her old friend across the rainbow bridge.
He told me about the process of deciding to put her down, how he had known it was coming for about a week, but no amount of knowing it was coming had prepared him. His apartment felt empty. You don’t realize how much space a 10 lb dog takes up until they’re not around anymore.
I have a cold, dead heart, and I generally prefer to eat my feelings rather than feel them, but there I was, standing outside my apartment, surrounded by people, shedding a few tears with a neighbor over an unfriendly, semi-obese, dead chihuahua.
I was both somehow annoyed and relieved when the firemen came out of the building letting us know the threat had been neutralized and it was okay to go back inside. Relieved because I was getting cold, and annoyed because how do you go back to doing absolutely nothing after a moment like that?
Later that week I took Ryan flowers and a card. I knew better than to knock on his door so I just left my wholly insufficient offering right on his welcome mat. He texted me later that night.
Before you think you know where this is going, I should mention that he’s a good 15 years older than me and very gay. Which, maybe somewhat surprisingly, is exactly my type. Unfortunately we live in a cruel world and he’s just not that into me.
I had written in the card that he could either borrow Piper or we could meet up for doggy play dates anytime he felt Gladys needed a friend. I was serious about my offer; what surprised me was that he took me up on it.
We started going on walks together. And by that I mean we would walk up and down our street. Gladys doesn’t move very quickly and you never quite know when she’s just going to refuse to keep walking, so it’s best to stay close to home. She and Piper aren’t actually that interested in each other, but Ryan and I keep meeting up. I guess the walks are less for the dogs and more for the people.
We also started to stray from our normal routine of just talking about dogs and the weather. I now know his last name. He knows about my job. We’ve shared the highlights of our familial dysfunction. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I was becoming friends with a neighbor.
On one of our walks, as our dogs had stopped to sniff this tree and that bush, he stuttered a little and said “So I don’t want to pry, but I noticed that your friend hasn’t been here in a while.” He was talking about my boyfriend. My ex-boyfriend. If he noticed that boy wasn’t coming around, I wonder if Ryan also noticed how many days in a row in the aftermath of the breakup I came home with Taco Bell for dinner. It doesn’t matter how many days. Fifteen. Fifteen days.
He expressed some sincere sympathy and I made a comment meant to deflect the emotion. Something like, “Sure he was great, but he’s no Mabel.”
The next day I came home from work, and waiting for me in front of my door were flowers and a card. Inside the card he had written “There’s no point in comparing suffering. What you’re going through is hard. What I’m going through is hard. Who’s to say what’s harder?” He signed it, “Your friend, Ryan.”
I could just see the headlines. “Woman Who Got A Dog Because She Doesn’t Like People Accidentally Made Friends With A Neighbor Who Also Got Dogs Because He Doesn’t Like People.”
Turns out, the internet got something right. The loneliness you feel during heartbreak takes all the color out of everything and everything becomes grey. When I’m hurting, all I want to do is shut down and hide forever behind all the walls because the world feels unsafe. Putting yourself out there, romantically or otherwise, feels too risky. But sometimes it’s nice to be forced into taking a risk and peek over the walls and realize that it’s not always pain on the other side. Sometimes on the other side is a middle-aged gay man who just lost his fat, ugly, perfect dog. And something clicks and all the sudden you’re friends with a neighbor.
I never thought an unexpected and surprising friendship with a neighbor would do the heavy lifting in helping me move out of the loneliness fog I’d been in. I’m not cured, but I’m better. Ryan has helped make me better. Kindness and thoughtfulness from someone who doesn’t have to be kind or thoughtful can bring so much color to otherwise gray days.
I don’t know where this friendship will go. If we’ll help each other through these darker times and move on, or if we’ll be friends for years and I’ll end up giving the eulogy at his funeral. For now, I’m just enjoying what is and grateful to not feel so alone.
While I’m happy to be proven wrong about neighbor friendships, god help me if I ever get so lonely and desperate that I try out the bird feeder thing. That is where I draw the line.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)