The People Next Door (by Billy Coffey)

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I never knew their names, never even saw their faces, and so for a week they were referred to as The People Next Door.

That sort of thing tends to happen a lot when you’re on vacation. You share space with people who are on different schedules and live different lives. The one thing that ties us all together is the fact that we’re all sharing a building that overlooks an ocean.

There is an implied non-intervention pact between the temporary residents of the hotel. We nod and say good morning on the elevators and in the hallways, but that’s where our societal responsibilities end. Aside from that, we are ensconced in our own familial lives.

The only loophole as far as The People Next Door and me was the late nights, when we found ourselves on the balconies outside our respective rooms. I was on mine to get some writing done while the family slept inside. They were on theirs to watch the people on the boardwalk below and the dark blue water. All that separated us was a five-inch wooden partition that offered much privacy of sight but little privacy of sound.

So I typed and listened, and they stared and spoke.

Husband and wife. Older, by the sound of them. Empty nesters, perhaps. Enjoying life or trying to.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” the woman said on the first night.

“Very,” said the man.

“I think I could sit here and listen those waves all night.”


I divided my mind between the sentence I was writing and the analysis of the man’s answer— “Hmm.” Not necessarily agreement. That would have required a “-mm” at the end: “Hmm-mm.” But there was none. I supposed that last little part could have been drowned out by the series of waves that crashed just below us, but I doubted it. It was just “Hmm,” and nothing else. Not an agreement. A question.

The next night brought more and livelier conversation. Two towels had been draped over their railing, peeking at me as they flapped in the warm breeze.

“Did you enjoy your day?” the woman asked.

“I did,” the man answered. There was more conviction in his voice than the night before. A good thing. “The book I’m reading is getting good.”

“The book?” she said. “You can read a book at home. What about the weather or the beach? The dinner?”

“Oh they were fine,” he said. “Really just…fine.” And then, perhaps to steer the conversation another way—

“Did you enjoy your day?”

“Yes,” she said. “Those teenagers don’t have much in the way of modesty, do they?”

“No,” he said, “they surely don’t.”

“It was crowded today.”


“And sandy.”

“Well,” he said, “it is the beach, dear.”


“So did you enjoy yourself?”


But I wondered.

I’ll be honest—the next night I went out onto the balcony more to listen than to write. I wasn’t disappointed. They weren’t simply speaking more, they were saying more.

“Three days left,” the man said. “Will you be sad to go?”

The woman left that question unanswered by saying, “I’ve had a nice time so far.”

“Do you think we made the right decision?”

Silence, and in that silence was her answer—not a no, but not a yes either. The in-between answer of a divided heart.

“Do you remember the night you proposed to me?” she asked him. “You gave me that ring and I cried like a baby.”

“I seem to remember I was doing my own share of crying,” he said.

“I don’t think we should have sold it.”

More silence. Then the man said, “We don’t need a ring to let people know we love each other. And you’ve always wanted to see the ocean. It’s a long drive from Missouri. Gold’s worth a lot nowadays.”

“Three days left,” she said.

There was no towels draped over the railing the next night. No teasing. No conversation. Just the silence. So much so that after a while I did the unthinkable and craned my head around the wooden partition. Darkness.

They had left a day early.

I supposed the man was right. They didn’t need a ring. Taking his bride to a place she’d always wanted to see was a wonderful gift. A loving gift.

But I wondered. Making new memories that comfort us is a good thing, I thought. But not by sacrificing old memories that sustain us.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at his blog What I Learned Today and follow him on twitter at @BillyCoffey

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