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.”

“Hmm.”

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.”

“Yes.”

“And sandy.”

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

“Yes.”

“So did you enjoy yourself?”

“Yes.”

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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20 Responses to “The People Next Door (by Billy Coffey)”

  1. Lisa Jordan June 21, 2010 at 8:03 am #

    We vacation every other year on Sanibel Island, Fl. I love the tranquility of the beach, the mist over the surf early in the morning as hunched over tourists search for the best shells from the night tide’s offering. My husband, who is a nightowl, is always up at the crack of dawn to scour the beach. He comes back at breakfast, drenched in sweat, but elated by his morning findings. Peace erases the stress lines from his face…totally worth the cost to go.

    The people next door seem to have lost more than her ring. I hope they can reclaim that same initial joy that brought them together.

  2. sherri June 21, 2010 at 8:14 am #

    Sad.
    What a gift to have been able to witness this- a life lesson presented in just a few lines by total strangers.
    .-= sherri´s last blog .."Dad, I need your help…" =-.

  3. Heather Sunseri June 21, 2010 at 8:15 am #

    Powerful story, Billy! Loved it! And I share your love for the ocean. Night, day, sunshine, rain. I lose and find myself anytime I’m near, on or in it.
    .-= Heather Sunseri´s last blog ..Where In The World Am I (Part III) =-.

  4. Rebekah @ It Only Gets Better June 21, 2010 at 9:02 am #

    Hmmm.
    .-= Rebekah @ It Only Gets Better´s last blog ..You Capture – Water =-.

  5. Cassandra Frear June 21, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    You can learn a lot by watching people. I have learned a great deal that way. Seems like you are a people watcher, too. Maybe most writers are people watchers?
    .-= Cassandra Frear´s last blog ..Dailiness =-.

  6. K.M. Weiland June 21, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

    Quite a story. Sounds a beautiful romance between the couple. I hope they ended up enjoying their vacation as much as I enjoyed their story.
    .-= K.M. Weiland´s last blog ..Why No Writer Knows What He’s Doing =-.

  7. Joanne Sher June 21, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    So powerful and tender,and told in a way that only you can. Thank you, Billy.
    .-= Joanne Sher´s last blog ..Step on up to the Family Counter =-.

  8. Kelly Langner Sauer June 21, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    good grief, Billy. you want to see through my eyes – I want to be in the places YOU go. thank you for sharing them. it’s so worth it.
    .-= Kelly Langner Sauer´s last blog ..monday =-.

  9. Lainie Gallagher June 21, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    AH! Devastating. Perfect presentation of a sad story. (Is it true?)
    .-= Lainie Gallagher´s last blog ..In the Bowl, Part Two =-.

    • Lainie Gallagher June 21, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

      Commenting again because I forgot to click the notify box. Grr it should be clicked by default! (Peter? Can you get on that?) 🙂
      .-= Lainie Gallagher´s last blog ..In the Bowl, Part Two =-.

  10. Sharkbait June 21, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    Laine, everything Billy writes is true.

    Even the stuff he makes.
    .-= Sharkbait´s last blog ..Biblios Hokku – Philemon =-.

  11. Billy Coffey June 21, 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    Lainie – Ditto Sharkbait.
    .-= Billy Coffey´s last blog ..The People Next Door =-.

    • Lainie Gallagher June 21, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

      Let me rephrase. Did you make up the events in the story to communicate truth, or are you reporting actual events?

      Gah.
      .-= Lainie Gallagher´s last blog ..In the Bowl, Part Two =-.

  12. Helen June 21, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    I hope the memory of this vacation will have been worth the sacrifice of that ring. I can think of circumstances where it would be… I can also think of circumstances were it is craziness.
    .-= Helen´s last blog ..Quid Pro Quo =-.

  13. Sandra Heska King June 21, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

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

    I want to think they left a day early to retrieve the ring.
    .-= Sandra Heska King´s last blog ..Framed Memories – Part 1 =-.

  14. Nikole Hahn June 21, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    Now I’m depressed. I feel so bad for them. I wonder why they had to sell the ring? Surely, not for the vacation?

  15. Beth E. June 22, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    Awww…this story is sweet AND a little sad. Sweet because of the sacrifice of the ring in order to give the woman her wish to see the beach, but sad because of the significance and memories associated with the ring. Ya got me with this post. *Sniff, sniff*

    I agree about the beach, Billy. We vacationed there this year, after a four-year absence. We love it there. The ocean has a way of washing away a lot of stress, and soothes the soul. If you haven’t already done so, check some of my previous posts to see the pics I took. It was one of our best years there, ever!
    .-= Beth E.´s last blog ..Severe Thunderstorms/Power Outtage Cause Delay In Announcement =-.

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