After I graduated from college, I picked an apartment in the city. It had the most bedrooms (3) for the cheapest price ($560 - can you believe it?). I hadn't inhabited that amount of space since I left my parents' house for college, so even though the kitchen had no counters to connect the stove and sink and fridge, and even though the floor felt crooked and the windows, when opened, let in the shrieking sounds of the city corner below, I wanted it. I still can't believe my would-be roommates consented, though two of them would rotate out a few months in anyway.
The apartment was the second and third floors of an old house, so we had a neighbor down below. We ran into Raul when we got into our cars, and the locked stairway in our apartment that used to lead downstairs when the house was still a house let his music and marijuana seep into our living space. Eventually we got to know Raul. Or, we got to know things about Raul. Originally from Puerto Rico, 25 years old, suspended driver's license. I imagined starting some kind of neighborly relationship with Raul, and we did get somewhere. A gentleman, he helped us shovel our cars out of snow more than once. I remember being in his apartment with him a few times, I think to talk about cooking Puerto Rican food, but I'm not sure we ever made anything together.
One night, I parked my car on the street after a work holiday party, feeling slightly nauseated, and walked past his windows to the stairs up to my place. He stopped me outside his door. "I made fish-head soup for you and your roommates." His boyish enthusiasm betrayed his Latino machismo. I felt my stomach turn and knew that this was one instance in which I could not forget myself to honor my neighbor. Sitting before a bowl of tiny fish heads looking up at me from a pungent broth was going to require more than a deep heart - I needed a solid stomach. I told him I'd just eaten at my party and he graciously offered to send the fod upstairs with me so my roommates and I could eat it later.
When I moved out of that apartment, I don't remember formally saying goodby to Raul. But I've met other Rauls in the ten years since. We met somewhere between stranger and friend. In some ways, it feels like the things that defined us - language, culture, history, upbringing, opportunity - were walls stronger than the ones that form the buildings we live in. Yet most of those apartments, like the first, have been pretty flimsy, so I wonder the same about what separated us. Maybe if we'd pushed up a little harder, we'd have found the cracks.