It could have ended like a Hallmark movie—you know, if I were into those—but it didn’t. It would have been too obvious and convenient anyway: the boy, the girl in the neighboring apartment, both single, eye-flirting from their patios until one of them finally breaks the ice with a killer line.
Picture a guy and a girl; I’ll call them Greg and Sarah.
Greg’s walking his dog Lulu.
Sarah is trying to remember where she parked.
(Prepare for the meet-cute).
In a matter of seconds Greg’s dog has wrapped herself around Sarah’s legs.
Greg catches Sarah just before she falls.
As they untangle, Sarah’s hand grazes Greg’s tricep.
Greg apologizes shyly.
Sarah forgives him, blushing.
Sparks fly, probably literal fireworks somewhere in the distance.
They discover they are neighbors.
Within days they are inseparable.
Sarah has adopted Lulu as her own.
They spend their days walking Lulu leisurely through the city.
They carve S+G in a tree, illegally.
Well, that wasn’t our story.
Let’s start with the dog. Princess is a bulldog who drools so much her slobber could water the flowers on my patio. If she were allowed on my patio, that is. My cat, Wiggles, who holds residence there, shifting with the pockets of sun throughout the day, would never allow it.
Unfortunately, my first interaction with Princess was me tripping over her leash in the parking lot. It was not graceful or cute. I skinned my elbow pretty good. My new neighbor, who I had not yet met, untangled the leash from Princess’ feet and gently berated her. I jumped up and took off to avoid awkward apologies. My neighbor shouted, “So sorry!” and without looking back I waved my hand as if to say, “No worries,” as blood trickled down to my armpit.
He probably thought I was either angry or a jerk, or both. Or he thought that I hated dogs, which is not totally true, to be clear. Whatever the case, on the day I tripped, my neighbor and I got off on the wrong foot, so to speak.
This began a series of unfortunate events, to the dismay of Hallmark writers and viewers everywhere.
The next morning, a Saturday, I was changing out my elbow bandage when I heard a knock on my door. It was my neighbor, the dog owner.
“Hi. I’m Cal,” he said, eyebrows raised sympathetically.
I pretended not to recognize him. Maybe we could have a fresh start, I thought, stupidly.
In reaction to my blank stare, he said, “I just moved in next door. I’m the one with the dog who, you know, who you…” He looked down at my elbow, a smidge of red visible through the bandage.
In an uncharacteristic moment of defensiveness, stemmed from embarrassment, I said, “Right. Yeah, I hope I didn’t hurt your mutt.” Blood drained from my face. This was Cal’s second impression of me, the first being me falling on my face. I could have said: Oh, it’s okay, don’t worry about it, or: I’m fine, really; your dog is cute. Nope. I chose to call his dog a “mutt.” Why am I like this?
Cal’s pitying eyebrows twisted into a confused look.
“I meant—” I stammered “I’m fine, I’m cool. Your dog is cool.” My brain was begging my mouth to stop talking. “Me and leashes, man. They have a vendetta against me.”
Cal broke into the kind of laugh that sounds like a cough, where you’re not sure if you should laugh along or ask if the person is okay.
When he caught his breath, he handed me a small bag. “My dog and I got you this at the farmer’s market this morning as an apology gift.”
I took it. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that. Did your dog enjoy the market?” I emphasized dog to show I am, in fact, a nice human.
“Princess,” Cal said.
“Huh?” I asked.
“My dog. Her name is Princess.”
Then, it was my turn to cough-laugh. “I thought—heave—you were—heave—calling ME Princess.”
Cal smiled, his face turning red. When I laugh hard my cat comes out to see what he’s missing. Wiggles snuck up to my ankles and rubbed his face on my legs. Then, he hissed at Cal. I wish I could say this was uncharacteristic, but no. Wiggles is a hisser.
“This is Wiggles,” I introduced him.
“Oh,” said Cal. “I’m allergic to cats.”
Of course you are, I thought. “That’s too bad.” I gave Wiggles a good scratch on the head, then I opened the bag Cal had handed me.
“It’s peanut brittle, the best in the area,” Cal said proudly, as if it was his own grandmother’s recipe.
I bit my lip. My brain told me not to say it, but my mouth was faster than my brain. “I’m allergic to peanuts.”
“Oh,” Cal said shyly. “Well, I would take it back but you touched the cat, then the bag, and my allergy...”
We stood there in silence, him offended about the peanuts, me offended about my cat. We were like two immunocompromised people who could never unite, or it would kill us both.
Cal mumbled, “Well, see you around.” As he turned to his apartment door, which was entirely too close to mine, Wiggles hissed.
The next day, a Sunday, Wiggles and I were enjoying an iced coffee in the afternoon sun on our third-floor patio when Cal and Princess emerged from their next-door apartment.
Cal said, “Hey.”
I waved and smiled, trying unsuccessfully to express pleasantries with my face.
“You know,” Cal said, “I never got your name—”
Right then, Princess and Wiggles spotted each other and took battle stances. Princess growled, drool seeping through her teeth; Wiggles stood, stiff as a board, and glared at Princess. Slowly and simultaneously, Cal and I said our respective pets’ names, enunciating each letter, pleading with them not to fight. They completely ignored us.
Wiggles hissed, so Princess barked, and Wiggles’ tail fluffed out in fear. It was slobber and cat hair pandemonium as Cal and I wrangled the barking/hissing animals, locking them inside.
We came back out to our patios, exhaled and plopped into our chairs, mine a cushioned swivel, his a dollar store fold-out. We sat not six feet from one another and, through ESP, both decided apologies would be useless because two sorries would cancel each other out. Instead, I broke the silence with, “Vanessa. Name’s Vanessa.” Cal just nodded. “So, what’s Cal short for? California?”
Cal smirked. “Calvin.”
“Calvin,” I repeated. “Calvin and Princess.”
“Vanessa and Wiggles,” he said.
We sat in silence, save for the coffee I slurped to distract myself from—or contribute to—the awkwardness.
“Do you want to play a game?” Cal asked.
I chewed the straw, unsure. “Like cards, or—”
“Like a speed round get-to-know-each-other game.”
“Sure. What the heck.” Anything but silence, I thought.
“Okay. I’m gonna guess five things about you, and you’ll give me a score out of five for how close I got. Then, you’ll repeat the game with me.”
I suddenly felt very vulnerable and jittery, but I blamed it on the caffeine. “Go for it.”
Cal begins, raising a finger for each one to keep count. “You’re from here; you majored in English; you are an only child; you hate chocolate; you love fantasy novels.”
I laughed, relieved that he couldn’t see right through me. “I hate to break it to you, but: zero out of five.”
Cal hung his head. “Well, you don’t even have to guess for me now.”
“Huh?” I asked. “Why not?”
“I only said things that were true about myself to see if we had anything in common. So far, nada.”
I frowned, but I can’t say I was surprised. Trying to lighten the mood, I asked, “Okay, but what did chocolate ever do to hurt you?”
Princess was scratching furiously at the patio door, so Cal excused himself. I think I caught a glimpse of a smile as he escaped inside.
Weeks passed, and we mostly avoided each other. I could hear classic rock playing from his apartment sometimes, and I would roll my eyes. Then I would watch a medical drama and think Cal would probably scoff if he could hear my TV, a doctor having an affair with yet another nurse in the supply closet as a patient lies in a nearby room bleeding out. Probably not Cal’s cup o’ tea.
If he and I had been in a Hallmark movie, we would be at the part where someone was determined to bring us together, no matter how opposite we seemed. Our couple name would be CalVan, which really just sounds like Cal’s actual name, so it might need some workshopping. Some person would try to talk sense into us, to convince us we were made for each other. That person would either be a neighbor, a mutual friend, or in most cases, Santa.
But we were smart enough never to try at a relationship and lucky enough not to have a mutual friend or, umm, Santa hanging around. Between us: too many allergies, too much awkwardness, Wiggles vs. Princess, I’m a little mean, he’s a little sappy (he regularly wears a Dog Dad t-shirt on Saturdays). And frankly, chocolate is a big part of my life, and apparently peanuts are a big part of his. So, acquaintances we remained. It was for the best.
It's been a year since I tripped over that leash. Now Cal and Princess are moving out. My neighbor and his dog. This should not affect me in any way.
But the questions I keep asking myself are: Why did I get jealous every time he brought a girl to his apartment? Why have Princess’ face wrinkles grown so endearing to me? Why do Cal’s moving boxes make my heart feel as though it is being crushed by cardboard? Are there shots for cat allergies?
On my patio, Wiggles is stretched out in a slim strip of sunlight. I stand near him at the railing like Juliet or maybe Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, daydreaming about a more romantic ending to this year. I watch Cal and the movers load the last boxes into the moving truck. Before he climbs into the passenger seat and hoists Princess up into his lap, he takes a glance up toward our patios. He gives me a wave and a smile, and I wave back. Then he’s gone, and I know it’s for good. Maybe in every sense of the word good. For the best, as they say. I hope to eventually believe that.
I look over at Wiggles who, I swear, lifts his head and sighs at the sight of the lone folding chair on the empty patio next to ours. He misses them too. I just know it.