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...and as neighbors

We had lived in the house almost a year before I met my next door neighbor. I didn't find this surprising, since Jay and I both worked, and our evenings and weekends had a breathless quality. The people we knew couldn't understand why we had ''gone rural,'' preferring to commute rather than stay close to our jobs. But I loved gardening and Jay loved cross-country skiing, and this way we had them both at our front door. We felt we really knew how to live.

I met my neighbor one spring evening. She was collecting kindling and I was searching for signs that winter was truly gone. She invited me back to her house , but I was expecting Jay to call from Europe. We talked. Cautious, polite talk about weather and woods and where we had lived before. She said they had carefully chosen this house because they planned, very soon, to retire there.

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I left her, saying we must get together soon. I really meant to. But there was never time. There was work, gardening, weekends in the snow or at the beach. There were business parties, late night meetings. These were the things that were really important.

From time to time, I would meet my neighbor in the ill-defined no man's land that separated our acres. In a rush of words, she would re-create an event or memory. Then she would stop abruptly and hurry off as though she had been indiscreet.

One icy morning, when I had what I considered a very important meeting, my car skidded in the driveway and finally settled in the underbrush. No amount of rocking would move it. With only minutes to catch the commuter train, I phoned my neighbor. There was no awkward pause, no polite excuse. Having been called out of the shower, she threw a coat over her robe, wrapped a turban around her hair and sped across the ice to deposit me at the station with seconds to spare. Seeing her handle the wheel with the aplomb of an Indy 500 driver, I realized I neither knew nor understood anything about her.

She brushed my thanks aside, saying she was sure I would do the same for her someday.

I never had the chance. One morning as I drove out, I noticed a large truck in front of their house. I hesitated, remembering police admonitions to report any unusual activity in the neighborhood. Then I saw them outside and was relieved that I didn't have to make that awkward decision. But I still hesitated. Though screened by trees, the truck looked surprisingly like a moving van.

A moving van would involve a different sort of decision. Where did idle curiosity end and human concern begin? They had planned that house so lovingly for their retirement. They would never leave it lightly. I told myself I was imagining things. It was, no doubt, a furniture van delivering another choice item for what she called their ''leisure years.'' With this convenient decision made, I continued on to work.

That evening I noticed a light in their house which disturbed me. The glow created unfamiliar shadows and silhouettes. As darkness deepened, the light revealed uncurtained windows, empty rooms and a few abandoned plants hanging forlornly in the kitchen.

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I've never learned where they went or why. I hope she didn't see me keeping my distance as the moving van waited outside her door. How terribly bleak it must have been to drive away, for reasons I cannot convince myself were happy ones, and feel that you have left no trace. At least I could have been there to say goodbye, to wave them off, to mark the moment.

I met my new neighbor in the woods when I came home today. She was very pleasant, brimming with questions. I answered them as best I could, then said ''we must get together sometime'' and started off. I had a lot to do.

But something slowed my steps. It struck me that, as time goes by, I make less and less effort to form new friendships.

I remembered how let down I felt when the vegetable garden outdid itself and I had no one with whom to share the surplus. I remembered how guilty I felt about turning away from neighbors who might have needed me. And I thought ahead to the day I would move and have to accept that it mattered to no one.

I turned and called my neighbor's name.

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