pandemic friends neighbors

Our neighbor drops off bagels many mornings now…

…the paper bag looped over the door handle of our condo. Usually it’s only one bagel, a blueberry one for my seven-year-old, now that he knows she likes this kind of sacrilege. But sometimes he’ll throw in a few bananas for us, too, or an extra bag of green beans. I’ll wake up to a text. Left stuff at your door! When I open it up, I find the bag swinging there.

Often it will also be full of plates or bowls — ours. The ones on which I fed him pizza or cake or cookies or stew. Want some soup? We have tons. Watch out for the bay leaf! I slice off a clean piece of homemade challah every Friday night, each week a new recipe. Shabbat Shalom! he’ll text. This is the best one yet! He washes and returns them a few days later.

This is the tiny, unexpected community we formed during Covid, this small series of gestures along the hallway of our Los Angeles apartment building. We have a larger community in this city — friends from our daughter’s school, our synagogue, my sister an hour away — so I barely knew our neighbor Jay before the pandemic. I would have barely recognized him outside the confines of our block. He would have had that vague sheen of something familiar that doesn’t cohere: do I…know that guy…?

But now we text many times a day, about updates in the building or the falling Covid numbers. In October and November — remember then?! — we sent off a flurry of anxious exchanges about the election. He lives alone, though he has two grown daughters, and sometimes I think, through this pandemic year, he has started to think of me as one of them, the needy one, forever coming to my rescue when it comes to disasters in the apartment, the way my own dad would if he were down the hall.

Can you come over? I’ll text him as the washing machine convulses water. And there he is, always, still in his mask, before I can panic in earnest. He’s in his seventies, retired. He only recently got his second dose, so his world continues to be small. He goes nowhere but the market at 5 a.m. or long walks before an afternoon nap.

How did I ever live without him? How did I not know he was there all along?

In exchange, I give him all I know how: warm chocolate cake, cookies out of the oven, soup from the stove, piping hot bread. I leave it on his doormat. Later, he’ll send me photos of the cookies on a plate with an espresso, Jeopardy on in the background. I am leaving these sweets for Jay, but I am also, in some alternate universe, leaving them for my parents far away in Montreal, my uncles in New York, my own elders who I hope were helped by people down the hall. The people I’ve not been able to see in almost two years. The people my heart is most bound to.

But these last couple years have taught us that community is something else, something closer, something less abstract and more essential. Perhaps it is not only the people we love the most, the people with whom we share children or schools or history. Perhaps it is the people who are geographically close, the people in our sight lines.

These are the kinds of connections I don’t want to lose as the world opens up. I don’t want to go running back to what I knew before. I want to let my world grow with those who are right here. What if, on Thanksgiving, Jay came over? What if my world expanded to include him, too?

Back in April, when we were still on the cusp of vaccinations and had no family or friends around, I decided at the very last second that we absolutely had to have a Passover Seder for our tiny family of three. I threw whatever we had in the fridge onto the table — eggs, orange, parsley, salted water, roasted veggies, Matzah, wine, soup I’d picked up at the local restaurant, charoset I sort of made up — and texted Jay. Can I bring you a plate?

The next morning, knowing we were heading to the desert for a week, he left us a package at the door: oranges, apples, bananas. Enjoy your time off. And wear your masks!

There’s a way in which I need Jay, and I hope he feels he needs us, too.

Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also published Cup of Jo stories about marriage and motherhood.

P.S. 13 Cup of Jo readers share their joyful reunions, and making peace with my quarantine body.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)