‘There’s risk in everything, right?’ The serendipity and agony of dating your neighbour

One night, Hayden Starr returned home to find his neighbours having a party. He lived in an apartment complex in Canberra, with only one other unit on his floor, its front door just “a metre apart” from his own. Keen to see who lived there, he invited himself in.

“I grabbed a cheap bottle of wine I had lying around, go in and see this delightful, lovely girl,” he says. “And that’s how I met Sophie. It was her party, but we ended up spending ages chatting and she tells me all these crazy stories. After that I was like ‘oh man, there’s something about this girl. There’s something about this neighbour of mine.’”

The meet-cute was followed by an equally rom-com courtship: the pair spent weeks hanging out as “just friends” before eventually locking lips. A few months in, Sophie moved to Melbourne and the relationship was off. But when feelings didn’t go away, she flew up on Valentine’s Day, aboard a private plane, in a grand romantic gesture that culminated in a teary airport reunion (they’re “not rich”, Starr disclaims, she just had a pilot friend who happened to be flying up that weekend.)

Sophie eventually moved back to Canberra to be with Starr. So did he ever worry that dating a neighbour might, well, blow up in his face? “The thought never crossed my mind,” he says. “I was like ‘I really like this girl’. I just had so much faith in it.”

But not every over-the-fence romance works out as well as theirs. One woman told me that at a former address she had slept with two people on her street, and another a block away, forcing her to dress up every time she had to go to the supermarket.

Another matched with a man on Tinder who told her on their date she looked “familiar” – he turned out to be the driver on the bus route she took to work every morning. When things did not pan out, she started taking the train. Multiple friends have regaled me with horror stories about having flings with men in their neighbourhood, only to spot them at local haunts later – with other women.

Hayden Starr and his girlfriend Sophie, who met as neighbours and fell in love
Hayden Starr and his girlfriend, Sophie, who met as neighbours and fell in love. Photograph: Hayden Starr

Becoming romantically entangled with a neighbour is a high-risk but potentially high-reward gambit – get it right and you could have a marriage of love and convenience. Get it wrong and every coffee run comes with the possibility of an uneasy encounter.

But it’s also not an uncommon scenario – after all, we’re more likely to meet the people we share cafes and footpaths with. That’s how it went for Nola James, who dated someone on her street over a decade ago in Hobart.

“I would finish work at the same time every day, so at five past five I was always coming up the street,” she says. “I found out later that he would strategically take his garbage out to the bin out the front [when I was walking home] so he could smile and wave at me. Over time he got up the courage to say hello and then we started having a chat and he asked me if I wanted to go for a coffee.

“It was a very nice, normal meet-cute story.”

The pair dated for three or four of the most expedient months of James’ life. “If you forgot something or decided you wanted to go home in the middle of the night, you really just could pop down,” she says. They eventually broke up, but James doesn’t remember being particularly afraid of bumping into each other. “Hobart’s a super small place and we are all quite used to running into our exes, regardless of how close you might live to one another.”

But in 2021, it’s not just bin day that shoots cupid’s arrow. Dating apps also play a role in facilitating local love – and discomfort – particularly when people are confined within a 5km lockdown radius.

At the start of Sydney’s latest lockdown, Alex* (not his real name) went with his housemates to play basketball at the courts around the corner from their house. In the middle of the game, their ball went flying over a wall and into the neighbouring garden, sparking a tense confrontation.

“All we heard was someone screaming ‘who did that!’ and this man appeared from an upstairs balcony. I politely asked for our basketball back and he said no,” Alex says. A protracted yelling match ensued.

“Eventually he came outside and met us. He said he wasn’t comfortable picking the ball up because of coronavirus and that he thought we threw it over his fence deliberately. After a long discussion, he called the police on us.”

Alex thought that would be the end of it. Later that day he opened Grindr, a gay dating app that shows you a grid of the users geographically closest to you. “I noticed that this person who obviously lived on my street showed up on the grid and I was like ‘this is the motherfucker that has my basketball’,” Alex says. According to Grindr, the man lived 135m away from him.

“A couple of days later he messaged me and asked if I was the person that lost their basketball and if I wanted to come over to ‘collect it’. I declined the invitation and asked him to donate the ball to somewhere that might find use for it.”

Has Alex seen the basketball man since? “Every fuckin’ day,” he says. “The other day I was getting a coffee and he looked at me, then just quickly looked away. It is awkward.”

Some people – like Melissa Mason from Sydney’s inner west – deliberately reduce their radius for potential matches on dating apps. Mason had a good reason to narrow her bubble: “Paul Mescal from Normal People had been spotted in the area, at my local pub and all these places nearby.

“I was single and having fun so I was just like, whatever, I’m just gonna search for this guy. And so I made sure the radius only covered the areas where he’d been seen.”

Melissa Mason and Tom Falkner met via an online dating site and they were living a street away from each other.
Melissa Mason and Tom Falkner met via an online dating site and they were living a street away from each other. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“And I lowered my age range as well because I realised he was 24, which is chaotically young. I thought he was way older than that. I’m 35, so I was like, this is bordering on too young.”

Mason didn’t find Paul Mescal, but she did match with another 20-something male: Tom, her now-boyfriend. He lived 500m up the road.

“And that was honestly quite alarming at first,” she says, expressing fears of post-breakup supermarket encounters. “But I went for it and we’re still together now, and we’re moving in together in a few weeks.”

Mason is happy she rolled the dice.

“I think the fear of it not working out and then poisoning all your local areas, honestly, it’s not that big a deal,” she says. “There’s risk in everything, right?”

In neighbourhood dating, as in all matters of the heart, sometimes you have to take a leap.

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