None of them know that I know about their lives.
The painter, who lives halfway down the block in the corner apartment
on the first floor, doesn't realize that I'm paying attention. The
manager of my apartment building has no idea that I know about his
new girlfriend, the death of his dog and the time he locked himself
out of the building. And the boy on the top floor of the exclusive
condominiums doesn't even know that I exist.
I am not a spy. I'm not even highly voyeuristic (although I once
caught a boy and his girlfriend having slow, sensuous sex in his
car and was quite reluctant to tear myself away).
But I am compelled to look through windows.
Some people seem to know and understand this compulsion, and they
are content to put different aspects of their lives on display.
The painter, for example, has created a centerpiece on his windowsill
of well-worn brushes of varying size, texture and type, arranged
bristle-side up in a clay pot, like so many dried flowers. The pot
is handmade. The handles of the brushes are stained with many colors
At night I can see unfinished canvases in the corner of the room,
propped up on easels or against the wall. I don't particularly like
his work. I have never seen the tenant of this corner studio, but
I have seen evidence of him. Perhaps he spends his afternoons next
door at the coffee shop, bare-footed and smoking as he slowly sips
a double espresso and reads a tattered Kerouac novel. Or maybe he
works there, to support his painting. Although I have little to
go on, I can still imagine a life as though it was laid out before
me like a quilt. I have imagined him a past, a girlfriend and a
I hope he doesn't mind.
There are others, too, who may be aware that I'm looking. But rather
than display their life, they instead choose to display something
more random. I like to think that the guy who lives around the corner
puts the large, ceramic chicken in his window for my (and other
It's absurd, certainly, and made even more so by the fact that
it is balanced precariously on a large electronic keyboard. The
keyboard, in turn, is intricately wired to a candy-colored iMac.
I have never seen anyone in that apartment, either. But the chicken
is always waiting to greet me cheerfully as I return from work in
am, of course, assuming that the tenants of these worlds are male.
I have no actual proof (other than a lack of decorating panache)
that they are so. It is a sense that I have, though. It is hard
for me to imagine a woman being comfortable with putting aspects
of her life on display like that. There are some places I observe
where I have seen women living. But these are guarded and secretive.
The blinds or curtains are always pulled, and my glimpses of the
lives behind the screens are limited to what I can see through the
One woman, who lives in a basement apartment, presumably hides
because her windows are located along the sidewalk of a major street.
I can understand not wanting some of the more
denizens of the neighborhood to intrude. In all truth, I have no
interest whatsoever in her. Her choice of artwork is bland, her
wine rack is always empty and her always-spotless apartment is decked
entirely in white, from curtains to bedspread.
But the apartment itself is worth looking at. When I first spied
it from the street, workers had just begun the task of gutting it.
Woodwork, which had been painted off-white, was sanded down and
finished to a rich cherry. Worn linoleum in the kitchen was replaced
with ceramic tile. And the oak floors were stripped and refinished.
I watched this transformation each day with appreciation for the
beauty that was being created, for the space that was taking shape.
And when someone finally moved in, I felt a pang of jealousy.
had loved that apartment, had imagined lovingly caressing that woodwork,
had imagined the joy of bare feet on the beautiful floors. I had
planned candle-lit dinners and original works of art to grace the
stunning interior. I had forgotten that such a place would be way
out of the price range that affords me only my small studio
whose windows, I might add, overlook a wall and nothing else.
Windows provide a barrier
a shield between me and a world
that I might want to look at for a while, but is not my own. I can
stare with open envy at the pale, red-haired gothic goddess in Hot
Topic. Through the window, I can imagine her small, fragile body
abandoning itself to dancing in some dark, shadowed club. I can
sigh at the way her black velvet dress shimmers in the light and
flows behind her deliberate movements.
But if I enter the store, the mundane world crowds in. The barrier
is gone, and with it the illusion of looking upon something obscured
in some way. If I were ever to enter the painter's apartment, the
chicken's home or any of the other spaces I glimpse only through
panes of glass, then I would lose the delight I take in sneaky glances
or open staring. Their stories, spun in my own head and woven into
fanciful tales of odd habits and intriguing lives, would crumble
in the face of a sink full of dirty dishes just like my own.
So I leave the gothic goddess to her work. Having already walked
in, I will wander the store, mindlessly fingering objects for which
I have no need. But I will see her out of the corner of my eye and
remember the stories I had about her from the other side of the
window. And when she asks if she can help me, I do not meet her
gaze and mumble that I am only looking.