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Guest Writer

by Beth Cooper

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 of paint.

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 cat.

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 watchers') amusement.

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 the evening.

I 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 cracks.

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 … unusual ... 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.

I 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.

See more from Beth in our archives.

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