His wife kicks him out of the house for the second time that week. He learned not to hang around a few months ago- he'd been pounding on the door for two hours before she called the cops and they dragged him away from his own property. Later he wished they'd taken him sooner. There were blisters on his hands, cuts on his palms from where they'd hit the screen door, over and over. A few more hours in police custody would have saved him a lot of pain.
In a seedy bar the next night he'd referred to his wife as "the bitch" twenty-four times. When he'd finally called her by her name, someone nudged his side and crowed, "Who's that, your girlfriend or your favorite hooker?"
So he'd learned to take his punishment, to walk away and wait until he sees daylight coming up sickly and polluted over the rooftops. In the early morning the bitch becomes Elaine again, standing on the porch in an old bathrobe, smiling sleepy and, he can hardly believe it, a little embarrassed. He puts a hand in her hair, threading his fingers through the tangles, and brings his lips to the pale shine of her forehead like it's the key to the front door. But right now he's walking down a sidewalk at two in the morning, in the company of drunks and off-duty call girls, wondering if he could compare the sudden crash of Elaine's laugh to the sound of traffic and get away with it.
There's an apartment building looming over him, old enough to have its lower corners stained with soot. Most of the windows are blank with darkness, a few still glowing. He realizes there's a man leaning from one of the higher windows and he counts the floors up until the eighth. The man's got his elbows propped up on the sill, head in one hand; when he squints, he can see the glowing tip of a cigarette near the man's mouth. He's well-dressed, the collar of a linen shirt wilting around his neck, scowling like he's gotten home from a party that went badly.
He can't help smiling at the sight, reminded of the people he's talked to who bend over a carved-up bar counter, looking into the gold froth of their glass and their own distorted reflection. They tell him things in one stream of anger, these lives where coherency and truth are secondary to shaking fists at an indifferent sky. The man in the window has the same tightness in his jaw- he can almost hear him grinding his teeth.
He wonders what she looks like, the woman that man married, the woman who now has him glaring into the dark. He wonders if she's a girl who'd appreciate how the haze makes a dark sky look like velvet, as Elaine said a long time ago, like some inky dress you want to touch again and again, even without someone in it. Probably not, he thinks. She's prefer something cloudless, starry, transparent as disappointment. The kind of sky that Elaine would sigh about now.
Maybe she gets away with lying as often as Elaine does, with big eyes and a pure forehead. Maybe she throws off her husband's insults with a laugh, tilting back her head and exposing the pure curve of her neck. More than once Elaine has denied him, deflected him this way. It's as absurd as taking a swing at thin air and expecting to hit something solid.
Sometimes he considers not going home at all. But then he might miss that moment when she arrives and she smiles with those huge eyes, almost unreal, pale swells of gray that swallow the light. He wouldn't get to rub away the black mascara dots above her cheekbones or get to touch the little bump on the bridge of her nose. "Don't touch it," she'll say, "don't remind me, it's so awful-" and he knows she's fishing for compliments for the sound of his voice saying "no, no, you're beautiful," but what she doesn't know is that in every one of these reunions, he believes what he is saying.
When he gets to the next crosswalk he looks back at the occupied window. The man is gone and he wonders what called him back inside, a ringing phone or the sound of a key in the front door. Maybe his wife's voice coming groggy from the couch, saying baby it's late, let's just talk in the morning. Knowing they won't talk, and that time doesn't matter to a man spending Saturday night at his windowsill. He imagines the woman with Elaine's face, and once he's gotten to the corner of Delacroix and 53rd, he squints past the light of an all-night Chinese grocery and wonders who Elaine is dreaming about. Someone that's not him, he admits, and realizes that he's started not to care.
She's cold even though it's warm, trembling on purpose to feel like she's got a hold on herself. She's carrying her shoes in her hand, curls wilting against her neck still stiff with hairspray, and though walking is not her only option, she can't stay still long enough to remember her other choices. At two in the morning in a degenerate part of town, she's in the company of people who give her the mercy of not caring what she does.
A puddle of gasoline gleams dirty on the sidewalk, the reflection of her face cut in half by a slick oil rainbow. It's the reflection of a girl who is pretty and rich and burning, hot and ashy in the night, with the warped plastic smell of something that shouldn't be on fire. She finds herself sitting on the curb, leaning against a streetlight with her eyes closed. She's lucky she doesn't want to move, because she couldn't. Her throat burns like a mouthful of the brandy is stuck there, and she swallows on impulse. The rasp makes her cough and then she's laughing, low and ragged, a bitter sound that's been rotting in whatever part of her body stores mistakes and regret. Something important is flickering just outside the edge of her memory, but all her thoughts are at the bottom of the ocean, so murky and strange that even the idea of diving for them exhausts her.
She opens her eyes and can't tell if she was sleeping or unconcious or just too confused to complete the second half of a blink. She searches for something large and simple to look at, innocuous despite its size, with straight lines and rigid corners. She settles with gratitude on an apartment building, ten stories high and made of brick. Anything illuminated or intricate is too hard to focus on- her brain has to digest each bit separately, and the final process of putting each piece together is so overwhelming that she wants to heave everything she drank onto the sidewalk.
In another state of mind she'd wonder about these apartments, who lived behind each window: if they liked to fall asleep with the radio on, how much sugar they put in their coffee, whether they read bad mystery novels and if they'd admit that in public. At present she's been fixated on a tiny, smoldering light in an eighth-floor window for ten minutes before realizing it's someone smoking a cigarette. The only details she can make out are his short hair, curling behind his ears like it's drying in the smoggy air, and a shirt collar stark white in the dark. Even without seeing his face he looks blank, lost almost, like a little kid who's lost his mother in the supermarket.
She wonders how often she looks like that- staring out of eyes with nothing in them, like two mirrors, blank and reflective. Sometimes she drives on nights like these and takes random turns, making herself forget the way back, getting lost on purpose. Being lost in a city is much easier than being lost in her own head. When she turns around and tries to navigate backward toward her life, the maze has changed behind her. Hedges have grown up over all the old paths: her only choice is to go forward. But she doesn't know what's waiting for her, when she finally gets to the end.
Who knows, she thinks, pressing a hand to her temple where a headache is starting. Maybe everyone's in a maze. Maybe that man in the window is stuck in some mess of a life like hers. Maybe the way out, for him, is a leap from that window. But she hopes not. She hopes he gets a grip on himself, that he's headed for a future that's clean and happy and bright. If she saw him on the street, she'd wave and walk away smiling like he was an old friend.
She puts a hand on the rusted fender of a car parked next to her. It's rough and grimy feeling under her palm, but she can't stand up alone. When she makes it to her feet she catches her reflection int he car window, her dress crumpled and lipstick smeared, but no amount of time or wear can wipe away her air of privelege, the calm sense of entitlement belonging to every girl with plenty of money and a pretty face. It occurs to her that she looks like what she is: a spoiled brat who's made the mistake of growing a conscience.
She's sobered up enough to hail the first taxi that comes down the street. She takes a farewell look at the eighth-story window, but the man has disappeared. She tries to broadcast hope into that dark apartment, as if it were radiowaves, something measurable. There is no specific wish attached to it, only a feeling that makes her think of light, clean and warm.
When he moved out of his parents' house and into the city, the life that awaited him seemed extraneous, beside the point. All that mattered was what he finally got to leave behind. The cramped house with its narrow windows and lack of sunlight, the afternoons spent sitting at the kitchen table trying to see the future through a cloud of disappointment. he watched the past disappear in the rearview mirror of his old sedan and was a little surprised by how small it looked, how two-dimensional and without charm.
He expected nothing spectacular of his new life: he didn't even plan the details. But surely something would be there, a glowing and nebulous something in the distance. After all, even the simplest life was full of things- buildings and the weather and the people you passed in the grocery store. Whether you liked those things appeared to be the only question.
Now he finds himself amidst more clutter than he could have dreamed. Take this street, for instance, this derelict street in the middle of the night. He can count seven streetlights, thirteen parked cars, four apartment buildings and six people. The traffic is still heavy enough to constitute rush hour in the town he moved out of. All of it, all of this disregarded trash, the crumbling pavement and moths twitching at every light, is so far away and untouchable that though existent in theory, for him it is fleeting as smoke.
It's not enough for it to just be there, filling up the foreground of his vision. He can't touch these things in any real way. Not with his hands but with his whole life, as if he had some stake in them, as if their existence depended even the smallest bit on his. The city roars on without him and he feels like a little boy again, banging his fists on the door of a clubhouse that the older kids won't let him into.
The most imposing building in view is a set of apartments, ten stories high. It catches his eye because it looks permanent and inhabited by people who have connections, who have some tie to the place they live in, someone to have lunch with or sleep next to at night. The only thing spoiling this idea is the man leaning out of his window on one of the upper stories. From this angle he can see the pale gleam of his eyes, placid and blue.
The look on the man's face is so famililar that it feels like staring into his own reflection- he's caught himself looking this way in mirrors. Maybe it's not so much his face as his posture, the way he leans forward and looks at the sky like a starving man, as if he hungers for something so much that he'd leap from the window when it passed by. He feels a sympathy for this man in the window, a tenuous connection. They have both evolved past loneliness into a sick, burning kind of longing. They want to sink their hands into something that will give into touch, any person or belonging that will make them feel solid. Anything to peel away this involuntary skin he's grown, this layer between him and the atmosphere that used to be a protection. Now it's a cage.
He wonders how someone ends up looking out of his window on a Saturday night, how much the man has lost to come to occupy that position. It's unthinkable that he never had the life he wanted. If he'd never had good things within his grasp he wouldn't know to hunger for them. He's never wanted anything as much as he's wanted old happiness back.
He shakes his head and walks faster. Movement always makes him feel purposeful, whether or not he has a destination. He'll make his way home eventually, though "home" always feels like the wrong word for it, his small apartment with skylights and very little furniture to block the gleam of light on the wooden floor. he wishes he were in one of the cars speeding past him, or better yet, a taxi. Saying his address out loud to the driver would be satisfying. He could convince himself, for the entire ride, that he was bound for a familiar place, a place he needed to be.
He remembers the man in the window and looks back, but there's no one at the open frame anymore. It's a rectangle of dark glass, as anonymous as any of its neighbors. he wonders where the man went, if he's sitting on the couch with the blue glow of a television flickering across his face, or if he's gone to sleep like everyone else. He thinks of himself staring out a window and tries to dissolve the image right away- he never wants to be that empty.
Already the man seems like a distant memory, but he can tell that it will follow him around for a long time: that desperate tilt to his face, the stance of a lion who's found himself starving.
He takes his routine seat at the living-room window once his daughter goes to bed. Usually there aren't this many people out at such a late hour, but it's a weekend, he thinks, and anyway they don't look like casual strollers.
There's a man who keeps clenching his fists, a sweep of stubble along his chin like he hasn't stopped to shave in days. There's a woman in a tacky party dress who's sitting at the curb, groaning with either sickness or sadness, her head in her hands. There's a boy who could still be in high school, no older than his daughter, who stares at the ground and kicks every can or flattened bottle he sees. Other than those, there's the occasional homeless lady, a few drunks, and a few women who are likely hookers, though he wouldn't risk asking them.
He started having trouble sleeping a year ago, after he and his wife split up and he got his own apartment on the other side of the city. The doctor thought it was just stress, a temporary thing, getting used to falling asleep in a new place. One night he pulled a chair up from the dining-room table and sat looking out of the street, and it turned into a habit. He can sleep like a baby now, if he wants to.
The divorce had been much easier than he'd expected. He used to hear about couples promising to remain friends and think they were crazy, but he was surprised at the honest lack of hard feelings. They'd been having breakfast one morning after Allie was on the school bus, and when he looked up at his wife- drinking orange juice, reading the paper- he realized he wasn't in love with her. He couldn't remember if ever had been. When he told her, she laughed out of relief. Now they have lunch together on weekends, when Allie comes to stay with him.
He feels happy, most of the time, lucky to have friends and his daughter who, at five, still looks at him with her big brown eyes as if he hung the moon. He has a job that he likes, in a little bookstore downtown that always smells like fresh paper and ink. He's come to enjoy being alone during the week, not having to cook or get dressed, playing Chopin loud on the stereo without hearing Allie wail for more interesting music.
He won't get to keep this kind of life forever, he knows; one day he'lll get restless. But right now, looking out over the rooftops at the distant rustle of trees, at the sky so lush with light that it seems to smoulder, he's happy. He has no complaints to shout to the people below him. Even as silhouettes, shadows under streetlights, they seem to have enough problems of their own.
He hears a soft whispering sound. Before he turns around he recognizes it as Allie's sock feet on the kitchen tile. He shuts the window and picks her up, her head lolling sleepy on his shoulder. "Back to bed," he tells her. He falls asleep at the foot of her bed and doesn't wake up until morning.