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CURTIS HARNACK

HIGH ROOMS

I'm curious to observe them in their ordinary living: that young pair half a block away, whose picture windows are usually uncovered. In the innocence of their presumed privacy they simply are as they are.

It's not much to look at. Bland and ordinary for the most part. Of course, I don't spend all my time watching them, just off moments-mornings upon awaking, noting how their schedule dovetails with mine, or evenings before the seven o'clock news, and later at night when their flat is lit up like a department store window and they seem most at ease inhabiting their small, unspectacular lives.

Lately I've devoted more time than I should to that couple. Imagining their lives will probably not help me understand mine. I'm over twice their age and have long since gone through the rites of domesticity they're so good at displaying. Yet I'm a little jealous too, remembering how it was.

Their high rooms are half a block away across a city canyon, but I don't need binoculars, being farsighted. Furthermore, high-powered lenses would put a voyeuristic edge on my watching, which I know to be only innocent curiosity, combined with nostalgia and self-identification. Being at a distance aids in conjuring up how it is for them. Even at the opera or ballet I never sit close, since some blurriness is esthetically necessary to create the proper illusion.

Actually, it was my wife who got me started looking. She remarked about one apartment dweller across the way who'd placed several life-size Venus statues on his balcony. Another tenant with a large terrace once tried to give a garden party, complete with striped tent, fake grass, and plastic trees at strategic points. But a strong north wind blowing off Central Park heaved the tent in and out like an enormous bellows, until finally a gust got fully under and away it blew, over the side-where it hung like a King Kong rag, evidence of gigantic and abnormal mayhem.

How we laughed about it! In those days we found a lot of things funny. I thought we were getting along all right, for the most part, but often one doesn't know the real story. Then you begin to imagine anything.

We made a game of speculating about the tenants over there. One apartment was all Japanese: shoji screens, bamboo in tubs, and oriental vases under spotlights. Another was done up in art deco, silver and black. When a lease expired, the rooms would be stripped of everything but the venetian blinds-which management provided, since the walls were mostly glass. No flat remained vacant long. Soon another expensive decorator plan transformed the boxy spaces, and there would be new people for us to consider. Part of our pleasure in guessing about them was that we'd never know if our theories were right. We aided and abetted each other. I suppose all couples have strategies to stay interested and involved-within each other's orbits-but I made the mistake of believing our laughs, took the signs of companionableness as an indication of how we were getting on. Measures, gauges.

Now I'm still at it, with those seemingly connubial youngsters across the way.

Young professionals, they must be: lawyers, or perhaps in retailing, able to afford where they live, smack in the center of glamorous Manhattan. They're from elsewhere or they'd have known better than to lease in that building. Three years ago the tenants staged a rent strike because of the shabby upkeep and lack of basic services-leaky pipes, cracked walls, unrepaired broken windows. All reported gleefully in the Times, because of the luxury-level rents charged. But they no doubt are oblivious to the house's history-what does anything matter, except each other?

They sleep under a baby-blue down comforter, he naked, she in a coy 1890s shirttail. The gray carpet helps to furnish the room, and both of them go barefoot much of the time, no doubt enjoying the tickly feel of the nap between their toes. From this distance I can't make out their exact features, but they look much alike, with heart-shaped faces, modest noses, brownish hair. Anglo-Saxon ordinary.

I suppose my wife and I (why can't I say her name?), both from the Midwest, looked much the same when we were their age and beginning together here. That girl's pert breasts aren't as large as my wife's but perfect for her slim, angular body. Anyhow, I could never see the point of isolating certain body parts for erotic relish, when it's the total effect that counts. He's in such proper proportion everywhere that he could illustrate a hygiene book. In far better physical shape than I ever was and considerably less hairy. The two remind me of the NASA male/female line-figure drawings exhibited in the Aeronautics and Space Museum in Washington, which our powerful radio transmitters are beaming to the outermost limits of the universe, hoping for a response in kind.

But it's just me, receiving their image.

I used to be in Washington a lot, lobbying for a consumers' group. I learned to my sorrow that excessive travel can be hard on a marriage. One loses the rhythm of intimacy; and you can't make up such ordinariness on weekends, no matter how hard you try. Travel does strange things. The rubbing of the atmosphere on a person's body-with all that movement-seems to create a kind of static which disconnects or interrupts normal domestic signals.

Now that job is over, along with everything else. So I gaze over at the young housekeepers and envy their small, daily routines undertaken together, as we used to do, without being aware of them particularly, or grateful.

In the bedroom they're both nude quite a bit, though not part of sexual foreplay. She keeps the mystery of her naked self somewhat more guardedly, and I approve-for their love life will be more romantic and voluptuous. To be honest, when I catch a glimpse of her without clothes, I feel a definite stirring and realize that this peeping might go too far. I have it no more under control than anything else in my life just now. I'm so far away, but I feel the impact of her presence, whereas he, who's right there in the room, seems rather indifferent to her charms; casual, almost, as if they are just two people in a locker room.

His nudity gives him an animal appearance, particularly when he moves quickly. The room he inhabits becomes a cage and he a primate roaming aimlessly about, genitals swinging. If the World Trade Center could be thought of as a giant tuning fork, with this couple caught in the eyebeam of investigative onlookers from elsewhere in the universe, could such viewers be able to distinguish between this male jumping around-and the monkeys in the nearby Central Park zoo?

They sleep quite late even on weekday mornings, knowing just how much time is needed to make it to the office walking-surely the reason for living where they are, no commuting hassles. In the emerging light he can be found sleeping on his stomach, one arm hanging to the carpeted floor (he's nearest the window), and even in winter the upper panes are wide open, for both believe in sleeping in fresh air. From that habit alone I know they're from the hinterland, because there's little hope of catching fresh air in New York by opening a window. Maybe they're from Ohio, as I am. Perhaps a small town, near Cincinnati.

My waking up is often in sync with their rising; I never wait long to see them stir. Suddenly (an alarm clock ringing?) he sits up, then feet to the floor as he looks at the sky to see what kind of day it is. He hurries to the bathroom, buttocks white where swim trunks covered him-wherever he met the sun last summer.

She snatches a few more minutes of sleep. Sometimes he tenderly nuzzles her awake, but it never leads to more on weekdays, or I'd have to stop watching. Then he pads into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator for orange juice. He makes coffee-instant brew, from the quickness of it; and with boxed cereal and a pitcher of milk settles down at the table near the window in his white terry cloth robe and reads the Times, or perhaps it's The Wall Street Journal.

Although she takes a long while in the bathroom, she emerges fully clothed for work. While she sips coffee from a mug and nibbles toast, he dresses quickly: usually black jockey shorts (perhaps her doing), dark suit, striped shirt, a regimental tie. Then a quick zip with the electric razor, no mirror necessary. He now looks ready for the moneymaking midtown world, and they leave the apartment together, turning off the hall light.

I have other things to do (but these days not all that much): my daily fruitless chat with the employment agency trying to place me; volunteer work in the neighborhood senior center; and I'm signed up for a soup-kitchen detail on Ninth Avenue-which is supposed to make me feel useful to society, but it's most depressing. Also, I can always disappear into the black hole of a movie theater.

There're no friends to engage for lunch. I was away working in Washington too long; and in New York if you don't diligently keep up with a circle you soon don't have any. I'm embarrassed to phone acquaintances we both knew-having to fill in, tell what's happened-afraid they'll either be sorry for me or angry that I made them feel uncomfortable by shoving my life in front of them, if only for a little while.


Around six o'clock the two return, sometimes later, if they've been shopping in D'Agostino's supermarket. Although they don't make big productions of their meals, they're extremely health-conscious. Immediately upon arrival, he pulls on jogging clothes as if returning to boyhood: a bright-colored jersey top, trunks or baggy sweatpants, garish running shoes-and leaves for Central Park paths. Sometimes she joins him, but if not, she dutifully follows routines from an exercise manual, laid out on the bedroom carpet.

I marvel at their commitment to bodily fitness. It shows their mutual high regard for each other-this gift of their perfected bodies, in an ideal pairing. Long ago I should have made an effort to lift weights or swim, but a brisk walk always seemed enough. I wasted my natural sports talents, thinking myself adult and too smart for that, got badly out of shape-unlike my wife, who began looking better and better as she toned up and figured out how to make the most of her appearance. I didn't tip to what might be driving her-clear signs I should have noticed.

About two nights of the work week the lovebirds don't return until ten or ten-thirty-after a movie or a restaurant meal: it's seldom later, for they're great on sack time. We were, too. Especially at the beginning, before the separate roads began and leaving the bed early seemed necessary, to get on with our individual concerns. Me to catch the Metroliner, she to the gym before heading to the office. So many things to do, beckoning.

Although occasionally they are away for an entire weekend, especially in summer, on New York weekends they love to play house with domestic duties: to the laundromat downstairs, then sorting clothes on top of the blue comforter, he doing his piles, she hers. They stow away their garments neatly, being tidy, everything in its right place. Their flat is exceptionally clean because of their vacuuming and scrubbing-floors, woodwork, walls, and once in a while they wash the windows, he swabbing with a long-armed sponge, she telling him where he's missed.

Watching them at it brings so much back.

Their life in the living room, the television giving off bluish-white flashes, is the most difficult to take note of. In there, a peculiar enchantment steals over them, draining them of life and thought, making them empty husks which might easily become inhabited by alien intelligences. I feel myself to be such an alien, yet also one of them, since I know their lives intimately.

He watches football Sunday afternoons and Monday nights, just as I once did, with a can of beer and a bag of chips. One day while looking at their bedroom TV, he tilted the chair back, and I noticed he was going bald at the crown. Might be nearing thirty-older than I thought. She appears to be of prime childbearing age, and maybe they have some plan for a family in mind, as my wife and I did, although it never came to anything. No doubt two paychecks are necessary to carry the expense of the apartment (which was true of us), and these days some women postpone the baby until they're nearly forty. We didn't get around to it-never a good time, it seemed-and our two-ness for so long kept being reinforced. At last we didn't even talk about it; I don't know what her thoughts were on the subject. It somehow finally didn't come up.

Sundays they sleep until ten or eleven. Never go to church. He slips out from under the warm blue comforter and streaks to the door, where his fat Times lies on the mat, then returns to the nest, lying on his stomach, the sports section spread out on the carpet so that he can check the Saturday game scores. After a bit he rolls over and dozes some more. Or maybe she's awake and they get together under there. Lazy Sunday mornings like this were often our only time for it, especially if we'd been too tired Saturday night. And I was in Washington most weekday nights.

I'm actually relieved I haven't seen anything definite going on that might indicate I shouldn't be looking, yet I can't help hoping they're making the most of lovemaking chances-they ought to at that age. We were defused too easily; sometimes it was her, sometimes me. I don't know why, or what turned us off. Then we both got wary and silent about it.

Anyhow, by noon they're sitting at the breakfast table, where she has prepared something special-waffles, or pancakes with Vermont maple syrup. But that's after he's been out for a quick run on an empty stomach. Then, the rest of the day they do mostly nothing. It's pretty boring to watch them-but I do.

One Sunday morning, he threw back the comforter and looked into the sunlight, gesturing with his left arm high, toward the window. He stood there, nothing on, in a posture of contempt for the city, or the outerworld that might be watching, shaking his fist, then retreated into the dark interior.

I wondered uneasily if he'd seen me at the window. For some time he may have noticed me standing there, staring. But no, surely the distance was too great. There was no connection between those two and me-only in my head.

Toward the end of that week a thick curtain was installed over the venetian blinds, and it remained securely drawn at all times. I couldn't gaze over there anymore. Nights-when I forgot and cast a glance that way-the window of my apartment reflected only myself.

One morning-I don't know how long after-in D'Agostino's supermarket I saw them pushing a cart and grabbing groceries from shelves. Strangely, it was his bald spot that made identity certain, a tonsure in the making. Just when I realized it was them (but to my astonishment she was very pregnant, the baby maybe only a month off), they turned and saw me staring.

My first thought was why not say hello, invite them home for tea or a drink. Disarm their wariness upon hearing such a suggestion by telling them to ignore the fact that this is the big city, forget that it's simply not done. We're neighbors, and I know you. I know everything about you.

Except, she was so pregnant! That was a surprise-could so much time have passed? Yet it was definitely those two, though I was most acquainted with the look of them not wearing street clothes. I knew every detail of their lives.

But did I? Now came the shocker. Up close and in the flesh, I saw clearly the sort they were. His pug face was thick and coarse, blue eyes set too deeply under heavy brows, mouth small, ungenerous, with thin lips over small white, rather feral teeth. Her face was dull and tired, eyes rather blank and expressionless: a plain face with no inner life. Plus a certain heavy calmness that pregnancy brings-that's all.

I'm not saying looks tell everything. But here were two people I'd ordinarily not glance at twice, a most uninteresting couple.

I must have startled them by the intensity of my scrutiny, for he nodded a little, ever so briefly, and she did, too, as if they weren't sure I wasn't somebody they knew, or had once met-for why was I so pressing in my attention?

But now I had seen enough.

Their idiosyncratic life-stories had long ago left them, I realized. Their lives had been drained away, if not by outside forces of the extraterrestrial kind, then by the modern electromagnetic fields, which they (and most everyone these days) constantly inhabit. I had nothing to communicate to them, nor they to me.

I'd seen too many of their kind recently in front of the nearby Hard Rock Cafe, chattering about Joni's shoes or Elvis's belt, as they waited in line behind a velvet rope, sometimes for an hour, to be allowed inside to eat ordinary hamburgers and guzzle Coca-Cola. And down the block in the other direction, a similar establishment-Planet Hollywood-with waiting lines just as long. Americans of all ages, on a queue to partake of similar fare and ogle Hollywood artifacts, perhaps press their palms into the cement imprint of some star's, there on the wall, a decorative motif suggested by yesteryear's Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. All these goony people, content to be in the wash of celebrity, hokey as it is (and in some ways they know it). Zapped by electronic communication controls into wanting this. Being in the know the way everyone is who keeps an eye on the tube-and meanwhile growing for themselves that blank-eyed sameness.

Their individual stories have left them. So in the end I didn't speak to them in the supermarket. We had nothing after all to say to each other.

When I returned home, the doorman gave me a rather puzzled smile, looked searchingly at me. I was feeling disoriented-did it show? Walking to the elevator, I wondered about the doorman's glance, which seemed a little odd (or was it me, looking strange?).

I was alert to something different, I didn't know what.

My apartment door has two locks, one a spring lock, the other a bolt that turns with the key. I never leave without turning the bolt, for the spring lock could be released by any delivery boy in seconds, using a plastic strip. When at home, though, my wife and I often just use the spring lock.

Somebody was home. There was only the spring lock. As I pushed in, I noticed the hall light on. Not the way I'd left it.

"Hello," I called, in as neutral a voice as I could muster. "So you're back."

That's how real it seemed.

Now I would hear her story, or what she chose to reveal of it. And I'd tell about the couple across the way, in the high rooms.

But there was no answer. I'd been mistaken about the locks. Also about the doorman's funny look. And probably about the couple in the grocery store (she couldn't be that pregnant so soon!).

"I'm back," I said, out loud but only to myself. And closed the door.

The rest would have to be imagined.

See the middle-aged man alone in his room, always staring out. Nobody else moves in the chamber and only he occupies the brass double bed. He shouldn't be solitary so many evenings, the television set on for the noise and image-flicker but seldom watched; the book on the nightstand unread. He ought to think of some better way of handling the rupture that changed his life.

He won't find anything by going to the window. Out there-no models-only distance, and their apartment in the sky is moving through the universe just as his is. Their time lived is not his time and never can be.

Of course, he's still in shock-to think she would do that! Twenty-eight years of marriage; then suddenly just to walk out, with little explanation except modern feminist prattle about wanting to find herself and fulfill herself. No mention of him, whoever he is, but probably the adulterous connection had long been going on.

Quitting the Washington job, at this late date, was like shutting the barn door after the filly's gone-or however that old saw has it.

In a new light he remembers her frequently stated reminder: be sure to phone beforehand, when heading back to New York (her visitor might be on the premises?). Like a dumbhead, he always did.

And what about her sudden interest in working out at the Health & Racquet Club-maybe she met the guy there? And her switch in hairdressers and reincarnation as a blonde-the classic thing to do, when a woman has a new lover. Plus a different perfume. Then enrolling for evening courses at the New School-was he a fellow classmate?

Now she is elsewhere in the city, moving about, seeking ordinary happiness as if she has all the right in the world to ignore other people's lives there on display in apartment house rooms. Or thinks of windows merely as a means of looking out at the day or night-perhaps to see what the weather's like.

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