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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.