By Leah DeFusco
I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit looking into people’s windows — on nighttime walks through unfamiliar neighborhoods or from the safety of a concealed vantage point. There’s intimacy in the act of watching. Maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of a family at the dinner table or someone perusing a bookshelf in their living room. Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever the recipient of this gaze, what assumptions someone may make about my life and me. It strikes me as odd. The physical closeness of humans separated only by a couple of feet, maybe a fence or hedges or some plaster, and the sheer mystery of it still. The remnants of lives scattered in plain sight, like trash piled at the curb, housing their own secret worlds. It’s different when there’s less space separating humans, when the only thing between you and others is a stairwell, a door, a wall even.
The thing about living in a duplex, or an apartment, or really any house that has been adapted to accommodate multiple families, is that you can hear the happenings of all of the lives of the inhabitants. For most of my life, I have lived in these shared spaces. My two hands are not sufficient to count the condominiums with community pools, apartments with laundry rooms for tenants, houses with designated rooms and communal spaces. I always felt safe occupying a bedroom that shared a wall with someone else, even if it was a stranger. Throughout high school I would listen to the mumblings of my neighbor Ian’s conversations with friends and girlfriends or maybe boyfriends. That’s the thing, though: you never really know the full story of the person or people behind those walls. Still, I liked knowing that maybe he could hear me existing, too, putzing around at my desk, staying awake with Maria until 3 a.m., or attending to the persistent cries of our family cat. I also liked knowing that if someone broke in, I could scream bloody murder, rousing Ian or Roberta or Kim across the street. Or more realistically, I figured not many people would scope out apartment complexes to break into for the sheer fact that anyone living in Pondview Apartments couldn’t be making that much money. In these shared spaces, you are never alone, and while this may seem unappealing, and at times is unappealing, the evidence of another energy, another body beyond my walls, comforted me.
Nolan may start playing the piano as early as 8 a.m. He’s a classical pianist and has been playing since he was four or so. You can tell because his playing sounds almost free of any human error. When I first heard him, I was convinced the neighbors were listening to records featuring some sort of piano prodigy. I brush my teeth, sip my morning coffee, and sit on the toilet to the muted melodies that fill the spaces between our living space and theirs. In my fantasy, before I met him, Nolan was an old man who lived alone with a black cat slinking between rooms, purring against his varicose-veined legs and mewing for food. He wore wool sweaters and slippers, shuffling to his piano in a room dimly lit by a brass banking lamp that emitted a green halo of light that illuminated his bald head. I imagined that the room where he made music would be filled with musty, yellowing books, a sagging armchair, and his piano, of course. He would wiggle his thin, age-spot covered fingers over the ivory keys and play and play and play. Of course, I know this not to be true. I know that Nolan has shoulder-length sandy blonde hair and glasses that magnify his eyes, freezing him in a constant state of surprise. He is young, 28 or 29, and works at the local college. I see him walking or waiting for the bus sometimes, and when he happens to be exiting his home as I walk up the stairs, we may exchange hellos. He is shy, or maybe he’s just not great at making eye contact, and we haven’t conversed beyond cordial conversation, but sometimes I imagine us kissing in the doorway. And instead of his fingers playing the keys of his piano, they are caressing my face.
In India, Juliet and I shared a king-sized bed. In actuality it was two rock-hard mattresses smushed together. We lay side by side under the thick blankets our homestay mother gave us, often too dazed from exhaustion to talk. I constantly had a sheet of sweat coating my face but stubbornly baked under the blanket to quell the ravenous mosquitos that sucked at my ankles and feet.
The apartment was modest, with a cramped kitchen and a living room situated between the two bedrooms. In the mornings we sat on the brown sofas, smearing peanut butter on toast and sipping on hot chai in glass mugs that our mother prepared for us before we woke up. A thick curtain hung in the doorway of the other bedroom, slivers of light peeking out from the gaps between the fabric and doorframe, revealing flashes of movement, the existence of bodies stirring in early morning. They must have shared a room, too — our mother, father, and brother. The few times I caught glimpses of their room was when I had to shuffle through to the washing machine that resided in their bathroom. Their room was identical to ours with a large bed occupying the space, which I imagined them in together at night. Did they talk? Did Kartik, my brother, sleep with them, or on the floor? With the exception of the altar adorned with flowers and candles in the corner, our rooms were essentially arranged in the same fashion. Other more personal belongings marked their presence in the space, too, like Kartik’s black baseball cap strewn across the dresser or the hair clips and makeup scattered about that I assumed belonged to my mother. I liked to linger in these moments, steal glimpses of the humans that extended beyond the awkward small talk we shared at dinner. I hoarded these moments like secrets.
When that wasn’t enough, I took to the balcony, where our own sink and bathroom were located. As I brushed my teeth, I stared into the apartment windows across the alleyway. Our apartment buildings were so close I estimated that I could easily jump onto their balcony in the event of a fire. The occupant (or occupants, I cannot be sure) had painted the walls, or possibly moved in to a pre-painted apartment, a sickly green. From my own view the apartment could only house one person, but there was no way of knowing where the other doors led. The object of my fixation was not the size of the apartment but rather a man who I guessed to be in his late twenties or early thirties. I never saw him dressed in anything other than a white tank top and denim jeans, and he never hung any other items of clothing on his laundry line. I should have felt weird peering through the window at him sprawled across the bed, sometimes with another man, a brother, maybe, or a friend or lover. It wasn’t that I hoped to catch him doing something weird or kinky; rather, I derived a voyeuristic pleasure from watching another life pan out before me. Sometimes a woman stood by the window cooking dinner, the fragrant spices seeping through the cracked window as the man watched TV. I wondered who she was and how they knew each other. Did he hire her to cook for him? Were they friends or lovers? One day when I went out to brush my teeth, the lights across the way were off. And they stayed that way for the rest of my time there, and the laundry line remained naked, and it troubled me.
If you take a left off of South Main Street before you reach Pop’s Pizza and turn onto Willow Street, you will find the house that I lived in from second to fifth grade. It is a sagging white duplex with a carport attached to the side and two shabby porches, one on top and another on the bottom. The pool in the back probably hadn’t been swum in since the eighties, and instead of clear chlorinated water, murky algae kept a family of ducks afloat. We used to joke that the pool and surrounding soil were radioactive from all the chemicals emitted from the abandoned button factory that sat decaying next door. The lawn was home to grasses and weeds that grew without fear of being sliced by the blades of a lawnmower because Lou, our landlord, never came in time to mow it. So we ran through the almost foot-tall grass barefoot, throwing pregnant water balloons in the summer and setting up lemonade stands where lawn met road. Spot, our adored black cat who always had a fat bottom lip and alopecia, rolled around in those grasses and sunbathed on the asphalt driveway. In the side yard, a dogwood tree would bloom pretty pink flowers in the spring that my sister would take her prom photos beneath. And on the top balcony, the current tenant would sit, smoking a cigarette, swigging a beer, or chatting with the neighbors across the street.
Three different people would occupy that porch while we lived there: Scott, Todd, and, the most infamous in our family stories, Sheri. Frankie Valli’s song still plays in my ears whenever I think of her. We used to sing those lyrics at the top of our lungs in the living room so she could surely hear, even after we knew we weren’t supposed to engage with her. Sherrryyyy, sherry baby. I have no mental image of her anymore. She has dissipated into the corners of my memory and is better remembered in fragments rather than a cohesive whole. What remains is a misshapen puzzle of a person in my mind. Her long straightened hair and thin frame with tanning-booth-orange skin. Where her face should be is a blurry blob that I don’t think will ever come into focus. Despite this erosion of finer details, she still lives in my temporal lobe. So do her two shih tzu’s that clicked against our ceiling, moving excitedly from room to room as I played teacher in the living room that also doubled as my bedroom. I think she would let us play with them sometimes, but I never remember seeing her take them outside. If she did, they must have run around in that overgrown backyard with the ducks and radioactive pool water. There’s no way they could still be alive now.
Thanks to my sister, who has filled in the holes that my eight-year-old brain failed to solidify, I know that Sheri made her way to 31 Willow Street from Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She held catering jobs but never had a steady career, which didn’t completely explain the red convertible BMW she sped down the street in. On the few occasions that we ventured into her apartment, a large portrait of her late husband stared us down from the dining room. His death was the reason she popped pain pills and at times acted erratically. Like the time she ushered us into her apartment screaming that a bat was trapped beneath her bed. When we peeked our heads beneath the mangled sheets, there was no bat to be found but instead a limp, black bra mangled in the center of the floor. We didn’t go upstairs again after that. From time to time I still catch myself thinking about her. I wonder if she’s still alive, and if she is, what she looks like now. I wonder how much of her life was contrived, a story that she told us, and if any of it was really true. I wonder if she thinks about us, too.
She stands in front of the window, the walls of her bedroom radiating white light in the winter darkness. Her mouth moves as if she is talking to someone in the room or pondering something aloud to herself. She moves around the room, occasionally disappearing from view to an obscured corner or to fetch a glass of water or to go to the bathroom. When she returns, she is picking up things from the floor, folding a pair of denim jeans, and hanging a sweater on a black hanger. She swivels her hips as she does so. Is she listening to music? Someone else enters the room and sprawls across the bed. Only their legs are visible, ankles twitching from side to side. She opens her mouth and cocks her head back, eyes squinting closed. A cat appears, lifting its paw to bat at something invisible, something I cannot see. She scoops it from its sitting place and rocks the ball of fur in her arms, nuzzling her nose into its neck. More people enter and linger and they all open their mouths and cock their heads back and squint their eyes closed. Laughter. It permeates the plaster and drywall. It transcends the space between us.
When everyone has left, she sheds her day clothes and remains in her underwear and socks. Maybe she will water a plant, light a candle, read a book, or call her mother. Whatever comes next I cannot be sure of. She closes the blinds and turns off the lights.