February 07, 2012
That first morning I wrapped a scarf around my neck and lit the stove. I tripped over my shoes on my way to the sink to fill the pot. I looked down at them accusingly, as if anyone but me could have put them there. I looked up after kicking them across the room and that was when I saw him for the first time. I wouldn’t find out until later that he had been there for weeks. Inches away from me as I slept. An arm’s reach as I showered and dressed each morning. He sat with me while I overcooked my eggs and searched the internet for a cat to adopt, each time deciding against it because I could imagine it snowballing into two or three until I became one of those women.
The outside world that day, and every day since I had been living there, was a white swirling mixture of ground and sky. Set against the bright seamless backdrop was the outline of a man. He was fading in and out with each gust of wind, like a Polaroid gone backwards. But I saw him. I saw the tip of one of his pink fingers poking out of a hole in his glove. His hands were up against his mouth which was covered in a thick dark beard and his breath came in a long slow billow of white smoke, like the mouth of a gutter under a frozen street. His hood was pulled up over his head which made his eyes ever brighter in the shadow. I couldn’t tell what color they were, but they seemed to have a reflection inside them like the round outline of a flashbulb in the eye of a magazine model. I didn’t scream. I felt nothing like adrenaline, or dread. Or that feeling when your heart beats so fast it makes you want to throw up. Nothing like that happened. If someone told me that they saw a strange man staring at them through their window I would have expected to hear them say, “And then I screamed and dropped my glass and it shattered and I ran to the phone and dialed 911 and then I ran to my front door and pulled the deadbolt across and then I hid in the bathroom with the door closed and I couldn’t stop shaking.” But I didn’t do any of that. I stood completely still as if someone was holding me there, and I watched as the man I saw so clearly disappeared into the endless white.
There was nothing in my apartment that anyone would want. My possessions were piled in and out of boxes and I didn’t even own a real bed. I had a mattress on the floor that tripled as a couch and dining room table. I did own a laptop but I took it with me to work. I didn’t own a TV, or a toaster oven, or even a decent pair of shoes. I just decided that since there was nothing for him to steal, and I was sure he figured that out if he took a good look, that I would go on about my day despite his strange appearance outside my window. It felt less like a decision to ignore it, and more like it didn’t happen at all. Or like it happens all the time. And that is exactly how it ended up. Each morning while I boiled water and ladled my mug into the steaming pot, I saw him. I didn’t own a tea kettle either. I didn’t see why people spent money on things like that when they could function perfectly well without them. But anyway, each night when I came home from work and my apartment was dark and quiet and anyone would think that I should be scared, I wasn’t. There was no one waiting for me behind the shower curtain. Nothing was ever out of place. There were never any footprints circling my apartment, or scratch marks around my doorknob. I came and went peacefully and each morning I shared a moment with a stranger whose eye brows curled up like a puppy and whose fingers were always bent across his mouth.
It went on for about a week that way. I continued to start my car ten minutes early with the keys dangling in the ignition, so it could thaw. I guess in hindsight that was a pretty stupid thing to do in west Cleveland anyway, random man or not. But I mean I just lived my life normally, with the exception of my gloomy window friend stopping by more and more often. Once while I was watching TV late at night, something caught my eye at the window. Of course it was him. I just kept on eating my popcorn until I was full and there was still half a bowl left. I hated to waste food, and I always felt bad for the little birds that hopped over the snow, and wondered what the hell they ate in this neighborhood at twelve below. So sometimes I would throw food outside for them. Or for the squirrels. So I went to the window. I had never really…confronted the man. I stayed a room’s length away from him as he peered at me sadly. But that night I guess I got brave. I got up and saw his outline like the moon must have been fat and shining right behind him, casting a line of white around his face. My eyes went to the top of the window to unhook the lock, and when they returned to him there was only the snow. He had been erased by its pale hand. I put my face into the cold, that kind of cold that feels more like fire than ice, and I looked for him. The snow was covered in a layer of glass. I threw the leftover popcorn and it rolled like dice across the ground. There were no signs of his tracks. I noticed, as I pulled the window back down, that there was no moon that night.
The next morning I saw the white grey billows of exhaust fumes pouring out of a piece of shit station wagon in front of my apartment. I saw the woman’s eyes, and they were glossy and dull. I had seen her baby basset hound eyebrows before, on the man at my window. She just stared at the door as if she was waiting for someone to come out. I came out. She drove away.
It happened that way three times. Not all at once, but spread so far out across two weeks that I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t a déjà vu, and that yes, this had really happened before. The fourth time I decided had to be different. Something about her felt so much like the man at my window, but maybe it was just her coming and going. And her staring. And those eyebrows arching up. But her hands were not covering her mouth; they were white and exposed even in this weather, and they were gripping the steering wheel. So I could see that her lips were moving tightly against each other, and on top of each other, pulling in and out of her mouth. This fourth time she didn’t drive away when I walked out onto the ice. I stood waiting for her to do it; to drive away as she always had. But she just looked ahead at the road, and then back into my face. Then I saw her hand move to the door, and the window rolled down. I walked towards her casually, not like someone who had seen her on three previous mornings, but like someone who was going to ask her if she needed directions. Or if she was alright. So I did ask her that, because I wasn’t sure what else to say.
The wind stole the words and spread them out across the trees and the pavement and the kicked over silver trash cans. She said nothing. She looked like she might drive away again. She put her hands back on the wheel and looked straight ahead. But then she turned and looked past me at my apartment. I looked back then too, like maybe I was missing something. She was looking at the right side of the house, at the space between it and the neighbor’s fence, which was all of four feet. It was the space where I saw my window friend each morning standing, waiting to watch me curse at my hair for making me late.
“Are you looking for him?” I asked. Feeling as soon as I said it, the longing to take it back. I wasn’t sure what I would say if she asked “Who?” Oh, just that man who stares in my window every day. The one who for all I know could be a serial killer casing out his next victim. I know that’s what people would think if I told them. But it didn’t feel like that at all.
But she didn’t ask me who, she didn’t say anything for about a minute, she just stared blankly back and forth between me and the apartment, and I knew that I would be late for work again. She looked like she was about to say something, her mouth kept moving and tears starting falling into it from her eyes. I remembered the landlord speaking to me in broken English, telling me how grateful he was that he didn’t need to help me carry furniture. I remembered him telling me that a couple had lived there before me. And he kept saying something in Spanish that sounded like “tragic.” And he kept shaking his head.
“Do you need help?” I asked, coming a little closer to the window. She just kept crying, harder now. I squeezed my cell phone for the time and saw that I was still early. I always turned my car on too soon, and by the time I got inside it the snow was pouring from the roof like rain.
“You can come inside and we can have some tea if you want.” I said, imagining myself using a soup spoon to dish her out a ration of hot water.
“Or maybe you just want to talk? Is that why you keep coming here?” I just kept talking. I didn’t know what else to do with her.
“What’s your name? I just moved here a few weeks ago, actually I guess it’s been more than a month. I don’t know anyone. I work downtown at a magazine. I do graphic design.” She started to calm down a little and looked at me.
“Amy,” she said quietly.
“Hey Amy,” I said, a little too cheerfully. “I’m Ellen. Is this where you used to live?” I said, pointing back at my little faded blue apartment and the trees, and the trash cans that were glued to the sidewalk now from all the ice. She stared at the apartment and nodded at it, as if it had asked her the question.
“Well, did you want to come in for a little while? I can’t stay long, I do have to go soon, but you can come in for a few minutes if you want. I know when I moved from my first house I always wanted to go back and see what they did to my old room. See if they painted it a different color or anything. I didn’t paint anything yet. Maybe I will in the summer.” I smiled at her, and she smiled back slowly, as if her face had forgotten which muscles it took to pull up the chapped corners of her mouth. She stared at the house, and then at me and then back at the house again, and without saying anything she unlocked her seat belt and got out of the car. We were standing there in the middle of the frozen street, her car was still running and dripping fluid, making a little puddle that was curling and flowing over the cracks in the ice and the dirty solid snow that was pushed up onto the curb.
“Did you want to…?” I motioned to the keys hanging in the ignition. It was alright for me to leave my car running, but if hers got stolen I would feel pretty terrible.
“Oh, yeah, thanks,” she said softly. I watched her lean into her car and shut it off, pull the keys out and put them in the pocket of her coat. When she turned to face me again I smiled a sort of awkward, ok right this way, kind of smile, and turned to walk to the apartment. She followed me hesitantly and I heard her take in a deep breath. The cold air must have stung her lungs because she started coughing.
“You ok?” I said, turning to look at her over my shoulder as I opened the door and walked in. She just nodded, and I saw her eyebrows start to go higher, and her lips start to pull into her mouth. I wasn’t sure if this was such a great idea after all. What was I supposed to do with some strange sobbing woman? I remembered that I didn’t have anywhere for her to sit, and it felt like an even worse idea. I took in a deep breath of the frozen air as we walked into the apartment.
She was my first guest and I was suddenly a little self conscious about my housekeeping. I scooped up the cold soggy tea bags from the counter and threw them in the trash, and moved a few things around so I didn’t look like a slob.
“Do you want some tea? Or hot chocolate maybe? I don’t have a coffee maker.” I grabbed two mugs before she could answer, refilled the pot that was on the stove, and started it to boil. She didn’t say anything, and I looked behind me to see her standing in what I guess had been her living room, looking around the apartment like Dorothy when she came out of her little spinning cabin.
“I think I feel like some hot chocolate,” I said, trying to break her from her daze. She stared at me as if she had forgotten where she was. “Sure,” she said finally.
I attempted small talk, mostly to myself, while the water boiled. I asked her questions and got a nod here and there. Finally I had two cups of hot chocolate and I stirred at them violently trying to get the lumps out.
“I wish I had some of those tiny marshmallows. They’re fun,” I said, smiling awkwardly as I handed her the mug. It was from some rest stop in the Redwood Forrest, Paul Bunyan and his big blue Ox. I wished I would have noticed and given her the one with the Dalmatian instead. That would have seemed a little less awkward. My mom sent it to me because when I was little I loved Dalmatians. I tried to explain to her that, thanks to Disney, lots of little kids liked Dalmatians and that the phase was over, but she still kept sending me mugs and birthday cards with black spots.
“I guess you could sit…on my bed if you want? I’m sorry, that’s pretty creepy but I don’t have any chairs yet.” I looked around at the empty walls and the posters rolled up on the floor and told myself I would hang them up tonight. But I knew I wouldn’t. She walked over to my bed and sat down on the corner. I pulled up a box full of books and sat down on it. I sipped at the hot chocolate and got a big chunk of powder. I hoped I had stirred hers a little better.
“So, you lived here before me?” I asked quietly. Hoping not to start another round of hysterics; she had finally seemed to calm down.
“Did you live alone?” I squeezed the hot mug, already feeling like I knew the answer. She must have been part of the couple the landlord attempted to gossip with me about. Maybe it was a really bad breakup. Maybe he was still looking for her, still stalking her. I thought of the man who I guess was stalking me. But he didn’t seem like he would hurt anybody. He was too sad, too cold and lonely.
“No,” she said, and then she breathed into the steaming mug, and I waited, hoping that maybe she would tell me her story so that I didn’t ask the wrong question and make her cry.
“I lived with my fiancé, Eric. He was a musician.” She tried smiling. “We had rugs and towels hanging all over the walls,” – she pointed to the tiny holes, the ones I never noticed – “and his friends would come over and practice.”
“Band practice in this place? That must have been crazy.” She smiled bigger now. I was sure she was transporting herself back there, and I pictured four or five guys with guitars huddled around the bed where she sat and listened, maybe a drummer with his chair stuck inside the bathroom. She stopped talking and stared down into her mug. We sat in silence and then my eyes went to the window. He was back.
Amy noticed the way I looked at the window suddenly, and she looked too, but nothing happened. She didn’t see him. He walked closer to the window and cupped his hands around his face to peer inside. Then he looked sadder than he ever had. His cheeks pulled up and his forehead wrinkled like an old man. It looked like he was shaking. He put his palms flat on the window and I could see what looked like frost forming where the tips of his fingers touched the glass. I realized in that moment, what I knew I couldn’t say out loud. Either I had a tumor growing in my brain that was making me see this man that she couldn’t, or he was a ghost. He was her ghost. Her fiance’s ghost.
“Amy, what happened to him? To Eric.” I halfway hoped she would say, “What do you mean? He’s at work.” But then that would mean that I had a tumor, and I couldn’t afford a tumor. I didn’t have health insurance.
But she didn’t say that. She just looked at me as if she didn’t care how I knew, or what I knew. As if I wasn’t even there. She stared into the air and her mind went somewhere else again. This time it wasn’t somewhere happy at all.
“He killed himself. Right over there.” She pointed to the cramped bathroom. The yellow tiles. I pictured the man at the window, staring into the tiny mirror over the sink, with a gun inside his mouth. I thought about what questions were appropriate, if any. And what do you ask first? Why or how? I guess how was the less complicated one so I went with that.
“Pills. He swallowed the whole cabinet full. I found him lying on the floor all curled up.” She stopped and squeezed her eyes shut hard. I guess she was seeing it again. Seeing him. I looked at the window and he was squeezing his eyes shut too.
“What was he like?” I tried changing the subject a little. I stared out the window at him as she spoke.
“He was,” she paused, “quiet. I never knew what he was going through. In his head. He just wouldn’t tell me. He lost his job and they kicked him out of the band. They said they didn’t need three guitar players, they said they looked stupid on stage with that many people. My parents never liked him. They didn’t want us to get married. They said he looked like he belonged in a homeless shelter. But he loved that beard. I loved it…” She trailed off and looked down at her shoes, which were making a puddle on the wood floor.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I keep coming here. I just feel close to him here I guess. I never got to say goodbye.” She sighed and looked around at the empty walls. I was sure now that the man at the window was dead. That he was Eric. That he was coming here for her. I guess it didn’t sound as crazy to me as it should have.
“I think he’s been coming here too.” I said, bracing myself in case she flipped out. She didn’t. She just stared at me and squinted her eyes like she was trying to read the fine print across my face.
“Someone’s been coming to the window. I thought maybe he was homeless or, I’m not sure what I thought. But maybe it’s him. He’s there right now actually.” I expected him to disappear as soon as she turned her head to look out the window, but he didn’t. He stared into her eyes. She turned back to me.
“There?” she said, confused, pointing to the frozen glass.
“Yeah. He’s looking at you. He seems really upset. Maybe he didn’t mean to do it.” I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Being an interpreter for the dead? She looked at me at first like I was crazy, and I understood. But she didn’t get up, she didn’t throw the hot brown liquid in my face and run screaming for the door. I think she must have wanted this, deep down. She must have driven here needing to find something. Needing this to be real. Her face softened and she looked back at the window as she spoke. I looked back too and of course, maybe to make me look even crazier, he was gone.
“Does he…talk?” she said, and I could hear the sane part of her trying to win out over whatever part believed it all.
“Well he’s gone now. But no, he doesn’t talk. Not to me.”
She snapped her head back towards me, the fastest movement she had made so far.
“What do you mean, he’s gone?” She got up and went to the window. She looked out of it a little frantically, and then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She stood there with her eyes closed for a long time. Just breathing.
Finally she turned and looked around the apartment again, this time with the softest edge of a grin. She looked down into her mug and then up to me.
“Thank you for this. For letting me come back.”
“I’ll let you go now. I don’t want to make you late.” She walked to the sink and put her mug down next to the dirty plates and cups. I followed her to the door as if it were still her apartment. The sun was so bright against the snow that I had to shield my eyes with the half empty Dalmatian mug.
“It was nice meeting you.” She said, smiling so that now I could see the row of white teeth that I never imagined existed.
“Sure. I’m glad I could…help?” I said, searching for the words to describe or explain what just took place. She turned and walked back to her car, seeming almost a little embarrassed for having been there at all. Then to my left, from the side of the house came at first a shadow, and then a man. Eric. Now he had a name. I watched as he walked with his hands down from his face now and at his sides. He stopped and looked at me, right into my eyes, for a few seconds that seemed to stretch out longer than any other few seconds of my life. Then he walked forward again, catching up to Amy.
“Amy!” I wanted to tell her that he was right there, he was right behind her. But I stopped. She turned to face me and she was really facing him. He was between us looking right into her face, close enough to touch her.
“You’re welcome to stop by anytime.” I said, feeling like it sounded less genuine that it was. I guess I really did mean it. She got into the car and I watched as Eric got into the passenger’s seat.
“Thanks.” She said, looking back at the house. I knew I would never see her again by the way she looked at it as she drove off, like she was saying goodbye.