It’s 2:30 in the morning. I go downstairs for a cigarette. For me, none of this is unusual. Downstairs I notice that all the lights are on and the shades are up in the apartment next door. A woman about my age lives there. She has blonde hair which is not bleached but lightened. She is in her pink bath robe and talking on the phone. I’ve seen her coming and going from her apartment, dressed and ready to deal with the world, and she usually looks nice. Now she looks like hell. She is obviously distressed and I wonder who she’s talking to at 2:30 in the morning. All of this is unusual, at least inasmuch as I can watch her going through whatever she’s going through. She’s not home much, and when she is, she usually keeps her shades down. Probably, in the larger scope of human experience, this is all quite usual.
I watch her for a while, my sense of curiosity battling with an awareness that I’m violating her privacy. It’s intriguing to watch people who don’t know they’re being watched. I am worried for her in a detached sort of way, wondering how extreme the circumstances may be that have caused her to do these unusual things.
My mind insists on building a narrative: perhaps a relative in a distant town is in the hospital, maybe dying, and the woman in the pink robe really doesn’t have the money to travel to see the loved one. Maybe she is embarrassed and ashamed because she lacks the travel money, and now she’s angry at the dying person for putting her in this position. She is fussing at the sister or cousin on the other end of the call when she’s really angry at herself for her shitty job, and grief-stricken at the prospect of losing the sick person.
A second narrative: She had a drunken argument in a bar with her boyfriend and she has taken a taxi home. She can’t remember where her car is, and now the boyfriend is on the phone at 2:30 AM trying to show her how the fight really was all her fault and he was blameless in the situation. She has thought about breaking up with this guy, and this may be the night, but then there’s the matter of the car and he’s the only one who might know where it is.
One more narrative: She’s pregnant and the father who can’t handle it has run off, out of state to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to stay with his uncle. She’s trying to get him to come back to town because she is terrified of facing it alone, but she really doesn’t want him back because he’s a jerk. She’s telling him that she will get an abortion if he doesn’t come back while secretly hoping he doesn’t come back. She doesn’t really believe in abortion but it’s better than killing herself and it may be better than marrying the jerk.
She is out of view now. A car pulls up in front of her building and I wonder if it’s the person she was talking to, or if the conversation ended in an angry hang-up. I can’t go over to her place, knock on the door, and say, “Hello, I happened to be watching you through your window at 2:30 AM, and it seems that you are having a bad time. Is there anything I can do?” although the guardian angel of my psyche (who I have bound and gagged in a back room in my brain) thinks I should.
I know (but remember in a way that feels like learning it new) that we are private people leading private lives, lives we never show the rest of the world, never show even those who are closest to us. Occasionally windows open in our solitary spaces giving someone else a momentary view into that real, singular life we inhabit — a shade left open, a revealing sentence, an unguarded comment, an unexpected outburst of laughter — the windows can be almost anything. Perhaps we live for the windows and just exist and endure the isolation that stretches between them.
I’ll never solve the evening’s mystery. I won’t ask and she won’t tell me. Perhaps the open windows say, “Look at me. I’m having a bad time at 2:30 AM. Don’t leer, or pry, or come over and create an awkward situation. Just see and be interested for a minute.”