A Love Story (As Seen Through an Office Window)
by Kat Volkwyn
The window was closed and the rain poured down in sheets.
The window was not closed because of the rain; it was simply that no one had ever thought to open it.
The building across the street, stained black by the countless passing cars, was a source of curiosity for the man who sat in the small apartment opposite. He would stare out his own grimy window, pen motionless in his ink-stained hand, watching the nameless faces search their reflections for imperfections, pulling their skin this way and that in bizarre contortions, fingers pushing and prodding at things he could not see, before they finally left, only for the next one to enter the presumed bathroom and take their place.
No face floated in the yellowing glass this day. Though he stared hard, attempting to manifest, none appeared. He sighed, looking down at the blank page in front of him.
It had been blank a long while. Months, in fact, possibly years, he couldn’t remember anymore, although months seemed more likely, as he vaguely recalled a book tour he’d drunk his way through at some point or other. He’d sat through interviews and audiences, nodding, stifling yawns, smiling at the young, slender women shyly handing him book after book to sign.
That had been nice, he mused. He liked it when women who had yet to grow their first wrinkle looked at him as though he had none. He liked to pretend he was still lost and wandering through the tempest of youth.
The phone rang, startling him back to the drear of the present. It was an old phone, still hanging on a hook, attached to a cord long frayed and in need of replacement.
Aiming a cigarette in the general direction of his face, the man walked across the small, cluttered space.
‘Hello?’ He fumbled in his pockets for his lighter, long fingers stretching deep, finding only lint and old receipts.
‘Obviously.’ He walked back to his desk, phone wedged between shoulder and ear. He opened drawers filled with crumpled notes and decaying cigarette boxes, sifting through documents that had long since lost relevance.
‘Don’t be catty. I’m calling to check how you are. Haven’t heard from you in a while.’
‘Who is this?’
‘Your sister, arsehole.’
‘Aha!’ There was a box of matches (well, one match), tucked between an empty notebook and the wooden wall of the drawer.
‘How are you? We’re worried.’
‘We? Who’s we?’ His words mumbled over the cigarette tucked between his teeth. He lit the end at last, sucking in the burning smoke like a dying man sucks water.
His sister sighed, her breath laced with static. ‘Is that a cigarette?’
Neil coughed, a plume of grey smoke escaping his lungs with unprecedented force.
‘Mm, uh, hm, no.’
‘Fine, yes, yes, it’s a cigarette, what do you want from me, Angela? I’m a fifty-four-year-old man, for Chris’ sakes.’ He breathed in again, finally paying attention to the voice on the other end of the line. ‘What do you want?’
Another sigh. ‘You know what, it’s fine, Neil. Smoke yourself to death in that hole you call an apartment. I just wanted to know if you were alright.’
The line clicked. It was the same every time she called, or anyone, really. Neil lifted his hand, trailing smoke, only to find that he’d somehow managed to tangle his arm and both legs in the phone cord. How...? He stumbled, trying to escape the endless coil, and the floor came rushing up to meet him. He landed with a muffled thump.
Giving up, he lay back on the threadbare rug, humbly accepting his defeat. The box of cigarettes had also fallen in the struggle – a convenient marriage of accidents. He lit another with the ornate metal lighter he found gathering dust under his desk, gifted to him years ago by the same sister who had just so rudely called him out on his smoking habits, and stared up at the ceiling. He noticed flecks of dirt he’d not seen before, as well as streaks of yellowing paint. Disgusting.
He got up, carefully this time, and his heart forced its way suddenly into his throat, beating hard. A face! In the window! He lunged forward, eager to inspect what sallow soul he might find.
Find a sallow soul he did not. What he did see was a young woman, a beautiful young woman, straining with all the might of her bone-thin arms to open the window. Neil watched with bated breath.
The moment it happened was revolutionary. With an unearthly screech he could hear from across the street, the window, the ever-closed window, opened.
The girl (‘woman’ was generous) glanced nervously at the door behind her, waiting, apparently, for someone to shout. No one did, so she returned to face him. And oh, what a face! Her long hair was dark as the brooding features it framed, her cheeks sharp and frigid, her eyes (he imagined) black as cold coffee. She pulled herself forward, through the window between their worlds, closer to him. She lifted her chin, feeling the rain falling soft against her skin. Was that a cigarette, dangling from her rosebud mouth?
She lifted herself onto a hidden countertop, fitting her body to the wide window frame. A single leg, white as milk, dangled over empty air, grey ghosts drifting from softly parted lips. God, she was a dream.
For the next couple of hours, Neil gazed, eyes drifting with fragments of thought, at the window across the way. He did not see her again, but that didn’t matter for she was in his mind, and that was enough. He found that his fingers had begun to itch as the first time they had, when he was young and filled with stories. He picked up his pen, mind falling into the white page in front of him and felt the walls between their universes begin to fracture, piece by piece, until suddenly they collapsed, flooding his head with galaxies.
And then he began to write.
Day turned to night, and dreams fell like a curtain of stars. A pair of dark eyes listed through thought and mind, borne upon ships of desire.
Night turned to day, and the curtain lifted.
The sun found Neil at his desk, pen forgotten, looking through one window and into another. His feet shifted and shuffled, knocking aside balled pages and inkless cartridges, his fingers drummed against wood, his mind wandered. God, he felt like a boy again, staring eagerly into the place he hoped she would appear.
He waited, motionless but for the ceaseless twitching of anticipatory limbs. She had to use the bathroom some time; everyone needs the bathroom at least once in the morning. He glanced at the clock hanging on the wall behind him. Shit. It was barely ten-thirty. He turned around, and, at long last, his patience was rewarded.
Her face was fitted between a large set of headphones, bobbing up and down in time to a soundless melody. She climbed up into the window frame and sat with her legs, bare as before, reaching out over empty space. She didn’t seem to feel the cold, even as Neil himself was wrapped in layers and layers of moth-eaten wool. He watched her fumble with a red plastic lighter, shaking it and tapping it, until at last she lit her cigarette and leaned back against the glass, her eyes closed.
She smoked like he did – like it was oxygen, clean and pure and critical to her survival. He imagined that he could see her lips, though the office across the street was really too far for him to make out more than the slightest curve of her chin. He imagined that he could touch them, that they’d open at his command and gasp his name in a breathless whisper. He imagined her naked legs would wrap around his aching body, lean and wild with untempered youth, that she’d pull him close to her, and ever closer, until their bodies merged and they couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
Neil shifted in his chair, blood rushing to places he wasn’t expecting. By the time he refocused his gaze, she was gone, leaving behind only smoke.
Over the days, Neil spent most of his time staring out his window. Some of them were spent writing, but most of them were spent dreaming, waiting for her to come. He would sit for hours, and sometimes, sometimes she would appear. He watched her exhibit every emotion imaginable, and he would wonder what had happened that day. He watched her cry, her cheeks and nose stained red and glistening, he watched her wipe her tears with her head tilted back, he watched her dance in an invisible mirror, laughing as she did, he watched her stare into the distance, thoughts flicking across the spaces between them. He watched her, and not once did she see him, and for that, he was glad.
The clouds darkened, and his feet sloshed through puddles of water and mud. As Neil walked home, his mind wandered through fields of thought, of the moon and the sun and free-flowing champagne. He saw her in a crimson dress, soft folds of fabric rippling against moonlit skin. Each step he took drummed to the rhythm of their conjoined hearts, beating in symphonies and orchestras.
When he looked up, the last strains of music fading in his ears, he saw her. He blinked. He blinked again. Surely his imagination had not grown so bright that he had managed to actually pull her from her world into his?
She was not dressed in red silk, but rather in cut-off jeans and an over-sized jumper, and she was hunched against the droplets that had begun to fall. Her thumb flicked again and again against her lighter, but although sparks flew, no flame appeared.
She was here. She was real.
Unsure of what to do, Neil stopped in the middle of the street, his coat collecting little drops of silver.
‘Hey.’ She was calling to him. She was calling to him. ‘You got a lighter?’
Neil stared for perhaps a moment too long.
‘Sorry, yeah, sorry.’ He hurried to her, burying his shaking hand in his pocket, praying to whatever god may be out there that he would find one. His fingers touched something heavy and cold, and his breath left his body. Thank you, Angela. He held out his hand, and she took the lighter.
Neil watched her. Her hair seemed unbrushed, her eyes, not quite as dark as he’d thought. He noticed a freckle just beneath her lashes and had to fight the sudden urge to touch it.
The silence between them stretched over aeons. Every thought he’d had, every memory dreamed, all crowded his racing mind. A thousand words danced on his tongue. Her shoulders trembled in the failing light, and the streetlights began to glow.
Neil lit a cigarette.
The embers grew cold, the last wisps of smoke drifted into nothing, and not a word was shared between them. She smiled at him, freckle lost in the crinkle of her eyes, and walked away, disappearing into a golden shroud of lamplight and rain.
Neil felt strangely empty as he took out his keys and made towards his apartment. Just before he entered, something stopped him, and he glanced up at the window across the street.
It was closed, and the rain began to fall in sheets.