Green Hills Literary Lantern

Voyeur

 
He started it, the watching. I remember looking up while beginning to undress for bed and there he was, in the building across my street, standing full front in a bright white shirt, in his lit-up window, staring into mine. I pretended I didn’t notice but my heart was racing, my stomach jumping like a puppy expecting a tossed treat. That handsome man was watching me? No, he was just scanning the street and I happened to look up as his eyes, like a roving lighthouse beam, swept across me.


In my mind, I continued to unbutton my blouse, to let it slide first off one shoulder, then the other, my back toward the window, unclasping my bra, letting it fall. But in reality, I left the room to finish undressing and put on my nightgown. When I came back the man wasn’t there. His white curtains were closed; they glowed yellow with electric light, with electric possibilities. I was pretty sure he’d been watching me. But maybe I was wrong.


The next night, as I sat writing, I could feel his eyes on me. I caught him in my peripheral vision as I glanced down at the lawn, at the streetlights. He was staring directly at me, no mistaking it. I smiled (I was sure he could see) at my notebook, as if I hadn’t noticed him. He looked away, pretending he hadn’t noticed me noticing him.

 

We played the same game the next night and the next. And the next.


I remember his beauty, but not his face. He was slender and graceful and when he lay on the lawn of his apartment building, reading, across the street from the house where I lived, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the way his T-shirt stretched tight against his firm chest and rounded biceps. He had thick black hair and a blond Afghan dog named Sasha. I remember his lavender Vespa motor scooter. (I had a blue and white Honda scooter.) The sound of sirens, their red lights oscillating across my bedroom. My first taste of French Vouvray.


His name was André.


It was 1971; I was a student, sharing a second-floor flat in an old Victorian house on Park Place near the university on Milwaukee’s east side. André’s apartment was directly across from my bedroom window.


It was a pivotal year for me, full of changes, both chosen and unintended. I was, that year more than ever before, experimenting, taking new risks, figuring out who and what suited me. My writing—poems and journal entries—reflected who I was becoming and my (often intense) reactions to my experiences.


My bedroom similarly expressed my developing persona. I’d painted the iron bedstead (from Goodwill) and the dresser (from my childhood bedroom) a bold scarlet. I’d created a tie-dyed red mandala on a bedsheet and nailed it up over my red bed. The card table that served as my desk was camouflaged beneath a gold velvet cloth. I’d taped two large sheets of white paper to the wall near my “desk” and filled them with lines from my favorite poets and fiction writers. Eliot, Creeley, Merwin, and Truman Capote, to name a few. One of my favorites was this, by Capote: “But we are alone, darling child, terribly, isolated each from the other; so fierce is the world’s ridicule we cannot speak or show our tenderness” (from Other Voices, Other Rooms).


I was working on a degree in elementary education that year. My second semester I student-taught in an all-black, inner-city fifth grade where all the children were poor and most were hungry and could barely read. My supervising teacher’s style was critical and formulaic, heavy on work sheets and diatribe. I’d had one class in methods and one in curriculum, neither one geared to the situation I’d landed in. It was my first experience of feeling helpless in the face of enormous need and it nearly did me in. Because there was so little I could offer, I went home every day feeling like a failure, heartsore and stressed.


I ran dry before the end of the semester and quit without explanation or good-bye. My report card showed a “C” for student teaching, but I’d expected, thought I deserved, an “F.”


During this semester, for some reason, just about every man I met, at school and at my part-time file clerk job at an insurance company, wanted my phone number, wanted to be in my bed. Whatever magnetism I was unwittingly emitting, I neither understood nor controlled. I said yes to everyone except the insurance company men in their suits and ties who found me novel and odd (probably because I wrote poetry at my desk during my breaks and tended to dress like a hippie).


It was at first tantalizing, all the male attention, all the possibilities. I was searching and was young enough to believe that somewhere out there was a Prince Charming who could define me. Also, naive enough to think that would be a good thing. Night after exhausting night, rather than possibilities, I bumped up against dead ends. My body and soul grew equally fatigued.


Eventually, it dawned on me that I would rather stay home and read than go on any more dead-end dates. I refused all further invitations.


The first month after student teaching was also my first month of no dates. I should have felt better right away but I didn’t. Most of my friends were married or engaged. I was home alone most nights, even on weekends. Late into the night, I wrote in my journal and slept till noon or later. My poetry from that time was all about being lost, hidden, despairing, and alone.


I spent hours playing my guitar, singing lyrics like “I have wished before/I will wish no more/love, look away/love, look away from me” from “Flower Drum Song.” Also: “And when I die/and when I’m dead, dead and gone/there’ll be one child born/and a world to carry on.”  On the worst days, I did wish I was dead.


I’d failed my students, failed my program, and failed to find someone to love me.


This quote went up on my wall: “I have heard the mermaids singing each to each/I do not think that they will sing to me.”


And then, my student advisor called to tell me I’d been accepted into an independent learning program in which I could plan my own curriculum, including my own teaching placement. Finally, I could express who I really was not just with how I decorated my room but out in the world. The tone of my music began to shift. My poems had more light in them. My loneliness became backdrop rather than the whole show.


It was then that the watching began, mostly at night when we could see most easily into each other’s lit-up rooms. During the day, I’d sometimes see him outside, playing fetch with Sasha or reading on the lawn. Or I’d catch a glimpse of him as he came and went on his Vespa, even as I came and went on my little Honda.


This keen and wordless awareness, this silent reaching, went on for months. Pretending we didn’t care. Pretending it meant nothing. Not speaking. Our eyes alone whispered intrigue, titillation, delicious curiosity.


I told my friends about him, about the game we played, called him “Joe, the weirdo watcher,” and pretended annoyance. I was anything but annoyed. I fell in love with this weirdo watcher before I even knew his name.


One night I woke up to the sound of sirens that grew louder and louder and ended in a blaze of red right outside my house. I watched two burly EMTs disappear into my watcher’s building, saw them reappear in his window. They talked. They strapped him to a gurney, loaded him into the ambulance, and drove off with him. I trembled with worry. With knowing I couldn’t call and check on him. Couldn’t go over later and buzz him through the intercom since I didn’t know his name. I woke off and on all night, looking from my bed to his blank window until sometime around 2:00 a.m., when he walked in and turned off the lights.


The next night I did a bold thing: When I saw him in his window, I looked right at him and waved. I could see him startle. And then, he waved back.


A few days later, as I walked up the stairs to my house, he called out to me, “Hey! Hey, girl in the window! Wait a minute!” I laughed and turned. He was standing beside his Vespa, his helmet in hand, black leather jacket cloaking his beautiful body, black glove on one hand, the other lying limp in his helmet. He needed a ride to get a part for his scooter. Could I take him? he asked. And of course, yes I could. I did. Thrilled by the warmth of his chest against my back, his arms around my waist, I opened the throttle of my scooter wide, hoping it might go faster than its usual two-person speed, which was about twenty-five. When we returned, André invited me to his apartment for a beer and conversation. He was, he told me, a ballet photographer. He was in Milwaukee on a project to photograph the new Milwaukee Ballet Company. I loved dance, I told him. Had taken ballet throughout my childhood.


“Come with me tomorrow night,” he said. “I have comp tickets to the ballet. They’re doing Giselle.”


He walked me home that evening, even though I lived so near. He walked me home and told me he liked me. I asked him if he knew how long I’d been watching him. And yes, yes he did. He told me I was better than he’d expected. And I didn’t say so but I thought he was not only better than I’d expected, he was better than any man who’d ever asked me out. More sophisticated, more successful, better educated, better dressed, and more of a gentleman. I couldn’t believe my luck. At the same time, part of me felt I was getting, finally, the kind of man I deserved.


He picked me up the following night with a pink rose in his hand, wearing knee-high black leather boots, tight black pants, and a belted white jacket. His delicious cologne wafted over me as he handed me the rose, took my hand, and kissed it. We traveled to the theater in a cab, something I had never done before, ride in a taxi. André had lived in New York City with his mother and in Geneva with his father. He was comfortable in a cab, comfortable with the dancers who called out greetings to him in the lobby after the show.

 

We spent the next two evenings together, talking about dance, poetry, and Capote. The first time we kissed was over a glass of Vouvray. He handed me the chilled glass, our eyes met; he leaned in and kissed me hard. A scene from a ’50s movie. He walked me home, kissed me again at my door. I was on the moon.


And then it began, slowly at first, to unravel. There was the night he asked if he could take photographs of me. I pictured a scene from the classic Antonioni movie, Blow-Up, in which the intense, possibly mad, photographer takes photo after photo of a couple of young models and eventually has a sexual romp with them under the photographic umbrellas. Did I hope André would turn out to be passionate and frenetic like the photographer in Blow-Up? Did I hope he’d make love to me under those silvery umbrellas? Yes, maybe.


With Blow-Up in my mind, I wore a navy blue miniskirt, white lace hose, short white boots, a low-cut red top. There were, indeed, silvery photo umbrellas in André’s living room. And a grey backdrop covering wall and floor. He had me sit, stand, lie down while he circled me with his camera, click click. The long lens close to my face, “Part your lips. Yes.” Click. “Now exhale. Good.” I tried not to flinch, not to turn my gaze down in embarrassment. I was a reasonably attractive woman with long straight brown hair and green eyes, long legs, and a nose I thought too big. But I was no model, not in the habit of exhibiting myself (except when a city street separated me from my watcher). The close-up attention felt wrong, somehow. But I didn’t want it to stop.


André brought me glass after glass of champagne. I didn’t know my way around champagne and was beginning to feel a bit wobbly when André asked me to take off my clothes, made it sound like a natural next step. We photographers, we do this all the time. (Why, after having reclaimed some degree of chastity, did I go along so easily with this? I blame it on Blow-Up and on the champagne. And on my desire to hold on to this unusual man.)


I took my clothes off, awkwardly, and, awkwardly, assumed the poses he asked for. On my side, one leg bent and the other crossed over it, foot on the floor. “Throw your head back,” he instructed. “Wet your lips.” Then, sitting with both knees bent, arms wrapped around them. “Chin down,” he said, putting his hand on the back of my head and pressing gently. “Now look up, flirt with me.” I giggled with nervousness. “Not like that,” he said. “You aren’t a child. Relax! Lure me.” I did my best. He shook his head, “No, no, no, this isn’t working.” Then, smiling, set his camera down and joined me on the floor. He took the champagne glass out of my hand and kissed me, slowly, carefully, and long. I wanted to grab his head and hold him there, glued to my famished, sycophantic lips, for hours, for days, but he pulled me to my feet and led me to his bed.


The sex was not great. André was not a skilled lover. My mind wandered and eventually noticed that he was going on and on, automatically, like a dental drill, and breathing unevenly, unable to come. Finally, he gave up, got out of bed, opened a dresser drawer, and pulled out a hypodermic needle. He slid the needle into a small vial, drew up a clear liquid, then slid the needle into his thigh. His dog, Sasha, glued her dark eyes on her master, her whole body in a state of high alert. André sat down on the bed, his back to me, his shoulders tense, lungs wheezing. Finally, his breathing eased, Sasha lay back down, and André, still turned away, said, “I’m sorry. I have pretty bad asthma.”


“Was this why the ambulance came last summer?” I asked him.


He nodded. “Sometimes the epinephrine injection doesn’t help.” He left the room then and came back dressed, tossed my clothes to me and left again. I dressed, padded to the living room, carrying my shoes. I found André at the window that looked into mine across the street.


“I’ll walk you home,” he said without looking at me. At my front door, he kissed me on the cheek, said again, “I’m sorry.”


I heard the sirens again a few nights later. This time I tried to go to André, but there was no time. The EMTs had him in their ambulance while I was still racing downstairs. By the time I got to my front door, the ambulance’s taillights were disappearing down Park, the siren growing fainter and smaller. I went back upstairs and, as I’d done before, watched his window until, hours later, his lights went on. And then went off, one by one, lamp by lamp, until André neared his window. He paused there, head down, backlit by the small green shaded lamp I knew was on his desk. He looked not slender now, but frail, like a sickly adolescent boy. Or maybe that was the work of the dimming light, the lateness of the hour. My first inklings that André was both more and less than he wanted me to see.


We cannot speak or show our tenderness.


This troubling impression faded by dawn. I went over to his apartment early the next morning. He let me in but was busy mounting photos for a show. My eye was drawn to the photos he’d pinned to the wall: white tutus, fresh as waterfalls, legs that stretched with a grace and power that was as startling as it was beautiful, a tunic-ed young man pulled in tight as a nut, caught in mid-twirl, his feet impossibly high off the floor. For a few minutes, I couldn’t speak; the photos were that arresting.


I tried then to talk to him. Was he okay? Yes. What did he think triggered this last attack? Dunno. When’s the show? A week.


And so it went. André didn’t want to talk. I finally gave up and went home. André was, obviously, I thought, not interested in me. It didn’t make sense, I sort of knew, to draw so final a conclusion from one stilted morning, but I sensed there’d been a shift. André was turning out to be yet another disappointing man. He’d used me; he was done with me. I would be done with André.


I closed my curtains. I’d almost forgotten I had curtains, off-white, ruffly curtains, girly curtains. Girl-who-was-done-with-André curtains.


But I couldn’t let it go. I was aware of André whenever I was home, felt his brown eyes on me when I sat writing, when I went to the drugstore next to my house, and when I started up my Honda in the mornings. I’d lift a curtain edge and check his window every night after I turned out my lights. I’d rarely see him and when I did, I’d drop the curtain and not look again, though I’d burn with curiosity.


Then, one day in October, when I was wheeling my scooter up the curb and onto the grass to park it on the lawn, I heard a whistle. It was André. “You free?” he called out his window, as if there hadn’t been a two-month gap in our odd friendship. Yes, I was free. How quickly my resolve melted away and I was free, for André. “Let’s take Sasha to the park,” he suggested.


We walked to the park and lay in the fallen leaves, talking, while Sasha chewed on sticks with her head on André’s shins. I was high on hope. Hope was altering my consciousness.


“I’ve missed you,” I told him.


“I was busy putting a book together,” he said.


“Did you know I still watched you?”


“I did. Did you know I watched too?”


“I didn’t, no.” I’d suspected but hadn’t caught him in the act.


“When you miss me, come on over.”


“Really? You wouldn’t mind?”


“No.”


We’d both been looking up at the blue sky, the meandering clouds. Now I looked over at André’s face to see if he meant this invitation. “I feel like I hardly know you,” I told him.


“There’s not much to know.”


“I think there is.”


“Maybe I don’t want to be known,” André said, with either a frown or a squint at the brilliant October sky; I couldn’t tell which.


I remember the next few moments with surprising clarity. The sun that set the autumn leaves on fire. The air redolent with the crisp smell of frost and the dry leaves crushed beneath our side by side (not touching) bodies; our two sets of long legs, mine in bell-bottom jeans ending in red flats, his in black cotton, long shiny black boots under cuffed hems; the crunch of the stick Sasha was chewing to splinters; voices that grew and faded away as people walked by. I remember all this the way you remember your baseball striking a neighbor’s picture window, the bending and then the bright shattering. Unforgettable, irretrievable, instantaneous loss.
 

André had no intention of letting me in one millimeter deeper.


We are alone, darling child, terribly, isolated each from the other.


We walked home in what I now think was for André a comfortable silence but for me excruciating.


And still, I kept watching.


We had a few other encounters in the remaining rubble.


Once he stood in his window, caught me looking, and waved, I thought, wistfully.


Another time, when we were both putting on our helmets, putting keys into ignitions, André asked me to join him later that evening. He had dinner plans but would be home by eleven; was that too late? Oh no, not too late. (Of course it was too late. I didn’t care.) But he wasn’t home by eleven. Instead, I heard his whining scooter at one. The sound of laughter, voices loud and loosened by, I assumed, many glasses of wine. I pulled back the edge of my curtain, and watched as André and a tall blonde in stilettos walked into André’s building.


Wouldn’t you think that would have been the end of it? By this time, I was deeply involved in—and was enjoying—my new student-teaching gig at a private school, a sixth grade creative writing class with just eight students. I hadn’t degraded myself by sleeping with any more pointless men. I felt larger, more solid, independent.


* * *


For years, I’ve wondered why André pulled away from me. Maybe he was gay; that would have accounted for a lot, his fashion sense and his sexual asthma. Or maybe he had some kind of traumatic past he didn’t care to share but which made it impossible for him to open up to anyone. Whether it was both or neither, I comforted myself with the thought that the blonde in stilettos probably didn’t get in any deeper than I did.


I’ve kept for decades a book about ballet that included three of André’s photos. Photos that embodied not just the dancers’ but André’s own grace, fluidity, and mystery. Images no more substantial than a candle flame. I didn’t know André, not really, and that was part of what made him alluring. He was a blank screen on which I projected a dream of glamour, poise, French wine, and taxicabs. In comparison, the men before André, the ones I’d deferred to but hadn’t really wanted, seemed clumsy and blunt. My life until that year had felt clumsy and blunt, full of wrong turns and a dim and hazy future.


That André didn’t turn out to be the dashing figure I’d imagined was almost inconsequential. He was a disappointment, for sure, but not one I regretted. The pain I felt from his rejection was like a bee-sting, sharp but soon over. What has remained is a memory of a thrilling anomaly, a time I stepped into a lamplit bedroom window and transformed into a woman of intrigue, someone who could fascinate. For a few weeks then, I wasn’t an ordinary, earthbound Midwestern college student with little worldly experience; I was a prima ballerina in white tulle and rippling feathers, lifted high in a strong man’s arms, higher off the ground than I ever knew I could be. Flying.


* * *


Christmas, 1971: I’d relegated André to the attic of my brain. I pulled him out now and then, dusted off my favorite scenes, and puzzled over what had and hadn’t happened, but mostly I’d moved on.


Until Christmas. My roommates scattered to their parents’ houses. My parents lived in California and neither they nor I could afford a ticket to get me there. So, anticipating a lonely, boring Christmas day, I figured, what the hell, why not; I sent André a note inviting him to join me in a glass of Christmas cheer. I didn’t expect a response. But, oh Christmas miracle! He came.


Unfortunately, just before André came, Joshua arrived. Joshua the aging beat poet with unwashed hair and perpetual halitosis dropped in, unexpected and unwanted. He was a well-known character in Milwaukee’s poetry/coffeehouse scene and liked to hit on me by quoting me his narcissistic and very lame poetry. I disliked him but had made the mistake of being nice to him once. The result being that Joshua felt free to knock on my door on Christmas Day, trusting I would let him in. And I had.


André stood in my doorway with a bottle of Vouvray, his cologne seeking my unarmed nose, softening my knees. His smile slid off his face when, over my shoulder, he saw the unkempt heap of torn clothing that was Joshua. Joshua smiled, revealing his silver front tooth, and said, “Hey man, c’mon in. Welcome!” as if he had a right to address this spotless, lovely being who was André. André thrust the wine into my hands. “Merry Christmas,” he whispered. “I have to go.”


That was the last time André spoke to me. Two weeks later, I watched from my window as he packed up a U-Haul van. He’d planned, I remembered, to return to New York City when his photo project for the ballet was done. He wheeled his Vespa up a ramp and into the van, closed and latched the doors, and turned to look up at my window. For a few seconds, our eyes met. He lifted his hand in a short wave. I waved back. He got into the van and, as I watched, drove away.
 

 

 

Judith Marks Ford has recent or forthcoming work in Binnacle, California Quarterly, Clackamas Literary Review, Confluence, Connecticut Review, Eclipse, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Heartlands, The Laurel Review, Life after Hate, Lullwater Review, Porcupine Magazine, Quarter After Eight, RE:AL, Reflections Literary Journal, Seems, Southern Humanities Review, Sulphur River Literary Review, and Willow Review. In addition to Pushcart Prize nominations for poetry and fiction, she won the 2005 Willow Review Prose Award and was named “most highly commended” in the 2008 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. Lionhead Press published her poetry collection, Burning Oak, co-authored with Martin Jack Rosenblum. She spent nearly four decades as a psychotherapist and educator, led workshops in arts therapy and taught creative writing courses for junior high school, high school and adult students. Now retired, she participates in a local choir and tries to stay active (for her own sake as well as to keep up with her toddler granddaughter) by running, hiking, swimming, dancing and doing yoga.