It’s early fall when I first see into their apartment. Stubborn clusters of amber leaves cling to the elm trees between the buildings. That night I turn off the kitchen lights and dry my hands on the dishtowel and watch the blue flicker of TV highlight their faces like an electrical storm. I’ve heard that we’re only truly ourselves when no one else is looking. Maybe that’s when self-consciousness is subtracted from actions and we stumble across ourselves without realizing it.
For days afterwards I stand at the window in my darkened kitchen staring into their apartment, catching glimpses of shuffling feet; a shoulder; a sliver of torso. I’m an accidental voyeur turned intentional.
Because I have no other frame of reference I name the man George and the woman Tina. He is tall and lanky, his dark hair often tousled. She is short, olive complexioned. Something makes me think she speaks with an accent – Spanish or French – with round, liquid vowels.
I watch their scattered conversations as they crane their necks to lift their voices across the room. They turn off the kitchen sink to listen, speak brief sentences and turn the sink back on. They stack dishes beside the sink to dry. They sit on the couch folding clothes. For long stretches of time they say nothing. They occupy the same space, filled only with rambling TV conversations that make up for their silence.
Perhaps they moved in during the Spring or Summer when the trees were blocking my view. Perhaps things were different for them then. It’s hard to imagine that things for them might have ever been different from how they are now.
When the apartment is empty I am consumed by thoughts of where they might be. I imagine George works in sales. Most of the day his ear is glued to a phone and he nearly shouts that he has to have 500 widgets by Friday, and no, no he can’t wait, and these guys keep dicking him around.
Tina, I imagine, works at a gym; she leaves the apartment in a tank top and black workout pants, carrying a water bottle and a gym bag. Maybe she teaches yoga. She stands at the front of a room full of women. A mirror behind her reflects the students and pale hardwood floor.
Tina says: today we’re going to start with the-such-and-such pose. Breathe. Feel your chakras.
I can hear only the muted tones of angry voices; syllables are absorbed by the mosaic of leaves plastered to the pavement separating us. The distance is too great to read anything other than gestures and intonation. Each word has its own barometric pressure.
Tina says to George: You never do the fucking dishes.
And George says: Why should I do the fucking dishes? You’re the woman.
I’m the fucking woman, so I do the dishes?
You do the fucking dishes. I mow the lawn.
We don’t have a lawn.
In December light fog washes out the city and subtracts depth and details from the distant trees and mountains. A sheet of white paper has been slipped behind the buildings. The world ceases to exist.
On every corner a red suited Santa rings a bell or shakes a tambourine. All through the city are signs of the holidays. Traffic clogs downtown streets. People haul massive shopping bags. Reindeer antlers suction to car windows. Wreaths are attached to the front of cars. The City tangles strings of lights around lampposts. People huddle in jackets and scarves, folding in on themselves like human origami in the metallic cold of the city.
I watch as Tina wraps a grayish box that is either an electric razor or a camera. She wraps a sweater, which she folds and refolds before laying it in a box and wrapping it with curlicue bows. In the store she held this sweater at arm’s length, squinting to picture it on George.
George stands in a bookstore, picking up one book and then another, flipping them over to read the back. Thumbing through the pages for pictures. He asks an employee what his wife would like. She’s a yoga teacher; she likes true crime books.
Tina disappears shortly after the New Year. The desiccated Christmas tree –
a Noble Fir or Norway Spruce – sits by the curb. Boxes are stacked by the front door. George has melted into a routine comprised of walking, sitting, and standing as necessity dictates. Pizza boxes and beer bottles create a calendar of the days she’s been gone. He paces the apartment with the phone pressed to his ear; I am certain he is talking to Tina. He sits immobile on the couch thinking of Tina.
I have lost interest.