By Joseph Markell
It’s dark outside. The metal window frame is cold, and I have to be careful not to breathe too heavily or too close to the glass. I don’t want to fog the window and block my view.
I observe the hundreds of buildings in my view, lain out before me like dimly sparkling glass cliffs. Each one narrow and tall – floors on top of floors like caves nestled in spires of rock, lit by lamps and televisions. There are so many.
What a beautiful city humans have created.
It’s nearly six o’clock. The winter sun has set and lights go on across the city as people return home. The city enters its next stage of the day. It’s shifting to something new.
I scan the endless walls of windows until I see one that looks promising.
Movement – something’s going on in that one.
I bring the binoculars to my eyes and focus on the movement, blocks away in a fifty-story tower. It’s a man and a woman. She’s setting a bag down on the counter island of the kitchen. He’s going into what looks like their bedroom. They turn on more lights. She says something to him as he turns the closet light on and sets his bag down.
Then, he undoes his tie and takes off his shirt.
My heart races.
Shame. I feel it and nearly drop the binoculars as I look around the empty, dark apartment. But I’m alone. The lights are all off and I’m invisible.
I return to him. He’s shirtless. His back muscles flex as he hangs his white dress shirt, then unbuttons his pants. He pulls them down – and he’s wearing tight boxer briefs. They hug his body. I’m wondering if he’s going to go further.
Take it off.
Shame. But I keep watching.
The woman comes in and makes her way across the room,. He turns to talk to her – I can see his bulge. For a moment I’m still – waiting – anticipating. But then he reaches for jeans and pulls them on. Then a tee shirt. They both go into the kitchen and start unpacking the bags.
I move the binoculars up, one floor at a time. A few floors are dark but then I find one with lights on.
What’s happening in there?
A man and woman. They’re on a couch watching TV. There’s a dog running around, trying to get their attention. I can’t see much but I watch for a moment.
I find someone smoking on a balcony.
I wonder if it’s weed.
After 30 minutes of this I set the binoculars down on the cold, curved ledge along the windows. I immediately reflect:
Is it fun?
Is it enticing?
What do I expect to see?
Why am I doing this?
Look around you. It’s dark and empty. You’re alone, again. Why don’t you date?
“I’m not ready.”
When will you be ready?
“I don’t know.”
What the hell am I doing here?
I need a drink.
I walk into the kitchen to pour myself some vodka. Sometimes I imagine someone in the building nearby sees me looking at them. They count the floors and notice where I am. They come to my building, take the elevator up and murder me.
But that’s not going to happen, I remind myself.
I plunk some ice cubes in the vodka, then add a splash of cranberry juice. I take a sip as I walk back and then lay down on the futon with my hands behind my head. The crown of the Empire State Building glows yellow gold. It feels good to be in New York, lying beneath the iconic tower that I once dreamed about seeing in person. And here I am. Laying in full expansive view of the tower and the city.
Is it wrong to look? Is it wrong to watch? I’m just curious, that’s all. They’re the ones that leave their shades wide open with their lights on. They have to know that people look. It’s in our nature, right?
I suffer from social anxiety – something I haven’t been able to overcome. A product of many things that I don’t want to dredge up. But I’m tired of not looking at people. I’m tired of looking away and feeling afraid or ashamed of myself. I don’t know how to talk to people. I can’t focus and I don’t know what to say. I disperse and suddenly I can’t pay attention or form sentences to respond. I get awkward, look away and leave…But up here, I am in control. Here I get an unscripted and uncensored opportunity. I get to see what people are really like – not what they present on the street. And I don’t have to look away – because they can’t see me. So, I can actually see them.
Maybe I can learn to be normal, like one of them.
I look at my phone. No one texted. But I haven’t texted anyone either.
I wonder if it’s my sexual frustration that makes me do it. I haven’t had sex in too long – a couple years. I say I’m not ready to date, which is just my way of pretending I’m not too afraid for some reason. Maybe that’s why I bought binoculars and watch the city, looking for a view of sex, or of a naked man. To see something sexual. That’s what I need. And the inner conflict between what I want and what I’m afraid of compromises on this. It’s safe but still sexually charged. That seems like justification enough.
I bring up the binoculars again.
But the more I look, the more I realize that I keep wanting to see things that aren’t there – and when I don’t see them, I feel disappointed, then ashamed for having wasted my time. Not getting what I want is causing me suffering. It’s bad enough to feel ashamed, looking at all of the people that aren’t lonely like me, but add into the mix that I’m only wanting more things that I can’t have and have no control over.
I’m not happy up here in this perch, high on my cliff looking over at the thousands of others. I’m reluctant to meet someone new in real life, yet full throttle believing in a fantasy that somehow this will yield the exact thing it avoids… Suddenly, it feels less like an expansive view and more like a glass cage.
I see movement in a window across the sky, and I pull the binoculars to my eyes and look.
As quickly as I saw something it’s gone. I feel disappointed. What did I expect?
It’s lonesome in the dark amongst these bright places.
This internal conflict is an unending draw. Curiosity and excitement prolong my isolation and reinforce my belief that I can’t date. Yet, I get something out of it, even if it is a twisted sense of connection. So despite my frustration, the idea that I might see something worth remembering keeps me looking. Somehow, it’s getting darker in here.
I decide to take a break and go outside to get some food.
Down on the street I keep my eyes low, nervous that someone knows. Anxious that someone recognizes me through the windows – that someone has been watching me watch all the others. I have to remind myself that this is unlikely – and a new conflict emerges: if I don’t want to be watched, what right do I have to watch others? I lower my hood even more as the cold mist kisses my face.
My self-judgement is relentless.
I find some food and go back up, entering the darkness of the Company’s spare apartment, take a few bites, pour another drink and stand at the windows.
It’s the definition of safety I suppose – watching people from a perch, hidden from scrutiny or notice. Anonymous and invisible and ultimately beyond others’ judgement.
If I lived here, would I get a telescope like other New Yorkers? If they do it, why shouldn’t I?
What’s the harm in just looking? I wonder. I unlock my phone and recoil at the brightness.
I frantically look up to see if anyone saw me but am met by my pale reflection looking back at me.
I sit down and look at the floor.
I’m not ready to date.