I tried not to look. The couple couldn’t see me but I could see them, day and night, if I chose, and often enough I did. It’s a benefit or drawback of urban living that our sight lines in the tight geometry of New York City drive us into the lives of others, into private moments not meant for spectators, if we do not pull the blinds, if we don’t look away or past what’s on offer.
I lived in Brooklyn Heights, as I still do, but at the time I found myself on the third floor of a jumble of an old building on the main drag, Montague Street. It’s a street more plaintively commercial and less pretty than the rest of tony Brooklyn Heights; it is more alive with neon and the coming and going of chain stores, salons, restaurants. And with noise, too—from the meals eaten, booze served, and the resulting high spirits, and then those ancient garbage trucks, circling and circling, their brakes screaming.
I stayed too long in that one spot probably, but the rent was affordable, the Greek landlord fatherly, a friend who often treated me to dessert and stories, and I felt safe then in what I described as a garret but was merely two small rooms that vibrated from the ventilation units from the restaurant below.
The front of my apartment looked out onto Montague. The rear faced an accidental courtyard, the back of the restaurant, Mr. Souvlaki, featuring a fountain that usually didn’t work, a small fenced-in patch of scattered plantings, and the backside of a few apartment buildings. The buildings were close, less than fifty yards from what was my combined kitchen and living room, and the apartment in which I came to see so much was slightly higher than my own, so my vantage allowed me to peer up and in, as if that one living space directly across the way was up on a pedestal.
I can’t say when the couple moved in because when they did I’d been in love and my eyes were diverted inside me, charting the ways in which I felt discovered, opened up, prized, or to the moments I’d be near him again, inside the gold of his skin, the wiry lengths of his arms, or to the future of more love and his lips on the back of my neck and shoulders, his tongue writing messages there, everywhere, reaching inside my insides. And there was the pull of his intoxicating smell and even of his home, not in Brooklyn or in New York state, but further north in a place by the Atlantic dotted with sea roses and overrun with green so dense, during the season I met him, that it seemed in revolt, poised to take over.
I was in another restaurant up north when he saw me and claimed he fell in love at first sight. Of course I was skeptical, but I was in my early thirties and hadn’t yet been fully inoculated by way of time and more experience to certain strains of erotic appeal, romantic sing-song. Plus he was beautiful to me—physically, yes, green-eyed and long limbed, that gold always warming his skin, but also a welcome foil to my urban life and urban relationships, all had hurriedly and so often about an exchange of ambitions, resumes. He took me hiking and kayaking so that his smell was also the smell of grass and dirt and salt and wind. I’d had my heart broken many times in long runs of monogamy and then no-gamy and done some breaking myself but evidently not enough. I assumed at thirty-something I knew better, had better balance, never minding how starved I’d become for a new life elsewhere that I hadn’t yet had the courage to provide for myself, by myself. I thought love would spring me.
This isn’t a new story—the ways in which we’re fooled. We are wired to be, to want to be. It was about a year into our relationship when things began to shift. For over two years we broke up and reunited, despite the fact that the man I loved—whom I’ll call Josh—was in love with being in love; he needed the chemical high of the novelty, desire when it’s fresh and the world feels refigured. In fact he needed all sorts of highs to obscure my failings and his. His childhood had been a bust, so self-love wasn’t his strong suit. Drinking was, it turned out, dreaming the next great thing, lounge music played at volume, and breaking up with me.
It was during that push me, pull me time I finally noticed the couple across the courtyard. I was achingly lonely and sick with self-reproach, resenting Josh, then myself, and wanting to help him, help us. If I could fix us, I thought I could fix love. The couple had a terrace which the last tenant (an older single woman with a bob and cat-eye glasses and singular focus) had crowded with flowers, a controlled riot of purple and yellow and orange, especially of petunias, pinched regularly. I noticed that the flowers were gone as I noticed the new tenants, whom I would never actually meet. I grieved those flowers. I grieved everything as I took them in, out sitting on their adorable little terrace so often. The woman was taller than the man. He was slim and boyish and preppy with floppy collars and on weekends, during the warmer months, outfitted in loose-fitting sports shirts and Bermuda shorts and leather flip-flops. She, on the other hand, was made of sturdy curves, broad in her shoulders and hips, with full breasts, but was still long and as solid in her appearance as I began to feel slight and fraying. She dressed in what looked like Talbot’s during day and Portland, Oregon, at night and weekends—long flowing dresses or tank tops with wide skirts, flat sandals. At home she cared about her comfort first, or outfits that made her feel most like her.
They planted a grill on their terrace and a small table with three and sometimes four chairs. Situated a few unfrilly plants that could stand the oncoming summer heat and direct sun along with three window boxes hung from the terrace rails, filled with hyacinth, then tulips, then hydrangea. In May of our second year when Josh said we needed a break, again, and my apartment shook and was hazy with restaurant smoke, I watched the couple eat and laugh and argue lightly and still laugh. They laughed all the time, it appeared to me, who wasn’t laughing much then. They poked one another, grabbed knees, and laughed again. She sat in his lap. He in hers. They squeezed friends on the terrace with them, played music I liked: Van Morrison, the Shins, Nina Simone. They had shades in their windows and did pull them on occasion, but they’d bought the precut kind or had miscalculated their measurements so the blinds did not go all the way down in the bedroom or living room over their enormous, nearly floor-to ceiling-windows. I never saw them kiss for long on the terrace that I can recall, but I saw them fall into one another on their couch in the living room. I could not see their kitchen, but I could see the colors of the TV illuminate them as they had a meal or simply watched there. Her long blond hair, her long limbs tied up in his knobbier, frailer-seeming ones. Their bodies were opposites, but everything else seemed to fit and, as I discovered, fit often.
Mostly they were a sedate couple, routinized—work, home; he’d go for a run in his floppy T-shirts and shorts in the early evening; she’d do some yoga, read on her terrace with a glass of wine, cook, or dig in her flower boxes. They ate around 7:30 P.M.; they sat in front of the TV nightly or read together; and they made love nearly every day. In the dark, in front of the TV, or first thing in the morning before they armored up for a day of work somewhere in New York City. Generally the shade was pulled in the bedroom but wasn’t long enough for the window by their low bed so it didn’t cover them or not completely. At this point, as calls came in from Josh or failed to come, I found myself looking out of my windows at them compulsively, out of myself and away from my sorrow. What caught my eye one early morning was a piston-like movement of hard to identify human parts, fragments of them. I made out her hips and some of his and looked away, for a minute (if even). Later in the week, it was her full backside and a sliver of him behind her, later a partial view of his mouth making a meal of her breasts. Yes, I tried not to look, but it was, almost every day, a distraction, a thrill, and a puzzle to be solved—they’re doing it again? And what was that? Oh, yes, that—and then the question of when and how long and how tender or not. Their apartment was full of daylight or lights after dark, and mine in the early morning anyway, when the sun was not yet high enough, was in shadow. I was in shadow generally during those sluggish, unkind months as Josh called more regularly and even left detailed messages to describe how I was too good and he was too bad or vice versa or how I’d never really understand him, what he needed and where he’d come from; the advantages I’d had, thanks to generous parents, made me unseeing when it came to injustice in the world, made me dull and less an artist or bohemian, as he was evidently, and more of a middle-class bourgeois. He hated his job managing a restaurant, the town he found himself in. I’d failed to spring him, too, from his confines; my green love was dead or dying, curling up on itself, as every day I became a peeper, a zoologist, a researcher, a woman in the city alone, again, and wondering why.
Of course I didn’t know this couple, only their habits, the fragments given me. Right or wrong, they became an ideal—a couple with their own rhythms, a couple content to be a couple, a couple on good terms with a fairly predictable domestic life and with sex—and the inventive kind, with a range of positions, pace, attitudes—or at least that’s what I saw from my vantage. I saw them fight only once or twice. He grilled them burgers one evening, and as they talked she became more and more animated and he too. They did not fall into their default laughter or the poking of sides: hand gestures came faster and pointed fingers formed and jabbed the air. As climax, she stood, lifted her plate, and sent her burger arcing into the accidental courtyard. Then she stormed away to a place I could not see. I was strangely relieved—they were not so different from any of us after all—and bereft—they were not so different from any of us after all. I couldn’t look away now. There were questions to be answered–when did something break and break beyond repair? The answer: not now and not for them. Later with the lights out but the TV screen’s glow dancing all over them, as if it were a strobe, they made love on the couch. First he got on his knees and then insinuated his face between her legs, kneeling there and kneeling there as if in supplication, in no hurry. A man willing to be sorry. To show sorry. Then she got up to straddle him, her back kept straight as she did; the strength and length of her a glory to me. A strong woman. A strong love. Peace restored again.
I began to close my own blinds not long after that. My envy was just too great, my shame at watching them and at the state of my love life too much. I wanted something like they had or what I thought they had, and I wouldn’t get it by pressing my face to my window glass. It took too long for Josh and me to accept that we just weren’t a match; there’s the initial intoxication, its deliciousness, the story you can’t help write before you can live it, before you know your lover fully, and then there’s partnership and the work that goes into that, the sometimes plain tedious work of maintaining connection and communication, sustaining joy, and we didn’t have the makings for that.
I have one of those relationships now, a decade later—a domestic life with a man who makes me laugh far more often than he makes me angry or feel wrong in my own skin and his. From our apartment, there are no views like the one I had on Montague Street, no neighbors’ lives to peer into and wonder at, and if anyone’s watching me and my partner in our apartment with its oversized windows, when we forget to close the curtains, I say let them look, imperfections and all, the fights and fragments, the real tenderness, the laughter, the love, especially that. We have nothing to hide.
Amy Grace Loyd’s debut novel, The Affairs of Others, was published by Picador on August 27. Loyd is an executive editor at Byliner Inc. and was the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine. She worked in The New Yorker’s fiction department and was associate editor for the New York Review Books Classics series. She has been a MacDowell and Yaddo fellow and lives in Brooklyn, New York.