Lies By Omission
There is a whole science to lights going on and off, doors slamming, footsteps on the walk and car engines starting next door. If you perfect this science, you can discern whether your neighbor is busy or idle, is thinking of you or someone else, is alone or entertaining, is leaving alone or with a group. If you are especially attentive or astute, you might even be able to ascertain whether your neighbor is sad to leave when he knows you're home, whether he forgets the grocery bags on the sidewalk because he's scatterbrained or if he's actually flustered, whether he looks up at your window because he's preoccupied thinking about work or he's really curious to know who you are. Of course, you may not want to know these things. You may not care. Well, perhaps that's for the best.
I didn't care at first. My neighbors were just neighbors. I rented an apartment above a garage, and all my windows faced west. The neighbors on that side were a dark-haired man with two redheaded kids. The redheaded wife showed up now and then but never stayed. The redheaded kids were college aged, but didn't go to school, they seemed to have irregular hours, part time jobs maybe. The girl wore pink leg warmers and cowboy boots with stiletto heels, rode a green ten speed and performed her Tai Chi movements on the lawn underneath my window. She had a short haircut with a tail in back, and was cute as a button. Her father would do anything for her. The boy wore pale blue pajamas to retrieve the morning paper, and denim overalls during the day.
I didn't think much about them. The dark-haired man was just a neighbor. He drove a gold Mercedes, carried a briefcase out to it in the mornings, always wore dark blue suits, hanging up the jacket before he got in the car. He was a regular businessman. I figured his forlorn, hang dog expression was due to his wife having left him, and I thought it was nice he spent so much time with his college aged kids, especially the daughter at Christmas time, when he bought her a million presents and took her skiing.
So I didn't think much of it, when I was walking to my car one morning and I felt as if someone was staring at me. I turned around and sure enough, it was the dark-haired man. The neighborhood was old and established; since I was renting the garage apartment next door I assumed I was a blight on it, and he was offended by the dents in my old convertible Sprite. I always felt as if I should apologize to the neighbors for my car, so I looked appropriately culpable, and drove off.
I really never thought about the dark-haired man again, until I saw him one day when he was home alone, in the middle of the afternoon, on a weekday. And though it was early afternoon, he had just gotten out of bed. His hair was uncombed; his face was lined by a pillow and had a surly, self absorbed look to it. He was wearing a burgundy robe with white pinstripes.
I leaned against the refrigerator, and watched him through the kitchen for awhile. Then I came out onto the porch and sat on the ledge. He was outside, underneath his kitchen window, hammering shingles. He had taken off his robe, and was wearing gray sweats and a red shirt. I watched the muscles of his thighs and back move underneath the loose clothes. He clenched his jaw when he worked, his hair was short and cut away from his face; the expanse of skin between the cheek and jawbones looked smooth and pale against his dark hair. Where he had seemed morose walking from the house to his car, now he looked voluptuous and brooding, as if he were myopic, as if his vision were clouded and he could only see what was right in front of him.
I told him I thought my neighbors were weird, but now that I'd seen him hammering shingles onto the wall of his house, in his pajamas, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, I was sure. He stopped hammering and turned around to look at me. "I'm weird," he said, "you're the one who's up there in the teahouse in the middle of the night, conducting photo sessions in the buff."
I just stood on my porch, gaping. How did he know I was a photographer? Then he picked up the hammer again, feeling cocky and cavalier now, and said, "But don't worry, it doesn't bother me," and started hammering shingles again.
I told him I'd hammer for him if he'd develop proof sheets in my darkroom. He looked up and laughed. "You wouldn't like my pictures," he said. I told him he wouldn't be developing his pictures, but mine; there were three rolls sitting on the counter waiting to be processed. "What kind of pictures do you take?" he said. When I said I didn't know, he laughed. "I guess you'll have to show me sometime."
"I guess," I said.
He put the hammer down and looked at me. "Now?" he said and without waiting for an answer, began walking out of the yard, around the fence, into my yard, and before I could think he had climbed the porch steps and was standing right next to me. I was standing too close to him and found that if I stepped back a few paces toward the front door, his voluptuousness did not disturb me as much, as if it had its own physical boundaries. But he just interpreted my movement as an invitation to come into the apartment, and followed me inside.
I was embarrassed by the squalor of the main room, so I took him straight into the darkroom and let him look at the photos stacked on the shelves and proofs clipped to the lines of strings running along the walls. He looked at the photographs very carefully, running his fingertips absentmindedly along the edges of the paper as he examined them. He seemed to be sizing the pictures up, weighing them against some idea he had already formed in his mind or some standard he had learned. When he finally reached a verdict he set the photographs back on the shelf, looked around for the light switch and finally located it on the wall behind him. "Turn that red light on," he said, "I want to see what it looks like in here when you're working." But before I could reach past him to flip the switch, he shut the door, grabbed my shoulders with his hands, and kissed me in the pitch blackness.
In the darkroom that evening, under the red and yellow lights, watching the images take shape, I began to imagine him looking at the photos he had asked to take with him when he left. I developed all the proof sheets. By the time I came out of the darkroom it was the middle of the night, and all the lights in his house were off.
Over the next few days he stayed in my mind as an image. In the meantime I noticed I was being watched. The windows of my main room overlook the dark-haired man's front yard and bedroom, my kitchen windows look onto his side yard and kitchen. The dark-haired man would look around the yard now when he came home from work, and then raise his eyes as if he were scanning the horizon, to catch a glimpse of my windows. When he drove by in his car he would turn his head to the windows. Once when I was opening my refrigerator to pull out a roll of film, I noticed the dark-haired man standing at his kitchen sink, staring right at me. He had that brooding, surly look on his face, myopic and intense, that he had worn when he was hammering shingles. I imagined his jaw clenching under the smooth expanse of skin. A shadow passed behind him, and he shut the curtains.
It was about this time that I began to be aware of all the sounds next door, the repertoire of doors slamming, footsteps, car engines and brakes, voices. Like a person who is recovering from a long illness and whose nerves are raw, I could hear everything that happened outside the next door neighbor's house, even with my windows shut. And like a deranged person, who deliberately exacerbates his own obsessions, goads them on out of some devilish nihilism, I would look out the windows down at the neighbor's yard, to make sure I knew whose car had turned onto the street, whose footsteps were coming up the walk, who had gone in or out of the house. At night I would turn the lights off in order to look out, walking back and forth through the main room and kitchen to check the various windows. From my years developing film I was used to negotiating a room in the dark; but now I had transformed the whole apartment into a dark room.
By the end of the week I could distinguish the dark-haired man's clacking Mercedes engine and the thick slam of its door, from the redheaded boy's humming station wagon and his sister's whizzy Datsun. Her step was brisker and sharper than the two men, her brother usually wore tennis shoes and made no sound at all. Since the porch door slammed wood against wood and the front door clicked into place with a metal latch, from the order of the two sounds I could tell if the parties were leaving or arriving. The curtains on the kitchen and the dark-haired man's bedroom windows were cafe style, so I could see the dark-haired man and the boy's foreheads as they walked by. The bedroom curtain was transparent and sometimes I caught glimpses of the dark-haired man working at his desk, or talking on the telephone beside the window.
The longer I watched the more frantic I became. By the end of the week, I could only stay in the darkroom a few minutes at a time, before I would have to come out again to listen and pace and check the windows. One evening, when I saw the two redheads drive away together in the boy's station wagon I sat down in the main room to rest. The dark-haired man was home alone, working at his desk. He hadn't been home alone since the afternoon a week before, when he was hammering shingles.
I saw the dark-haired man's desk light go off, heard the metal latch of the front door, and the wooden slam of the porch door. He was going out. I heard his footsteps on the walk. They turned onto the sidewalk towards my apartment, and got louder, as if he were approaching the garage below. I listened to him walk around the side of the garage, up the stairs and knock on the door.
When I opened it he said, "Can I take some pictures of you?" He went over to the corner of the apartment where the backdrop, studio lights and camera were set up, and looked through the lens. "Stand over here," he said, pointing under the lights. I obliged him. He adjusted the focus and camera angle, fiddled with the f-stops and light meter. Then, while he was still looking through the camera at me, he began to take off his clothes. I watched him. He was stocky, brown and hairless, the skin on his arms and chest was as smooth as the side of his face had looked across the yard.
Our lovemaking was what I expected: strange and sad and wonderful, as if we had known each other for a long time, but had been kept apart. Afterward, when we were lying there in bed, I heard the redheaded boy's station wagon pull up in the drive next door. "Your kids are home," I said. I listened while the car doors slammed, the porch door and then the front door open and shut.
The dark-haired man looked at me quizzically for a moment, then got out of bed. He turned off all the lights in the apartment and stood naked at the various windows, looking out "So this is what it's like," he said, peering out each window in turn. He put on all his clothes in the dark, kissed me on the forehead and held me for a long time as if he meant to console me. Then he let himself out. I didn't bother to turn the lights on after he left, or even get up. I just stayed in bed, listening.
The next day, the redheaded boy knocked on my door. When I opened it he asked to borrow some milk. The minute I saw him up close I knew he wasn't a boy at all, but my age, maybe even older.
He told me his name was Tom, and followed me into the kitchen. "You live here alone?" he said. I nodded. "You're a photographer?"
I gave him the milk. "See for yourself" I said and he walked to the back of the main room to inspect my equipment. "I work for my dad," he said. He cradled the jar of milk in his hands.
"That dark-haired guy who lives with you?" I tried to sound indifferent, but Tom laughed.
"Warner? That's my sister's boyfriend." Tom had put the milk jar down. He was looking through each one of my cameras in turn. The loose ones--the ones that weren't mounted on tripods--he pointed at me, and pretended to shoot.
"What do they do?" I asked him.
"Warner sells. Clarissa's a Yoga teacher," He looked over a camera at me.
I nodded. "You look a lot younger from across the yard," I said.
He stood up straight and retrieved the milk jar. "But we're not," he said. "It's the redheaded complexion." He tapped the milk jar against his cheek "Clarissa does Tai Chi as well, sometimes out in the yard. Maybe you've seen her?"
"Well have you ever spoken to her?" he said.
I told him I thought I had.
"That's good," he said, "because she thinks you don't like her."
"Why wouldn't I like her?"
"She thinks you're after her boyfriend."
"Warner?" I said.
Tom opened the front door and held up the milk jar. "Thanks again," he said. "Hey, I've got two tickets for the symphony tonight, you want to go?"
"I can't," I said.
"Well, I'm making a cake with this, so I'll bring you a piece. I mean, it's only fair." He tilted the milk jar at me the way a gentleman might tip his hat, and made his way down the stairs.
After he had left, I shut the curtains. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I knew it was the wrong thing to do, the wrong gesture, the wrong message. But I had to do it. I had to get away.
That evening Tom and Clarissa left around seven in the station wagon. They were all dressed up, so I guessed they were going to the symphony. Right afterward, Warner called and asked me if I would meet him at the all-night laundromat next to the university--he had to do his laundry anyway, he said, and it would give us a chance to chat.
I watched him from my windows while he loaded two duffel bags into the trunk of his Mercedes and drove away. Then I started out. I think we took different routes. When I arrived at the laundromat he was putting in a load of wash. He said it was too bright in there, that the light hurt his eyes, so we went back outside, and sat in the Mercedes.
"I've thought a lot about it," he said, "and I've decided that I want to be friends with you." He turned on the radio to an easy listening station. "I thought maybe we could meet here, Sunday nights at ten. That's when I do my laundry." He looked at me. "It would give us a chance to talk," he said.
I stared through the window at the glistening metal laundromat, and at the students inside, marking textbooks with yellow felt-tip pens. I said I would. When he began to kiss me I kept watching the light bounce off the bright metal surfaces inside the laundry. Finally I said, "We should put your clothes in the dryer."
"There's a place where we can go," he said. He reached into the side pocket on the Mercedes door, pulled out a ring of keys, and held them up to the light.
We drove south down the El Camino Real, a commercial strip as bright as the inside of the laundromat, with signal lights at every intersection. Neither one of us spoke. I dreaded our spending the night together, but had no idea why. And I knew if I would only ask, Warner would take me back and those ill-defined consequences would be averted. But I didn't say anything. Who can tell what the heart is up to-- it's stubborn and sullen, and won't confess to anyone. Finally, we pulled into a large apartment complex called The Americana, with tile roofs, stucco sides, and redwood porches. Warner pushed a button and all the car doors unlocked, like magic.
When I returned home early the next morning, I found a piece of cake waiting for me on my front porch. I went inside and looked out the window at Clarissa, who was performing her Tai Chi movements on the lawn. She had added a new movement, or else it was one I'd never noticed before. She brought her leg way up, so her toe pointed above her head, then she pivoted around in a half circle, and as she brought her leg down she bowed deeply, with a great dignity.
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