The Window and the Woman

Jeffrey Hough

“I thought you’d say that!” The woman screamed. She tossed her napkin down and strode away from the table, a vision of disenchantment.

John stared at the window. The light struck it at just an oblique enough angle to render it a capable mirror. It was perfect for watching the patrons of La’Shae. He gloried in the sight of the woman for a few precious seconds. Then, she was gone.

 

At once, her tirade was replaced by his reflection. As always, his skin was pallor, and his expression wan. His blue eyes were the only thing about him remotely remarkable. He wasn’t tall or particularly well built. His hair contained in it only the merest color, and even that was beginning to fade. It wasn’t changing gracefully to silver or turning distinguished grey; it was merely fading into a muddled non-color.

 

The bell chimed at the door, and he refocused his attention. Ah yes, he thought. It was the stockbroker and his partner. He checked his watch, ten minutes late. They took their usual table, and he absently wondered at the delay. Was traffic bad? Did they have a long meeting?

 

The two men talked stridently, but the tone was low, and he couldn’t understand them. It was infuriating. Briefly, he considered changing tables, but his reflection intruded into the scene and remained where he was. It was just his luck. He watched the conversation for a short time longer. When the men’s food arrived, he gave it up and looked elsewhere.

 

La’Shae was a reasonably exclusive restaurant, and the clientele could usually be counted on. Today was different. So far, the only excitement had been the attractive woman. He could often pick out a few pieces of information, even amid the din of so many people. Not today. No worries, though. He’d just come back tomorrow.

 

He quietly stood and walked to the door. He didn’t notify the waiter; his account was in good standing. He didn’t speak to the gentleman that held the door for him; there was nothing to be said on the matter. He took his usual left turn down Maple Street and walked.

He stayed close to the buildings, not putting himself in anyone’s path. He liked this part of the walk. The sidewalk was wide, and the pedestrians few. As was usual for him, he took this part of his journey slowly. Occasionally a man or woman would walk by on their cell phone. He would pause to tie his shoe or some other ruse to catch a moment of conversation.

 

“No, tell daddy he can’t make dinner again,” a woman said as she walked by.

 

She was gone before another word could be heard. Was daddy a bad cook? Did she already have plans? Perhaps they were separated, and she didn’t like what he fed the kids. John simply didn’t know. It didn’t matter. It was something else to think about as he turned onto York Drive.

John didn’t like this stretch of the trip. The sidewalk was nearly non-existent, and there were far too many people. He couldn’t hear anything, and at any rate, he moved too quickly to try. Daddy must just be a lousy cook; that was it.

 

No sooner had he come to this conclusion did a man walk right into him. The man-made some polite remark, but John simply looked away and remained silent. I wonder why he was in such a hurry, he thought. A bit rude, but he might have had his reasons. Perhaps he was late for some critical engagement.

 

John tried to put the man out of his mind. He only had a few more steps, and he’d be home. Thankfully they passed peacefully enough, and he hurried into his abode.

 

His apartment was on the first floor, which was much to his liking. It consisted of two small rooms and a kitchen/dining area. The décor might be considered drab had it been anyone other than John living there.

 

A beige couch covered most of the sitting room and faced not a television but a large window. No pictures adorned the walls, and the understated curtains remained pulled to the side at all times. John went into the kitchen and made himself his favorite meal, ham and cheese sandwich. The food at La’Shae was far too fancy. No, it was just tea and the occasional coffee for him. With a sandwich in hand, he eased himself onto the couch and watched the window.

 

The evening rush was soon to begin, and he was eager for it. It didn’t take long before a kaleidoscope of people paraded before him. Some were familiar to him and with his ways and waved. He sat motionless in return. Others noticed his scrutiny and hurried along. He sat motionless in return.

It was the others, the group unaware of his scrutiny, that he relished. Oblivious to him, they went about their lives uninhibited. He watched raptly as they moved in and out of his life. A quiet bell chimed, and without a sound or delay, he stood, closed the curtain, and went to bed.

 

The next day found him back at La’Shae. The Thursday crowd bustled in and out without incident, and he was despairing of seeing anything noteworthy today. There were a few new customers, there always were, but they didn’t possess any panache.

 

Three o’clock chimed, and he stood. As was his way, he moved silently to the door. It was being held for him, as was usually the case, but not by a man. It was the woman from the day before. She smiled and waved him to go through. He hadn’t noticed her features before, and she was quite striking. Before he could stop himself, he was doing something he’d never done before; he tried to speak.

 

Only short inaudible sounds escaped his lips, and he ran off in embarrassment. He hurried home without even trying to hear a single conversation. He didn’t notice how narrow the walk on York Drive was. He was often buffeted by the crowd and hardly slowed to engage in his silent guessing game with them.

 

Before he knew it, he was home. He entered and lingered at the doorway. It was too early for ham and cheese. He wouldn’t be ready to eat for another ten minutes. He looked longingly at the window, but there was little to see so soon. Not knowing what to do, he stood there.

 

When finally it was time to eat, he made his meal and sat on the couch. He whiled away the time playing at guessing people’s professions or love lives, but it held little satisfaction today. One thought kept creeping into his mind. Who was that woman? Why had she returned to La’Shae? When the bell chimed, he commenced his ritual and went to bed. Surely Friday would be a better day.

 

It was a better day. The stockbroker and his partner could not get their usual table and took a table right next to him. He looked at the window, captivated by their reflections.

 

“I’m telling you, Joe, tech is the way to go,” said the partner.

 

“No, no, no, the market’s too saturated right now. We need to be pushing commodities. I’m telling you, Dave, gold’s only going to go higher.”

 

John exalted in the eager expression on Joe’s face. He must have put a lot of money into gold.

 

“About yesterday,” Dave said.

 

John perked up. Would the mystery of the late lunch be revealed? He squinted to make out their lips in the hope of not missing a single word when the reflection was skewed by a passing patron. It was the same woman. John watched her. The blue dress she wore flowed along her body in time with each step. It bloused about, occasionally falling against her body, revealing an appealing figure beneath. Not a brown hair on her head so much as left its place as she turned this way and that looking for…who? What? Then, the reflection was gone. He turned back to the stockbroker.

“Like I said, don’t worry about it.” Joe was saying.

 

Dammit, he’d missed the story. Vainly, he tried to find the woman in the glass. It was no use. She’d left his field of vision, and the only recourse was to turn around. That simply wasn’t an option. Dejected, he stood to leave.

 

When he arrived home this time, he was a full hour early. He stood in the doorway for a time. He looked longingly at the couch, then at the kitchen. It wasn’t time to eat, it wasn’t time to watch the window, and it simply wasn’t time to be home. He turned to leave but stopped short. He couldn’t go to the restaurant twice in one day. At a loss, he made his sandwich early.

 

Weeks went by, and the woman made no further appearances at La’Shae. Each day, he waited with bated breath, only to leave disappointed. He found himself staying longer as he looked unflinchingly into the window.

 

Some days found him looking through the reflection to the outside world, hoping to see her while missing important happenings inside the restaurant. Little by little, he fell behind in the lives of La’Shae’s patrons. On more than one occasion, he found himself home at the wrong time. Sometimes early, sometimes late.

 

Winter came with a gusto that year, and his forays to La’Shae had to be suspended. He sat alone, watching the freezing people outside bustle to their destinations. None of them stopped to wave. None of them quickened their pace at the sight of him. Of course, he sat motionlessly.

 

Christmas came and went, and he did not wonder at the contents of the many packages people carried. He did not wonder for whom they’d been purchased. He only wondered about the woman in the blue dress. And just like a wish granted by the blue fairy, she was there, standing right outside his window.

 

She wasn’t standing there, gawking at him as he was her. She was picking up a phone another fellow had dropped. John had found the whole scene amusing, watching the man try to catch the phone as it slipped from his hand. It was just the bit of levity he felt he needed at the time.

The two of them exchanged pleasantries, and she was off. Without a thought, he took his coat and left the house without even the slightest regard for ham and cheese.

 

The woman wasn’t moving swiftly, and it took no time at all for him to catch up. He walked behind her and watched. She was polite to any who got in her way. She stopped to talk to an old homeless man and offered some money. John had always shied away from this man but forgot himself enough to be within arm’s reach. When the woman stood, she turned to face him. He hurriedly stooped to tend his shoelace. When he straightened, she was gone.

 

He checked his watch. It was time to eat. As he was closer to La’Shae than home, he had little choice but to go there. The waiter looked surprised to see him and even more so when he sheepishly pointed at an item on the menu. It was something called a cordon bleu. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it had ham AND cheese. When it arrived, he was a little overwhelmed. He’d certainly never had his ham and cheese like this before. He took a hesitant bite. This, he thought, was what a ham and cheese sandwich was supposed to be.

 

As much as he enjoyed the food, he ate quickly. He felt exposed and didn’t try to steal glances at the window. When the waiter returned a while later, it was to find an empty table waiting for him, John had fled once again in silence.

 

He spent the following days rebuking himself for his impertinent rashness. He’d gone outside in winter, been to La’Shae after three, and even eaten a meal there! The change in habit had left him nearly catatonic afterward.

 

When spring finally arrived, he returned to his activities, with one small exception. After all, it was perfectly acceptable to have his cordon bleu, so long as he ate it before three o’clock. It did take away from his spying, though. April faded into May, and he found himself in a dreadful melancholy.

He thoroughly enjoyed the new addition to his routine, but he loathed the consequences. He was beginning to miss the human element, even if he had experienced it all second hand. He needed to make a decision. He was to either discontinue eating at La’Shae or find another way to experience humanity. Drops of rain slid along the massive pane of glass he regularly faced when he turned to face the restaurant. There was no fanfare to mark the occasion. The patrons went about their meals with no notion of the momentous act they’d just witnessed. John had turned to face the world.

Change is such a subtle creature. It stalks a man, waiting for just the right moment to reveal itself. It had been hunting John his whole life, and finally, it pounced. John sat in awe of the spectacle before him. The people were so vibrant, their features distinct and clear. The conversations came more naturally to his ears.

 

He saw joy, pain, and regret, but mostly he saw pleasure—the pleasure of a meal shared with someone else. It was what he didn’t see that struck him most deeply, though; his own reflection. It was his one companion and his bitterest enemy. Without the window, he had no notion of himself. He would have turned back to the window if not for the scene before him.

 

He stopped by the homeless man on his way home and placed some money in the hat next to him. The man thanked him, but John remained silent. At his home, he sat on his couch and watched the world. It was dissatisfying. The window marred the vision.

He went outside and sat on his doorstep instead.

 

John continued eating at La’Shae, but he put his back to the window. One hectic afternoon, a man came up to him.

 

“Excuse me, sir, may I sit with you? I’ve only got a short time for lunch, and there are no other tables.”

 

John sat motionlessly.

 

“Sir,” the man said, “did you hear me? Can I join you?”

 

John looked around. Then he looked back at the man. “Um,” he stammered, “I, uh, guess so.”

 

The man seated himself and waved over the waiter. When he’d ordered, he spoke. John never could remember the details of the conversation; it was mostly one-sided. He did remember looking around the restaurant and wondering if anyone was trying to listen in, as though his life were suddenly fascinating.

 

As time wore on, John found himself more and more eager to leave his house. When the restaurant was busy, he made sure to make his table available. Eventually, he went so far as to invite people to join him. His daily routine slowly altered, and he found himself outdoors more and more often. His pallor skin began to flush. Some color returned to his hair, and his wan expression was replaced with a smile. He no longer sat motionless as the world went by. For the first time in his life, he participated.

 

Upon entering La’Shae near the end of that year, he noticed the woman in the blue dress sitting at the bar. Her dress wasn’t blue today, but he never saw her any other way. He approached her and tapped lightly on her shoulder.

 

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. There was no sheepishness in his tone. “Last year, you held the door for me, and I never thanked you.”

 

She looked at him, confused. “I did?’ She said.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” John replied. “I can’t thank you enough.”

 

She smiled. “It was just a door.”

 

“No, ma’am,” John said, “It was more than just a door.” He shook her hand and turned to face the world.