Photo courtesy of Alejandro Cerutti. See more of his work here.
There is an odd intimacy that comes of so many people living quite literally on top of one another on this tiny island. Sometimes, as I’m lying in bed before I drift off to sleep, I think about the walls and floors and beds above and below me and I feel as if I am floating, suspended in a grid of other lives. Though I know hardly any of the other people in my building, I know something about their lives from the sounds that drift in through my bedroom window and reverberate through the walls and floors. There is the kid who runs up and down the hallway next door in the late morning, the man who blows his nose like a foghorn in the building adjacent, the couple that fights at dawn, and the couple that has loud moaning sex on weekday afternoons.
Our living room shudders with the constant rearranging of furniture from upstairs, and from the street below, we hear the drunken warblings of a homeless woman singing Spanish folk songs. One night, just as I was slipping into sleep, I heard a woman yelling out the window—“Will those of you who are having a party please close your window!” A minute later, she shouted the same thing again. I wanted to shout back, “Will you who is shouting out of the window please stop! I cannot hear the party but you are keeping me awake!”
I am fascinated by glimpses of other people’s lives in all of their unselfconscious everydayness. I can lose myself looking at the corner of a window that reveals a group of potted plants, part of a bookshelf, or a bright dress blowing in the wind. I imagine what it would be like to inhabit that space, to be inside the mind of the person who chose the curtains or arranged the plants.
I love this passage from Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That:”
“All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better, but I did not bother to weight the curtains correctly and all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms.”
The essay is Joan Didion’s epitaph to the years she spent in New York as a young writer, years that were full of beauty and loneliness and a youthful romantic wide-eyedness. In this one lovely sentence, we see the space she occupied (an empty apartment with big windows), we sense the beginning of her depression (“I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better”), and we are captivated by the image of long panels of golden silk whipping around in the wind and rain. I can imagine standing outside on the street in the charged moments before a summer storm, my eyes caught by a flash of gold from the window above me.
We think of windows as our own private views onto the world, but they are also how the world sees in. Whether we arrange our spaces with careful intention or not, they house our daily motions and emotions; they stand as evidence to our private lives. In the adjacent building one floor below me, I can see directly into a room where a stocky man with cornrows walks around his room with heavy steps, completely naked. Either he has not considered the possibility that others may see in, or he just doesn’t care. Two floors above him (one floor above me), I sometimes see a man with shaggy brown hair reading or playing his guitar. There’s a bookshelf behind him, and some sort of poster on the wall. And I find it really strange that I know something about these two people, but that they probably know nothing about each other even though they live parallel lives, literally. And I wonder—what do others see of me from my windows?