2020 Provost Literary Prize: "Windows"

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Window stock image

I became fascinated with the lives of strangers as a night janitor.

After high school, my father’s child support payments stopped arriving and out of

necessity, I went to work with my mom in matching blue waffle knit uniforms, a pair of bookend Polish cleaning ladies washed orange under the streetlights. We would take the bus to the subway and then ride the F train to Midtown each night at eight, settling down in the back with the other cleaning women, clutching our tupperwares filled with varied meat and potato dishes as colorful club-bound people flowed around us, laughing and fighting and applying makeup. We walked a short block to our building, weaving through the clusters of tourists and fast-walking city natives as I gazed up at the brilliant gold and white squares of illuminated windows above us.

The security guard’s name was TJ. He had worked in the building for years, reclining behind the desk where he could view each doorway on dusty monitors and sip his oversized thermos of coffee with just a splash of Kahlua. He called me by my Polish name, Ksenia, instead of my preferred name Kasey, but it sounded right in his gravelly voice so I never addressed it. He always let us in with a tired smile, cautiously flipping the heavy metal locks behind us while we walked to the elevator. “Still loving the night shift?” he called after us every time.

“Always!” My mom would reply as she pressed the button, illuminating a perfect circle around the number 2 in fancy script.

We alternated--on even numbered floors, I would clean the bathrooms while my mother vacuumed the carpets and gathered trash bags. When it was my turn to push the vacuum across the offices on odd numbered floors, I looked quickly into each cubicle, ignoring the stacks of papers and computers on sleep mode to find what I really wanted--photos of family members and pets, waxy fake plants, forgotten sweaters hanging off the backs of chairs. Everything was cold and sleepy under the half-lit lights. On floor five, I always ran a fingertip over the ear of a gray ceramic cat and wondered if it matched the pet at home, if the owner of the desk was petting a real animal as I felt the cool surface of the fake one. At the back corner of floor eleven, I looked briefly into the blank glassy eyes of off-brand stuffed animals and pictured a grandmother type arranging them hurriedly each morning before a daily meeting. I closely examined a tack-studded map of the world on floor seventeen, speculating which country the employee would visit next--India, maybe, or Greece, or South Africa, somewhere far enough away to forget about the map until they returned and pressed a fresh blue tack into the glossy paper with a smile.

For years, my fascination pulled me out of the building each night on the top floor. It was just past three a.m. and we always took a quick break before heading downstairs to take the trash out and clean the lobby, our final tasks before TJ handed us cups of sugary coffee for the train ride home. We sat in the lounge near the elevators, the puffy chairs shoved up against the floor to ceiling windows. My mom scrolled through her phone and I looked into the other buildings. Most of the windows were dark but I could watch other cleaning ladies scrub their final surfaces and unplug their vacuums. In apartment buildings, my favorite, I could see some people getting ready for work, brushing their teeth and eating bowls of cereal, pulling on sweaters and exchanging quick kisses goodbye. Other people were just coming home after parties and clubs, tossing off their clothes and falling into bed.

The apartment I loved the most was directly across from where we sat against the window. Two girls lived there, just a few years older than me, in a green apartment filled with eclectic furniture and cluttered with plants and books. Lamps burned in each room, lighting them up just enough for me to distinguish a long red mane on one of them and short curly black hair on the other. Sometimes they had small parties, little groups of men and women drinking and dancing in their cozy living room or curled up on the couch, watching a movie. Most of the time it was just them--getting ready for bed, talking and laughing about something that would always be a mystery to me. I prescribed different stories: the dark haired girl managed a coffee shop and she spilled a smoothie on herself earlier; the two of them were hit on at the bar last night by men who had no chance; the lady next door yelled at them for cooking something that smelled too spicy. I wished I could lean out and ask, shouting across the medley of car horns and rumbly trash collection on the street below us, and their explanation of the enigmatic jokes would be punctuated with wispy, brilliant laughter that floated up to the invisible stars. But instead they pulled the strings on their lamps and shut their curtains, sinking into unconsciousness out of sight as my mom and I went back downstairs.

On the way home, we passed by an art gallery with half the lights on, casting the faintest glow on the paintings within. My mother always stopped in front, blinking the sleep from her eyes and sipping TJ’s coffee. She was tired, I could tell--years of rubber gloves and chemical sprays had worn her down. She never fully adjusted to sleeping during the daytime either, the sun always warmed her, even behind thick black curtains and under the cool fan current, and I often woke up for a gulp of water to see her scrolling through her phone, eyes heavy, unable to fall asleep.

In Poland, she wanted to be an artist. Her first job was cleaning an art gallery and studio in downtown Warsaw where she learned basic principles through eavesdropping on critics and auditing the occasional class. She met my father there, a college kid backpacking through Europe and sketching people on the street for money.

I had never known him. When I was a child, I pictured him as a weathered art professor, always rushing downtown with a scraped-up briefcase and paintbrushes sticking out of his pockets. In middle school, I saw him as a semi-famous artist, slapping electric paints on thick canvases under exposed lightbulbs in Brooklyn. I searched stranger’s faces for him everywhere, trying to identify a feature or a mysterious connection--the same used book tucked under our arms, a matching curve of our eyebrows. But in high school, he became faceless, a blurry body always disappearing around corners and across busy streets, just out of reach, alive only in my dreams and in the form of a crisp mailed check.

A few years ago, after a bottle of wine, my mother admitted to me that she never loved him. He was just a means to an end, a plane ticket, then a wedding certificate and citizenship so she could save up to attend Pratt or NYU and become an artist. She got something else instead--a few unhappy years followed by a positive pregnancy test and divorce papers, a career spent cleaning up after other people.

It was hard not to feel guilty. I knew my birth wasn’t my own fault, but I felt an urgency to minimize my existence for her sake. I stayed out of trouble and never argued, living as simply as I could with few friends. I cooked and cleaned while we were home and asked for simple things for my birthday and Christmas, books and pajamas and candles that cycled through my life twice a year. As we walked away from the empty art studio, I stuck close to her arm, watching the city wake up around us until we stumbled down the concrete stairs into the yellow subway tunnel, joining the familiar rush of night shift employees and swaying clubbers.

Our apartment was a studio, one long room with a kitchenette on one end and a bathroom on the other, partially tucked behind our closet. My mom showered first while I prepared thick slices of sourdough toast and scrambled eggs with cheese. We had an apple in the refrigerator, dangerously close to rotting, so I cut that up too, not wanting to waste the fruit even with the subpar yellowing flesh. When my mom emerged from the shower with a bright purple towel wrapped around her head, we ate quickly, feeling our exhaustion rise with the sun outside. I showered next, scrubbing quickly with my apricot soap, then massaging my scalp with our coconut shampoo as the water ran cold. When I came out, the blackout curtains were drawn with the fan running already. I laid down but didn’t close my eyes right away. I glanced at my mom, a few feet away on her own twin bed, and heard her faint snores. Satisfied that she wouldn’t wake up quite yet, I peeled up the corner of the curtain covering the window above my bed. Manhattan looked like a toy city in the distance, light streaming across it and painting the sky orange behind the gray clouds. People would arrive at the office soon, settling into their chairs and turning on their computers, exchanging pleasantries and pouring their mugs full of coffee. I wondered if anyone on the top floor would notice when the girls woke up a few hours later, if they would watch them like I did. I pictured them applying makeup and picking out their outfits, tossing each other clothes and shoes like best friends on TV shows. I fell asleep imagining them walking out of the building onto the concrete and saying a quick goodbye that was meaningless--they’d see each other again, and I would see them too.

Then there were moving boxes.

I tensed up in my chair when I realized what was happening and glanced at my mom, who didn’t look up from the magazine she found in a recycling bin earlier that night. The redhead was wrapping drinking glasses in newspaper and setting them into a cardboard box, the brunette folding blankets on the couch. Their TV was on but I couldn’t see the screen, just the bluish light washing the room into a flat, synthetic version of itself. My fingernails dug into the armrests of the chair.

“Ksenia, don’t do that. Are you okay?” my mom asked.

I let go of the chair. “Yeah.”

On the train home, I found the apartment listing. Two bedrooms, one bath, $4K a month, big windows, dishwasher, sublease. They’d be the ones renting it, showing their apartment to prospective tenants, I would get to meet them if I visited. I excitedly scrolled up--there was a picture of the kitchen, simple white cabinets and a silver sink, and another photo of just the dishwasher, a coveted asset in NYC no matter how old it was. The third photo featured the living room, cozy and green, and I shivered when I saw the lamp by the window with the bumpy silver chain hanging off of it. The bottom of the listing offered an email address and a simple request--tell us why you belong here, and we will welcome you into your new home!

Back at the apartment I ate quickly and rushed through the motions of showering until I got shampoo into my eye. It burned and my eyes welled up slowly and involuntarily until I was sobbing, one hand braced against the chipped tile while the other rubbed at my eyelid helplessly. I tried to plan out my email while I cried and waited for my pain to fade away. I needed to be a believable tenant, someone who could afford the sky-high rent. Maybe I worked in the advertising agency housed in the seventeenth floor of the building we cleaned, maybe I could be the employee with the map and blue pushpins. A sweet trust fund kid who graduated from Yale and collected cities and continents like some people collect seashells. A woman who tossed around commercial ideas with the boys, like in Mad Men, and supervised photoshoots for lipstick advertisements that appeared in the Vogue magazines my mom snuck out of recycling bins. I wanted a quiet place to come home to after the flash of cameras and debates over which advertisement to pitch to the client. And how perfect--it’s right across the street, just up and over a couple floors, look, you can see my work building right through the window, how funny!

In the dark of our apartment, I nervously typed and retyped my message, my plea, with shaking fingers. I had to give myself a story instead of a stranger. It seemed strange at first touch but as I finally pressed send, I realized it was the most natural thing in the world. I didn’t have a life outside of scrubbing toilets and vacuuming miles of carpet and hiding from the sun to sleep, so why couldn’t I reinvent myself for a moment? I wouldn’t get to visit the apartment anyway, I thought, they were already packing, so someone else must be preparing to move in. There was only a thin chance I would be invited over, just the smallest percentage that I would get to meet the girls I loved at a distance.

Olivia and Paige. I couldn’t get the names out of my head as the subway rushed me to Midtown. They had invited me to view the apartment and fill out an application. It was our night off, another crew would take care of our building. Normally, my mom and I would eat dinner together and watch old movies until we felt tired enough to sleep, but tonight I finally had other plans. My heart seemed to speed up with each second that pulled me closer to eight p.m. I tried to distract myself with the other people on the train--the pretty young woman with a flashy engagement ring, the teenage boys shouting over each other, the man putting on mascara a few seats away. But I kept finding myself thinking back to their names and building lives around them.

The letters in Olivia are a blend of angular and smooth, I realized, halfheartedly studying the man applying makeup. It must be the brunette, I thought, and she probably loved art history and spiced teas. I could picture her having a cross-legged political debate in a coffee shop with other college students, fingers wrapped lightly around a bright steaming mug. She had fleeting relationships with men and women alike but couldn’t commit to anyone. Olivia loved film festivals and gluten free snacks from Whole Foods. She had a golden passionate energy and loved to challenge others in mild ways, but no one ever hated her, at least not wholeheartedly.

Paige was the redhead; sophisticated, previously destined to be a socialite but found herself falling into another life as a writer, maybe. She did yoga in the morning and got weekly massages. Her bookcase was overflowing with the fiction and poetry collections she was obsessed with and discussed with her book club friends over mimosas at brunch on the Upper West side. She fought with her parents but still summered with them in the Hamptons so she could spread out by the pool and reminisce with her old boarding school girlfriends who lived in Europe or Asia now. Paige worked in publishing and wrote mostly for fun, typing out shiny micropoems that occasionally found their way into literary journals. She was practical and possessed an air of wisdom and confidence unlike anyone else around her.

I couldn’t help but commit to my imagination. Their identities swirled around my head, colliding like cars in a traffic jam and then bouncing apart and restructuring. I walked from the subway to the building slowly, not wanting to be early and seem too eager. I looked up at the glittery windows and the clouds brushing against each other just above the buildings. People tried to hand me advertisements or sell me bus tickets but I just flowed around them, searching the sky, my sneakers grazing the concrete. I tried to dress up- my one unstained pair of jeans and a plain purple sweatshirt were the best I could do. I’d burnt my hair into waves with my mom’s ancient curling iron and applied cheap Duane Reade lip gloss carefully while she slept. I slipped out the door before she woke up, leaving behind a scrawled note saying I wanted to treat us to cupcakes from Magnolia bakery in Manhattan. I’d have to remember to grab some between the subway and the bus to solidify my story.

At the doorway, I sent them an email to let them know I’d arrived. While I waited looked into our building across the street, wondering if there was a cleaning shift tonight or not, if TJ sat behind the desk or a different security guard rested there without a splash of Kahlua.

The door swung open and a small, dark haired woman emerged. “Hi, I’m Anna, are you Kasey?”

I smiled at her. “Yes, hi! Here to view 21E.”

“Of course, come on in.”

She led me across the lobby. I could feel my heart pumping quicker. They were upstairs in the apartment, laughing and chatting as usual for one of their last nights in their home. I pictured Olivia in the kitchen, sorting through her extensive collection of mugs, talking to Paige in the living room as she tossed her DVDs into a bin, probably the box set of Friends, she seemed like the type. It would hurt me to lose them, but at least I would get a brilliant moment in their apartment, in the warm light cast from their lamps. A fragmented part of me hoped that we would structure a friendship, somehow, maybe exchange cell phone numbers and laughter, but realistically I knew it couldn’t be. My life was a cycle of malfunctioning circadian rhythms and clipped coupons, nothing like the glossy lives they led among the clouds.

The property manager told me the history of the building--first built in 1899, renovated every twenty years or so with a big expansion in 2004. I nodded along, wondering if Olivia and Paige listened to the same facts in the same elevator at some shimmery little point in the past.

As we walked down the hallway I tugged at my sweatshirt and brushed invisible dust off my jeans. We stopped in front of the door and the property manager struggled to sort through her keys. I bit my nails, agonizing over each long second.

“When are the current tenants leaving?”

She located the right key and pushed it into the lock.

“Oh, they moved out earlier today.”

The door swung open and I put a hand to my mouth. “Really?”

“Yeah, we haven’t had it cleaned yet but we will before the next tenant moves in. Since they’re subleasing, they just advertise it and pass the prospective tenants on to me and it’s up to me to approve them.” She was looking at me, detecting my random shock at the seemingly benign situation.

“Gotcha. Let’s go in, then.”

It was strange to finally stand in the same room I longed for almost every night. The dark green walls and brown window frames of the living room made me think of the second hand puzzle my mom gave me for my fifth birthday. It depicted a lively jungle, overflowing with butterflies and flowers. Olivia and Paige had transformed the space into a domestic jungle when they lived here. I could remember the exact placement of the wide-leafed Monsteras and thin bamboo stalks, even though the room was bare now. I had just missed the warm lamp with the chain hanging off of it, the square coffee table and squishy couch.

I wandered into the first bedroom, Olivia’s. It was empty like the living room, without any hint of her personality. Paige’s room was the same, nothing but wood floor and gray walls with crown molding. I would forever live with my imagination of them, nothing concrete, just distant memories of laughter and lamplight. I paced through the rooms absently, my eyes wandering through, looking for anything left behind--a crumpled slip of paper, a stray piece of string, a homeless button.

“I’m going to step out to take a call, you take your time though, okay?” the property manager said from the doorway.

“Okay!” I replied.

I wound my way back through to the living room slowly, letting my fingertips trace the rough spackling of the walls. I tried to picture them here again, drifting through conversations or dancing with their friends. It was stupid, I realized, completely foolish to fall in love with people I had never even met. Even if I had met Olivia and Paige, they may have been mean or sad, people I couldn’t dream about any more anyway. This path would always lead to a loss of some kind.

I walked up to the living room window. Cars streamed down the street below me slowly, some honking and and attempting to weave through while others accepted their fate in their lane. The lights were on across the street, I realized, and I looked at floor five, picturing the gray ceramic cat I had an affinity for, and then floor eleven, thinking about the puffy stuffed animals with their shiny eyes, and finally floor seventeen, where the map I built a new identity for myself with was hung.

I flicked my eyes up to the top floor, straight across from where I stood, finding the chair where I sat each night at 3 a.m. Someone was looking at me, a woman, in a blue waffle-knit uniform. I sucked in a breath and stumbled backward for a second, thinking it was me, somehow, like in one of the psychological horror movies at the little theatre near our apartment. Then I thought it was my mother, magically appearing across the street and wondering why I wasn’t at work with her, why I was so small and alone in an empty apartment. Finally I realized it was someone I didn’t know, the cleaning staff who took over on our day off. A stranger. The light poured out behind her, shaping her into an indistinguishable silhouette as she looked at me. For one fleeting second I tried to form a life around her, give her children and a husband in the Village, before I realized I couldn’t place her, couldn’t force her into a tidy box. She was floating above the city, untethered, as though she didn’t exist anywhere else. She rested her hand on the glass as we looked at each other, separated by thin panes and forty feet of empty space. I took a slow step up to the window and placed my hand on it, mirroring her. I wished the glass would disappear.

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