Erotic Notion #89 & 90: The High Rise
By Hapax Legomenon

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Don't read this unless there is sympathy in your heart for voyeurs. The world abounds with those who watch the private lives of others. Someday our observations of people's solitude will bring benefits; someday (if you're lucky) you'll find your own secret vantage point from which to observe the world.

I never was a voyeur by nature, merely by circumstance. I lived on the fifth floor of a ten story high rise. The high rise actually consisted of three buildings connected in a U-shape. From outside my window I could see both buildings. Honestly, the thought never crossed my mind during my move-in that my flat offered a perfect view of the surrounding buildings. The units were old and badly kept; dwellers kept open the windows to save energy; I frequently heard sounds of windows being opened and blinds being drawn. I usually kept the blinds up and the window open a few inches. Sunshine poured in during the day, along with a medley of traffic noises and errant conversations. One Saturday afternoon, while reaching for a glass from a cabinet, I saw outside my window a naked woman stepping into the shower. Her apartment was one floor below mine in the opposite building. I stood shocked but excited, staring at the pubic hair and lumpy breasts that wobbled as she moved. She had dark hair and a tall shapely figure; her face, though plain and unremarkable, had gentle European features and pale skin.

I had long awaited such a moment. I always imagined female acquaintances undressing and saw actresses do it onscreen (though the artful lighting and shadow always made it seem unreal). Now, here was a woman who by pure chance stood nude before me, so much less beautiful but all the more alluring. A man fantasizes knowing it's escape. But when an actual event corresponds even roughly to one of these fantasies, it ruptures the wall between the two worlds. Suddenly fantasizing no longer seems crazy; it even offers clues into life's hidden mysteries.

So when it happened, I had this feeling of deja vu. The way her bare leg stepped out of the shower, the way she dried herself with a towel, the way her hair dryer made zigzags around her hair. When fantasy exposes itself as a kind of reality, it's hard for anyone to turn it down. So I savored the view, knowing in five minutes it would be gone forever.

I was not a voyeur; I was somebody taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I praised my good fortune and returned to my normal business. But the event affected me; I began leaving open the kitchen blinds, glancing outside whenever I visited the kitchen for a fork or napkin. I didn't exactly seek a repeat performance; I just wanted to be there if it happened again. And it did – can you believe it? – the same woman was undressing before her shower. My first reaction was not excitement but fear of being caught. I turned off the lights; it was getting dark, and I didn't want to be noticed. Then, when I felt sure no one could see me, I studied her, savoring every precious second of her nakedness. She stayed in the shower so long that by the time she came out, the window was fogged, though I could see the blurry movements of her nude body. The pussy – there it was. At last.

By making minor adjustments to my schedule and living habits, I was able to keep constant surveillance. No, I didn't sit beside that window all night. Remember, I was a graduate student busy with papers and projects. I just happened to be around the kitchen during the times she showered. I did homework at the kitchen table, a few feet from the window. I cleaned my kitchen and went for drinks of water more often. Every time I took a break from reading, I would stroll beside the kitchen window. I even put the telephone by the window, so I could face her when answering it.

Seeing her nude was my main goal, but I also wondered about her life. Boredom made me curious; could the way she undressed tell me something? She folded her towel twice before hanging it up; did that make her a thorough, orderly person? Around the flat her face rarely expressed emotion (it seemed almost somber), she took forever preparing for nights out. She didn't go out often, but when she did, she'd stay in that damn bathroom for nearly an hour. She followed elaborate preparation rituals: styling her hair, painting her fingernails, shaving her legs (half-naked, sitting on the toilet seat). She was trying to transform herself into a glamorous socialite, as though it were simply a matter of applying the right combination of blush and lipstick. Her efforts seemed misdirected. A revealing outfit or a simple smile could create a more lasting impression than perfectly coiffed hair or elegantly applied eye shadow. Who was around to appreciate the labor to apply that makeup? From my vantage point, the sample way she looked around the house seemed more genuine (and interesting) than the way she appeared with her carefully applied makeup.

She spent a lot of time at home (like me). No boyfriend, no parent, no study partner, no one. I assumed she was a graduate student like me. Once, when she was about the enter the shower, the phone rang and she leapt out of the bathroom, leaving the door open and letting me see her main bedroom. It was nothing more than a queen-sized bed and lamp. After talking on the phone for half an hour, she returned to the bathroom with a smile on her face. I realized that around friends her personality must have been totally different. Maybe she was the complaining type or liked to flirt; maybe she liked making ironic observations or being the center of attention; maybe she was affectionate or antisocial; maybe she was intolerant of mediocrity or constrained by social pressures. I only saw how she behaved with nobody around; did that provide more insight – or less? Sometimes she entered not to shower or use the toilet, but simply to clean. Once, I watched her clean the sink, floor, mirror and bathtub. She got down on her knees and scrubbed every square inch with all her might. She seemed to find satisfaction in it too, carefully inspecting things until it was perfect. When she brushed her teeth at night, I watched in fascination, not because it was erotic, but because it provided the illusion of intimate familiarity. Watching her personal routines relaxed me. Over time I grew less interested in her occasional nakedness than the quirky mannerisms defining her individuality. For example, she had an annoying habit of leaving on the bathroom light. Sometimes it would stay on for hours. Sometimes she would turn on the light, then go back to the living room. I never knew if she intended to return or had just forgotten to turn the light off. Once she left the light on for the entire evening. I had to attend a department function (one hour after she turned the bathroom light on). When I came home later, I noticed the light was still on. Irritating, yes, though I hardly had a right to complain!

Over the next few weeks I became familiar with the sight of her body – even though I came no closer to penetrating her life secrets. I walked by her doorway for clues; I read the name off her mailbox – T Purkyne. Once she passed me on the way to class. I hardly recognized her up close. She was lugging a backpack full of books and smiled briefly when our eyes met. In real life on the sidewalk, she seemed so ordinary. But I had been granted a glimpse of her beautiful private self and saw a part of her others did not. Yet this version of female beauty was abstract and incomplete. And although one can never fall in love with an abstraction, one can certainly fall in lust with one. I desired this woman because she stood away from me in the opposite building. If I passed her every day in the hallway, no lusty inclination would have crossed my mind. In my solitude the woman was lovely, inspiring, ravishing. But if I came any closer, this sense of beauty would crumble.

The mini blinds tilted upward or downward, thwarting spectators from below but never above. The higher you lived, the better the view. As a fifth floor resident, my blinds were useless protection from a voyeur on the sixth or seventh floor. The thought did occur to me that someone else could be watching me right now, huddled in the dark beside his window. I dismissed the idea as far-fetched, but kept an eye on the upper windows just in case. Though I'm less a voyeur than a beneficiary of circumstance, there was something thrilling about the idea of living on the top floor. It permitted the most expansive of views without fear of discovery. If there were a God, he'd live atop an infinitely tall high rise, observing human activity through a telescope, too far away to intervene, but never too far away to appreciate. Perhaps the afterlife provides not a continuation of existence but a chance to observe the former one, a chance to view not only naked women but the world in its stupendous variety.

Though I was in lust with this woman, I would have preferred to be in love with her. Once you see a woman step out of a shower, you can't help but want to be in love. Desire arises not from proximity but distance. But distance longs for proximity, and illusion longs for demystification. I pondered various scenarios for meeting this women; the main problem was the initial violation of trust. What could I have done? Asked her to be more careful? That would have led to other questions (like "how long have you been watching my window?") And if I notified her in a less confrontational way – slipping a note under the door or calling her up – she'd probably regard me as a stalker. Does one really want to know some man is getting off from your nakedness? I preferred to think of myself as a guardian maintaining a friendly vigil. Women of the world, you are being watched! Every time you bend over to pick up a newspaper – every time you look out a window – every time you lie on a couch on a hotel lobby, masculine eyes will be feasting on your presence. The more you fear us, the further away we'll have to stand (and the stronger binoculars we'll need to buy).

Each time I watch her window, I imagine meeting her.

Perhaps we meet, I ask her out and discover she is not who I imagined. She has a dull intellect or a blasé personality. Perhaps she is less attractive in person. I imagine meeting her only to find her more interested in a relationship than I was, and then having to escape that jaw of intimacy before it swallowed me whole. Or perhaps we hit it off; perhaps the foreknowledge of her secret erotic self makes it easier for me to pierce the feminine armor of indifference. Do I tell her about my window-watching? Do I keep it a secret? I imagine seducing her and telling her about the voyeurism later, only to have her overreact, feeling tricked, violated, victimized. She'd resent the fact the relationship was built upon a perversion and break off for that reason. But if I said nothing, I'd go crazy; I feel I were keeping the basis of the relationship a secret. I'd want to confess to somebody, perhaps a mistress or a phone sex line, perhaps a diary like this one. Keeping it a secret would require self-control so strict that I'd eventually fall short. Would I start looking into other windows for other women? A man who can't acknowledge his past becomes a man without one; for the sake of her sanity, I'd end up sacrificing mine.

What a hopeless scenario! And I hadn't even considered the likelihood of her indifference. If the most optimistic of hypothetical outcomes bring negative results, how necessary is it to run through the other possibilities? When you imagine possibilities, you also foresee their limits. Psychotics dream about the impossible (and experience only pleasure). Ordinary people dream about the possible (and experience not pleasure – but the satisfaction of seeing disappointments in alternate realities as well).

Things changed at the end of the semester. I dropped out of grad school and accepted a job in San Diego. It was a good decision; I was just killing time at grad school and needed a chance to enter the real world. Once I started packing, I realized it would end this silent relationship with the woman at the window. This was for the best; it was an unhealthy fixation, and I welcomed an end to it. But one last glance wouldn't spoil anything. On moving day that window became the focal point for my attention; by day's end I resigned myself to the possibility that she was out of town and lost for good. But then the bathroom light flipped on, and she entered in shorts and t-shirt. She turned on the shower, but instead of undressing, she knelt down and started rubbing the bathroom tub with a scouring pad. Such an ordinary action – but for the next hour, I sat doing nothing, watching her wipe back and forth, back and forth, gazing at her with shock and exhilaration.

Postscript (written twelve years later) Today I came across a journal entry from my grad school days about the woman I used to spy on. Reread with some hilarity. What a case I was! No wonder I was so incompetent at dealing with the opposite sex. Maybe I should show it to Clara for a good laugh.

It's obvious what I should have done. After I saw her naked the first time, I should have knocked on her door, introduced myself and told her the truth. The whole naked truth. I could also have interjected some comment for comic relief. "If you ever do that again, I'll have to keep taking those cold showers." Or "the next time you decide to teach a live modeling class, I'd love to sign up." These lines were just ideas off the top of my head. But I could easily picture myself conversing casually with this woman – even doing it inside her apartment. We could have exchanged grad school experiences. Instead of preventing friendship, this accidental voyeurism might have provided a funny, embarrassing (and titillating) trigger for it. That's all I really needed: an excuse to seek her acquaintance. If I came to her immediately, she would have regarded me not as a pervert but someone trying to protect her modesty. It might not have led to romance, but at least I had a shot at friendship (and ultimately that's all that matters). Grad school can be a lonely time, and neither of us had many friends that year. Imagine; I probably could have reached a point where I could ask her out to lunch every so often. I was so juvenile then; I never really understood that the first step to lusty satisfaction was actual conversation and friendship.

That was my chance, and I missed it. It now seems so obvious. For all my talk about possibilities, why didn't I recognize the very real possibility of starting a friendship? It would have been so easy.

Post-postscript (written twenty years later). Both journal entries seem to be written by complete strangers. How could I have possibly thought I could have just knocked on the door and struck up a friendship with this woman? People assume that seductions and romances require only a clever opening line and the right situation. But compatibilities are hard to anticipate, and it's unlikely the woman and the twenty-four year old version of myself occupied the same kind of worlds. The twenty-four year old version of myself seemed afraid of rejection and normal social interactions; he seemed more comfortable as a lurker. The thirty-six year old version of myself seemed too savvy about the mechanics of seduction. Neither would have made a suitable partner for this woman; the thirty-six year old was recently married and assumed that love came easily to those who pursued it. What folly! I watch both from afar, scoffing at their misinterpretations. That leaves the poor woman at the window, the unknown naked beauty about whom we know absolutely nothing except that she dutifully cleans her bathtub. Let's hope she found a man better suited for her, a man appreciative of more than the accidental beauty of her nudity.

Erotic Notion # 90

Other outcomes exist for the 24 year old narrator which might have produced a happy ending.

The first is awful to contemplate, but plausible. He should find some way to meet the woman, any way, and forswear any hope of romance. He should do anything and everything to advance the friendship by tearing out all remnants of desire. Keep the secret inside, stop looking at the window and never mention it to the woman, now his friend.

The second possibility is somewhat likely. The man, still fixated on the woman, moves to another city and meets another woman resembling the first. After desiring one woman, it is easy to find echoes of her in another. It's not really a second chance, but a way to redeem himself. The man could court and seduce this look-alike woman without feeling guilt or the need to apologize. The woman could love him, yes, love him. He could revel in the possibility that underneath the clothing, the second woman could have been like the first one. This is really the only perfect ending.

The third possibility is dangerous because it feeds on its own impossibility. It belongs not to the real world but the laboratory of an overactive imagination. Perhaps the woman was undressing before the window on purpose. Perhaps she wanted him (or some other man) to view her body; perhaps she needed to be watched and desired. Perhaps she wanted some validation of her own beauty. This possibility may seem remote, but ignoring it is to pretend woman can't also have kinky inclinations. Perhaps she had been undressing by the window for some time before a man finally noticed her. Perhaps her hope was to incite desire in a stranger and spur him towards a first move. But herein lies the irony. Although both are willing participants in this theater of desire, in fact desire becomes the last thing the person suspects the other of harboring. Two can consent in their minds to a seduction, but until one of them has enough curiosity to discover it, this lovely hypothetical situation remains an impossibility.

Written, Dec 1994

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"Women of the world, you are being watched! "
Gainsborough, Haymaker and the Sleeping Girl, Boston Museum of Art , late 1780s
Thomas Gainsborough , Haymaker and the Sleeping Girl, 1780s
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