On this night, from our second-floor rear window and into their rear window I look and see not the lit tv screen or the polished floors or a body on a couch but female legs in red stockings and dancing shoes and his legs, in blue jeans, stepping in time with hers.
On other nights, from the same rear window I look out over neighbors’ rooftops and see tiny squares of light, in this house or that, signaling who’s awake. Sometimes I see a head bent over a desk: Is that the peaceful pose of work done in solitude or the defeated one of work done under the midnight gun? Most of the time the lit windows are empty, and I must guess at who is up in that household and why. Insomnia. Sickness. New baby. A fight. Love.
When Eli was an infant and I was awake regularly in the wee hours nursing him, I played a little mind game that my mother inadvertently prompted after I confessed to her my weariness. She said, “Think of all the mothers, around the world, up at night and holding their infants.” I got in the habit of traveling to apartments in Switzerland, family rooms in Oklahoma, verandas in Hawaii or Bermuda, huts in Africa, tents in refugee camps, brownstones in Brooklyn, and houseboats in France. To none of these places have I been. I made them up; I entered them and visited, one by one, a community of new mothers across the globe.
On this night, though, I look out a window into their window and see my actual neighbors. During the day, he putters around the backyard and mows and plays kiddie basketball with his grandson. He’s slight, still fit, and gray-haired. Always he wears old Levi’s. During the day, I see her tending potted plants on the deck, going in and out the kitchen door. Her hair is dark and dyed. We never talk, but we notice each other and nod.
I have no story for them, no imagined sense of their lives other than what I have observed: a man and a woman with two grown daughters and one grandchild, a house like ours, yard work, a few cats.
And now here they are, on this night at 11 o’clock as I stand in my darkened bathroom, brushing my teeth and looking out my window, and they are dancing in a way that’s synchronized, rhythmic, and formal. It’s 11 o’clock at night, and she has gone to the trouble of putting on her red tights and mary jane pumps and a black tulip skirt for dancing, and the skirt flutters around her legs as she turns.
These are my neighbors, people whom, I realize, I do not know. We are all mysteries to each other. Sometimes clues appear.