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Pickle Me This

December 23, 2007

Seeing in the Dark

Evening rolls in early this time of year, and walking home down darkened streets I am attracted to light like a moth is. Or, more specifically, I’m fascinated by lit windows and the rooms I see behind them from my place out on the sidewalk. Windows during the day are blank spaces, reflections at best, but at night when the lights come on, they offer glimpses into a thousand different worlds.

Of course, I do keep my distance. I don’t linger or stare, and I walk by content with a glance on my way along to somewhere. I’m certainly not out to make trouble, but it’s so difficult to avert my attention altogether. Yellow windows tempt my eyes with their suggestions of home, of warmth, of stories.

It is never especially interesting to encounter actual people at home behind their windows anyway— you will realize this quickly. People too often tend to be watching television, the backs of their heads look like potatoes in the blue light, and no scene could be duller. If you must have people at all, action shots are preferable. Here is a family around a table, silent from where we stand, but we can see what can’t be audible: chatter as they pass the bowls and platters, arguments as somebody throws their hands into the air. Lights are burning brightly, and their togetherness builds a fortress.

Farther along the street, through an upstairs window: an old man in his undershirt is shaving before the mirror on his medicine cabinet. He’s got the window open to keep the mirror from steaming, I suppose, and he’s shaving under his chin now. He’s working carefully. In the room next door three small children are levitating, though they’re probably just bouncing on their beds. Across the street I catch a fortuitous glimpse of two people at the instant of embrace.

But sights like these are so hard to time right, and so my windows mostly tend to be still-lifes. I can only guess at those who might grace the scenes once I’ve passed by, though the guessing is what I like best about glowing windows. I love the allure of whole streets chock full of stories, and each house a private universe.

My head inevitably turns at the sight of a bookshelf rising up behind a glowing pane, whether that shelf be constructed of bricks and boards in a main-floor student flat, or flanking a stone fireplace in some grand living room. To me having books in a home is somehow a symbol of all being right with the world An element of order, of care amidst the chaos. I see books inside a window and I can purport to understand the people that live there.

Of course you can’t judge a person by their things, but on dark nights when I’m halfway home and hungry for company, I can hardly help it. I want to move into those houses whose giant staircases have careful arrangements of framed family photographs marching up and down the wall alongside. I like people with cats on their sills without even knowing them. At the sight of a grand piano, I imagine the woman who plays it, dressed in a floor-length black evening gown perpetually. Her fingers sweep the keys in the usual cliché, and I hear the music in my head. Marching me onward, towards where more bizarre displays abound.

An apartment I pass by daily has one wall stacked entirely with shoe boxes. One house I know has a perfect doll-sized replica of itself in the front window and it lights up at night. A linoleum basement living room furnished with hairdryer chairs from a salon. An illuminated Elvis bust in blue on an otherwise darkened windowsill. You can do with these details what you will.

I’ve taken stock of posters tacked to walls in teenage bedrooms, of knickknacks cluttering kitchen windowsills, and of ugly modern art hanging in ugly modern houses. Gaudy portraits of out-of-date fashion, mounted above the fireplace with their own lighting. Who lives here?

I’ve learned that I love rooms painted red or yellow, no matter what these rooms might hold. That the sight of a kitchen can be uplifting. Blazing fireplaces never fail to warm me as I trudge home through the snow, my breath visible in the air. In December, lit trees intended for display appear in windows and I find that I can stare without compunction.

The world is so wide with most of its stories kept elusive, and so I must be satisfied with clues, with suggestions. I gather my stories from these glances into yellow windows up and down dark avenues, now that winter is nearing and the city has gone indoors. And I assure you that I mean well, no matter how tempted you might be to go and close your curtains. I am drawn to lit windows on my way home, in search of a brief connection from one private universe to another. As a simple acknowledgment of quiet life abundant all around us.

3 thoughts on “Seeing in the Dark”

  1. Anonymous says:

    How incredibly beautiful.

  2. Leah says:

    I agree with the above…you write beautifully.

  3. Kerry says:

    Thank you. I am glad this was your response, instead of a restraining order.

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