SOMEONE’S BEEN WATCHING ME from the Wakefield, the big apartment complex across the street. I noticed him after the building started filling up with tenants a week or so ago. I didn’t know whether or not he’d been there since it re-opened (I say he even though I still wasn’t, at that point, sure it was a man; I had only a silhouette to go by). At first I thought it was just the usual New York spying: an innocent linger by the window that catches an unintended glance of someone else’s life. I’d certainly done it to neighbors of mine, and over the years have had more than a few glimpses of other people’s lives. But in the past couple of days, and with that silhouette always being there—in the window, across the street, watching me—I decided that this was much more than just casual glances. Someone was on a stakeout, and I was what he was watching.
The Wakefield had been empty when I moved into my one-bedroom apartment on Seventy-third Street about a year ago. For decades it had been a dump (or so I’d been told by the broker who got me into my apartment): an aging refuge for the old and the indigent. “Basically those apartments are rented,” she said with her nose crinkling as if she were holding it, “by people who can’t afford to pay rent.” Developers had wanted to get their hands on the building for years. Smack dab in the Upper West Side of Manhattan—two blocks from Central Park and not far from Lincoln Center—even the smallest of apartments hidden inside the warren of the Wakefield would be worth millions. The tenants and their lawyers (who had been paid for with the five and ten dollars bills of the senior citizens who lived there, donations drummed up by Xeroxed fliers slid under doors) beat back the developers, at least at first. Finally—the third time around—the developers won. The Wakefield lost its fight once and for all. Capitalism, Manhattan-style, had won out yet again.
I’d watched all of this unconcerned and a bit bemused. I didn’t want to see anyone get kicked out of their apartment but, I had to admit, all of those old people—shuffling up and down the block using those metal walkers with tennis balls attached to the legs—sort of freaked me out. Not that they bothered me, or anybody else for that matter, but they served as a constant and unwanted reminder that life would one day end; that we’d all get old whether we wanted to or not. Death could be right around the corner (if not just across the street).
After being empty for about three months, the Wakefield roared back to life with an open house that drew hundreds of prospective tenants. I watched from my apartment as crowds made their way through the building, peering through the various windows like a game of Whac-a-Mole. A sign was also put up in the lobby that said APTS FOR RENT LUXORY THREE TWO ONE BEDROOMS AND STUDIO ALL AMMENITIES INCL.
Two weeks ago people starting moving in. In various windows, here and then there—first the second floor and then the fifth—new shapes and forms appeared. Windowbox planters. Purple drapes in one window, blue wooden miniblinds in another. Furniture arrived carried by movers who looked like they couldn’t have cared less: lamps, plants, artwork. And then, finally, people.
The person I was now concerned about—who seemed to be concerned about me—was located on the fourth floor in a studio apartment directly across from mine. The fact that I was on the third floor meant he couldn’t watch me straight on. His view must have been angled, giving him a four- or five-foot radius around each of my three windows: two in the living room and one in the bedroom.
This was my fourth apartment in New York. I’d lived in Manhattan for over a dozen years, starting with six months on the Lower East Side when I first moved here. I then lived for eight years on Ninety-sixth Street. For two years I lived on Seventy-seventh Street with my wife, Grainne. The only detour, since moving from California in 1997, was when Grainne and I lived in Hoboken for three years. Our marriage fell apart after I decided I didn’t want to start a family and she decided that’s all she wanted. We got divorced and I moved back to the Upper West Side. That was about a year ago. Since then I’d been doing mostly okay, getting my life back together, starting over. And then I spotted the shadow across the street.
I didn’t know what to do. My family was all in California and I knew that telling them about my stalker would only make them worry. It seemed too benign to get the police involved and I didn’t even have any good friends I could talk to about what was happening. (I’d lost most of my friends in the divorce, our mutual friends forced to take sides after our bifurcation. Meanwhile, the ones who had, like me, gotten married—but stayed married—I found I no longer had anything in common with. The ones with the kids were the worst; we were like different species.)
This left just Dr. Schwartz, my therapist. But I was afraid of coming off like a complete crackpot. I’d so far managed to keep our sessions free of any kind of overtly psychotic or paranoid ramblings. My weekly hour was usually filled with the mundane regret over my divorce and the challenges of being single at thirty-nine. I wanted more than anything to keep it that way, so instead of sharing this strange news of my life—when my weekly appointment came around on that first Wednesday after the discovery—I kept to the usual topics.
The session passed as it always did; I dredged up old guilt and he made me look at it in a new way. No solutions were offered or revelations arrived at, but I could honestly say I felt better at the end of the session than at the beginning. In between he’d given me a few things to think about, which I tried to do on the short walk home (his office was just a block away). I was actually in a pretty good mood—the session, for once, hadn’t left me feeling morose or introspective; missing my ex-wife or depressed about the divorce—but as soon as I headed down Seventy-third Street, and saw the awning for the Wakefield, I got a small chill. Pushing those thoughts out of my mind, I went upstairs, ate dinner while watching TV, and then read magazines and a book (not that I was able to focus much on anything).
As the days continued to pass, I was pretty sure that whoever was across the street was still watching me. Every time I walked by the window I saw the same sight: the outline of a man sitting in a chair, by the window, looking down into my apartment. After a few days of him being so still for so long, I was convinced it was just a dummy or a mannequin. But when I finally, on Thursday, saw him getting up from his chair—he was gone just a few minutes—I knew once and for all that this was a real person. For some reason I was relieved. The fact that my stalker was flesh and blood seemed less creepy than someone trying to make me think I was being watched.
On Friday I came home, changed into a T-shirt and jeans, ordered a pizza, opened a beer, and rifled through my old films to find something fun to watch. Hitchcock’s my favorite director so I picked Shadow of a Doubt. The pizza arrived and I enjoyed the movie as I ate. With the lights off and the story of murder in small-town America unfolding on my flat-screen TV, I began to regret my choice. The film began to creep me out and only added to my paranoia. I should have chosen something light and fun, like North by Northwest or The Lady Vanishes. Instead, as the black-and-white movie flickered on the TV and washed the room in blinking monochrome, I looked across the street and thought I saw that face in the shadows doing just what I was doing: looking out the window while eating pizza.
On Saturday, after a light breakfast and a morning mostly wasted on the Internet Googling “stalkers,” I put on my running clothes and headed outside. It was a gorgeous day; still hot out even though October was just a few days away. The warm air felt good and I did my usual routine, loosening up as I walked down Seventy-third Street toward Central Park. As I stopped at various stoops to stretch, I occasionally glanced down Seventy-third to see if I was being followed. There was no one else on the block except a short Hispanic guy locking up a bike to a tree.
As I approached the Reservoir for my weekly three laps, I started to take deep breaths as preparation for the run. A few feet from the track I started to lightly trot, just to get the blood going. Finally hitting the Reservoir, I started my stopwatch the second my feet hit the dirt. By the time I rounded the first corner, heading up the east side of the park, I’d slipped into the rhythm of the run.
Rounding the southwest corner—passing the entry point where I’d come onto the track about a dozen minutes before—I looked down at my wrist to check my time. But instead of seeing my watch reeling off seconds, the face was flashing twelve o’clock. When I looked up, I saw someone who looked exactly like me sitting with crossed legs on a park bench reading what seemed to be a novel; the book was in his lap and his face—my face—was resting in his left palm.
Shocked, my legs went out of sync and I had to fight to keep up with my forward momentum. This caused a chain reaction with a few other runners who had been behind me; they bumped into me as I slowed down and then scrambled to resume my former pace. I tried to look back to the park bench, but the view by then was obscured by other runners and a handful of tourists who’d crossed the track in order to pose by the fence for photographs.
As I continued around the Reservoir, I tried to analyze what just happened. Surely that couldn’t have been me sitting on the park bench. I shook my head hard, trying to get the thought out of my mind. Yes, he had looked just like me, and the pose—and even the clothes—were reminiscent of my style. But then again, after convincing myself all week that I was being watched, I was on edge. It was a hallucination. That’s all.
Ten minutes later, as I headed down the corridor that ran parallel to Central Park West, at the very end I could see the bench where my double—that other version of me I could have sworn I saw—had been sitting before. Beyond that was a drinking fountain and beyond even that the Pinetum and the Great Lawn. As I got a bit closer, slowing down my usual pace and moving from the inside of the running path—hugging the fence—to the outside, I was astonished to see him still seated on the park bench. This time, however, I didn’t get as good of a view since the book was raised and obscured most of his face. But I could still see from the clothes—shoes and pants and a shirt that I own—that he was an exact duplicate of me. Rounding the corner I turned my head hard to the right for a good look but, in that brief second, all I could focus on was the cover of the book. I could clearly make out its title in elegant script: The High Window.
A cold sweat of fear instantly mixed with the hot sweat from my run. I suddenly made a connection between that figure on the park bench and the shadowy figure in the Wakefield. I wasn’t sure it was the right connection, but it seemed to fit. After all, the person in the window across the street was a man—as far as I could tell—and the silhouette certainly seemed to match (any man losing his hair becomes more familiar with the outline of his head than he wants to). And since I didn’t lead a very interesting life and I’m not a spy (thus worthy of being spied on), who else—but me—would have the interest to watch me for days at a time?
These thoughts consumed me for the rest of my last distracted lap around the Reservoir and, for once, I didn’t time all of my laps or gauge my progress by various landmarks along the way. I didn’t even finish my third lap. I strayed from the track just past the bridge at Ninety-sixth Street, running alongside the Reservoir on the bridle path. I figured I could sneak up on my double sitting on the bench and get a better look than the two glimpses I’d had before. Maybe I could even turn the tables, spying on him instead of the other way around. If I could follow him back to the Wakefield, that would have pretty much clinched it. I wouldn’t be any closer to the ultimate solution of my mystery, but at least I’d have a better grasp of the players.
I slowed down to a trot as I came to the benches and water fountain. The bridle path was shaded thanks to a ring of tall tress that ran alongside it. I’d relaxed my pace so much that I was no longer sweating. My shirt felt cold and heavy against my skin, like the lead apron they make you wear at the dentist to get X-rays. Approaching the bench slowly, I discovered that he was no longer sitting there. The bench was empty. For a second I considered approaching the bench anyway and looking for clues, but what could I possibly find? I took a few sips from the drinking fountain and began heading home.
I walked oblivious to the crowds swirling around me enjoying the gorgeous New York day. I stumbled numbly back to my apartment. As I climbed the steps to my brownstone, I noticed that my digital watch was still flashing twelve o’clock. Looking up to the fourth floor of the Wakefield I could see—in the apartment opposite mine—a figure sitting in the window.
As I showered I thought about my plans for that night; Leah was coming over for dinner. The idea was to keep it simple. We were just going to have a few drinks and order in some Chinese food. After my run-in with my double at the Reservoir, and with my stalker across the street, my first impulse was to cancel the date. To do this I’d have to lie to Leah, making up some story. Or else, I suppose, I could tell her the truth but then we’d both be freaked out. Neither seemed like a good option.
I glanced at the clock. It was almost five and she was due to come over at seven. We hadn’t been dating long enough for me to start pulling stunts like that (canceling a date with only two hours notice and no good reason). Plus, I would have seemed insane calling her and saying that she couldn’t come over because a clone had moved in across the street and was tormenting me. She’d be sure it was an excuse, a cover for something else—something worse—and if I shattered that trust now I might not ever get it back.
There’s a W. Somerset Maugham story I read years ago but have thought of often since then. Titled “The Door of Opportunity,” it’s about—the same as many of his stories—an English couple stationed in the Far East who live the typical colonial life of houseboys, rainy seasons, tiffin, and the London papers arriving six weeks after they’d been printed. In this particular story Anne and Alban Torel are stationed in Daktar, a small community where Alban is the District Officer. They’ve been happily married for eight years despite the fact that Alban is only a minor regional manager. One day reports come in that, up river, a bunch of Chinese workers have taken over a rubber plantation, killing its owner and putting others—including women and children—at risk. The incident ended up sparking a full-blown riot on the plantation. Alban, back in Daktar, has less than a dozen policemen at his disposal. His men versus a 150 rioting workers seems to him like suicide, so he decides to wait and send for reinforcements who are two days away. He explains his decision to his wife and others by assuring them, “We couldn’t do any good by going up now.”
When Alban and the reinforcements finally make it to the plantation forty-eight hours later, they discover that the riot has already been quelled—with a single shot fired—by the Dutch manager of a local timber farm. Alban is then recalled to England by his London superiors and, once there, is fired for his reticence to deal directly and immediately with the riot (even though he’s still convinced that he did the right thing). His wife goes along for the trip, but leaves him almost as soon as they arrive. The reason she gives is that she no longer loves or trusts him, having lost confidence the day he learned of the riot. She says, in the story’s final scene, “For eight years I worshipped the ground you trod on. You were everything to me. I believed in you as some people believe in God. When I saw the fear in your eyes that day…I was shattered. It was as though someone had wrenched my heart out of my body and trampled on it. You killed my love there and then, Alban. You killed it stone-dead.”
In an instant—because of one decision; choosing one course of action over another—he’d lost her. And not that I was convinced that Leah was the one for me, but I didn’t want to screw up the evolution of the relationship by freaking her out with this one thing before we’d had dates that numbered in double digits. Leah represented, as in the title of Maugham’s story, a door; an opportunity. These kinds of doors were everywhere, and they could be slammed shut quite easily. I had to be careful. You lose people in an instant; you gain them over time.
“What do you mean, ‘someone’s following me’?”
I hadn’t meant to tell her, but she could sense pretty much from the second she entered that something was wrong. After opening the door I’d complimented her outfit, kissed her on the cheek—getting a whiff of her perfume as I leaned in to do so—and, at that point, things were going well. I’d spent the remainder of the afternoon cleaning up the apartment and lighting candles and, by the time Leah arrived, everything was perfect. She came in, we kissed, and then I went into the kitchen to make us a couple of drinks. In the other room my iPod was shuffling through a playlist I’d named Good Songs Quiet. At that moment “I’m a Mess” by Nick Lowe was just getting started; it was an omen of what was to come. I reentered the room, handed her the drink, and that’s where things went south. I was edgy and lit a cigarette. Then she lit one. For a few minutes we just sat there, drinking and smoking, Nick Lowe serenading us. She may not have known me for too long but she could certainly tell when someone was acting strange. I protested at first, promising that nothing was wrong, that it was just a headache, that it wasn’t her. But she persisted and, in a matter of seconds, I crumbled and told her that I was being followed.
“I mean…” I started to speak but then stopped. I stared down into my vodka and tonic. My cigarette was finished so I quickly lit another. The iPod, acting as both chaperone and Greek chorus, served up “Isn’t Life Strange?” by The Clientele. Finally, I continued. “I don’t know, I guess I mean just that. I’m being followed.”
“But who’s following you, and how long has this been going on?”
“A week, maybe. Two. I’m not sure.”
“But what do you mean?” Leah sounded like she was getting exasperated; she’d only been here for ten minutes. “Like, a guy with a trench coat and sunglasses is following you on the subway? Or there’s a car with tinted windows trailing you on the street?”
“No—no, it’s not like that. It’s more like…surveillance.”
She started to take a sip of her drink but stopped as soon as I said this.
“Like, your phone is being tapped?”
“I mean, someone’s watching me.” I should have just left it at that but, some for some idiotic reason—I guess I’d mixed the drinks too strongly and the vodka was already taking effect—I elaborated. “I mean, we’re being watched right now.”
My eyes led from Leah out the window, nodding toward the Wakefield.
She looked a bit spooked but got up anyway, walking to the window with her drink in one hand and a Marlboro Light in the other. As she stood next to the window, the breeze coming in blew the fringe of her black blouse against her body, outlining her curves. I felt like a fool for mentioning any of this.
“Where?” Her head moved back and forth like a typewriter carriage, scanning every inch of Seventy-third.
“Fourth floor, in the big building across the street.”
She zeroed in on him in a second, I could tell.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“I don’t know…what I see,” she answered slowly. “A guy, I guess. I mean, there’s certainly something there.” She turned to me. “But how do you know it’s not just a cardboard cut-out or something like that? Don’t they do that, to curb crime? Stick a dummy in a window and hope people think that it’s real and that they could call the cops?”
“Yeah, but that dummy is staring right into my window. The rest of the street doesn’t even know that he’s there. It’s me he’s watching, not the neighborhood. Besides all that, I’ve seen it move. I’ve seen it get up and walk around the room. Cardboard cut-outs don’t do that.” Pausing to take a sip, I noticed I’d put into my drink two slices of lime instead of one. On the iPod “He Lives My Life” by The Go-Betweens was playing. I blinked, hard. “Plus, the other night when I was eating pizza, he was eating pizza.”
“Wow, that’s pretty weird. Wait,” she said quickly, turning back to the window, “you’re sure it’s a man?”
“Not 100 percent, but pretty much.”
Leah retreated from the window, sat down on the couch and this time grinned instead of seeming creeped out by the whole thing. She tapped her cigarette on the edge of an ashtray.
“How do you know it’s not a woman?” she said. “Some jealous old girlfriend who never got over you and has to keep track of you every second of the day?” She laughed as she said this, trying to lighten the mood I’d made so heavy. “Or maybe it’s your ex-wife, gone a little crazy and so she’s…”
Her words trailed off; she knew she’d gone too far. Not that I wasn’t willing to talk about my marriage, or even my myriad faults, but bringing Grainne into it—even Leah knew—was out of bounds.
“Jeff, listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
I raised a hand and this silenced her.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal, I swear.”
I was actually grateful for her slip. It provided an off-ramp from the topic, a chance to talk about something else. I also was glad to see the fear in her face when she thought she had erred. This flattered me. Thinking back to the Maugham story I’d remembered earlier in the day, maybe I was also, to Leah, a door. But I shouldn’t have been too flattered; there are doors everywhere. In fact, life is pretty much just that: a series of doors all in a row, each one representing a choice or an opportunity. Shakespeare was wrong; the world’s not a stage, it’s a hallway.
The next morning Leah had to leave early to meet some friends for brunch in the Village. I offered to go with her but she insisted that it was okay that I didn’t. I tried to read in her voice whether or not she was being honest when she said this. Was it really just a bunch of her girlfriends getting together or was it a couples-thing that she was ashamed to bring me to? We’d had a pleasant evening the night before, despite the rocky start, so I decided to believe her.
I slept in for another hour before finally getting up. I made the bed and then threw on faded jeans and a Fred Perry polo. From the dresser I grabbed my keys and wallet, and I then slipped into some blue Puma sneakers with straps covering the top of each shoe in a Z instead of laces. Before heading out for bagels, I took a quick peek through the blinds. I thought I saw something on the fourth floor of the Wakefield—maybe it was a person; maybe it was somehow me—but I just couldn’t tell. I fought off the paranoia, along with a small hangover, and headed out into the bright Sunday.
The neighborhood was quiet. Any day that you can hear birds more than traffic in New York is a triumph: people outnumbered by animals. It was rare, but it happened. I managed to walk the three blocks to the bagel place without passing a single person. Inside, instead of the usual long line littered with strollers, joggers, and tourists (and the occasional person dressed nicely for church), there were only two housewives ahead of me with their strollers. Normally, seeing children reminded me of Grainne and the decision I’d made that led to our split, but on that morning—with bigger things on my mind—I managed to block them out. In no time I had my bagels, gave my change as a tip, and was out the door. On the way back to the apartment I stopped by a bodega to get the Sunday Times and a carton of orange juice. As I was paying, I saw someone walk by who looked disconcertingly like me. I rushed out of the bodega, not even waiting for my change, only to see a guy in shorts and a T-shirt who was a foot shorter than I was and twenty pounds heavier.
As I skipped up the steps of my apartment building, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Someone seemed to dart behind a tree as soon as I turned. I dropped my groceries and hunched down on the brownstone’s staircase. I slowly raised my head and peeked over the stoop. For a few seconds I kept my eyes trained on the tree. There was definitely someone there. I could vaguely see a figure on the other side. A shoulder and then a leg popped out from behind the green-and-beige tree trunk. But I couldn’t see a face. Just as I stood up, to get a clearer view, the figure behind the tree emerged and I could see that it was an elderly woman walking a dog. I reached for the keys in my jeans and, when I did, discovered that my hands were shaking.
Upstairs I made a pot of coffee, removed about half the cream cheese from my bagels, unhooked the iPod and put on instead an old CD by Air Miami. I then settled down on the couch to read the paper and have my breakfast. I occasionally glanced out the window, to the Wakefield across the street, but every time I thought I saw the figure in the window looking down at me I became just as convinced that it was a shadow or light on the windowpane or the reflection of a passing cloud on the glass. I believed any explanation other than the one that said there’s another Jeff Gomez on the fourth floor across the street.
After nibbling at my bagels and absentmindedly sipping at my coffee, I realized I wasn’t retaining any of the information from the stories I’d been half-heartedly reading. Also, the music in the background seemed like an undecipherable fuzz. My mind was elsewhere.
I got up, turned off the CD, and placed the dishes in the sink. I then marched into the bedroom and took my desk chair and placed it at the left corner of my bed. This gave me a bit of a view of the fourth-story window across the street but, hopefully, put me at such an angle that whoever was across the street was at a disadvantage when it came to spying into my windows. This seemed to me optimal: I could see him, but he couldn’t see me. It seemed like a game of cat and mouse except, as Rory Granger says at the end of Rope, “Which is the cat and which is the mouse?”
After just a few hours of this I needed some air. I put the Pumas back on and headed outside. Downstairs I lingered a bit on the stoop, wanting to make sure my double was taking the bait. Looking through the glass windows and into the lobby of the Wakefield, I could see standing behind the doorman (who was wearing a short-sleeved version of his blazer) someone about my size and shape milling around, trying to look inconspicuous in front of the elevators that were opening and closing behind him like a pair of eyes independently blinking.
I then set off down Seventy-third, walking west towards Amsterdam. At the corner I headed south. I wasn’t sure where I was going; I just had to get out of my apartment. I then remembered a new hotel that had been built on the east side of Broadway between Sixty-ninth and Sixty-eighth Street. It was a huge, mirrored slab rising up forty stories and sitting just south of a small island of concrete formed by Broadway slicing through Amsterdam in its crooked path. I thought that if I stood in front of the hotel I would be able to see my double, behind me and across the street, in the reflection. It would finally give me some tangible evidence, proving whether he was real or just a phantom.
I walked toward the hotel slowly, wanting to give my pursuer a chance to stay on my tail. When I approached the hotel, I ran across the street, making sure that my double remained on the other side. As I leaped up the curb, and stood in front of the mirrored-façade that seemed to be as big as you could possibly make one segment of glass, I searched in the reflection for myself. There he was, standing on the other side of Broadway.
In between the cabs heading south, standing on the other side of the street and looking a bit confused, was another version of me wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He looked uneasy, knowing I was watching him. His eyes looked into mine.
I then saw—or at least I thought I saw—yet another version of me. This one was passing behind the first version, hands in his pocket and walking up Broadway.
When I turned around so I could look head-on without the aid of the mirror that I was sure was playing tricks on me, all I could see was traffic obscuring my vision. When the cars were gone, so were the other versions of me. The sidewalk was filled instead with the usual assortment of strangers. I stared for a couple of minutes for some sign, some signal, some trace of my mystery, but there was nothing. Dazed, I headed south another couple of blocks before going down Sixty-sixth and then heading north up West End Avenue. By the time I made it back to the brownstone I’d been gone for almost an hour.
When Monday arrived, I didn’t go to work. I left an outgoing message on my voicemail saying I wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t sure when I’d be back in the office. I then snuck into the kitchen to make a huge pot of coffee, took a very quick and hot shower, and then resumed my station in the room. It was an overcast day, finally cool and threatening rain. The darkness helped me see more clearly into my double’s apartment. All I saw was my double staring right back at me.
On Tuesday, while I was watching Jeff watch me, the phone rang. At first I was going to ignore it. But then I figured maybe it was Leah thanking me for the other night, so I decided to answer.
There was silence for a few seconds before a voice asked, “Who is this?”
“This is Jeff, who’s this?”
The voice sounded oddly familiar. In fact, it sounded exactly like my own voice. Panicked, I looked across the street to see if my double had finally decided to up the stakes by actually contacting me. But no, he was still there in the window; I could clearly see both of his hands. No cell phone, no nothing. He wasn’t the one who was calling.
“Who is this?” I barked into the phone. “What do you want, money? I don’t have a lot of money.”
The line went dead. I hung up the phone and went back to my vigil.
Wednesday was the same. The routine of cat-and-mouse had turned into a game of chicken, and I wasn’t going to be first one to move. I skipped my appointment with Dr. Schwartz and instead stayed in the chair, staring across the street.
On Thursday, finally, there was some activity. Jeff got out of his chair and walked around the small space. I crept closer to the window in order to get a better look. Ten minutes later he was wearing a blazer and slacks. He took a quick peek across the street, down into my apartment, and as he did so I crept away from the window. I could then see the door of his apartment open and close. He’s leaving. I decided to follow him.
From my dresser I pulled out some old jeans and a pair of socks. I grabbed a button-down shirt from the floor I’d worn last week that was already buttoned-up. I threw all of this on, grabbed my keys, wallet, and slipped into my Pumas—as well as an old black baseball cap—and I flew out the door. I made it downstairs in time to see Jeff walking east, toward Columbus.
There were lots of people on the sidewalk—everyone was coming home from work—so it was hard to follow him without getting too close and drawing attention to us both. But I managed to discreetly trail him as he went to a boutique called Rosalyn and then a card store named Cardeology. After that he hustled south down Broadway. I followed him through Verdi Square and into the subway station. He headed for the downtown trains.
Once on the platform I glanced as inconspicuously as I could, trying to see where he was. I spotted him near the end, looking up both sides of the tunnel; that meant that he was willing to take either a local or an express train. As I tried to watch him out of the corner of my eye, but also did my best to seem as if I was looking at nothing at all, I tried to think back to that subway scene in The French Connection. How, exactly, was this done?
After just a couple of minutes, a local train pulled into the station. Amidst the crowd of people getting on and off I spotted Jeff getting on. I raced down the platform and managed to slide into the same car I saw him enter—although at the other end—just as the doors were closing. It was one of the newer cars, the ones I didn’t like: shiny and bright, with the computer-voice messages calling out the stops and telling everyone to have a nice day.
The train was crowded, so I had no trouble keeping an eye on my double while also managing to remain hidden. Leaning against the far set of doors, looking dapper in a blazer I also owned and had in the closet of my apartment on Seventy-third Street, Jeff seemed deep in thought. I wondered what I was wondering about.
The train rolled through its stations, stopping at Lincoln Center and then Columbus Circle. At Times Square it looked like Jeff was going to get off. As the doors opened, it was hard to follow him up the platform; the crowd was moving one way and I wanted to move in the opposite direction. I managed to shove my way left, catching sight of Jeff as he exited the tunnel that led from the 1/2/3 trains. It was difficult to stay on his trail as he weaved in and out of commuters. There seemed to be just as many people below Times Square as there were above ground.
Once free of the hub of various subway stations, there was a long corridor and then a sloped stretch where a half-dozen religious nuts were always handing out pamphlets and posing alongside signs that advertised the usual biblical nonsense. As I walked I began to get a profound sense of déjà vu. I remembered all of this from years ago, from when Grainne and I were married and lived in New Jersey.
For almost three years I took the PATH train from Hoboken into Manhattan for work, but I’d occasionally take the bus into or from Port Authority. From there I’d head for the 1 or C train to take me uptown or downtown. Before that, before Grainne and I were married—when she lived in Hoboken but I lived on Ninety-sixth Street—I would take the bus out to see her. Since the divorce, I’d never again been through this underground stretch of New York; I’d never had a reason to.
After a long walkway that was stifling with heat, I could see Jeff turn left, definitely heading for Port Authority. Rounding the corner, I watched him walk through a series of turnstiles and then make a right, heading into the bus terminal. Jeff then went up an escalator, skipping steps even as he was being hauled to the top; I must have been late for wherever it was I was going. Once at the top he walked briskly down a corridor that had a number of bus ticket kiosks on one side and a newsstand on the other. He then turned left, heading up another escalator. At that point, after getting stuck behind a couple of college kids dragging big blue bags from Ikea, I was jogging to keep up. As I caught sight of Jeff joining a long line that hugged the wall opposite a number of vendors selling things like bracelets and cell phone cases from wooden carts, I slowed my pace. The terminal was filled with the last waves of rush hour, people trying to get to their various homes after another long day in Manhattan. I tried to blend in.
The line began to move, and I jumped to join it. As the line kept moving—we were now walking up the stairs; I could hear the bus idling and could even smell its fumes—I ransacked my wallet and pockets for the necessary change, somehow coming up with the $2.55 I needed. We all began to file in and I saw Jeff take what was always my favorite seat: almost all the way in the back, on the left, against the windows.
I was able to get a seat near the front of the bus, sitting on the sideways bench seats rather than the rows facing forward. This was good since it allowed me to see Jeff farther back in the bus. People continued to get on, and a few people had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisle that ran the length of the bus.
As we exited Port Authority, headed for the Lincoln Tunnel, I lost Jeff. The sun had just set and the lazy last sunlight streaming through the tinted windows gave everything in the bus an eerie pink glow. But once we began to go through the tunnel, making our way underground from New York to New Jersey, I spotted him staring out the window and rocking back and forth in rhythm with the bus’s motion.
Since we were still miles from the first stop, I tried to relax and catch my breath from my sprint through Port Authority. I actually began to clear my mind and eased into the surroundings that felt so familiar. This could have been a year-and-a-half ago; I could have been coming home from a meeting in Midtown. At that point, as the bus turned onto Fourteenth Street and with the Malibu Diner just beyond the intersection, I’d be getting out my iPhone in order to call Grainne to see if there was anything she needed from the store: milk or juice or maybe just some ice cream as a treat. Sometimes I stopped to get her flowers, just for fun, from a place called Fresh Picked.
As the bus turned right onto Washington, I shook myself out of my memories since—if this was really me I was following, and I was on some sort of Christmas Carol trip back in time—Jeff would be getting off in just a minute at Tenth Street. As the bus pulled up to the stop, a few commuters crowded near the front and rear doors in preparation for getting off. Toward the back of the bus I saw Jeff standing in the aisle, third in line for the door. I remained sitting, not wanting to draw any attention. At the last second I leapt through the door at the front of the bus, just as it was about to close. The bus driver shot me a harsh glance, but he then softened and looked confused. Had he seen me, seconds before, exit at the back of the bus? Had he recognized me? Was he somehow in on whatever this was? I didn’t have time to worry about this since, as the bus was pulling away, I saw Jeff cross Washington and walk up Tenth Street. At the corner he turned right, heading south down Hudson. I followed him. The apartment where I lived with Grainne—when we were married—was just a few doors down on the right.
I hadn’t been back to this block in over a year. The street looked more or less the same; a few of the brownstones looked like they’d been redone, but that was no surprise since—during the years I lived here with Grainne—there was always a home nearby being worked on. Most Saturday mornings started with the sound of jackhammers or generators going off somewhere along the block. Farther up the street, looking north, I could see from the number of lights that the cluster of high-rises along the water were finally open. There was hardly a blank spot in the checkerboard of windows. This once small and charming town, only a mile square, was on its way to no longer being so charming.
As I approached my old apartment building, I passed a silver Volkswagen Jetta parked on the street. I thought that this was Grainne’s car—she bought it the year before we were divorced—but I couldn’t be sure. There had also been another car in the area, the same make but a newer model, and from time to time it was parked on our block. Whenever Grainne saw it she’d exclaim, “There’s my twin!”
Just as I looked up at my old apartment on the fourth floor, I saw Jeff come to the window and look down into the street. I scurried across Hudson and hid behind one of the leafy trees that lined the quiet block.
The last time I’d looked out that window was the day Grainne left. She moved out first, on a Friday. I was planning to move out the following Sunday. Her movers had been at it most of the day, helping her with last-minute packing and then getting all of her stuff into their van that was double-parked down below. I hadn’t meant to run into her but I got off work early and she was running behind schedule. It actually didn’t end up being much of a confrontation. At that point, there wasn’t much left to fight about. All she did was ask, one last time, “Jeff, please…this is your last chance.” I didn’t say anything. I just stared at her; the silence gave her my answer. She then walked out the door and slowly shut it behind her. I stood there for a few seconds, knowing what she was doing on the other side of the door: waiting for the elevator. It was a crazy feeling; there was only a door between us. A few planks of wood no more than an inch-or-two thick. But in those seconds that door was acting as a clean and clear dividing line. On either side were our new lives: single me and single her. For a brief instant I felt like running down the hallway and flinging the door open. If I did that I’d be destroying the wall that suddenly stood between us. Our lives could then flow together and mix and we’d be a couple again. But just as the feeling surged in my chest and was about to make me say something, I heard the elevator arrive. My wife got on and I heard the elevator door close. When she emerged in the lobby, she’d no longer be my wife. I then went into the living room and looked down into the street. On the sidewalk, in front of our building, I saw Grainne step slowly down the marble front steps. It looked like she was wiping her eyes but it may have been her nose. She traded a few words with the movers, all of whom were gathered around the front of the moving truck. I heard some muffled talk and then the movers hustled and got into the truck. A few seconds later, the huge truck roared to life and headed south down the street. My wife walked in the opposite direction, toward her car which must have been parked somewhere nearby to the north. I watched her walk until, due to the window and her walking up Hudson, I couldn’t watch her anymore. That was the last I ever saw of her.
As I stared up at the window more than a year later, not really sure what I was doing, I was reminded of the other day when Leah was coming over and I didn’t want to fuck things up too fast. I thought, There’s more to that Maugham story. You don’t only lose people in an instant. It was possible—and probably more probable—to lose them over time. Every little mistake, every perceived slight, every dash of resentment and drop of anger; there was a line beneath every relationship, and it all added up.
The light upstairs went out. The living room was now dark, but I could still see shadows moving in the dining room. I looked at my watch; the stupid thing was again flashing twelve o’clock. Even if I didn’t know exactly what time it was, I knew it was too early to be going to bed. I continued to watch the windows, and was about to cross the street (to go into the lobby, scanning the buzzer to see if there was anything strange in the building’s directory), when I saw Jeff coming out of the building with Grainne.
They descended the steps chatting about something and laughing. I didn’t get a good look at Grainne since they turned the corner too quickly, heading south down Hudson. But just hearing her laugh linger in the air made me flood with memory. I slowly crossed the street and began to follow them, these two silhouettes walking ten paces ahead of me.
I could see that his right arm was angled, forming a triangle along with his chest. Into this space Grainne placed her arm. We used to walk like this. In a second, I knew, she’d put her head on his shoulder. She did this, as predicted, as they turned the corner onto Ninth Street. Ahead of me I watched as Jeff tilted his head to the right, the way I always used to do when she leaned her head on my shoulder. Closing my eyes for a second, I could feel her former presence beside me like a phantom limb.
Ninth was a short block, so it didn’t take long for them to cross it. They caught the light at Washington and skipped through the crosswalk. I paused before crossing. An uptown 126 bus headed through the intersection and then stopped, letting off passengers. Sneaking behind the bus, I watched as Jeff held the door open for Grainne at Amanda’s, a restaurant a few doors in from the corner.
Amanda’s. It figures. We used to come here for special occasions or when a parent was in town. We even came here two years ago for our anniversary. Shit. Suddenly it hit me. I pulled out my iPhone for confirmation, checking its calendar. Fuck. It was our anniversary. Five years. Or rather, it would have been five years (we never even made it to four; we separated about fourteen months ago and divorced—officially—about three months after that). And yet somehow I was taking my ex-wife to dinner.
Just a few seconds after disappearing inside the restaurant, Grainne and Jeff reappeared in the dining room to the right of the entrance. They were seated against the window and were handed menus and a wine list. I could see Grainne unfold her napkin and drape it over her lap. They perused the menu for a few minutes, smiling and exchanging words with the waiter when he arrived.
I slowly approached the restaurant, taking cover behind a pole right outside Amanda’s atop which sat a large clock with two faces: one face pointed north and the other pointed south. Looking up, I saw that it was 8:11. In the silence of the night air during a momentary lull in traffic on Washington, I actually heard the hands of the clock shift from 8:11 to 8:12.
Inside the restaurant the waiter reappeared and poured wine. As Grainne tasted it, Jeff reached down and picked up a fork. He stared at the fork for what seemed like a long time.
After placing the fork back onto the table, and as the waiter was filling his glass with wine, Jeff looked out the window. For a second, I think, our eyes met; I was once again looking directly into my own eyes. But then he looked away, back to Grainne. He lifted his wineglass, raised it, and I could have sworn I heard the clinking of their glasses as they toasted their married selves.