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The Man in the Window:
when an invitation brings witness.
Surrounded by boxes, waiting to be unpacked, again. Her family, the usual moving crew, now gone, Agnes was left with the familiar task of unpacking and settling into her new place. This one: an apartment on the 12th floor. At this height, if, her mind manufactured the usual (non-existent) window, perhaps her mind would fail to manufacture the man who would come to look in through that window. The peering man in the non-existent window always, eventually, with a varying degree of drama, lead to the move to yet another apartment.
The hope of her family, and indeed the hope of Agnes herself, was for a long tenancy in an apartment with no imaginary windows, no imaginary men looking in through imaginary windows. One could always hope. With that hope in mind, Agnes set about unpacking her belongings, making the rental apartment, a modest one bedroom affair, into her new home.
It was a nice apartment building: on-site superintendents who were as friendly as they were helpful, a nice, clean laundry room and a common room where, at any given time, one or two card tables would have jigsaw puzzles in progress. On Monday afternoons there was “muffin time” - a chance to get to know other tenants over a friendly cup of coffee and muffins brought down by whoever felt inclined to bake that week. Wednesday nights was a regular cards night in the same room. The notice board provided all kinds of other ways to connect with neighbours in the building.
Agnes met Rebecca in this space of intentional community. Rebecca was an older woman, long-ago widowed, bent over with whatever it was that would steal inches and verticality from aging people. Rebecca with her shock of carefully permed, golden-white curls, and her every-three-weeks french manicure on hands gnarled by arthritis. Rebecca who still drove, and soon became Agnes’ best friend in the building, driving them to get groceries, the occasional matinee, and the fortnightly exploration of local restaurants at lunch time (night driving was hard on Rebecca’s eyes, you see).
“Tell me again about this man.”
Rebecca prodded with insatiable curiosity about the magically appearing window, and the man who came with it.
“What does he look like? Is he cute? Is he the kinda man you’d want to ask you out on a date?”
“I guess I never looked at him that way,” Agnes replied, trying to focus on which bran cereal to purchase, slightly annoyed at Rebecca, bringing this up in the middle of the grocery store. Sometimes she wished she had never mentioned the window and the man to Rebecca. She picked her usual cereal, deciding yet again not to veer from the well known tools of regularity.
“If he shows up this time, I hope you will take a good look and give me a report.” Rebecca trailed off now into the monologues so familiar for those who live alone, “imagine having a man appear in your window, same man, everywhere you’ve ever lived, and you never bother to take a good look at him, never bother to check out the colour of his eyes, the shape of his lips, whether or not he has dimples.” She shook her little old lady head of perm-curls, as though a good head shake might help her understand Agnes’ ways, so different from her own ways.
“I don’t look forward to him showing up, Rebecca. In fact, I dread the day when the window will appear, followed soon by the man. When I was a child, mom would hang a curtain over the spot where the window would show up. She didn’t see the window, but hanging that curtain worked to block it out from view. But as I got older, nothing worked but moving. Imagine if you had to move every couple of years because some weird, unknown man - a man you KNOW isn’t even really there - is peering in a window, which you ALSO know isn’t there? You wouldn’t exactly be going up to him to invite him in for a coffee.”
“Well, you’ve tried everything else,” Rebecca replied, “maybe it’s about time to invite him in for a cup of coffee, and notice if he’s a cutie or not!”
Some of these grocery days were like this; more of an annoyance than a blessing. The conversation between the two women kind-of died down, as Agnes intently focused on her grocery selections. Rebecca realized she had crossed a bit of a line. The closest she would come to apologizing would be to stop talking about it for a while.
But, the idea, the seed of the notion of inviting the man in the window in, that seed had been dropped into the fertile ground of Agnes’ imagination. It would be only a matter of time before the seed germinated.
Year one passed. Friendships were formed with others in the building. Rebecca remained the closest of these friendships, and the only one who knew of the man in the window. Rebecca got to meet Agnes’ family - becoming one of the family at seasonal dinners: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. Through these meetings, Rebecca learned more about Agnes and the man in the window from family members.
Drummond, Agnes’ dad, told of how Agnes had gone to many a doctor, psychologist and psychiatrist to see whether any of them could make the imaginary window and the imaginary man go away. From cognitive behavioural therapy to medication, a wide range of means had been tested to make these imaginings go away. But nothing worked. Drummond told of the medical attempts to intervene in the situation.
Younger brother, Otis, a plumber by trade, told of the tests he ran on the segments of wall where the imaginary window and the imaginary man appeared. There was no common structural factor he could find that lay, physically, beneath the apparitions. Otis really enjoyed Rebecca’s curiosity about the whole situation, and took an unusual delight in knowing that his sister had found an octogenarian friend who took such care with her appearance, and wanted Agnes to take more care in examining the appearance of the man in the window. It was younger brother paradise, really.
After childhood years of sewing curtains, even coordinating those curtains with bedroom decor … after teenage years of curtains that seem to have been outgrown by Agnes’ imagination, her mom, Marietta, did what good mothers the world over eventually do. She accepted her daughter’s strangeness. She didn’t try to pathologize. She didn’t try to talk Agnes out of it anymore. She simply asked, every month or so, in a by-and-by, conversational kind of way, whether there were any imaginary windows yet, whether there was yet a man in the window. When the answer was no, she sighed relief. When the answer was yes, she began planning in her mind for Agnes’ next move which would, inevitably follow.
A little over two years into Agnes’ occupancy, the imaginary window appears. It gives a view onto a scene that is completely incoherent with the reality on the other side of the wall. But, there it is, the window. By this time, Agnes is well settled in. Rebecca has stopped asking about the window or the man. At first, Agnes doesn’t even know if she wants to tell anyone.
But the disturbing visual of an outdoors she knows is not there, an outdoors in which the sun rises and sets, and seasons change - this disturbing visual haunts Agnes. She begins to lose sleep. She begins to become edgy with her family, with Rebecca. When she cancels two invitations to have Rebecca over, the questions begin.
“Has something happened? Why do you always want to visit at my place?” Rebecca asked. “Is it the imaginary window? Has it appeared again?”
“Yes. But I am managing.”
“Can I come in and see?” Rebecca pushes.
“You won’t see it. I’ve been down this road more times than I can count. I’m the only one who sees it.”
Rebecca persists though, and finally, Agnes invites her over. The wall above the couch remains window-free to Rebecca’s eyes. But Agnes insists (when pressed) that, not only does she see a window, but the trees she sees through the window, the waterway around the trees - all are moving gently in a breeze on the other side of the glass.
Rebecca encourages Agnes. “Call the man to the window. Take the upper hand. Take the initiative. Ask him to show himself.”
At first, Agnes resists. But Rebecca is persistent. As though persistence is a middle-name for her, or a skin she wears that refuses to wash off. “I’ll be right here with you when you call him.” She reassures. “Just do it. See if he will come on your terms, instead of on his own.”
Agnes calls out, eventually giving in to the persistence: “Man, if you’re out there, show yourself to me.” She closes her eyes, not wanting to see if he shows up. There is silence. Then, she hears a tapping on the window, a knuckle, softly tapping.
She opens her eyes. Beyond the glass, beyond the hand, a face. A man’s face. It is him. Although she never scrutinized him carefully before, she knows it is the same man. Agnes gasps, her gasp letting Rebecca know that something has happened.
“What is it? Do you see him?” she asks.
“Yes.” Agnes whispers. “He is knocking on the glass.”
“Well, what does he look like?”
“He has curly, dark hair. Dark eyes. An unusual mark like a red wine stain above his left eye.” Agnes replies.
“Is it shaped like an upside down keyhole?” Rebecca asks.
“I guess it is. Yes. How did you know that?” Agnes swung around to face Rebecca, almost accusingly.
“Ask him,” Rebecca says, her eyes filling with ancient tears “ask him if his name is Charlie.”
She asks. He nods, yes. His eyes also, brimming with tears which have waited so long to finally fall.
“I know who he is.” Rebecca says. And, all in a tumble, the story of her young husband, Charlie, who died at war, whose body was never recovered, who had a red wine stain birthmark above his left eye, in the shape of an upside down keyhole, all of a sudden, it all comes out.
And finally, there is relief.
Relief for Agnes, that someone else knows, that someone else is connected, that someone else can bear witness to the unseen man in the unseen window.
Relief for Rebecca, that finally, at this stage of her life, when the burden of years and the confused, unresolved, grief for a Charlie she never got to bury has bent her soul over, like her bent back, stealing inches from her soul, like the inches stolen from her height as she aged … relief for Rebecca, that finally, someone is able to bear witness to her Charlie who died, and never came home.
The man in the window is the coming home that happens when the two women, two friends from such different life stories bring their witness together.
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