Watchlist , our anthology of surveillance-themed short stories, is out now. To mark the publication of the book, we asked a few of its contributors to perform their own real-life act of surveillance — and to write about what they saw.
For the first year we lived in our West Philadelphia apartment, the house closest to ours was empty. The intervening lot was a dark space—no grass but mulch and obscure greenery tangled over dirt. During the day, it was a playground for squirrels and neighborhood cats, the latter of which terrorized the former. One of them, Earl Grey, was king. Sitting on the porch in warm weather, we could hear him muscling through the growth, searching, releasing the occasional unearthly, roiling yowl as he did what kings did: confront and conquer.
My fiancée, Val, and I functioned as if this lot was a field, as if we were in a farmhouse with windows that opened to nothing and no one. Our curtains were perpetually pulled back to let in natural light at daybreak. In the winter we wore shaggy bathrobes draped over our bodies like bear pelts; in the summer, unable to afford a decent A/C unit, we wore very little. Regardless, we moved around the windowed half of our apartment as though we were alone in the universe.
Two months ago, someone moved into that house across the way. I discovered this one night while casually pulling a sweater off over my head in our bedroom. When my skull was loosed from the neckhole, I realized that not only was the room that faced us lit up, it was occupied: a white, narrow-shouldered, dark-haired man sitting at a desk.
I dropped down to the floor like I’d been shot, army-crawled half-naked across the hardwood, and pulled myself up to the sill. There he was, typing in an unhurried fashion, the blue-white, luminous glow of the apple at the back of his laptop staring at me like an eye. Keeping low, I slid toward our hallway—my hand snaking up to the dresser to locate my pajamas—and finished undressing there.
He didn’t show up in that room again for another week or so, and in the intervening time I forgot he was there. But then one night, as I flopped fitfully in bed with uncharacteristic insomnia, I noticed long shadows on our ceiling that were never there before. Our room, once a bastion of darkness, was now illuminated, and when I sat up I could see him there, typing, light spilling across the lot and into our windows. I lay back down with a burning hatred whose origins I could not precisely pinpoint; I was frustrated by the fact that he was, strictly speaking, not doing anything wrong, but still was managing to do the wrong thing, and in very close proximity to our windows.
Val and I didn’t talk about him at first. One day not too soon after the weather warmed, I saw him there, head tilted down, and dropped the curtains over our windows. “So the Novelist doesn’t see us,” I said to Val.
“Oh yeah, that guy,” she said. “You think he’s a writer?”
“He’s a novelist,” I said. “Great American Novel, definitely. Gotta . . . gotta write those characters, you know? Those astute social observations? With whimsy, maybe? Some obstacles?” I let my voice go higher and higher; only now, typing this essay, do I realize I was mimicking a Family Guy bit I thought I’d forgotten.
Val laughed. Later, she said she didn’t think he was a novelist; her theory was that he was some sort of student. “He keeps student hours,” she said. “And it looks like he’s doing projects.”
So now, I watch him, The Novelist and his projects. At night, the illuminated screen of his window is a beacon, drawing attention from every room in our apartment. His windows are un-curtained, with a diamond-shaped grating over the windows, punctuated by an abstract, curling whorl. Behind him, the walls are bare. He has no lamps, just an ugly overhead tungsten light that flattens everything it touches. There is a smoke detector over the doorway (everywhere, an eye). At least one other person lives in the house; sometimes they pass behind the Novelist through the frame of an open doorway, never entering. He accumulates desk clutter: a jar crowded with pens, a terrarium with an indistinguishable sprig of life coiling in its heart.
His presence becomes a call, an inside joke. “The Novelist is in!” Val will shout from the other end of the apartment, and I always look.
When I decide there’s no more pretending—just open, naked observation—I start by standing directly across from him, framed by our bedroom window. As if sensing me, he looks up, looks back at me. Startled, I retreat to my office, which has a more indirect view. He hunches over his computer ( Is my posture that bad ? I think), but then stands and begins moving around.
He is not just writing but performing a series of arcane tasks. He lifts something up: a book? A postcard? From this distance it is impossible to tell anything besides a vague rectangular shape. He examines it front and back, and then sits down and resumes typing. He stops and picks the object up again, this time horizontally, and stares at it. A digital camera? Part of the reason it’s hard to tell is that it isn’t quite dark yet; still that smoky post-sunset atmosphere that provides less clarity than darkness.
Now he is doing something else: opening envelopes, maybe? He is standing, he is sitting, he has arranged some papers together and claps them down on the desk to make their edges flush. He is navigating a pair of scissors around an unseen image. He does this several times and then places the cut paper down on the desk. He moves it around, making choices I can only begin to fathom. He is gluing something on posterboard? Or am I just thinking of my own science fairs, the night when I tried to make lungs out of limp pink balloons and my chemist dad said no, no, that’s not how lungs work, and helped me build a human stomach in a glass beaker and filled it with a hydrochloric acid solution that chewed whatever I dropped inside?
Val is probably right: He is probably a student. Or else he is into arts and crafts. Either way, the lack of clarity about his purpose, about his identity, is similar to how I imagine it would not be clear to anyone watching me through my window that I’m a writer, because I’m constantly fussing with lights and clicking pens in front of my face and drinking beer and organizing Post-its and playing Don’t Starve and watching John Oliver and Judge Judy and The X-Files and lighting candles and bouncing on my exercise ball and looping my hair into a bun. Somewhere in there, I write. But anyone watching me might reasonably assume that I am something other than what I am.
He abandons the room but leaves the light on. I wait, but he doesn’t come back. The anticipation is bizarre, like a theatrical intermission that stretches on and on, the audience too polite to leave. I am irritated that the diorama has been abandoned; I am irritated that he is not giving me the narrative I want, a solution to the word problem of who he is and what he is doing with his life. I am irritated that he looked straight at me, tonight of all nights, when he never had before. I am irritated at the terrible bargain of city living: the exchange of looking and being looked at. I dream of a landscape that takes my gaze and never returns it.
Night comes full-throated. I can see my own reflection in the glass, so I flip off my desk lamp. He has not returned; his lights are on but the desk is empty and the computer is open and waiting and glowing its own glow. I imagine myself turning out all the lights in our apartment and sitting close to our bedroom window and waiting. I imagine the weird pale moon of my face floating behind the glass—then, resigning to my hunger, slipping back into shadow like a sea monster to the deep.
Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest is available now from Catapult Books.