After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012. Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate. The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me lots of time to reflect and reminisce.
4 — Kitchen Window
Being on the third floor, my kitchen window has (has, because as I write this I’m still living here) a view of the backyards that abut ours, of the backs of the houses on Douglass Street, the rooftops of the surrounding blocks, and lots of sky. When I first moved in, the trees in our backyard and in the backyards around us were not tall, so I could see into the back windows of all those houses. I observed: a woman who regularly came out on her back deck to smoke pot at around 3 every afternoon; a big, black, pot-bellied pig sleeping in the shade, and two fat Basset hounds sniffing around; a starling on a rooftop harassing a sparrow for a piece of bread, and then a hawk swooping down and capturing the starling. One summer night, as I sat in a chair in front of the open window talking on the phone, I could see a woman biting her toenails in a brightly-lit room. Very surprised, I said (loudly) to the friend to whom I was talking, “Oh my God — she’s biting her toenails!” The woman stopped, looked up, left the room quickly, and I felt bad.
On September 11, 2001 I was sitting in the kitchen, drinking green tea and reading page 73 of J.-K. Huysmans’ A Rebours / Against Nature — “There were other drawings which plunged even deeper into the horrific realms of bad dreams and fevered visions . . . studies of bleak and arid landscapes, of burnt-up plains, of earth heaving and erupting into fiery clouds, into livid and stagnant skies . . . ” — when I heard a “pop!” like someone throwing a firecracker out of a high-rise window. I thought to myself, “Hmm . . . guess the World Trade Center finally got blown up.” I continued reading. Then the phone rang, I let the machine get it, and my friend Ian was saying, “The most surreal thing just happened: I was sitting here on the couch drinking coffee, and then a plane flew over, and then it crashed into the World Trade Center.” I jumped up, picked it up, said “What?” and he said, “Look out your kitchen window.”
From my kitchen window I once saw the word “She” written across the sky.
From my kitchen window I once saw a figure striding above the clouds, trailing ribbons.
From my kitchen window I often gazed with unfocused eyes in the mornings into the two honey locust trees that grew tall in the backyard. Doing this created a strange but pleasant (almost ecstatic) sensation of an ethereal light growing brighter, brighter, almost white. But then when I re-focused on the trees the light resumed its normal intensity. I wrote about this sensation, in a poem:
the light that we imagine we see
with eyes half closed,
squinting into trees,
is the most beautiful
anyone’s ever seen.
The smaller of those two trees once cradled a tree from another yard that had cracked in half during a storm, and prevented it from hitting our building.
I was looking out at that window at a starless night sky when I spoke — for the first time in thirty-seven years — to the man who, as a child, had proposed to me in first grade. He’d given me a red plastic ring with a white knight in profile on it, and said, “Now we’re just minutes away from marriage.” The last time I’d spoken to him was after our last grammar school graduation practice, as we stood with our mothers on the steps of St. John of God Church, and he gave me Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” album.
I was looking out that window at a bright, clear November afternoon sky dotted with white clouds when my sister’s boyfriend called me to tell me she had died three days earlier.
I was looking out that window at a periwinkle blue evening sky when I spoke to her son, my nephew, on the phone after nine years. The two of us had looked out that window together nineteen years earlier, when he was eight and visiting Brooklyn with my mother. It was the only time either of them had left Chicago.
I was looking out that window on the last day of May, 2010, wondering if my sister had made it through the bardo okay, if her soul had finally found requiem. And so I asked for a sign, something so cliché and yet so unusual it could only be a sign, and plus something not possible on a clear cloudless day: a rainbow. And so I waited at the window, waited and waited, waited staring at the sky. Fifteen minutes went by, and I was about to walk away when the boy next door appeared in the yard to water his mother’s flowers. He went around the perimeters with the garden hose, and then moved to a far corner at the back. As he shifted position the water arced high, opposite the afternoon sun that had not yet disappeared behind the houses, and the shimmering colors appeared in the swath of the water from the hose.
Against Nature, J-K. Huysmans, Penguin Classics, translation by Robert Baldick,1959
From “Just This” by Sharon Mesmer, from The Virgin Formica, poems, Hanging Loose Press, 2008