By Nina Dunic
She seemed to do almost everything naked. Baking, cleaning, reading a magazine, exercising—it was a kind of bouncing, as we called it. She wore shoes then, with socks, and she pulled them up.
She lived in an apartment across the street, a few floors lower than us. We were renting a two-bedroom condo from one of those absentee landlords who snaps up a bunch of units and rents them out to pairs of young people trying to stay in the city, landlords you never hear from until they raise the rent. But it was a nice building and an absentee landlord—always in Beijing or Montana or somewhere Europe-ish—was better than a crazy landlord who checked the place once a month, or who left strange messages for you—or Adam, more specifically. That had actually happened to him twice. One was an older woman, one was an older man.
She was already there when we first moved in but it took a while to notice her. She wasn’t that easy to see, across the street and a few floors down—a flesh-coloured mass at first, until Adam dug through the storage unit and his camping gear to find his binoculars, and then a quiet evening descended as we stood at the window, passing the binoculars back and forth. We didn’t talk for a while. But it had to be asked aloud. Exhibitionist? Nudist? Weirdo? But she was too normal-looking. Nymphomaniac? There wasn’t evidence of that either. Narcissist?
Adam was single, so was I. That was the basis of being roommates. We met in a softball group and he was new to the city, taking a big corporate job; I had been here all my life but most of the people I had known had left the city after a handful of disappointments, usually work-related. Or friends would find a serious girlfriend and she would want to leave, so they both went—women were always wanting to leave. They would find a guy and then they would leave. At some point, it seemed that most of the people that stayed were single or gay, or the loner types that continued through their 30s in the basement apartments hidden throughout the city, not trying to change anything—happy, I guess. Mostly men, playing video games, a more rewarding kind of reality.
But Adam was trying, really trying, as some guys do. He was working out and using dating apps. He had hair removal done on his back. And he was doing well at work, he said. If he smelled a promotion, even in another department, he chased it down and cornered it like prey—he had the right attitude to do well in the city. Whenever he got good news about work, he always said, “It’s my biannual promotion.” Some things about him, you just couldn’t make up. He once dated a stylish, artsy girl and got her to take him shopping; together they went to the best shops and he got all the fitted shirts and pants, and they even did the quirky shops, so he got some cultured t-shirts and one vintage coat with a high collar and extra buttons. He looked great, he filled his wardrobe. Then he dropped her. He said they hadn’t even had sex. Adam had goals; he was cruel, but in a non-personal way. It was hard to be offended or point out what was wrong, exactly—it was never about you.
He was once with an older woman and she grew obsessed with him, coming by our place and sitting in the hallway. Later, he was with another older woman and she dropped him pretty quickly—he was angry for months. But he dated through that, too.
I had met Adam’s parents twice. They stepped into the apartment as they were picking him up for dinner. They were both short and his dad had a gentle squint when his mom spoke, which was often, and eagerly. It was hard to see Adam in them; it seemed he had decided to go in a different way with his life.
We made an odd pair, too. We actually didn’t go out much together; I wasn’t exactly part of the official narrative. But he would come home and I would be there—half-waiting for him, most nights. How was work, where did you go after. Sometimes I would be standing at the window with the binoculars but I would quickly leave when I heard the fumbling at the door. When Adam looked out the window, it was in an amused, leisurely way, unashamed and curious, sometimes thoughtful. Then he’d forget all about it and go back to his day.
She had friends over and she would wear clothes for them; perhaps that was to be expected. But they would leave, and she would slip out of everything, and maybe put on a robe—a grey one, hanging open—and then naked for the rest of the night. She must’ve had the thermostat up to 30. I never saw a woman without blankets in the evening. We could not figure out why she did it—why, why, it was like a nightmarish apparition that visited us during the day— why. Nothing seemed to make sense.
Meanwhile, in the building, men were starting to make elevator trips with telescopes. I even saw powerful filming equipment with a long, professional lens, which I told Adam about. They all came new in boxes. We saw at least a three or four of them—one guy had a wedding band, seemed old enough to be a father. Adam was disgusted with that. But apparently that was the way the world worked. Lots of things weren’t pleasant but if you saw enough people doing it, you learned to ignore it.
One day, Adam came home out of breath, animated, tripping over his words. “The naked—the woman in the window— ”
I was cooking in the kitchen, pasta—making extra in case he came home for dinner and was hungry—and I stopped everything and met him in the doorway. “What, what?”
“In the store—I went to the store, I saw her at the store. I recognized her face,” Adam said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I got her number.”
He got her number.
It fell flat with me. At this point, I was getting bored of the whole thing. I was tiring of the voyeurism and frustration, a repetition of other areas in my life. I had given up on a lot in the past couple weeks, something Adam hadn’t noticed. My aunt had died in a violent way—a man she was breaking up with—and that started my mom drinking again, which hadn’t happened in decades, and something was going downhill back home. I was getting drunk emails, alternating between how much she loved me as a son to more detailed complaints about old friends or family. The guy was arrested in another city and brought back and there was going to be a trial next year.
“I got her number,” he said.
His face was uncharacteristically eager.
“Well, why don’t you text her then?” I said, and went back into the kitchen.
I once saw him throw a chair across the room, dead sober. He got so mad that time the Leafs were destroyed by Boston—he got that hard stare and you couldn’t even talk to him.
He actually didn’t drink that much, but I was starting to drink a bit more. At first I would pour a glass of wine while making dinner—eventually it would be an hour before dinner, and then right when I got home from work.
Adam called the naked woman and seemed to implement some kind of strategy, some game. He didn’t take her out right away, he talked to her and stretched it out for weeks. I had stopped going to the window, for the most part. But if he wasn’t around, I looked quickly. Still naked.
I didn’t know what to make of her body. To be honest, I wasn’t sure she was that fit. Once the shock of the nudity wore off, it was maybe just above average. I had gone to the gym weekly for about a year, not too long ago, and I saw a lot of really toned women’s bodies, sometimes even wiry, very fit. But the naked woman, I didn’t know. In a couple months, it didn’t seem as much.
She dressed well, though, for work and when guests were coming over. I thought she dressed elegantly, but prettily, and not out of reach. But then she would be cleaning, nude, squatting under furniture, and I thought that maybe the whole thing was growing tiresome. I was down in the basement of our building, dumping our recycling box, and I saw scrawled on the wall near the stairwell doors, “5th floor”—apparently it was not so tiresome yet to other men.
She had a routine, something I picked up on fairly quickly and Adam never seemed to notice, or at least he never said so. She came home and put her bag on the brown chair. Nothing else seemed to go on that brown chair except her slouchy bag. No one ever sat in it. She poured a glass of water, right away, and let it sit on the counter as she tended to a few minor things—checking her phone again, or putting something she had bought in the fridge, or taking her shoes from where she kicked them off back to their proper place, at the bottom of the closet by the door. It was a small apartment; she was conscientious about putting her things away. And then she would leave the phone somewhere—kitchen counter, or still in her bag—and sit on the sofa, unselfconsciously, her legs somewhat splayed, and she would look out the window.
I don’t know what she saw from that window, but when I was walking along the street, I had glanced up a few times to see. It was another building, not ours, a thicker and older structure from the 80s or 90s, with beige cement and pale green windows—unattractive, not old enough to seem interesting, either. It couldn’t have held her eye. But there was a park beside it, a simple one with circles of cultivated flower beds situated throughout the small green rectangle, and almost half a dozen wooden benches. The bench ratio seemed a lot higher than other parkettes I’d known downtown. Maybe she would look down at the people on the benches. Beyond the park, there were old stone row houses, conspicuously distinct from each other—new homeowners had upgraded their home fronts with matte painted brick and sharp window dressings, and inherited owners covered the glass with foil and had air-conditioner boxes hanging out. One of countless patchy stretches in the city—rich, rich, rich, poor, poor, rich, poor, rich, rich.
And then she would go back to the kitchen and drink the glass of water. It happened this way, or something very close to it, every day.
Adam was dating her and examining it very closely with me. It was rare that he would become suddenly talkative and animated, so I didn’t mind. In fact I came to enjoy it. Adam could be a nice guy—or there was something moral about him. But the rest of the time he was just so casually selfish in all things, like he never bothered to know anybody else. Like he was always OK alone, and had stopped even thinking about it—this idea of other people.
He didn’t think she was an exhibitionist. He had researched the term and decided it didn’t sound like anything about her. Nudist or weirdo or hippie? He was really favouring these possibilities, wondering if there was a modern version of hippies that she was embodying—but there were associations with those words. Negative or annoying. He couldn’t imagine that he would date a weirdo or hippie. At this point, it had only been two dates, and they hadn’t had sex yet. So nymphomaniac was out. But they kept in touch throughout the week.
Narcissist? He paused each time after saying it, considering it. He had Googled this word as well. “But it just doesn’t suit her. I don’t know.”
We were sitting out on the balcony and drinking. It was a warm night and we were both in t- shirts; I could see he was relaxed and in a thoughtful mood. She wasn’t at home—she was out somewhere and he didn’t know where. They hadn’t texted that day. Still, the binoculars were sitting on the balcony with us.
She had a friend I didn’t like. The woman had large, dark curly hair that bounced around when she talked, which was almost constantly. I imagined her voice was very loud. Her body language was open and energetic, and she flopped around on the furniture while describing big, dramatic things. Frankly, I thought she was vulgar.
Around her friend, I saw her body language, in response, become more subdued. Watching the energy between the women expand and contract, I felt this friend was draining. And I did not like when she visited.
But Adam was pulling the curtains down now. I didn’t ask but guessed they were sleeping together. He was in her condo, pulling the curtains down after dinner. I guess he knew about all the perverts in our building, and likely surrounding buildings, that were watching with above-average interest.
Not a nymphomaniac, weirdo or exhibitionist. I tried to see that maybe she was a narcissist, but that seemed almost obscene. She was quiet, evasive, and slightly too open when she was happy, which was fairly often.
I was standing there for some time, with a glass of wine on the table beside me. Adam had not been home in two days. She was on the sofa, unguarded, looking at him often but also looking shyly away. It occurred to me then—seeing her happy and shy. She was fully innocent. It was so simple, I was laughing and shaking my head, then I fell quiet again and looked through the binoculars.
She was an innocent.
Adam hadn’t been home in almost a week. I was drinking more, lonely and bored. He hadn’t shown up to the softball game, either, and didn’t text me why. Her curtains were down a lot.
When I heard the keys in the door, I jumped up. I was a bit drunk, watching that show about the drug dealers who kill off each other’s families and rape the wives, keeping their severed fingers in jars, everybody at work was obsessed with it—and I stumbled as I hurried to get off the sofa. I knocked over my glass. Adam was coming in as I was trying to save the glass in a sloppy commotion, half-falling down—I could sense his face take it in and then perform an act of emotion I hadn’t seen before. It seemed to be almost pity.
“Hey,” I said, being casual, with some effort.
“Hi,” he said. There was a pause. “I think that rug is a goner, though.”
He was talking about the pale beige, patterned rug I had bought as a housewarming thing when we first moved in together. There was half a glass of red wine spilled across it. We were both looking at it, but with different emotions. I was patting at it with tissues from the box on the coffee table, very careful, a drunk’s concentration.
And I started feeling angry all of a sudden.
A black emotion uncoiled inside me—he meets this girl and then disappears, coming home infrequently and not letting me know; now he comes back and looks at me with pity over a stupid rug.
“Fuck it,” I said, standing up. “It’s just a fucking rug.”
I balled up the red tissues and went into the kitchen.
My tone said enough. Adam went into his room and was gone for half an hour. At first, I came back and tried to clean the rug, hoping Adam would come out and see that I was working on it, but I got bored and returned to the kitchen for another glass, then went and sat by the window. She was in her apartment, dressed, lights on, curtains up, pacing around the space, collecting things and tidying up. She seemed to be brisk, in preparation, not wandering idly through it—I wondered if she was expecting him back tonight.
I was holding the binoculars when Adam came out and startled me, looking startled himself.
“You still look?” he said, genuinely surprised. He did not seem angry.
“Yeah, I still look,” I said. “I guess you haven’t even told her.” I was still angry. “Maybe she would put some clothes on then.”
There was a short silence. I waited, but nothing.
I followed up with a series of vulgar statements about her, including insults about her body, feeling a pathetic rage that somehow could not escape from me, not even with the words.
There was no pity in his face now—it went blank, impersonal. No anger either. There was a total and final detachment now. He was holding a gym bag, heavily filled.
I felt desperate, suddenly panicked, seeing that remoteness in his face, and that big bag. Held the anger around me, like armour. And I was drunk. “Get the fuck out of here,” I said.
After that, things started disappearing from the apartment.
He was doing it while I was at work, dropping by and picking up his stuff in trips. Her curtains were always down now.
He kept paying rent for three more months, until the lease expired. He had texted me earlier with notice—he wasn’t coming back. I already knew that: His stuff was gone, and so was he.
I didn’t respond. Things were already going to shit, so maybe none of it mattered. My mom was drinking too much, and so was I, so maybe none of it meant anything.
My aunt’s ex-boyfriend was acquitted. And he just took off, left town after that. They had lived up north about two hours or so. So my mom was just basically ruined after that. I visited for a few days but she refused to talk about it, and I wandered around my childhood home, unsure what to do. Then I came back to the city to work—left my dad to take care of it. But she stopped emailing, and I’m not sure what she did for a length of time.
I lived alone until around February. And the woman moved out. Maybe Adam was with her, I didn’t know—she wasn’t on social media, and Adam never posted anything about girlfriends. The new people were a young couple with a toddler. I watched it learning to walk around one afternoon, feeling like it was very wholesome and meaningful in a way that actually mattered, big picture. But the binoculars ended up in the closet shortly after and I spent more time drinking in front of the television instead of looking out the window.
Financially it had not been easy. But I got a roommate in February and it was less stressful. His name was Jared and he was very quiet, almost silent, but not in a shy way—it was almost dark, obstinate. I thought maybe he didn’t like people much. I didn’t feel comfortable around him but it was great because he kept to his room, so I still had the living room. Everybody at work was still following the drug dealer show and they were killing off everybody and raping the daughters now, the series seemed to be ending very dramatically. I watched it alone in the living room while Jared stayed in his room.
I did see her again, though.
I had half-forgotten her and then suddenly there she was, in the convenience store buying soda. I was coming home from work and stopping to get water. She must have lived somewhere nearby, she was in house slippers—and I had never stopped in that store before. It seemed like something should happen.
I didn’t recognize her at first with clothes on, standing in front of me, fully animated after a quick chat with the cashier, as if she was fully real—something that never seemed possible to me. She was walking past me and I said, “Adam? You know Adam?” I didn’t have anything planned.
“Yes,” she said, stopping.
I was unprepared. She was looking at me. “I know you, I used to live with Adam,” I said. “When he met you.”
Her face changed now, recalling something that she had heard about me, Adam’s roommate. Up close, she was taller than I had thought. I felt electrified by her presence, standing in front of me, simple and drop-shouldered, with a face brightly lit. Eyes very large and kind. She did not seem shy at all. I wondered where that came from, that impression from a distance. I felt almost overwhelmed by her.
Her hair was past her shoulders and loose, tangled lightly, as if it moved around too much. It was coloured like dark sand. Her arms were bare. The intimacy of her, standing in front of me, was catching me by the throat.
“Right, Adam’s roommate,” she seemed less certain now. “How are you?” And I saw it again—her eyes seemed to turn down in the outside corners—it seemed like pity.
I remembered Adam’s pity that night. It became clear that he did not care for me, and never did, and now he was seeing that I had cared all along. It was that impersonal pity, something you might give out to a stranger on the street who is suffering. No familiarity, no warmth— we don’t know each other. He never once asked about my aunt, although I had told him about it. And I knew that all along, but denied it. I don’t know what he told her about his roommate but it seemed that she pitied me. Her large eyes were sympathetic.
Again, a dark emotion twisted in me, ugly. I grew angry. I didn’t know why—I never knew why—people pitied me.
So I told her. I told her about the binoculars and the guys in the building and Adam’s pursuit and game. I told her about how she put her bag down in the same brown chair and poured a glass of water when she got home from work—I said I thought she looked outside her window at the small park below. “You were his biannual promotion,” I said. You have no right to be innocent—this is the real world.
She was upset and left the store. I was upset as well and I walked out onto the street, looking both ways to see if I could see her walking away—why, I didn’t know—but I didn’t see her. I guessed they were still together. I also guessed Adam hadn’t told her. About the binoculars and the guys buying telescopes, about us, discussing her.
And when I saw Adam again, it was many years later—as much as eight or nine. He was still fit; his face was leaner and he still dressed the same. When he recognized me he smiled, and shook my hand, and introduced his girlfriend—she was heavily tattooed on one arm, had a piercing in her cheek. Symbols that she was used to pain. But she was hot about it. Adam’s face looked older, for sure. It was almost 10 years, and I wondered what he’d think of me.
Out of nowhere, he asked about my mom.
I told him she had died.
He looked sad for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Nina Dunic is a freelance writer in Toronto, writing for several local and national publications (under her maiden name). Her fiction has won the Toronto Star Short Story Contest and was longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. She has recently completed a collection of short fiction.