The Lighted Window

by Charles D'Ambrosio


Morton St & hudson st, new york, ny 10014

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

She arrived in the city ahead of me to work as an assistant to the producer of a movie, a pretty girl’s job, a blonde’s job, and soon, very soon, while I was still talking to her by phone from Seattle, making arrangements for my move to NYC, she began sleeping with the director. In the business these blondes are part of the spoils of a mass mobilization involved in making a movie. It seems stupid even saying so. It happens all the time, but a fierce self-loathing I confused with a sense of loyalty kept me from believing it would happen to me, even while it was happening to me. I was from the hinterlands and these dirty stories of people with no probity had previously amused me quite a bit —being insular and backwards and raised in a white-trash lifestyle didn’t seem so bad, with all that corruption out there. I braved coming to New York anyway, a cuckold, and under pressure of the constant humiliation of it, I became achingly and excessively earnest, which eventually unfit me for life in the big city and just about everywhere else too.

I was so desperate for orientation that I persisted in the broken thing, the empty relationship, in whatever form it could take at that point. She eventually moved from the apartment she shared with her brother in Brooklyn and started living in a place on Morton Street that was really the former residence of a famous NY restaurateur. He still held the lease and I believe she was living in the partially furnished place for free. As a boy my best friend’s dad was a bartender at a place called Mike’s but until I lived in NYC I wasn’t aware that somebody who owned a restaurant could become a bigtime celebrity. I learned. I also learned that in making a movie, in banging the director, in being in your twenties and beautiful, a person could ascend the social scale, could occupy interesting rungs on a ladder that seemed, within the provinciality of Manhattan, securely leaned against real life itself, and I saw her rising up and away, crawling toward that lighted window where it was all happening.

Morton Street is one of those lovely locations that can become for an FOB NY’er the repository of vague dreams. It seemed leafy and hopeful in some recollected way, a living memory, even though I grew up in a world where the really boss trees, the firs and cedars, are so deeply green they appear black and claustrophobic and horrifying to non-natives. Still, I liked the way the lamps burning behind the new green leaves that Spring turned the light gold and gave it a filigree. I spent a lot of time looking into the leaded windows, at the bookshelves and the objets d’art, wondering idly who lived there, how they had managed to inhabit such calm lives. But this nostalgia that swept me up was for a memory not my own, for some New England scene of stability and love and a good far quainter than I’d ever known. It was a world I’d read about in first grade, in those primers where people raked and burned leaves in the Fall, and I was hungry for it. I wanted quaint, I wanted stable.

But when you’re a cuckold, you either become chaste or murderous. I would sometimes spend the night on Morton Street but there would be no sex. We’d sleep in bed together like a couple beings with moral purpose. The place was only partially furnished, but it’s emptiness seemed stylish, impressively so for someone who came from a cluttered house, where the white tundra of carpeting in the living room was a luxury considered worth scrimping for. The bed on Morton Street, jarringly, sat in the middle of the living room, like a sacrificial altar. The floors around it were beautiful hardwood and shone like butter. Despair sent us separate ways, her to sleep and me to restive all-night vigils, awake, watching little things stir. A slip of paper set free of its stack by the breeze from an open window would sail across the waxed floor. The collar of a white blouse hung on the back of a chair seemed bold because it possessed it’s own shadow.

Eventually, the movie wrapped, the tent-show moved on, and she stopped her thing with the director. Losing that orbit, she lost the place on Morton Street, but soon there was another movie, another orbit. Where do you live? How’d you manage that? I remember those questions as key to my time in NY. Everyone does, I’m guessing. You want to put the package together, you want the place, you want what it implies, you want the cosmos in your corner. I wanted it in New York, but I wanted it before that too, earlier, in Paris, where she and I had gone to be young and romantic together. A week after I arrived she said she wanted to go to Geneva, alone, but it turned out, in fact, that she went to Barcelona with a man she’d met before I showed up. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Let me explode time:

Walking this afternoon: from the Studio on Rue Dupin down to St. Germain and then back here by way of St. Sulpice. A cold day, crisp, silent, so the sounds themselves seemed brittle, apart, each one discrete and clear –so few of them: a car horn, some children in the square at St. Sulpice, and the water from the fountain there, brimming over the tiered rims to the wide basin at the bottom. No more: just these. Not the slosh of noises the rain brings, not the soft floating sounds of spring, not the dead still of winter. The Fall. Sight had something of the same clarity and resolution as sound, the colors all hard and distinct, neatly, sharply shadowed, the shapes correct and acute, precise –cold, aloof, stately. So often in Paris there’s that soft wash of mist, a thin gossamer blur between you and the world that blunts the lines and fuses the colors and in general blends everything seen into a continuous shifting haze. Romantic. But today everything seemed very much resolved into itself, alone into its nature.

There were only a few couples and some families out strolling, stopping now and then by storefront windows, discussing the displays, moving on in a desultory maundering way. Unhurried, the shops being closed, and therefore more detached –not at all the breed of fevered consumers Saturday brings– the one or two slow clusters you might see on any block seemed incredibly –even abnormally– at ease for Paris. They, too, like the shapes and sounds around them, around us, were sunk deep into their own peculiar natures, alone in their special lives.

At the corner of Raspail and Sevres, in the direction of the park, to the west, where the street and the huddled toppling apartments open up and give way, the sun, low and voluptuously round, was setting and streaking the sky and the horizon a lush yellow pinkish color something like a grapefruit, skin and meat together. Everything now melting together, and I paused to watch, to summon a mood from the beautiful sky. Then I hurried around the corner quickly, up the stairs, and into this dead space.

It’s Fall now and I live on a mountainside overlooking the Flint Valley and the town of Philipsburg. At night it’s so quiet I can hear men and women fighting in their homes. When the bars close wrecked trucks rattle off in a brigade of drunks and then the silence returns and after a minute or two I can see the stream of headlamps grope their way across the valley floor. Each light seeks out another light, a home miles distant, and from where I live I can watch them connect. I often feel enclosed and trapped in my house and grab a sleeping-bag and sleep outside, at the bottom of what seems like a huge black bowl. The stars are cold in their vast Pascalian spaces but rather than fear I find comfort in their indifference. The lights in the valley are seamless with the stars in the sky and only slightly dimmer and we are all here together, alone.

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