The Man In The Window
My favorite way to smoke cigarettes consists of five steps. First, I boil some green tea. Then I prop open
the window to its fullest. Moving my favorite chair towards the window, I place the cushion right in front
of the heater so I don’t get overheated sitting there. It’s early winter but there’s no breeze. I get my phone
and hit play. John Coltrane’s “I’m Old Fashioned” purrs out of my phone. I always smoke for an entire
song. Finally, I sit down and sip tea in between puffs, with one leg up, knee pointed towards the ceiling.
Henry hates it when I smoke. A few years ago, he told me he was on a first date with a girl he met
on OkCupid. It said she didn’t smoke in her profile, but Henry said she didn’t hesitate whipping out a
pack of Marlboros right as he put the towel down on the sand.
“She smoked at the beach!” he protested as I laughed. “This is why sea animals are dying.”
“That was your deal-breaker?”
“Yes, and I never contacted her again.”
“How about her? Did she reach out to you?”
“No, actually. I guess she could see how disgusted I was at her,” he reflected as we finished our
dinners. Seeing other people litter is Henry’s biggest pet peeve. He’s the type who picks up people’s trash
on the street and places it in the right can. When we were in Dubai on our honeymoon, he was outraged
there were no recycling bins anywhere.
When he told me about the girl who smoked on the beach, I didn’t smoke then, but my mother
did, and I knew what it was like being kissed by a smoker. She would kiss me on the cheek with tar
breath, and even with all the windows down in the car, I’d still gag. I couldn’t believe it when I started
smoking. Even though I only smoke once a week, I really shouldn’t, since I have a heart condition. It
helps me relax, though. My husband recently caught me, and we fought for hours. Now I know why it’s
As I settled in my chair, I looked out the window and lit my cigarette. There were two clasped
hands resting on a window one building away from me, and a beard poking out at the top. I’ve seen this
man chilling in front of his window before, but never with his hands resting like this. I knew he was in his
bathroom, since it was the smallest window and the layouts of all the apartments on the block were
identical. Our apartments were at an angle where only I could see him and not the other way around. He’d
have to crank his head out the window, turn it left, and then maybe see me hiding pathetically behind my
mosquito screen. Today his hands were clasped together gingerly, like he was cradling a baby bird. Like
usual, he had his mosquito net up, and I could see everything clearly.
I tapped my cigarette on the windowsill and watched the shavings fade from a bright orange to
dull gray. I looked back at the man in the window, and he moved his hands away from the sill up in the
air. He was turning his palms slowly front to back, and if I could see his face I’d bet he was watching his
veins pop up and then disappear. His wrists were surprisingly thin and made of delicate small bones. His
pale hands looked even whiter against the red brick building.
I continued watching him move his hands rhythmically in the air. They flowed harmoniously to
the smooth tenor sax. I didn’t play it too loud, but I knew he could hear it somehow.
A few minutes before the song was over, the man stopped. He went back into the shadows of his
bathroom, and closed his window. I listened to Trane hold his last note, maybe a fermata, as the piano
made its final riff. The man’s impromptu exit seemed perfectly orchestrated to this piece. I finished my
cigarette, and went back to editing my latest shoot.
“And you say his hands were definitely outside the window?” the detective asked me.
“Yes, he was moving them right outside his window,” I repeated for the third time.
“Did they have any marks? Bruises or anything?”
“You let a suspected serial killer get away, ma’am. Do you understand that?” the detective looked
at me and raised his eyebrow.
“Yes, I understand,” I gritted through my teeth. “It’s not my fault I didn’t know he was a murderer!”
“I guess so. You’re free to leave,” he responded, rather dejectedly. “Guard, send in the next one,”
he said to the security guard blocking the door of the interrogation room.
I grabbed my jacket hanging on my chair and stood up. I pulled my purse over my shoulder and
walked out of the room. My stomach growled as I drove ten miles back to the apartment.
When I got home, Henry was already there. He was making pasta bolognese for dinner, our favorite.
“Did they suspect anything?” he asked, looking back at me as I closed the door.
“Of course not,” I assured him. I walked up behind him and looked down on the bruised hands I
knew so well.
“Good,” Henry said quietly as he continued stirring the pasta clockwise, one hand caressing my
arm. “Making something special tonight.”
“Ooh, I’m excited,” I giggled.
I placed the silverware down on the table just as he poured the pasta into our bowls. I couldn’t
wait to get my hands on the blonde from the other building. She wasn’t a smoker, so we knew she would
Elizabeth Ribar is a Taiwanese American second generation New Yorker. She collects tabby cats.