In the city, I relish my anonymity. Sometimes I sit, looking out—watching lights flick on, seeing shapes slide in and out of view. Across the way, I see a family in their kitchen, can almost hear the clatter of plates, my eyes tied to the youngest: too short to set the table, but determined to try. Two floors above them, I sense soft feet on hardwood as a grandmother snuffs the nightlight for her sleeping grandchildren and pads through her own kitchen before settling, easing, creaking down into her chair to watch the evening news.
The law requires that any true peeping Tom must be standing on the property of the peeped-upon. Proximity-plus-peeping, then, is what lights the wick of criminal offense. Is privacy not an inalienable human right? Or is everything that happens within in my field of vision mine to see, as long as my feet are not tramping loose in trespass?
In the pulsing city, my anonymity protects me. The soaring buildings are anthills, packed with people—some sweating, bellies over boxers, on balconies; some click-clicking sharp heels across shiny parquet, raking pink fingernails across counters done in speckled granite. I pretend I can gander without guilt from the privacy of my window, but my conscience itches with sneaky discomfort. As far as I know, occupants of all two-hundred rooms on this side of my hotel are standing, fanned by clear pane and casement, looking out into the lives of those who live in the building opposite. Feasting on their privacy, as I do.
But I give back, too. While away from my rural home, high above the throbbing streets of any city, I relish living behind glass, leaving my light on after dark, with even the sheer curtains pushed aside, convinced I am free, made safe by my anonymity.
When I return home to the country, no one is anonymous. We wave at our neighbors, smile and nod to the rare stranger. I cannot pull off the road to pee in the weeds without the next vehicle stopping to offer the kindness of help. You okay, ma’am? Flat tire? At night, after my shower, I try to remember to dress, or at least stay away from the windows, out of respect for my neighbors and myself.
I recall the night you wrote to me. At 10:35, I heard the rumble of your truck—too late for me to duck—as I stood naked as a jay-bird, rinsing dishes under the unforgiving kitchen light. Can’t win ‘em all. Once I finish playing Jenga with cups and bowls, I douse the light.
My phone dings as I cut a string of floss from the box. I wander into the living room to touch the screen. Hey! you write, introducing yourself—helpful, because I do not recognize your number, have never even met you, only exchanged the typical neighborly wave. I just wanted to make sure you had my number in case you needed any help anytime. My muscles tense, a confirmation of the slippery timing. I work the floss between two teeth as I consider the precision of your offer, feeling the familiar invasion pressing against my gum, scraping each side of my incisor. I stand at the mirror, still pondering as I brush my teeth: Did you even see me through the kitchen window, all bare breasts and dish soap suds? Or is this another of life’s imperfect coincidences? I rinse my mouth and spit.
Thanks so much, I respond, choosing to ignore your poor timing, my own deep intuition. I hope you have a really nice evening. I am still undressed, and even though you write back—immediately—with a polite Yes ma’am anytime, sorry to text you so late, I turn and flip off the living room light. I can feel your unspoken suggestion hanging in the night air, like an electric cord strung from your house to mine. I close my phone, severing our connection. And I keep the lights off as I feel my way through the dark to my bedroom.
By Quincy Gray McMichael
When not at her writing desk, Quincy Gray McMichael stewards her farm, Vernal Vibe Rise, on Moneton ancestral land. Her writing—both creative nonfiction and poetry—has been published in Assay, Yes! Magazine, Burningword Literary Journal, The Dewdrop, and Open: A Journal of Arts and Letters, and is forthcoming from Appalachian Review, among other publications. Quincy holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. She is a Contributing Editor at Good River Review and is completing a hybrid memoir that explores obsession and overwork through a blend of poetry and prose.