“I See You” by Roos Fopma

It was only then I discovered there was a glass wall between my bathroom and the neighbor’s. Imagine my surprise when a light came on and a beautiful, young woman entered and started undressing right in front if me. My first reaction was to hide, so I ducked down beneath the sink and sat there for a while trying to figure out what to do next.

The decent thing of course, would have been to reveal myself and let her know that I could see her. I should get up and knock on the window, maybe raise my hands in surrender. She’d probably run out of the room with a mute scream and a white cotton towel flapping around her, and I would go to her front door feeling more than a little embarrassed, although this was in no way my fault. She would open it up with the security hook still attached, naturally distrusting this stranger who had just seen her in one of the most intimate settings. Good morning, I would say, trying to give her a trustworthy smile while apologising with my eyes. She would tell me over a cup of coffee, after the first unpleasant moments had passed, and my explanation had been accepted as the truth, that she had never realised there was a glass-wall between the two bathrooms, because no-one had ever lived there, and with the lights turned off, the surface was reflecting itself, looking just like a large mirror. I would nod my head in agreement and think that this could be the beginning of a new friendship, or even something more serious, as I had already taken a liking to this girl.

But I didn’t do the decent thing of course. I let my excitement take control and peeked over the edge of the cupboard. She had a towel wrapped around her now and stood bent over the bathtub fiddling with the faucet. She was simply beautiful. Her face tilted slightly down, her chestnut hair fixed in a plait, a curving neckline, well-shaped shoulders, a petite body, with a long back and thin thighs, just as I liked it. When she removed her towel, I considered hiding again, or quickly switching off the lights so I would not be revealed, but I was mesmerised and could not move. Then a thought struck me: What if I just pretended that nothing out of the ordinary was happening and went on with my rituals, as if it was any other morning? If she didn’t approve, she would let me know. There’d be a startled look and a fast escape out the door. But what if she didn’t? This thought excited me beyond reason and my fantasy was now in control. So I undressed too. By this time she had stepped into the tub and lay there with her eyes closed. I took a quick shower, eager to get out again and see what she was up to.

She stood there right in front of me, wearing only white knickers and a bra, putting on makeup and doing all the little things a woman does on any given morning. It was the third day in a row that this scene unfolded and it would soon become such a familiar sight, that it nearly lost its magic; like when two lovers grow accustomed to each other over time. I did my morning routines as well, a face full of shaving foam and a razor in my hand, standing right opposite her with only a thin glass pane between her sink and mine. No specific emotions could be seen and it seemed as if she had agreed to participate in our little game. And so the days passed like this. I was in the bathroom getting ready for work and she would come in and undress in front of me, as if I were not there. The familiarity soon reached the point where we were not even embarrassed to go to the toilet in front of each other. She with a book resting in her lap and a vacant stare; as if she had forgotten I was there. I, standing up, feeling free and happy like a child.

Sometimes I would come in and she would already be lying in the bathtub with a curious smile on her face, and it was these smiles that really started to catch my attention. There were so many variations from day to day: content, relaxed, cheeky, thrilled, fake, mad, happy, and sometimes sad — silent tears trickling down her cheeks– but her face seemed always wrapped in some kind of smile, as if she had made a decision that no matter what happened, she would never give that up. The strangest thing was that her eyes always seemed to contradict the emotion of those smiles, like they refused to play along. It was a heartbreaking sight and I guess it was what I fell in love with; that inner struggle she displayed without words. It was a perfectly natural development, I thought. For what else was there really between us? A man cannot be in love with a woman’s body, her breasts, or long legs? And a man might love a woman’s curious gestures and quirky routines, but those cannot form his main reason for being in love? Without words between us, there were only expressions to study and accept. I had come to know hers, perhaps even better than she knew them herself, and I hoped that she had done the same for me. I longed for her to know me better than myself, but everyday I worried that her eyes would never reach mine. It was like she couldn’t see me as I saw her, and my frustration grew to the point where I considered tapping on the window to get her attention.

Then one day something strange happened. It was a regular Monday morning, but she had been away all weekend so I was relieved to see her again. She undressed as usual, but as she was about to throw away her towel and step into the tub, she changed her mind, like she had heard a sound that startled her. She came straight over to the spot where I was standing and seemed to look directly into my eyes. Her piercing stare went deep down into my soul. Hi, I stuttered, but there was no reply.

The thought had occurred to me of course; that the thin wall between us was not see-through glass, but a two-way mirror, so it was only I who could observe her, and the only thing she could see, was her own reflection. It would have been ridiculous of me not to consider this option, and I did of course. It would’ve also been silly of me not to go over and knock on her front door — ask to borrow sugar or something — just to see her reaction and try to figure out whether my face was as familiar to her, as hers had come to be to me. And how many times did I not think of knocking on the window separating us like a barb-wired fence, banging my fists on that cursed glass to get her attention and force her to look at me, like she was doing right now. But I had been blessed with a patient heart and this was a game that we were playing. We knew the rules and direct eye contact could spoil everything, break the spell that was there to avoid reality seeping in like dirty old bath water. That’s why I tried my best to disconnect from her provoking stare, her violation of borders, her act of war. But I couldn’t, because I knew that this might be the last time I saw her and I wanted to savor the moment. She had become such a familiar person in my life, someone close to me, who I felt I could really trust. A girlfriend of sorts, although I knew deep down that we could never be together outside our little bathroom bubble.

She did return though, but not for several days after that eye-to-eye incident that left me flustered and drained. And when she did, she had resumed her calm and collected look, completely ignoring me as she’d always done. I felt relieved by this, although I had to admit, it seemed a bit of an insult after all that we had been through together, but I took some comfort in the fact that everything was back to normal and we could both continue our lives as if nothing had happened.

I took an unusually long shower that morning, although I was as eager as ever to see her standing in front of the mirror, with her disconnected smile, doing all the little quirky things that women tends to do in the morning. But things were not as they appeared. Because when I came out — my towel hanging loosely over my shoulders — there was a man standing next to her, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Hey! I shouted, it just blurted out of me, and it was the first time I had yelled at her. What the hell! I said, suddenly feeling vulnerable, standing naked in front of a complete stranger and all, with just a thin glass wall separating us. It felt as if I had returned early from work and walked in on my love in the bed with someone else.

A worrying thought struck me: What if this guy had been there all along? What if he just didn’t share the familiar pattern that she and I had developed together, and today was a different kind of morning, when for some reason he had decided to get up earlier, or later for that matter, and joined his girlfriend in the bathroom? But it didn’t seem quite right and the more plausible reason would be that this was a random lover, or perhaps a newfound love. The last part of that thought shot me down to the ground. My knees wobbling beneath me, I took hold of the cabinet so as not to topple over. She had taken a lover without warning, without even so much as an explanation, or giving a sign that things between us were not as they should, that I was no longer meeting her needs, her high standards. And the timing! Only days after she broke the rules between us and stared straight into my eyes. How cruel can a person be? How unfamiliar can someone suddenly appear! It was like she had turned back time until before the day we met and suddenly I had become a stranger to her again. Still I continued my routines like before, just covering up more often and making sure I never looked either one of them in the eyes. They would soon feel the sting of my silent treatment, or at least she would. I know that she would not be unaffected.

It was an unbearable time for me. Most days I would watch them out of the corner of my eye as they made love in the bathtub, or leaning against the wall, she pressed against the glass so close that I could count the moles on her back. Nearly every morning they coupled like insatiable animals, their bodies entangled like they were one. But still her eyes seemed disconnected from her smile, and it was the one thing that kept me going, my only hope that she was still searching for something, still longing. Sometimes I considered bringing a girl of my own. Perhaps this would make my love stop and consider. Maybe a little jealousy would snap her out of her fruitless fantasy and make her fix her gaze on me again. But that was no long-term solution. I knew that to win her back, I had to appeal to her heart and not her mind. So I brought some magic markers and started writing love declarations on the glass, mirrored, so that she could easily read them, and full of clever metaphors, so he would not understand. She was like me, intelligent and well read. She would understand the meaning of my words. She would connect to my deep felt revelations.

But nothing changed. My poetic efforts were largely ignored and they kept fucking like rabbits. The worst thing was that I had begun to realise that this scene had somehow become an obsession to me. It was as if this ugly spectacle, that had replaced the serenity of her alone, was becoming something I longed for, the one thing that made me get up in the morning. It was then I started to worry about myself. Who had I become? A slave to another couple’s happiness? An addict of self-inflicted pain? A victim of unfulfilled love? But it was hard for me to imagine a more attractive world, than the one I was witnessing in that bathroom. I was living the rest of the day in the everyday kind, and I did not like it one bit. It was cruel and real, filled with ugly noises and people who could not shut up about their petty lives and imagined successes.

During the early hours of the day, sitting at my desk and working on a computer that I longed to throw out the high-rise window, I could only think of her, and even him did not seem so intrusive anymore, as if he too had become beautiful and familiar. And in the early afternoons, eating a late lunch on a lonely bench, I already began to long for the evening. Although I never saw them in the bathroom at that hour, I would feel the anticipation of the next morning getting closer, in bed with a bottle, fantasising about possible scenarios that would wait for me when I woke. What position would they choose this time? Would he pull her hair when he came, as I liked so much? Would she scream out her release, so that the window fogged up with damp breath, in which I drew imaginary hearts? Or would she keep it all inside, savoring the deep sensation and just let out a quiet moan as she came? Some nights I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there waiting for the daylight to filter through the gap beneath my curtains. How long could this last? How long can two grown-ups stay madly in love, as if they were teenagers?

And one day it didn’t last. I had already noticed that things were changing. The sex had become less frequent and there had been some arguments that saddened me, although I could only attempt to understand what was said. It was a Tuesday morning, and it seemed a particularly nice one, although I hadn’t opened the curtains to confirm it. The moment I came into the bathroom, I could see that something was wrong. She was alone; her eyes red and bloated, as if she had been crying all night, her smile gone. It’s over, I thought, and to my surprise I didn’t feel excited or relieved. Instead I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to handle this responsibility. It seemed to me that I had a hard time taking care of myself, so how could I be expected to take care of such a complex woman, with all her confusing needs and hidden thoughts?

So I decided it was better to help salvage their relationship. This would be appreciated without doubt and perhaps they would let me into their lives even more. We could become a family the three of us. All I needed was to feel safe and get a warm hug from time to time. I wouldn’t ask for much more. I would try to be a good boy, draw as little attention to myself as possible, and be quiet when they asked me to. I would eat whatever they served on my plate and never complain even if they sent me to bed early. I didn’t need to have a noisy friend over and I could easily stay in my room for hours playing on my own. They would learn to love me eventually, if they didn’t already, especially him, who did not know me so well. All I had to do was to get their attention somehow and remind them of what they used to have together. What we used to have. It was imperative that I helped her get that smile back on her face, and the passion in her eyes, even though it never quite reached her heart. I would never be enough for her, I knew that now, and she should rather be with someone who made her feel bad from time to time, than non at all.

A few days went by before I saw him again, but it took only a moment to understand how wrong I had been. It was hard to believe how a man could transform so dramatically in such a short time; Anger was blazing in his eyes, his face red and ugly and all his inner beauty vanished, as if it had never been there. Wait, I mumbled, as the first fist reached her face. Two more followed, and before I had time to do anything, she tumbled over and landed flat on the white tiles. Although everything inside was screaming that I had to help her, I could not move. As he grabbed hold of her again, bringing her to her feet for another round, I barely managed to raise my arms in silent protest. What was happening in front of me was such a familiar sight, so obviously a reenactment of my past, that I lost all power and just slid to the floor. I was a frightened child again, powerless and weak. My mother was leaning against the glass wall, barely able to keep herself up.