BY ALEXANDRA COHL
I always see her sitting at the windowsill. Except in the early mornings when my shades are drawn. She must still be asleep anyways, because when I flip my curtains open, the window is shut, darkness behind it, throwing reflections of my own building back at me. But everyday after work, I see her. She’s an elderly woman, though it’s a bit difficult to tell from the distance. She stares outside her cell, where she overlooks the streets of Broadway through a dingy white drapery, her fingers grasping at a cigarette, while the smoke slowly escapes past the open glass. She wears a crumpled beige shirt, and she doesn’t seem to have much hair. From what I can see, anyways. Perhaps it’s up in a low bun, hidden behind the back of her head with the roots strapped to her flaking scalp; or, maybe it’s matted against her head simply to keep it from falling in front of her eyes. Or maybe she doesn’t have any hair from pulling it out too much.
I once knew a girl with that disorder. It has a name, you know. Trichotillomania. Growing up, she had that shiny, straight hair I so envied. Rich, full mahogany. She’d tie it up into a tight bun when she’d leap across the stage and then would let it fall around her shoulders once the recital had ended. Senior year, we all noticed the change, but no one said anything. Not to her face, at least. We just continued to watch the bun grow smaller, until it became a faded limp dust bunny that even a rubber band could barely hold. I always wondered if she heard our whispers as we’d sneak glances in the hallway on our way to class. She never did wear her hair down again.
And I never see this woman’s hair down either, but I do see her sitting inside all day alone with nothing but a muted TV glowing behind her and no one to talk to. Even if there is sound coming out, she isn’t listening. She's likely wondering when her daughter is going to walk in, which normally happens after I’ve made dinner and am relaxing in bed. That’s when I look out my window. This particular night was no different as I sat back to watch the scene unfold.
"It’s too difficult to reach the remote, Ana," she says when her daughter finally walks through the door. I see her daughter staring at her with tight eyes.
"It’s not even on the top shelf," Ana mutters under her breath as she walks towards the gnarled shelf beneath the television.
"Well you try getting it when your knees are sore from this goddamn indecisive weather, and you can’t stretch without pulling your back out."
Her daughter sighs and pauses, pursing her lips. "Mother, you’re being ridiculous."
"Ridiculous, am I? At least I’m not out at all hours of the night meeting God knows who at those bars down in the village." She’s too fatigued to be bothered with raising her arms to quote the air. "The dirty village, bah. Filth."
Ana’s mouth forms into a rigid line. "I am not out running around with strange men in bars. You know that."
"You," she counters, pointing her finger directly at Ana, "are dishonest with me. I can sense it. Always sneaking in and out."
Ana sighs loudly and begins to pick up the bundled sheets and clothes strewn across the stained carpet. The woman looks out the window again. Behind her, I can see Ana clearing the piled up papers abandoned in the corner by the trashcan.
"And where is that boyfriend of yours? Why isn’t he with you? He was supposed to fix that damn stove."
"Mother, he isn’t coming anymore. He hasn’t been for three months now. Remember?" her daughter asks, exasperated.
The woman is startled for a moment, yet she doesn’t move from her perch at the window. She quickly glances at the retreating sunlight and then turns her dark glare back towards her daughter and accuses, "It’s because you keep whoring yourself out at those clubs downtown. Nobody wants to marry a slut."
"Maybe if you had more respect for yourself, he would be here to fix my stove." The woman continues to mumble, fragments of words about broken promises and grandchildren escaping from her dried lips.
This conversation is a regular one.
Just then, I heard the sharp sound of clinking glass coming from the kitchen. I breathed a sigh of relief, noting that my door was still closed. My roommate had now come home. Instinctually, I began to pick at the raw part on my wrist. I grazed my nails along the roughness and slowly pulled away a dried piece of flesh, wincing from the jolt of pain, as the sound of a man yelling infiltrated my room. I twisted my neck back around. Across the street, I noticed the woman was turned away, looking down at the man spitting on the street below her. He wiped his mouth and leered at a woman passing by. I continued to watch.
Ana straightens her shoulders and throws the heap of sheets into a basket next to the door. She stares at the woman for a moment, her body frozen and conflicted. Meanwhile, the woman sits there and takes a drag of a newly lit cigarette. As she exhales, her daughter starts to walk towards her, hands twitching, eyes brightly woven. She extends a shaking hand. The woman, unaware, inhales deeply from her cigarette once more.
"Querida, ¿a dónde vas?" The guttural sound of the man erupts from down below.
The woman’s expression softens, like all the venom had just been sucked out.
It’s a faint whisper as the woman shifts her heavy frame. She stops and turns to find her daughter staring through her as if hypnotized. Yet, a steady hand reaches only inches away. Immediately, Ana’s hand retreats; only a slight intake of breath and Ana’s ragged breathing is audible as the two eye each other. The commotion below on the street remains a distant murmur.
"Here," Ana motions frantically towards her chest with her right hand. "Let me trade you." She reaches the other for the remote and takes the cigarette box in haste from the woman’s wrinkled hands. "I have to go now."
The woman pauses for a moment, a question on her lips. But with a brief shake of her head, she makes her decision. "Go, you always go," she says, waving Ana away and turning her attention to the glowing square on the shelf.
The daughter nods, "I’ll see you tomorrow night then."
After that first night, I decided her daughter would always return right around 8:30 p.m. And her mother would sit there, with her hidden bun and slicked back hair, with her bald head and her roaming eyes. And I could watch, only feeling a slight twinge of pain from the nails on my wrist. They’re not quite as sharp as a razor, but still effective; just enough, as Mother would say. Like the time I was baking with her and she said to put "just enough" salt in the cookie batter. Too much would ruin the taste. But my hands would shake and it was hard to get "just enough" perfect. After dropping a fourth of the bottle in the mix, we had to throw the batter away. It’s damaged, Mother would say. Damaged just enough.
As I was walking home from the station earlier that evening, I thought about this woman and how I could maybe find some plastic cups and string them together to fling across Broadway. My sister and I joked about doing it as kids, and Mother always said it was foolish, but maybe it’d work this time. Maybe I could ask this woman what she does all day. And maybe I could ask her if she knew about Ana and if Ana knew about me.
But, the woman wasn’t there that night. I knew my roommate would be, and I was coming home late already, rushing to my room, unable to hide my distress. She smiled at me when I came in the door, but the curl of my lips didn’t hit my eyes. All I could think about was finding that indented spot at the edge of my bed before Ana could return. I flung open my bedroom door and climbed across my bed, falling into the familiar folds of the scarlet comforter. Blinking my eyes, I gazed through her window, which was open wide, the tattered sheer curtains entangling themselves and undulating past the frame. But, she wasn’t there. No figure sat behind the glass. Only a cold, dark television.
I wonder now if Ana forgot to come back and the woman had been alone. I wonder if Ana did come back, leaving behind the empty window. Yet while I watched that onyx room, waiting for something to change, I hadn’t realized how tightly I was clutching my own windowsill. And when my roommate came in, after I let slip a cry, I sheepishly lifted my crimson fingers and turned to face her, apologizing with my eyes. At least now, I had thought, I can trim my nails.
Alexandra Cohl is a writer, singer, wolf-enthusiast, and lover of all things Tim Burton. She specifically loves to sing R&B and soul music. She moved to Harlem in June of 2014 and has loved it ever since. She currently works full-time at Writopia Lab as a creative writing instructor and program developer. She studied English Literature and Theatre Performance at the University of Delaware and is continually inspired by the playwrights, authors, and young writers she works with each week.