Getting to Know You

  • Barbarella

I always feel like somebody's watching me.

-- Rockwell

I played it off as a joke when David gave me binoculars for my birthday last year, something that would have been easier to do had they not been so expensive-looking, so serious . The first few days of owning my new toy, I watched birds and made a game of trying to read street signs farther and farther away. When the new building began to go up next door, birds and street signs gave way to workmen. With my fancy binoculars, I could zoom in close enough to acquaint myself with the benign mole on one guy's cheek, the nostril hairs of his fellow laborer, and the chin acne of their young assistant. I watched them pick their noses, smoke their cigarettes, and scratch their asses, the frequently visible cracks of which I did my best to avoid viewing. I witnessed sweat drip from their brows as they painted hot tar on the roof, and I held my breath like a nervous mother as they fearlessly scaled the scaffolding.

I am a voyeur. Not the freaky "got-one-hand-on-the-magic-button-and-waiting-for-the-action-to-begin"--type of voyeur, or even the sadistic "if-I-keep-watching-there's-bound-to-be-blood"--type; rather, I am the curious amateur anthropologist, the dogged "I-wonder-what-sort-of-things-I-will-discover-while-watching-the-behavior-of-one-who-doesn't-seem-to-think-anyone's-watching"--type of voyeur.

People look different when they think they're alone. In repose, I have a tendency to relax my jaw; because I do not have a perfect bite, this means my mouth is left open -- not a yawning gape, just a narrow, tooth-revealing interlude between my upper and lower lips. Despite my belief at one time that this was a pleasing, sexy Marilyn Monroe sort of look, if I suddenly become aware that I am being watched, I smartly obey the wise words of my father that echo in my head: "Shut your mouth, you look like a retard!"

To those around me, the moment I remember I am not shielded within some opaque bubble is pathetically transparent -- a subtle shift in my posture, the swift closing of my mouth, and a slight raise of my chin (similar to the position I assume when a camera is pointed my way) make it clear that I am no longer existing in a state of complete and natural relaxation.

If I behave differently, depending on whether or not I think anyone can see me, then of course everyone else must do the same. The workmen left months ago, and the first residents, a young couple and a cat, have just moved into one of the two-story units. I feel like I know them. On Saturday morning, when I sit at my desk to check my e-mail, they're eating breakfast together at the dining table in their typical at-home garb -- a white robe for her, a pair of dark shorts for him. He reads the paper and looks up every now and then to respond to something she says. Meanwhile, the cat tentatively explores its new domain.

"We should invite them over," David said, after he noticed the couple sitting on their terrace with a few friends the other night.

"Don't you think they'd find that a little... weird? I mean, think about it -- 'Hi, you don't know us, but we live in the building next door, and we can't help but notice you going about your day -- by the way, I dig your new couch that's still wrapped in plastic -- and we were wondering if you wanted to hang out with us.' Come on, David, that's creepy," I said.

"What if we held a sign up to the window? Something like, 'Wanna come over?' and our phone number?" I raised my brows at him and stayed quiet, allowing him time to picture this scenario in his mind, along with all of the potentially uncomfortable consequences of either coming on so strong to complete strangers or holding up a sign with our phone number for anyone who happens to drive by to see. "Fine, you're right," he allowed. "That might be a little weird.

I don't need to be friends with our neighbors, I just want to keep tabs on what they're doing; it gives David and me something to talk about: "Hey, the cat jumped out of the window again, wonder if this is the day it will either take the plunge off the side of the building or shit in the bamboo planter," I'll say. "Looks like a pizza party on the terrace," David will note. "Hey, is that Scrabble they're playing?" I'll ask. "Wonder when they're going to put all that crap away in the spare bedroom," David will speculate. On Monday mornings in offices across the country, people gather around the water cooler to talk about the latest reality TV shows; David and I discuss the real-life, unedited version in our back yard.

I often forget that it's as easy for my new neighbors to see me as it is for me to see them. I'll be sitting at my desk, obsessively tweezing my brows or making strange faces at my computer, and then notice her , standing at the window, holding a cordless phone to her ear. Did she see me? What did I look like? Should I be embarrassed? I can't help my reaction; I sit up straighter, drop the compact mirror and tweezers down on my desk, and slap an "appropriate" expression on my face.

Ironically, I'm terrified of being caught in my natural, relaxed state -- my jaw hung slack, my shoulders hunched, my brows furrowed in thought, much like a hairless monkey passing the time. I know it looks bad. I know it's not "proper," but, man, it sure is comfortable. And yet, even though I don't want to be seen with my guard down, part of me wants to be watched, as if the interest of another person somehow validates me, as if my purpose is not just to sit here looking stupid, but to look stupid so that someone else may watch me do so.

Some of the most intimate things we can share with another person are our little routines, our quotidian rituals. I feel like I'm being let in on some kind of secret when I watch someone who doesn't seem to know I'm watching. In five minutes of anonymous observation, I can potentially learn something about a man that took his best friend five years to discover. Just as my neighbors might catch me attempting to gauge my flexibility by touching my big toe to my cheek, a habit I managed to hide from David for the first few years of our relationship.

It's interesting to feel such intimacy with people I've never officially met. This morning I went across the street for a cup of tea when I spotted her , the neighbor I watch, walking toward me. I smiled the familiar smile of an old friend and had the urge to run up to her, embrace her, and ask her what she was up to. She returned my silent greeting with the reserved smile of a stranger passing on the street. Seeing this, I withheld my barrage of questions in the sudden realization that I didn't even know her name.

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