City Strolls

She walks in the dusk, collecting images through windows. The late fall air nips at her cheeks as she steps in and out of the light that tumbles from houses and blankets the sidewalk in yellow. She mourned the stars when she first moved to the city but now she sees they were never lost, merely fallen to the ground. They pepper the jagged panorama, clustering around downtown and freckling the eastern hills. She worships the silent movements of families settling into the day’s end. There’s clinking silverware and lazy conversation muted by windowpanes. She remembers the warmth of those crowded tables, prefers the memories—the looking in, the seeing and not being seen.

These walks are meant as an escape, a way to be a part of something and separate from it. There’s an intimacy to passing a person in twilight. It’s different than touch, but no less electrifying. She smiles at them, one shadow to another. And how lovely they seem now, wandering like her.

In daylight she has a job, prepares meals, gets irritated at careless drivers. The daylight is frenzied, unforgiving. It’s there, under unfiltered light, that the faces she passes have flickers of familiarity—a nose with a similar curvature to hers, eyes the same blue as her mother’s. In those moments of imagined recognition, she brings her hand to her own face, which is too exposed, and she thinks of the one she left behind. The one whose face she never had time to learn.

In the night, details are difficult to make out and time is slower, easier to control. In the night it’s those families, safe behind the glass, that seem so vivid. Children bound from sofa cushion to the floor in footed pajamas, hair wet. Televisions blaze. Grateful for closed doors, she shakes away the smell of fruity-scented bubble baths and the calm of socked feet tangled together atop a coffee table. How easy it seems looking in.

It isn’t. It wasn’t.

Up a hill, her muscles flex and she’s reminded of the horses she drew in grade school. She’d never ridden one, still hasn’t. She loved them for their gallop, how their muscles rippled through their bodies. Their strength was visible, undeniable. The boy who sat next to her in homeroom—the one with the mole on his neck—used to make fun of her drawings. He said horses were for old hags, cat ladies. He thought those were threats and wanted her to hide her horses in shame. Instead, she swallowed her anger and tucked her best drawing behind the transparent film of her binder.

Now, looking back, it seems that at eleven she was her most self-assured. She used to stay awake at night, the glow from her nightlight fanning against her wall and the laugh track from her parents’ television show spilling under the crack in her bedroom door. She preferred the cricket chirps outside, the inky expanse of night. It was the unknown of the moon-stained darkness that drew her to her window’s edge, her back to canned laughter and neatly wrapped endings.

But as she got older—exposed to the underbelly of the unknown, the threats that came from exposing her desire—that those neat, happy endings became more alluring. She stopped staring down those who told her how to be. First she just ignored, pretended she didn’t hear what other people said. But in a way, silence was a form of acquiescence and her resolve softened.

Then she fell in love. She gave herself fully to the hope of another and her muscles atrophied.

It wasn’t until she found herself in that certain kind of life that she remembered it was something she’d never wanted. In those months spent in unwashed sheets, her husband at work, she looked out their double pane windows at the still, tree-lined streets and began to remember. With her colicky infant in arms, the vacant feeling of small pink lips latched to aching nipple, she pieced together the truth, which was that some people weren’t meant to be stuck behind glass. This kind of life would lead to her decay and only by leaving could she work her way back to the quiet confidence of her eleven-year-old self.

Now her muscles take her up this steep city hill. Her heartbeat quickens and she feels her vitality as small pricks against the surface of her skin. With deep breathes she lets in the fog, which crawls through her and curls into her lungs. The smell of damp leaves, sound of forgotten conversations. She swallows the dim yellow streetlights, the cool wind, and the darkness of carless roads.

These curtain-less windows give her a view into a life she was meant to want. The life she turned her back on. Standing on the dark side of the pane, amongst the scent of night jasmine, she pushes down those stabs of guilt until they return to that familiar, persistent ache. She waves away the memory of that small face, full of need. Her absence was a gift—the only form of love she knew how to give. Because someone so hell-bent on freedom could never love without condition.

Before descending, returning to her quiet apartment, she looks up, taking in the steep facades of the houses, which are pushed together like a line of toy soldiers. The house above her gives off a dim light. An empty room, she thinks at first, but as she turns there’s a glint. Light reflects off of a pair of glasses and she sees an old woman sitting next to a table lamp. Her cushioned chair faces the view and her hand rests on top of a cane. Out she looks, the interior of her room still, her eyes on the younger woman standing on the street below. Neither moves or smiles. They merely regard each other until one of them—though it’s hard to tell which one first—looks away, back toward their dark, winking city.

ELENA MURPHY was a finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017 anthology and won first place in Writer Advice’s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in Calamus Journal and an anthology by 2Leaf Press. She lives in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area.