Written by Michael McClelland
The summer before my senior year at college, I got a summer internship in New York City with Grey Worldwide, one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies. The opportunity was entirely unearned, at least in terms of experience. My only two previous jobs were digging cremation graves in Greendale Cemetery and working for the antique shop my high school principal, Mr. Thresher, opened on weekends while he wasn’t principal-ing. However, an alumnus of my college had gone on to work at Grey and then died tragically. As a result, an annual internship was given to an Allegheny student. What I lacked in talent I made up for in ambition; I made sure to kiss the right asses to make sure I’d get the plum New York City job opportunity, a big deal for a kid from my Podunk hometown.
Through acquaintances, I managed to secure a room in the dormitories of the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea. When I arrived, however, they’d forgotten our arrangement. Being good Christians, they offered me a room but the only available space was a converted office on the top floor of the seminary’s chapel.
It was a small room, probably one hundred and fifty square feet, with florescent lighting and, thankfully, its own bathroom. The seminarians were kind enough to put a bed from the dormitories and a small refrigerator in the room and reduce the price.
It was perfect. I felt like Rapunzel, an innocent damsel in a high tower in the middle of one of the gayest neighborhoods in the world. The seminary and its buildings were all behind a large wall with a small quiet garden in the middle. I had to enter my room by walking through a big iron gate on West 20th Street, through the garden, into the tall, brick chapel, and up a winding stone staircase to the top floor. It was pure magic.
My windows, wide and metallic in a 1980s newsroom kind of way, looked out over West 21st Street and the immaculate apartment complex across the street. If I leaned out, I could crane my neck and see the Empire State Building.
The internship paid ten dollars an hour, which, in New York, was just enough to pay my meager rent and buy ramen noodles and canned vegetables. I spent my spare time running along the Hudson and watching DVDs on my laptop, confined to my room because of a lack of funds.
One July evening, the fading light was hot pink, the kind that comes back as nostalgia years later and bites you right in the heart. Work was an hour’s walk and I couldn’t afford the subway, so I’d gotten home sticky and smelling of the city. I went for a run along the Hudson, rendering me sweatier and citier, and I took a long shower in my tiny bathroom. I came out into my room, searching for underwear amongst my piles of things (I had no closets) and felt eyes on me.
I swung around. My bed was too low to the ground to be a villain’s hidey-hole and I’d just been in the bathroom so the only place to look was out the window. Sure enough, there was a man at the window across the way, staring at my nakedness.
I hit the floor in modesty, relieved that I was not, at least, instinctively slutty. I crab-crawled across the floor, back into the bathroom, which had no window. I waited there for what felt like an eternity. When I came out, the man was no longer there, his curtains closed.
Of course, being bored and twenty-one, exhibitionism quickly blossomed. I made sure to shower the same time each evening and within a few days I caught him again. He was handsome. Tall and thick-haired. I couldn’t believe how close he was. The New York streets felt even narrower up high than they did below.
It began innocently. I let him watch me dress. My head was shaved so I couldn’t do any stripper hair flips, thank God, but I did perhaps get a bit too into drying off. Still, it felt entirely innocent. Well, pretty innocent. There was no harm in him watching.
It didn’t stop there, though. After a few weeks of him watching me towel off, I came out of the bathroom to find him naked, too. Again, my urge was to hit the floor, but I was frozen in place by the thought that it would be rude. Here, he’d been politely watching me for quite some time and I felt obligated to return the favor.
I would have found him much more attractive at my current age, but to my young self he was too old to be my type, probably in his late forties. Already in my young gay life I’d had a difficult time with older men being too forceful. Also, and I say this without armchair psychologist condescension, I had a wonderfully normal relationship with my own father and it made me incredibly uncomfortable when anyone approached me with a “daddy” demeanour.
Still, the across-the-street distance felt safe, and he wasn’t demanding. He kept doing inquisitive, tentative thumbs up motions to see if I liked certain things or not. He was, by far, the most considerate lover I’d ever had.
Our relationship blossomed into a lovely one based on smiles, waves, and mutual masturbation. There was no expectation, though I did find myself glancing at the window waiting for him to get home and open the curtains.
He had a live-in partner and I’d gotten a boyfriend miraculously, since I couldn’t afford to go out for more than one happy hour drink a week. However, his partner always seemed to work late. My boyfriend, Jeff, was super religious and struggling with his sexuality, making my holy domicile too stressful for him to visit. Though our interactions were strictly above the belt, he wanted to keep even those out of the view of the Lord.
I was the opposite. I saw my Rear Window romance as a gift from God. It was fun and lacked the pressure of other relationships, particularly my relationship with Jeff. I loved that it was so silent, based on convenience, and completely visual. As a youngster and teenager, I struggled mightily with my looks and weight, so what a thrill to be wanted only for my looks.
Even as my interactions with the guy across the way became bolder, I resisted trying to meet him in real life. I made sure to never walk down West 21st Street for fear I’d run into him outside his building. Once, he held up a paper with his phone number, and I shook my head. I wasn’t ready for that.
So, we stayed as we were. It didn’t lose its thrill, which was a shock. Everything, thus far, had lost its thrill. Over the course of two months, my relationship with Jeff had curdled from new and exciting to a source of constant anxiety. Still, I kept it going until the end of my time in New York.
I didn’t feel as if I was betraying Jeff with window guy, though I’m not sure why. I didn’t feel like window guy was cheating on his partner, but we weren’t just friends, either. We weren’t friends at all. We were lovers. I knew the look of his body better than anyone I’d been with before. We couldn’t be together in the dark. He taught me what I liked about a man. I thought I’d known, but so much of that is based off what a man can do for you with his body. Looking is entirely different.
Jeff liked to go be fancy in the Hamptons on the weekends and for my last weekend in New York I accompanied him. We’d been talking about staying together, about me moving to New York after I graduated college the following year. Then, on a beach in Sag Harbor, the least classy of Hampton’s locales, Jeff told me that God didn’t want us to be together, depriving me of the Hollywood moment putting up with Jeff had earned me.
I knew that was a lie. I could see it in his eyes. Jeff didn’t want me the same way the man in the window did.
I got the bus back to New York. My parents were coming to pick me up and take me back to college the next day. I started packing up my few belongings. I kept checking the window, waiting for him to appear, even though it was a Sunday and he and his partner rarely opened the curtains on weekends.
I was weeping like a fool because that’s what you do when someone dumps you and you’re shoving piles of clothes into garbage bags. I went and took a shower, washing the bus off of me, and when I came out I looked across the street again, as was my routine, and there he was.
It was only then that I wondered if something happened when I showered, alerting him each time. Maybe the tops of my room’s windows fogged, or some pipe on the side of the church blew steam out. The water just went into a hole in the bottom of my shower; perhaps it just flew out into the street?
Regardless, he was there. Clothed, but with his dick out. Which was flattering in its own way. He held up a piece of computer paper with “Leaving? ” on it.
Naked, I nodded.
For the first time, he held his hand up and beckoned. Come here, his hand said.
I shook my head. I was too nervous. Even though I felt I knew him, I didn’t want to go into a stranger’s apartment in New York City. I was still, at heart, a small-town boy.
He frowned and then held the paper up again. “I can come there.”
He smiled as he put it up, and I smiled as I caught the double entendre.
The nerves were still there, but this was a chance I wanted to take. As I was already on the top floor of the church, I shot a little prayer to the Empire State Building, and, having no ladder of hair to throw out the window, wrote my number on a piece of paper and held it up to the window.
Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Mike McClelland hails from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband and a menagerie of rescue dogs. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in several anthologies and a number of journals, including Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Permafrost, Heavy Feather Review, Brain Mill Press, Cactus Heart, Poetry Pacific, and others, and he is a film and book critic for Spectrum Culture. He is a graduate of Allegheny College and The London School of Economics.