I always sat in the chair by the window. That had become “my” spot during committee meetings. From my chair, I could look out the window at the rooftop of the building next door. It was a flat, gray rooftop like any other, with the usual gray pipes poking out, a few hooded vents, and a row of air-conditioning units in sheet-metal gray along the center. A broken television antenna leaned against one of the air conditioners. The second-most interesting object on the rooftop was a chaise longue made of what had once been a bright rainbow-striped fabric, but which was now faded to shades of gray. The most interesting object on the rooftop, if I may refer to her mechanically, was the girl who occupied the chaise longue now and then.
In warm weather she would appear on the roof wearing a bikini and carrying sunglasses, a book, and a plastic bottle of water, and stretch out on the chaise longue, immobile, for an hour, sometimes longer. I timed her by the schoolroom clock on the wall. When it was cool she would appear fully clothed and read, leaning back under the sky. She was slim and nicely built though not voluptuous. Shoulder-length hair of a nondescript color, neither light nor dark. Prettyish, as far as I could tell from the distance. I tried not to stare at her, but I did keep her in the corner of my eye, and mind. The meetings were long and often frustrating. The girl helped make it all tolerable.
There had been a bar on the ground floor of her building for nearly eighty years, not a dive bar either. A nice friendly neighborhood joint. But the neighborhood had changed around it, as the apartments like mine, full of working folks, changed into condos that none of us could afford. The new residents were stuffier sorts, people who saw bars as open gateways at the borders of dissolution. Threats to their sleep and their children, all the usual bourgeois fretting. They drank all right, I was pretty sure of that—in all those new restaurants we also couldn’t afford. I’d read their menus in the windows: forty-dollar bottles, touted as just right for thirty-dollar oxtail stew. That sort of thing. I don’t go to bars too often because they’re usually too loud for my taste, but on a Saturday afternoon after yet another dreary meeting, when the sky was still light, the corner bar was quiet and comfortable, dark but not murky, with bottles gleaming soft gold against the mirrored shelves. I went in for a beer. There was one bartender on duty, a tall youngish woman who didn’t smile or flirt, but seemed polite. She also seemed familiar. When she reached up for a bottle of wine, something about her shoulder line struck me. I called her over after she finished serving her customer. “Excuse me,” I said. “I hope this doesn’t sound weird, but, aren’t you the girl on the roof?”
A frown flitted across her face, then she replaced it with a sort of smirk. “It does sound weird. But, yeah, I guess I am. And you must be the boy in the window, then?”
“Touché,” I said. “I’m thirty-seven years old, and I get the point.”
“We’re the same age, then.”
“You don’t look it,” I said. I meant it too.
“I do in the light. Bad skin. And no comments about the sunbathing, please; I know the risks. The benefits outweigh them in my mind. At least this week. I accept becoming an old woman ahead of my time, as long as I can enjoy a bit of pleasure today.”
“A dangerous philosophy.”
“I’m a dangerous woman. At least in small safe way…. So what do you do in that dreary little room next door, Boy in the Window?”
“Tenant meeting. We’re trying to buy our own building so we can stay in the neighborhood.”
“Any luck so far?”
I shook my head. “Not enough willing to buy in. It’s a nice building too, in spite of the ‘dreary little room’ you can see from your rooftop.”
“The world is going to hell,” she said. “I’m expecting them to raise the rent on my little bar any month now. I’m half-owner here, with another…’girl.’ If the regular Saturday guy wasn’t sick I’d be in the back room, keeping an eye on you all with the closed-circuit. Excuse me, duty calls.”
She sauntered off to serve a fat man in a suit some kind of cocktail. I sipped at my beer, which I’d forgotten about for a moment. She didn’t smile at the fat man. She seemed to know her drinks, but her customer service skills could have used a boost. I didn’t mind her attitude towards me, because I’d nosed into her business and didn’t deserve the smile. Then again, maybe the fat man didn’t either. Maybe he was a jerk. Maybe I was too. But she came back to me when she was through with him. No smile yet though.
She leaned down on the counter and looked me in the eye. Her hair fell prettily forward as she did it. “I suppose that next you’re going to ask me out? If so, don’t. I’ve had it with all that, and I’m not looking.”
That made me laugh. “And we have so much in common! I’ve ‘had it with all that’ myself. At least for a while. Of course I find you…attractive.” I used the most neutral term I could think of on the fly. “But I find lots of women attractive. Hard to live with though.” I sipped the beer. “Of course, they’d say I’m the one that’s hard to live with. We’re probably both right. Or all of us are right. Two-time loser,” I admitted, and raised my glass in a toast. She didn’t react. I suppose a bartender sees it all and hears every story on earth. Even a part-time barkeep.
Her eyes snapped left and right, as if she feared a spy. “Well, at least you’re honest. We have that in common. And the fact that I find lots of women attractive too. And even some men. Like I said, I’m not looking. But…I like your style. We can do lunch if you want. Do you want?”
I pretended to think about it. “Sure. I want. How about a Sunday brunch tomorrow? Is that too soon?”
Now she pretended to think about it. Then she pasted a smile of sorts on her face and answered, “Sure. Friendship only. Don’t forget that.”
“I’ve kept my friends a lot longer than I’ve kept my lovers. It might work out.”
“Café Smash, one block up, ten o’clock. Now, outta my face, I’ve got a customer.”
I got out of her face. I finished the beer and left a good tip, even though I don’t usually tip owners if I know them. Protocol counts for something in this life, though I’m not sure what.
I’d been to Café Smash, and it was a lot more ordinary than the name would lead you to think, but it was nice and comfortable. There was a patio on the side street—it was a corner joint—so you didn’t hear that much traffic if you wanted to eat outdoors. I arrived five minutes early. The barkeep was already there, at one of the outdoor tables. “Morning, Claire,” I said. We’d gone so far as to exchange first names. No phone numbers yet.
I sat myself down, and she handed me the menu, the usual acetate-covered sheet run off on an inkjet printer. She had already ordered toast and a mimosa, to judge from the glass it came in. I knew what I wanted, but Claire studied the menu while she spoke to me indirectly, almost like she was talking to herself. “Here are the ground rules: Dutch treat, no talk of our personal lives, and you won’t know my phone number or email. If you read or like music, we’ll have something to go on.”
“I do read, and I do like music. No guarantee I like the same kind of either one that you do. Of course.”
“Of course. That makes it better. We might learn something from each other.” She smiled, the first of two smiles she permitted herself during our lunch. We did learn something from each other, and I guess I passed muster: we set up what I suppose I should call an appointment rather than a date, for another nearby café for Tuesday night.
We became friends, as defined by Claire. It became our routine to meet for dinner on Tuesdays, lunch on Sundays, and we became close in a dry and regulated way. I was almost as relieved as she must have been to realize that I wasn’t going to fall in love with her, nor even lust after her, and that there was also not the slightest danger of a passion arising in the opposite direction. But my life felt better for the little times we spent together every week. Presumably hers did too, as she did not break the routine. At the end of every meal, we arranged to meet for the next one. I stayed away from her bar. Once we went to a concert together, wonderfully peculiar modern classical stuff that brought me close to existential despair. We talked a great deal about that the next time we ate together. We traded books, or, rather, book titles, not actual volumes. I felt she was my best friend. I don’t know what she felt about me—we both stuck to the ground rules—but she didn’t chase me off. That was good enough.
We went on for two years like that, closer to two and a half. As we approached forty, she became thinner, while I became fatter, though not much thinner and not much fatter. She smiled a bit more often, but still never laughed. I laughed for the two of us, I guess. She could be funny now and then. She never laughed at her own witticisms, nor at mine, though I could make her smile. We never broke the rules: communicating only in person, setting up our next meeting as we paid up the present meal. Our hair started to turn gray together—just flecks of that fatal color. I dared to wonder what we would be talking about as we sat in future restaurants, perhaps run by chefs not yet born, when our hair was white. I didn’t mention it, of course—that fell into the realm of the personal—but I found it a great comfort to consider our peculiar future together, this twice-a-week tick-tock of discourse. When, one day, out of the blue, she told me we could not meet any more, I felt as though some invisible secret policeman had knocked at the door of my soul at three a.m. She squinted at me sideways to judge my reaction. I played by the rules. She smiled. “It’s okay to feel bad about it,” she said. “So do I. You’ll figure out why soon enough.” We paid up and left. We didn’t even shake hands. I had never touched her. I walked back alone to my apartment, which would not be mine for too much longer. I had always walked back alone, of course, but this time I felt it. As if I were saying good-bye to the world I walked through, with the invisible secret policeman right behind me to make sure I would never return.
I learned about her suicide from the newspaper, though it happened right next door. She had thrown herself off the roof of the building that housed her bar, landing in the shabby alley between that building and the next one over. Not between her building and mine, because those two actually touched. I had seen her the Saturday before it happened, only seen her, I mean, looking out my window during the committee meeting. It was cold, and she was sitting in the faded chaise longue with a book as usual. She didn’t look my way, but then she never did, at least not while I was looking. It was one of our last committee meetings. We didn’t come to any agreement. It was a sure bet the building would not be my home for long. She had jumped on a Tuesday. The garbageman found her an hour later. I was sure she’d planned it that way. I was sure she felt sorry for the garbageman too. But I’ve heard they find bodies all the time. Maybe she was counting on that.
After I read the news I stayed home for two days. Called in sick, though I didn’t feel sick. I just couldn’t feel anything for a while. The whole world faded to gray. It’s more or less stayed that way, and I’m used to it, but at the time it was a novel and unpleasant sensation. Finally I went to the bar. It was her place; I could drink a toast to her there. Alone and anonymous at a corner table. Here’s to Claire Simmons, I would say to myself. I never knew her last name till I read the news. I made myself get dressed up halfway decently and went downstairs. I walked the two hundred steps to her bar and went in. It was afternoon, and there was a woman at the bar, a short woman with short black curly hair, looked Jewish or Italian or something Mediterranean. I stood at the bar and waited for her to take my order.
She glanced at me, looked away, then looked back with her eyebrows bunched up. I thought she nodded at me, or maybe to herself. When she finished with the customer ahead of me, she bustled over. “You must be Tommy,” she said. “Right? She described you pretty much exactly. Said you’d be in.”
“‘Tommy’? She always called me ‘Thomas.’ Like I call myself.”
“Ah, well, you know how she is. Was—anyway.” Her face drooped. Then she straightened up. “I’m Max, I own the other half of the bar. I guess I own all of it now. For what it’s worth. The landlord’s raised the rent on us, I’m gonna have to close down. Tommy…what’ll you have. It’s on Claire, okay? She said to treat you like family.”
I mechanically ordered my favorite beer. Max bustled over to the taps and pulled it. The mug thumped onto the counter, spilling a little. She wiped it up automatically. “It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? It’s a hell of a thing.”
The beer was bitter with hops, the way it was supposed to be. “Why’d she do it, Max? The bar closing down wouldn’t be enough. She seemed tough to me.”
“Ah, she was tough, Tommy. But she had cancer. She didn’t tell anyone, not even me. I only found out in the note. Said her aunt had had the same kind, and went through the treatment, and how it was, and then she died anyway. She decided to live till it wouldn’t let her live free no more, and then she would do it. That’s what she said. And you know, I can see it. That was just like her. Always in charge. Always in charge. Her own way.” Max leaned her hands on the counter. I could tell she was crying and hoping I wouldn’t notice. I didn’t notice. “Listen, she left something for you. A note, and a couple of books. She told me how you guys talked books all the time.” She looked around the bar. “It’s not busy right now, let me go get ’em.”
She disappeared into the back shadows. I sipped the beer and stared at the golden liquids lined up on the shelves under the mirror. Max came back with two books and a note, all bundled up with twine. “Listen, Tommy, as long as we’re open, you can drink here for free. I’ll tell the other barkeeps. It’s what she wanted. She said you were no drunk and it would be all right. We got a month or two, I guess.” The door opened and closed behind me—I could see it in the mirror—and Max bustled off. I finished the beer and put a fiver under the mug, I couldn’t help it. I hoped she would understand.
It was still light outside. I found the entrance to the residential part of her building and went up the stairs. I wanted to see the roof, the last place she had been. I didn’t take the elevator. Walking seemed more ceremonious somehow. The building was nice and clean, with good lighting, not glaring fluorescents but not dim either. The hallways painted an off-white matte, little tables with flowers against the walls here and there. Polished wooden bannisters along the stairs. The last flight, up to the roof, more utilitarian, with no carpet. The little cupola on the rooftop, with its window. The door was locked. Of course. Either she had a key, or they locked it after the suicide. When I looked out the little window, I could see the chaise longue. I shook the door handle a couple of times, just in case, but it was definitely locked. I turned and went back down. She must have lived in the building and had the bar right there. I don’t know; I had never asked. Our ground rules.
In the lobby, I sat in one of the armchairs they kept there and read the note. It was just a dry apology for taking leave the way she did, and a few lines of thanks. Not very elegantly written, but I could see her face while I read it. It sounded just like the way she talked. The last line said, “I hope you enjoy the books. Please note there’s nothing symbolic about them. We would have gotten to them sooner or later anyway if things had been different. Thanks again, you made things better for me. Thanks.” By the time I had finished the note I was tearing up, ready to cry. I held myself in all right, but it wasn’t easy. At least no one came through the lobby while I was reading it. I looked at the books finally: a thick one and a thin one. The thin one was A Moveable Feast, about Hemingway’s years in Paris with his first wife when they were “very poor and very happy.” Claire knew I had read it and had lost my copy. Now I had hers. The other was Anna Karenina. I hadn’t read it yet. I went right home and started on it.
My apartment was in the back of the building, with one blank wall where the two buildings touched. For all I knew, Claire’s apartment could have been on the other side of that blank wall. I could have found out, but I never asked. Rules were rules.
Two weeks later we held our last committee meeting. We had not been able to raise the money to buy the building, or even to agree that we all wanted to. The building would be sold to someone else, an investment group that had been waiting on our decision. The current ownership had only bought the building as an investment themselves anyhow, and the value had grown enough they wanted to cash out. I looked out the window at the roof next door. I guess I could say I had met Claire through that window. I could still see her chaise longue out there among the pipes and vents and A/C units. I went to the window as the rest of the committee filtered out of the room. We each had a key, and the rule had always been, “Last one out locks up.” I stood there for what seemed a long time. It was only three feet down from the window to the next roof. I opened the window and let myself down to Claire’s rooftop.
It felt like a desert, gray and flat. Even the windows behind me and the faint murmur of street sounds didn’t change the desert-like air of the rooftop. My shoes made soft crunching sounds as I walked to her chair. The fabric sagged and the stripes were all gray now from the sun. There was a tear in the fabric near the bottom of the sag. This was where she had spent her last minutes. I heard that the cops found a book by the chair when they investigated. No one ever said what it was. I stood there looking at the chair for a long time, with no words in my head for once. I felt as hollow as the sky.
It was late afternoon, and the light faded rapidly to gray. I went back, climbed in the window, closed it carefully, and locked the meeting room door behind me. I went back to my apartment to finish the book Claire had given me. The apartment that would soon no longer be mine. What can you say? I was alive, and she was not. There was no one to blame. I tried not to wonder why. We had our rules.