From the Windowsill
We know it’s our last day. Her pace quickens ahead of mine. Blonde hair gold against the sunlight, her shoulders burned red. She wears the black dress she found that morning at a thrift store, its spaghetti straps hugging her chest like they’re holding onto a memory just before it slips away. She holds a journal, the one she carried the night we met—small enough to fit in a back pocket, blue-tiled cover with a silver sparrow outlined in white, staring up at a quarter-moon. Another find, she’d said. A steal. She was obsessed with discovering the worthiness in what people tossed aside.
“Stephanie,” I say. “Wait.”
She turns, her hair twirling toward me, somehow landing effortlessly back in place. Hanging copper earrings frame her face, the first I’ve seen her wear them, and I study them, wonder where she got them, if they’re new.
She leans against the Charles Bridge now, left arm bent against the barrier, hand cupping the edge, journal still in her other hand. Her shadow falls against her right side, my left. She stands against the view, the brown water of the Vltava contrasting the blue of the cloudless sky, sightseers exploring the river on colored paddleboats. We’d talked about going out on a paddleboat for our entire summer abroad, finally making plans to go that day, but it rained the hour we were set to go, and by the time it cleared up, so the sun beat down on us as we walked the bridge, the idea had passed.
Stephanie looks at me, waiting. People pass us by, rushing to artisans selling caricatures and paintings at prices higher than they’re worth. I reach into my purse and take out my camera. I don’t think to ask her permission, and she isn’t flustered when I bring the lens to my face. She doesn’t move at all, doesn’t even smile on cue like it’s some contrived picture for someone far away. She just stays in that position from before, her body holding itself along the barrier, shadowed eyes squinting through the brightness. They hold me. Her eyes.
I click the shutter.
Through the gothic Old Town Bridge Tower. Right. Past the herd of tourists. Right at Smetanovo nábřeží, walking single-file along the narrow sidewalk and under the tunnel until we face the street again. Rush to make the tram back toward Vyšehard before it leaves. Do every day for three months.
But it’s not every day. It’s our last day. And so instead of passing through the black, darkened gothic tower, we look up at it, and Stephanie holds my arm. We don’t go past the circle of tourists. Instead, we join them. Inside the circumference is a man who sits silent, floating on air. The robe he wears is bright orange, the color of a streaked sky only seen in art, and his legs are crossed, like he’s meditating, and one hand rests on his knee while another rests atop a pole that reaches into the ground. People are staring, and some kids even walk up close to get a better look. We’d seen him before but we’d never really seen him.
“I know how he does it,” I whisper.
“That’s not the point.”
We stay a few minutes, and then she gives my hand a tug and we leave, and instead of taking the tram by the river, we walk along the embankment by foot, newly bought plastic glasses of wine in our hands.
Our legs dangle over the water as we sit. Swans float below. And standing atop the hill on the other side of the river is Prague Castle, elevated above this quaint, cobblestoned capital as something more than a landmark. The air is a perfect warmth—that center point between cool spring and muggy summer. It’s mid-August and I can almost trick myself to believing it’s mid-May, when our poetry-writing program began.
“Where’s your journal?” I ask.
She points to her bag.
Stephanie talks about what waits for her back home in Wisconsin—she’s from a town I’d never heard of and lives in Milwaukee “for tuition reasons”—telling me things I already know: a boy she expects will be her boyfriend, an internship in the fall, how ready she is for her final year of college. But she doesn’t care about any of these things in this moment; I know it because of the tremor in her voice—she recites poetry with that same inflection, calling on the listener to uncover something hidden. I wonder what she’s concealing.
“I’ve been thinking,” she says. “Do you remember the night we met, at the welcome party at that beer garden overlooking the city?”
“I remember looking out at the view that night. This was maybe, what, ten minutes before we met? The sun wasn’t even close to setting. I was standing alone, looking at the river and greenery of the parks and the cluster of buildings in the districts I couldn’t name, let alone pronounce, and I remember thinking that there was no way I could navigate a place like Prague, where we don’t even speak the language, you know?”
“But we did,” she says. “And I was thinking about it again on the bridge just now, how I never could’ve imagined all this back then. Not even how much would happen this summer but how meaningful those moments would be, like they stacked on top of each other to create something greater than I’m able to process. When I was a kid, I used to dream of getting out—cliché, I know—but there’s a truth to growing up in the Midwest: it’s quaint, and homely, but eventually you crave the rush that comes from other, intersecting lives. You’re tired of being the place people fly over.”
“Well, now you’re here.”
She takes another sip of her drink.
“And now I’m here.”
I look down at our hanging feet, her red-painted toenails and black-strapped sandals almost touching my own. I don’t talk much when I’m with her; I listen. She’s endlessly fascinating, and sometimes, like this last day, us sitting along the river, I close my eyes and concentrate on her sounds. I’m trying to stop time like this. I’m trying to remember her like this.
After a while, she gives me a nudge, and we walk back to our dorm.
We know it’s our last dinner. The long wooden table, a dozen of us on each side. She sits on my right, and she’s speaking to the girls across from her; I’m talking with the boy to my left. His hair reaches his shoulders.
I reach out and touch it. It’s thick and oily. I recoil.
“I’m sorry,” I say, feigning laughter. “Can I touch it again?”
Shoulders slumped, he inches his head toward me, but instead it’s Stephanie I sense, her breath gracing the back of my neck like a low-set fan. She’s watching. I graze his scalp before running my fingers through his almond-colored mane, and this time I’m startled by the feeling, like I’ve made contact with something primal. I move my hand away, hold my wrist.
“Why don’t you cut it?”
“It was kind of an experiment growing it out here,” he says. “It makes me feel different.”
“What does that mean?”
“Like I’m freer,” he says. “Does that make sense?”
I turn to look at Stephanie, but she’s already back talking with the girls, something about their layovers the next day, and I think of how long my journey back to Portland will be, and suddenly I’m longing to be anywhere else.
Afterward, the group of us gather in the dorm’s courtyard, decorated with forest-green succulents turned invisible in the darkness. We drink beer from the nearby convenience store, near parodies of people our age. Music plays from someone’s phone, people lean against the building, others stand in a makeshift circle, drinks in hand, talking with an intimacy accrued from living in the same space. I’m watching the scene from the windowsill.
Stephanie is in the circle, laughing with the others. I missed the joke, but her laugh is distinct enough to pierce something within me, like a window-breaker shattering the glass inside a car. I want her to look at me. I want it more than any other thing, more than this night never to end, more than her poetry, more than to be alone with her, all I want is her stare, her gaze telling me she hears it too, this river flowing between us whose rapids are louder tonight—but she doesn’t look at me.
The boy with the lion’s mane sits next to me. His hair is now tied up, and from my angle, he is different from before. It’s not the look, now more conventionally masculine; it’s the way he sits erect. Our arms and thighs touch. Stephanie can see me in her periphery, of course she can. I lean my head against his shoulder. It’s like I’m resting on a statue.
Time passes. We all say our goodbyes, hug like it matters. The boy asks if I want to go with him to his room. Stephanie is standing behind me. I hesitate, wonder if she thinks I should go with him, if she even cares. I tell him I’m tired, and like the green curtain being pulled back to reveal the man behind it, his face drops. He nods, gives me another quick hug, and goes.
I don’t say anything to her. I don’t have to. She follows me up the two flights to my room.
I know it’s the last time I will see her. Stephanie sits at the table with the bottle of wine we had kept stored in my fridge. The door to the balcony is shut, and it’s the stuffiness of the enclosed air I revel in tonight; nothing can escape. I kick off my sandals, lean my feet against her chair.
She talks and talks and talks. Does it matter what about? Her stare only leaves me when she blinks, and at some point, I wonder if we’ve become synchronized, each of us seeing each other and the darkness in unison.
She pours herself another glass. I lean my leg further into her chair.
“Taylor,” she says.
Her voice. Soft. My name. Assured. I want to touch her now. I don’t.
“Can I ask you something?”
She pauses. It’s a tension-filled moment, like she’s gone underwater and is trying to hold her breath for as long as possible. When she speaks, her words sound like relief.
“What do you see in me?”
I swallow. Here is what I see now, on our last night together: wrinkled lines on each side of her cheek. They’re faint, but from up-close, and I’m close, they look like scars. Like she’s been scarred from all the times she’s forced herself to look happy. But here, now, she doesn’t have to pretend. She’s squinting, trying not to blink. I want to tell her she’s beautiful: it’s her generosity, the way she’ll devote her entire day to reading my poems to help me be the poet she believes I am, the way she’s always thinking of others. I want to tell her I see her insecurities, the ones she tries hiding: how she doesn’t speak much in groups of people, fearful she doesn’t have anything meaningful to say, the way she’s wracked by nerves she might not succeed. I want to tell her I see her strength, following her poetry wherever it takes her even though no one back home supports her the way she deserves. I want to tell her I see everything.
I close my eyes, and when I open them I see she has moved closer, her copper earrings swaying. My foot rests on her thigh. Her skin is warm. “I think you’re extraordinary,” I say, like it’s the most obvious thing.
Her eyes become watery, and I move forward, about to take my hands to her cheeks, wipe tears I believe are coming, but they don’t come.
“I mean it,” I say.
Stephanie nods and nods and nods. She looks up at the ceiling before returning to me. “When you say it, it’s almost like I believe it.”
She smiles. “Can I tell you what I think of you?”
I sit back in my chair, lifting my feet away. I don’t answer her.
She scoots toward me, lowers her voice. “At first, I thought it was just admiration, the way you’re intelligent,” she says, “And I don’t mean in the standardized test bullshit way—but the way whenever you speak, you say something valuable, like you really care. But now I think it’s something else.” She’s talking fast. I’ve never heard her talk so fast. “It’s the way you see me. The way you see everything.”
I want to ask her what she means, but the way she says it, like it’s the most obvious thing, I don’t. The summer feels like it’s led to this moment, the days of sitting in coffee shops writing, exploring English-language bookstores, attending readings of poets we’d never heard of, those nights walking through Old Town trying to locate the non-touristy bars, those nights going to the touristy bars, all of it has culminated now—Stephanie across from me, the closeness of her voice.
I’m thinking of moving even closer when she looks at her. “It’s getting late,” she says, “My flight’s first thing in the morning. I should head to bed.”
But she doesn’t move.
“You can just stay here, if you want,” I say.
A pause. “No, I think I should get some sleep.”
Another pause. “Okay.”
I walk her to my door and open it. This is it.
She lingers at the door. I know what I want to say but I don’t know if I should say it.
“It’s not a big deal to crash here,” is all I manage.
“Yeah, maybe I should,” she says.
“You’re welcome to.”
“I just don’t know,” she says, and I almost laugh, because this is classic Stephanie, not being able to make decisions, whether with restaurant choices or which metaphor to cut. But I’ve always suspected something deeper, like she knows what she wants from the beginning, she’s just reluctant to claim herself.
“Stay here,” I say.
“Okay, I will,” she says. She even smiles. “Let me just go downstairs and brush my teeth.”
In the few minutes we’re separated, my breathing slows, and I throw on my pajamas, sit on the edge of my bed. My body flares with heat, and I bring my fingers downward to make contact with this desire, but I don’t submerge them; I pull them back, clasp my hands. I close my eyes and wait, and soon I hear her again, the slapping of her sandals up the flight of stairs.
I don’t stand when she enters. She wears black boxer shorts and a beige tank top, white bra straps still showing. Her earrings are gone. She’s carrying her journal in her hands—that silver sparrow outlined in white, looking up at the quarter moon.
“Here,” I say, patting the bed. “Come.”
I move under my covers and she does the same before taking off her bra. I turn off the main lights and turn on the reading lights. She is on my left, and I turn on my side to face her, head resting on my arm, arm resting on my pillow.
She opens the journal and reads, and the under the fluorescent light, the blue-tiled cover shines at me like headlights.
“She was the kind of girl who created endings in advance.
Her day was lived according to a
schedule made the night before.
She wrote poems with the last stanza first.
Like bread growing mold on the kitchen counter,
her relationships had set expiration dates,
but she never thought to freeze them.
I met her on a cool May evening.
She was standing in the corner
of a beer garden.
She forgot her wallet, she said.
And when I paid for her pint,
she looked at me with the saddest eyes,
like she was mourning news I hadn’t heard.”
“Again,” I say. And so she reads it again. Her voice turns as soft as a lullaby, and when she says “freeze,” another layer of heat cloaks my body.
“Can I see?” Unexpectedly, she hands it to me. I flip through the journal, studying the words conjoined by her looping cursive, and it feels like I’m reading her mind’s safe box, the most unreachable part of a person, and here she is, allowing me access. I’m reading and reading and reading, and by the time I look up, Stephanie’s eyes are closed.
I think of touching her arm, just light enough to wake her. I want to tell her what she knows already. My finger hovers. I can almost feel her raised arm hair.
She is pure like that: sleeping.
My throat constricts.
I don’t touch her. I don’t touch myself.
When her alarm chimes at full volume, when it’s still dark outside that water of the Vltava is black, when Prague Castle emits no shadow on the river, when the Charles Bridge is empty of artisans, when tourists are restrained to their hotels, their hostels—it’s then that we touch. Stephanie rolls over, wrapping herself on top of me, burying her face in my shoulder. I only have the strength to put my arms meekly around her back, stroking it with my fingers. When I wake again, the sun assaults me from the balcony, curtains drawn back from the windowsill. For just a moment I can still her hear voice, that tremor as she reads, but then I sit up, and the room is silent.
Rachel Duboff is a writer from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Masters Review, Porter House Review, Hobart, and The Rumpus, among others. She is a recipient of fellowships from Asylum Arts and the Institute for Jewish Creativity.