Fiction: "Curtains"

I spent my final year of university attending school at King's College London. It was the best decision I've ever made. I feel so lucky to have been able to immerse myself in the culture and academics of a English university. My absolute favorite class was a creative writing module with a (dreamy) Scottish professor. For our midterm, he challenged us to write a 500 word essay titled 'Curtains'. The only guideline he gave us was the title, everything else had to stem from our own imagination. The end result is a piece I'm very proud of. Here goes... 


After seventy-eight years of age Earl McMillan’s life has left canyons outlining his mouth and caverns where his fondest memories used to be. He carries lists in every jacket pocket containing his only son’s phone number, the name of the prescription he never seems to remember, and even his ATM code is scribbled on a scrap somewhere in his coat. He collects fragments of his days on the small bits of paper ⎯ phrases he hears others utter, observations from the subway, memories that suddenly re-emerge ⎯ but his favorite thing to do is go to the park at the corner of Fifth and Washington to watch the windows of the apartments across from the centre bench.

He has no recollection of his first discovery of the bench four years prior, but after long days of aimless wandering, those few hours spent there have become an evening ritual. Sometimes he just watches people pass him in the park, often counting the pairs of black shoes walking by. But as the sun fades behind the tall buildings, his attention turns to the spaces between the open curtains. It is there where his mind feels most at ease, allowing his imagination to concoct the lives of the people he sees through their window frames. Earl views each square as a story to be told.

The three windows that most draw Earl’s attention are located on the third floor; proximity playing a role ⎯ for his eyeglass prescription expired long ago. He likes to take notes on the routines of his three favorite residents, each offering a different plotline for his imagination to explore.

In the frame farthest to the right lives a young woman. Earl suspects she is about thirty years in age and lives very, very much alone. The woman, or “Abigail” as he’s labelled her, has lived in the far right window for the last year or so. He watches his “Abigail” come home weeknights in business attire looking as if she’s spent the day in a stressful environment. He sees her heavy sighs and hopes that she’s a lawyer fighting on behalf of those who need her skills most. Each night she carries a grocery bag home filled with fresh vegetables and Earl watches as she painstakingly prepares a meal for one. He’s only seen her with one other person, but that was months ago and the man in the fitted grey suit hasn’t been back since. He hopes she didn’t love him, for as he learned years’ prior losing someone so important leaves a feeling of emptiness that eats at the mind. Nevertheless, he feels something is missing from her life. Maybe it’s due to the stark white walls she refuses to decorate or perhaps it’s the way she often glances towards the street below; he likes to imagine it’s because she once dreamt of becoming a chef and instead was forced into a lifestyle she never desired. He feels like he understands the woman, as if her loneliness is his ally ⎯ a partner to his own isolation.

Through the curtains next to “Abigail’s” lives a family of five; a rambunctious bunch compared to the simplicity of the woman on the other side of their adjoining wall. The family consists of two teenage boys, a young daughter, and a pair of parents trying to keep their wits about them. He considers the older of the two boys a well-behaved young man, for he is always helping cook dinner and taking care of the young girl. In Earl’s mind the younger boy is undisciplined and disrespectful. The boy and his father get in arguments too many times to count. He imagines it’s because the boy is always coming home in the middle of dinner and sneaking out after the streetlights have turned on. Earl hopes the son’s disobedience is a result of a sense of responsibility for himself; that he is never home so that he can work and earn money towards college. But Earl also knows first hand the darkness the city has to offer; how it can consume a young life so quickly. Each night he sees the boy leave, praying he won’t have to watch the family learn about the harsh realities hidden in their home. He hopes with all his heart, if that day comes, they will close their curtains and ensure him peace.

In the final frame on the third floor lives a man whose arms are fully covered in tattoos, a trend Earl knows he’ll never understand. The colorful arms first drew Earl’s attention to this window, but when he saw those same arms lift up a small boy he knew that this scene would become his favorite. For the last four years, he’s watched the boy grow, discovering that it was only the two of them. He imagines that the father, despite his surly exterior, is a quiet man whose love for his son outweighs any anger he holds for the missing mother. Often, Earl wishes he could hear their conversations, the laughter escaping the young boy’s lips; even the occasional temper-tantrums haunt his ears. Earl envies the father’s dedication to his son, watching the two of them play until the child’s bedtime approaches. As the man carries his tired boy to bed, Earl knows it’s his cue to return home. He takes one last look at the scenes in front of him before wishing them goodnight.

Each evening he returns to the empty apartment he’s occupied for the last four years. The bare walls are an unwelcome sight after the warmth of the windows. He goes about his nightly routine always taking a moment to look at the old scrap of paper holding a long disconnected phone number and he makes sure to never close his curtains in hopes that someone, anyone, would be curious enough to care about him.