Last summer I began photographing a girl smoking cigarettes on the roof across from my apartment.
My girlfriend Jane and I live on the 10th floor on the backside of our building, so we can see the backs of all the surrounding buildings. The roof where the girl smoked was on the same level as our apartment and I thought at first that she could see me. We were so close, but when I took pictures, the glare in the window seemed to blocked her view. It was like having a two-way mirror on to the world. I had writer’s block after many months away reporting. I needed the cash for the stories, but nothing new was coming. So I just sat at my desk day after day and looked out the window while Jane was at work, waiting for inspiration. It all felt very Rear Window.
The smoking girl was in her 20s maybe, brunette. She was often in pajamas and sometimes did yoga or sunbathed. It felt like I spent nearly my whole summer with her. I started to know her movements. I made up the details of her life. She was an NYU student. She’d just finished her freshman year, an Art History major. From Ohio or some other boring midwestern state. All her life she dreamed of the big city and now here she was.
I would see her in her sweatpants smoking a second Parliament Light, drinking a Coke, looking hungover at 10 am. There was a part of me that wanted to take care of her. Call out, “Hey don’t smoke so much!” “Cut out the soft drinks.”
I had no idea why I was looking at her. It felt creepy, but I couldn’t stop. I was fascinated but it was mostly boredom and procrastination and this weird sense that if I kept looking, eventually, something would come to me.
Then one slow writing day I was taking a freelancer’s nap (sponsored by Klonopin and THC) when I heard people shouting out my window. I looked down on the fire escape of the the Smoking Girl’s building. Two cops were shouting down to another cop.
“See him,” one shouted.
“Nothing down here,” said the other one.
Then one of the cops stuck his head into an open window. Was that legal, I thought. What if you were in your apartment minding your own business (or taking care of business) and some jumpy cop stuck his face in your window. Then there was movement on the roof. Cops were everywhere. Looking over all the roof tops. I grabbed my camera and started shooting as many pictures as I could.
One of the cops drew her gun. Was I about to see some sort of shootout unfold? Maybe my big story would fall into my lap? But it was over as quick as it started with an “all clear” from the police captain down in the courtyard.
An hour or so later, a man in a suit. I figured he was the detective. He looked around. How could someone have escaped up here? Then he left. Looked like they lost their man.
I took more pictures of the skyline. The Empire State changing colors. Parties in the courtyard. But I hadn’t seen Smoking Girl in a while. One day I saw a man I’d never seen before on the roof. He was holding a bag and he went behind an AC unit and left.
The next day another guy I’d never seen before came up to the roof, went behind the AC unit then left. Still no Smoking Girl. I began to get worried. Could the Smoking Girl have seen something she wasn’t supposed to see?
“I haven’t seen her in three days,” I told Jane.
“You’re crazy. Everything’s fine,” she said.
“But what about the cop that pulled the gun. The suspect could be dangerous. What about the two strange men?”
“You need to get back to work,” she said.
But I couldn’t get Smoking Girl out of my head. Was it drugs? A money drop off? Who were the cops looking for?
“I’m calling the cops,” I told Jane.
“And telling them what? You saw two people on the roof?”
We joked about Rear Window and even put it on that night, watching and laughing off my paranoia.
But I couldn’t help myself. I tried to look up police reports online. Nothing. Any arrests in my neighborhood or missing girls? Nothing.
“I’m going over there,” I told Jane.
“To the building. If the Smoking Girl is missing, I have pictures that could solve the crime.”
“You’ve lost it,” she said.
Maybe I had.
I forgot about the whole thing for awhile and put my camera away. Turned my desk to face the wall and got back to work. Then one beautiful Sunday came. One of those New York Sundays where the good sun refuses to let you stay inside. I took a long walk and I realized I was near the Smoking Girl’s apartment.
There was a couple leaving to walk their dog.
“Do you know the girl who smokes on the roof every day?” I asked.
They looked at me like I was crazy.
“No,” they said politely. “What’s her name?”
“I don’t know but I think she might be in trouble,” I said.
“What kind of trouble?”
“There was that police chase in your building and I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“What police chase?” said the man.
“Sorry,” said the wife. “We’re late.”
Near the end of the summer I saw two young party kids on the roof. They didn’t have the same kind of sublime loneliness as the Smoking Girl. I got my camera out and took pictures of them. To my shock, they started to wave. Then they took my picture. They could see me.
I realized perhaps this whole time Smoking Girl was looking at me, too. That our lives was on display. The whole world could see us quarreling and making love. Cooking dinner and picking our noses. Watching Rear Window on the projector. I was being watched, too. I felt violated. Who was I to get involved with someone else’s life?
I saw Smoking Girl one last time. It was an unusually hot fall day. Indian Summer they call it. She was dressed up to go to somewhere. She was drinking a beer. I was glad she was okay. There was no wild chase at the end. No Hitchcockian ending. Things just went back to normal.
I took one last shot of her then decided never to take her picture again.