Seeing a Girl

  • 8 Pages

I can’t tell you how pleased I was to watch your pageants around the pool last summer. I counted the days of the week by your swimsuits. A charming yellow two-piece on a Friday afternoon. A glossy, seal-black one-piece on a Sunday morning. A navy blue bikini and a white strapless suit alternating on Saturdays, when you had time between work and the gym to sunbathe for an hour. Midway through July, you surprised me with a vintage style, ladybug printed swimsuit, which only once saw the light of day. What happened, Clarissa? It didn’t fit? You changed your mind? You always change your mind.

The red one with the hole cut out over your abdomen? That one showed up on weekdays. I loved to see you lounge on a pool chair and accidentally fall asleep, your arms neatly at your sides, your exposed tummy changing shade by shade from a creamy oval to a mole-specked nutmeg. Stretched out that way, you were wonderfully long. On one end, your tiny toenails in an old coat of nail polish. Way over at the other end, your sunglasses in tiger’s eye frames, black slabs concealing your eyes. I would look as closely as possible at the lenses, but they polarized me right out, so I fell back to admiring the length of your reclined body. There was plenty to admire-until you stood up, took off the sunglasses, and hiked your ponytail off your shoulder. Then, the lovely length of your body was gone, swallowed up by perspective. Standing on two feet, you shrank to that awful, unflattering blob that people acquire when viewed from directly above. Just the crown of a head, slightly hunched shoulders projecting from both sides like hydrogen in a water molecule, and the foreshortened buds of thighs and arms pulsating as the limbs move and the person walks.

People look so ugly from above. Even you, Clarissa. But I knew your beauty was not lost, it was only viewed from the wrong angle-foreshortened is the term I find myself thinking a lot. Soon enough you’d reach the platform, climb on, and dive into the pool. In the air, you would go horizontal again more splendidly than before, springing back into shape like a stalk from your bony feet to your bracelets. After a few laps, and if the pool was lonely and quiet, you’d reward my patience by floating on your back, so lithe and long. It’s funny. I used to resent how tall you are. Taller than me only by a couple of inches, but enough that you had to look down at me when we leaned back from a kiss. That’s all wrong. But from where I watch now, no one is tall. Height means nothing. Well, that’s not really true. In fact, I’m the high one, higher than Everest, and I can admire your length, as long as you are horizontal for me.

I wish the summer lasted longer. You’re not out as much, and each time you are, it’s to dart around in a squashed blob form. No more sunbathing, no more laps in the pool. If only I could see through the roof and ceilings of your apartment building, I could see you sleeping. I can’t tell you how much I’d like to do that. Unfortunately, Godiva can’t see through solid objects.

Isn’t it strange that something so far from us would bring us together again? Sometimes I lean back in the executive chair and just think about the madness of it. You and me, linked by the Godiva high-altitude surveillance system. If I had room in my heart for another love, that would be it. My window to your world is a carousel of twenty-nine satellites hanging in low earth orbit. It’s hard to keep from gloating about my ingenuity.

Often, I huddle in my cubicle late in the evenings when the other programmers have shut down their work stations and gone home. I love to sit in the lab alone. I lurk in the online forums, watching amateur astronomers argue with each other over Godiva. Thread after thread of rumors and speculation trickle down the screen. It’s the same inane, scatter-shot conspiracy theories set on endless play-back. They’re so irritatingly misinformed, but I never stop haunting their discussions. I’m a wallflower in their frat house basement meetings. A fly on the wall.

A couple of weeks ago, one forum geek wrote: My brother works for LM, he said they won the contract from the USAF to build Godiva.

Another one egged him on: Yeah I put my money on Lockheed Martin. They cut half their projects in 1999. The official ones anyway. Smells like spy-tech to me.

A third guy threw out his token of wisdom: It took eight shuttle missions to deploy the grid and all of them were hush-hush anyway I think there should be a law against crowding the sky with moving lights we have air pollution and noise pollution laws why can’t we have telescope polluting laws???

And then, the message that I couldn’t ignore: Agreed. Eye-in-the-sky systems should be renamed Eyesore-in-the-sky. That’s a great idea, let’s ruin night watching so we can read the year off a silver dollar from space. I hate the Gov.

I don’t know what came over me, but I had to say something. What we need is a law that bans you idiots from posting this trash, I wrote. and in reply to the last guy, Godiva can read the year off a dime at night, through heavy cloud cover, but you don’t need the year, because you can pretty well guess its age by how worn and grimy it looks from thousands of relays between dirty hands. On the back of dime, you can see each flute in the shaft of the torch, and each lick of flame on the fire. And when your girlfriend goes out to her balcony in the morning to check the birdfeeder, and she glances up to judge the weather, you can see last night’s eyeliner and eye shadow mixing with the accumulated dead cells in the corners of her lids, and the old mascara clumps clinging to her lashes, and the waxy remnants of red in the cracks of her lips. You know that she still comes home from the nightclub exhausted and goes straight to bed without washing her face, and you want to tell her how gross that is. It leaves smudges on the pillow. Black smudges. On the pillow! Like some filthy coal miner who can’t rinse the carbon dust from under her nails. Godiva shows you she hasn’t changed.

Godiva can do many things, I continued. Each individual satellite in its worldwide grid is dubbed a God. That’s engineer humor for you. The cluster of Gods can feel out the ocean floor; they can trace force-five hurricanes on their way to Florida; they can give GPS data to every golf course on the planet and see through murk and muck the countless golf balls that splashed-down in every water hazard.

The keyboard rattled and clicked under my fingers, like chattering teeth. During lunar and solar eclipses, tens of thousands of people gaze up at the sky at the same time, and with a miniscule sweep of gyroscope-assisted lenses, all of their rapt faces are mapped, modeled, beamed to earth, and digitally stored. Point a couple Gods at a World Cup soccer match in Barcelona and you get 100,000 identities organized by eye color, skin color, nose width, pockmark density, baldness patterns, you name it. Whoever is already in the system can be sorted by name. The hooligans are red-flagged. Humbled is how you feel when you see those instant mug shots pour in. Thrilled.

Awed is how you feel when you see ten pages of women who all look like they could be your girlfriend’s sisters. And the game you create for yourself is to tell her apart from the imposters. And you lose, more than once. So you study her face until a police line-up of her doppelgangers shoulder-to-shoulder with her long-lost identical twins couldn’t fool you.

Clarissa, I still work at GodivaGrid. You still give dance lessons to rich kids. I know because I watch you go to work-I watch from above the exosphere. I have twenty-nine eyes, and they’re taller than Olympus. They watch your Toyota zig-zagging its way haltingly through the intersections like a pixel in an eight-bit video game. You spiral around the loops and figure-eights of the freeway interchanges. From up there, the off- and onramps look like petals, and you’re an ant crawling over, then slipping under an overpass. You reach the dance studio, spring out of your car, and for a second I pray that you’ll look up. Just one skyward glance as you hop to the curb. No luck. You disappear into the building. I multitask until you come out again. Electronic solitaire flickers in front of my aching eyes, and the online forums scroll into blurs, but my mind is elsewhere.

In the afternoon the parents arrive to pick up their daughters from the dance studio. Octagonal shapes of umbrellas sprout on the screen; the drizzle has turned into a light rain, by now. Stratus clouds thicken and darken, but Godiva sees through it effortlessly. Finally you reemerge, and you look up into the air. Freeze frame. Godiva traces the outline of your face and measures your features-it reads your beauty marks and minute, semi-permanent blemishes exactly like constellations. It checks your hairline, the way your hair parts, compares the hint of teeth you show to your dental records. In the time it takes you to grimace at the rain and open your umbrella, Godiva calls you Clarissa Earnhart. I love to receive this confirmation. I save the frozen image for later viewing.

Everyone else has signed off, punched out, gone home to bed. I’m still in my cubicle, studying your face. It glows, back-lit by the monitor. A nudge on my mouse-wheel adjusts the zoom. Colored contact lenses, Clarissa? You’ve gone pale green. Who have you gone green for? Is it bald-spot man from the tennis courts? Is it baseball cap man? How he irritates me. He never looks up; I never see his eyes under that stupid visor. I’ve got him logged and tracked. Right now he’s in his Saturn, idling in a fast food drive-through. When you vanish with him into your apartment, does he take his hat off to kiss you or just turn it around backwards? Show you those big, dumb eyes I’m sure he has. God, that guy never looks up. Hailey’s comet could come tap dancing overhead next week, and the idiot would miss it.

Even last May, during the eclipse, you two went up on the roof to watch the show. Clarissa, you were transfixed, holding still for Godiva for so long that I could have painted your portrait from the monitor without taking a screen capture. You took off your shades, and you squinted through a hole in cardboard-but not baseball cap man. He never gave the eclipse one peep. He stared at you the whole time, like you were sun and moon and Milky Way. He doesn’t pay attention to those either. While you’re gazing at the starry band across the night, he watches you and closes in for a kiss, obstructing my view of you. It’s an ugly eclipse of its own, and entirely disgusting, but I can’t look away. As long as I can log time in with Godiva, I’ll be centering the screen on you.

Our next time together will be a meteor shower in September. I’m confident that you’ll learn of it and go out to watch it. At least my love of astronomy rubbed off on you. I hope you’ll go to your mother’s house, away from the city, and lie in the hammock, where we lay. Don’t bring a man. Don’t wear contact lenses. Let’s see each other alone and naturally-it’s more intimate that way. Just a meteor shower, and your hazel eyes, and my twenty-nine Godiva eyes strung like steady lanterns on the canopy of the heavens.

Well, shit. The janitor is keying into the lab. Third time this week he’s interrupted me. I hate when we’re interrupted. This habit he has of showing up early-I could just kill the guy. Tomorrow, I’ll talk to Ms. Cook about it. I shudder to even think of her, but I have to end these interruptions.

See you later, Clarissa.

The next morning, I stalk back into the lab, striding between two other programmers who have come to work early. I cut through their morning chat, staring straight ahead. They both hold mugs of coffee against their ties, both wear the same sleepy smiles and thin-framed glasses, so that I think they are newly installed identical statues on either side of the door, or that one is the mirror image of the other. I hear a slightly sarcastic “Good morning,” and then hear it a second time, in a different voice. I figure, someone answered someone else, and that settles the matter. Silently, I creep back to my corner cubicle and boot up the computer.

Like on any other morning, the first thing I do is run the program “RASCALSI.exe”. That’s an anagram of your name, Clarissa. One of many. The program’s cleverly tucked away, but I fetch it with two taps of the keyboard. It skitters through the Godiva memory banks for a few seconds, enough time for me to stand out of my chair and peer over the edge of my cubicle at the other programmers. One of them is looking my way. I think his name is Dave. He frowns at me, but I duck down again. What right does he have to give me dirty looks? He is the one with sleazy pictures of models and actresses tiled on his PC desktop like fliers in a red light district. He is the one with his wife’s portrait propped on his credenza where nobody can miss her, her face imprisoned with tacky, balloon hearts drawn on the frame, like an inmate in some New Age correctional facility. Other guys around here have their wives displayed as well, but at least they have the decency to place the photographs somewhere discreet. Look, Dave, I don’t care about the sense of family values you want us to get when we walk by your work space. That smile your wife is making isn’t for us. It was originally for you, and you’re whoring it out to the rest of us. Every time I glimpse at that photograph, I want to throw it out the window to free her from her captivity on the credenza, and then give you a hard, mean look. Good morning, good morning, Dave.

RASCALSI.exe completes its search and dumps everything into a special folder named ARC SAILS. Impatiently, I stab the folder open with the mouse cursor. One new screen capture, SCAR_LISA_b1633, taken last night while the lab was locked up. I grimace before even opening the file. I know from the “b” in the filename who the snapshot is of. Baseball cap man, probably walking home drunk on Friday morning, as usual. I open the file, and there he is, standing on a median of a street beneath a traffic light. He’s looking up somewhat, enough to trigger a screen capture, but not enough that I can see his eyes. Just his nose and chin, glowing sickly white in the infrared image, and his drooping mouth set inside that border of obnoxiously trimmed facial hair. To think that you kiss that mouth, Clarissa. It must feel like kissing a cat’s ass. I find it both sad and hilarious that Godiva can take one look at this loser, see what bar he stumbles out of, read the colors and the team logo off his hat, glance at the “hip” way he trims his beard, and automatically recognize him. He’s so trackable, it’s pathetic. He doesn’t deserve a name. I delete the file.

Frustrated, I sift through some of my favorite screen captures of you. SCAR_LISA_c801, the one of you playing volleyball in the park for some youth group. Seen from above, the net only shows up as a line across the sand. You and the kids are all looking up at a pale, motion-blurred orb in the air. You’re leaning back, ponytail whipping under you, fists clasped together to bump up the ball. The most adorable expression of determination is stamped on your face, and I smile every time I see it. Or SCAR_LISA_c2929, one of the tennis shots, with its green court and white lines. Your partner, bald-spot man, is thankfully outside of the frame. You’re in mid serve, one hand still raised from having tossed up the ball, the racquet cocked back. A grunt is waiting behind your teeth to escape-I love the anticipation of that grunt. Godiva couldn’t have been more artful with that one. There’s also SCAR_LISA_c3449, the 4rth of July shot of you dancing with your sister at a backyard barbeque. It must have been the tango. She’s playing the role of a man, dipping you way back, and your mouth and your eyes are round with a mixture of laughter and fear, as though you think she’s about to drop you. I’ve seen that look before, or something like it, when you and I were dating. You’d show me that look during one of my excited, almost enraged rants about the beauty of the night sky, and the horse head-shaped nebula, and the explosive romance of binary stars in which a white dwarf is on the verge of self-destruction and by sucking mass from its neighbor it grows unstable enough to go supernova, and goddamn NASA for being geriatric and stubborn and for killing baby projects that could have put us on Mars in the 80’s, and Clarissa, I told you ten times where Scorpio is this time of the year, I think you can do a little better than the Big Dipper and Orion’s belt. That’s amateur shit. You’re above it.

I close the files and spend the rest of the morning finding more discreet ways to make Godiva do my bidding. At lunchtime, most of the other programmers head out of the lab. I emerge from my cubicle. On my way out, I see Dave’s wife smiling helplessly from his credenza. Normally, no matter what is storming around in my head, I maintain what I think is a rather blank expression. I can feel this blankness on my face-it is a deliberate action, like soldiers standing to attention. My muscles stand to attention, right and proper, despite emotions. But now, looking at Dave’s wife, my facial muscles lose their composure. Like trying to swallow back rising bile, I can hardly keep a scowl from encroaching on my face. I guess Dave is sitting at his computer, and I guess he sees my face, but I’m too disgusted to care.

I make my way to Ms. Cook’s office. The door is not closed all the way, and when I knock, it eases open.

“Tom! Come on in, don’t worry about me. I’m finishing my lunch.”

She says this around a mouthful of egg sandwich, which she forces down with some diet cola. For lack of napkins, she dabs her wrist against her mouth. “Please, sit down.”

Every day, Ms. Cook eats her lunch inside her office. She keeps a tiny refrigerator by her desk. The odors of starch, protein and sugar ride on undercurrents of paper, ink, and dust. They envelope me as I enter; the small room seems to be inflated with her gamy, saliva-laden breath, the breath of a woman who has spent years smudging freshly printed reports while wiping away crumbs. She beckons me again and sets down her food. I think I see grease on her fingers. It might be condensation from the can of cola, but it revolts me anyway. I sit.

“We haven’t talked in a while, Tom. Mano a mano, I mean.”

“No . . .” I reply, as though I’m going to say more. I want to tell her to finally swallow the paste of bread and egg she has wedged in the back of her jaw before she says another word.

“Something on your mind?”

“Ms. Cook-“

“Call me Nancy, Tom.”

“Don’t call me Tom,” I blurt out, and then add, “And I won’t use your first name, either. It’s too intimate.”

She leans far back against her chair, arms crossed, all cheerfulness gone. “Of course, we don’t want that, Mr. Howe.” There is no framed photograph of a significant other set like a trophy on her desk or shelves, no husband tricked into displaying his secret smiles to whomever might walk into this stinking office. I wish the absence of such a photograph could speak for Ms. Cook’s values, but I know the truth: that she has no husband or boyfriend. If I had accepted her advances, would I now be framed on her desk, my private smile exposed to all who sit where I’m now sitting?

The plaque on her desk reads: NANCY COOK, HUMAN RESOURCES. I relax my eyes until it appears she is a bust, just an upper torso and head above the word “human”. Amused, I let slip a smile. She must think I’m teasing her and eyeing her overtly, because her face and posture soften. In response, I blank my expression out again.

“What do you want?” she asks.

“The janitor comes to work at least fifteen minutes early . . . he’s made a habit of this.” Her eyebrows draw together in confusion; I continue. “It’s simply a matter of interruption. I can’t be interrupted when I still have a right to be working. He comes right in and turns on the lights . . .”

“You turn off the lights?”

“Helps me focus.”

Ms. Cook leans in and puts her elbows on the desk, her hands together under her chin. She stares at me rudely, with a half-formed smile of curiosity. Only one person gets to stare at me like that, and it isn’t this ‘human’-it’s you. “Mr. Howe, what are you doing here so late?” Her hands part and open, and the palms turn up. “We need dedication, don’t get me wrong, but maybe there’s such a thing as too much dedication.”

No, there isn’t, Nancy. There’s no such thing as too much dedication. Ask Dave, he doesn’t even know what enough dedication means.

“In that case, Ms. Cook, maybe the janitor is showing too much dedication in coming early and ruining my ability to concentrate on my tasks.”

“Look, Mr. Howe . . .” She says that before knowing exactly what she wants me to look at. I know, because she has to think for a moment. She smiles slowly. “You’re a handsome guy, right? You’ve got intensity, a real passion for astronomy. Dave told me that soon after you were hired, you gave everyone in the employee lounge an impressive speech on twin stars-“

“Binary stars.”

“That’s right. Mr. Howe, you must have someone waiting at home. A wife? A girlfriend? A dog?”

Here we go again with the sexual advances. This woman has no shame. How she lurks around my cubicle sometimes, how she talks to others about me. How she pries into my private life. “If you must know, my girlfriend is proud of the work I put in.”

“What’s the lucky lady’s name?” asks Ms. Cook. She’s too close. My personal space is larger than this desk that buffers me from her, and she’s jutting into it. Argon light from the ceiling panel washes the life from her face. Her highlights are colorless; she looks dead. My vision goes blurry, and when I strain to see her clearly again, I can only see the pores on her nose: black pits in gray skin.


“How’s that going?”

“Fine. We had some problems, before I started working here, but everything is fine now. We’re seeing each other again.” I stand up to leave, though at the moment I can’t remember whether we reached a decision.

“You’re leaving now?”

“Yeah.” I walk to the door, yearning to get the stench of old food out of my lungs.

Ms. Cook makes a move behind me; I hear her chair creaking and her clothes rustling. I think she’s stood up, but I don’t look back. “Mr. Howe, I think you should talk to Dave.”

I stop at the door, my hand on the knob. “What?”

“He says Godiva is acting funny. Put your heads together, I’m sure you can figure out what’s keeping the system busy at night.”

I exit and close her door on the word ‘night’. As soon as I reenter the lab, I meet eyes with Dave. He’s across the room. In the corner. Inside my cubicle. Spying over the edge. Too late, Dave, I see you. Now he steps out in plain sight, waiting for me. I walk towards him stiffly, my hands in fists. When I’m close, he sniffles casually, but I see his nostrils flare. He’s tight around the mouth from preparing an excuse, I’m sure.

“What are you doing, Dave?”

“Wondering what the Rascalsi program is. Arc Sails. Scar Lisa. What’s all that, Tom.”

Ms. Cook wants me to put my head together with this guy. I could do that. I could head butt him through a cubicle partition. Flatten his nose with my forehead like hammer and nail, flush with the skull. I ignore that fantasy and speak softly to him. “They’re anagrams.”


“Do you know the anagrams of your wife’s name? Do you have that kind of dedication, Dave?”

He recoils a little, flashing a sneer at me. “You better be careful what you say about my wife, pal.”

“I’m not your pal. Get out of my space.” The muscles of my face no longer stand at attention. They are buckled down, entrenched for a fight. Again, he shifts his weight away from me.

“Man, I’ll call security on your ass.”

I turn around and see people staring at us. Through the glass doors, I see Ms. Cook in the hallway, watching with her lips parted. I have no more options here. I rush out of the lab. Somewhere along the way, my shoulder collides with another shoulder. It’s bone on bone, and then a flurry of falling papers. I hear, “What the hell is his problem?” and then, “I don’t know!” Someone answered someone else; my input is not necessary.

In the parking lot, I sit in my car, clenching my teeth. Clarissa, they’re not going to let me back in there, I know it. How will I see you now? I press my knuckles into the horn of the steering wheel. The sound is like some huge, tortured mammal, something with antlers, slobbering about its chaps, struggling in the iron jaws of a trap. I let it echo against the GodivaGrid building and the surrounding cars.

I find a new job the next month. The manager there thinks I might be overqualified, but I tell her I don’t care about the money or the position. I tell her that my last job was too demanding and time-consuming, and that I want to be there for my girlfriend. I also tell her that I recently moved a lot closer to her. The manager thinks that’s heart-warming. She thinks Clarissa is a lovely name.

I work in a gadget store inside a mall. We sell laser pointers, alarm clocks that wake you up with gradual light and ocean sounds, and telescopes. My employee discount is thirty percent, and I use it to buy the cheapest telescope we offer. It’s a lens model, barely adequate for viewing the full moon, but I have another purpose in mind. I bring it home in my car after work.

My sunroof always stays closed, even when it’s not raining and the car is stuffy. I think Ms. Cook is up there, above the atmosphere, staring down at me through Godiva. I stubbed her attempts at romance, so she must want to connect with me out of desperation, but I don’t permit it. I never look up; I never walk out in the open if I can help it. My sunroof will stay closed throughout the summer. My hat will stay on.

My new apartment isn’t impressive, but it’s up on a hill. Most of the rent goes towards paying for the view I have. I do so without regret-the view was its main selling point, as far as I’m concerned.

Tonight, I chew my pasta while gazing into the telescope. A mile and a half away, beyond the reach of binoculars, you’re practicing a dance routine in your living room. The vertical blinds are drawn over the window, but I can see you through the gaps. You twirl and bend, reach and sway. I love the routine-your students will enjoy it, I’m sure. Soon, I grow accustomed to seeing you sliced up by the blinds like this. In some ways, it’s better than the blob shape you acquired with Godiva.

You finish dancing and move to your bedroom. Your shirt comes off; the ponytail caught for a second in the twisted garment. You kneel at your dresser, disappearing from the window for a moment. The lower drawer is where you always kept your underwear. You’re going to take a shower, Clarissa, aren’t you? When you stand up, you look out the window. Hello, Clarissa. From this angle, no one can see you but me, just like old times. One of your hands reaches back for your bra strap.

I disconnect from the eyepiece of my telescope. You need your privacy, of course. Even when we dated, I respected your privacy. Take your shower in peace. I’ll finish my dinner in the meantime.

What will you do later tonight, Clarissa? I hope there won’t be a guest-definitely not a man. We’re past all that, I hope. Don’t put other men between us. Let’s just have a quiet evening, you and me and the telescope. When you’re tired, you can go to bed first, and I’ll watch over you for a while. I wonder whether you still sleep with a dim light on, like a little girl.

See you later, Clarissa.

Visit the Author’s web site:
Proxemics: Intimacy through Quantum Physics

originally posted on 03/03/2004

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