Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NOTICED by Tracey Lion-Cachet

The small apartment sits perched on the corner of a dilapidated tenement block - overlooking a sea of windows patched onto the façades of countless other buildings, it stands out as no different from the eleven above it or the eleven below. Inside, the day is soon to start like all other dreary days. The woman in 1209 will awake at precisely 5:47 a.m. Turning on her back, and staring at the yellowing ceiling, she will wait anxiously for the next three minutes to pass until the alarm clock sounds at 5:50 a.m. After pushing the Sleep button she will then allow herself two sets of 5 minute intervals to clasp her hands on her chest and breathe. Deep inhalations. Deeper exhalations. She remembers reading an article about how focusing on ones breathing can help with all sorts of things, from anxiety to depression. She has been practicing this for a while now and still waits for something to happen, anything at all to happen. Yet nothing ever did. Instead of uplifting her, all that air seemed to fill her with an encumbering heaviness. After wondering whether she is doing the-dreaded-breathing-thing correctly she will sit up, sigh, and turn her legs to meet the worn, once pink, once fluffy Wal-Mart slippers. Placing a hand on the faded nightstand to ease herself up from the night before, she will leave a soon to vanish handprint on the glass surface that protects an array of images from fashion magazines. These, once brightly colored images, have been cut out and painstakingly interlaced into a neat collage. Their edges have yellowed and their surfaces warped. Good-looking men and women in dated clothes and hairstyles lie captured beneath a slab of glass, a ceaseless reminder of the perfect life.

Then, for the next ten minutes, she will sit with a cup of weakened instant coffee and a bowl of Fruit Loops at the plastic kitchen counter. She will watch the rainbow colors drain from the circular shapes leaving yellow sponges in a bluish pool of milk. And one by one she will begin picking the small nylon balls that have formed from too much wear on her synthetic turquoise dressing gown. Before placing them neatly in the cup’s chipped saucer she will glance up at the clock and appreciate how every minute brings her closer to the end of the day. She will then begin the quick and imprecise routine of getting her aging body ready for work. No shower, a careless brush of the hair and teeth, and dressed in a uniform that remains the same each day, she will quickly leave with a perfunctory glance in the mirror, a mere 25 minutes after the first sound of the bedside alarm.

And so the woman’s day began like all the featureless others. Her life had quite unintentionally left her behind. Besides some distant cousins in Florida she had no family or friends. She had often felt how her loneliness was so profound it were as if she did not exist. No one ever noticed her, from the shopkeeper where she had been buying her groceries for nearing thirty years, to her fellow employees at the post office where she had been working for close on the same time. Even her mute pet Canary named Lulu wouldn’t notice if she - nor anyone else for that matter - came home at night. In the past, more out of boredom than anything else, she had tested the degrees of her invisibility to others. She had walked the streets with an uncharacteristic boldness and watched whether people would move or walk right through her. Sometimes, at the last minute, she would shuffle out of their way whilst other times she would feel the cold, hard bump of a shoulder as someone enthusiastically rushed to meet the day’s end. This comforted her of the fact - as unfortunate as it might have felt - that she was still alive. Once she even attempted leaving a shop without paying for her produce. Although she lost her nerve, and awkwardly took her place behind a line of paying customers, she was convinced that nobody would have even noticed had she slipped out the main entrance.

As promised the day would come to an end with the train station bench momentarily relieving her heaviness. Despite her large physique she would somehow appear quite small. While arms rested neatly in her lap, disproportionately small feet would be kicked up and down in an unconvinced attempt to reach the floor. Shoulders hunched forward as if trying to reach the head that held the stare up and up toward the enormous clock’s arm as it moved toward 6:00 pm with the calming precision of time passing. She would wait here with all of five minutes and try not to watch the busy commuters around her. They saddened her with their hurried sense of purpose to reach a better place that she had no means of getting to. Women with briefcases and heels that rang clickety-clack through the station halls; their faces – soft expressions spilling with memories of breakfast cereals and children, of the pain of leaving for work and the excitement of returning home to warm shrieks of delight. Of men in suits that wore far away looks in their eyes that she always found harder to read. Of cars waiting to collect that someone who had been missed. And so it was these five minutes of her day that her emptiness would fill her up like an enormous balloon and she would be forced to anchor herself a little harder and hold onto that cool hand of time with all her strength. At the sound of the distant train she would quickly gather her belongings: manila envelops with blank competitions enclosed (boasting prizes of anything from free face creams and weight loss formulas to exotic locations) that still needed to be filled out, a worn through work bag filled with an assortment of KitKat wrappers, various celebrity magazines, the latest Weight Watchers edition, old sticky mints, a wallet bound with brightly colored elastic bands, and the latest Danielle Steele book from her library. She would be the first in line to claim the same seat by the window. Here she could rest her head against the glass and watch the world go by.

At home she would switch on the small portable T.V - which hovered half way between floor and ceiling on a legless wooden shelf attached to the corner of the room, giving the ambiance of a hospital waiting area - feed Lulu, whose yellow was dulling by the day, and open a bottle of Diet Pepsi. With a gentle sigh she would look around her living room before microwaving her dinner. It was neat and appeared at first glance to be somewhat clean. Due not to her efforts but rather to being unlived in, like a window display. Plastic floor runners followed the major routes through the living room, which helped eliminate all major household work. A small stiff couch and two just as uncomfortable looking chairs in aging floral designs sat positioned outwards, in an almost straight line, to face the center piece T.V. A few sparsely covered bookshelves attempted to appear that they bore some purpose in holding up a pair of candle sticks, a pile of Reader’s Digest magazines, a vase of dusty plastic flowers and a glass Weight Watcher’s statue of a bathroom scale that held the engraved words “You Too Can Be A Winner By Losing”.

This was the night that she would be in the middle of eating a pre-prepared Lean Cuisine Macaroni dinner as quickly as possible, in order to get to dessert, and watching her nightly game-show of “Win-Win”, when the knock came at her door. She had known the word before any of the contestants, but the fright she received from the prospect of a visitor startled her to the point of near total, albeit brief, amnesia. She shook her head, as if to validate her surroundings, and stared at the door in disbelief before beginning the arduous process of placing her half-eaten dinner on the side table and shifting her body up to a standing position.

“Evening miss. Sorry to bother you,” said the tired young man, “my wife and I saw it necessary to warn you that we think there might be a Peeping Tom in the building across the way from ours. I don’t wish to startle you in anyway but we are warning the four apartments whose windows can be accessed by the person living on the tenth floor in the building fourth from the left. My wife has suspected something strange for weeks and we have finally notified the police who will be looking into the situation.” The man hesitantly darted his eyes over her shoulder and into the room behind her before continuing. “Once again I don’t wish to concern you too much but you might want to keep your blinds drawn, maybe both day and night, until the situation has been properly looked into.” The woman thanked the gentleman for his concern and robotically returned to her seat to finish her dinner.

She sat dead still. Inside her mind sparkled. She felt both terrified and fascinated. Slowly she considered the prospects of the world outside. After some time had passed she stood up and moved over to the window. Without looking into its darkness she frantically drew the blinds and stood back to lean against the wall. Hesitating, she gently pulled the side blind ajar and peered toward the building that the young man had directed her toward. It did not take long to identify the possible culprit. The moonlight had fallen full, and mirrored itself in a small circle in one of the opposite windows. She quickly slid back to the comfort of the cold, hard wall. Her breathing had become pant like and she was beginning to shake as she watched the white circle of what appeared to be a lens bounce from below up to where she was. Decidedly unsettled she shuffled along the sides of the room keeping her back to the wall until she reached the light switch and plunged the room into darkness. She then followed the passage of light coming from the bathroom and locked herself into the safety of its interior.

She found herself disturbed not by the fact that someone could be watching her, but rather by the fact that she had quickly come to like the idea. Someone might be taking the time to notice her, even if this was just for an instant while on route to someone more worthwhile. She had seen movies that embellished this theme and found herself comforted by the fact that others had similar attractions to such perversities. She contemplated their rather stereotyped outcome of a woman, conscious of her faceless voyeur, undressing before him like an offering. She turned to look at herself in the bathroom mirror. She appeared decidedly neglected. The face stared back like a Polaroid capturing a surprised, plump middle-aged woman who appeared many years older and far more tired than she in fact was. She tried, with difficulty, to see herself as the object, covert or not, of someone’s desire. She opened one of the neglected bathroom cupboards and pulled out an old dirty make-up bag. She carefully applied some of her once frequently used pale orange lipstick and smiled demurely back at herself. The given effect was clown like as the lipstick attempted, and failed, to hide her skinny lips. Once the smile shrunk back, and upon closer inspection, the orange had begun to slip up and out from the tiny cracks around her mouth - highlighting her age instead of concealing it. These small inconveniences were however minor in the face of her newfound excitement. She pulled out blue mascara and attempted to scrape its remnants onto her faded stubby eyelashes, but it had hardened and dried. After combing out her thinned, springy hair the woman stood back to look at herself. She imagined standing at the window and taking off her clothes like they did in the movies. First she took of her over sized, white stained T-shirt and then removed her tan bra. She could not hide the expression of dismay at its contents. Her body had long been left to its own outcome. Her breasts were long, cucumber-thin and lay plastered to her sagging stomach. Her posture, like a question mark, accentuated the overall effect of closing down. She turned side profile and considered the momentary effect of holding in her stomach and stiffly pulling her shoulders back. Although the woman knew she would never have the confidence to provide a true movie ending she felt a surge of fresh happiness as she quickly dressed, touched up her lipstick and left the bathroom to reenter the living room.

She confidently walked over to the bookshelves to light candles before going into her bedroom to change into something special. After soon realizing that she owned nothing at all smart enough for the occasion she settled on an oversized black T-shirt together with black work trousers and pumps. Before she returned to the living room to open the blinds she frantically roamed various radio stations to find something to set the ambiance. The static turned from news bulletin, to Hip Hop, to weather, to adverts until she finally settled on the possibilities of silence. As she opened the blinds and sat at the dining room table opposite the window she watched the white circle quickly move into her space. She sat, frozen, for a number of minutes. Once the shock had subsided she soon began to bask in the joy of being noticed - the endless possibilities of being seen. Lost in a world of imaginary makings she no longer wondered if the circle of light still shone on her life. She had turned her chair slightly to look at the other end of the kitchen table, which would have been hidden by a pillar to any onlooker. And so, as realistically as possible, she pretended that she was not alone. She chatted and laughed like she saw people doing on T.V. sitcoms. She became the person that she had always wanted to be: coquettish and languid, flirty and delicate, giggly and light.

The day had ended with the best evening she had had in a very, very long time. And for evenings to come, although the apartment from across the way seemed abandoned from then on, she would play out a similar performance. This soon became her nightly ritual. The feeling that someone was watching her gradually seeped into her daytime hours too. She found herself beginning each day two hours earlier in order to carefully ready herself with pale peach lipstick, outlined with a liner so dark it appeared to disconnect her mouth from the rest of her face, blue eye-shadow that expanded like bruises up to meet the darkened, plucked eyebrows, and a whitening base too light for her skin that clashed with overly zealous rouged cheeks. The overall effect was not unlike a Harlequin clown. And so she came to be the fascination of many onlookers. Sitting on the train, on a park bench or wandering the streets she would cock her head, flutter bright blue, stuck together eyelashes and smile with the warm prospect that someone, somewhere, might just be watching her. People tried not to stare, yet mostly they failed, as she chatted and giggled to herself; each set of eyes becoming a spotlight for her to perform in a show all of her own.


NOTICED earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.


Tracey Lion-Cachet was born and educated in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has lived in London, Florence, New York, and Sao Louis, Brazil. Tracey first moved to the United States in 2001 to pursue a Master’s degree in Art History and is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children and is working on her first novel. In 2007, she received an honorable mention for the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition and was nominated as a finalist for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Competition for her short story “Noticed”.