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Just Across the Street MAG
Eversince I heard the screaming, I have watched the old woman.
She leansout her window every night, wearing a white dress with black stripes, dirty andtorn at the edges, that looks like a prison uniform. From my bedroom across thestreet I stand and study her.
She stares at the moon, the same expressionin her tired eyes regardless of whether that disk of white is full as ripe fruit,or pale and slight, because it's not the moon she's looking at. She seems to bestaring at something beyond it, beyond the blanket of star-speckled night. As ifby staring hard enough she could bore into the heart of the sky and push it backlike a curtain, unveiling a secret too large to see.
Occasionally a dogbarks or a late driver whispers past in his car; otherwise, the air is silent.These disturbances of the neighborhood slumber do not perturb the object of myfurtive attentions, who shifts position only to change the hand upon which hercrinkled chin rests. The tiny apartment building in which she lives seems tocrumble as I watch, a few bricks spilling from the wall onto the street eachnight, but she hardly notices. The night sky, and whatever lies beyond, are heronly concerns.
Her hair has grown as silver as the moon she watches, andthe creases etched in her face, carved by tides of worry and suffering, seem toodeeply set ever to iron out. Sometimes, when I stay up into the wee hours of themorning, I will watch her heave a great sigh, straighten her crooked back slowlywith a silent wince, then turn and shuffle into her apartment, leaving darknessin her wake.
But it was the screaming that first brought her to myattention.
I was awake one night and gazing absently out the window. Itwas an unusually clear night, and the stars were out in force, shimmering,dancing across the sky. They were beautiful, so utterly beyond the reach ofanything in my world, beyond the reach of our neighborhood, or our old apartmentbuilding. Beyond the reach of my tiny room, with its sky-blue curtains and thesoccer trophies in neat rows. I hadn't really earned those trophies; the coacheshanded them out at the end of the season.
But sometimes the stars weren'tbeyond me. Sometimes I felt as though if I stretched far enough, and stood ontiptoe, I could reach into the sky and snatch one of those stars. They were tallenough to contain my ambition, brilliant enough to reflect it. I wanted to travelto those stars one day, wanted to stand there and look back to where I had comefrom. From those stars, I thought that maybe if I looked far enough, I could seemy apartment, and my room, and my sky-blue curtain and soccer trophies. I didn'tknow what I would do after that. It seemed as though the mere act of looking atmy origins would make the journey worthwhile.
It was then, as I stoodthere, thinking these thoughts, that I heard it.
It was a terrible sound,piercing the stillness of the night air with a blade of agony. An incessantwailing, spilling out over the city. As though all the undercurrents of humansuffering, usually content to sulk in the shadows, had been released toreverberate throughout the streets and alleys of our neighborhood.
Then Isaw her.
She was at her window, the star light dimly illuminating herblack and white gown. No alarm or panic, only an endless sadness, one thatbridged the chasm between wisdom and despair. As I stared at her, transfixed, thescreaming seemed to drop away from both of us until all that was left was thelifeless street that separated us, and the stars that illuminated us.
One night, as I gaze out of my window, I see her turn slightly. Her eyes catchmine, and she stares at me. It's not a look of surprise or even curiosity, she isbeyond both. It's just a steady gaze, as though I am merely another star in thesky, interesting not because of what is readily apparent, but because of whatlies beyond.
Fear seizes me, and I step back into the curtains. There'ssomething unendurable about those eyes. They see too much, pierce too deep. Thereis no limit to them, no bounds to contain them.
Slowly, I peel one ofthe curtains back and have another look. She's still staring at me. I catch mybreath and snap my makeshift barrier closed again. Why does this woman fascinateand terrify me so? This silent woman, this unknown woman, one woman amongbillions of silent, unknown people who inhabit a silent, unknown world, one worldin a billion worlds that dance their way through the silent, unknownstars.
That night I have a dream.
The old woman is there, driftingnoiselessly through a fog that my mind has created, like a mirage. Visible onemoment, gone the next, then back again, vanishing and reappearing in the mistthat surrounds us both. Her expression is as unchanging as always; her eyes areglazed, yet her pupils shoot out at me with the sharpness of ice. Time and spacehave abandoned us, as they do so often in that gap between truth and madnesswhere dreams exist.
A burning sensation electrifies my body, and in aninstant I understand why she stands by her window every night, and why I stand bymine. I understand why we both stare at the stars, why there are stars, why shedresses in that black and white dress every night and why her hair is grey. Iunderstand suffering, I understand her, I understand us. For one endless moment,I see her in her entirety, am able to peer deep down through those eyes into thevastness of her soul.
Then, as suddenly as it came, the comprehensionvanishes. The woman floats silently away into the mist, and I am left there, leftwith the vague sensation that my mind is at the edge of something bottomless, onthe cusp of understanding, truly understanding once more. But I cannot. It isgone, along with her, and now I am alone.
The old woman doesn't come toher window anymore. I stand by the window night after night, hoping she willreappear, but it is empty hope. As empty as the rest of the world, as the moonand the sky. As empty as the vast spaces between the stars, spaces that we cannottraverse in a thousand lifetimes.
Yet I know I traversed one of thosespaces, if only for a fragile instant in the middle of a fragile dream. For justone moment, I crossed the void between two separate minds, two separateuniverses. All the way across the street from each other.
As I stare atthe darkness that is framed by her window, I wonder where she has gone. I willnever know. She was as transient as a scream in the night, an ephemeral explosionof life only to be silenced as soon as it burst on the scene. Now she is gone,and the neighborhood is quiet, and all that remains are my rows of soccertrophies and the ageless stars above.