Jonathan Santlofer was an almost inescapable choice for an anthology of stories drawn from paintings. Both visual artist and fictioneer, he delighted me with his quick agreement to contribute a story to In Sunlight or in Shadow, and delighted me even more when he delivered “Night Windows,” which bears the same title as the painting that inspired it.
By Jonathan Santlofer
There she is again, pink bra, pink slip, in one window then the next, appearing then disappearing, a picture in a zoetrope, flickering, evanescent, maddening.
Yes, that’s the word: maddening.
Then he thinks of another: delicious.
And another: torture.
He hadn’t expected a replacement so soon. The last one, Laura or Lauren, her name hardly matters, gone now four or five months, not like he’s not counting. They’re all replaceable, one as good as the next. Though he liked the last one, her innocence—and taking it away. He tries to picture her but her features are already blurred, like she was a watercolor and he’d run a moist finger across her face, smearing her features, erasing her, creating her then destroying her. Exactly what he did. What he always does.
The woman in pink bends over, her rear end aimed right at him and he would laugh but she might hear, might look across the alley and spot him, the man in the window opposite, the man in the dark, and he’s not quite ready for that. The meeting has to be planned. And it will be. Soon.
The woman stands up, turns and leans on the window ledge, her blond hair backlit, and he thinks: The gods have sent me a new one.
That last one was lucky to have known him, a rube like her, easy to manipulate, almost too easy. He’d broken her in; just plain broken her.
So how did she have the strength to get away?
No matter. He was tired of her anyway, her whiny voice, her all too eager need to please.
This new one looks perfect, the way she glides past the windows oblivious to the fact that she is being watched.
This one will be easy.
He wipes sweat from his upper lip and stares at the three bay windows shining in the dark, his own private theater. He lets out a deep breath and a curtain in her window billows out, as if it is breathing along with him.
The dark covers him, a veil; he can see her but she sees nothing.
He watches her bare feet on the ugly green rug, the same rug. This new one hasn’t bothered to change it. He feels a tingle in his toes and a tug in his groin remembering his own bare feet on that rug, and the last one’s ankle, cuffed to the old steel radiator.
Heat oozes in through the window he’s opened for a better view, soggy warm air that dissolves around him into the apartment’s central air conditioning, half his body cool, the other half sweating, as if he’s in the middle of a weather pattern, cold front meeting warm, a storm brewing deep inside him. He reaches for the bottle, pours more Scotch into his tumbler, the ice mostly melted.
He spots the small metal fan behind her, rotating but not doing much good, he’s sure of that, though he likes it, the way it blows her slip and her hair and it means her windows will remain open in this heat.
He brings the Scotch to his lips, the liquor sharp on his tongue but smooth in his throat and he stares across the dark as if it’s something physical, a runway that transports him directly into her apartment, can feel his eyes, like hands, on her body, soft then hard, harder till it hurts.
The woman moves away as if she feels the pain, the pink of her drawn into the back of the apartment, away from the window.
Pictures the apartment he knows well, the drab interior, cramped bedroom, cracked tiles in the bathroom, tiny kitchen, the outmoded fixtures.
He can see the naked radiator in the living room, the apartment old and not yet renovated, an anomaly in this city. Of course he owns his brownstone, four-stories, turn of the century, a backyard he never uses. He’d bought it during the economic downturn though it was still expensive, now astronomical, even by his standards. Still, not the kind of place he ever imagined he’d be in, had always lived on the Upper East Side, in high-rise doormen buildings. But he’s grown to like it here, the privacy.
He finishes his drink and pours another, impatient, Scotch spilling onto hishand in the dark.
What’s she doing? What’s taking so long?
He checks his watch; thin gold face on a thinner gold mesh band. Damn it, she’s going to make him late for his business dinner.
Come on. Come on.
Is she taking a shower, a pee? He imagines both, wishes he were there to watch. Knows he will be soon.
He lights a cigar, no one around to tell him not to, not wife number one or two, so long gone they’re not even bad memories, or that one from a couple of years ago who dared to say his cigars were a disgusting habit. Well, he showed her disgusting habits, didn’t he?
A picture of his father—a big man smoking a cigar—sparks in his brain, the man’s face florid with blood-filled rage, looming toward him with a belt or a fist or the smoldering tip of a cigar, though it’s possible he’s made it up or these images were supplied by his mother, who said his father had died when he was five, a lie he discovered years later though he never saw the man again.
A flash of pink, like a brushstroke of paint in her window and he sits forward, head jutting like a turtle from its shell. Then she’s gone but the pink of her lags in his mind, and he thinks of meat, tender veal, juicy pork, saliva gathering in his mouth like a dog.
He drags on his cigar, holds the smoke in until he’s about to cough, then lets it explode, a gray cloud in front of his face. When it clears she’s there again, further back in the apartment, unhooking her bra beside a lamp that bathes her body in a soft gold light. He squints through the smoke trying to make out details, but cannot. She’s an impressionist painting. Shimmering. Beautiful. Something he wants to put in a frame and hang on his wall, or in a cage, or strap to a wall.
Then she’s gone again, and he thinks about the last one, young and pure, and how he stripped that away, watched the purity slake off her like old, dead skin….
You can find the rest of Jonathan’s story, along with 16 other tales and the paintings that gave rise to them, in In Sunlight or in Shadow.
As noted, Jonathan has earned recognition in the visual arts as well as in literature, and Hopper’s story inspired him in this area as well. Here’s his portrait of the artist, a pencil sketch that manages to look as deeply into the essence of the man and artist as Hopper himself has looked into the Night Windows.
Jonathan was able to appear at the book’s two launches, first at the Whitney Museum, then the following night at the Mysterious Bookshop. Here’s a video clip from that second evening.