THE WINDOW WASHER by Matthew Downing

I’m terrified of heights. My clammy palms tingle as I watch the floor numbers rise on the elevator’s LED display.
How did I let myself get here? I can’t go on this roof.
“You ready to show us old-timers how it’s done, Jerry?” asks my boss, Carlos.
No, I’m definitely not ready to show anyone how it’s done.
Carlos’ callous hands slap my back so hard I have to brace against the wall to stop myself from falling on my face.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” I lie.
My voice trembles worse than a magnitude six earthquake. By the time we reach the rooftop, I’m paler than an agoraphobic. My stomach moans in protest; mom’s runny eggs were not an intelligent breakfast decision.
I follow the crew down a navy hallway and out onto the rooftop. A pack of teenagers in Cubs jerseys sit on cushioned patio furniture and chug beers. They ignore us as we check the anchors and ropes Carlos had set up a few hours earlier. Two of the kids are arguing over the best acts in the freshly released Lollapalooza lineup.
It’s a scorching summer morning in Chicago; the humidity traps us in a funk of dog piss evaporating off the sidewalks. The South Loop apartment complex offers a striking view of the city. I appreciate spotting the Willis Tower, Lake Michigan, and Navy Pier all from one spot. Growing up in the suburbs, these are basically the only major Chicago landmarks I know. I always dreamed of the freedom and adventure a glamorous life living in the city brought people, but I never had the money to move out of my mom’s basement.
When you can’t look down from the top of a second-floor staircase without wanting to hurl, it’s probably not a good idea to get a job as a window washer in a city with skyscrapers. However, when you’re a chubby, balding, thirty-two-year-old who hasn’t had a Tinder match in three months, a good-paying job becomes non-optional. Carlos was a friend of my dad before he passed away last year, and he must have smelt my desperation because he offered me this job without so much as an interview. I was hesitant, but after a few months of a unionized washer gig, I could trade my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sheets for a downtown apartment.
I secure my hard hat and clip in my harness before summoning the courage to turn toward the ledge. I gasp so loudly it makes the kid in the Rizzo jersey jump.
“The hell, man?” the kid asks.
“Sorry,” I whisper.
Carlos and two other guys from our six-man crew had jumped over the roof’s flimsy railing like they were performing a vault routine at the Olympics. Half their boots dangle over the abyss. I feel like I’m watching a horror film as Carlos jogs along the ledge without his harness clipped in.
I stand in stunned silence as Carlos ignores every rule of the safety video he made me watch yesterday. Moving slower than a faded tortoise, I edge my way to the ledge and watch the now clipped-in crew step off the building.
“Hurry up, rookie!” Carlos shouts up at me.
I cannot believe I’m doing this. I pray to God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, and Santa before swinging my legs over the railing and firmly planting my feet onto the ledge. My back faces the open air. I peek down at the ant-sized cars in the parking lot; they remind me of the Hot Wheels I used to collect when I was eight. I imagine my broken body, blood splattered like a mosquito you swat against your arm, on the black cement beside the red Mustang.
“Let’s go, Jeremy!” calls Carlos. “We got three buildings to get done this morning.”
“I think he’s going to shit himself,” says one of the girls on the roof.
They’re all staring at me; a few of them start to pull out their phones and take videos.
Nope! This isn’t happening; I’m not dying today! I need to get back on the safe side of this railing.
But my legs can’t move in either direction.
Stop looking at the cast of Dawson’s Creek and focus. If you quit this job, you’re going to die alone in Mom’s basement.
I try to let go of the railing and descend the building, but my motivational speech doesn’t shift my body into gear.
Take your hands off this railing, or you’re never getting laid again.
I kick off the ledge and soar into the sky. Gliding down to my first window, I pull out my squeegee, dip it into my soap bucket, and start washing.
See, this isn’t so bad. Focus on one window at a time, and before you know it, you’ll be safely on the ground.
I’m soon transfixed by the scenes unfolding in the apartments on the other side of the glass. High above the ground, no one draws their curtains. I feel like I’m staring at the opening acts of dozens of different plays. Some stages are empty, but others have actors bursting with life.
I watch a frazzled mom’s tired eyes soften as she watches her toddler settle down for her nap. Below her, an elderly couple sits peacefully beside one another, their hands almost touching as they simultaneously turn the page of the identical book they’re both reading. I picture them discussing their favorite parts over dinner. They talk about how they think the mom and the little girl they run into on the elevator are precious.
Not all the apartments are adorable fairy tales. In one bare room with white walls, a man in stained pajamas sips whiskey from a bottle as he stares at a television that isn’t plugged in. In the window next door, a dominatrix in a catsuit struts into a black bedroom with whips and chains on the walls.
Sliding down to the seventeenth floor, I see her coming out of her bathroom in a sunflower-yellow towel. She lives in a small studio with sunflower-patterned carpet, dozens of fake plants, and at least three Yankee Candles on each end table. Her towel does little to cover her long, bronze legs and thin, smooth shoulders. Forgetting to wash the window, I stare like I’ve stumbled upon a long-lost masterpiece. Stiffening, I watch her run her fingers through her golden-brown curls, which sway gently down the length of her back.
I tap the glass. She turns, flinching from shock, before greeting me with a surprised smile and graceful wave.
Holy shit, she waved! She must think I’m cute too.
“I’m Jerry!” I shout, grinning like an idiot.
I feel like an 80s love song should play with each step she takes toward her hamper.
This is what people mean when they describe that elusive love at first sight.
She presses her hand to her ear, indicating she can’t hear me through the thick glass. Turning her back to me, she keeps her towel on as she slides into gray sweats and a Grateful Dead tee shirt. I study her bookshelf, full of memoirs by female comedians like Amy Poehler and Chelsea Handler. Beneath the books, she has a PS4, Nintendo Switch, vinyl Beatles records, and sick board games like Seven Wonders and Catan.
This is the coolest girl that’s ever lived.
I want to do flips, rip off my shirt, and flex my biceps to impress her, but I decide to take a more practical approach.
Be cool. She likes comedians, so be funny.
I point to the game shelf and give her a thumbs up.
“Thanks, my friends and I love to play,” she shouts. “They’re actually going to be here soon.”
Is she hinting that I should join her and her friends for a day of games? No, don’t jump the gun too quickly.
I shoot my best shot.
“I’d love to play sometime; maybe I should get your number,” I shout.
I’m startled but a little impressed by my confidence. Maybe, it’s the 5 o’clock stubble I copied from the celebrities in Mom’s People Magazine or the fact that my hard hat is covering my bald spot, but I feel good. Maybe, the adrenaline of dangling off the side of a building has made me insane.
She presses her hand to her ear again.
Right, she still can’t hear me. Okay, don’t panic. Do something funnier.
I splash half my bucket onto her window and try using my finger to write a message on the glass.
“Call me for a proper wash?” I write.
I try to add my number, but the water trickles down and erases my original message. I look up to gauge her reaction, but she’s gone. The front door slams at the opposite end of the hall.
Wow, a mystery girl; I love it. If the mouse wants a cat, then this lion is going to roar.
I scan the apartment for any clues on how to catch my mouse. I could ask the doorman to take me up to the seventeenth floor and start knocking on doors, but who knows when she’ll be back. I’m about to give up hope when I spot a badge on top of a pile of scrubs.
“Maia!” I shout, reading the name under her employee photo. “Maia Foley! I’ll find you, Maia Foley!”
I throw my arms over my head and soar in the air. I’m Prince Charming, and that badge is the glass slipper that will unite me with my princess.

Twelve hours on the night shift in the ICU left my feet feeling like blocks of lead. Finishing scrubbing off the last of Mr. Reynold’s vomit off my skin, I’m ready to crash into my pullout bed and be dead to the world until my next shift.
Working as a nursing assistant is about as glamorous as my cramped studio apartment. As if my nightmare patients weren’t enough to wipe me out, I’m still steamed over the phone conversation I just had with my dad on the train. After his same song and dance about calling to check in, he started unloading his usual anxieties about my tiny apartment and lack of a boyfriend.
“I worry about a young girl like you in the city. I don’t even go downtown anymore with all the news about these shootings. I mean, they’ll just shoot you anywhere these days; it’s like a war zone with all those gangs down there.”
I roll my eyes thinking about it. Like many in his generation, Dad’s brain broke from racist cable news—warning him the world is a very, very unsafe place. But Dad’s punches didn’t stop with my dangerous choice of habitat.
“If you don’t go on dates, then how do you expect to find a husband?” I hear his voice echo in the back of my head.
I shrug. Being scolded for not dating is better than being told I’m destined to be shot. I’m not necessarily mad at Dad: at least he’s consistent in what he thinks is my best interest. I’m more frustrated with myself for always letting him ramble and never finding the courage to tell him I’m proud of myself for living on my own.
Sure, my apartment isn’t the best, but I live in an excellent neighborhood, which, by the way, is a steal for someone that makes a few bucks over minimum wage. And sure, twelve-hour shifts don’t leave a lot of time or energy for dating, and I get lonely in a new city. But isn’t this what making it on my own is supposed to look like?
I hear what I think is a bird tapping on the glass. I turn to grab some sweats and an old tee from my hamper. Suddenly, the breath is sucked out of my body as I catch sight of a man’s burnt red face pressing against my window, staring wide-eyed at me. The bottom of his shirt is pulled up, so I can see the rolls around his hairy belly button jiggle.
Did he see me undress before I took a shower? Oh my god, why is he smiling like he’s about to go full ax murderer on me? Seriously, who peeps into someone’s apartment like this?
For a second, I worry I’m dramatic. After all, I’m the one without curtains or blinds. It’s not like I expect him to wash my window with his eyes closed. Still, it’s the way he’s looking at me.
Isn’t there some kind of window-washer code?
I want to throw the towel over my head, curl in a corner, and hide like I’m a little kid that found a monster in my room. Instead, my instinct tells me to smile and wave. If I smile and wave, maybe he will be satisfied and go away.
“I’m Jerry,” the man shouts, exposing more of his yellow teeth.
I feel like Freddy Kreuger just jumped out of my nightmares and is tapping on my bedroom window. I hold my hand up to my ear, pretending I can’t hear him.
I snag my clothes out of the hamper and slide them under my towel. I think about making a run for the bathroom, but it’s only one window to his left, and I know I’ll start crying if he follows me there. Praying he’s taken the hint from my ear trick, I turn around, ready to forget the entire ordeal. But he’s still there, grinning like Hannibal Lector sniffing Clarise from his jail cell.
He points to my shelf, then gives me a thumbs up.
I should tell him my boyfriend built the shelf. No, that might make him angry.
“Thanks, my friends and I love to play,” I shout. “They’re actually going to be here soon.”
I nod toward the front door like someone is going to barge in and protect me. The truth is, I can’t name three acquaintances in the city.
“I’d love to play sometime; maybe I should get your number,” he shouts.
I force myself to keep smiling as I put my hand to my ear again and shrug. He buys it.
He doesn’t think it’s weird he can hear me, but I can’t hear him? Not exactly the sharpest crayon in the box.
He violently dumps his bucket of water onto my window and starts writing a message with his finger.
God, please don’t! Please, don’t make me read this message.
Holding my breath, I back toward my front door, never taking my eyes off him. Slamming the door behind me, I fall on my butt in the middle of the hallway.
A minute later, I hear him shouting my name.
“Maia! Maia Foley! I’ll find you, Maia Foley!”
A train rumbles across my stomach, and for a second, I think I’m going to be sick. After fifteen minutes of silence, I dare to stick my head back inside my apartment.
He’s gone. It’s all going to be okay.
But I can’t shake the feeling that he’ll swing back to my window the second I turn my head.

For the next few weeks, all I think about is Maia. Before bed, I picture her cherry lips grazing my cheeks, her white teeth biting my tongue, and I fall asleep with a smile for the first time since I was a kid. I’m not crazy: I know there is still a chance that things don’t work out. But for the first time in a long time, I think things are actually looking up.
Hell, maybe I’ll end up getting a place with Maia.
After bragging to Carlos about the hot girl in the window, the guys have been busting my chops over when I will see her next. I decided to let fate guide us; I haven’t even Googled the girl. Now, a month after I first saw her golden-brown curls, we are scheduled to wash her building. This time, I have a message on a piece of notebook paper asking her to meet me in the lobby if she wants the key to my heart. I bought tickets to a comedy club for the weekend, which I think will be a perfect first date to one day tell our kids about.
Slathering my body with Carlos’ Axe body spray and deodorant, I slick back what little hair I have left over my bald spot. We jump out of Carlos’ van near the dark and narrow alley alongside the apartment complex.
Clutching my love note to my chest, I’m silently rehearsing my lines when fate strikes early. There, walking ten steps ahead of us, I see Maia’s through a slither of sunlight that glistens against the alleyway dumpster.
“Maia! Maia, it’s me! The guy from the window last month!” I shout.
Maia looks up from her phone, but she can’t recognize me in the shadows. She starts to run.
“Hey! Wait! We know each other! I want to ask you something!”
Picking up the pace, I catch up to her right before she reaches the end of the alley. Stretching my hand, I reach out to grab the back of her shoulder.

For the next few weeks, all I can think about is the man in the window. Sometimes, a bird flies by while I’m reading or watching TV, and I jump off the couch and out of my skin. At first, I tried to ignore the fear. I mean, it’s not like anything actually happened to me. The whole thing is a massive overreaction on my part. At least, that’s what I try to tell myself when I have trouble sleeping at night.
After the first week, I broke down, bought myself curtains, and kept them shut at all times. But that didn’t stop me from imagining his breath on the other side of the glass, waiting for me to peek under my cotton wall and see his wide-eyed stare.
He knows where I live; he knows my full name. He said, “Maia Foley! I’ll find you, Maia Foley!”
A month later, I’m finally starting to feel like myself again. I’m convinced I overhype everything; if I don’t learn to calm down, I will turn into Dad. Speaking of fulfilling my father’s wishes, I have a date tonight with a cute medical student from the hospital down the street. I’m nervous, but it’ll be nice to talk to someone outside the hospital—even if the date goes nuclear.
I have butterflies as I jump off the train and race back to my apartment to get ready. I cut through the alley on the side of my building. I usually avoid the alley because it’s dark and gives me the creeps, but I figure it’ll be safe in the bright light of morning. Wondering if Nick is as tall as his Tinder profile claimed, I check the restaurant’s lunch menu on my phone. That’s when I hear the voice that’s been shouting my name in my nightmares.
“Maia! Maia, it’s me! The guy from the window last month!”
Behind me, six men are following me down the dark alley. At the front of the pack, sprinting at me with his serial-killer grin, is my stalker. I make a run for it—racing until my lungs burn. I run harder and faster than I’ve ever run in my life.
“Hey! Wait! We know each other! I want to ask you something!”
I almost make it to the light of the parking lot, but I can feel his breath on my neck. I know he’s about to drag me down. Screaming as loud as I can, I whip around and kick him straight in the nuts. He hunches over in pain and sinks like the Titanic.
I back up toward the parking lot as he stares up at me with tears in his eyes. His friends quickly huddle around him, helping him to his feet.
“All of you stay away from me, or I’ll scream,” I pant.
“Stay away from you?” a man with a Mario mustache scoffs. “You nearly killed the man; all he wanted to do was ask you out. Jerry, are you okay?” he asks my stalker.
Stepping into the safety of the sunlight and busy sidewalk, I feel a twinge of guilt for my attack on the man.
No, I’m right. He doesn’t get to chase me through an alley to ask me out. I’m not going to let them make me out to be a bitch.
“He doesn’t even know me; he caught me coming out of the shower while he was snooping in my apartment,” I explain.
Mustache man opens his mouth, probably to yell at me some more, but Jerry is finally able to choke out some wheezing words.
“I’m sorry,” he tells me. “Carlos, guys, can you give us a minute, please? I’ll meet you on the roof.”
The men leave us, each frowning suspiciously at me as they walk into the lobby. My heart is still racing, but I don’t think anyone will hurt me in such a public space.
“Let’s go to the bench over there and talk,” I suggest.
Still wiping a tear from his eye, my stalker agrees.

The Bench
Both terrified of the other, Jerry and Maia sat on opposite ends of the bench.
“I’m sorry I kicked you,” Maia started, unable to look Jerry in the eyes.
“Oh, it’s fine; I didn’t mean to scare you. I think this is just a misunderstanding,” he said. “I’ve felt like we had a connection since I saw you through the window.”
Maia took a deep sigh.
“But you did scare me,” she corrected him. “You invaded my privacy, then you chased me down an alley. I didn’t say a word to you, and you shouted at my window that you were going to find me. I’ve been having nightmares about the day I met you.”
There was a long silence before Jerry started to cry.
“I’m such a loser,” he wailed. “I always mess everything up, and I don’t know why I try. I can’t even ask a girl out.”
Maia sighed.
“You can ask a girl out, but maybe have a real conversation with them first. What you can’t do is stare into their windows.”
Jerry nodded.
“I’m sorry, really, I am,” he sniffled.
Maia stood.
Jerry wanted her to stay, but she was already in the lobby by the time he wiped his tears. He sat on the bench for another minute, then texted his mom that he’d make dinner tonight. She’d have to get used to his cooking before she came to visit him in the city.
Tomorrow, he was going to put a deposit on the apartment he’d been looking at.
Maia left Jerry behind and thought little of him after she was gone. She had a date to get ready for.

Matthew Downing is a 27-year-old Chicago-based writer. He lives with his partner, Caroline, and their puppy, Ripley. He is the recent winner of Beyond Words Literary Magazine's "Waiting" 250-word creative writing challenge. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Bangalore Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.

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