Over a decade ago now, the man I was to marry and I met face-to-face for the first time, in the city of Vancouver in Canada. This meeting took place after months of Internet acquaintance; we were not strangers to one another, but we were, at best, friends, and anything else was still a fledgling thing and hidden by the mists of the future.
On one evening, as we walked across one of Vancouver's bridges from the city back towards Kitsilano, we paused to lean on the parapet and look out over the water... and the high-rise condo cliffs that lined the city shore. Neither of us knew it at the time because we said nothing to each other in that moment - but we both had the same thought.
So many windows. So many lights trembling in the night. So many people. So many stories, no two of them alike.
Many years later, in the much smaller town that I now live in, I find myself driving home sometimes in the twilight or early evening, when the lights start to come on. And I pass all these houses, and I catch glimpses into windows that are not veiled by curtains. Over here, a house with a warm glow of yellow lamplight spilling through paned glass, the telling flicker of a bluish TV light dancing on a bare wall; over there, a panelled room with artwork too far away to make out the details of it but arranged and framed with obvious care and attention to detail. There's a house where I have caught the occasional glimpse of someone sitting at a computer by the window. There's a house where I can see the colour and arrangements of sofas, end tables, bookshelves. There are places that blaze with light. There are places that are tucked away into shadows, with just the occasional small lamp on a table somewhere just out of isght.
Christmas trees peer out of windows during the season. Some are there from the day after Thanksgiving, late in November. Others don't turn up until Christmas eve. Some stay until well into January; some vanish the day after Christmas, as though the Grinch had swept through the household unexpectedly and late. Some are a blaze of static white lights; some twinkle and shimmer in a flicker of coloured lights until their very shapes become hard to keep in focus and they become something strange and almost alien, a benevolent presence of light and joy spilling blessings into the dark.
What hides behind windows? In this house or that house or the condo over the hill, there are people who are surfing the Net, cooking dinner, waiting nervously for a First Date and rushing back to the bedroom every ten minutes to change their outfit or their hair without taking into account at all that they will never be able to change themselves and that is the only thing that will matter in the long run. There are kids doing homework, and hating their Maths teacher or that stupid woman who is so in love with fricking Shakespeare ("What does she see in Macbeth anyway and who cares what the witches mean?"). Someone is listening to Mozart, and someone else is listening to Eminem, or the Les Miz soundtrack. Someone is reading a book. Someone might be writing one. Friends on the phone to friends, describing the latest triumph or catasrophe. Husbands and wives who are still not talking to one another after the flare-up they had over breakfast, and on whom the silence is beginning to weigh like chains of iron. People sitting down to dinner, or cooking dinner, or on the phone ordering a pizza. People are talking to each other, in English, in Spanish, in Polish, in Greek, in Hindustani or in Chinese. Someone who is getting ready to take the dogs for a walk. Someone whose cat, or father, or best friend has just died; someone else whose first grandchild has just been born.
Stories hidden behind windows, Stories pouring down the phone lines, into chatrooms, spilling from email.
If you asked any of those people what their story was, they might look at you blankly. They don't have a story, they would tell you. They are living an ordinary life - you know, just like everyone else's.
But there is no "everyone else". Everyone has their own light. Their own window. Their own story.
There are many that I drive past in the night, stories which I will never know except as a glimpse snatched as I pass them by. The treasure trove of human existence.
Spilling like lamplight into the darkness... from windows.