The Monitor, Circa The Mid-1980s
When I was fifteen, I babysat a lot, and one of the places at which I spent quite a few evenings was an apartment high up across town. The little girl went to bed early and the parents stayed out late, so I had hours to do with as I pleased.
The apartment was rather small, but it had large windows, so I would pull aside all the venetian blinds, turn off the room lights, and let the apartment be taken over by weak ambient light from the city below. I was from the low, flat suburbs, and the height fascinated me. The light was a hollow grey, if there can be a colour that is hollow, or rather it was a wan shade of grey that hollowed out all forms that dipped away from it. My eyes were sunken in the window's reflection, the sofa grew a depth of contours not before visible, and the little girl's toys became angular and hard.
The building was outfitted with a video and audio monitor at the front entry, and near the front door of each apartment was a small, black-and-white video screen. I found out that if I hit a particular button, the monitor would stay on, and I could watch whoever came and went. It was a large apartment building with a lot of young people living in it, so when I babysat on weekends, there were always tenants entering and leaving and friends of tenants stopping by to either be let up or see if someone they knew was home.
I suppose that I could have watched one of the three television channels the couple received, or I could have read a book, but there was something odd about the apartment that made it difficult to concentrate. Every little noise put me on edge, and I felt that I had to focus my attention on the apartment and the surrounding building. Maybe it had something to do with the apartment's acoustics, because it often sounded as though someone were opening the front door and walking from one room to another, even when I could hear through the baby monitor that the little girl was breathing deeply in her sleep.
I took to moving a tall stool from the kitchen to the front entry's screen and sitting in front of it. I could watch it for hours. Somehow, this activity that took the anxiety away. I watched the overexposed, nearly featureless faces outside the building as they chose which buttons should be pressed, listened to their garbled speech through what would now be an archaic sound system, and counted the clicks of static when the screen was unpopulated. There was comfort in being utterly alone and separate in the domino dark watching strangers at the door.
One night, I saw a man approach with bagged food and flowers wrapped in a loose cone of paper. He entered the entryway's spotlight too quickly and rubbed at his nose. I could tell that he knew he was unexpected. A woman's muffled voice broke through the static, but I could not hear his. I did not need to. He jerked his head toward the outside speaker, shrugged his shoulders into the flowers, dropped the bag of food. After repeated attempts at trying the door, he kicked the bag and stomped away. Her voice continued, though, and a few moments later, he ran into view, threw the flowers at the glass, and disappeared. Another hour passed, and he did not return. I knew she was safe.
Most nights, though, the screen only held random people in ones and twos who were quiet. They found whom they were looking for and left shortly afterward.
When I saw the couple for whom I was babysitting cross the screen, I would move the tall stool back to the kitchen, turn on a lamp, and open one of my novels or some algebra homework.
We're home, they would call. How was our girl?
She's been asleep the whole time, I would say.
Did you watch tv?
No, I would say. I just sat here and read all night.
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