Story by Lee Su Min

I can see you from my kitchen

I can see you from my kitchen

A View by the Bay Window

From my balcony I could see him taking off her clothes.

Eileen had gone out with a group of friends again, so that I was left without company for at least four hours.

I took out a bottle of wine and some cheese and laid a piece of tablecloth over the round garden table. At the same time, I took out the candle stand, lit a white candle, and let the bamboo Venetian roll up a little so that I could look into the apartment on the opposite side of the road. This was a small road.

It was never crowded. I could hear cars passing by only every now and then. But the sound of the traffic gave me the feeling that I was involved, involved in the life outside my flat.

Eileen was a journalist. She wrote for The Gossip Times and often worked late into the night at her reporter’s desk. There was a template she had to type into on her office computer, so she could not bring her work home. Often when she rushed for a story, she did not even pick up my calls.

This has caused a number of misunderstandings and some friction in our relationship. I had been living with Eileen for three years now, and her mother had been pestering us to be married.

I couldn’t explain why I had not married Eileen. Eileen was pretty by all counts. She had an oriental face and slim shoulders. Not too tall and not too short. But just between you and me, like any other Asian girl, Eileen was flat chested, especially in comparison to Anne. Anne was a size C or D.

I first met Anne when I was at an art exhibition. Anne and I both spotted the same painting. In fact, I wasn’t clever enough. I was standing there with a glass of house wine, contemplating buying a piece of art after having gone through several rounds.

I eyed it and then overheard Anne telling the salesman that she was in the process of deciding on one of the artist’s two pieces. This was just some unknown Chinese artist, but I liked the way he painted a lady in front of a dressing table. I turned around and said,

“If you are not buying this piece, I will buy it.”

Now, with a competitor, Anne decided that the piece of work I liked was better than the other one, and she immediately told the salesman that she was buying it. I so much regretted my honesty and stupidity. I should have encouraged her to take the other piece, thus leaving this piece of work available for my buying pleasure. I had never been so frustrated before.

Anne wasn’t bothered with me. She got good advice, and she got what she wanted. She paid for the art piece and finished her cocktail.

“Do you have someone to carry it outside with me? I need to get a taxi,” she asked the salesman.

“I’m afraid no, Ma’am. We are shorthanded. I am the only one here today,” the salesman said, his mission accomplished when he got her cheque. All else was immaterial to him. I stepped in.

“Do you think I can drive you home?”

“Why, of course, you are welcome to do so. I live nearby.” The woman was gracious.

I was only interested in the piece of art. Once I got the owner’s contact information, I could then persuade her to resell the painting to me. The more I thought about the piece, the more I liked it. If Anne hadn’t bought it, I would have done so.

And so, I found out that Anne was my neighbour. She lived on the opposite side of the road in my flat at Wimbledon Lodge. At the driveway of MaryAnn Lodge, I parked my car and helped the woman carry the painting. I wanted her telephone number so that I could call her. Before I left her with the painting outside her unit at #05-01, I told her,

“Give me a call when you don’t want the painting anymore.”

I said when meaning that it was imperative. She did not sense the urgency in my tone and simply replied sure. I did not forget to give her my card. I think my title “President, Baker’s Treasury” should sufficiently describe my eminent status and wealth, and that should impress her, if she was not already taken in by the smooth running of the engine of the BMW that I sent her home in.

I waited one day. Then two days passed without Anne calling. I gave her a week. On Friday night when I was sure that she wouldn’t call, I drove my BMW around to MaryAnn Lodge. I parked my car at the visitors’ lot and went to intercom her.

I pressed 0501, then the bell. No, she didn’t answer. Without being buzzed in, I could not access her floor to wait in the lobby outside her flat. What could she be doing on a Friday night at 10:30 p.m.? I wasn’t too late. If she had a dinner appointment she should be home by now. Did she have a boyfriend? I sat on the parapet with my jacket still on. The jacket was to give the impression that I had just come out of an important meeting.

Then I needed to charge my handphone. I went to security and asked if I could use their power point. They saw that I was harmless and took my handphone to plug it in without further questions. I was quite pleased that I could get things done so easily. It took ages to get a 100 per cent status. Finally, when I ran out of patience, I walked out of the estate.

One of the security guards came after me, “I see her coming back in a red car sometimes.”

I looked at him, annoyed that he volunteered this piece of information. All I wanted was the painting. The artist held my imagination. I pictured Anne in a brothel waiting for clients …

I ignored the guy and walked back to my BMW. My remote control gave a loud beep as told the residents that someone was trying to intrude into their calm, quiet night. Reluctantly I started the engine and drove out of the compound. This was my second encounter with Anne, or rather, a non-encounter.

Anne was a small woman. She was not particularly pretty, because she was short. But her breasts were large, and that made her desirable. On the night of the cocktail she was wearing an off-the-shoulder top and a white skirt, which gave her the schoolgirl look. She had tied her hair with a red scarf. I wondered if her breasts would be larger if she were taller.

Nonetheless, I was not in love with Anne, yet. For now, I only wanted the art piece. Tonight’s trip had been futile, and it was damn annoying.

From then on, I thought of the painting on and off, and I began to conjure up a naked woman right in front of me. The more I thought of it the more I liked it. Fact was that every time I visualized the art I saw Anne in her naked form. The next day during the lunch hour I went to other art galleries to search for paintings, to see if I could find another piece to replace the one Anne beat me to. But none of them suited my purpose.

This painting of Anne had the drawing of a mirror and a comb by the dressing table and much was said in the brochure about the frame of mind of the artist while he was working on his creation.

Apparently, it was the culmination of his experiences in visiting several brothels and dance artists’ abodes that created this. I wanted it on the wall in my studio flat where the bedroom and living room met. This painting could decorate both the bedroom and the living. Yes, it put my imagination to work.

Basically, I just wanted to see Anne without her clothes. Anne was the woman in the painting, I was sure of that. She must have been in a brothel before and was probably a prostitute, for otherwise she wouldn’t be so inhibited as to parade herself at the bay window.

How did I get to see the actress in person?

It occurred to me that I might want to send Anne a gift calendar or something. That was one step towards getting into her life. As the days went by, I had become more and more obsessed with Anne. She had a voluptuous figure. Her breasts were larger than most women her size, and that made her look good in whatever clothes she wore.

It was true that all this while I was more interested in my career than women, but I was a clear heterosexual. I have no platonic relationships and was generally fonder of women than men. I had a brother in Australia, and my only woman friend is my sister-in-law. I visited my brother's family once a year during spring. I have planned another trip this January once the new year arrived.

I didn’t know Anne’s telephone number. Only she knew mine, and I was depending on her to give me a call, in order that I could create a contact out of her. But she eluded me. I was looking forward to finishing the renovation of my entire apartment so that I could get a priest to do a house blessing. I worshipped at the St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and I knew that it was church regulation that divorce was not acceptable in the Catholic faith.

Therefore, I have to be very careful in choosing a partner, since it was for life. Once I married, there would be no turning back. I was rich, but I have not been looking around as I have concentrated on my career up until now. Women were a nuisance. They were emotional and didn’t make sound business decisions. Most of my Board of Directors were men except for Christina, and I really didn’t like her at all.

Christina came in late for meetings and always took a long while to come to conclusions. You could say that she was cautious, but that always delayed things and meetings ended late because we had to wait for her to finish giving her pep talk before we could call the meeting to an end.

But that I had a very good relationship with my secretary Kim. She always saw to it that I got my Christmas hampers delivered to my address at Wimbledon Lodge, and I really appreciated her for that. It was her sixth year at my office. Ok, I was side tracking.

I went back to work on Monday morning having told myself that I must give up on this piece of art. But it was not my habit to give up on anything. I was a banker and a determined man. I had to acquire the painting at all costs. I remembered that Anne paid four thousand dollars for the piece, and I was prepared to pay five, or even six for that matter.

I didn’t waste any more time. I went to her place another week later, on a Friday night again. The security guard did not recognize my car, and I gave Anne’s unit number at the entrance, so they didn’t even know that I was not staying there. I parked my car at the same lot for visitors and got out wondering if I would also meet her “business” boyfriend in the red car.

When I heard Anne’s voice over the intercom I was genuinely surprised that this time she was in at 9:15 p.m. I told her I was “Mark, the guy at the art gallery,” and she seemed to have recalled our last meeting.

The lift registered the fifth floor, and I was happy that I was going to bargain for the piece of art tonight.

“I must be straightforward,” I told myself.

I might not be given another chance to come in here and see her again. And anyway, I didn’t have time to waste on her. She is too young for me. I liked older women. Efficient, older women.

No, I am not going to sell it.” She rejected me outright.

“I have a wall, and it goes very well with it. How about if you pay a visit to my place?” I became desperate.

“Why not give me your number again, and I will call you if I want to sell it?”

I think she was impatient to be rid of me. Friday night after work, anyone would be tired. I was a patient man and a good dealer. That was why I got to this position at Baker’s Treasury in the financial industry. I knew how to play my cards. I was in my late thirties and was still taking my time to choose a wife.

Basically, I wanted somebody whom I didn’t need to support and not some cheap floozy. I saw Anne as a woman who could serve my purpose very well and the fact that she was a prostitute was a bonus to me. And that this was the thing about Anne that made me want to sleep with her. Invariably, my mind visualized Anne’s breasts without her blouse.

Finally: No, Anne was too plain. I told you, if she were taller I would have considered.

I decided to distract myself. I walked towards the door and at the same time used a pen to write my number for her again, pretending to be leaving. But Anne just opened the door and signalled that it was time for me to leave. Frustrated, I went straight back to Wimbledon Lodge.

Later when I saw Eileen back at my flat, and to distract her, I complained that I had nothing to do with my time. Eileen reminded me of an offer from Sean, her editor, to try my hand at book reviews. The book I was reading was called Wild Swans, a story of the lives of three women. I struggled at it, as I knew nothing of Chinese history. I was less than a quarter way through. I had no idea how I could write a good review to persuade others to buy the book. It was a difficult task.

Sean had said I was the right person to do the review because I was Chinese educated. But the entire book was in English. I refused, but he was so enthusiastic I had no chance to say No. So, in the end, Eileen promised him that I would do the job by the end of the holidays. The worst part of it was that it coincided with my leave, so in effect I was using my own time to do this piece of work. If it were a novel by Jeffrey Archer or P. D. James it would have been a breeze.

Christmas came and went. I received only two presents. One from my mother, who had gone for a holiday in China and had pre-arranged this gift, and another from an old neighbour at Mt. Sinai. The gift from my mother was to be expected, but the one from Mr. and Mrs. Lee was a surprise.

I told myself I must pay them a visit before the new year. But then I had to finish with the book review. I picked up the book. At page 187 I found something that I could use to write about, and then I thought about Anne again:

Had she grown tired of the painting? Would she be ready to part with it now? It had been three weeks since our last encounter. 

Tonight, was Christmas Eve. I took out my wine and some crackers from one of my client’s hampers and cut a slice of log cake from the fridge. I saw the woman at the balcony. And then I saw another man! He was taking off her clothes again, this time out of the emerald green gown. They had not drawn the curtains, so that I could see what he was doing very clearly. She sat there without moving away. I saw him unzip the gown, and then he closed the curtains …

In this hot and sultry climate, I was trying very hard not to let my imagination run wild. I wondered how much longer he would take to open his curtains again. I knew which house they lived in. If I walked across the street to his row of apartments I would be able to identity his unit number. It was the second unit from the right. So, I started to count. Oh, God! It was Anne’s unit! So, the woman by the window was Anne, after all.

The man must have been the business man who drove the red car.

Flabbergasted, I decided to leave Anne and the man alone. If he wanted to sleep with her and she with him, it was entirely their business. As far as I was concerned, my relationship with Anne was that of between two art connoisseur, if you put it plainly. I had no reason to pry on her except to inquire if she still wanted to keep the painting. And I was still waiting for her to call me for a negotiation, which so far, she had not. What I saw now here was entirely my own making. If I were to barge into the MaryAnn Lodge to look for her, I would be committing trespass.

I was not at liberty to tell the security guard what I saw, for then I would be taken for a Peeping Tom. Yes, I did buy a pair of binoculars and had been using them. And I was pretty sure that Anne was the woman who was sitting by the bay window. There was a book on her lap, so I guessed she was reading whenever she was left alone. The man, her boyfriend, was not always around. I could now say with hundred percent certainty that he was the red car driver whom the security guard mentioned.

So, I was stuck there. What could do? I could only see that the room lights were on in the flat opposite. The curtains were drawn, and I guessed that Anne was no longer sitting at the window. I felt a little disappointed and wished I had their telephone number, so I could contact them. But then what could I say? That I had been watching them? It fell short of stalking, so far. All the while I had been stationed and looking out from inside my own home.

Come to think of it, they should not conduct their activities in full view of the neighbours. However, I couldn’t find fault with Anne either. No one should expect that a neighbour would look in. So, it would be better if I remained in the background anonymously. I went into the kitchen and got myself a bottle out from the fridge. It was chilled, and I sipped it quietly like a mouse in a trap.

The air was sultry hot, and I needed the air conditioning. I reluctantly shut my own windows. A sense of unease came over me, as I had to shut Anne out of my vicinity. I remembered her wearing the emerald green taffeta before he took it away. I frowned at that stupid gown.

It did not occur to me that a woman would be dressed in a nightgown for an ordinary night reading by the bay window. I became a little confused. But I was still sober. The bottle of wine from the Christmas hamper was still in the basket unopened.

I took a cold shower and felt much better. After that I decided to bear with the hot, humid air and opened my windows when I had just shut them ten minutes ago. I was interested to know if the couple had returned to the bay window. If it were really Anne, perhaps I should tell her that she shouldn’t parade herself with her curtains open oblivious to her neighbours.

Finally, I saw him putting a wedding gown on her. What?! Did that mean that they were getting married? Oh, my God, I am going to lose Ann! Then I knew straight away that I must do something drastic.

I left my apartment without even locking my front door. I took the lift down and headed straight for the MaryAnn Lodge. With quickened steps I rushed across the road up the slightly steep path. I used the side entrance where cars exited. The security guard probably didn’t see me. I almost tripped over the raised step meant for pedestrians. I went to the intercom and I pressed 0501, followed by the bell.

I didn’t remember hearing anyone on the other side of the intercom. But the lift opened, and I saw a young man dressed in jeans coming out. He looked at me, but I did not greet him. It was not my habit to greet strangers. I stepped into the lift without giving the man a chance to get out first. My heart was beating with anxiety as the lift was going up to the fifth level. Once the lift door opened, I found unit 01 and rang the doorbell even though the door was slightly ajar. I waited for a while outside when I realized that the occupant was not coming to the door.

I was brave enough to push open the front door. As I said, I was quite desperate. I stepped in.

“Hello?” I enquired.

“Have you forgotten something?” It was Anne’s voice.

I took one step further in. This was the first time I saw the inside of the flat. On the right side was a kitchenette, and there were some fruits in a basket on the marble tabletop. A Burberry lamp hung over the tabletop, and I could see a small Christmas tree at the far end of the room.

She has very nice ornaments. I thought to myself.

The floor was littered with bits and pieces of cloth material, and sequins were everywhere. The kitchen countertop was about the only place that was spared from this disarray of remnants. I marvelled at the disorderly scene. Then I realized that the guy at the lift was her boyfriend. I could not tell if he was the same guy at the bay window with her that I had been watching.

“No, it’s not him. It’s me, Mark.” I said with raised voice.

Anne was inside her room, and I was wondering if I should walk in or stay outside in the living area enjoying the Christmas lights on the tree. The lights came on and off, alternating between blue and orange. Frankly, I would have preferred it not to flicker. I think Anne didn’t hear me, for she was still inside her room. So, I became bolder and walked towards the room …

I could see several photographs arranged neatly inside a large border hanging on both sides of the wall. Then I saw Anne, with her back facing me. She was wearing a tank top with a pair of loose pants. The top was navy and the pants were a floral pattern with navy background. She looked marvellous. This was the first time I saw Anne in casuals, and I must concede that she looked rather delicious. Her shoulders were bare, and I could see her cleavage when she turned around.

I took a deep breath and at once I asked her, “Are you getting married?” “To whom?” came the reply from Anne.

Then I fumbled. I was not supposed to have seen her in the wedding gown. That image was confined to a Peeping Tom across the street at the balcony.

“Err …. your boyfriend told me just now.”

“Oh, David, you mean?” Anne asked.

“Yes, David.”

“David is not my boyfriend. David is my partner, and we are NOT about to get married.”

You would not believe how relieved I was at what I heard at that particular point in time.

“There are pins and needles everywhere; you can come into my room and sit down on the bed.”

I walked into Anne’s bedroom. Then I saw her: the girl in the wedding gown. It wasn’t Anne, but a mannequin the size of Anne. The mannequin was wearing the wedding gown and it fitted her nicely. The emerald green taffeta was lying quietly on the floor with the zipper opened. You must be crazy if you want to believe that I was more interested in the painting than in Anne.

The painting showed a woman half-dressed, her make-up tools scattered all over the floor, her bent shoulders revealing almost her bust …

It put my imagination to work …

I moved into MaryAnn Lodge from that evening onwards. Four weeks later Anne and I got married. I cross-examined myself and asked why I made the decision to marry Anne, who was just a dress designer. Eileen was well qualified and educated. I had lived with Eileen for three years, refusing to tie the knot, and than there and then on that very night I had proposed to Anne. I could say that I was somewhat surprised that Anne said yes immediately.

“You can now have the painting you like so much.”

That was all Anne said after she accepted my engagement ring. Needless to say, we had sex on that very same night when I barged into her home. The ring cost six thousand dollars. The painting would have cost me another four if I had bought it over from Anne at the same price which she had paid. For now, I got both the art piece and the owner.

A bargain by all counts.

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