Watching Alice Watch

by Nan Cuba

From my upstairs bedroom window, I could look across two yards, through our neighbor’s sliding glass doors into their den. Since the Waverleys watched TV and ate meals there, my private view became a running movie of their lives.

Alice had been my friend and rival since we were babies. Even though she’d tried to steal my Psalm 23 bookmark while my head was bowed during the Sunday School teacher’s prayer, and three days before Christmas, she’d showed me her presents hidden in a coat closet, she said I was lucky to have a happy family, and her advice about boys was way better than a how-to manual.

One afternoon, she cut my left pigtail because she wasn’t allowed to let her own hair grow. Mother was mad at first; then she evened the ends into my first pageboy. Alice’s sister, Wanda, was ten years older, the epitome of sophistication, or so we thought. We imitated her saunter, her Lauren Bacall voice. “Don’t have a cow,” we’d copy, aiming for her lilt and whine. But she rarely noticed us. Mrs. Waverley played the piano and swooped like Loretta Young across rooms in her taffeta dresses. Mr. Waverley was an attorney whose secretary had been his mistress for so long, even Mrs. Waverley knew. I’d overheard Mother tell salacious stories about them over the phone. “That’s the absolute limit,” she yelled to I-don’t-know-who after she’d finished trimming my chopped hair. Apparently, the secretary had stroked Mr. Waverly’s head while the two of them huddled Sunday on the front steps of First Baptist. The “hussy” would appear at the Waverleys’ in tight sailor shorts and ankle-strapped high heels, and Mr. Waverley would whisper something while cupping her bottom, but that wasn’t unusual. He did that to all the women, even Mother. That’s why she didn’t like him.

Since Alice watched the drama playing at her house whenever she came over, she assumed that’s all I ever did. The morning after she cut my pigtail, she stood with her hands on her hips at her glass doors, and even though she couldn’t see me, she crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue, then waved, in case I was looking. Later, I saw her peek around the kitchen door, spying on her dad while he said something to his secretary in front of the fireplace. Alice didn’t budge when he tickled the woman’s ribs until she laughed and one of her legs rose, crossing the other like a crane’s.

The next night, Alice and I sat on my bedroom floor, and from my window, we looked over our yards into her family’s den. We could see Wanda and her boyfriend sitting across from each other at the Waverleys’ round dining table, books and papers between them. Even though my light was turned off, Alice worried that they would somehow spot us. Since our view was clear as a diorama, she hoped that Wanda wouldn’t glance in our direction.

“They’re supposed to be doing homework,” Alice said, her scarlet lip curled. She’d been into her mother’s Coty lipstick again. “Ha!”

“Are they going steady?” I asked, hoping for details. Alice always knew who was going with whom, and during a recent Girl Scout slumber party, while everyone else slept, she’d explained what the fword meant.

“Can’t you see she’s wearing his football sweater?” she snarled. “Ain’t you got eyes?”

“He’s cute. I mean, don’t you think so?” I’d seen him earlier, thumbs hooked into jeans pockets, hips cocked in a calculated slouch.

“Look out! Stay down,” Alice hissed, yanking my sleeve, shoving until I crumpled, my elbows thumping the floor. “Awww, I think she saw us.” She panted, pressing her back against the wall, the window ledge a plank above her head. “She’d love to catch me.”

When we finally peeked again over the windowsill, Wanda and the boy actually had books open, reading, talking, bla, bla, bla-ing. Then they rose from their chairs like tiny puppets and leaned toward each other until their mouths met. I held my breath, wondering how long they could go without air, imagining the soft pressure, a boy’s sweaty face hovering. Would one ever do that to me? Finally, I gasped. How’d they do it? Would Wanda faint?

“Wait. Wait,” Alice said, leaning next to the glass, her voice husky. She shaded her eyes, squinting, and I swallowed, ready. From my angle, the tiny kissing couple looked like candies floating inches from her face. I could see she wanted to gobble them. “Watch,” she whispered. “Watch what happens next.”

NAN CUBA is the co-editor of Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists (Trinity University Press, 2008) and has published work in such places as Quarterly West, Columbia, and Harvard Review. Her novel, Body and Bread, is forthcoming from Engine Books. As an investigative journalist, she reported on the causes of extraordinary violence in LIFE, Third Coast, and D Magazine. She is the founder and executive director emeritus of the nonprofit literary center Gemini Ink, and an associate professor of English at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.