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  • Writer's pictureIndia Wittmershaus

To Love a Stranger

I am in love with my neighbor. Not always and not everywhere, just in this one hour in the evening, when the world is hidden in darkness and I see her. When I see how she dances, how she transforms, how she becomes a different person. A person I love in a way I don't understand. She is beautiful at this moment. Her skin shimmers, her hair shines and her movements are of divine grace. These moments are sacred to me. It is an intimate moment just between her and me. She is alone, dancing for herself, being just herself. But it feels as if she is dancing for me, as if she belongs only to me as if everything is for me. Only for me. And I love her for that.

They say that love develops over time, but for me, it was there all at once. It all began when I started to smoke. It was a gradual process. First, it was a few drags here and there from friends. You borrow one cigarette, you borrow more. You learn how to roll a cigarette on your own. The first is a falling apart, an unsmokable something, but it gets better. It all adds up. Then the purchase of your first rolling tobacco in the one shop near the school that doesn't ask your age. Afterward, a new pack of deodorant so that your parents can't smell the smoke on you. Suddenly you're no longer taking a drag from time to time at a friend's cigarette, you're the person who lends cigarettes. In the beginning, I only smoked at school, but then it became more and more. A cigarette on the way to school. One on the way home. Rolling and smoking cigarettes with friends in the park and then the last one before you're trapped in the house with the parents.

But a few months ago, that was no longer enough. I had dinner with my parents. We had lasagna and a salad with radish. I hate radish. There was a discussion about my cousin’s new girlfriend. My mum was in a bad mood because of her work. My father was stressed about the preparations for the upcoming family reunion at the weekend and my brother tried to lighten the mood of the evening. It was all in vain. 

All I wanted was a cigarette. I had hardly smoked during the day. Only during the big break had I found the time to smoke one in peace. And now I was sitting at the table, listening to my parents grumble and my brother’s forced cheerfulness. I felt like having a cigarette. I needed a cigarette. Urgently. 

The evening was coming to an end far too slowly. I excused myself early with the generally accepted excuse that I still had to study for school. I was about to smoke in my room, but it's unlikely my parents would have missed the smell. And I wasn’t that desperate after all. At least I convinced myself of that. But the options were limited. If I had gone out again, it would have raised questions. Smoking in the room would have given my parents a heart attack. So, I decided to climb into the attic.

To my general displeasure, the hatch through which you reach the attic is placed in my room. This tends to mean that every time my parents need something from the attic, they barge into my room and violate my privacy. You would think that things stored in the attic would not get used too often, but judging by the frequency with which my parents open the hatch and extend the ladder in the center of my room, the attic serves more as a normal room in our house. To which you must cross mine.

That evening, however, going to the attic seemed like a lucky way out of my predicament. So, I took the rolling tobacco out of my jacket. Then I went to the hatch and pulled the chain that operated the mechanism. The hatch opened and the ladder slowly slid out. I caught it in mid-air and carefully placed the end on the parquet floor so that the scraping sound wouldn't give me away. I climbed up slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible.

Our attic is an expansive open room that stretches across the whole house. There are things everywhere, from furniture to odds and ends. There are two windows, one on the west side and one on the east side. I decided to go for the east side as the room below is my mum’s office and it was unlikely that anyone would be able to hear my footsteps there. I opened the window wide and, as the window was very low, I carried one of the camping chairs over so that I could sit comfortably in front of the open window. I pulled out my earlier pre rolled cigarette, lit it, and inhaled the first puff.

The first puff was greedy. What a feeling. The nicotine rushed through my veins. Everything relaxed. I was sitting in the dark with only the soft light of the moon and the distant glow of the streetlamps illuminating my surroundings. I don't know what it is, but the night has its own beauty. The silence, the darkness, the loss of color, individual shadows that move for unknown reasons.

After the first cigarette, I became calmer. I was able to relax. A light breeze brought the smell of the beginning of summer to me and so I sat in my chair by the window and savored the moment. The east side of my parents’ house leads into a part of the garden where my father’s garden bed lies. From my vantage point, I could see the garden and part of the neighboring street. Due to the high position of the window, I had an almost unobstructed view of the terrace of the neighboring house, which is slightly above the eye level of the window. The light from the terrace pool shimmered and reflected off the stone roofing, giving my view a mystical effect.

The water lapped gently against the walls of the pool, and I was transported back to my childhood. I had spent a lot of time in the neighbor’s house when I was little. Back then, a family lived there with a child my age. We played together a lot, and I spent a lot of time on the terrace and especially in the pool. Fond memories. The family moved away, and my friend and I were too young to maintain a long-distance friendship. Then others moved into the house, without children who could have become my companions. Recently new residents had moved in. A couple with two children in kindergarten age.

I hardly knew my new neighbors, only by sight. But that night, I didn't just see my neighbor, I saw her properly for the first time. I can still remember it precisely. I was rolling a cigarette. It wasn’t the first time I'd done it, but I wasn't too practiced at it yet. So, my result wasn’t really pretty, but it was smokable. I put the cigarette to my lips and was about to light it when I heard the sound of a door opening. At first, I was startled because I thought my parents were entering my room. But then my neighbor stepped out onto the terrace. I automatically ducked deeper into the shadows, but she didn’t look in my direction.

I watched her walk to the edge of the terrace and put her arms on the railing. Her face was in the shadows but the light from the pool illuminated her from behind. She was barefooted. A knee-length dress fell around her body. Her arms and shoulders were uncovered. She wore her long hair loose and it fell loosely around her shoulders and down her back. She stood there and looked into the distance. 

It started with a slight rocking of her heel. She stood upright by the railing and then her arm pulled itself through the air. She took a step back, one hand still resting on the railing while the other continued to move gracefully through the air. She sank into a graceful bow and when her body straightened up again, she stopped on the balls of her feet. She took a step and then another. Her arms moved in the air and along her body in gallant, slow movements. She turned in circles, her arms stretched out wide. Fast and then slow again. A constant change. She moved slowly but continuously around the surroundings of the pool.

I had never thought she was beautiful before. I had hardly noticed her. But at that moment, I knew she was beautiful. Her body moved with a grace, with a freedom that was unknown to me. But what touched me the most was her face. Between turns, I saw her face light up by the glow of the pool light. A gentle smile on her face, her eyes not fully closed, but nearly. She looked so happy, so peaceful. Simply beautiful.

She danced to music that I couldn’t hear. But I didn’t have to. She showed it to me. She showed me a world that I hadn’t known before. I was enchanted. At some point, she finished her dance and stopped at the railing again. Her face turned away from me. But now I knew what it looked like. The peace with which she saw the world before her. She left. Left the terrace and left me alone in the dark. 

I don’t know how long she danced. But I do know that I sat there fascinated the whole time and couldn’t take my eyes off her. Forgotten was the unsmoked cigarette, forgotten the fear of being caught. But slowly it all came back. I lifted the cigarette to my lips again, lit it and drew the smoke into my lungs. I don’t know how to describe how I felt. I was shaky, restless, and at the same time full of peace. I wanted her to come back and keep dancing for me. But at the same time, I didn’t want her to come back. I wanted this unique moment to stay like this forever. That it could never be repeated. I wanted so much and nothing at the same time.

But I just finished my cigarette, closed the window, and climbed back into my room. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and took off my clothes. I lay down in bed in an attempt to sleep. But I couldn’t let go of what I had seen. Something about it had touched me deep inside. Something had come loose in me, and I felt something I had never felt before. Despite my inner turmoil, sleep eventually overcame me. And in my sleep, she danced for me. Just for me. As before, she moved to music that I couldn’t hear, but here in my dreams she was looking at me. Her eyes met mine, just for a moment, just for a second. When I woke up, I knew I was in love. 

The next day passed in fast motion and at the same time unbearably slowly. I wished it would finally be evening. I was eagerly awaiting the sunset and at the same time, I was terrified of it. Would she be there again? Would she dance for me again? And what if she didn’t come? What if this was just a unique moment? I could hardly concentrate. I was restless and nervous. Full of impatience. But at some point, the day drew to a close. At the dinner table, I barely noticed what was being said, let alone what was being eaten. I went to my room as soon as possible and climbed up to the attic.

The evening was already turning into the night. Everything was dark and quiet. Just like the night before. I sat at the open window. Full of impatience. Endlessly nervous. I rolled one cigarette after another without actually smoking it. I didn't want her to see the glow of the cigarette if, should, when she would come. So, I sat there for what seemed like forever. And then she came. At last. Just like the night before. She moved almost silently across the terrace, caught up in her dance. She transformed in the shimmery light. A creature from another world. Beautiful. And only I could see her. Only me. I love her. This beautiful being. Shining in the darkness. Every evening I come up to the attic and see her dancing. It enchants me. It enlivens me. 

She doesn’t come to the terrace every night. Sometimes I wait in vain. Smoking and full of longing. When I can’t get to my window, to her, in the evening, it hurts me physically. I long for her. I want to see her. I have to see her. I miss her. Sometimes I see her during the day. Together with her wife and children. Her hair is tied back. Fully clothed. Walking with a purposeful stride. But no, that’s not the woman I love. This is someone else. I feel nothing for this stranger. She means nothing to me.

But then in the evening. After the world is shrouded in darkness I can see her. In that one hour, I am in love with my neighbor. This beautiful person who dances just for me. So close and yet so unapproachable. She awakens a feeling in me. It is incomprehensible to me. It’s like an addiction. I need her, I love her. But I know that she, this aesthetic embodiment of grace, is not my reality. She will never be mine. Unreachable. And yet true enough for me not to be able to stop thinking about her. To love her.

Written by India Wittmershaus.

Cover photo by Wilhelm Gunkel.


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