Broken glass always makes me think about Karl. Karl was the man who lived directly across the street from us when we lived in Toronto. He told me once that, years before we moved to the city, his house had been zoned for mixed-use and the main floor had been a laundromat. For whatever reason, he had kept the big window that stretched the whole front of the house when he’d moved in. His first floor was all open concept, and you could see straight through his living room into his kitchen, but he didn’t seem to mind it.
The first day my wife and I moved into the neighborhood, we had just started unloading our things from the moving van when Karl appeared around the back of the van with a beer can in hand.
“So, you’re the people moving in, huh?”
I nodded and my wife, Alice, hopped down from the back of the truck with a box and gave him that happy smile of hers. “We sure are.”
“Hmm. Good. The people who were here before were a bunch of hooligans. Pretty sure they were stoned every time I saw them.”
I glanced sideways at Alice, not sure what to say to that, but she hadn’t lost her smile.
“I’m Alice, and this is David,” she said, stepping forward to shake his hand before realizing she’d have to set down the box she was holding to do so. She settled for giving him an enthusiastic nod instead.
“Karl,” he said. “Good to meet you.” We all lingered for a moment in silence.
“Well, we’d better get all this inside,” I said finally.
Karl nodded and raised his can to me. “Sounds good. Sounds good.”
Upon reflection, I think that Karl kept the window because it gave him a prime view of the street. Most mornings as I was leaving for work, he would be sitting at his desk by the window with his coffee. He’d raise his mug to me, and I would give a quick wave. I still don’t know what he did for work. Something in tech that let him work from home, I think.
If he wasn’t at his window, he was out on his porch or in his front yard. If he saw you coming from a distance, he was sure to find something on his car or fence that needed looking at so that he could catch you for some conversation as you came past. “You hear about the break-in at the corner store?” “Ever thought about repainting your fence—like a nice bright white?” ““Have you tried the new café, Cocos? Don’t get their espresso, but their apple cider’s the real deal.” Our relationship was made up of these little interactions.
One evening, as Alice and I were heading out to check out a new Italian place for dinner, we saw Karl coming out of his house with a woman. She was pretty, in a sweet, middle-aged kind of way, with dark, curly hair.
“Oy!” said Karl, waving at us. “I want you folks to meet Elena.”
We came over and shook her hand and exchanged pleasantries.
“How’d you meet?” asked Alice.
“Oh, well, we were both at the community meeting for dealing with the subway station graffiti and she was the only one who had any ideas worth anything—so I figured I should get to know her a bit—and it all kind of just went from there.” He smiled at Elena and squeezed her hand.
Over the next few months, we saw him and Elena together often through that big window, eating dinner or sharing a glass of wine on the couch while they watched a show. The way they got cozy with each other, I was glad his second floor didn’t have a laundromat-sized window.
As I was coming home one afternoon in late spring, I found Karl out in his front garden planting some kind of flowering bush.
“It’s for Elena,” he explained. “She let slip that she likes the way they smell when we were at Home Depot together the other day.”
“So, you two are pretty serious then, huh?” I asked, feeling it was the thing to say.
Karl grinned. “Truth be told, I’m thinking of proposing.”
“Wow, that’s exciting,” I said. And I meant it.
“It is,” he said.
That same week, we found out that we were pregnant, and our life was suddenly a swirl of doctor’s appointments, researching strollers, and reading about the dangers of phthalates, screens, and GMO foods for children. During this time, my interactions with Karl consisted mostly of nods when we saw each other through the window.
But one morning, as I was getting dressed, I glanced across the street and was startled to find a curtain covering his whole window. I hadn’t known that the window had a curtain. I wondered if he had only put it up recently.
“Did you notice the curtain on Karl’s window?” I asked Alice later that morning as I was pouring myself a bowl of cereal.
“Hmm?” she glanced up from her phone. “No. But he must have finally gotten tired of people peering in at him—I’d have put one up a long ago if I were him.” She went back to whatever she was reading on her phone.
“But don’t you think it’s a bit odd?” I pressed. “For him to just put it up now?”
“People can change their mind about their décor, can’t they?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking maybe I should check on him, invite him over for a beer or something,” I said.
“Because he put up a curtain?” Alice asked without looking up from her phone. I could tell she was only half engaged in the conversation. I sighed.
“If anything,” she added, “it probably means he wants to be left alone.”
I kept an eye out for Karl after that but didn’t see him until one afternoon in October. He was heading into his house with a couple bags of groceries as I was getting out of my car after work.
“Hey Karl,” I called.
“Hey David,” he said, with a small nod.
We both nodded at each other for a few seconds too long. “You and Elena have any plans for Thanksgiving?” I asked.
“We’re, uh, not together anymore.”
“Oh. That’s too bad. Well, I’m sure the right one is out there somewhere,” I said, and instantly hated myself for it. Karl nodded, but his smile was tight and forced.
We both turned away without saying anything more.
After that, I noticed Karl didn’t linger around outside his house anymore. I told myself it was because the weather was getting cold. The only evidence that he was still living across from us was his garbage and recycling bin, full of an increasing number of beer bottles, that appeared at the end of his driveway on Thursdays.
Meanwhile, we were busy converting Alice’s home office into the baby’s room and I had also just gotten promoted at my advertising firm. The new position demanded long hours, and I never did get around to inviting Karl over for a beer.
Then, about a month before the baby was due, I woke up at 2:00 am to the faint sound of glass breaking. My first muddled thought was that someone was trying to get into the house and had broken the window on our porch door. I ran downstairs, but everything was normal, so I went to the front window and peered out. There was a man in an unzipped winter coat and sweatpants sitting on the step of Karl’s porch. His forehead rested against his palm and he didn’t look up, but I knew it was Karl. Despite the cold night, he was in sock feet and what looked like the shards of a bottle glinted in the snow around the base of his stairs. As I watched, he stood and turned to go back inside but caught his foot on the stair and fell awkwardly, sprawling out in the snow. He let out a string of swear words, muffled, but still audible through the snowy night. He pushed himself up to a kneeling position, swore again, and pulled a piece of glass from his hand. I could see it glinting in the streetlight. He stayed there for an unnaturally long time, kneeling in the snow, watching the trickle of red run down his hand and dribble among the other shards of glass.
I thought about going out to him. I thought about it for a good long minute. I felt my pulse pick up the way you feel before you have to get up to make a speech. I almost took a step towards my boots. But, as I tried to think of what I could say to him, I stalled out. “You alright?”—obviously, he wasn’t. “You want to come over to our place?”—it was the middle of the night. I would scare Alice to death, especially bringing a guy who was probably drunk. And I didn’t even really know him. The uncomfortable feeling in my stomach grew the longer I looked out at him. It was a feeling akin to embarrassment but not quite that, it was more like shame, but whether I was ashamed of him or myself, I still don’t know. As I thought about it more though, I figured I wouldn’t want to be seen in a state like he was in and decided that Alice was probably right. He probably wanted to be left alone. So, I headed back up to bed.
Our son Ben arrived, and a month later another company up in Ottawa offered me a job. It came with a good raise and we decided it was best for our family for me to take it. In the midst of the frantic packing, house hunting, and Ben-pacifying, I didn’t think much about Karl. But as we started loading up the truck on the day we were set to move, I remembered the day we’d met him. I glanced at the curtained window and wondered if I should go over and say something to him before we left, but I felt the opportunity had passed the night I had seen him on his porch, and I decided against it. But I still think about him sometimes, and the feeling I had on that night comes back. Then I wonder if karma is real, and I hope it’s not. Then I wonder if I should maybe invite some of our new neighbors over, but I’m certain that it wouldn’t make that feeling go away. Then I usually try to think about something else, because I really don’t like thinking about Karl.
Sierra Simopoulos is a Canadian writer who seeks to use her writing to make people think more deeply about everyday tragedies that are often overlooked by our society. She recently completed an English specialist at the university of Toronto which helped to develop her love of classic literature and good earl grey tea. She lives in Toronto with her wonderful husband George.
© 2022, Sierra Simopoulos