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Letting the Light In - Claire Van Winkle

There is a correct way to dress a window: you must measure first. You must choose the proper hardware. These fabrics are fixtures, and must be installed. If installing drapes, you must resist the temptation to hang them outright; they must be washed, dried a very short while on air fluff—no heat—and hung just this side of dry, to work out any creases. According to my mother’s Polish-American wisdom, one must shine the window glass inside and out before hanging clean curtains, or the room can never be bright.

In other words, one does not dress a window with the sole intention of hiding filthy blinds. One does not purchase an oblong sheet of crimson crinoline from a remnant bin in the garment district and name it a valence. One does not fasten window dressings with staples and duct tape. Curtains make a room; they are the veil between the outer and inner worlds. But a person does not move to New York City to seek a room of her own. So from day one, I was breaking the rules.

My first room in New York was an 8X10 box in a dormitory at 3rd Avenue and 9th Street. I had little interest in the city itself; I was there to write. In order to facilitate this writing my first tasks upon moving in turned my efforts inward. I started by cleaning my toilet. It was then necessary to scrub a decade of college crockpot grease from a kitchen I shared with my suitemate. By the time I approached the filthy blinds of my own bedroom I was exhausted.

It would take eleven apartments—over a decade punctuated by ten displacements and several gasps between residences—to learn that as a renter I had the right to functional blinds if they’d been installed before my occupancy. That on my first day as a freshman in August of 2000, a single call to New York University’s Buildings and Maintenance Office would have done away with all that dirt.

At the time, however, a makeshift valence was the best I could do. And yet despite my mistreatment of the windows, I made my room work.

The end of my first year of undergraduate studies dislodged me. I took an apartment with my former dormitory suitemate—a “convertible one-bedroom” At Houston and 6th Avenue. My room—the room that had undergone said conversion—had two narrow windows facing south. I measured them prudently and dressed them with care in opaque Roman blinds. I positioned my desk to face the windows; when the window shades were open the view was a straight shot down 6th Avenue. When closed, the dark cotton and bamboo had the effect of blackout curtains.

It was a Tuesday morning. Despite the brilliant daylight, inside it was dusk; my window treatments were doing their work. I slept profoundly in the cocoon of my room. The sound did not wake me; it took my roommate shaking me, pulling me to my window, and yanking the ripcord that lifted the blinds. She pointed downtown toward a tower of smoke. She said nothing and I stood mute, not entirely convinced I wasn’t having a nightmare. I was about to speak when the second plane hit.

The EPA declared the air below 14th Street safe to breathe; it would take weeks for that decision to be questioned. Meanwhile the smoke swelled north. After a few days I started spending a great deal of time walking the empty streets, heading uptown; the smell of char and burnt rubber had inhabited my linens. One day when I reached 34th Street I turned. I headed west to Penn Station and got on the next train out. I was lucky—I could afford a ticked and I had a friend in Boston willing to share her room.

By the time I returned to Houston and 6th the thick smell of ash had permeated my apartment. There must be a correct way to clean Roman blinds, but I did not know it and at that time I certainly did not care to learn. So I threw out the window shades and turned my desk to face the wall.

On Thursday, August 14th 2003, I bought my first real drapes. They were heavy gold damask, a set complete with tie-backs, purchased from Macy’s. I’d taken time with my selection. I’d waited for a White Sale and collected coupons. This care and economy seemed important to me; I was young enough for such action to make me feel very grown-up—despite the fact that I’d bought these particular curtains to complement the furniture I’d recently salvaged from my girlhood bedroom. I even looked mature that day, clad in a strappy black dress and shod in high heels. It did not occur to me then that most grown women would not get dressed up for the occasion of purchasing curtains. I left Macy’s with my prize and was nearing the subway when New York City short-circuited. Everything stopped. Some sightseers looked at each other, some looked up at the sky. I wheeled around and looked uptown: Times Square was dark.

I stood there holding the two Big Brown Bags that held my painstakingly chosen drapes. There was nothing to do but go home and no way to get there but to walk. Hours later—once I’d traversed Broadway, crossed the Manhattan Bridge, and started into Brooklyn—the heat peaked at 93º. I was developing mixed feelings about my grown-up curtains; the complete set I’d been so proud to attain must have weighed twenty pounds. And all around me adult women fresh from the Financial District carried their high heels, having had the foresight to make their commute in gym shoes.

Eight years and seven apartments later I was still handling my curtains all wrong. Hurricane Irene was looming, warnings were mounting, and I was off to buy drapes—the final adornment for the apartment that was mine and mine alone, my first solitary domicile in over five years. I had just moved to Rockaway Park, in Queens, and for the first time I felt at home in New York. I wouldn’t have another day off to run errands for at least two weeks. I could prepare for the hurricane or I could hunt for curtains. I chose the curtains.

I will not defend my choice.

I didn’t know the evacuation had been mandated until two hours after the fact. I was unaware that the order had been given because at the time of the announcement I was occupied with dismantling a floor display at the Century 21 Department Store in Manhattan. This particular display featured the last two curtain panels in “Soho Opal” to be had in the five boroughs. I was told by the less-than-thrilled staff at Century 21 that their limited stock was certainly not due to any question of chic; these drapes—if you could call a whisper of polyester a drape—had simply been discontinued. They were out of my price range. They were also longer than they ought to have been and too sheer to be practical, but they were right. If I could have taken it all back—all of the difficult times, the struggles, the dark days shut behind the blinds of New York City—if I could have rewritten myself as a lovelier, simpler, better girl, and if I could have given that girl a room of her own, that room would have had those curtains.

I was set on those diaphanous panels, and I managed to make them mine. I emerged from the store covered in the dust of the showroom’s dummy sills, my hands scratched from wrestling with ancient display rods warped by years of impatience and overuse, ready to follow all the rules, to handle my curtains correctly. As I stepped off the escalator and into cell reception, my phone buzzed with text messages, missed calls, and voice mail alerts.

The residents of Rockaway Park were told not to bother with taping their windows. We were explicitly told to evacuate. And it was tacitly suggested there might not be much to come back to.

I didn’t hang my curtains that day. I did as I was told, taking the unopened packages with me and keeping the receipt on my person, figuring on returning the drapes in the event that I no longer had windows to dress. As it happened, the storm died, my house held, and the block never even lost power.

A year passed and still the thin drapes of “Soho Opal” seemed new. I still marveled at how they fell, diffusing the light. Through those curtains I imagined I saw the world through that other girl’s—that better girl’s— eyes. As Sandy whirled close I stared out my window. I could have stripped the windows, packed the curtains and gone inland, but I stayed. I knew the storm was coming but I stayed… Because I was starting to feel like that other girl, and she lived behind those sheer panels, bathed in soft light. There hadn’t been as much talk this time about evacuating, and what there had been I ignored. I didn’t seek out advice on the utility of protecting my windows. Instead I polished them until I could see my reflection. I took out tape and made elaborate patterns on the spotless glass. Then I closed my drapes. I chose to stay.

I cannot defend my choice.

As it happened, the storm came on. The wind picked up and the ocean surged and waves rushed down my street. The water rose and the power went and the night grew loud and fierce. The peninsula drowned as the ocean met the bay. I had been ready for darkness, but when the skies lit up on either side of my house I knew I’d made a mistake. The curtains glowed; somewhere nearby a building had burst into flames.

The first version of this essay did not include storms. I started this piece caught up in that window valence I rigged on my first day alone in the City. It was supposed to be an essay that began with remnants and ended up as a more finished piece.

But as I endeavor to look to the past, I find myself pulling back the curtain and gazing out my window at the first New York neighborhood on which I have truly lived—survived, yes, but more than that… This neighborhood has changed, but not in the same way that so many other places I’ve lived have transformed over the course of my twenty years in this city. This neighborhood has scars: Restored houses and new developments are neighbored by razed lots and collapsed bungalows; temporary fencing still gates off dunes at risk of erosion; the stain of Sandy’s high-water mark is still clearly visible on buildings that came through the hurricane intact.

I, too, am damaged and in need of repair. As I look out the window of the room I call my home, I see my own reflection—translucent, like a ghost image on a double-exposed photograph. Like this neighborhood— and this city, and this essay—I am in the works.

I will never be finished.

Still, as I let the diaphanous fabric fall and watch the gilded sunlight flow over the window seat, I know that in spite of the lack and loss and indecision and bad decisions, I am lucky; I am here. I sit at my desk, safe for the moment, and write this tribute to bricks and mortar—a tribute to the balance between the safety of sameness and the inevitability of change. A recognition that when we are most comfortable, it often becomes necessary to move—and that even when we must keep the world out, it is essential that we find a way to let the light in.

My words have a permanent home in this building; I have written on its walls and whispered to its shadows. I have filled its space with my self. I know that I am not that better girl I used to imagine—that princess in the tower of the way things might have been. I am a woman, and this is my home. And the next time there is danger I will close the curtains and leave it all behind.

I will take my cat and as many books as I can carry and I will find a new room. And so long as I make my foundation on the strength of my art, I will always have the means to build again.


Claire Van Winkle received her BA at New York University and her MFA at Queens College, where she studied poetry and literary translation. Claire teaches grammar, composition, creative writing, and literature at CUNY and SUNY. She is the founder of the Rockaway Writers' Workshop. She also runs writing therapy groups at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Claire's poetry appears in publications including the American Journal of Poetry, Poor Yorick, No Dear, The Thieving Magpie, Three Line Poetry, Sixfold, and anthologies by Rogue Scholars and Black Lawrence Press. Her literary essays and translation reviews have been featured in Belle Ombre and 3 Percent.Claire has been the recipient of several honors including the Queens College Foundation Scholarship for Poetry and Literary Translation, an American Literary Translators Association Travel Fellowship, an American Academy of Poets Award, the Mary M. Fay Poetry Award, and the Lenore Lipstein Memorial Prize for Formal Poetry.


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