I’ll never forget the night I met her.
It was the same kind of night as any other night; I finished up my work at 4:30, then switched to gaming right away. I browsed the Internet with my second monitor between matches. I read about the world, getting the latest news on politics and pop culture. I read about upcoming movie releases. I watched videos on YouTube of people I’ve never met doing more interesting things than I’d ever do. Sometimes those videos made me sad, so I’d switch to somebody ranting about the latest Star Wars movie or an old sitcom. It didn’t really matter. It wasn’t about entertainment so much as it was background noise.
I first read the term hikikomori on an internet forum for people like me. The lonely ones. The word is Japanese and refers to a group of people, mostly adolescents and young men, who almost entirely remove themselves from society. To be clear, I’m not saying it’s like the Unabomber; this isn’t some naturalistic movement. Hikikomori live in a world of computers and television just like us. The last two years have shown that it’s not that hard for life to continue at home. Is it any surprise that people choose this? The world in which we live is already so alienating; we are increasingly defined not by our personalities or our deeds, but by the people we follow and the media we consume. Who wouldn’t want to step back?
Hikikomori is just a word, though. Every culture, Japanese or not, has words for outsiders. These terms allow us to be classified as deviants; as people who cannot exist alongside the rest and so choose not to. We go online instead, finding communities that accept us without question. For a lot of people, the road only gets worse from there. They find themselves radicalized, becoming Nazis or incels, so convinced are they that they have finally found a home.
I’m not like that. I don’t hold that kind of hate. I don’t blame anyone for the way I am. I just am.
It creeps up on you. I went to school in person and made friends there, graduating with honours. When school was over, I said goodbye to my friends and moved to a new city for work. That was February 2020. The world stopped a month later, but I was lucky and my job went online. Even with things basically open now, I still don’t go into work. My office doesn’t want me to; savings on overhead and increased productivity made it easy to decide that the work-from-home setup should be permanent. I remember a lot of people were pleased. I think I even was, too. It was so much easier to just slot a Hungry-Man into the microwave than it was to think about cooking. So much easier to entertain myself with a few episodes of TV than it was to go out and find something to do. So much easier to just carry on, letting habit be my guide.
I still go out a little, of course. But not much. I put in my grocery order, then I pick it up. That’s pretty much it. The rest of my life is conducted in a 1500 square foot apartment eight storeys above the ground. It’s boring, safe, and lonely. I know it’s not healthy, but I also don’t know what to do.
Maybe that’s why I gave her a chance.
This is the part of the story where I’ll sound insane. I can’t really blame you if you think I am, but I ask you to try and believe me. Don’t pity me. Don’t tell me I should call someone for help. Just read my words and hear me.
It was getting late. It had been raining hard outside and was just beginning to slacken off. Lights from the street below dyed the window a brilliant blue, flickering against the ceiling of my room. I never kept the lights on at night. The cool neon from the buildings below made me feel safe somehow, as if knowing people were outside was enough to prevent me from feeling totally alone.
I first saw her when I stood up to get a refill. I had just turned around my chair when I saw her outlined on the glass. She stood there, umbrella in hand. She opened it above her head, slow and careful. I watched with awe as the water on the glass split down either side of the umbrella, spinning away to the street below. She looked as though she was carved into the glass, but there was no marking on the window. Like ice once it’s been cracked and then frozen over again. She moved about with balletic grace. I watched her for a long moment, mesmerized. I wasn’t afraid, despite how it may sound. My computer whispered softly. The sound of the rain outside was little more than a wave brushing up against some distant shore. She danced between the panes, her body sliding effortlessly from one frame to another. I didn’t want to look away. I was afraid to blink, lest closing my eyes reveal this for the dream I was sure it was.
I must have moved eventually, though, because she suddenly stopped, her head turning to face me. I held my breath. An eternity passed and more. Then she moved again, tilting back the brim of her umbrella to reveal her face. I caught the briefest glimpse of crystalline eyes peeking out from a cascade of hair so fine the glass itself looked frail. I drew closer, moving slowly. She watched me, but didn’t make to leave. Once I was close, I kneeled in front of the glass, then laid my palm against it. It was cool and thrummed gently with the rain. She hesitated for a long moment. My eyes met hers, and we saw one another. She placed her hand against mine. Only the glass separated us. Then I looked away. I hadn’t made eye contact with another soul in months. Can I really be blamed?
In truth, I was embarrassed. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to seem weird. Instead, I went and got my drink and then came back, all without turning on a single light. I peeked around the wall and into my room to see if she was still there, but she wasn’t.
I noticed a thin filament of gold in the corner of my room. Dawn was coming. Had I been up so late? I checked my phone. I still had three hours until work began. Enough time to sleep a little. I crawled into bed and turned to face the window. I waited for her until sleep took me, but she never came.
I woke three hours later, tired and unconvinced that it hadn’t been a dream. I rolled over and stared at the window. Sun shone through brightly now, and there was no sign of the rain from the night before. I saw the thin outline of my handprint on the pane. I grabbed the bedsheet with my fist, clenching and unclenching it to be sure it was real.
I got up and spent the day in a haze. I had to work, but did so laconically, without any sense of purpose. I browsed the Internet as I did and even went so far as to search every configuration of “people in glass,” “window people,” or even “ghosts in glass” that I could think of. That last one left me feeling especially foolish for some reason, as if the concept of a ghost was far harder to grasp than whatever I had seen the previous night.
None of the results came back with anything useful. Most were stock photos, my language too imprecise. The inquiry about ghosts was marginally more useful, but all of the images were of orbs floating against window panes. Nothing was close to how real she had felt. I considered inquiring about it on a forum for the supernatural, but decided not to. There was something private about this. I didn’t want to share her. I just wanted her to see me.
I went out later that day. I took a bus to a hardware store and grabbed a microfiber cloth and window cleaner. I didn’t order online because I didn’t want to wait, didn’t want to risk it not being ready for tonight.
I hadn’t been on a bus in forever. I rode with headphones in and my hood up, watching people from a distance.
When I got home, I immediately set to cleaning the windows. I did so with more care than I had applied to any task I could remember, taking special notice to avoid any streaking on the glass. The sun had already begun to set as I worked. My windows faced east and so I could only tell the day was fading via the wall of orange which sank along the building across the street. Once I finished, I sat on the bed and watched the light fade.
This took longer than I expected, so I went to make dinner. I considered another Hungry-Man, but felt a strange embarrassment to be eating that way with her around. I searched about and found frozen green beans in the freezer along with some chicken. I mixed it up with rice and soy sauce and made a rudimentary stir fry. It felt strange to eat something I made myself, more filling somehow. I ate a second helping and then waited in my living room until it was full dark. Then I went back to my bedroom.
The room carried within it a kind of preternatural dark, as if the shadows weren’t quite yet sure what they wanted to reveal. I left the lights off as I always did, glancing only briefly at the window as I sat down at my desk. Nothing there but the world beyond. I sighed to myself. Sitting at my desk like I normally would didn’t seem as appealing as it once had, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I resigned myself to my usual plans. I didn’t turn around again until it was time to go to bed.
I waited for a long moment once my monitor was off, as if the very act of anticipation might somehow inspire her return. I took a deep breath and spun in my chair, trying my very best to act as if it was the most casual action in the world.
She wasn’t there. Phantasmagoric lights flooded the street outside, but there was no sign of her silhouette engraved in the glass. Had she ever been there, or had it simply been a delusion of a sleep-deprived mind whittled away by long hours in front of screens? I felt a faint ember in my chest sputter as it was snuffed out.
I got into bed. I made the decision to speak without even really thinking about it.
“I don’t know if you’re there,” I said, “or if you can hear me, but I just wanted to quickly say that I really hope that you’re there.” My voice sounded strange to me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had spoken aloud. “I’m not great at meeting new people, but I’d really like to get to know you.” I cringed. It had felt silly in my head, even worse out loud. “Anyway, I’m not going anywhere. You probably know that I kind of do the same thing a lot of the time. So if you ever change your mind and decide you want to hang out, I’ll be here.”
I wasn’t sure how to finish this insane, desperate rambling. I eventually muttered “good night,” then rolled over to face away from the window.
My actions that day turned into routine. I had no proof, but it didn’t change how I felt. I was sure she was there. I started to wash the windows every day, and I found myself staying up later than I normally would. In other aspects of my life, I felt a desire to improve: I cooked for myself more, and I began to read in bed instead of watching movies or playing games until I slept. I had seen myself through her eyes and had been ashamed. I wanted to be proud of myself when we next met.
As the days turned to weeks, I began to think of her as a roommate. She was always there, even if I couldn’t see her. I spoke to her and told her things that I had never told another person. Other conversations were more banal, short diatribes about a problem at work or some bad movie I had watched. It didn’t matter, really, so long as I thought she was listening.
You might have guessed by now that she hasn’t come back. I’m not sure if she ever will. I’m sure that you think that she might never have been real, but I refuse to accept that. I’d rather her have left than for her to have only ever existed in my mind. I need her to be real. She needs to see who I’ve become.
I want to be clear: I did this for me. No person can force another person to change. Not directly, anyway. When someone lives life a certain way, people notice. They strive to be better because of that person. She showed me how to be better. She showed me I was capable of being better.
And now, whenever I start to forget, I think of the girl in the glass and how she danced beneath the raindrops.