Chapter 1 from The Sleep-Over Artist

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"Falling Water"

ALEX FADER GREW UP IN AN APARTMENT ON THE FOURTEENTH floor of a large prewar building that took up an entire block of Riverside Drive. From his bedroom window, which looked north, he could see a broad patch of sky, the tops of buildings, a multitude of wooden water towers, and off to the left, visible only if he pressed his cheek to the windowpane, the Hudson River. The view that most fascinated him, however, was the one to be had by looking directly down.

Once when he was six, he suddenly rose from his bath, opened the narrow bathroom window above it, and leaned out. He balanced on his wet stomach, arms and legs outstretched like Superman, contemplating what it would be like to take the plunge and if his life so far had contained enough satisfaction so that it could now reasonably come to a close. He stayed teetering on the windowsill, looking at the distant pavement below, trying to imagine what it would feel like to land there and what he would be thinking during those thrilling seconds of flight.

Half his body felt the moist familiarity of the bathroom, and the other half, wet and gleaming like a dolphin, hung in the cold air of the unknown. Then a faint curiosity as to what would happen after his fall—the ensuing hours and days—asserted itself. He pictured himself in a steaming heap on the concrete below, and a few minutes later his parents would be staring confusedly at the bathtub, full of murky water, but empty of him. He teetered for a while longer. The image of his parents trying to make sense of the empty bath was amusing at first, but then became unpleasant. With the same entranced conviction with which he had got up on the ledge, he got down, closed the window, and resumed his bath.

Having decided that he would not throw his body out the window, he began throwing smaller, less valuable objects.

First a cracker: it went spinning out the window and out of sight, and its absence seemed profound. Next were water balloons, whose wobbly downward trajectory he always monitored until they hit the ground, after which the small figure of the doorman would appear hustling onto the wet pavement, looking up. Alex loved the sight of this tiny figure, so formidable in real life, appearing on the sidewalk, but in watching from above, he was usually spotted from below.

Things were different at his friend Walker's apartment. Walker lived a few blocks south of Alex on Riverside Drive, also on the fourteenth floor. They were ten, and new best friends, and Walker was constantly surprising him with new and interesting ways to express malice. With regard to throwing things out the window, it was Walker who introduced the idea of a human target. They would stand perched at Walker's kitchen window, both holding on to a pot full of water balanced on the ledge, waiting for a suitable victim.
The windows of Walker's apartment all looked out over the Hudson River, and directly below was a broad lonely patch of sidewalk onto which people arrived like actors walking onto a stage.

They once observed an attractive young woman walking briskly with a bouquet of flowers in her hands towards a man who was standing with several suitcases around him, as though waiting for a taxi, right beneath their window. He was a perfect victim. They were about to douse the man with water, but it looked like something incredibly romantic was about to occur, some long-awaited reunion, and Alex and Walker instinctively held back and watched.

The woman had a strapless top on, and even from the distance of fourteen floors Alex could make out the subtle jump of her shoulder muscles and the tremulous softness of her breasts as they bounced up and down with each step. The flowers had delicate pink petals. The man with the suitcases stared at her as she approached with bold strides. His body was still and unmoving. His gaze fixed. He was oblivious to everything else in the world but her. She walked right up to him and bashed him in the face with the bouquet, a violent forehand smash. The petals scattered like confetti. Then, without missing a beat, she turned on her heel and stomped back in the direction she had come, still clutching the considerably less flowery bouquet. The man just stood there.

Alex and Walker were so transfixed by this scene that they forgot to pour water on him.

Other people were less fortunate. Alex and Walker would stand guard at the kitchen window until someone appeared on Riverside Drive. There would be time to size up the target—gait, posture, clothes. At a certain ideal moment the water would fall forward from their pot in one solid translucent mass, and then split in half, and then in half again and again, so that what started as a single glob on the fourteenth floor ended as a thousand pellets of water on the ground. The pale pavement darkened and the victim became completely still. This momentary freeze was, for some reason, the most delicious part.
There was one set of victims who stayed in Alex's mind for a long time afterwards. A little girl wearing a pink coat, white stockings, and shiny black shoes ambled down the sunny street, a half step behind her mother. She looked as if she was on her way either to or from a party. She walked with unsteady steps, and her mother walked beside her, looking down and talking, but also giving the girl her independence. They were two small objects alone on the sidewalk. The water hit the ground in a great hissing mass and they froze like everyone else.

But in the several seconds between the pour and the splatter, as Alex watched the water fragment and descend, a tremendous pang of regret leapt up in his stomach instead of the more familiar thrill. As he watched the jerky awkward expressiveness of the little girl walking beneath the water's widening net, he understood that there was a small corrupting moment about to take place—one kid introducing another to the random world of fate and bad luck.