Toti O'Brien

 

BABEL 

 

     The balcony. 

     How could I have considered it a safe place? Please, do not believe I haven’t thought about it, and frequently. For I’ve had this compulsion since childhood: hide on balconies for a while, wherever I might be.

     It’s a more common feature than you would think: modest flats have at least one annexed to the kitchen, the storage, the laundry room. A small ledge of concrete surrounded by bars: an output for nasty smells, a place for hanging a rag or hiding a bucket. Well, I systematically find it and it becomes my corner, my abode, my sancta sanctorum.

     I squat laterally, my back pushed against the bars… I like the sensation. The bars make me feel safe: they are stronger than me, they contain me. Still I’ve wondered about what would happen, if a piece of this cage suddenly gave up. Why not? After all men put the contraption together. And men are imperfect, are they?

     Men make balconies… my own grandpa forged many I have explored, while I visited with family and friends. Grandpa was a skilled ironsmith and I admired him. I’m in awe of smiths in general, for I have seen one at work... I have seen the forge and I’ll tell you: it takes strength to do that kind of job. Metal is a huge beast, a wild creature. You have to tame it… it takes brains, muscles, a fearless soul. But—that’s where awe comes in—the things you build, then, look pretty. 

     When we go somewhere (all packed in the car, father at the wheel), my eyes hunt for garden gates, fences, lampposts. They exult at the sight of balconies enlivening facades, otherwise mere displays of dullness. Balconies are the garb of buildings, the flourish, the lace—at least in the colonial South where we live. 

     They look like needlework, braided ribbons enhancing the chalky walls. Still I know how sturdy they are. It is not the bars, really, worrying me. It’s the pavement: this strip sticking out of the architectural body, like a tooth. How do you know it isn’t rotten? How do you trust the connection? It feels quite improbable, if you think about it—that I sometimes do, and it gives me a thrill. Of the pleasant kind, I don’t know why.

 

     I enjoy my balcony stations at sunset—a time I find oppressive indoors. There’s a brisk change of pace: whatever the day, we are about to wrap it. Someone heads toward the kitchen, someone lights up the living room, turns on the TV. Dinner lurks at the horizon. Family gels around evening rituals. That is when, invariably, unreflectively, a magnetic pull draws me out. 

     When my back pushes against the bars—in that small womb embracing me—I look at the sky changing colors. I immensely like it. I get lost in the permutation. I forget everything else. I float.

 

*

 

     The last thing in my eyes are squares. Not many: three rows? Rather two. I can’t tell… Why can’t I? I had all the time to acknowledge it, but I didn’t. 

     Two or three rows? More likely two, the space is exiguous—a cradle. Old tiles in a checkered pattern, white and blue: they are called azules. An embellishment, out of place in this trivial addendum of the house. On the blue squares is the worn trace of painted lilies. French lilies. Why those? I have no clue, but I have often run my finger on them. Their petals are cute, curly, tender. Little lilies: two of them, I am sure. 

     

     I have chosen this balcony because it’s the highest: it belongs to the tower. That is an over statement—I should call it turret. Quite a modest cylinder, but it dominates the rest of the building, sticking above the roofline. Like the ornate ironwork and the painted tiles, it is a Moresque reminiscence. Not uncommon around here.

     The turret is a tube, occupied by a staircase leading to the room at the top: father’s library. No, there isn’t a telescope, only a desk, books entirely lining the walls, and a miniature sofa where two people could squeeze. Here and there the shelves allow closeted areas. One of them keeps a collection of liquors. A small fireplace faces a narrow balcony, on the left. Obviously the glass doors open inwards. Thick drapes screen them. They need to be pulled, or the doors won't open. They are dusty rose—a color of flesh, like the sofa. Old flesh… this room doesn’t get lots of cleaning.

     I steal on dad’s balcony whenever I can. I sit there at twilight, waiting for a spell to get hold of me. Nothing magic: I don’t feel like a cloud, a bird, an angel, or similar nonsense  (all the peterpanish stuff you’re fed as a child). The spell simply reaches my limbs, telling them not to budge a single inch. Then it reaches my tongue, and I savor silence.

     If I look down—that I avoid not because the view scares me, but because I prefer the levitation, the groundlessness... If I look down, now and then, I can check the kitchen window a few stories below. When it lights up—too brightly—I tense in a controlled manner, sending energy in rivulets to my extremities. Filling up my torso, arms and legs with a flow of pulsing blood. I’m aware of my muscles and bones but I stay still. My head, like a feather, placidly comes back from its wandering. Nothing magic, I said—my head says goodbye to the open, to the enchanting expanse where it fluttered for a while. I stand up and get in without looking back.

     What gives me the signal is not just the kitchen light, but the shadows I guess through the window, brisk and snappy like puppets. One, more posed: my mother. One, a sort of twirling jack-in-the-box: Isidora.

 

*

 

     I am Xenia. As you know it means the stranger. I am not one—I was born and raised here. The exotic name was selected by grandpa—not the balcony maker… the other one, mother’s father. 

     He had a huge collection of stamps, his favorite hobby. Rather devouring passion: he spent every scrap of free time at it. The heavy volumes were bound in different colors, organized by continents—each divided in myriads of nations, some of them occupying many pages, some a couple of rows. None was missing.

     Grandpa brought me with him when he went shopping, after pondering over hieroglyphic catalogues. He also allowed me to soak scraps of envelopes, witnessing the slow process of stamps ungluing themselves. Lifting them, finally, with extreme attention. Putting them to dry, face down, over layers of newspapers. Same meticulousness was required for moving them through the page with a pair of long-handled tweezers—sliding them along the rows to make room for newcomers. 

     They looked just like books on father’s library shelves… but I liked grandpa’s microcosmos much more. Everything was enthralling: the preciousness (with its overtones of mystery), the paraphernalia (china bowls, blotting paper and tweezers), the erudition (a thick tapestry of interlocking geography and history). Most of all the beauty.

     How I loved those cameos of thousands of colors and styles! How I enjoyed picking and switching favorites, to allow mood variations and esthetic growth… When I was permitted to browse—albums spread on my knees—I progressed from periphery to center, leaving what I most liked for the end. I savored it all, lingering on each page. But I drooled for dulcis in fundo Magyar, Indonesia, Arab Emirates or Central African states… They blew me away with their spreads of butterflies, strange masks, fabulous animals.

    Grandpa had traveled locally, both for work and for war. He had not been abroad and he didn’t care. His collection fulfilled a mathematical mind, quenched an obsessive bent… maybe it was a financial investment. It still meant the entire world for him. Did it? The unknown globe in his hands. And he wanted his first grandchild to be Xenia. Mother didn’t have an opinion. Father agreed.

 

     I’m Xenia and I am not. In the depths of my mind I’m aware my name is a fancy, a caprice... I was meant to get grandma’s name, Titia. Not a lot better, and way more common. But it sort of lurks in the background. I’m attached to letter t—it sticks to me like a shadow. I often feel like a t… I relate to t-shaped things like this tower… turret. Stilts, for instance, that acrobats wear around carnivals: long sticks with crossing platforms hidden under the costumes. Crosses, obviously, from where Christ and martyrs hung, arms spread out, head reclined on the side, flattened out. Crouches for invalids or beggars—old style, made of wood, as you see them in paintings. All those things feel familiar and mine. I have always been skin and bones, and so angular... Maybe that’s why.

 

*

 

     Isidora was born when I was six. Mom and dad chose her name. At first it sounded pretty: on the long ride I liked it less. It is made of two parts, and that seems excessive—I realized it when I visited the Egyptian Pavilion.

     The entire school went. Kids love mummies and the rest: scary bird-heads, wolf-faces, evil eyes. But I was already a teenager, I cared little for the adventurous and the macabre. I found the display dazzling beautiful… a bit like grandpa’s stamps. All those figures and stories—traced, carved, sculpted with infinite elegance, shining turquoise and gold—filled my eyes. 

     I thought I resembled those folks—I had something in common with them. Wasn’t I cut like them? My body a bunch of sharp lines, my jutting profile—a kind of dark silhouette. My hair matched theirs: long, watery, indocile and raven. Also letter t, with which I identified, came up often while I browsed the appellatives of pharaohs, gods and pyramids. My Egyptian phase lasted a while, so I discovered Isis was the moon. I got envious of sister then. Of her name, I mean. 

     See, I felt kin to the moon. I do: that’s why I worship the time when the sun gently moves away, to give its nocturnal partner a chance. At birth, sis was emblazoned with both stars—because of the “dora” suffix, the gold. She is sun and moon for my parents, no doubt… Shouldn’t we have split? I wouldn’t have minded the dimmer luminaria—having none seems unbalanced. That’s how I started to resent Isidora. Her name.

 

     I used to pass out when I was a kid. The first time I was six year old. Isi was just born and I was bound to the hospital, to see mom and the new baby girl. Nanny parted my long hair—as I said, black, curled, rebellious and nappy. It required tight braiding, and depending on who performed the task (grandmas, aunts, nannies, but never mother), tight could veer from efficient to cruel. With each crossing strand my whole mane was pulled from the roots, so sharply that my neck bent backwards. I endured: I had to be groomed.

     But that morning—excited or rushed—Nanny truly overdid it. I lost consciousness. She got scared and left, perhaps to seek help. When I awoke, my cheek soothed by the cool caress of the bathtub, no one was there. 

      I always loved tiles. The bathtub was trimmed with a bas-relief: white on white, nothing fancy, but every square sported a bee... When I came to, my eyes figured one of the insects, very close. I heard the buzz—that of course didn’t emanate from the tile. I was confused still. The buzz matched the insect, and I liked it, and it all made some kind of sense.

     I fainted for the second time at my sister’s christening—on the wooden bench where I stiffly sat, clad in velvet (white collar, white cuffs), my feet aching inside my black varnished mary janes. I’m sure the incense did it—the altar boy swung his nasty thurible in my face. I can’t think of another cause.

 

*

 

    Grandpa (the one of the stamps) died a couple of years ago. He was old, still I miss him plenty. He has left me one of his albums: a country, and not quite my favorite. Rows and rows of popes, saints, madonnas, a few buildings and churches, then flags—the most boring. But it doesn’t matter. It is worth money and I’m glad. I’ll know what to do at the right moment. Isidora has received an album as well. I haven’t asked which.

     I had borrowed something from grandpa, shortly before he died. I have kept it: no one’s claiming it back. It’s a green pair of tweezers, long-handled. He had lent them for me to repair a couple of earrings. They worked very well. 

     At the funeral, a cousin showed up whom we didn’t know existed. I say we, because Isi was surprised as well: she couldn’t stop watching him. Neither could I. Red haired, red bearded, he has just returned from Chile, where he has spent more than two decades. I don’t know the details: mom and dad have often talked about him, but in that pinched manner of theirs. He popped out kind of awkwardly... he’s the one who should bear my name—though I never heard a male version.

 

     My room is in the basement. It hasn’t always been there. I was given it four years ago, when I finished high school. Grandpa was still alive. That is unrelated, I know. Until then Isi and I shared a bedroom—large, and looking toward the back. Behind our block the town ends and the beach starts. The room had no balconies, only windows, screened by puffy curtains. 

     And the view wasn’t terrible. There, the beach is closed to the public. It’s a muddy strip of black sand, filled with I don’t know which worthy mineral—once it was a quarry, now abandoned. Something gloomy and forlorn, about it. 

     The room never felt mine though I did my homework in it, and of course I slept. But you know where I spent my sweet time.

 

    When my folks fixed the basement in order to give me some privacy I was glad, but the library became kind of remote… though I don’t mind climbing stairs. There’s no window in the basement. I sit at my desk—a long table where I do my crafts. I have good lights, sharp and focused.

     I have taught myself how to make jewelry. Metal work. With the tweezers grandpa lent me (the green handled ones) I can ply the thinnest of wire. Copper, that is most tender. 

     Father doesn’t approve of my crafts. He’s afraid they’ll distract me from college. They won’t. I’ll graduate, then take off. I will travel. Sell my album of stamps—just one country, but pages and pages—to buy my first fare. Let my name mean something at last. Of course I haven’t told father.

     He is worried about me. He thinks I didn’t notice. I did, and I know the cause of concern.

 

*

 

     I am falling.

     I don’t like the sensation. It’s quite horrible. Luckily it doesn’t last. It’s precipitous like they say of my delivery (mom doesn’t talk about it—I don’t think she liked it. I was fast. I engaged in the channel when she wasn’t fully dilated. It must have been truly painful, that is why… I have lost the train of my thoughts).

     The feeling, I said, is precipitous, which is probably better. Then don’t think I stop feeling. Don’t think I am nowhere till I come around. I am somewhere, of course—only, hard to describe. Always thinking of stamps, I’d say it fits in one page but it’s colorful. I have mapped it… there are recurring items… horses, wild, and probably white. Dirty white, a bit grey, a bit silvery. They run over me. I hear them coming from far, then the noise gets closer. They gallop over me—hundreds. It is thunderous but it doesn’t hurt. Heavy, but it doesn’t smother me. And the herd never ends, somehow it rarefies. Then I come around.

     Recently, I have seen a neurologist who asked a number of questions. He asked things I couldn’t answer: if I froth, if I bite my tongue. There’s no mark on my tongue that I can notice. But I’m usually alone when I fall, so I don’t know about frothing and my recollection proves nothing. The EKG came out clean. 

     I have passed out more than once, after grandpa died. That is why dad is worried: he doesn’t like trouble. He does not like anomalies—not in the family—especially not in the head.

 

     I have also increased my balcony habit, which had lessened when I moved to the basement. Not entirely gone—I said I don’t mind stairs. Suddenly my trick seemed a bit childish, obsolete—but recently a lack of air grabs me at twilight, worse than it was before. I sneak out, sit on checkered tiles, squeeze against the bars with my eyes closed, or stare at the sky (that’s equally restful). Call it meditation. Whatever. 

     I still fit. I’m still skin and bones. I fit laterally, of course. If someone saw me from outside (they can’t—there’s no vis-à-vis—the turret sticks out in the heights) I’d read like a hieroglyph inked against the wall, interlaced with the iron bars. 

 

*

 

     Something strange occurred while I was there, a few weeks ago, that I haven’t figured yet. It has troubled me though I’m not easily scared. I have no idea of how it happened, but I was trapped, locked out. When I saw light through the kitchen window, I began my ritual of slowly gathering up, coming back to reality. When I turned to the door, I smacked my face against it. 

     It was shut. Obviously from the inside: no other way. And the curtain was pulled—I saw a compact wall of darkness. How was it possible? Well, I had been kind of lost, I had let myself glide… it could have occurred in a moment of complete absorption. I mean absence. But it had to be done in the slowest, quietest way: a millimeter at a time, as a thief would.

     I panicked. I turned around, my back pressing against the glass panes as if they could absorb me, as if I could melt into the building, engrave myself. I tried keeping the landscape under control: now it threatened me. I took long and deep breaths, then I turned again, banged and called with no answer. Then I shouted at mother whom I could spy, luckily, down in the kitchen. It was summer, the window was open, my voice carried. Mom didn’t come up, sister did. 

     I was pale when she let me in. She was flushed. She must have run up the stairs. “What happened?” I paused, not too sure about what I wanted to say. “I don’t know. I was locked out without noticing. Please say nothing. Say I fell asleep in the library, and I had a bad dream.” So we said.

 

     And another time, sitting there, I heard laughing. I think so. Smothered giggles—they startled me. I was truly in the hypnotic phase, deeply relaxed. I did not budge. The noises barely registered—an oddity I would think of later. Noises? Yes, there were more than laughs. Something else, nondescript: thumps, like furniture pushed around. Lightly. Murmurs, maybe. A voice I did not recognize: not father’s, for sure. Maybe the cleaning lady… in late afternoon? What an oddity. 

     When I went by, I noticed the sofa was caved in, as if someone had sat there. Someone heavy.

 

*

 

     Recently, Isi and I had a row. It never happened before, hopefully never again. We were eating lunch when she left the table. She must have gone to the bathroom: we have no other excuse. When she returned she was livid. She grabbed me by the arm, dragged me into the corridor. 

     She said I had messed with her makeup. No idea of what she meant. She insisted about a tube of lipstick I had stolen. I was shocked and couldn’t make head or tail of her words. She had grasped my neck, fingers digging like prongs. When I clawed at her face, she reciprocated. Then I grabbed her neck. We both screamed. Mother appeared at the door, stupefied, but she didn’t have time to speak… we had already let go. I have left a round bruise above her collarbone. A scratch runs down my cheek, like a tear.

 

     I have found the lipstick—I’m quite sure it’s the one she meant when she got cross. I had not taken it, of course—on me it would look awful. I can only wear dark and matte: it goes with my olive complexion, my black hair. She likes shiny and light—that fits her skin tone and her age. The gold tube (not cheap, I can see why she lost her temper) was on the library sofa. Rather in it. Yesterday I noticed, once more, it had been used without care of straightening pillows and doilies—or badly, in a rush. Mother wouldn’t be pleased by such negligence. Mother never climbs here… automatically, though, I smoothed the seat, pressing down bumps to even the creases. And I met the cold metal tube, in the fold between seat and armrest. There it was… I unscrewed the lid and enjoyed the apricot smell. I put it in my pocket. I’ve no use for it, as I said. But I’ll keep it, for now.

 

*

 

     I haven’t told you this yet. It’s coming to mind because of the lipstick color. Salmon, lobster, peach, coral—how should I call it? It is orange.

     I have been making love to my cousin for the last two years, since the funeral. Not exactly—we started about a month later. In the meantime he was invited for dinner, twice a week. Not too weird… guests are frequent. Still it was clear mom and dad had a thing for him, not sure what. More than sympathy—something tied to family history, something I can’t unscramble. I haven’t tried, for I got to know cousin in my own terms.

      The first time surprised me. After lunch, on a Sunday, he asked me to go for a walk. We had done it already… he had always charming stories to tell. He had traveled all over South America, and I loved to hear about it. Kind of casually we headed towards the beach: the black muddy sand in the back, the abandoned quarry. There are niches and recesses, of course—and the forlorn atmosphere I described. We began as soon as we got out of view—I say we, for I didn’t oppose. 

     That was quick. I can’t say if good or bad—I’m not sure I have the authority. It was dull. But then I had made it once, with my high school boyfriend, and it seemed just as dull. This was a bit different. I might tell you how, sometimes. 

     I liked it enough to repeat it, always there and always on Sunday. We still go to morning mass—the whole family but not cousin, who joins us for lunch. After lunch Isidora has a swimming lesson. Mom and pop nap. The two of us head out for a breather. Everything falls in place, does it? That hour (between one and two, no matter the season) fits our intercourse like the balcony fits my body, at twilight…

     Not that the two moments compare. No. The sex thing is something I want—it brings the right mix of adrenaline and release. It makes me feel different—more Xenia than Titia, somehow more than a hieroglyph, fuller. But it doesn’t bring ecstasy (should it?) The balcony does.

 

*

    

THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS

© 2015 by William Ray