Erica Gonsalves – The Balcony

 writerErica Gonsalves, originally from Connecticut, U.S, is spending the year abroad in Ireland to obtain a Masters in Writing from the National University of Ireland, Galway during the 2016/2017 school year. Before this year, she has been teaching high school English for the past six years.

The Balcony

By Erica Gonsalves

Evelyn ran out onto the balcony of the flat, shoving the glass door roughly closed behind her. She let out an exasperated sigh, her breath coming out in giant frost-filled puffs like steam train smoke. It was just after midnight. The cold air bit at her exposed arms and covered her in goosebumps. Even with the low temperature, if someone walked outside and joined her, they would have felt heat radiating off her olive skin. For the past few weeks she’d been agitated, but tonight’s party back inside transformed it into rage. She needed to be outside despite the uncomfortable chill.

The wind blew in her face, a strand of her dark brown hair catching in her mouth. There was something about the balcony’s wrought iron gate that calmed her, so she leaned her body into it. Like most of the others she admired from the street, this one had twisting metal rods in a whimsical floral arrangement. The longer pieces looked like giant candy canes with exaggerated swirled endings. Between them sat large lotus flowers held in place by straight rods. The pattern reminded her of wallpaper in a Galway teashop, one that she had left behind only days ago. Since leaving the United States, she was trying to see as much of Europe as she could on the weekends. The places she chose to visit were random and picked based on flight deals. It had been warmer in Galway, she thought as she placed her hands on the banister. Her fingers grew numb in the winter temperature, but she refused to go back inside for her coat or mittens. The view from the third floor of the apartment building felt much higher than it really was and gave her clarity.

Evelyn had only lived in Brussels for two months. She began taking French lessons a few weeks earlier because she thought it would help her fit in, but she spent every class fumbling over new words. Her throat rejected the unfamiliar trill, and maybe she was imagining it, but she swore that her nose was sore from the nasal vowels she had to practice over and over. She frequently felt inadequate, and she mentally kicked herself for choosing to move to a city where she didn’t know either of the official languages. It was all a test, really. This was a way to gauge her confidence and street smarts. It didn’t hurt that nearly everyone knew English as well, so she didn’t have a valid reason to complain. The city itself was gritty; it looked worn and lived-in, which she liked, but it confused her.  Everything about the architecture was beautiful. Looking up at the buildings made her breath catch in her throat, like a way to stop time. A way to memorize the moment. By the time she breathed in, the place would be a part of her. But this was the European Capital and there was an impenetrable emptiness, a silence that was so unlike any other major city she had been in before. Even Galway, extremely small in comparison to this place, was full of life. So full of vibrancy. Of colors.

Suddenly, the glass door behind her opened, and a couple came outside. They squeezed themselves into the tight enclosure.

“Cigarette?” She had never smoked before, but the man pushed the pack toward her, held by long, sturdy fingers. The woman’s large owl eyes looked at her expectantly. She took it. The man offered his lighter, but she shook her head without thinking.

“Not yet.” His puzzled brows fused together, but then he shrugged and turned to his companion. They leaned on the balcony with ease, melting into each other, speaking quick French and forgetting she was there within seconds despite the mere inches that separated them.  Even with the language barrier, she could make out the slight slur to their words from intoxication. Whether this was from alcohol or each other, she could not say. Instead, she opened her own mouth slightly, hoping to catch the sounds on her tongue. The unfamiliar patterns felt so palpable. She savored and swallowed them. For a moment, they were equals.

Evelyn never got drunk anymore. It wasn’t fun, and she didn’t understand the point.  She felt like an ancient person trapped in a young body. A small buzz was fine and took off an edge she had introducing herself to strangers. She needed it to get by in this new place where she always felt judged.

Slurping and smacking noises pushed Evelyn out of her thoughts. She glanced over at the couple whose mouths had found one another. Instead of disgusted, Evelyn was intrigued. Kissing was never like the movies. Romantic scenes always portrayed an effortless, poetic rhythm to making out. Real life was frantic; mouths groped one another. Evelyn caught herself staring and became uncomfortable, so she cleared her throat. It was one thing to already share this space with her, but it was another to leave her insecure in it.

The couple didn’t part. Instead, their intensity only increased. The man’s hands roamed lower on the woman’s backside, and Evelyn had a flash of another party, one across the Atlantic. It felt like a different lifetime; she felt like a different person.

She’d had enough. This time she grabbed the man’s shoulder and shook it roughly. There was no thought behind the action.

“Okay, well I’m sure you must be really cold by now. Time to go back inside.” There was no hint of a question hidden in her words. Instead, they were more forceful than she intended, surprising her. She didn’t take them back.

The man and woman separated and glared at her. The man rolled his eyes, gave an exaggerated bow, and said, “As you wish, majesty.” The woman laughed mockingly at Evelyn before grabbing the man’s hand, as he led them toward the door.

When did I become so rigid? So unforgiving? She wondered. She knew when, but she wasn’t willing to think about that right now. A quick spurt of hot air escaped from inside the flat as the door opened and closed again. It brushed along her skin, feather-soft, yet she tensed up. The silence enclosed around her. She leaned back into the railing and looked down onto the street below. Empty. Not a single person walking outside that she could see. She thought of home, of New York City and the lack of smiles from people she’d pass, the avoided eye contact, that complete freedom through anonymity.  It made her feel like she could be spontaneous at any given moment, play a new character every day if she wanted to, be whatever she wanted to be. There were always people.

The problem with home is that while people weren’t watching her, she was watching them. She watched them build their lives around others: husbands, babies, new friends. There came a point where she realized this building was too tight. The structure was suffocating her. She planned an escape.

Evelyn pulled out her phone to scroll through old pictures. She had two favorites she turned to when she had doubts. The first was of her parents. Her mother was small in stature, a petite blonde with gray-blue eyes that always made Evelyn feel like she was swept away in ocean waves. Her mother had clearly defined laugh lines in the corners of her mouth from always smiling. She radiated possibility, and it was because of her influence that Evelyn always felt like moving around and experiencing new things was accessible. Her mother used to brag that she had passed on her gene of free-spiritedness to Evelyn. Her father was the opposite. He was sturdy. He had jet-black, now graying, hair, forever faded t-shirts and deep brown eyes that were both soothing and sweet, much like the hot chocolate he used to make her if she had a rough day. The picture was a candid. Both of her parents were mid-laugh on the mauve couch in her childhood home in Rhode Island. She loved thinking of them there now, happy as always, but there was also a hint of jealousy that she couldn’t be there with them. She was too stubborn to admit that maybe she made a mistake in moving here. She missed her old life, her old city, her old friends. She even missed the boy she’d left behind. They didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to one another, but he was the first guy in a long time that she felt she could have loved if only she’d let herself. After the party, she couldn’t let herself.

She swiped to her other favorite picture, the one of a day out in Manhattan with her four best girlfriends. It was a posed picture in Central Park, one of those vibrant, sunny summer days where everyone has the same idea of congregating on the massive Great Lawn with a picnic blanket and snacks. Some of her favorite memories of the city included that lawn, its lush green grass, and hours spent chatting, reading, and sunbathing with friends. Although the picture was planned, the smiles were genuine. I was so happy, Evelyn thought.

Evelyn sighed. She put her phone away and looked back out into the cold night. For a major city, there was such a darkness. It felt heavy. Even in the daylight, there was a lack of color here. The greyness both welcomed her and threw her away. She understood grey. She was the muddled in between. But her ‘à l’aise’ attitude was forced. No matter where she went in Brussels, everything felt artificial. She knew she couldn’t blame anyone but herself.

Lost in thought, Evelyn began to bite her lips, harshly, savagely. Every winter they became chapped, and she couldn’t resist putting her teeth to them. They closed around a scab, as if seeking revenge, and ripped it off to spit the skin away over the balcony railing. Even as she felt the blood pooling on her lip and the throb of pain, there was relief. She turned to the glass doors to survey the damage in her reflection and grimaced. Her mouth had been slightly open and she was reminded of her crooked bottom teeth. If she smoked the cigarette in her hand, how quickly would they yellow? She lifted her pointer and middle fingers on her right hand to touch the lids of her eyes on the glass, brushing her fingers downward, and at the same time, closing her real eyes on her face.

What was happiness anyway? She couldn’t find it in the social gatherings at work where she was supposed to try harder to make new friends, the Instagram likes on her new worldly pictures, the number of drunk men who hit on her in Delirium, the bloated feeling in her stomach after eating too many waffles. It wasn’t there the first time she understood the phrase “Tu voudrais un sac?” in a shop. Nor was it in her satisfaction at saying no in order to avoid the plastic bag tax.

But she found it in glimpses.  The night she discovered the street artist, Swoon, at MIMA, or stared up at the statues in the Palais du Justice. It reminded her of her insignificance.

She realized she was both exhausted by the idea of talking to people, yet longed to be surrounded by conversation. Brussels was too quiet, eerie almost. She felt like she had run away from home, but she had no idea what she wanted to find.

“Uh, hey, are you alright?” Evelyn’s eyes snapped open. Her cheeks burned as she looked at a guy with toast-colored hair and inviting chocolate eyes.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just needed some air.” She had forgotten where she was for a minute.

“Some cold air, clearly.” He rubbed his cold hands together. “You’re Evelyn, right? Stephen and Cassie told me they were inviting a friend from work. I’m Lucas. Welcome to my party.” He smiled and gestured back inside. The smile was so pure and honest, it almost broke her heart.

“Oh, well, yeah. Hi. We work at EDGE, Inc. together.” They shook hands. His grip was firm. She noticed he was tall. He stayed in the doorway and didn’t walk out onto the balcony itself.

“Marketing, huh? Wouldn’t have pegged you for that field,” he stated casually.

“Why is that?” She asked.

“I don’t know. You’ve got a little bit of that tortured artist vibe.” He laughed lightly, and she was surprised to realize that she liked the sound. It was deep and airy at the same time. The comment was meant to be a joke, but Evelyn was hurt. A year ago, no one would have ever said she appeared ‘tortured.’

The sound of unrecognizable electronic music filled the gap in the conversation. After a minute, Lucas said, “You know, I’ve never used this balcony before.” For the first time, she noticed he was fidgeting nervously. He looked uncomfortable to even be near it.

“Really? How come?”

“Well, I’m afraid of heights. Actually, before tonight I’ve never seen anyone use the balcony. You even inspired Noah and Amber.”

“Yeah, well I didn’t make for great company.” She looked down at her feet.

The hint of the smile appeared again. “I’m sure they weren’t much help.” When Evelyn looked up, he was staring right back with a playful glint in his eye. After a few seconds, he let his gaze wander over the entire balcony. His body leaned forward, deciding if it was worth the anxiety to step fully outside.

“You know, it doesn’t help that one of my best friends is an architect who rattled off numbers to me one day about how unsafe some of the balconies in Brussels are. As if I needed to add to my fear.”

Worry must have shown on her face because when she glanced back at Lucas, he met her with searching eyes and his own concerned expression.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have mentioned the balcony thing. It was a stupid thing to say. I’m sure it’s fine. You’re fine. I mean, you’re going to be fine.” His hands waved around in circles as he clarified his thoughts.

“I guess if I’ve tested my luck this long, a few more minutes won’t hurt.” Evelyn wanted to sound lighthearted, but failed. When she could sense that the conversation had come to a standstill, she asked, “Do you have a light?” She revealed the cigarette she had been holding.  

“Oh, sure.” Lucas pulled the lighter out of his back pocket and held it out for her. Evelyn tried to look casual as she held the end of the cigarette toward it.

Lucas realized that Evelyn had no idea what she was doing. In a way to avoid embarrassing her, he offered, “Hey, why don’t I light it for you?”

“Thanks.” She meant it.

He placed the cigarette in his mouth and, after successfully lighting it, handed it back. The whole thing was done quickly with a quiet confidence.

“Alright, well I’ll leave you to it. Have fun testing that luck,” he teased as he began to close the door. He paused halfway and added, “If you need anything else though, just let me know.” He smiled again. He was really nice. She wasn’t sure how to handle nice right now.

It was only after he went inside that she noticed the dead plant in the corner of the balcony. The wilted brown leaves reminded her of the hanging bats she sometimes found in the attic of her childhood home. She noticed for the first time that the end of the balcony railing was rusty.

She brought the cigarette to her lips, ready for her first attempt at smoking. She wasn’t sure how to hold it between her fingers without being clumsy. Even her mouth struggled to fit around the filter successfully, and the pain from her bleeding lip didn’t help. Then there was still the matter of how to smoke it. She inhaled slowly, unsure of how much to take in. When her mouth was full, she let the smoke sit there, pillowing itself into the cavernous space. Once she couldn’t hold her breath any longer, she opened her mouth back up and let all the air out. She had done it wrong, she was sure of it, but that was even worse than the low expectations she already had. At the very least, she hoped for the stereotypical cough, the one where lungs engulfed in smoke for the first time reject the vile substance and tried their best to spew it out with gusto. Instead there was a mild scratchy feeling. Yes, there was the taste of tobacco, but it was underwhelming. It was a dull nagging sensation, but not worth a forceful throat clearing. It tasted like disappointment.

She took the cigarette out of her mouth, dropped it on the ground and squashed it with her boot. For a moment she glared at it. When she couldn’t stand the sight anymore, she picked the crumpled, limping remains back up.  Shoulders slumped, a crease between her brows, she flung it off the balcony. There was nothing graceful about the movement. It was pitched diagonally away from its intended throw. Things never landed where she intended.

The last time someone offered her a cigarette at a party was that night. That night she had the courage to say no. Unfortunately, words weren’t always powerful enough. At least she wasn’t pretending to be someone else. She wasn’t pretending to be someone she wasn’t proud of. Things changed that night.

The party was in SoHo. She’d been invited by one of her best friends from college, Jackie, who worked with the party-thrower at a trendy startup that only sold clothes made from recycled plastic. Jackie met Evelyn outside of the Canal Street subway stop at 9pm so they could walk over together. It was late Spring and warm enough to be outside without a jacket. Evelyn had pre-gamed at home so she was buzzed. She wanted to be energized and excited about the prospect of meeting new people and dance. A small confidence boost in the initial introductions, but after that she would enjoy riding on her natural, good-spirited high. She wasn’t planning to drink more at the party.

Once they arrived, Jackie gushed over Evelyn as she introduced her to coworkers, and Evelyn immediately felt welcomed by such a seemingly fun group. The playlist was loudly spitting out a mix of the best throwback 90s hip-hop music, which Evelyn loved. She spent a while in the kitchen chatting with people and kept making eye contact with one guy in particular. He was tall, had sandy brown hair, and green eyes that matched her own. When he smiled at her, she felt important. She accepted his offer when he asked her to dance.

After twenty minutes, they started kissing in the living room. It felt sloppy. She never liked being out in the open with her displays of affection, so after a few minutes she pushed him away gently and smiled at him. Smiles can be misinterpreted. He could tell they needed to move, so he grabbed her hand and brought her to the bedroom, and he closed the door behind them. She heard him click the lock. At first they only made out, then he pawed at her shirt. She told him no. He was drunk. She was sober. He was stronger. She was weaker. He wanted it. She did not. In the end, she remembered the feeling of his finger nails, longer than she would have expected, as they gouged into her skin. The lights were never even turned on.

Afterward, once she made it home without saying goodbye to anyone, she spent an hour scrubbing away at her skin in the shower.

Evelyn wasn’t sure how much longer she could last outside without losing sensation in her entire body. She wondered how long it took for hypothermia to set in. Maybe it was time to end the night and go back inside to collect her things.

            The glass door behind her opened again, the escaped music blaring. Lucas was back, but this time he had a coat on.

“Hey, so, I don’t want to bother you or anything, but I brought an extra coat of mine in case you’re cold. I didn’t know where yours was.”  He held out a coat that was a few sizes too large for her, but it looked warm. She put it on gratefully.

“Thank you. That was really thoughtful.”

A few moments passed before Lucas found the courage to speak again. “Also, maybe I could join you out here? It’s getting a little too loud in there.”

            She raised one eyebrow, suspiciously. “Sure. That is, if you’re willing to take the risk.” She was surprised by her sudden sense of humor.

            He laughed, that boyish, easy laugh that came without expectations. He placed one foot outside, slowly and tentatively, before fully committing. Once he felt stable enough, his other foot followed. He let out a rush of a breath.

            “Wow. Nice work.” There it was again. Her playful teasing.

            “Well, I was inspired.” He moved gingerly to the opposite corner of the balcony, but was still only a foot away. For a while they stared straight ahead into the night. Their breath found a gentle rhythm, like the rise and fall of a steady sea. The wind had grown calm; the air presented her with a patience she wasn’t sure she fully deserved yet. But she wanted to cup her hands in front of her to collect it and drink it down in gulps. This was a silence she could get used to. This was a silence she could keep. For the first time since arriving in Brussels, she was comfortable.

Earlier Lucas had said she could tell him if she needed anything.

            “Lucas,” she started.  She turned to fully face him. “Can we introduce ourselves again?” Before waiting for a response, she held out her hand to shake his and said, “I’m Evelyn. It’s really nice to meet you.”

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