By Julia L. Offen
Figures pass below me in the courtyard, but up here on the roof I am invisible. Most people don’t need to look up, or down. This couple that pauses in the lamplight continue their argument in familiar tight, strained voices. Christ, can’t you relax for just one evening, the man’s voice demands, one evening is all I ask. He has squared off, turned to block her way. She is slumped before him yet speaks out again. She’s a new sitter, you know that, she says. The woman is tired, and moves in closer to touch him so that their shadows merge into a single dark misshapen streak that reaches out across the concrete toward me. Can’t we just go home, she begs. They move away together, deeper into the shadows at the back of the complex, but I know the argument is not over.
If it were Marco, he might even take my hand as we went up the stairs, but his grip would be hard, almost painful, and I would hold my breath to not give it away. But before we reached the door it would come out and I would apologize, admit my concern was foolish. But then I am not a mother, as the sharp ache in the pit of my stomach reminds me. I try to wonder how protective I would be, but the abstraction is too forced, the pain too new for projections, so I lean back again to the cold roof. The stiff tiles suck the warmth from my body, and I shiver, grateful for the numbness that will come.
Another man below me rushes a child along, pulling at the bundled arm. It is far too late for a child this young to be out. He pulls the child more roughly when it stumbles, and I decide it must be a boy. From what I have seen, men treat girls differently. But then he picks the child up and steps more quickly across the courtyard. He holds the child tightly, close to his neck, and I think it must be his. Perhaps the father is rushing it home, or to an estranged wife. His week visitation may be over, but he could be taking the child away. From my vantage I may be witness to a kidnapping, guilty by association. But the single figure disappears, past the rows of mailboxes, and into the next complex.
It’s strange watching people leave. They don’t recede slowly, then disappear into darkness, leaving only a memory behind. People leave in different stages of your awareness. If they’re walking away at night, they’ll pass under a streetlight, or in front of a lighted window, or even before a neon sign, and then suddenly you will really see them, clearly, as if for the first time. It will be their back, but you can always fill in the rest. Like the endless lines to fill in and stay between in a new coloring book when you’re young, you can spend your life filling in the rest of them, perhaps exchanging a back more broad, or one nearer the ground, or one more convenient for brushing your own hair against, or drawing your lips down, one vertebrae at a time.
I stare down into the courtyard as a trio of teenagers enter, siblings I have seen before. They must be returning from a party, because they try too hard to be quiet, to tiptoe and whisper, but their voices are high and disruptive, and their steps uneven as they hurry one another along. The thin younger girl off to the side shakes the loose curls from her face and joins in their soft laughter, but I sense a hesitation that draws me to her. She observes the edges of the darkness with a sharpness that tells me if she were alone she would notice me and stop.
I know people jump from roofs, sometimes head-first to the pavement, but that is not my intention. It is the perspective I crave. My drug, but cold and real. As a child, I would steel myself and climb out to the farthest wood shake shingle that would bear my weight. To lean out into the cold darkness, let it wash my face. To stay on the edge, at a precarious angle to my life, to anyone’s life. I would forget to come down, and wake, face damp, straddling a narrow chimney.
Sudden hysterical laughter breaks from a lower window, then soft moans follow, spreading upward, and I am again aware of the chill. I don’t wait to mark the last passage, to note when the evening ends, or the exact point at which the lover goes home, but instead twist my body to leave. Stiff with cold, I move carefully across the slant of the roof to where the trap door drops me onto the third-floor pebbled walk beside my door. I have left it open, and the neighbor’s cat will need to be found, hiding its kittens in my closet, and chased back outside where she must defend her brood from the elements and her owner. I am not a haven for unwanted kittens, but the cat has hope.
Beside me in the cool sunshine of the courtyard, my neighbor forces her straw hat lower over the darkness around her eyes and tells me she has given up her daughter, let the father take her. I nod but she’s not looking. It’s just stress, she says, and with calm, clinical focus recalls for me the slow darkening of the red print across her daughter’s cheeks, the passive acceptance in the slope of her shoulders. It used to be fear, she says, and her tone breaks. I steer her back to the subject of the father, whom I have never met. What sort of a man is he? She shrugs with disinterest and the shadow from her hat advances and then retreats across her chest. Does it really matter, she asks. I hear the soft exhale of breath that tells me she does not want an answer. It is something I understand. We sip our cheap beer and stare across the concrete at the ping-pong table before us. I imagine the hollow ball trapped in an endless volley, longing for the temporary stasis of the net.
Would you care for some table-tennis, the manager asks us. He has bought a new set of paddles, and wants us to notice and appreciate them. I hold one timidly, flat rubber between thumb and forefinger. The firmer ones are better, he tells me. He bought the hardest grade they carry, he says, short of bare wood. He hovers over me, proud but anxious, until I return the paddle. He knows I prefer to watch. He settles into his lounge chair beside us and squints at the sun. We watch the table together in silence. It is old and warped, with uneven chalky white circles tracing the outlines of the last rainstorm, the latest oblong puddles the table has borne. The net is new and firm, though, pulled taut where the manager has adjusted it, above the seam separating the two sides.
The old woman from the first floor hobbles out. Have you seen my dog, she asks, hollow breath rasping. The manager stretches with pleasure. Dogs are not allowed here, he says slowly, with the usual smile. Nonsense, the woman snaps. She shakes the table as though to loose a phantom dog from beneath its steel-pipe legs. The manager frowns at her grip. Your dog is dead, old woman, he snaps. He brushes her from the table with his foot and she steps back, one sun-spotted hand pressed to her mouth. No, she shakes her head, my husband bought him for me. The woman beside me sits up, pushes back her hat. The old man is dead, she says sharply, just like the dog. We don’t really know that, but it hardly matters. The old woman stumbles backwards, shaking her head, already gone from us. Harry, she calls softly, turning the corner. Harry, come home now.
It is almost mid-afternoon when the women from the opposite building join us. They step gracefully down their stairway and stretch, the deep gold of the first one’s hair set off from the jet black of her friend’s. The dark haired one takes up one of the paddles and fingers it absently. What a lovely Saturday, says the blonde. The manager crosses his arms and frowns at them. They say they work nights, but we know what they do for money. The manager will not let them bring the men home, though. It is unseemly, he says, and lurks with his plumbing kit among their bathroom pipes to see that they have not disobeyed him. Even when the toilet overflows, he does not keep such a close guard on my bathroom fixtures. My hall floods regularly.
The blonde rubs the point of her nails along the side of the table. We’d like to play, she says to the manager, do you have balls now? The woman beside me coughs through her nose. The manager sits up, planting one foot on either side of the lounge as he leans forward. Haven’t you had enough of that game, he asks. He rises quickly, and stalks off. The blonde arches one eyebrow as the office door slams behind him. They search the cement together, laughing, and finally draw a lost ball from beneath the scrub in the side plantings. The dark haired one returns to the table and bounces it once. It crackles and bounces up awkwardly, but her friend takes up the second paddle from the chair and steps to the other side of the table to play. We take long swallows of our beer and settle deeper into our chairs to watch. They are good players, graceful, and their strokes show an easy, confident power. They work together with the understanding and love of a team, not opponents.
The blonde scores to end their volley, does a victory dance with the paddle held out before her, first a partner, then a pivot. The dark-haired one pouts, until the blonde’s slow smile catches and lifts her. Double or nothing, sweetie, they say together and laugh. Jinx. The woman beside me pushes herself up awkwardly, not looking at any of us. What the hell would you know about love, she demands, as her empty bottle rolls lopsided across the concrete to bump gently against its companions.
I squint into the sun and see the imprint of a glowing band against my eyelids. I imagine the gold, flung into a lake, waves widening until they lap harmlessly at the reeds along the shore. In a life of interchanging relationships, what difference do our choices make? Families can come upon you unaware, grab you by the throat, or the abdomen, and shake you.
My body trembles, sunburned against the cold tiles in the darkness, and I am caught in the memory of a warm body, the brush of Marco’s lips across my collarbone. I draw my hands out to the limits of my extension, palms down to the cold roof. In a moment, warm drops cool my face, and I am shivering. I sit up, and stretch forward. Except for the stray kitten at the edges of the lamp light, the courtyard has been empty tonight, but I see a man standing there now, solitary and impatient, as he was when I watched him leave. I saw his back then, but I can see his face tonight. As he stands, searching the upper darkness for me, I know it is not the comfortable illusion I want to make of it. It is Marco.
I am no longer invisible as he stands in the exact center of the courtyard looking up at me. His legs are planted wide, holding him steady on the cement earth. He brings a hand up to shade the lamp’s glare from his eyes. It’s not my fault, he says. I cannot see how any of it could have been his fault, or mine even. The whole thing was an accident, twice over. It’s odd how you can come to want what you had tried to prevent for so long. Perhaps that is it. It’s not my fault, he repeats for the entire complex to hear. I feel them shift in their beds and smile. Cycles continue, and everyone gets theirs. It is my turn.
He stands firm, the courtyard seeming to revolve around him, and I feel his vague satisfaction that I am up here, alone after he has left. Perhaps he thinks I’m here to jump, but he is wrong. I would not need to climb roofs for that. Lives are simple enough to end as it is. You can snuff one out with a single surge of dark blood. It can happen anywhere, even in a line at the supermarket, holding a loaf of bread and a carton of milk. An unfortunate accident, they would say if they knew, perhaps it was stress. I feel the pain like a taste on my tongue, metallic and alive again, let it slide between my fingers as they slowly relax their grip. I am cold again, finally tired, and I feel the pressure of all that I’ve drunk.
You can’t stay up there all night, he yells. He is right this time, but not for the reasons he thinks. He is reasonable. You can’t stay up there all night, he says.
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