Long ago I lived in a place that sat directly across a highrise apartment building. From Spring through Fall, I would sit outside early in the morning to have my tea and do a crossword puzzle.
I could often and easily get lost in what was happening on the balconies across the street in the quiet of the morning.
Children bouncing up and down, half climbing the railing, peering over the edge to the street below, giddy and excited about what the day ahead held in store for them.
An elderly lady already dressed, in her too-warm polyester pants and floral blouse, and her carefully coiffed silver hair, took tiny steps to water her plants that grew in window boxes and flower pots lined along the floor of the balcony. Every morning at that precise moment, it never changed.
A middle-aged man in his slippers, arms raised above his head audibly yawns as he stretches one arm straight up and the other to scratch his greasy black hair. The thick of his mid-section hangs exposed under his undershirt but over his boxers. I think he probably smells just as bad as he looks. But whenever he leaves the apartment for the day, his appearance betrays his natural state.
And then there is The Woman.
She steps gracefully through her sliding door onto the balcony, in her cranberry-coloured robe. Her balcony stands out as the only one that isn’t littered with furniture or flowers, or wind chimes or a flag. It’s temporary for her. She isn’t settling for this life.
She stands confident and proud as she sucks on a cigarette held with one delicate hand, while the other caresses some sort of charm that dangles between her half-exposed breasts. She closes her eyes and exhales, lips pursed as though she’s kissing the air in front of her.
She seems far away from the moment. Lost in some other time; in something better.
And always, before her cigarette is done a man comes out behind her, wraps his arms around her waist, and kisses the back of her neck. She turns her cheek shyly into his face and whispers something. He looks angry, she stares straight ahead of herself again when he leaves.
And her eyes change.
I can’t quite place the look. It’s cold and distant. But it’s confident too.
It’s the same thing every morning. The only thing that changes is the face of the man that comes behind her. They all look the same at first glance: dark hair, well-groomed, chiseled bodies, slightly older than her and tall.
Not one of them matches her beauty, although every one of them would tell you they do.
The only other time during the day that I see her is about an hour later as she leaves for work, impeccably suited, hair pulled tight in a bun or ponytail, always in a hurry to get into a waiting car, bold and brave.
She’s the type of woman that TV shows tell young women they should aspire to be. She’s fearless. And I am mesmerized by her.
From Spring through Fall this routine continues. In the Winter, she stands behind the confines of her sliding glass door with that same faraway look. She smokes, a man comes behind her, she makes him go, she lifts her chin, resolute, shakes off the demons and fixes her hair.
And then her eyes change.
One late July night, the air was made thick by the downpour of a thunderstorm unique to the cities surrounding Lake Ontario. I sat outside protected from the rain and watched a light come on in her apartment. She was alone. The woman stepped outside into the darkness, her robe open and billowing in the violent wind. Her perfect body blue-lit by the moon. A crack of lightning revealed that she was crying.
She stood there, her face lifted up toward the sky, allowing her robe to fall from her shoulders, and her body to be cleansed by the summer rain. Tears and raindrops took turns running down her cheeks and all the world stood still.
When her eyes changed, she turned back to her apartment and stepped in, blonde hair darkened from the pouring rain.
I never saw her again after that night.
I scanned the balconies every morning looking for her. There were children, the old lady, the middle-aged man. But she was gone without a trace. Eventually someone else stepped out onto that balcony in the morning.
All these years later, I think of her every so often, but I no longer question the look in her eyes. I know exactly what she longed for.
And although there are times that I yearn for a taste of the life I could have had, I’m grateful that I chose this life instead.