Imperfect Balconies

When I lived in the hushed city, I spent countless lonely hours seeking company on my balcony. On move-in day, sunlight poured in through the glass wall panorama, golden and warm like a fresh cup my fingers could cuddle. This balcony glowed. A welcoming box that peeked out at hundreds of other balconies, possibilities, lives. 

In the mornings, the view pulled me away from the unpacked boxes like the coffee steam that drew brief, translucent question marks above dark liquid just off the boil. I became a student of the lives beyond my apartment, whose walls remained undecorated, carpet unstained by cocktail parties or game nights or movie marathons, drapes always drawn. I forgot the sound of the doorbell. Or if I had a doorbell. Between deliveries and working from home, I spent more time exiting to the balcony than through the front door. And the delivery workers dropped off the goods without a knock, rushing away to the next quiet home.

The sliding doors of the living room invited me in more than any sitcom chuckle or breaking news drumbeat. Some turn on the TV for company; I went outside. But not out, strolling or sweating. That required picking a direction, moving, arriving against expectations. I played my ambitions closer to the chest. 

The balcony became my favorite room. I bought two rocking chairs with dark gray mesh and hornet yellow sides of cool metal that grew blister-hot in summer. I sat in the one farther from the balcony door, reserving the other for a guest. My chair rocked on thick, wooden beams that weren’t flush, affording slim views into the balcony above mine and down to the one below.

Fellow balcony neighbors were few. In the summer, a long, bronze-skinned girl tanned on the floor above in a stringy swimsuit as bright yellow as my chair. I didn’t gawk; I promise. But I didn’t rock my chair either. She slid open the door, stepped out without a sound, extended her lounger, and lost an hour of every afternoon. No headphones, no calls, no knocks from inside, no boyfriend or girlfriend, pure serenity. Who could disturb her? I caught her once on the steps outside—somber but lovely face that greeted me with a quiet grin. We were cozy and closer already though it was the first time we’d met. I wanted to recommend a book. Or ask about her heart deep in those moments of solitude. Or offer a charming, memorable joke that we’d volunteer at dinner parties before they’d ask how we met. But all I mustered was a forgettable nod. My first and my last. She moved away in August.

When I found a good book to recommend to the girl upstairs, or whoever had replaced her and neglected her balcony, I noticed my neighbors below. He was a young father who didn’t dare approach the railing and clutched his infant until they sat in a creaky chair with a book of their own. The father appreciated the classics. He dove into Cannery Row and Moby Dick. The young boy never made a peep. He cuddled in his daddy’s arms observing the words, listening to the page turns until he slumped asleep. My favorite were the mornings when his dad joined him in dozing off. One little body heaving breaths upon another. I never knew if they finished Ishmael’s story, but I adored them for trying.

I, unlike the father below, approached my balcony railing daily. There I announced myself to the world. The white balusters supporting the railing teased my presence. Their separation afforded peeks at the world below without leaning over. Glass dividers were too modern and transparent; my balcony was no fragile fishbowl. Wrought iron? Stodgy and pretentious. Balconies with solid walls dotted one of the many buildings across from us like deserted bunkers. And those with beige borders popped like cardboard boxes opened and never recycled. No wonder nobody spent time on them.

I understood the neglect of balconies without roofs. Whoever designed those would be a terrific prison warden—here’s a glimpse of the outside, but I don’t want you out in any weather. A balcony had to be covered. How else could someone enjoy a warm cup in the cool autumn rain? When an unexpected shower gushed with wet introductions, I ran for the kitchen kettle. I boiled, brewed, and rushed to the balcony before my tea had steeped. I found tranquility in the ritual of warming my insides to the soundtrack of the weeping sky. 

Come morning, I sipped black coffee to rouse the spirit from interrupted dreams. But afternoons and evenings—long, cricket-filled evenings—called for tea. Strong and dark. A dash of honey could smooth the transition when the autumn broke and gave way to winter. Caffeinated or not, it soothed me to nap next to the balcony light that remained off. Balconies are not loud backyards or grand patios; they’re for quiet reflection. A two-person conversation at most.

On clear nights, a partial moon hung there with its drowsy, fading eye glowing over the kingdom dusk gave up on. It illuminated the candles of flickering windows alive with TV screens, someone shoving open a door because a frying pan set off the smoke alarm, dinner parties teeming with twenty-two guests, and bedroom nightlights twirling with stars under true galaxies above us. All proof that I had more than balconies for neighbors. And I didn’t fault them for staying inside if the floor wasn’t smooth wood soft enough for bare toes, if there wasn’t a girl tanning upstairs or the classics read from below, if they lacked a table for tea cups or a brisk kettle or the friends to share in this briefly safe space between home and outdoors. They may have been imperfect, but the balconies stood patient, waiting for company. And I’d have been there too, if you looked for me.

Arthur Klepchukov found words between Black Seas, Virginian Beaches, and San Franciscan waves. He adores trains, swing sets, and music that tears him outta time. Follow Art’s writing journey at @ArsenalOfWords on Twitter or read his words in places like Glimmer Train, The Common, Necessary Fiction, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2019.