Cigarette on the Balcony

It is around nine o’clock on a Sunday night as I stand at my tiny stovetop cooking dinner — huddled in a pair of comfy sweats and a cream cardigan stirring a pan of onion, garlic and bell peppers. The sun is on the verge of retreating, as I can see out the corner of my delicate window — a view that looks out into the courtyard of worn Parisian structures in the 15th arrondissement. As the steam rises, an aroma of grilled vegetables fills the small flat in which I live, I grab the knobs of the window to allow for some smoke to escape. Within a brief moment, the sky has shifted from pastel shades to a crisp black, illuminating the windows exuding light across the way. The courtyard is a series of alternating boxes, some twinkle while others remain silent in the dark. The vegetables have a few more minutes to reach edibility, so I stir once more and find myself back at the window counting the squares of light as if they were buttons in an elevator. Down and up, left and right — the pan sizzles and oil splatters the counter. I pour the contents into the pan, already stuck with pasta, mixing to finish off my late dinner.

I sit down at the plastic table, a young girl’s replacement for a proper dining area and shift through the tasteless meal. I recall having a bottle of wine in the fridge — red, cheap and potentially expired — I twist off the wine stopper and pour until the bottle is empty, glass almost filled to the brim. Across the way a series of lights flicker on flashing beams in my direction, followed by muffled chatter and laughter that echoes off the concrete. I can hear distant French murmurs as the silhouette of a woman pulls open the windows of her fourth floor flat.

And even though I know better, I find myself fixating on the open window where the woman stands — unable to break the wall of visual contact.

The movements of the people in the apartment became my dinner entertainment. As I sat, scooping pasta and alternating gulps of sour Bordeaux, I watched and listened as the figures graced around the well lit room. Echoes of clanking silverware on glass plates, an indication that they too were preparing for a later meal — the far fetched strings of commonality.

And minutes later, the sounds of their voices retreated as they moved into another room and away from the courtyard’s chamber. My spectacle had ended, as did the last bite of sustenance. I gathered the single dish and glass stained with drops of deep burgundy, placed them into the sink and adding drops of liquid magic — the upside of dinner for one, minimal post-meal cleanup. Water filled the sink creating suds of lemon scented bubbles, I scrubbed off the last bit of burnt oil and lay the items on the counter to dry. Eat, bathe, bed — the nightly routine — a sort of monotony that bordered childhood regression.

As I went to the window to shut the shade, hoping to spare my neighbors with a truly intimate glimpse into my life and undergarments, a silhouette of a figure approaches the window of the mysterious flat — a dark haired, slender woman appeared in the frame.

Pushing away the curtains to allow the night air in, she looks back as if to inform her guests of her absence. Pulling a lighter from below, she places the cigarette between her lips and ignites the flame — spark, spark, fume. She pushes back her hair and places her index and middle around its base, her cheeks sunken in as she inhales — a puff of rounded air releasing as she exhaled. She continues this dance as she stares out with a blank, empty gaze among the lines of apartments stacked within the courtyard; it was as if she was releasing a sort of stress, of energy — a true indulgence of nicotine habits.

I watch each hit with such detail, with such precision as the bud began to wither between her fingers. She stands there — a display of prominence and assertion, her face left imprints of simple, natural beauty. As I lunge to pull down my shade, a noise that reverberates to the opposite side of the courtyard, the woman turns her attention to face me, standing in my window frame, without cigarette in hand.

Her facial expression remains the same, just a shift in her perspective as our eyes meet — an encounter among two complete strangers. Neither of us back down in shyness or fear. We stand in our windows, staring with soft intent, feeling the weight of each other’s loneliness.

She enters with ease into the small room that I call home, a petite chambre and I wonder how susceptible I had made my movements visible to her. As nights before this, my window lay open allowing the room to breathe and even when the windows lay shut — the curtains, delicate and transparent, allow the surrounding eyes to wander into my space.

And as she stares, with such precision and clarity, I wonder what else she has seen from across the way.

The countless nights that I have prepared dinner for one,

My one woman show, a figure dancing and jumping around the room, headphones blasting with music in my ears,

The echo of my voice when I call my mom, my sister, my friends back home,

My layers of warmth, of lace, of skin.

And as the last bit of the bud loses its flame, she breaks her focus — flicking the remainder off the balcony onto the ground below. Without any form of goodbye, without acknowledging my presence, she turns to return back to her home full of guests — stepping inside and in a swift instant disappears into the shadow of the foyer.

And again, I find myself alone, hands perched delicately on the window sill.

I pull down my shade, undress and turn the nozzle as hot water spews gently from above.