There is something special about the balcony; how you could be within feet of a person and yet in a different world, a different life. The balcony was where I sought refuge from my cold apartment on Canal Street. I had the AC motoring on but would step out and embrace the polluted air that struck me warm and sloppy like an open-mouthed kiss. On a balcony, you notice things you would never see otherwise. Suspended, it is impossible not to watch. Because of this, I knew the neighbor across the way always smoked on his balcony. It fit only one chair, and it was across the street, two stories down. More to my notice, he always has his little dog with him.
In my head, I made things up about him. He was always out in the morning right after his lights kicked on. I imagined it was the first thing he did. And he would not let the dog out, not at first. It would paw at the sliding door, and I imagined its black, blunt nails dragging against the glass, scratching until the man could not bear it anymore and submitted the dog to the poison of second-hand smoke.
The man never saw me studying him. Sometimes I imagined him waking content, fat with the spoils of a satisfying life. But, on my worse days, when my eyes were scratching against the lids, I imagined something different. I imagined that when he took a drag of his cigarette, then a sip of coffee to chase it down, there was a roaring emptiness in him that simple pleasures could not satisfy, and that was why he let the dog out with him. Because he wanted the hidden pain to fold with layers upon layers until they were both gasping into death together, and he could look it in its eyes and say, you should have stayed away.
I did not go out often, but when I managed to leave that brittle place, I found myself lingering outside for hours. Down in the CVS on the corner, I bought myself a pack of cigarettes and a disposable lighter. I wondered what kind of cigarettes the Smoker (as I had taken to calling him) preferred, and how he took his coffee. If he had Marlboro reds and black coffee in the morning to match the exhaustion buzzing in his back or if he worked a pack of Virginia slims between his fingers with a foaming latte to soothe the cascading ache. I went with Marlboros myself; I was halfway through it when I reached the French Quarter.
I watched the people; I made it a game to figure out who was a tourist. Some were easy—lugging baggage behind them, faces dewy with sunscreen, noses wrinkled against the odor the summer dragged out. But some were more difficult. I watched a father and daughter talking in hushed tones, their pace quick. What gave them away was how the daughter reacted to the tuba player right outside Café Du Monde. After all, I was not the only one keeping an eye out for visitors.
The brass of his instrument had faded to a faint orange where it was not oxidized. He was a stout man, charged like a bred bull waiting for the red cape. The daughter’s eyes followed him as his instrument, mouth, hand, fingers, hips all functioned in live time, his face sheened with sweat and his lips grinning around the mouthpiece. The daughter scrounged some change and gave it to the tuba player. The player, not missing a beat, swiped it from her hands. His playing hit a new fever; it was a fight for her, now, a battle, King David strumming his harp while choking back tears, and the sound of it waxed out and up and away. It was the natural tune of the city. It was real.
Even more so than usual, I was the passive observer. But that music was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. It was the most painful. It reminded me of evenings spent in agony, wailing into my pillow, but also of the mornings after, so numb and dry that everything was silent, even in the droning chorus of the city. The music tried to persuade me that the pain was better, ripping up fresh wounds in my chest. But I knew the music had to stop, and the silence would endure. I sucked down another cigarette and watched the man and daughter latch arms and walk away, but the tuba player kept on. It was almost nauseating how much it made me feel. I wondered if the Smoker ever listened to music. If he was afraid of the silence like others were of heights or confined spaces. Most of all, I wondered if the city took the clean blade of his loneliness, sculpted it into a serrated edge, and told him not to slice but to saw.
I walked further. No matter how the heat wrung around me, my feet remained cold. It was as if I was boiling alive I would still be cold somewhere; my ears, my fingertips, my back. Nothing reached all of me. Like the music, it skimmed parts, but others were out of reach. I could not remember a time when I was sure of how I felt.
The light started to pitch into the waxy tones of the evening.
Sometimes, my thoughts spun too fast for me to keep up, a carousel of blinding lights and refractions and shrieking, shredding noise that had no origin or outlet. And sometimes—now—it was a stark lake, a reflection of utter emptiness. I could not decide which state of mind I liked better.
I walked the sidestreets. There were not as many people here, but that made it fascinating. They were each an individual stroke in an impressionist painting, placed and poignant in their value. Not one was alike. I saw a woman whose hair was like hay and whose hips were wide from motherhood. I saw a man who walked with a janky limp and could not maintain a straight line. I saw a figure curled up in a sleeping bag, writhing and wriggling but never emerging.
I saw two chefs taking a smoke break. They stood on the opposite street of the restaurant. Their black aprons hid the grease stains, but their faces were not so diligent in their disguise. They were on a balcony of their own, untouchable by most. They held an intimacy between them like soldiers on a battlefield, speaking in their quietness. Even the cigarettes hanging from their lips were silent, the singular ashes fluttering like petals while mine dropped like tumors, pudding against the ground. In a moment of insanity, I wanted to ask them if the silence gooped in their mouths and stuck to their teeth. Instead, I imagined it was the Smoker and me, myself with my reds and him with his slims, my coffee black and his a foamy cream. I tried to picture his voice in my head, but it was a warped distortion of my own. I focused, but it would not clear.
I walked past the chefs. I wanted to look back, but something stopped me. It was what made me move when the song was over. Fear that I would hear another penetrating verse.
When I got home, I poured some whiskey into a mug the size of my palm. I had not done the dishes. They sat in piles on the counter, but when I went on the balcony, they disappeared, so I brought the bottle along and took short sips from the thin ceramic. My chest, arms, hands, legs, shoulders, all pulsed with drunken warmness, but my head remained cold. As the night came over New Orleans, I watched as lights flickered on; a bassy song bleated out on a sidestreet somewhere. Indistinct voices were coming from the air itself. The Smoker’s lights stayed off. I wondered what he could be doing.
I was deep enough in the bottle that when I heard a knock on the door, I was unsure if I made it up. I sat there, counting my breaths, before concluding that someone was at my door. It took another minute to decide to answer it. By the time I stumbled there, the man had turned to leave. His surprise mirrored mine when he turned around. After all, the last person I expected to see was the Smoker.
He was real up close. His cheeks were a warm color, his hair a mess on his head. He was unshaven. I could smell the cigarettes and noticed a layer of beige dog hair on his clothes. He was a person, and he was standing right at my door, and I thought to myself that I had all the answers to my questions standing right in front of me—all I had to do was ask.
“You've been watching me,” he said. A throaty rasp, I concluded. The statement was curious. Without a doubt, I knew he had been watching me back. I wondered what concoctions he had thought up in his head of me, and at that thought, I smiled and, for the first time, felt the same all over. I head up my cup.