The Girl of the Roof
The strangest thoughts occur to me when I sit upon this bench. I think of the casual way you coaxed me to bed, your hand gently on the back of my neck, a smile, a shrug. A playful thought to pass the time. Today is a good day. You are a gentle presence in my memory. I remember you vividly, without all of the background music that cluttered up our lives. I sit on this bench and I feel the sunshine and the traffic is not too loud and the passers-by do so without my notice. I can focus my attention within, relive a forgotten moment, turn it over like a jewel in my hands and return it to the shelf. Today will be fine.
The strangest thoughts, made stranger I suppose, by what is happening across the street. Atop the tall, nameless building that faces me with dull windows, a girl stands, her arms spread wide. There she is, at the edge of the world facing certain doom. There she stands and here I sit and on a day like today I am glad to see her. She is an old friend, the girl of the roof. I see her almost everyday, though I know her only from this distance to which we have grown accustomed.
As always, I watch as she steps forward onto the concrete railing, turning sideways to walk the edge like a trapeze artist. Her steps are soft and sure, almost like a dance. I have seen this dance many times. She leans forward and lifts one leg behind her. Back on two feet, she stomps one foot and steps again to the very edge, her toes hanging off, her face resolute. She lifts one foot and holds it over the open air, as if to take a step. Her arms keep her balanced as she tests the air, disappointed to find that there is nothing underfoot, only air.
I find myself leaning forward in anticipation. Jump, I think. Jump today. My eyes are riveted on her. Jump, fall to me.
She never jumps. I know she will not. I cannot count the number of times she has climbed to the roof, stood at the edge, spread her arms. I know to look for her now. She always comes from the east, always on foot, with no purse or coat, even when the air is cold. She always wears a dress, long and flowing, that swirls between her ankles when she stands at the edge. From afar, she seems quite young and while I call her a girl, I suspect she is much older. Everyday I watch as she quickly approaches the building and disappears within. Five minutes pass, five minutes and the world stands still. No cars seem to pass, the tourists stop their photographs, and finally she reappears on the roof to stand at the very edge. She stops, her breath paused on the intake, she exhales as a frightened heartbeat. As always, she stares at the cement and wishes she could jump, her breath mirroring her fear and excitement.
Sometimes I silently cheer her on, hoping she will jump so my momentary need for blood and death and gore and ending will be quenched. I used to phone the police, only to have her run from the building at the slightest sound of sirens, spinning on her heels, a look of exasperation on her face. She does not want their attention. She is not about negotiation and press, police tape and newspaper headlines. At times, I ignore her all together, and I know that she feels wounded, her sway stiffening, her gestures no longer graceful, but more desperate and contrived.
Today, the girl steps forward, sways, steps back, staring at the asphalt below. Her face becomes anguished and she starts to cry. I watch for some time then lean back against the bench. Today she lacks the presence to draw my attention. The sun is brighter than usual, peoples voices softer and more agreeable as they pass, and thoughts of you in better times. I remember there were times and places when we were happy, when you were content and saw possibilities for further happiness. I remember when thoughts were vast territories and we roamed free, explored each one together. I remember nights and stars and warmth. I remember. I can see the two worlds now, the seeming reality before me and you smiling, you laughing, your eyes closed while you slept.
So here I sit on this bench and wait for you to emerge, for surely you must. I think I see you now, here you come, through the doorway, here now to me. The door falls shut and it is not you, only some man, some useless man.
The girl of the roof is not satisfied. She has stopped crying and stomps a foot in frustration. She steps down from the concrete railing and disappears beyond my sight. She leaves, but she will return as I do, everyday.
* * * * *
A new day. The wind has a chill and I am cold. Sitting here seems redundant in cold weather. Nothing is accomplished and I feel worse for having tried. The days blend into each other and I can scarce find differences between them. The only real reason for staying is my companion. He sits beside me on the bench and turns his head to trace the sounds as they pass, enjoying the presence of life on an active street. His darkened glasses reflect to the outside world what he can only hear tales of, but he absorbs the motions and voices with an eagerness I envy. Well dressed and well spoken, he is a middle aged man whose very being on the street is curious. His sunglasses could be mistaken for an accessory, his tailored clothing casual but expensive. His silver cane gleams in the sun. I feel shabby and unkempt beside him.
We met once before, on a day not unlike today with its overcast sky and brittle wind, not exchanging names or situations, merely acknowledging each other as like-minded individuals with more time to spare than either cares to mention. He interprets life as a never ending recording, a series of sounds explaining only a fraction of the truth. I fear he knows far more than he communicates. I burden him with thoughts and he responds with analysis and more questions, but seldom solutions. I call him my Doctor.
-Is she on the roof? he asks quietly. His voice never changes, is always soothing, always agreeable. The sort of voice that induces you to confess, even against your better judgement. I had apprised him of the girl of the roof on our first meeting. He could hear the general commotion on the street and snatches of conversations from the passers-by but could not capture the entire story. I did not give him all the details, not knowing how much I could tell him without scaring him off.
-There’s this girl, I said in a rather matter-of-fact tone. -She climbs to the roof all the time. People always think she’s going to jump but she never does.
He nodded in an accepting manner, as though the notion was not so strange. Perhaps in a world of darkness the imagination can create millions of scenarios where one might stand upon a rooftop.
-Does she do this often?
-All the time, I said, before realizing the implication. -I mean, so I’ve heard. I’ve only see her once or twice myself.
-Is she a young girl?
-Um, no, more middle-aged, I think. I can’t really tell from here. And like I said, this is only the second or third time I’ve ever seen her, I lied. I always say too much when I lie. I silently cursed myself and pressed my lips together.
Doctor accepted this, nodding and turning his unseeing eyes toward the sky. The girl of the roof watched us reproachfully, as though she sensed the topic of our conversation and disapproved. She seemed offended by my new companion, as though a usurper had intruded on the world she and I have created, jumper and watcher.
Today, she is displeased. She watches us closely and I could swear she is reading my lips. She continues to walk the edge but her attention is focused on our little bench. I clear my throat, an excuse to raise my hand to cover my mouth for a moment. -Yes, she’s here today.
-What is she wearing? He asks, turning his head slightly in the direction of my voice. Odd question. Has he ever known fashion or style? Should not one dress from another be inconsequential to him? Perhaps he has not always been blind. I want to ask but I do not. Words always seem to fail me when I need them. I turn my attention back toward the girl.
She stands completely still now, her eyes closed, and she looks almost wooden, like a marionette someone has hung on a hook. Her arms hang limply at her sides. She looks defeated. Her ashen hair curls spontaneously in the wind, whipping around her face, the glittering clips determined to hold the wisps failing. Her dress, long and floral, floats in and out of the space between her ankles and kisses her tanned calves. Her cheeks are tinged with rose, complementing the warm hues of the soft fabric. The sweetheart neckline hints at something innocently sexual. Her wrists are entwined with silver and gold. Her lips glisten with moist artificial colour, glisten like dew.
-A dress, I reply. -It’s nice.
* * * * *
I loved the sound of your voice. I would be content to just sit and listen. –Tell me, I would say, and you would speak on any topic, it did not matter, to me or to you. Once, we were laying on the bed, the covers tangled between us, whose limbs were whose? Daisy, our beautiful and spoiled tabby, was curled in the curve of your side and I alternated between petting her and touching you. We were a painting, a magazine ad for bliss. We were never more comfortable.
-I love this city, you said, rolling onto your back and looking out the large picture window at the clear morning sky. Our view was not wonderful but from the bed, you could only see the very tops of trees and sky, that endless sky.
-I love how it feels like home. I never expected to find my home here. I feel like I belong here. I always thought I would have that transient sort of life, moving around, trying to find a home but never really succeeding. I never felt real until I came here, to this city, this apartment. Here to you.
I blushed and felt the warm contentment of love wash over me.
-Real? I asked.
-Yeah, you know, like maybe I know my place now.
-Tell me. Tell me everything. Tell me stories, tell me everything I have ever wondered about. Tell me.
* * * * *
I find it interesting how people feel legitimate in their right to turn and stare, to watch and wait, to want the worst and then shake their heads in mild revulsion after the fact, commenting on the sort of person who jumps from buildings and bridges. Here in the real world, people do not tell the truth anymore. They make up their own stories. I imagine that few look within and question whether they are fine or if they are simply cowards. I am a coward. I sit on the bench and hope for the worst and know it will not happen, not here, not her. This is a cowardly vigil, vicarious living that is completely safe and free from recrimination. She will not jump, I have no fear, but I cannot climb myself so I use her for entertainment, for speculation, to feel like the others who stand and stare, to feel like part of the crowd.
Doctor is not like me, or them. He listens, but cannot take for granted the visual satisfaction in which the rest of us are steeped. His interest is not in her, or me, or anyone else for that matter. His interest lies in the account, in the story and the sounds.
-Are there others watching? He asks.
-Yes, I answer, but only now do I pull my eyes from her to look at the crowd. They are always watching, I did not have to check. All heads are tilted upwards, no one notices me studying them.
-Tell me about them.
What is there to say? It is the usual crowd. Men and women in business suits with briefcases, the sort of people who do not even glance up from their day planners and cell phones, the sort who think themselves too important to notice those loafing in their paths. The ones with the seemingly fast and fantastic lives with not a hair out of place on their way to the latest hot spot or gym before dinner and drinks and casual sex. Then of course, there are the tourists, the sort with a look of perpetual confusion and amazement at the smallest thing. The sort who wear bandanas and baseball caps and sunscreen and walking shorts even in cold weather. The sort who say -Can you take a photo of us? and with a giggle, hand me a digital camera. -No, that one’s no good, can you take another? Thanks, you’re the best! And lastly, the regulars, the people I see everyday, the average sorts in zipped up windbreakers with backpacks or in uniforms heading to work. The sorts who feel free to comment on what is happening on their street in loud voices as they rush past. They barely glance at the girl on the roof. She is to them no more or less than the magazine guy or the hotdog vendor, just another feature on the path they tread every day.
I want to say: the same people, all of them, indistinguishable from each other. There is no one interesting or unique. Everyone is a blur, I cannot make out a single feature. So many people for such a small street. How could they possibly all need to be on this street at this hour? It feels like there are hundreds, thousands even, crammed tightly on the sidewalks trying to jostle their way through the pausing crowd gaping upward. So many foolish people with somewhere else to be in such a hurry. I envy them. I have no where to be, no one expecting me, no one caring if I arrive safely, if ever at all. They are all so lucky and I envy them.
-Usual crowd, I say. -Business types, students, tourists, you know, same as any other day, really.
An easy answer, telling without telling. Empty words to get me out of saying anything. As little as possible is all I can give.
-No, he shakes his head. -They are nervous, this crowd. They think she will jump. They’re waiting for her to jump and they fear it at the same time. There is a nervous energy. They do not know her.
I laugh. -We don’t know her either.
Doctor shakes his head. -You’re wrong, you know. You know her. She will not jump today. You know that. Why? What has she to gain? She knows you watch, that I listen, she knows there are no police or such on the way. She craves the attention and these people give theirs willingly.
He’s wrong. I know nothing, her intentions, my own.
-How can she stand it? I ask, uncertain as to what I mean. The attention? The arrogance of those on the street? Or has she left it all behind when she climbed to the roof? Perhaps it is not our attention she seeks, perhaps it is her own moment, without the rest of us.
* * * * *
The happy thoughts always take me by surprise, every time. There was a time, very early in our relationship, when you rolled over in bed and took my hands and brought them to your lips, sending a shiver through my body.
We had known each other a month then. We thought we knew everything about each other and what we would come to learn would be as pleasant as all we had already. I knew your body by heart, from the little bump on the inside of your ankle, to the scar on the inside of your leg from falling off a fence, to the tattoo of your brother’s name on your shoulder blade, the one you got the day after he was killed in a car accident. You knew just where to touch me, how to slide your hand down the length of my neck to make me shiver, how the slightest touch would make me tense with anticipation. Here in this bed, we were learning all we had to know. No world existed beyond these walls and no one was privy to what happened inside them.
* * * * *
She is still, her eyes closed, her toes at the very edge, this is the moment. The silence on the street resounds. For a moment, I forget that I have seen this before and my heart stops in anticipation. Oh, will you jump to me today? I long for it, to see you fly. Fly here to me, now, and I will catch you and save you from these stares. I will be a hero this time. I will save the day.
The strangers, the passers-by, they have seen this in films. Two options, rescue or death. Are there other choices? Who would believe she would turn away?
Doctor asks, -Is she satisfied? Are there enough people watching?
A plump middle-aged woman a few feet away from me does a quick sign of the cross and clutches her rosary. I want to reach out and pat her hand, explain that this is an act, an entertainment, that it is not real. How would I explain that this is some sort of game and that I am a willing participant in this sickness. That to interfere is to break the rules. Let it play out, I think, watch how it plays out but do not get involved. Even God has no place in this.
Only once did someone actually interfere, only once did someone muster the confidence or common sense to speak with her. He was a large man. I remember a dark green suit and a receding hairline. How he made it beside her without her notice was confusing, she must have been high or in a daydream of sorts. He had pulled her from the edge roughly, as though he had a right, as though he determined how this game would play out. She slapped him on the face and disappeared before he recovered. She must have hid in the building, or she knows of another exit, for he emerged a few minutes later, a searching look on his face, turning his head from side to side. The police spoke with him quietly, then hurried inside to check for her also, but returned outside empty-handed with looks of frustration upon their faces.
She returned the next day with a smile upon her face.
* * * * *
I am so much better at remembering the bad times, the hurt feelings, the smell of vomit, the anger and the alcohol. I feel I have been programmed to remember only that which damaged us. That you were tall, slim, slightly awkward, so kind at times, searching for my eyes in a crowded room, these memories take effort.
Christmas, first year, the painting by Hameed, oversized and brilliant, hung over the sofa. Framed in ebony to match the new end tables. Flashes of red and oranges with traces of yellow and black. Your smile, your pride at having chosen something I loved, loved instantly.
Summer, third year. Concert at the Hill. You held my hand down the steep hill. Your hand so large and certain. You were always a little embarrassed by them. You called them baseball mitts. We sat on the damp blanket and wrapped it around us when the storm came and the concert-goers fled. I lost myself in your eyes that day, like so many times those first years.
Late spring, fifth year. You were waiting on the balcony, smoking, staring out over the loveliest sunset. You opened your arms to me and I went without reserve. I went to you and we stayed like that for hours, not talking, no fears or thoughts of ending or leaving. No thoughts of past or future. Only arms and sunset.
Why is it so hard to remember these times? Why are they not the only thoughts I recall? Kisses and touches and times that made us best, made us happy. Why can I not remember these times without the knowledge that it was a lie? That it had to be or we would have done something to change the path, to change how it all ended.
* * * * *
The police no longer come, the newspapers no longer run the story. Every now and then, a human interest reporter tries to get the scoop but inevitably fails. The crowd always comes though. Only rarely does a crowd not gather. I have seen every type of person. The religious rosary-clutchers. The obnoxious business suits, the tweaked out teens. Today, there is even one ass with a camera. He keeps murmuring under his breath while he shoots. I watch his lips as they mouth –perfect, perfect.
I never have understood reporters and photographers, their need to take the horror and gore of this world and turn it into something needlessly eternal. What good will these photos do him? What will it make him remember? An afternoon in his life? One day on the street? What kind of thing is this to remember? I never want to know this moment again. I have known it too many times already. Would the girl of the roof care to remember It? Unlikely, I should hope. When the pain is over, what can be gained by revisiting the crime scene?
Doctor is right. This crowd is nervous. Mothers cover their children’s eyes, the old men shake their heads gruffly, muttering and spitting occasionally. The teenagers pause their skateboards and emit nonsensical exclamations. The girl of the roof opens one eye and peeks down, she has decided to give them a show. She does not always. Sometimes it is only about her. Then there are times that are clearly for entertainment. Today is such a day. She sways, she walks the edge, she trips purposefully and lurches forward, only to catch herself at the last possible second. A large gasp rises from the crowd, for certainly she is scared, now she must realize how precarious her actions are.
I laugh involuntarily and am reproached by the glare of the woman with the rosary. I look down, play the repentant. -What have you done? Doctor asks with a smirk.
-I am not taking it seriously, I say. The woman squints her eyes at me and I lower my voice. -They think she is going to jump. They’re worried. Apparently I have no respect for the gravity of the situation, for human life itself probably.
Doctor laughs this time, loudly, but the silent scolds of the crowd fall on blind eyes.
* * * * *
It is getting late. My back is beginning to ache from sitting on the hard wooden bench all this time. Doctor has long since grown silent. If not for the infrequent turning of his head to catch a particular sound, I would think him asleep. Strange how long a person can just sit, listening, watching in my case. After so much time, I ought to be comfortable here, this should feel natural, or at least not so unfamiliar. But I do not belong. These people do not know me. They do not want me in their lives, even if all that it entails is my watching from the sidelines. I belong no where, least of all this bench. Doctor and the girl, they acknowledge me, tolerate me, but no friendships or bonds are being formed. And this is how I choose it to be.
I cannot complain. This is what I wish. To be on the sidelines, to affect nothing, to be a part of nothing, to mean nothing to anyone. I wish to be still, to leave no trace in anyone’s memory. I would not wish the burden of memory on any person. If I could fade from this world without anyone taking notice, I would be content. I would give anything in the world to have this moment never end, and yet it is unbearable. Such is the awkward life of a bystander.
Doctor finds his cane and stands.
-Can I help you home? I ask, momentarily distracted from my heavy thoughts. My eyes return to the girl of the roof and her sway. The strangers paused on the street to watch and wait for the seeming inevitable have tired and gone their way. Others glance at their watches and become annoyed by the lack of show. Still others remain transfixed. I hear faint discussion of what action should be taken, from the overly concerned to the disdainfully apathetic. Cell phones are lit, conflicting with each other, no one can reach the authorities. No one attempts to speak with her, yet all seek an active role in her immediate situation, either by calling for help or gawking or walking away with disregard. The regulars on the street do not even glance her way.
Doctor ignores them all. -No. I’m fine. He smiles and waves and disappears among the dispersing mob on the sidewalk. The girl glances down and catches my eye.