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One morning, I came out onto my balcony early. His faucet dripped slowly, as though he had already been and left. Nothing, for a while. I drank my coffee. Just when I decided to get back inside, he stepped onto his balcony, cigarette in hand.
He turned and appraised me. I did not move for the shock of this – wondered at his slow-moving gaze, this sudden display of self-possession.
He had pretended, for the duration of that spring, not to notice me. I knew it was pretence by the curve of his shoulder. He washed his dishes and stacked them neatly to the side and never quite turned his body toward the window, like an actor ignoring a coughing member of the crowd. A whitish dog with dirty tear ducts nearly ruined the game at times – it jumped at the open sliding doors and the man would rush to keep its small body from tumbling onto the balcony, through the wide metal spindles, down three floors to a forceful death on the urine-stained pavement. All this without a glance at the sky, or the opposite balcony, where I took my coffee around seven in the morning.
From up here, the street looked better. The exhaust fumes still travelled unobstructed past the old windowpanes and permeated the entire flat, but I’d become nose blind to this about six months prior. I had noticed him in his little kitchen on my first balcony-morning of the year, watched him rinse off his breakfast plate. Occasionally, there were two plates, and the staccato voice of a woman. Her French was suitably agitated; she always sounded mildly affronted. The man did not seem to mind. He spoke quietly, so I couldn’t hear his responses, which had started bothering me. Even after breakfast, a shave, twenty minutes into the morning’s inbox, I wondered about his voice. I presumed something mellow, an acquiescing sound not unlike condensed milk folding over itself. He handled the enamel plates with care – traced the blue trim with his fingertips to check for lingering smears of butter. He did this whether the woman was there or not. But the tension in his spine betrayed an awareness of his audience. For all I knew, on days I was away or still asleep, he flung his plate in the sink and dared the yapping dog to leap to its demise if it really wanted to.
Instead, he faced the stage lights. I shrank into myself, suddenly angry at this deviation. He averted his eyes for the few moments it took him to light his cigarette, then leaned his forearms on the railing.
‘Salut,’ he said. Behind him, the dog pawed frantically at the glass. He smiled.
I pivoted on my heel and returned to the privacy of my kitchen.