On the Balcony
Helen was found on the sprawling covered balcony that overlooked the valley, swaying from the rafters like a pendant, graceful as she always was. Kate wondered if anyone had seen her from below, floating amongst the potted palms and grasses. Perhaps from a distance she appeared to be dancing.
They had met at college. Kate spotted her in the coffeehouse while someone recited poetry on a stool and under a light bulb. Elegant and pale, blonde hair swept back. Most men weren’t interested— she was tall and she wore glasses.
“Two strikes,” Helen had said in her low voice. “And I’m rather clever— that’s three.” She held a cigarette to her lips and took one long drag while assessing Kate. “You’re no Grace Kelly yourself, are you?” Kate laughed.
“But you are striking.” She held out her hand, cigarette balanced between two fingers, and ran it along the side of Kate’s face. Kate heard the ash crackle as it passed her ear. “Look at these cheekbones. And tiger’s eyes.” Helen sat back. “You could model, you know. You aren’t pretty, but the French would eat you up.”
Kate shrugged. “Sounds horrible.”
“I think it would be.”
Now Kate and her husband drive through the fall leaves with the top down, even though it’s cool and nearly dark. They wind their way up the road that curves around a hill to an open courtyard lined with lanterns. The large windows of the house reveal party goers, laughing, swaying, peeking over the rims of their cocktail glasses. Crinoline, cigarette smoke and muffled music, something heavy on percussion— jazz.
They step under the arbor hung with clematis, its dead blooms dropping petals to the ground, and up to the large twin doors. Kate rings the glowing doorbell, takes a step back and lightly touches her hair. Her husband says something to which she doesn’t reply.
She hasn’t attended a party since she received Helen’s note— I am sorry, my love.
The door swings open and they are greeted by a woman in black taffeta. Kate recognizes her from the grainy marriage announcement in the newspaper: Helen’s replacement. A small gasp and a quick flutter of her hand to her pearls, a flash of emerald. Oh my. And then, recovery. The woman looks to Helen’s husband, who stands behind her with his hand on her waist.
How wonderful that you came.
Kate and her husband step through the doors and into the spacious living room. Faces turn and voices halt. Only the record can be heard, Miles Davis— a heartbeat that pulses and quickens and fills the room with something wild and at odds with the stillness of the guests. Helen’s husband brings Kate a cocktail. “Pink Lady, for a lady in pink,” he says, winking, absurd, and the woman in black taffeta spins away with a swish of her skirts. Kate had grown accustomed to his flirtations. She used to relay them to Helen over icy gin and tonics.
“Why did we do it?” Kate had asked. “Marry these men?”
Helen had leaned in then and Kate could smell the cigarettes on her hair, feel the cold flash of diamond against her cheek. “What else were we to do?” Helen whispered. Her finger grazed Kate’s chin, then she smiled and leaned against the balcony railing, looking out at the hazy green mountains and slice of silver ocean in the distance.
Kate wanders through the crowd now. Eyes follow her briefly before flitting away, and though she can’t hear the whispering over the music she can see the mouths moving—red lipstick mouths, thin-lipped mouths with cigarettes dangling.
She eyes the balcony across the room and forgets to breathe, the throbbing of her heart feels electric, dangerous. Someone drops their cocktail and a fleshy pink stain spreads across the white carpet. A woman in green chiffon grabs a towel, while others laugh and noisily joke about pale flooring and drunken, gloved fingers.
Kate pushes through the guests and steps out onto the balcony. She takes a deep breath, but she doesn’t have Helen’s courage. Or is it cowardice. She stands somewhere between the two, as most people do, on most things. Coasting, floating, in between.
Her husband joins her and complains about the people and the phony conversations. She turns toward him, her silk skirt snagging against the metal railing.
“Let’s leave then,” Kate says and he flicks ash over the balcony. She watches it fall and disappear and she wonders if it will land next to anything of Helen’s. Something that had fallen as she swung above the valley— a shoe, a ring, a ribbon from her hair.
“You know what they’ll say if we leave.” He passes her his cigarette, an act of generosity, and she accepts. She understands why he stays with her. Rumors are an embarrassment, but divorce is a scandal from which she would never recover. The world forgives men, Helen had warned. But everyone knows a fallen woman never recovers.
He stays for her sake, so she smiles at him. “Shall we go back inside then?” He nods and she takes his arm, biting the inside of her cheek until she feels nothing.
Angie Ellis lives on Vancouver Island where most of her stories take place. On the Balcony is her debut publication. She is working on her first novel.