Category: childhood

MONDAY: Upstairs Balcony

BY JOHANNA MONTILLA

Copyright is held by the author.

THIRD GRADE was the scariest year of my life.

I’m not talking about monsters in closets or spiders in showers; I’m talking about something worse. A few things worse:

That year, tired of wasting her time untangling the nest on my head, my mom gave me a new haircut.  I wore bows as big as a house, different colours every day. My hair was so short that I was afraid to be taken for a boy.

My too long uniform skirt, four inches below my knees. “It should work for the next two years,” my mom said. In a school with a dress code, rich kids could be a little mean with the scholarship girl and her second-hand clothes. As skinny as I was, that skirt got me the nickname, ‘electric stick.’

Then, I got divisions as every morning torture. I discovered that Math wasn’t my strength.

And the challenge of being the oldest sibling with two parents who couldn’t stand each other, but they stayed together for the sake of their kids. Yeah, it doesn’t happen just in books and movies. That huge parenting mistake is part of real life too.

We used to live in a small apartment, with a tiny kitchen and barely enough appliances for fixing a meal. Three bedrooms with no doors and therefore, no privacy or any protection against the frequently loud conversations between my parents about, “where were you?” and “this is your fault.” One old T.V. with just two channels, two chairs, in an almost empty living room, and many, many questions that never got answers.

That was the place I once called home, and I hated it.

I should be grateful; after all, we had our own apartment, we didn’t share it with another family, we didn’t sleep on a slat of cardboard, and we didn’t have to compete with the feral dogs. But I was scared.

Our neighbourhood wasn’t the best.  I was afraid of the noises outside my window. I didn’t have air conditioning, and it was hot, with 35C degrees day and night, my window was always open. At that time, I didn’t know those noises were created by people trashing cars, breaking glasses, getting in trouble and partying. I thought some shadows would come to get me and take me with them. I had to be brave though. After all, I was in charge, I had two little brothers to protect.

Despite the horror of that year, I survived. How? It’s a secret. I’ve been keeping it safe in the corner of my heart for more than thirty years. I have to be careful with it; adulthood could be dangerous for the innocent memories of a little girl.

I don’t remember his name, I don’t remember his voice or his face, but I do remember the last time I played with him.

It was a night in May. I had eaten my dinner, and because I didn’t want to waste my time arguing with mom, I drank the entire glass of disgusting milk.  I picked up some books from the kitchen table, and I ran to the balcony. Once there, outside, I looked up and there he was, always on time.

“You’re late,” the boy called down from the upstairs balcony. It didn’t matter if it was one minute or ten minutes, late was late according to him, and I was always late.

“No, I’m not.”  Stubborn as I was –maybe I still am- I refused to let him win without a fight, even if he was right.

“Yes, you are,” the boy said.

“No, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Is this going to be our game tonight? I say yes, and you say no?”

I remember smiling because every night was the same. I started the argument, and I ended it. “Nah, I want to play something else.”

“Does your neck hurt?” he asked me.

“A little,” I said, “I got the worst part. Instead, you got it easier, just looking down all the time.”

“Do you want to stop playing with me here?”

The darkness stopped me from seeing my friend’s expression, but I heard the sadness in his voice. His concern wasn’t unusual, even though I had never complained before. I didn’t understand why that night he thought I didn’t want to play anymore.

“No,” I said, “I like our games.” It was the truth.

“I like playing with you too.” He told me.

And for two little children, that was the first declaration of love.

“Why don’t you bring a pillow?” My friend suggested.

“What if I fall asleep?”

“I’m not going to let you. I’ll keep talking, or I’ll water my plants to wake you up.”

I laughed, and he laughed with me.

“Okay, I’ll be right back.”

I went inside, and one minute later I was back with a chair and a cushion. I leaned the chair to the half wall part of the balcony and set the cushion on the top bars, in that way I was able to rest my head against the half wall and look up with less trouble.

“You pick the game,” the boy said.

“What about riddles? I brought my books with many riddles.”

“Okay.  I’ll go first.  Hit me.”

That night as every night, we laughed and joked and talked about everything, our days in our different schools, and how much we hated math. At some point my mom called me, it was bedtime.

“Tell me, what do you want to do tomorrow?” He asked.

“I want to listen to music. I got a new cassette player.”

“Cool! Last week I recorded a cassette from the radio with all my favorite songs.”

“That’s great. Bring a bucket and a rope.”

“Got it. See you tomorrow.”

“See ya.”

I didn’t have the opportunity to listen to his cassette.  I didn’t know that divorce had come knocking the door, and the next day my mom, my brothers and I moved out to my grandmother’s house, and after that night I never saw him again.

It was a difficult year in my life. I wasn’t happy when I was eight. It wasn’t my parents’ fault or my brothers or my friends. They didn’t understand me, and I didn’t know how to explain. But he, my friend from upstairs, found the way to help me smile. He listened, he was always there. He was my safe place, and I couldn’t say goodbye.

The next year, my hair grew back, and I was taller than the year before. My uniform skirt fit better, some people at school forgot my nickname, and with a great effort, I learned divisions. I realized then, that it’s never too late.

I’ve never talked about this part of my life before, and with the time I tried to forget grade three. I couldn’t. Because, no matter what, that was the year I learned to look up for better and never give up.

And about my friend, as I was growing up, I didn’t think of him as much I used to do, but sometimes after a difficult day or when I’m scared of the dark, I look through my window, and I wonder, what game can I play at night?

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