The Tiny Urban
At dusk, my husband and I stood outside the charming hotel we recently discovered. We had taken a room with separate beds owing to my husband’s restless legs. We no longer smoked, but we ventured outside to people-watch. I tied a sheer scarf around my head; it would be two gruesome days before my next hair appointment. From the sidewalk, I looked up at the Tiny Urban looming behind us; its quaint rooms had small balconies with iron railings. In the alley, an outdoor eatery was wedged between ruddy brick buildings.
About five stories up, a light went on. A fidgety family of four emerged on their balcony the way you do when you first arrive in your hotel room and explore every corner. They clustered together on their perch and surveyed the alley below, where they must have seen a scurry of waiters moving between table umbrellas. From the fifth floor, that family must have heard the chatter of diners gossiping, the clanging of forks on porcelain, and the general honking din of the Upper West Side. I held my scarf beneath my chin and studied the young family against the partial skyline. My husband and I had enjoyed a similar view not so long ago. The young family soon retreated into privacy and out of my range. I imagined those boys darting around the too-small room, bouncing on beds, and asking to play Mario Bros on the television, but being told the hotel doesn’t offer video games. The Tiny Urban is not family-friendly, which is one of the reasons my husband and I like it so much.
I fixed the top of my scarf so that it covered the front of my hairdo. Rain was on the way, and the humidity was already doing terrible things. I perused the diners in the alley café. One couldn’t help but admire their gaiety, how they huddled together, lingering over coffee and cigarillos, with their vitality and their viewpoints. I inhaled a thin thread of tenderness in all the throbbing brio and clasped my husband’s hand. We would soon check out and catch a cab to our favorite spot downtown for dinner at eight. I felt light because we had no baggage; I always carry the essentials in my clutch.
I looked at the starless sky while my husband examined the dirty sidewalk.
“Don’t step there,” he said, pointing to a pile of scat near a pebbled square of concrete that housed one of New York City’s famous sidewalk trees. A pyramid of garbage in shiny black plastic bags encircled the juvenile ginkgo, making its narrow trunk appear even more vulnerable and out of place. Darker shapes stained the pavement like abstract art, which—if I’m being honest—is not my favorite. Cigarette butts and chewed gum had settled in with the pebbles, and I marveled at the tough little tree, how it had thrived so well in less-than-ideal conditions.
My husband murmured something about a left-handed pitcher for the A’s who had just walked by. I fought off a rare craving for a Pall Mall Gold 100, popped in a breath mint, and scanned the balconies again.
The family had returned: two adults, two young boys, one taller than the other. I’d say they were approximately six and eight years old. Happy family. This time, the mother had allowed the boys to climb up and straddle the railing. Those lads! They must have begged her to let them on the balcony again after their disappointment about Mario Bros. I wondered why those parents had chosen the Tiny Urban in the first place. Who selected it? Was it him or her? They should have known it wasn’t good for their children. And why take a room on such a high floor?
The older boy caught my gaze and waved. Instinctively, I gasped and thought of Michael; perhaps I’d been thinking of Michael all along. I waved back. At home, I always stop at lemonade stands even though I detest lemonade made from a mix. Dear me, the balcony boy waved again and smiled. This time I turned away. I didn’t want to be singled out like that.
A hurried pedestrian bumped into me and jarred me from my trance; it was time to go. Everything had been perfect, and I didn’t want to ruin our luck. If things went south, I didn’t want to be there. Someone’s puppy might make a doo-doo right in front of us, and the owner may or may not be law-abiding. A busy waiter might stumble and drop a tray of dry martinis. An irate diner might start a fight, raise his voice, or ignite an embarrassing argument.
Worst of all, a tragedy might transpire for that family on the fifth floor. Those parents might bicker, get drunk, or get violent, and I didn’t want to see any of it. Didn’t want to watch them scold their children, or witness any illness or injury that might afflict those sweet boys up there on the balcony.
One of those boys might fall. Might just peel off the edge like a leaf and drop onto the eaters below. If he did fall, even though he was compact, he would make an awful thump as his body hit the ground. There’d be a split second of silence before the customers’ screams. Then there’d be chaos. Chairs would be scooting, dishes crashing, and urgent voices ordering us, or anyone, to find a phone and call 9-1-1. An ambulance would eventually come after fighting New York City traffic and one-way streets, although it would probably arrive too late at that point. The EMTs would probably not have a chance to make a difference. No matter how quickly we called 9-1-1, the ambulance would most likely arrive too late to save that boy’s life.
Let’s say there was a doctor in the crowd, a doctor or a nurse, eating at the bistro in the alley, or anyone standing on the sidewalk or walking by, such as the bulldog owner who may or may not have picked up his dog dirt from the pavement, or even if my husband or I were a doctor or a nurse, which we are not, although both of us have been trained in CPR many years ago when we were in college—separate colleges, at different times, three years apart, too long ago to remember, and so long ago that, as I have read, CPR techniques have changed—anyway, even if we had applied the current CPR techniques or even the older techniques, we will never know if CPR would have extended the small boy’s life or improved his chances at all while we waited for the ambulance to arrive.
Perhaps his parents would push us aside because they preferred to administer the CPR themselves after rushing down the five flights of stairs, or maybe they would have chosen the finicky elevator in their panic after seeing him fall, before they had a chance to reflect on why they had allowed him to stand so close to the railing, why they had allowed him on the balcony at all, and before they wondered if they would ever in their lives, ever get over it, ever overcome the guilt, the loss, the nightmare of watching him fall, or of not watching him fall but sensing his descent and hearing the thump, that awful thump, and then hearing the shrieks of the pitiful people who had been eating in the alleyway bistro, one or two of whom might have been struck by the falling body.
And what of the brother? How would he feel? He would certainly be terrified, certainly traumatized. And in all the panic and flurry, what if he were left alone? Would anyone think to take care of him, would anyone think to comfort him? Or how to comfort him? And would he ever recover from his own sense of responsibility and his guilt about surviving his only brother?
And we would certainly all be told by the EMTs in the ambulance, if we were riding with them in the ambulance, that even if any of us had been doctors or nurses, or if any of us had known the current CPR techniques, we could not have saved that boy. The fall was too great, they would certainly tell us, and the impact was simply too much. It was too traumatic, they would explain. An impact like that would have killed him instantly, I’m sure, and I certainly didn’t want to see that. I didn’t want to see that, and I didn’t want to answer any of their questions about what I witnessed or what I did or what I knew. I wouldn’t want to speak to anyone about it. Not to the parents, certainly. I wouldn’t know what to say to them if called upon, although I hoped I would encourage them. I would like to believe that the boy died without pain or suffering or any awareness that he was dying, which may or may not have been some consolation to those parents, at some point in the future.
I was staring at that balcony when a dollop of rain cannonballed onto my eyeball, affronting me, causing me to blink, blink, blink. I squinted up at the darkened clouds, trying to decipher what grudge they held against me. Then sharp rain pellets pinpricked my cheeks, like a bird with a corncob. A distant flash in the clouds threatened, and it was time to leave. Soon. Immediately. Now.
I turned to find my husband, but he was bent over picking up a nickel from the filthy sidewalk. I patted his back to urge him to hurry with the nickel. I patted and rubbed his back, noticing several wet spots on his topcoat.
“Let’s go; let’s go now, please,” I said, squeezing his arm. I looked again to the sky, careful not to include the balcony in my periphery.
“All right,” he said, removing my hand from his arm. “We have to check out first.”
So I attached my whole body to his and shuffled slightly behind him, but touching, as he marched into the lobby and up to the checkout desk. He tried to shrug me off a couple of times, but I grasped his elbow and smiled at the concierge, reminding everyone how in love we were.
“Please,” I said, as we hastened out to Ninth Avenue, my eyes down.
And when he saw me like that, my husband didn’t fuss, didn’t ask me what was wrong; he simply opened the taxi door and offered me his hand, and when I took it and climbed in before him, we agreed once again, as we do without speaking, to give each other everything, all that we have, all that is needed, without hesitation, free and clear.
Then, safe and dry in the dark taxi, I untied my scarf and reshaped my hair, adjusting what was left of my set. I decided not to think about the boy, and I didn’t. I didn’t think about him the entire jolty ride across town, I didn’t think about him as I listened to the drumming downpour on the roof, I didn’t think about him as I gaped out the window in a trance at the gray and blurry backdrop, dreaming awake as raindrops struck the glass and then wiggled into worms like sentences in an alien language, and I didn’t think about him as the maître d’ seated us at a noisy table near the kitchen, where I allowed the lousy clanging of glassware, plates, and trays and the Pinot Noir to numb my limbic cortex.
And later that night, after we boarded the red-eye from LaGuardia, my husband’s favorite airport—not mine—and after we arrived home in the wee hours, I settled down to sleep in the master bedroom—not Michael’s, finally—and I decided: if my husband kicks me tonight, I won’t mind it.
About the Author: Toni Halleen is an employment law attorney who teaches communications skills workshops using improv techniques. Her writing has appeared in Structo, Wigleaf, WSQ, StarTribune, and elsewhere. In 2013, Toni won a Mentor Award in Fiction from the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her play, “Soulless, Bloodsucking Lawyers” won Best Musical at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Toni is currently working on a novel.