Rated: E · Short Story · Friendship · #1691863
What a people-watcher finds where everything is ugly
| From the balcony of my second-floor apartment I see everything ugly. In front of me there's a two-story restaurant called Nauryz. On Nauryz's first floor is the self-righteous shop where I buy bread. I say self-righteous because it's expensive, but it's just as stocked as any other store around here. On the second floor is the dance hall and the place where couples have their wedding parties. Ugly, yes, because here people don't know how to love, and wedding parties are inadvertent tributes to the emotional squalor of relationships. Just below me is the Serikjan café, a place I've never been in because it smells from the outside too much like angina and poverty.|
In between these two is the main road, now under construction. It seemed like a normal road before, but last month they started tearing it up and “fixing” it, though the only thing that's happened is consistent tearing up. Four dinosaur-sized machines whose names I know only by the Chinese company listed on their hides rumble up and down the street, causing my building to shake with fear. Two of the machines threaten my windows; one of them dumps rocky dirt on the road every twenty minutes with a loud metallic thwack; the fourth screeches nails on a cursed chalkboard and exhibits no visible purpose. Throughout the day, the windows jerble and tremble like they're ululating at these tyrannoferrous rexes, and amidst the pain in my eardrums I say thank ya every now and then that their masters take a lunch break.
During this siesta, when it is quiet, the ugliness manifests itself mostly in the dusty wind, the banners hanging off the light posts which bang against the pole murderously often, and the buildings all painted white with canary yellow and sky blue trim. That last doesn't sound so bad, but when everything you see, everywhere, exhibits those colors, not repainted for two or three decades, it becomes ugly. Add the excruciating heat that gives butterflies sunburns, or the absolute cold that freezes your eyelashes together, and you've got yourself one hell of a picture no one wants to look at.
But I do look at it, and you can call me a masochist, because I think we're all masochists when it comes to truly ugly things. Ever see a gruesomely killed animal on your path and not be able to look away? Stare at the lady with a thousand tumors on her face? God knows why we stop to contemplate ugly things. Maybe we're waiting for the evolutionary instinct of compassion to kick in, or if it has, to use it constructively. Or maybe our logical minds are calculating possible scenarios of how things can get to such extremes. Or maybe it's respite from our own real worlds, which are commonly uglier than the new and exciting world of non-quotidian ugliness.
That's not a pleasant presentation of the view from my balcony, I realize. But I'm not entirely a masochist, because there is something beautiful in my view. It is one of the reasons I spend so much time on my balcony at all. It is the blue orchid among inandelions, the beautiful island in a sea of hideousness. She is a someone, actually. Her name is Jansaya, and she is twelve years old. Stop right there. I'm not a creepy old pedophile; I'm an aesthetic. A moral and physical aesthetic, sure, but more importantly, an aesthetic eminens. By that I mean someone who values what's beautiful in the world as it stands out from the ugly, no matter what that beauty is embodied in. Aesthetics like me find beauty in the extraordinary complexity of bees, in the chiaroscuro of a thin forest, or in the sole “F” on a math test by someone who didn't cheat, but not in a standard Christmas tree or a basketful of kittens. Kitschy, those, to an aesthetic eminens.
When I first saw Jansaya it was early summer, already blistering hot with no hope of rain. The plants were progressively getting browner from the salt that rain would not wash away until the following spring. I was on my way to my new apartment to mentally decide where I would put all my possessions. I had just walked around to the back of the building, where I found it pleasantly (and surprisingly) shady. A handful of cows ruminated nearby while one snooped in the dumpster for melon rinds. Some kids were playing not far off, tag-induced giggles soaring up to the skies, knees getting scraped and shorts getting soiled, all in the name of fun and mothers' vexation. Then I saw Jansaya. She was in an aquamarine – decidedly not sky blue – dress with a pink flower pattern and ruffly shoulders. Her hair, shoulder-length and dark as a raven, shone brightly even in the shade. Half of it dangled untidily over her right shoulder while the other half lay against her back. Her skin was blemish-free but tan as a pancake, surely the result of being outside all day long. I saw her squatting on the ground poking at the dirt with a piece of green glass, perhaps writing something. I remember smiling at such a classic tableau of youth. How happy we'd all be if entertainment were mere glass and dirt!
As I walked by she looked up, and she must have caught the smile on the corners of my mouth, because she stood up, erased her composition with a shuffle of her sandal and gave a bashful smile, then skipped hurriedly into apartment entrance way number one. As I found my way into my own apartment's entrance hall, number three, I took one look behind my shoulder and saw a flash of aquamarine dart back into number one, and smiled again, this time at the endearing abashment that eludes adults but melts their hearts.
From my balcony I like to watch the children play, or rather, listen to them while I sip iced coffee and read a book. When I do the laundry or wash the dust off my sandals I also take time to observe them, trying, usually successfully, to ignore the commotion of the metal beasts on the street beyond. Jansaya is usually alone, or walks with just one other person. Either the group doesn't want her or she doesn't want the group, or maybe a bit of both. Sometimes I see her pushing a toddler around in a plastic car, sometimes throwing a ball straight up in the air and catching it. Sometimes she sits on the canary bench with one leg up and one leg swinging, picking apart blades of grass or tracing something with her finger on the splintery bench boards. Sometimes I see her climbing trees, adept as an anole even in those white backless sandals and a pastel sundress. And sometimes I spot her sitting in a tree (with one leg up and one leg swinging), watching, like me, the activity below with both passive and active pleasure. Like listening to classical music, observation from afar can either be the background of your perception or at the fore of your attention, and this I believe Jansaya knows better than the others.
Once, I was reading on the balcony and I looked up to see her in one of her typical forms, sitting on a tree branch with a leg suspended. She sat about eight feet away from me, on the branch that reached closest to my balcony. She wore a grass green dress that came just past her knees, and below, the same white sandals. She was looking at me, eyes crinkled in a grin that was both lottery-winner and Cheshire Cat. I smiled back and put my book down on my lap. I searched for something to say, but found nothing – I am just a spectator, after all. We smiled at each other for a few seconds more before she said something in an very soft voice.
“Pardon?”, I asked in a language I had come to learn well, but not perfectly.
“I said, what are you reading?”, she asked again, more loudly.
I showed her the cover. “It's a book, in Spanish.”
She didn't say anything, as if to contemplate. Her smile didn't fade, but she closed her mouth. After a while, she spoke again.
“Do you know Spanish or what?”
“Yes, I know Spanish.”
“How many languages do you know?”
“Four or five,” I said. Another pause.
“You read a lot.”
“Yes, I suppose so. I like to read.” More silence. Kids are bad conversationalists, I thought. “Do you like to read?”, I asked.
“I don't have any books,” she said, matter-of-factly. It didn't surprise me, really. Around here television is the primary source of entertainment as well as education. When the kids aren't playing Monkey in the Middle outside, they're watching music videos and stupid reality programs that come directly from their Slavic neighbor to the north.
“Would you like one?” I asked. I had in mind a children's book of small poems I had bought to help me learn this obscure language, but it turned out to be harder than my advanced grammar books. Also, the cover was sky blue with canary yellow characters, and I hated it.
Jansaya said nothing and looked away, still smiling. I stood up and went to retrieve the book. When I came back she was swinging her leg in the tree, tracing something on the branch. She looked up and showed teeth in her grin again.
“What's your name?”, she asked.
“You can call me Jandos,” I replied.
“Jandos...”, she muttered, like it was a name she'd never heard before.
“What's yours?” I asked.
“It's pretty,” I said. “Here.”
I held up the book and she stared at it a second before inching over on the branch toward my window. As she approached, the branch bent slothfully like an old gentleman doffing his hat. When she was within a few feet, she grabbed onto the branch with her legs and turned upside down. She reached out with both arms for the book, her hair falling around her. Her emerald dress and obsidian hair, the jade of the tree leaves and their variegated shadows all wrapped themselves up into an image I'll not soon forget.
I handed her the book and she swung back up like a seasoned gymnast, then inched back towards her previous spot with the book in hand. She didn't thank me, but it didn't really feel like the gratitude was missing. She crawled down the tree with no loss of agility, then skipped back to her apartment without looking back.
Though I was able to find concord in a cacophony just by looking over the communal yard, one instrument always played louder and uglier than the rest. I was forced to notice this discord but could do nothing about it. I couldn't comfortably read or sip iced coffee or do the laundry while this discord was present. Watching it made me unbearably uncomfortable, in the same way that watching the protagonist of a film endure tortuous circumstances makes the invested spectator cringe.
This discord came in the form of another twelve year-old girl, Arujan. Arujan was as messy as scattered wet oatmeal, sassy as an impetuous high-schooler, and dirty as an adulterated tea kettle. Her face always looked filthy, and would always look filthy even if scrubbed with steel wool. Her matted hair came down to her chin and her bangs were cut too short for her chubby face. She always said “hello” in English when I walked by, and gave a long, unabashed stare along with the greeting. She carried with her a smile that was all sly, and was undesirably sweet, like the way water tastes after vomiting. You could almost see the fox ears coming out of the top of her head. I talk of Arujan so disdainfully, yet I cry no real offense. In acts committed towards me, she was guiltless; in her nature, in her adorable little girl-ness, however, she was a demon.
Of the few companions Jansaya walked with, Arujan was the most common. This was unfortunate. Perhaps Arujan was not as disagreeable as I have depicted her, in the same way sky blue and canary yellow are not really as ugly as my personal hatred for them. But I felt about her this way because of how starkly she contrasted with Jansaya. Where Jansaya's sandals emanated pearl white, Arujan's oozed tar black. If Jansaya donned a royal purple dress, Arujan wore a rust-colored T-shirt. Jansaya playing with green glass in the dirt was picturesque, but Arujan doing the same was filthy and low-class. It was the contrast that made me so much happier to see Jansaya enjoying the levity of youth alone, and which deepened my dislike, albeit unfair, of Arujan. But as I said, my dislike was unfair only in what she had actually done. What she could do and what I was sure she would do to the fancy-free sundress girl whose leg dangled lackadaisically left me uneasy.
On an unusually sweltering day I made some lemonade and brought it out to my balcony with a new book. I was happy to see Jansaya again in the tree near my window. She was straddling a big branch, both legs hanging, enthralled in the book I had given her and reading aloud softly to herself. I could barely hear her, just enough to catch the end of a poem:
Freckles on the boy's face,
Fox in the hole,
Papers in the briefcase,
Soup in the bowl.
Swords go in their sheaths and
Pigs in pigsties sit;
Make the glove go on the hand,
Make everything fit!
At the end she smiled wide and laughed as if the book had just told a joke. As she turned the page I purposely coughed so she'd notice me. I said “hello” in her language and instead of returning the greeting she smiled wider. I sat down and poured a cup of lemonade. Before I had even opened the book I heard a voice from below.
It was Arujan, of course.
“What?”, Jansaya replied, still smiling but seemingly agitated.
“Come down!”, Arujan whined.
“You come up!”
“Come on, come down!” The whimpering was insufferable.
Jansaya flashed a brief look at me with a smile, closed the book, and climbed down. I watched the two of them walk towards the bench. Jansaya was wearing a bright yellow dress with white spots. Arujan wore black shorts and a light blue tank top. They sat down on the bench and talked a little. I couldn't hear what they were talking about, only isolated words here and there. Jansaya held the book with two hands on her lap, looking down at the ground and tracing something with her foot in the sandy soil. Arujan said something, and Jansaya looked up at her. Then she looked up at me in the balcony a second, and handed Arujan the book. I felt a stroke of indignation but feigned inattention.
“What is it?”, I heard Arujan say.
I didn't hear Jansaya's reply. Arujan's greasy fingers flipped through the pages and I grimaced a little. Not enough to notice, I thought, but Jansaya saw and tried to take the book back. Arujan pulled it out of her reach.
“Wait!”, Arujan said self-righteously.
Jansaya looked up at me again, as if asking for advice with her eyes. I pretended to be looking at something beyond them and once more Jansaya reached for the book. She got half of it, but Arujan didn't let go.
“Stop it, I'm not done!” Arujan screamed petulantly. “What's the big deal?”
Jansaya, normally void of any malicious force, tugged once more at the book. She got it back this time, with a rip, and in Arujan's hand remained most of a page.
“Now look what you did!” Arujan screamed, and uselessly threw the torn piece at Jansaya. It fluttered to the ground. Jansaya looked up at me. It was the first time I'd seen her without a smile.
Arujan grabbed the book back again and in her temper tantrum ripped a few more pages out while Jansaya stared, hurt. Then Arujan tossed the book to the ground and stomped off as if the offense were on her. I saw her stop at the water pump for a drink, then continue on her umbrageous march home. Even her footsteps seemed dirty.
Jansaya looked from me to the book to the ground, clearly trying with all her might to hold back tears. A few of the torn pieces of paper floated off into the wind, over the cows' heads and into the mob of metal-roofed shacks. At last I heard a sob and she ran off into entrance way number one, carrying the book with both arms pressed against her chest. When the last flash of yellow left my view, I didn't feel like reading anymore. The truck beyond piled a load of dirt onto the road with a deafening clunk and the building growled in return.
The next morning I woke up enraged towards Arujan. I let out a frustrated scream to no one, still lying in bed. I dressed quickly and went out on to the balcony. No one was below. I looked back at the clock on the night stand: 6:48. Of course no one was below. I went back and sat on the edge of my bed for a long time with my hands folded in my lap, like a poor man wondering whether to steal his next meal again or end it all with the pistol in his desk drawer. Of course I wasn't thinking about suicide, but I did feel an empty desperation akin to the poor man's. It was just a book. The desperation came from something else. It was Arujan's ugliness, an ugliness far worse than the clanking of metal beasts, desert dust, or Bacchanalia at run-down cafés like Serikjan.
I decided to head out to the outhouse while it was still early, so I put on my sandals and opened the front door. Just outside the door I found what I had unconsciously expected would be there: the damaged book. It was lain neatly on the step, perfectly centered with the title facing me. I smiled, picked it up, and began to flip through it looking for the ripped pages. When I got to the end, I hadn't found them, so I started again from the beginning. Again, I couldn't find the damage. I checked the page numbers; all of them were correct. As I scrutinized each one carefully, I determined that she must have gone out that same day and bought the same book. But that was silly. I had bought the book in a city sixteen hours away by train, and I'd be damned if there was a bookstore in our small, ugly village.
Then, on page thirty-seven, I finally found evidence. In perfectly emulated Times New Roman script, in a color ink the same as the printed word, was handwriting. he boy's face, ole, he briefcase, bowl. All of it was written perfectly in line with the rest of the words. Thick paper had been cut with scissors to the exact edges of the ripped page and pasted into the book with the precision of a diamond cutter. Even the page number had been measured from both edges and written in flawlessly. A professional document falsifier could not have done better.
It didn't take much at all. There I had in my hands the profound beauty of Jansaya. She had done everything to respect one who had respected her first. Against the ugliness of Arujan and of the world, nothing seemed more perfect than that twinkly twelve year-old. I smiled wider than ever at the thought of her, the blue orchid among the weeds, the sweet-sounding violin among the clattering pots and pans, the goodness of a soul among the rotting ones all around. Jansaya, multi-colored, bashful Jansaya, will forever be my paradigm of beauty in an ugly world.