On This Side
“Passing” was the verb we employed to describe the act of traveling to the other side. Passing was a thrill, a gorgeous kind of terror held within tight bounds. Permission to look at another world, one frightful and uncharted, all the while tethered safely to our own by seat belts and vigilant adults anchored to steering wheels.
From the backseat, I watched Grace’s expertly highlighted hair quiver in the cold A/C, looking for a trace of dark roots, some proof of imperfection, a slip of her attention, but finding nothing. Nothing seeped out from under her branded sunglasses. With every movement of the wheel, her gold bangles jingled. Four of them adorned forearms covered in shiny blonde down and skin a perfect shade of brown, a shade that said, “I spend time in the sun but I’m white, don’t worry.” Unwrinkled, her skin was so youthful you could mistake her for her daughter. Grace’s right hand let go of the wheel and made for the volume button, Simon and Garfunkel loud enough to eclipse my most vocal thoughts and all attempts at conversation, which, frankly, was a relief.
On this side, everything looked different, foreign: the colors, the height of buildings, the textures. Clothes hung abandoned in the sunshine, discolored. Mostly, there was the discarded plastic, everywhere, more plastic than the mind could fathom. The real difference between poverty and the rest: money meant you didn’t have to bear the constant sight of plastic.
I gazed down at my own forearms, rapidly transitioning from pasty white to a brick-like shade of dark pink that would not fool anyone come school time. All summer I had watched the beauty marks on my arms rise like a child watching muffins through an oven window. What was the opposite of slow motion? The freckles agglomerated to form larger islands. I knew Maia and her mother took their pale skin to the dermatologist yearly. (“He checks everything,” Maia had said, “and I mean everything.”) Maia’s arm hung out the window, where she moved her fingers, relishing the sensation of the crazed wind playing with her hand.
The others lived on the streets. They were not an indoor species like us. Their two-story buildings looked vanquished. On the ground floors, dirty storefronts, plastic rejects, and garden chairs, scores of cheap garden chairs covered in idle men smoking. On the upper floors, open windows, and clothes, always clothes, hanging from railings and window sills. A litany of cars trundled down the road that pierced the slum in half. All coming from our side, no doubt. You could tell from the makes and brands and sizes of the cars and the bespectacled faces and the smoked windows that you would have to pay them money you’d never have to get them to unlock their doors, let alone step outside. All stared straight ahead, brows furrowed, shoulders locked. No whistling, no smiling, no singing, and most of all, no stopping. Even the children in their elevated seats and speckled sticky skin were quieter here, feeling the sinking temperature of their parents’ mood. Yet they sometimes ventured to look sideways. They had a secret power which they would shed like snakeskin when the time came: the ability to look directly at the others. They gazed into green eyes settled deep in tawny, salted faces. Sometimes, they smiled and waved. It occurred to me I’d never heard anyone from the other side speak, never heard the sound of their voices. Did they speak our language?
“It’s a great club. Indoor pool, outdoor pool, great service,” Grace offered, lowering the volume on “Cecilia.” “My friends started going there this month. It only opened recently, and they know the owner,” she said in her sparkling accent. “It’s a little far from the center but it’s so worth it.” She stretched out the “so” for a solid second. I looked at her transparent earrings and marveled at the distance that separated us. What would it take for me to be more like this? The fabric of her floral dress looked thick. “Get your arm back in, now,” she admonished Maia, who pulled her hand back into the car as though she’d touched something burning. Grace pushed a button and the windows rolled up. The doors gave a little click as they locked. We rushed between houses, trailing an olive green SUV with a white mark near its license plate.
“This will be a nice change for you from the Castle Club, no, Laura?” Grace said. “No, I mean,” she continued, “it’s nice there, but here it’s another level, you will see. No, it’s not the same thing, not nearly!” Grace could afford laughter that sounded like crystal. I was an intruder in this car. Their universe I could visit, and only as long as they wanted me to.
Maia contorted herself further, as though she might soon climb out the window and run for the gaps between the buildings. We were stuck in traffic.
A child in clothes left over from the previous decade walked over, waving little packs of chewing gum in green cardboard boxes. Her fingers rapped the window. Her eyes stared blindly through the dark glass and into the space above our knees. “So, Laura,” Grace continued, “excited for the new school year?”
“More than Maia for sure,” I said, nudging my friend in the side, bidding her to carry her part in this conversation so that I wouldn’t feel so observed, so rated. (I knew what my rating was: low; an acceptable curiosity because of my brains, but decidedly on the less tasty side of the socio-economic spectrum.)
Outside, a smaller child, perhaps related to the gum girl, lounged in the dirt, wearing a long jersey t-shirt that served as a dress. There was no sidewalk proper, and the cars rushed by mere inches from the child. She seemed enclosed in a case of her own thoughts.
The club was a compound. Between us and a parking lot littered in convertibles and SUVs were two men in black polos and skinny sunglasses guarding a barrier. One of the men walked to Grace’s side as she lowered the window. “Hello, Mrs. G.,” he said. “Hi, there,” Grace smiled. “You brought a guest today.” He motioned to me. “May I see your papers, miss?” I slipped my ID between the front seats. After a moment, he handed the document back. “Welcome. Have a good time,” he told Grace. The barrier rose with a buzz.
I resented leaving the locker room and walked to the deckchair Grace had reserved for me with my head hung in shame. I was too pasty, too flat, too dark-haired, and mostly I was not enough. Surely, everyone would notice what I lacked, and in a place where lacking anything was evidence of weakness, an invitation to be preyed on, despised. I slumped into the chair and proceeded to cover myself with my towel. Maia was already swimming laps, her hair following her head like black algae, her body smoothly breaching the water in her lane.
The sun pummeled my cheeks, my shoulders, my knees. “Put on the lotion,” Grace said, handing me a bottle of sunscreen. I never carried any. It was always Grace who provided for me, always her who gave me things, always more things, nothing I’d ever asked for, but always things I needed. I would go home and transfer them from my bag into my drawers in secret. Sunscreen was one of those things I had apparently not been taught I needed.
Next to Grace was another woman, in her late fifties, wearing nothing but a thong, her skin a dark copper, tanned like leather. Her hair was bleached into a bale of straw, her lips and breasts and cheeks pumped full of something I imagined to be liquid plastic. Her nose had shriveled to the size of a button. Still, she spoke with a nasal voice. She asked about my scholarly prowess, of which Grace had apparently told her while I’d been assessing whether my swimsuit properly hid the unsightly black hair that sprouted all over my body.
“So you’re doing very well in school,” the woman said, leaning over Grace’s perfect navel. “What will you do next year after the end of high school?”
“I’ll be studying political science and literature at the university here.”
“Ah! So fine,” the nose said.
"What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m an artist,” she replied, “I do a bit of graphic design. Freelancing. That’s how I know Grace: the artistic connection!” And with that her head jerked backward, swallowed by the sound of laughter.
We were three in a row of mostly middle-aged women and a few teenage hostages. Most of the older women were topless, and their towels, turquoise, fuschia, lagoon green, popped against the ochre tiles. Between clusters of lounging women, young men in starched white shirts and uniformed smiles glided by, carrying trays topped with bottles of Italian sparkling water coated in condensation. They had a kind word for each of the matrons. Their eyes never saw the teens, never touched them. Crazed remixes of ’80s music burst through the speakers. In the water, some women wore latex hats to protect their faded hair, some went topless. Most swam breaststroke, coming up for air with their mouths stuck in a lowercase “o.” Maia swam the crawl, and she splashed the slow women in the parallel lanes, who knew better than to frown.
For what seemed like hours we lay on our backs. Later Maia appeared, asking me to follow her into the water, but I refused. When Grace’s turn came to swim a few laps, with her golden head of hair above the water at all times, Maia sat in her mother’s seat, splashing cold drops over me.
“Why won’t you swim with me?” she asked.
“I look horrible. I can’t stand being in a bikini in front of all these people.”
“Then why’d you agree to come here with me?” she asked in the angry, motherly tone she often used, a tone that reminded me that she would always be a year older and loads richer, even if I was now a full head taller. “I don’t know. It’s nice being with you.”
“We could have gone to the movies if I’d known you were such a scaredy cat. What happened? You weren’t like this before. Last year we went to the pool all the time and I never saw you hiding like this,” she mocked.
I looked away, hoping she’d take a hint. She remained silent for a bit, and then, “It’s not so far.”
“The ladder. If you stand up it’s like a ten-second walk from here, tops.”
I eyed the glare of the iron ladder. Manageable.
Maia walked off toward the shallow end of the pool.
“You know you’re beautiful, right?”
Grace had started the engine and was maneuvering her way out of the parking spot when I saw it. The driver of a large Cadillac was extending his hand to the security guard through the open car window when a boy in tattered hand-me-downs ran up from the street below, waving a woven flower necklace. The guard watched as the child ventured his hand into the car, presenting the necklace he sold for a dollar. The child retrieved his hand as the window rolled up and the car passed the open barrier. When the Cadillac disappeared down the street, the security officer dragged the child past expensive and possibly fake tropical plants, behind the wall separating the compound from the street. I saw his mouth widen and flex into what must have been a scream but inside the car it was all Simon and Garfunkel. He yanked the necklace from the child’s hands and threw him into the dirt, where the boy landed in a burst of beige dust, his hands raised over his head. As Grace pulled out of the driveway and onto the main road, I saw the child get up, groggy, and rub his eyes as though awaking from a deep slumber. He looked in our direction. My eyes met his in the rearview mirror. I saw the baby hairs on his forehead, stuck to his skin by sweat, and the back of the security man’s shirt, walking back to his shed.
Maia grabbed my wrist on the beige leather between us. “Did you see?” she mouthed, her eyes round, her brows arched. I nodded. She squeezed my hand.
“Are you staying with us for dinner, Laura?” Grace asked.
“I would love to but I think I have to get back. My parents are expecting me.”
She knew I was lying, of course, but did not insist.
It occurred to me then, even with the distortion of the smoked windows, that the buildings here were not yellow, not beige or gold, but an unnamed combination of all three, a shade that was more emotion than color. And their inhabitants, they were like fabric. We lived in their negative space, in what remained of the whole city when you denied the existence of the other half, neutrons bound to remain separated by degeneracy. Over there, on our side, I felt the vibrations they emitted, an invisible, silent wavelength. They were always close.
Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award in 2017 and has appeared or is forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Litro Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, The Nottingham Review, Five 2 One Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Five on the Fifth, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Spilled Milk, and elsewhere. She is currently on the masthead of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel.