This story actually does not have a title. I thought about “The Watchers” or “Girl, Girl, Girl” but I don’t love either of those. Feel free to suggest one, if you wish!
The string in her hand felt alive, like a really skinny worm trying to get away. She gave a tug, gazing up at the bobbing red balloon that hovered a few feet above her. As she stood on the small plot of grass outside her apartment building on the warm sunny Sunday, she only had eyes for that red balloon.
She heard her mom calling her from somewhere far away, but she was lost. The balloon was her whole world and she was completely adrift in it. She liked the way it floated there against the friendly blue summer sky. If she didn’t move, the balloon was as still as a photograph, but it was hard for a five-year-old to stay still for long. When she gave a little quick tug, the balloon twitched and quickly returned to its place. When she looped her arm slowly to one side, the balloon did a ballerina dip before gracefully floating back into place. She tried taking a few baby steps (“Mother, May I?”) and the balloon skipped alongside. She jumped up and down in place, and the balloon rose and fell, rose and fell in time with her. A robin flew by, swerving too close, and with a cry of outrage, she jerked the balloon string hard to save its life.
Unseen by the engrossed little girl, an old woman watched silently from her window in the apartment two floors up. The old woman, who now spent most of her time in the window watching the rest of life go by, was as absorbed in the little girl as the girl was in her balloon. It took her back back back in time to watch the tiny child move this way and that way, like a little bird. She gazed and remembered how once upon a time she was a carefree young woman; a happy, healthy child. She had grown up in Brooklyn at a time when mother’s apron strings were a literal part of her life instead of the figure of speech they were now. All of her clothes were handmade by her mother, her grandmother and her Aunt May, which is why all of her dresses matched her brother’s short pants. You could tell who was related to whom in those days, by the patterns on their bottoms and jumpers. The fun was clean and innocent, she thought, play was just play and everyone helped out without wanting something in return. We were hardier than these kids today, she mused. A bloody knee was more likely to result in a spanking for the torn skirt (“That’s what you get for being careless, young lady! Now you can walk around in that ripped skirt and everyone will know how clumsy you are.”) than for a Minnie Mouse band-aid and a mother’s kiss to make it all better. A single tear slid down the wrinkled cheek unnoticed by the old woman.
That solitary tear was noticed by the old woman’s daughter, who was sitting in her car on the street in front of the apartment building watching her mother watching the little girl. She had come for her weekly visit to the apartment she had grown up in. It always made her feel like a teenager again coming here, and not in a good way. The smell of the apartment took years of her life away; and her now very argumentative mother tested her patience in the same way she had done to her mother all those years ago when she was testing her independence. That would have been in the mid-70’s, and her mother’s old-fashioned ways were a huge embarrassment to her. The fighting had really started when she went off to junior high school and refused to wear the calf-length skirts her mother continued to sew for her. It was bad enough that her two little sisters always had skirts of the same pattern as hers, but the worst part was that everyone else had brand new mini skirts and platform shoes to match. She used to think if she heard the term “when I was your age…” once more, she would climb out the window to the tree whose branches offered a constant tempting escape, and never come back. A small smile played across the woman’s face as she thought of how that tree had always been waiting there to help her, and how more than once she had actually climbed out onto its sturdy limbs wondering if she should, could really run away and never come back. God I was so young then, she reflected. What did I know about anything?
The woman’s daughter was brought out of her reverie by the second round of calling by the little girl’s mother; a shriller, more insistent tone that implied, “losing my patience, little miss. If you don’t get up here right now you might be sorry.” The sharp note of warning pierced the little girl’s spell and brought the old woman out of her woolgathering all at the same time. The daughter got out of her car and locked the door behind her. She walked into the apartment building, holding the door for the scampering five-year-old and her bumping red globe-friend, and moved up the dingy tiled staircase to her mother’s faded-green apartment door.