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Out On A Ledge

By Barbara Ehrentreu

Helen washed her coffee mug, put on lipstick, popped in a mint to remove the coffee taste, opened the window and climbed onto the narrow ledge. The warm wind brushed her dyed brownish-blonde hair across her face. She was tired. Events had gone too far. In fifty years of living she had never felt so lonely. It was summer in New York, and she stared down at the sea of people moving in an undulating mass like schools of fish. She crunched her knees up to fit her body into the small space between the window and the emptiness and sat down as comfortably as she could on the cold concrete ledge.

She didn't look fifty, or even beyond forty. With her smooth skin and bold demeanor she was sometimes taken for thirty-five. One time she was even asked for proof in a bar. That kept her content for a whole week. Lately, though, she could see lines on her face undetected by others, as if the mirror were giving her a private show.

When she was younger she used to walk by store windows and glance at her reflection any chance she got. Now waking in the middle of the night she kept her head down so she wouldn't see herself in the mirror. Instead, she stared down at her hands and watched the water run over them as if they were disassociated from the rest of her body.

The other night she had gone to the movies with her husband to see an "avante garde" movie called "Waking Life". The filmmaker suggested that when we die there is a six to eleven minute period when, although the body is dead, the mind is still functioning. The main character went through a series of dreams connected like rooms in an apartment. The hero seemed to wake up each time, but in reality he was dreaming. He knew he was dreaming. Lines were not sharp, and he had no control over turning lights on or off. Clocks couldn't be read. After the movie, when she went to the restroom, she flicked the lightswitch--just to check. She was awake, yet her life had a dreamlike quality to it now.

The stone ledge was beginning to get uncomfortable, and a pigeon came fluttering next to her - probably wondering why she was invading its space. She thought of the pigeons she had seen in her life. As a little girl she had given them leftovers of her sandwich at the zoo. Now, everything wanted something from her. Her children, like the pigeon, always needed her to fix their lives, to buy them things; her husband asking, while he sat on his green leather reclining throne, and she went back and forth to get him his beer, his pretzels, his eyeglasses -- a never-ending trek from kitchen to living room -- unless she retreated to the computer where, except in cases of emergency, she had peace. There too, there was no way to exist without decisions. Email clawed at her to answer, to forward or to visit a website. She had so much to read that it became a chore.

For now it was enough to sit companionably with the pigeon and meditate on what had brought her to this point. Okay, today was her birthday. She was finally fifty, but that wasn't it. Helen pictured her fortieth birthday. They were living in that first floor apartment in Kew Gardens with her mother living across the street. She remembered a phone call years before that day.

"I got us an apartment," her husband said.

"That's great! Where?" She was in frigid Buffalo talking to him and keeping an eye on Flash, their Newfoundland puppy, who had a tendency to chew on books and shoes if you didn't watch.

"On Austin Street across the street from your mother."

Helen's heart almost stopped beating. Did he realize she had tried to stay away from there for her whole adult life? What was he doing? Didn't he know how she struggled against being sucked into her mother's life? What could she say? He had his I-did-something-wonderful-for-you voice, and she melted.

"That's great honey, but across the street from my mother? Are you out of your mind?"

She could hear the little pings of gladness change to anger as he answered:

"Yes, and you're going to love it. It has two bedrooms and a terrace out back. It's on the first floor. I thought it was a great deal."

Helen thought about this. It was just what they were looking for. After all, it wasn't like her mother was in the same apartment. She didn't have to see her everyday.

"Okay, take it. What the hell, she works, I won't have to see her unless I want to go across the street."

When the first baby, Cathy, came, she was happy to have her mother there. Then when Debbie was born she would have been lost without Mom across the street. But the morning of her fortieth birthday she didn't get out of bed. She realized she'd gotten sucked in after all. She was part of the cookie-cutter life she hadn't wanted. Not even Cathy's breakfast in bed for her moved her. Her mother sprang into the place bustling around forcing her out of bed and tempting her with a present from Fortunoff's. Irresistibly she succumbed to a day together without kids. Helen had gotten dressed. Her mother bought her the gold necklace with a lion that she touched now, remembering that the moment it had been placed on her neck she had begun to feel better. Where was her mother now? In the ground, along with two of her aunts. No one was going to come to take her shopping today. In fact, no one had remembered it was her birthday. Why wasn't she in bed now? Like the time that Flash died, when she spent three days in bed mourning the loss of her sweet, furry, giant dog.

Could she pinpoint what had placed her here on a scorching day to smell the pungent odor of pigeon and sit on a cold slab? It had seemed natural to open the window and walk outside, as if a force was guiding her like the dream sequences of that movie. Was this a dream? She glanced at her watch, the 25th anniversary present from her husband, four years ago. Its face was set in diamonds, and it glowed in the dark. The gold bracelet band fit loosely around her thin wrist. I must get it tightened, she thought. Laughing out loud she wondered, why would I do that? I should leave it for my daughters, only which one? If she left it to Deborah, Catherine would feel left out. What did she have for Cathy? Maybe the necklace? Now she was feeling claustrophobic. The constant bickering between the two girls did that to her. She was glad that Debbie was away at school. Cathy was working nearby in the city. They met sometimes for lunch now that Helen had no job. Nothing had rushed in to fill the void left when she lost it. No one hired her. With nothing to do, days got harder to face. She'd run out of dreams.

She thought of her two grown daughters. What would they say if they saw her on this ledge? What would her husband say?

She should call them and leave each a message. But the work that would take. She'd have to leave the ledge and go into the apartment. No, too much trouble. Oh, no, she realized. She imagined her body lying on the pavement battered beyond recognition and her husband and children ignoring it. Arguing that one or the other had caused her to jump. She seemed pretty happy, they would say. Then one would remember an incident that happened the day before when Helen had been ignored by one of them. The bickering would begin.

She could picture the scene on the sidewalk by her lifeless body. The same arguing back and forth that happened again and again. You caused this by not having lunch with Mom today. No you did it by not listening to her. No Cathy caused it by her years of therapy draining all emotion out of Mom until she couldn't breathe for fear it would antagonize someone. She saw them fighting on until they all collapsed in tears. Was she heartless enough to do this to them? But how could she continue in this hamster wheel of a life?

Their lives had not been the same for the past couple of months. At first each night her husband would ask when she was going to get a job? Helen would answer and give the list of places that had rejected her that day. She was trying, but they wanted a younger person or someone with more experience, or someone with less experience. Each place had its own excuse. She went to interviews surrounded by twenty-something's in their neat power suits. Companies couldn't discriminate, but she knew from the look in the eye of her interviewer that she wouldn't be picked. When she related this to her husband he would reply, "You're crazy. Age doesn't make a difference now. If you have what they want they will hire you." But she never had what they wanted.

She kept looking for months. Then she gave up. She spent her days alone. No friends were home, and at her age the only places to go were bookstores and movies. She exhausted all of them and soon was left with nothing to do. She stopped cleaning the house and opened the aged Scotch that had sat untouched for years . She took a sip. The bitter alcohol taste hit her, but she sipped again and found it was better. By the third sip she was beginning to enjoy it and when she got to the bottom of the glass she refilled it. A pleasant warmth seeped into her and filled the void. Now when her husband came home he found her lying on the sofa. Some days she was still in her pajamas. Alcohol had become her best friend. She hugged the bottles to her as she had done with her children.

She would have continued in this semi-coherent state, but her family intervened and she had to stop. One day all three of them harangued her until she was jelly. She had no defense and found herself at an AA meeting. But those people weren't helpful to her. Oh, she stopped drinking, but with nothing to replace it her life became cardboard. She did everything right, but it was like an automaton. Helen had ceased to exist as a person. She was an object to be discussed and cared for, not a wife or mother, but a stranger in her own house. So now she spent her days doing nothing, not thinking, not writing, not reading, not visiting. The occasional lunch with Cathy was her bright spot. She had planned to lunch with her today, but Cathy had canceled, saying she had too much work. Helen was all dressed with no place to go. So, she made herself some lunch and came out here on the ledge.

She glanced at her hands clenched so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. She looked down at her nails freshly manicured with a deep brown polish that had the funny name of Scribble Scrabble. The name reminded her of the papers full of scribbles Cathy had left all over the living room in the old apartment. She wondered what it would be like to scribble over her life and start fresh and clean. Tomorrow she might try that, or maybe not.

Helen closed her eyes to block the bright sunshine pouring onto her now. She imagined she could fly. All she need do is stand, spread her arms, and as if in a dream she would soar over the skyscrapers like the pigeons.

Bio: Barbara Ehrentreu has been a full time teacher for fifteen years. She took time off to raise her children, going back after twenty years to teach computer and first grade. At the present time she is pursuing her Masters of Professional Studies in Reading and Writing at Manhattanville College. She has written a children's middle grade novel and is in the middle of writing a young adult novel for girls. A member of SCBWI and several online critique groups, the inspiration for this story came from her own life and the frustration of being a woman at this time in history.

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