While we wait in line for water, Arsino descends the stairs of our building in her silk gown the color of milk. She walks on the filthy pavement barefoot, but with the confidence of royalty. We stop our chatter to look at her. Her necklace of fake diamonds breaks the sun in pieces. Like all things that are brilliant, but cracked, she attracts more curiosity than admiration.
At Namiku’s prompt, she cuts in line and sashays forward. This creates some buzz, a few complaints, someone cusses—after all, we’ve been waiting here for three quarters of an hour and the water pressure is not getting any stronger. But we try to forget it since Namiku is doing us a favor by letting us into his garden. Earlier on, we entertained hope that the water might reach the fifth floor of our building by midnight, but it seems unlikely now that the sun is setting. Sighing, we glance at the quiet fig and the persimmons tree to our left, flanked by a copper fence, where two children are drawing caricatures of the neighbors in line. They’re finishing a drawing of Arsino now, filling in the areas of her dress and peroxide hair with white chalk. Lola, one of the artists, gets bored and tosses the chalk to the grass. She sits on a small wall that separates the courtyard from Namiku’s villa and reads a magazine article aloud—an interview of an American actress.
Can you describe to us your morning routine?
I have a vanilla soy latte and fruit for breakfast, then I go for a run in Central Park. I didn’t used to like running before. An acquired taste.
When Arsino tramps upstairs, resting a bottle on each hip, Lola stops reading and looks up. Arsino is as mysterious as a film star. She showed up in our neighborhood one day and rented apartment number fifty-eight that had been empty for weeks. No husband. No children. Those few belongings she had, she carried on her back in a red sack, like the American Santa Claus. The very next day, she started to parade around the neighborhood in a ridiculous gown made of silk and her gaudy necklaces. Occasionally, she looked at us with an unusual expression, almost as if we were real people. It seemed like she was about to smile, or like she was suggesting a vague availability for conversation. But we didn’t give in. We took pleasure pretending that she was invisible, giving her a taste of her own medicine. Come to think of it, we’ve never even heard her speak, although Timi from the second floor swears that her voice sounds like a canary. He doesn’t tell us how he came to this curious piece of information, but we believe him anyway, perhaps because her eyes remind us of the eyes of a bird. They’re small and glowing, as if she carries a candle at all times.
We’ve heard many stories about Arsino regarding how she makes a living. Some go ahead and believe them, but the most discerning of us know how to set sugar and alum apart. Arsino is not one of those gregarious women who hang around Hotel Dajti for hours, pretending to wait for a friend. She has only one occasional visitor—a man in a dark suit and pink tie who looks somewhat familiar. Every Friday afternoon, the man plods towards her apartment with a folder under his arm. After some investigating, we discovered that he is a producer for Albanian Television. We don’t know for sure what he is doing in her empty apartment, but she’s a single woman, so we allow ourselves an educated guess.
And then there is Namiku, a good ten years younger than Arsino, but who has clearly lost his head, turning up Careless Whisper by George Michael whenever she comes out on the balcony. All the neighbors consider Namiku fortunate. His is not the kind of flimsy luck that everyone is privy to once in a blue moon, but the really substantial kind that befalls on a person very rarely. A year ago, the state gave back to his family a two-story villa that was once confiscated by the Communist Party and turned into a public kindergarten. His parents, both immigrants in Italy, send him two hundred and thirty Euros on the third of each month. Namiku has been unemployed for the last five years, and has enough time on his hands to fancy himself a writer. He read to us one of his poems one day, appearing so ridiculous that we almost stopped envying him altogether. But fortune catches you with one hand and flings you with the other. Instead of finding himself a nice girl and settling down, Namiku is stuck on a strange creature like Arsino. Honestly, the whole thing smells of witchcraft.
Finally, the water pressure improves. To celebrate, Namiku aims the hose triumphantly towards his garden and wastes a good amount of water on his trees. He enjoys childish spectacles of that sort. A few neighbors clap before picking up their buckets and heading home. Those who live on the fourth and fifth floor don’t budge. It might be hours until the water reaches their apartments.
Lola continues to read the magazine article aloud.
How are you able to deal with your fabulous success?
I guess I’m bothered less by paparazzi now. Like Rumi says—if you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror ever be polished?
Before Arsino moved in, apartment number fifty eight belonged to a brother and sister in their fifties who had lived together for a number of years. Both single, they never frequented other people. It’s hard to remember how the rumors of something indecent going on between them started, but we were curious enough to investigate casually, whenever the opportunity presented itself. The findings were intriguing. Every day, at about five in the afternoon, one of the subjects shielded the balcony window with a blanket as if the blinds didn’t suffice. There were also times when subject A and B would leave their apartment fifteen minutes apart, only to meet at the bus station, where A waited for B or vice versa. It was unclear why a brother and sister would be afraid to walk to the bus stop together unless they had something to hide. Where there is smoke, there is fire, the saying goes. Timi from the second floor refuted our presumptions back then, and told us that there was nothing weird going on— subject A slept on the living room sofa, while subject B in the bedroom. He told us that those two were nothing special, that they watched Brazilian and Turkish soap operas in the evenings, while roasting and grinding coffee. Not long afterwards, our subjects’ immigration application to Canada was approved and they moved to Toronto, which put an end to our interest in their affairs.
At the time we never questioned Timi about his mysterious knowledge. Later on we remembered that it was him who had known private things about the siblings, who had told us Arsino’s name and had described her voice. Suspecting that he had been spying, we promised him Luli’s brother’s old iPhone for half price. He then readily confessed to us that in the corner of his living room, there was a wobbly broken tile that could be removed, revealing three small openings that allowed him to glimpse into the apartment below. Most of the ceilings in our buildings were so badly damaged that the perforations were unnoticeable. The water shortage was rampant and people often forget that their faucets were on. Sometimes the water came suddenly, at odd hours of the night, flooding the sinks and leaking into the floors.
One evening, when Timi’s parents weren’t at home, we went to his apartment and flocked around the magical tile. Before removing it, we called outjokingly Abracadabra! Abracadabra! Our hands shook from excitement and our minds designed one tantalizing scenario after another. Secretly, we were hoping to see Arsino in the nude. It’s true that people take their clothes off in the bedroom and not in the living room, but something told us that she didn’t know the difference.
Just as expected, Arsino’s apartment was nearly empty. Her furniture was an abundance of colorful pillows tossed above a tethered Turkish carpet. She was not in the living room, so we waited patiently until she came in, our hearts beating furiously. Seeing her had an unexpected effect on us, similar to the melancholy one feels from a spell of rain in mid-summer, or to the trepidation after skidding into an unforeseen ditch in the middle of the road. The most startling discovery was this— Arsino’s peroxide hair was a wig. She was really bald, like a young soldier. Instead of her silk gown that exposed her cleavage, she now wore a gray dress that reached her heels. Her gestures were no longer theatrical, but measured and sparse, like those of a monk. In the center of the living room, there was a cardboard box serving as a table, on which she had positioned, above a doily, a framed photograph.
“She talks to that photo,” Timi whispered, “Just wait.”
Arsino was quiet. She knelt in front of the cardboard box and fumbled with construction paper of different colors, straws of various lengths, a pool of string. She seemed to be making kites. A few minutes passed before she spoke in a melodious voice that startled us.
“Which color do you like?”
She turned towards the photograph and waited for an answer. Her question was followed by silence, but she didn’t seem to think so. “You wanted this in red before,” she said angrily. “I already started cutting the paper and it will all go to waste now. You can’t always do whatever you want to do.”
She went on like that for a while, indulging in a long and jarring one-sided dialogue.
“You can’t leave the house, my son. Not yet. It will be over soon. And then we’ll go out together. Fly your kites.”
Then she started calling out a name, which we assumed it was her son’s. “Ermal! Ermal!” After a few minutes, it appeared as if she came to her senses. She stopped talking and stood up to water her begonias, wasting an entire water bottle on one of the small vases and leaving the rest dry.
Needless to say, our first spying expedition left us befuddled. We didn’t know what to make of Arsino’s double appearance and her conversations with herself. Her outside persona had enticed a lascivious anticipation that was now evaporating. Seeing her destitute apartment and listening to her conversations with the imaginary little boy made us feel sorry for her. We realized that desire and pity are opposite destinations— the more we advanced in one, the further we distanced ourselves from the other. We found her less appealing and couldn’t even manage to whistle when she passed by. Our curiosity intensified however, and we went back to Timi’s apartment. We wanted to find out her story at all costs, the same way as when we got addicted to a sad TV drama, while wishing that we weren’t.
The second time around, we got lucky. Namiku was in her apartment, relaxing on her colorful pillows, his white, scrawny legs stretched out on the Turkish carpet. He was fond of floral shorts, the Hawaiian kind which he liked to combine with pastel colored shirts.
“Do you want me to read to you again?” he asked her.
“The passage from the ball, please. I picture myself in it. That’s what I’ve always wanted I suppose—another life.”
Namiku started to read. His voice took on the same grandiloquent tone as when he read us his poetry. His emphasized every syllable and took long pauses in between words. “There she was. No doubt about that! But everything save the ball, the future no less than the past, was enveloped in a shadow.”
As mawkish as ever, his performance was hard to take. Arsino sounded touched. “How marvelous. The orchestra. The chandeliers.”
Namiku stopped reading.
“When you wear your dresses,” he said. “And your jewelry. You always seem like someone else.”
“I bought them from a gypsy in Elbasani Street. When I dress up, I forget him.”
Namiku coughed. “You know, I wrote about him the other night. It’s almost as if I can see him, sitting next to the window.”
“Yes, he wanted to get out so much.”
Namiku hugged her. And then this— she sunk her face onto his shoulder and he caressed her bald head! Disgusted, we held our breath, preparing for their kiss, but were soon let down. It turned out that it was only a friendly embrace, simply two people trying to keep sadness at bay.
“I also keep picturing you inside that house,” Namiku said. “Unable to leave. It must have been terrible. You should tell your story to that producer.”
“I don’t like his questions. I want to forget. Read to me again.”
Namiku went on reading the same chapter as before, describing a fancy ball and a woman named Emma who had some flighty notions about life and marriage.
It was one of those summer days when the clouds gather above the city as if for an important meeting. We could see nothing, so we called it a night.
Every Tuesday and Thursday night Namiku takes a literature course at the University of Tirana. He doesn’t return until midnight, which gave us enough time to sneak into his home. He hides his key underneath one of the rocks that cordon off his roses, so getting in was easy. As soon as we entered, we realized that nothing in his house interested us—one wall was covered by a clumsy bookcase with dusty shelves arching under heavy volumes of poetry. The Monica Belushi posters that his friends had sent him from Italy were underneath his bed. There was only a tiny, yellowing portrait of George Michael on the wall, wearing a leather jacket, his blonde hair swept back.
We found Namiku’s notebook under his pillow. In the first pages there were drawings of our neighbor Fredi, who was recently appointed Manager of British Tobacco Inc. with a salary of one thousand Euros per month. Fredi and Namiku used to be best friends. Their friendship had ended abruptly, perhaps because Fredi is charming and girls can’t resist him, while Namiku is principled and doesn’t stand for philandering behavior. We had noticed how much he despaired when Fredi, who is supposedly engaged to a girl in Athens, exchanged signals with Lena from the fifth floor by “forgetting” a jacket on the windowsill.
After pages and pages of Fredi’s portraits, we finally found a paragraph that was titled Ermal.
It went like this:
At first it seems like there is nothing unusual about that window—simply one of the few belonging to the tall tower houses in that small alpine town in the North. But early in the morning, when the rest of the windows open and one can catch a glimpse of people flitting by, airing out blankets and pillows, those dark curtains seem sinister. And even more so at dusk, when the window opens just slightly that one can notice, for a brief moment, the arm of a little boy holding the string of a kite. He tries to get the wind to pick it up, but more often than not, it falls on the ground.
Namiku’s mediocre ruminations gave us no clue about Arsino’s past and why she had been locked inside her house. Disappointed, we tucked the diary under his pillow. On our way out, we noticed a pair of binoculars on a tripod. We stooped down to take a look. We were inside Fredi’s living room at once. He was unwrapping a box, from which he pulled out a lamp with a golden wire frame. Miniscule white goblets grew from it like flowers from a branch. Then Lena entered the picture. She bent down and kissed Fredi on the mouth. The position and focus of the binoculars was puzzling. Timi made a lewd joke, suggesting that perhaps Namiku was interested in Fredi after all. We hushed him. Namiku is not like that, we said. We then raced outside and through the courtyard. As we were going up the stairs, the producer was just about to enter Arsino’s apartment.
We hurried towards Timi’s apartment and positioned ourselves behind the spying station.
The producer was standing in the corner of the living room. Arsino invited him to sit down on the pillows next to her, but he pulled a wooden chair from the kitchen instead.
“How long had the feud been going on?”
“How far back do you remember?”
“Five years ago, my father-in-law shot Ndoc Elezi. Two years after that, his son shot my husband. Then, my brother-in-law shot one of their cousins. There was only my son left. So, we both stayed in. For a year.”
“I’ve done some research. 6,000 families are currently locked in. What was your fight about?”
The producer was looking at Arsino, awaiting her answer, but she started to adjust the pillows on the carpet, quietly and patiently, as if she had already in mind a perfect arrangement.
“I don’t remember exactly,” she then said. “Their house was across the street. We’d see them from a distance, always from a distance. It’s easy to make up stories about people from afar, terrible stories. After a while, they don’t seem like people anymore.”
“Did you hire a mediator?”
Arsino’s hands froze in the air, before she placed them on her lap. “My sister who works in Germany put together some money. I was finally able to hire Asmet Muhari.”
“Aha! A perfect success rate. How much did he charge you?”
Arsino sighed. “I’m feeling a bit sick,” she said. “Can we continue this another time?”
The producer didn’t answer, but stood up immediately from his chair. He thanked her for her time and for sharing her story. Before exiting, he left money on the table.
We googled Asmet Muhari on Timi’s iPhone. He had his own website, where he had uploaded a video of himself. A fat man with a white mustache, he kept shaking his finger, which scared us all with its length, at the camera, claiming to be the best blood feud meditator in the country. He had never lost a case apparently. We looked for the name of Arsino’s son in the list of men and boys he claimed to have saved, but couldn’t find him.
It was only months later, when the documentary aired, that we finally saw a picture of him. Ermal Drini was a twelve year old with a pale face and dark eyes that looked obliquely at the camera. During the interview, Arsino explained that even though he hadn’t been out of the house in a year, he had insisted on wearing the school uniform every morning while she tutored him. She talked about her son at length, giving us random details, like his phobia of shoe laces and turtleneck sweaters, the way he stared motionlessly at the slicing sun setting behind the hills in the evenings. She talked about his quiet manner of accepting the situation.
“Are you sad, Ermal, anxious, a bit upset?”
“I’m fine, mother.”
“We finally got hold of Asmet Muhari. It will be over soon, you’ll see.”
We watched the documentary in Namiku’s garden. He had recently purchased a 42-inch Samsung television, which he had brought outside that summer evening. All the elderly neighbors sat on chairs and stools, fanning themselves with newspapers and discussing the show. The fact that we knew Arsino seemed like a phenomena. When the camera took a close up of the producer, we were all quiet, sensing that he was about to say something important. Everything stood still, with the exception of the fire flies that glittered in the darkness and the slow breeze that roamed through the fig trees. All that could be heard was the producer’s calm voice, explaining that at the same exact time that the forgiveness talks were taking place, Ermal Drini had jumped out of the window from where he tried to fly his kites every evening. He had landed dead on the pavement.
After the documentary aired, we didn’t see Arsino for a while. Perhaps she felt that her charade was useless and that nobody would buy her other persona now. Or, maybe she was embarrassed like a child who has been acting out for a long time. Once her secret was out, she didn’t interest us as much. We left her alone and hardly thought about her. One Sunday morning however, when she suddenly descended the stairs, carrying four colorful kites, she had our attention. We were all in the courtyard, conversing and taking in the sun. She passed by in a light gait, wearing a black outfit—the proper way to mourn her son. But we missed her old clothes, her shiny jewelry, her spunky gait, and especially that aura she assumed of being only a temporary visitor in our neighborhood. Some of the younger children followed her to the field behind our building, where she handed them the kites and made them face the wind. The kites floundered until the breeze took over and then they moved steadily upwards.
Just then, Lena strutted towards the trash cans with her old, plastic chandelier in her hands, evidently replaced by the new lamp that Fredi had bought. She left it on the sidewalk. There was something about the discarded chandelier with its shiny shingles dipped in dust that, oddly, reminded us of Arsino. Without saying a word, we knew what we should do. We picked it up, cleaned it, and took it upstairs. As always, Arsino had left the door of her apartment open; there was nothing for anyone to take. We mounted it on her ceiling. Almost half of its shingles were missing, the rest were cracked, but the lamp still displayed on her walls a fabulous theater of shadows that came to life as soon as the wind sneaked in. Curious about her reaction, we decided to spy on her one last time.
When she came home, she sank her body onto her pillows and looked up. At first she was surprised, and then seemed in awe. We were hoping that she’d put on her white dress, her wig and those bracelets of hers—that infinity of cheap metal that covered her arms. But she was simply sitting there, her head leaning back, looking at the ceiling intently. It seemed like she was looking straight at us for a second. Yet, nothing prepared us for what happened next. She unzipped her gray dress on one side and took it off, then she unbuttoned her flesh colored bra and underwear, exposing to us her slightly bulging belly, her left breast, a terrifying scar, and further below, a stain of brown hair. She rested her back on the wall and tilted her head towards us, an ironic smile dancing on her face. The sight of her hit us like a bolt of lightning. We yanked ourselves away and dashed down the stairs, images of her body and eyes still flashing in our minds. We felt drunk, uneasy. But also victorious. We had stripped her off completely. We had landed our name to her story.
Later on, in the courtyard, we were trying to chase away her vision, when Namiku turned on a George Michael song. Behind her window, Lena started dancing. Fisniku from the fourth floor put aside his demitasse, leaned forward on his balcony and shouted for him to turn it off. Namiku paid no attention, but continued to sway back and forth to the music, lithe and elegant like a carnation. He glanced towards the balcony where Lena and Fredi were sipping on a Limoncello. When Lena looked his way, he lowered his head, assuming the role of a disinterested person. Namiku is not like that, we said again. But deep down, we knew that it was time for a new investigation.
The lights went out suddenly. The courtyard and the building now resembled a black pattern, where the shimmering thread of the fickle candles extended to the street and the houses behind us. We were oblivious to it, as we were to the indistinct whispers and to the random dog barking that came forth like a lazy song. We focused our attention on subject N and forgot everything else.
Ledia Xhoga was born and raised in Tirana, Albania, where she studied languages and translating before moving to NYC for a job in publishing. She then briefly lived in Austin, TX, where she received an MFA in Fiction at Texas State University. Her short fiction has been published in various online magazines, such as Hobart, Sonora Review, Liars’ League, etc. Most recently, she wrote the screenplay for Visiting Hour, a short film that was officially selected in many film festivals in NYC and Europe.