They let us go—off into the night to see the Christmas splendor of Sibiu, our bones shaking in winter chill of a Romanian November. The esplanada was glowing with string lights and the gleam of a carousel. The gingerbread-house cabin kiosks glittered with light snow and colorful wares. Surrounded by pastel buildings that looked imported from France, we all agreed that this was what we had come for. This was the Europe we had expected. We would bring our children here someday, to see the stone statues and storybook charm. They would skip along the cobblestone streets like coins falling out of our pockets and we would chase after them, but know they were safe.
We inspected the kiosks—Venetian carnival masks, handmade leather journals, old-fashioned candy, wood-carved toys and chess sets. The first few in the circle were food vendors; meats, cheeses, breads, pastries. We saw a man holding a bouquet of balloons. They were twenty lei—roughly five American dollars. I pulled out a crisp, waxy bill and handed it to the man. He responded with a toothless grin and an outstretched hand, holding the string to a Mylar balloon. I wrapped it around my wrist a few times before tying the end of the string in a loose knot.
Tracing the circle of kiosks, we bought French macarons, masks with gold filigree, and a few small gifts each—some for ourselves and some for our families and friends. Once we had scoured every stand, we started heading back through town to the hotel. The streets were noisy and alive with movement and flocks of families enjoying the festivities.
High on excitement, we decided to make the most of our night. We stopped in a convenience store on the way back to pick up snacks. The fluorescent lights cast an ugly white on the back-alley bargain shop, but we grabbed a small shopping basket, giggling and snorting all the while.
First were the sweets. We dug through shelves of cookies and candies, picking out Haribos and Mambas. Then we snickered past the small produce section, pushing each other into the last aisle where we grabbed cans of Pringles. Across the aisle were drinks and we grabbed a few large cans of alcoholic cider.
At the register, we tried to keep straight faces, so giddy from the prospect of legally buying alcohol as minors. The cashier wasn’t fazed. I paid while Emily and Lauren crammed our goods into what space we had left in our bags. The cashier wished us a good night and we returned to the icy blast of that early winter.
“I would absolutely bring my children here someday,” Lauren said confidently. “But only here, you know?”
“I know what you mean,” I nodded, “It’s so much better than Slatina. It’s so clean here. It’s the perfect fairytale European city.”
“And it would be great for vacationing because the US dollar is stronger than the leu,” Lauren offered.
Emily began to speak, but was interrupted by a gypsy family in front of us. They were dressed in mismatched layers, their hair wild and unwashed birds’ nests. Their visible skin was dark in pigment as well as dark with grime. The mother was speaking to us slowly, in Romanian. Raising her dirty hands in front of her, she gestured to her children. Her voice picked up a hissing tone. She had a very young boy and girl with her and the boy was beating the girl. We tried stepping forward to help, but the boy began beating the little girl until she cried out.
“What is she saying?” I asked Emily and Lauren in a frantic whisper—knowing their Romanian was better than mine.
Lauren shook her head and began pushing Emily and I onward. I could hear Emily sniffling and breathing heavily.
When we got back to the hotel I decided I needed to smoke. My nerve endings were screaming and it felt like my head was going to explode if I didn’t clear it out soon. Lauren needed to stop at an ATM and we decided to head out together in search of one. We would head in the opposite direction of the esplanada—towards the string of hotels and restaurants. Illie and Brad had told us before that there were ATMS in some of the other hotels down that way. I could pick up a pack of cigarettes along the walk.
“I don’t want to come. I’m tired of walking,” Emily told us quietly.
Lauren and I nodded and handed her our goods from our trip to the city center so we wouldn’t have to carry them all the way out and back. Arms full, she stepped into the elevator. Lauren headed to the doors, but I turned around again to give Emily a friendly wave goodbye. Before the elevator doors shut, I could see the tears streaming down her face as she failed to force a smile.
I faced the doors again and caught up with Lauren. “What was that woman saying?” I asked her. She brushed it off and I grabbed her arm, making her stop and look at me.
“She said if we gave her the balloon and all of our money she would tell him to stop hitting the girl. But you know that isn’t true, Indigo. Even if we did what she asked, she’d still be there all night pulling the same shit on other tourists.”
I let go of her arm and looked at her, horrified. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her disinterested smirk. “Lauren, we could have done literally anything else. Why didn’t you tell me what she said? Why did you make me leave?”
“It wasn’t that hard to understand, Indigo. If you really wanted to get involved in it, you would’ve. And you could’ve fought back against me if you really wanted to help her.”
I felt defeated. I didn’t know how to answer. She was right, and I hated it.
We walked a short distance to the ATM—probably only a mile, but the cold night and the angry tension made it feel like twelve. On the way back, I stopped in another fluorescent white convenience store and got cigarettes. They had the Camels I liked, but I chose Marlboro Reds instead. I liked how they left my mouth tasting of Devon and my clothes smelling of him. We hadn’t spoken in months. The last conversation we had, he sent me “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad” by Brand New as a sort of angsty statement that I’d abandoned him. In the height of our love I had left, again.
With those thoughts added to the weight on my shoulders, we headed towards the hotel. I slouched and rubbed the back of my neck as we walked in silence. The burden was so heavy and I had been so weak lately—nausea, migraines. I missed school at least once a week—couldn’t open my eyes without them burning, couldn’t rise out of bed without collapsing. I told my mother half-truths about it. I couldn’t make her worry when she was an ocean away and unable to help.
We passed through the revolving door of the hotel quietly, the gentle hush of the spinning glass calling to me, begging me to change my mind—to stay in the loop, or go back out into the cold.
We walked to the elevator. Inside, I looked up at the mirrored ceiling. We had taken a picture in it with Jooy, Ariel, Sean, Rosemary, and Emily—the whole gang. It didn’t seem as funny anymore.
In the room, we found Emily on the extra bed in the sitting area of the suite. She had calmed herself and was eating some of the Mambas and watching “Lilo and Stitch” on her laptop. Lauren went through the bags and found the masks she and I had gotten.
“Let’s try them on and take pictures,” she told me. It wasn’t a question.
I pulled off my clothes like layers of skin—slowly and gingerly. I shifted into my white dress. It didn’t match the purple and gold of my mask, but it was the nicest thing I had brought with me.
Lauren put on her hideous bronze, ruffled tube top. As I changed, she watched me. “My thighs are smaller than yours,” she told me matter-of-factly.
I looked down at my legs. “Lauren, you’re like a foot shorter than me. Of course you’re smaller.”
She laughed. “My thighs are thinner! Mine are smaller!” she warbled in a sing-song voice.
I buttoned up my dress quickly and tied on my mask. “Let’s take the pictures.”
She bobbed her head, secured her mask, and put her arm around my waist. I took several pictures on my phone before sliding out of her touch. I took my dress off quickly and stood bare and vulnerable in my underwear. I grabbed my cigarettes and lighter and opened the window in the sitting room.
There was a small metal ledge that slanted downwards. I touched it with my index finger. The metal was so cold my finger stuck to it for a moment.
I heaved myself up onto the ledge, crouching first in the biting cold. I looked down. It was an interior window. It didn’t face the street. I could see other windows from other rooms around me, glowing with warm yellow light. Below me there was a decent drop of thirty feet—maybe forty. I thought back to camping trips with my dad—how we’d raft or kayak to a certain point and stop for lunch. There was always a large rock where we could sit and eat or jump off of into the water. I knew what a forty-foot drop looked like. Yes, maybe this was forty.
I lit my cigarette and took long drags, fingers shaking and hands numb. The room was non-smoking so I pushed the window slightly closed, trying not to let the smoke waft inside. Clutching the window and the exterior wall, I began to lift myself into a standing position. I looked down at the concrete landing below me. I took baby steps closer to the angled edge of the bizarre ledge. My feet stuck to the cold metal, holding me in place where I might have normally slipped.
Then the ground went out from under me.
I didn’t scream, not even from surprise. I reached for support, but nothing would stay in my startled hands.
Emily grabbed my wrist. With both hands and all of her strength, she pulled me back up and through the window. Once my torso was inside, she let go and fell to the floor, panting and trembling.
I heaved myself fully into the room and closed the window. My cigarette had fallen with me and I could see it on the ground, the cherry still flickering orange. I sat in the armchair calmly and looked at Lauren—her face a mixture of horror, disgust, and excitement.
I lit another cigarette.
Indigo Baloch is a writer based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is currently finishing her BFA in Creative Writing at Chatham University. Her work has been published in The Minor Bird, the Undergraduate Indiana Review Online, and soon to be published in the Sigma Tau Delta Mind Murals. Her poetry also won second place in college poetry in the annual Carnegie Mellon University MLK Jr. Day of Writing. She has performed her poetry at a number of shows in the Pittsburgh area and at the 2016 Sigma Tau Delta Convention.