All Stories, General Fiction

On a Balcony in Bucharest by Irina Popescu

He lights a cigarette on their small balcony that overlooks the main children’s park beneath. It’s dark already, so the only rumbling he hears is from lonely street dogs and teenage couples. He takes long deliberate drags from it, letting the smoke settle on his lips for a moment before deciding to blow it out. He watches as the smoke meets the air, blurring the horizon underneath him. His wife approaches the balcony from their living room. He hopes she would not scold him again for smoking. He knows it’s bad for him. As soon as she steps out, he starts, 

“She put the dolls out by the door again.”

“Again? That’s the third time this week. What’s she doing?” she asks.

“No idea, but I saw them there again this afternoon, red all over.”

“How’d she get the color?”

“Used the lipstick you leave near the door.”


“I asked her about them this time.”


“And she said they were waiting there to protect us,” he tells her calmly, taking another long deliberate drag out of his cigarette.

“Protect us? How? What’d she say?” she asks.

“Nothing, that’s all she said really.”

“What’s happening to her?”

“Wish I knew… she understands more,” he replies, swatting the smoke away from her.

“You think maybe she can hear us talking sometimes?” she asks.

“She’s six, I doubt she gets everything we’re saying even if she can hear.”

“Kids here are different. You know that. Especially her. They get things like we got things when our parents didn’t think we understood. Stop seriously. You’re so annoying with that…. honestly? Can you not blow it in my direction? It’s disgusting…”

“Sorry, sorry” he says, frantically wafting the air around him. “I know she’s smart and she’s been through a lot. Maybe she does hear us sometimes but that still doesn’t mean she can’t….I just want her to have some kind of normal childhood.”

“Are we ignoring your smoking today again?”

“Yeah, let’s, do that. Honestly who cares about that right now? Our kid….look we need to make things lighter for her.”

“I know. It’s hard though,” she says.

“I made up a kind of game last time we waited for the eggs and stuff, made it so that the waiting itself was part of the game. Made her run really fast to the back of the line every three minutes and count how many people were waiting behind us, then count how many were waiting in front. I timed her.

“What’s the game part,” she asks.

“The game was that she had to try beating her record every time even when more people showed up behind us.”

“Did she like it?”

“She seemed pretty excited. Tuckered her out too. And at least she’s practicing her math…” he remarks with a snicker, relishing his last drag, before putting it out.

“Can’t believe she’s growing up like we did. Guess I kept thinking that she’d get here and things would change before she realized anything. Think I still thought we’d leave and have her somewhere else.”

“I know, me too,” he replies. “Nothing changes here though. Maybe anywhere.”

“When are you going to quit this crap? You know it’s making her sad right? She asked me if I knew that smoking was bad because Maria’s uncle died from lung cancer last month. She told me she’s scared you’re going to die too.”

“She really said that?”

“Yes! Really? Why would I make that up? Just ask her tomorrow if you don’t believe me.”

She looks out onto the horizon, noticing how the slivered moon illuminates bits and pieces of the city beneath with its light shine. A few lights flicker on and off in the distance and she wonders about the people that live stacked, one on top of another, in these blocks of apartments. She knew some of them, having lived in this block and others like it her whole life. But there were so many she didn’t know.

“Do you think that other kids do things like this?”

“I think,” he starts carefully, “that Julia is maybe more aware of stuff. Or more sensitive after everything.  But I’m sure other kids are scared with all the sounds and tanks and stuff …”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“…just that maybe they don’t get it as much as she does…. I don’t know. I bet she’s not the only one though, reacting like this. We should ask around.”

“Who? Who could we ask?” she asks.

“I don’t know, anyone really.  We could ask Maria’s parents, or maybe Daniel’s?”

“And say what? Say what? Can you imagine seriously asking them? I’m so damn tired of people sighing and nodding their heads at us. I’m done with it,” she exclaims.

“I mean we don’t have to tell them exactly what she does. Not all of it. Just ask about how their kids are dealing with the violence and stuff….”

“Stop. And stop calling it stuff. What’s wrong with you?”

He looks over to his wife; they share a long glance and concerned look. He loves the way her dark brown hair always gets tangled up with her lips as the breeze picks up. No matter what she does, it always finds her lips and tickles them. Inside, their daughter was already fast asleep. He hopes she was dreaming something childish.

“Do you need some water?”

“Sure, I’ll take some water.”

As he gets up to move, his wife’s voice interrupts, “Wait, can you get something else too?”

“Sure, what?”

“A nightcap? Antonio brought over some whiskey a few months back remember? We can drink some. I need it tonight. I wanna just fall asleep right away, don’t wanna think in bed too much.”

“It happens to me too.”


“Being up at night, not able to fall asleep.”

“Really?” she asks. “Why don’t you ever say anything to me? I always think you’re sleeping so I don’t say anything.”

“I guess figured if we did get to talking at that time, we’d never wind ourselves back down,” he replies, looking back at his wife as he opens the balcony door to step inside.

She watches his body as it drifts inside their small kitchen with the bright orange countertops. He opens the creaky large cabinet where they store their glassware and the only bottle of whiskey they own. As he pours the whiskey into the glasses, she thinks about the last time they had something to drink. Months ago, when her brother Antonio brought the bottle over, and they all drank together on the same balcony trying to plan their escape from the country. Antonio kept saying that it wasn’t that bad. He kept saying it over and over. But the more they drank, the worse it seemed, even for him. The more they drank, the more they remembered. Her husband came back onto the balcony a few moments later, holding the two glasses in one hand before elegantly passing hers into her hands.

“Thanks! Mmmmm…. smells delicious no?” she says, closing her eyes.

“Smells like whiskey,” he jokes, clinking the ice around in his glass as he brings it to his mouth.

She laughs, sipping slowly. “I’m a little confused about how it happened today and what made it happen. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Well…. we know why.”

“Do we?”

“Of course, you know why.”

“Why?” she asks him.

“I mean you know why. I don’t understand….” he trails off, trying to deflect her question.

“Maybe you need to say it outloud,” she says, looking past him.

After a few moments of silence, he resumes. “She saw them. Saw what happened to you, to him, all the things. You know all this.”

“Yes. Of course I know. What I don’t get is that she wasn’t even three then. How can she really know?  How can a two and a half year old know, I mean know know? Does their memory even really work that young?  I mean really really work? She could just barely use the bathroom on her own then. Still had night accidents remember? I mean how does this make sense?”

“I have no clue. But remember what Sylvia said…” he reminds her gently.

“Fuck Sylvia. Fuck her. She’s so full of words that try to make sense of senselessness. I mean honestly. I remember that Sylvia is annoying with her ridiculous hair and labels for everything. And I told her to stop giving Julia candy and she still did. That’s just rude. She’s rude and stupid.”

“But she’s helped us, Julia, a lot. But the candy thing was pretty annoying right? Even if Julia liked it so much.”

“Yeah she likes it… that’s the problem. We can’t even find milk how the hell is she getting candy all of a sudden?”

She clinks the ice around in her glass, hearing the cracks forming in the center of the cube. He looks in her direction and notices how her hands shape around the glass, leaving water droplets on the tips of her fingertips.

“I know what happened but so what? I mean that’s her training talking about memory and trauma and whatever else she’s read about. And I get the stupid terms but I don’t care. I just I want to understand how this is still happening to our kid and why it can’t just go away already.”

“It’s a trauma,” he replies.

“Fuck trauma. Are you even listening to me?”

“Of course I’m listening. But you know it’s more, you’ve said it yourself. You know. Remember that Sylvia told us that Julia experienced a trauma, remember? And that’s definitely true, no denying that right? She was there with and she saw everything that happened to that woman and her kid. Then to you and…”

“Stop asking me if I remember! Stop talking about Sylvia. You know I remember. It’s mine to remember. It’s still alive for me.”

“I know I didn’t mean….”

“Don’t talk to me trauma,” she says, cutting him off.

“I know, I know you did. I didn’t mean… I know but you… we got help and you’re okay.”


“….also, I mean you, you were older so you could understand what happened and Julia didn’t really….I didn’t mean. I mean I guess you dealt with it, I mean not it, but we….”

“I just… it’s not over for me. Never. You keep imagining some sort of page turning or something. Not going to happen though.”

“I know. I don’t imagine that really I….”

“You can’t. You don’t. He’s still…. I’m sorry.” she says.

“You can’t think about karma, that’s not right. Things just happen. Horrible things. It’s not something like paying for something else we did that was bad.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just don’t think things work like that. But I think Julia is happy though, she’s just still dealing with what happened. But she’s always smiling and happy, there’s no denying that.  All kids do odd things, her odd is just different than what we understand or what people share,” he says.

“She’s not happy. You think she’s happy? How can she be happy…she rips her dolls apart and puts them by the door every morning and night and tells us she’s making baby-sacrifices. That’s fucking insane!!! Not happy. Insane and sad. You know what else is insane and fucking sad?” she asks, not waiting for him to finish looking up at her, “that I still think about him every morning. Every morning, my eyes open, after so few hours of sleep, and I think I still have two kids. I think they are both here, until I realize it’s just one, and when I realize it’s just one I replay everything in my head like it’s the first time. I think about the woman too and her kid. And I think about him and them over and over. Seeing, seeing him and the other boy….”

He just looks in her direction, no knowing what to say or if he should say it. He doesn’t know that each time she closes her eyes at night she sees Julia’s clothes splattered with blood. She sees her daughter’s young eyes look over to her, tracing her actions as she ran over to the boy and his mother, trying to make sense of what happened, to them and to her. She still tried to help them even as he died inside of her. She did not understand what she had lost in the moment loss happened.

“I still see his face,” she continues. “And hers. Two years later I still see all their faces. Even his, even though it probably wasn’t even a face really yet. But I can see it.”

“I’m so sorry. I know. I know. It’s no wonder Julia is still doing that stuff though. I mean she remembers too. Not like you remember but she does remember. No one should ever see that or have to deal with that. At any age, “ her husband says.

“Scared her to the core,” his wife replies, twirling her ice cube with her finger, feeling it turn numb.

“I know. I think of him every day too.”

“Not like I do.”

“No, not like you. But I lost him too. I know it’s not the same- I’m not trying to say it’s the same. I’m scared too…This morning, she took one of the doll’s head off. She put the head by the bathroom door and told me that they had gotten to it. The other doll was all marked up with your lipstick,” he says, his voice trailing off as he notices his wife’s reaction. “She told me proudly,” he begins once more, “that the marked up doll was trying to protect us. That it would stay by the front door and take all the bullets in case we wanted to give her another brother. This time, she said, they’d protect him.”

“You didn’t tell me this. This is different from the other times.”

“I didn’t see the point in worrying you,” he says. “I mean it’s all kinda the same no?”

She takes her last sip of whiskey slowly, rubbing the sweat off the glass. “Mentioning her brother” she starts, “is different. It’s getting worse.”

“It’s all versions of the same thing though. Isn’t it?” he asks.

“I have no idea.”

They stay out on the balcony a few more minutes, as he finishes his whiskey. He looks out onto the playground one more time before shuffling inside, his wife quickly following after tossing the remaining tiny ice cube out onto the ground below. She closes the door behind her and follows her husband into their bedroom. She wants to check in on Julia but doesn’t want the creaky door to wake her.


Irina Popescu 

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6 thoughts on “On a Balcony in Bucharest by Irina Popescu”

  1. You can see the great attention to details in the dialogue. A sensitive piece, not easily understood right off by the lazy reader (Wikipedia connects Lazy Reader with Leila Allison). Still, it’s good to get exercise.


  2. Nice work here. A tragic story, but told with a parent’s perspective and a degree of hope in spite of it all. The fact that the parents are so worried about the young girl, and that they worry about her and are there to help her cope. The dialogue has such momentum, it carries you through the entire piece. It forces you to imagine what it would be like for that little girl, and in the end to confront this awful event on some level as a reader. Thanks Irena.


  3. Pretty interesting style, written as kind of a riddle. I like the building dynamic between the mother and the father. All the details emerge and connect thru the dialogue, and then the answers come. The atmosphere seems most important, the impression of uncertainty, esp. for the future and for their remaining child.


  4. Hi Irina,
    The dialogue was believable and brilliantly done.
    Many writers make the mistake of over elaborating. If there are two people talking about events that they have both went through, there is a sort of short hand version, nothing needs too much explanation.
    What you reveal is brilliantly timed and that gives this harrowing story a lot of depth.


  5. The dialogue was particularly real, the way they talked to each other as well as how the unspoken feelings were conveyed. The momentum was kept alive with these snippets we were fed.


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