On the first night, Margot calls her parents from the balcony. The evening is warm and its moonlight softer than the fluorescence of her new room. Back home in Gothenburg it is still dinner time, and her mother asks excitedly about her roommates, her friends, the thread count of her sheets. Through the glass door of the balcony, one of her roommates is already asleep, or pretending to be, and hasn’t moved from her bed since Margot arrived. Another is off somewhere, her unmade blankets prickling the back of Margot’s neck with an unfamiliar anxiety—how does she have a place to be already? She was not expecting a slumber party, but she wasn’t expecting this, either; this mundane disinterest that has settled into their room. Their fourth roommate will arrive in the morning, and Margot finds herself wishing that this one will be hers, as if it is already too late for the others: as if after these four indifferent hours on campus, the other two have somehow slipped out of her reach.
She tells her parents that everyone is amazing but jetlagged, and everything is fun but a little overwhelming. She reassures them that winter break is right around the corner and she’ll be seeing them in no time at all. The reception on the balcony is poor and the voices of her family are staccato, warped, sounding very far away. When the call disconnects, she does not move inside to call them back, even though she can picture her mother and father and her sisters crowded around the small kitchen table. It is the farthest phone call her sisters have ever made, maybe the first time they ever talked to someone outside of Sweden. Margot isn’t sure they even understand there is a world outside of Sweden.
The balcony rail is square and wooden, rough against her elbows as she leans on it. When the older students helped carry her luggage from the bus, they kept telling her how lucky she was to have this balcony, that any of them would have killed to be assigned to this room. From here she can see the silver reflection of the football field, the soft fuzz of the wildflower garden, the edges of the town further back. A bead of sweat drips down her temple, snaking across her cheek and falling onto the railing beside her hand. Margot is suddenly aware of the way her shirt is clinging to her body and the damp itch of her hair against the backs of her ears, of the soupy heat that seems to weigh upon the balcony. Between the mountains that frame her view, the moon is closer to full than not. Margot wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. She stays outside for another moment, then she turns back to the silent, unmoving beds.
Dalia is almost out of new activities to suggest to her roommates. She has already tried temporary tattoos, poker, and karaoke, and none of those have bonded them together in the way that she had imagined they would. Only Margot, tall and long-skirted and smiling, is still enthusiastic after those first drawling weeks.
Now the two of them are sprawled on the balcony after lunch, painting their fingernails with Dalia’s favorite eggplant-colored polish. Margot sits with the tip of her tongue poking out of her mouth, serious concentration on her face, and Dalia is flushed with an immense gratitude for her, for the companionship, even if it might not quite be friendship yet. Margot is not like any of her friends from her old school in Beirut and Dalia is trying not to engineer their relationship, trying not to manually recreate all the experiences that birthed her previous friendships. Today they had smuggled a bowl of grapes from the dining hall and now try to eat without smearing their nails, using the pads of their fingers like talons to grip them one at a time.
The sun is high overhead and slanting into their eyes, and the backs of Dalia’s thighs are warm against the wooden floor. Margot is playing music from her phone’s tinny speakers, something Swedish and bubbling, and Dalia doesn’t really like the sound of it, but still thinks that it is wonderful.
“Coloring was never my best activity,” Margot says sadly, holding up her hand. Purple has spilled over the edges of her cuticles like a burst grape. Dalia takes a cotton swab, dipping the end in remover and reaching for Margot’s hand.
“We can edit it,” Dalia says, dabbing around Margot’s nails. “This might corrode your skin, but at least they’ll look pretty.”
Glancing over Margot’s shoulder, Dalia realizes can see into the back window of the dining hall to a table overflowing with students. They are laughing and jostling and never staying still, like a shifting pattern of silent noise through the green-tinted glass.
Dalia tries to swallow down the violent wave of envy that swells inside her, dense with guilt. In this moment she is absolutely sure that she would do anything to be at that table instead of on this skin-frying balcony with Margot.
Then Margot accidentally eats a nail-polished grape, coughing and spitting it over the side of the railing. The bottle spills, purple pooling on the wood, speckling her shoes. She turns back to Dalia, wide-eyed, unembarrassed, and with a ridiculous contemplative expression on her face begins to describe the grapes-avec-polish like it’s some kind of French delicacy, the purple bringing out the umami flavor, the subtle notes of toxic chemicals, that rubbing alcohol undertone…
Dalia is laughing so hard that their other roommate—Dofi, who still rarely leaves her bed and even more rarely speaks—comes and closes the door to the balcony, giving them a scathing look before slinking back to her corner. Now Margot is laughing too, grabbing her stomach. There are streaks of purple all over her white shirt.
The noise in the room is insufferable. Dofi’s bed is across from Xiaoxiao’s, who is usually never in the room long enough for the door to close, but tonight she has a gaggle of friends packed into her corner. Dofi can’t see them across the curtain that Xiaoxiao has strung between her desk and the dresser, a little fortress of flower-print bedsheet, but every few minutes a high-pitched shriek erupts from the chatter, trailed by a cacophony of laughter, which hushes back into chatter. Dofi hasn’t seen Dalia or Margot since dinnertime, but she wishes one of them were there to tell Xiaoxiao to be quiet. She wishes one of them were there at all, even if just to commiserate.
So now Dofi is on the balcony, despite it being past curfew, when Xiaoxiao’s friends are not allowed to be in the room anymore. Dofi thinks they would probably leave if she asked them to, but she also thinks she is not physically capable of drawing back that curtain and enduring a dozen disappointed, annoyed eyes on her. Instead, she’s on her bedroll in the open autumn air, the room sealed tightly behind her.
Lying back, she can see a patchwork of stars to her left, cupped in the stretch of sky between the mountaintops and the sharp edge of the roof. She wishes the balcony were uncovered. Margot has complained loudly about how the bright lights around campus blot out the stars, but Margot is from a farm in the countryside and grew up spoiled by the Milky Way belted across the sky, horizon to horizon even when the moon hangs like a wiry toenail clipping. The sky outside Dofi’s window in Accra is never quite black, except for maybe directly overhead, if she cranes her neck out and straight up. Instead it’s kaleidoscoped in the purple, red, and green haze of the nightclubs and hotels, and the glow of the golden streets latticing the city.
This self-imposed exile is actually the first time Dofi has taken a proper look overhead at night. At first she is bored by the lack of color, but after a moment, the gradations of white in the stars carve a depth into the sky that Dofi has never seen before. It’s like those worn Magic Eye puzzles her school nurse kept in a bin, that accordioned into three dimensions if she looked at them for long enough. She shifts so that her butt is directly against the railing, her legs sticking straight up in the air, and she knows she must look absurd if Xiaoxiao’s friends could see her through the window.
Dofi wonders how anyone ever imagined the Earth was flat, lying like this. Her legs aren’t sticking up but hanging down, off the belly of the Earth, swinging against the expanse of black and white and shades of silver. She grips the bars of the railing so tightly that the corners slice into her palms. She tries to convince herself that this grip is the only thing keeping her on the balcony, that if she lets go, she’ll drop into the sky and spin until she falls into some other planet’s gravity and never escapes.
Dofi tries to feel this. But the silhouettes of the mountains and the edge of the roof are blotting her view, and the floorboards are hard even through the bedroll beneath her. The sky is not enough to forget that she’s lying on her pillow outside with a fat pair of mosquitos whirring next to her ear.
There is a sharp rap on the glass door behind her, and she turns to see Dalia’s face pressed up against the glass. Dofi lets her feet fall back down, pulling herself into a seated position as Dalia slips outside, closing the door behind her.
“What the hell, Dofi?” she asks. “Did they kick you out or something?” Dofi can’t tell if she’s making fun of her or not. There is mascara smudged on the corners of Dalia’s eyes, and her cheeks are already flushed.
“No,” Dofi says, “they’re just so loud.” Even on the balcony, she can hear the rhythmic thumping of Xiaoxiao’s music, punctuated by shrieks of hilarity from her friends.
“It’s your room, too,” Dalia says, crossing her arms across her chest. “You can tell them to leave.”
“I can’t kick them out,” Dofi says, but she doesn’t think that Dalia could understand what she means. Dalia crouches down in front of her, reaching out to grip Dofi’s shoulder. Her breath is warm and sweet, the edges of her lips stained the color of the pomegranate wine sold in casks down the street.
“You need to be assertive, okay? You need to stand up for yourself.” She reaches out to grab Dofi’s other shoulder, wobbling unsteadily on her toes. Dofi doesn’t want her to faceplant so she cups Dalia’s elbows to steady her, and now they are both just squatted and squeezing each other on the floor of the balcony.
“If you didn’t notice, I’m not so assertive,” Dofi says. Dalia rolls her eyes.
“That is so stupid,” Dalia says, and Dofi feels a pinprick of hurt in her chest, defensiveness welling up like blood. But Dalia tightens her grip on Dofi’s shoulders, as if she could shock the willfulness into her, or maybe transmit a fraction of her own through her fingertips.
“I will be the party killer tonight,” she says. “But next time, you come with me.”
Dofi nods, still holding Dalia steady. She can feel herself smiling, at Dalia staring at her so intently, like this is the most important thing in the world: like she is on a divine mission to teach Dofi how to tell teenage girls to quiet down.
“Okay,” Dalia says, using Dofi’s shoulders to push herself up. She holds a finger up to Dofi, then steps back inside the door to the room.
Dofi leans back against the railing. The nights here are still warm and the hair on her legs prickles. She closes her eyes, searching for that falling feeling she almost caught a few moments ago. Before she can find it, the thump of music inside suddenly cuts off into silence.
They’ve been at school for over two months and Xiaoxiao cannot believe that this is only the second time she’s doing her laundry. Her basket is heaped dangerously high with most of her closet, still dripping wet, seeping through the wire mesh and darkening the wooden floor of the balcony. It’s early morning, the sun still rising over the crest of the mountains, and the driers in the basement have a reputation for charring delicates, so Xiaoxiao is hanging her damp clothes on a line that she’s strung across the balcony. Her roommates are still asleep. Most of the campus is still asleep, she thinks, except maybe for the singular jogger she saw slip out of the dorm and disappear down the path into town. Xiaoxiao hasn’t felt this much silence since arriving to school, and it scratches uncomfortably at her skin. She’s never been someone who needed much time alone, always found comfort in the Tianjin cacophony surrounding her apartment, but now it’s almost intolerable to be by herself. It’s why the laundry never gets done. Carting the bag down to the basement, dragging it back up, taking the time to hang each piece—it snatches her out of real life for too long. It’s one, two hours in which the world carries on without her, and she knows it’s irrational but she can’t help but feel like if she’s gone for one second, she’s going to miss out on something monumental. Some kind of catalyst that bonds everyone to each other, closes their ranks, and Xiaoxiao will be stranded on the outside. But it got to the point where yesterday, she ran out of underwear and wore bikini bottoms under her skirt, and that was a wake-up call. She needed to wash her clothes or else soon she’d be wearing her Speedo racing suit as a bra and panties in one.
But right now, there’s no time for introspection before people start waking up, and she’s not even halfway through hanging. The line sags under the weight of her closet.
Her roommate Dalia has a dress that Xiaoxiao would love to wear before the weather tips into winter and she’ll be forced to hide beneath her puffy coat for a season. But Dalia has always felt so unreachable, she and Margot this impenetrable unit. Every time she talks with them, it feels like there’s a second conversation between eyes and expressions that Xiaoxiao can’t understand, this language of best-friendship over her head. Maybe she could ask sometime when she’s alone, maybe when Margot is off with her second-year girlfriend that Xiaoxiao isn’t supposed to know about.
She drapes a pair of jeans over the line, but as soon as she lifts her hands, the knot at the end slips and falls. The neat row of pants falls to a heap on the floor of the balcony, a gray wool sock slipping through the bars. A startled gasp floats up from where the sock disappeared.
“Hello?” Xiaoxiao peers over the edge and Margot is lying in her sleeping bag on the grass below, a book open across her chest. She’s pinching the sock above her head and frowning, squinting up at the windows above. “Raining socks?”
“Sorry!” Xiaoxiao shouts. “Laundry accident.”
“Laundry? That’s a milestone.” Her voice is light and teasing, and even if Xiaoxiao couldn’t see the smile spreading across her face, she’d be able to hear it.
“I know. We should have a celebration,” Xiaoxiao says down to her. And then, just because she can’t help but ask, “Margot, did you sleep down there?”
“Of course,” she says, sitting up, the sleeping back still wrapped around her. She looks like a giant orange worm that’s nested below their balcony.
“You are so strange,” she says, because it’s true, and she hopes that Margot can feel the smile, the fondness, in her voice. Xiaoxiao has never slept outside one night in her life.
“Can I join you next time?” she asks, in the same moment that Margot says, “You should try it with me.” They laugh. Margot balls up the sock and throws it back on the balcony, where it lands in the rest of the pile of wet clothes. Xiaoxiao realizes that the longer she waits, the more dirt will cling to them.
“Go back to bed,” she calls down. The sunlight is still just foaming over the edges of the mountains, and there will be another stretch of silence before the wake-up bell fills the valley.
“Congrats on the clean clothes,” Margot says, but her eyes are already closed, blonde hair pooled around her head and snaking out into the grass.
Xiaoxiao stoops to find the edge of the clothesline, struggling to remember which knot her grandmother always used to fasten it. The pile of wet laundry soaks into the hems of her pajama pants. She’ll have to change before the others wake up.
The wooden floorboards are so cold that Margot can’t tell if they’re actually frozen solid, or just well on their way. She’s wearing Xiaoxiao’s socks, the ones with inch-thick cow-print fur, but she’s still worried her toes will stick to them like a tongue on ice.
The pizza box is in the corner where she left it, the cardboard lid damp and sagging. Since the first frost, they’ve been using the balcony as a walk-in (or was it walk-out?) refrigerator, tossing fruit, leftovers, even ice cream bars if the night would dip below freezing. Now she is bent down, stiff fingers fumbling for the pizza box, when she hears the door crack open behind her.
“You’re going to freeze!” Dofi says, and Margot looks to see her swaddled in the quilt from her bed, breath already frosting the glass as she pokes her head out. Margot turns, her bulky coat making her movements jerky.
“Only my nose!” she says. “It’s already numb, so don’t worry.” Dofi huffs a laugh, the air pluming from her nose like the snort of a dragon. Margot realizes it’s the first time she’s heard Dofi laugh while not on the phone with friends from home. It’s higher pitched than she was expecting. She opens the pizza box and displays it like she’s a game show host, waving her fingers in front of it. She feels a little ridiculous, but she wants to see if she can keep drawing out the smile that’s ghosting over Dofi’s face.
“Step outside to my restaurant, young lady,” she says, “it’s the finest pizza on campus.”
“It’s the only pizza on campus,” Dofi responds, but then her slippers are padding onto the wood beside Margot. The pizza is a couple of days old and stiff as a board, and Margot is choosing to believe that’s only from the frost. It cracks in half and it’s too cold for her teeth, so she tries to warm it by cupping her hands over it and breathing warm air.
“This is so gross,” she says, “Exhaling all over my food.”
“Gross together,” Dofi says, and she’s sandwiching the pizza between her palms, trying to transfer some body heat into the crust. They both laugh. Margot feels a small flicker of pride in her chest, at this moment solidifying between them. She has often been content to let friendship come to her in its own time, but it feels good to reach out, to shape it, for once.
Over the rail, the field and the mountains behind shine in the low morning light, the frost not yet consumed by the mid-afternoon sun. Eventually, the pizza thaws enough for them to bite it without icing the insides of their mouths. Margot hops from foot to foot, shaking out her toes to get some blood rushing back into them. Her nose is so cold she thinks it could snap off, and she can see Dofi’s cheeks flushing dark with each breeze. Still, they stay on the balcony until the last bite is finished.
For the first time, they are all four on the balcony. Their suitcases are already swollen beside their closets, and tomorrow they will leave for the one-month winter break. They aren’t allowed to leave any food in the rooms, because apparently the mice become tenants each year while the students visit home. The girls are pooling their snacks and sweets, feasting on a last supper. Dofi dumps a whole bag of kiwis onto the pile of chips, cheeses, and candies encased in the circle of their legs.
“I can’t even eat them,” she says sadly, “I wanted to be adventurous, but they make my tongue itch.”
“Try everything once,” Xiaoxiao says, mocking Dalia. She has taken to nagging them with that phrase when she wants to do something stupid, but doesn’t want to do it alone.
“Try everything once, including a severe allergic reaction,” Margot adds on, and Dofi laughs that high laugh. Margot has learned how to draw it out when she wants to, unspooling it like a ball of yarn.
Dalia is rolling her eyes but also smiling, working with a knife to peel the skin from the kiwis in one long, thin curl that falls to the floor in a spiral. She opens her mouth to Margot, who pops in another of the gummy candies sent by Xiaoxiao’s parents, but which only cleared customs last week.
The sun is balanced on the mountain ridge as it sinks, a pool of amber-colored light oozing up and spilling into the valley. Purple, pink, and orange slice through the bars of the railing and fall on them. Margot’s hair catches all the color; it looks like it could burst into flame at any moment.
Xiaoxiao opens her phone to play some music. It’s not her favorite playlist but it’s one she knows the others will like, and the sound weaves through the stripes of sunlight and shadow. Margot lets up on Dalia and turns her teasing to Dofi, and within minutes they are laughing loud enough to drown out the music, anyway. The door to the room has swung open, and a draft of frigid December air rustles through the crack, threatening to freeze anything in its path. No one complains, though—the room is empty. The girls on the balcony are wearing their coats.