THE VIEW FROM THE BALCONY
In the beginning it was all machines. Excavators dug channels through the wrecks of hotels and restaurants that coated the beach. Drones picked through the smaller pieces, hunting human remains before the waves or seagulls could get them. Bulldozers organized the concrete and plaster into hills the size of apartment buildings. Rabbis came periodically to bless the process and to confer with city officials about the future.
When it all had gained some order, construction began. Piledrivers floated up the Suez and halted off the coast, six miles out. Boom after boom sounded over the beach as the first stanchions were driven into the ocean floor. On shore, sheets of latticed steel were hauled upright, welded into frames and loaded on barges. When they arrived at the platform six miles out, cranes tipped them into the water and lowered them into place a hundred feet below, where they became the base of the memorial.
The ruins of Tel Aviv now had their turn. Glacially, tumbling over themselves, rebar-bristled mounds of what had been the Hilton, the Savoy, the Royal Beach Hotel, the remains of apartments and sidewalks and café tables, the skin and meat and gristle of Tel Aviv began their journey out of the city toward the spindly frame rising from the sea. A cloud of dust and exhaust settled over the waterfront, lending an air of burial. All day the sun glared red through the murk. At night tiny lights pulsed from six miles out, as if Orion had settled on the horizon and was trying to say something.
Peace had been signed, and the new government was firmly in place. It was announced that in a year’s time, Israel’s borders would be closed indefinitely to everyone, including Jews. Publicity campaigns in the United States, in Canada, in Europe, South Africa, Australia, called: Come home.
Alan Rosenbaum, twenty-three, had just finished college. He had never been to Israel, was not religious, nor a Zionist in any recognizable way. But he heard the call—and there he was, on an unmarked jumbo jet, chartered and paid for by the State of Israel, squeezed into a mass of fellow immigrants from New York and New Jersey. The final descent brought them over the beach where machines were still working the rubble. The jet dipped its wings, banked sternly over the hills of suburbs and bounced into Ben Gurion. Flaps up, wheels down: the aisles crackled with applause. In Hebrew and English the crew said Welcome home.
The applause was for the long-haul crew, the engines, everything that had landed them at the threshold: the hand of exile giving a final push. Home would now take over. It would cover everything: the long corridors of arrival, the sweat and nerves of passport control, the taxi lines and train platforms, the casual machine guns hanging off teenagers’ shoulders, the tank-topped Russians at all-night kiosks, the cats in conclave on dark sidewalks, the shouting over courtyard walls, the grass shouldering up through cracks in the pavement, the haze of salt mist and exhaust. Here was home, finally, in a world tired of terror.
Soon Alan became Alon, Hebrew for oak tree. As a Comparative Literature major (BA from NYU, thesis on time travel), he joined the new Ministry of Culture as a clerk, Civil Service rank III. When he reached rank VII, Rosenbaum was allotted a government apartment on the crest of Yefet Street, in an old Arab building. It was tiny but had charm. He cleared the rear balcony of garbage and placed a mid-century chair he’d swiped from the old bus station.
In the beginning there was no clear view to the sea. But through the years the hills of rubble were cleared, the masonry and concrete hauled out to sea and pressed into the memorial. By the time Rosenbaum reached rank XI, he had an unobstructed view of Jaffa Harbor, the Mediterranean, and the completed Monument to the Victims of Tel Aviv—in Hebrew, Shivrei Avanim, or Shav—which now dominated the horizon. The monument was shaped something like an anchor, something like a wave, culminating in a slender spire that topped out at two miles into the air. It was the highest point in Israel.
Rosenbaum had complicated feelings about the monument, which barred the horizon all day and, at night, cancelled Venus and the lower stars. Sometimes he liked to see the thing at dawn, glowing pink against the darkness: he imagined it conversing with the sky in the cruel language of light. Its wings spread over three miles, intercepting the sunset both summer and winter. Everyone came out to see it, especially down along the beach, blinking and gawking as the sun sliced itself and vanished. The crowds were biggest on Remembrance Day, when the sun set directly over the center, impaling itself on the spire, making the edges glow as it slipped out of sight. Eventually the horizon turned to fire, with light pouring heavenward from the monument’s wings. In this way the sun, too, was forced to remember what it had witnessed, and to shed tears of a sort. Meanwhile all available citizens were watching. The beaches and balconies were to be full, so that the drone footage could show the world how Israel mourns: thousands of Jewish faces caught in the throes of the Jewish experience, in the finest hour of sunlight. Rosenbaum appreciated the gesture and was moved by the ceremony. He thought the design of the thing ingenious. Yet the designers had stolen his sunset, annexed his balcony at the most crucial moments of the day and of the year. It was an old thing, the sunset, older than Israel, and they’d barred him from seeing it.
Besides which the monument was a logistical nightmare. While the Shav was technically under military command, Rosenbaum’s department was the monument’s most proximate civilian authority. It was Rosenbaum who trained the Army’s team of conservators, an elite unit which directed drones to touch up Shav’s immense surface, or hung from helicopters themselves to do the more intuitive work. Sometimes Rosenbaum took binoculars to the balcony and watched the soldiers work, zipping up and down the monster’s sides. The choppers would return ahead of sunset, leaving the Shav to swallow the day alone as usual: an unpeopled tower of memory. But what memory? Whose memory? Rosenbaum would go inside feeling broken, and struggle to gain an appetite for dinner.
On Remembrance Day 2088 Rosenbaum was sixty-six years old, and the Culture Ministry’s chief deputy of Restorations and Reclamations (Rank XV). Sixty-six! And he no longer enjoyed eating. His wife, a model, did not eat at all. She worked, incessantly, moving her hands over artworks only she could see, making repairs in paintings and sculptures that were warehoused far away. When she sat with him at table, or slouched back in bed, or hunkered into the couch, he could see in her eyes she was still working. And what did she see when she saw him? Did she see the filters he used on himself? Or what was really there?
It was near sunset, and Rosenbaum roused himself to go out on the balcony. “Meta,” he said, “Will you come out with me and look? I need to be out there, for the Ministry.”
“You go,” she said, squeaking slightly against the couch.“I’ll come in a sec.”
“It’s better if you come too.”
“Really? They don’t care about models, do they…?” She looked up, and for a second caught his eye. Meta had a certain look when she was pulled out of concentration. Her eyes went slack, helpless but also content. Her skin, already pale, became a kind of dull ivory. She had always had this look, as far as he could remember. As far as he could remember she’d always had pale skin and blond hair, and had always stood about six inches below him. Her full name was Margareta, and she’d always spoken Hebrew with a soft roundness that he knew to take for a southwest German accent. She had always been an art conservator. All of this was true as far as he could remember—and that was as far as it went. There was nothing against which he could check any changes. All her documentation, all her photos and videos would have changed along with her; and his own memories were helpless against these records.
Models were supposed to change. They arrived in the world imperfect, unrealized, because they were not yet themselves. A model was on her own: she had to grow into herself, become herself. Rosenbaum had sworn to honor these changes, to abide by Meta as she grew out of a drone intervention and became a self. He watched her now, sitting with her weight forward over her hips, her age magically indeterminate, her hands moving over an invisible painting, sending signals to a drone that examined the actual object miles away. This was who she was. Rosenbaum smiled. “Stay,” he murmured. He could do this duty on his own. He turned toward the balcony doors. But something cut him and he fell to his knees. His hands went to his face and covered his right eye.
He heard Meta shift behind him. “What’s the matter?”
“My eye. There’s something in it.”
“Come here, let me look.” He crawled in front of the couch and turned up his face, forcing his hands away from his eye. She peered down at him—he was right where she’d been moving her hands, he’d taken the painting’s place—and pulled his eyelids gently apart. A head-splitting brightness flooded his eye. “I don’t see anything there. Does it still hurt?”
Rosenbaum thought. “It doesn’t hurt exactly.” He stood, hand over the eye again. “It’s more like light. I have to get it looked at, I think. Thanks, love.”
He crossed the parlor and stepped out onto the balcony. The sky glowed pink and blue like a Raphael painting. Hand over eye, he drew salt air into his lungs and sighed it out. Drones wheeled and sliced the air as shadows lengthened on the harbor. The water was green, the wavetops in and out of focus, and drones whipped like bats through the air. All around he heard murmuring, laughter, shouts. The thousands were out for the ceremony. Below, he saw them crowd the beach with their flags and wine bottles. Rosenbaum blinked and slowly lowered his palm. The light was gone, but his eye was not clear. The crowds were not quite in focus, the sky increasingly impressionistic, the wings of the Shav irritatingly dull in the distance, the summit of its spire barely legible against the sky. “Shit,” he said, and blinked.
A cheer went up as the sun sank onto the spire’s tip. Rosenbaum felt a sympathetic pain in his eye and cried out. As if it had heard, one of the drones cruising the harbor broke formation and moved shoreward. “Shit!” muttered Rosenbaum. He shouldn’t be caught complaining. Light flashed in his eye and he bent over, clutching the railing.
Alon! My man! spoke a voice in his head. What’s happening, brother?
Rosenbaum shuddered. “Akhai, everything’s fine.” When the drone arrived it would see, through the cameras in its belly. And they’d know: Alon Rosenbaum, Rank XV, was hunched over on the balcony with his hand over his eye, observing the Day of Remembrance with a visible vision problem. Of course the drones knew this already. The question was: what were the implications? And how to make everything turn out cool?
Everything’s cool, right? said the voice. She’s coming out, right?
“She?” Rosenbaum said, blinking. “Right. She’ll be out in a minute.” The light flashed again, and for an instant he thought he caught sight of his hand—his actual unfiltered hand. His hand, he knew, was sixty-six years old. The thought was terrifying. But his regular hand was back in an instant, and everything looked cool again. He couldn’t help wondering, though—what if it happened again? If it did, he should take care not to look at anything, especially at parts of himself. And especially not at Meta. Rosenbaum could guess what his body looked like in actuality, without filters. But Meta—who knew? It went beyond filters. It would be like picturing a person without skin. He’d known her almost forty years, and only at the beginning had he wondered what was actually there—what he would see, what he would feel, if the power failed or the terror came again. But the power did not fail and the terror did not come; Israel flourished under the drones’ protection, and Rosenbaum’s link was unbroken, his Meta whole.
Rosenbaum sat in his tarnished mid-century chair and let his fingers graze the balcony floor. He remembered the day decades ago when Meta had arrived. His hand remembered it: her feet scrunching their toes against these tiles, when the Shav was just complete and the ritual of sunset just emerging. The remembering climbed from his fingertips up through his shoulder and bathed his head. He remembered Meta’s feet, and from there—blinking, struggling—he remembered Meta, the way she’d been at the beginning. Toes callused, toenails painted black and chipped. Indelicate, heavy feet—big feet! Unscrubbed, happy in dirt, beliers of her delicate fingers and the limp black hair braided past her shoulders, but a match for her blunt eyes, her unblinking stare. She’d pointed out to sea like she’d been watching from the beginning. No more hammering from the ocean side, no more dust-clouds over the waterfront. The Shav was complete.
“Akhai, can I see the one with Meta on the balcony?” Rosenbaum asked, teeth still clenched against the pain, which had begun to recede. “On her first night.”
An image faded up in his mind’s eye. For the most part it matched his memory—the toes, the pointing—only Meta’s braids were blond, streaked just a little here and there with gray.
“Are you sure that’s the right one?” Rosenbaum asked.
No time for that now, said the voice.
The balcony shook, vibrated, rocked back and forth. The drone had arrived and hung a few feet over the roof, rotors pummeling the air.
Stand up, said the voice. Let’s see that eye.
Rosenbaum stood and held his lids apart. Light filled his eye: not from inside this time, but from the drone. He heard clanking and soft beeps. Herpes zoster keratitis, said the voice in his head. Your shingles are back. It’s in your eye now. The light ceased, and Rosenbaum heard the drone roar up and away. The sun was gone, the dusk ascendant, and the military bands began to play The Martyrs of Tel Aviv simultaneously from the northern and southern ends of the city. It was calculated so the sound waves from each of the two bands would reach ground zero at the same time. But Rosenbaum’s place was south of ground zero, so it sounded like sad patriotic chaos.
“What does it mean?” said Rosenbaum.
We need to refit your permalens. You’re due for an update anyway. We’ve scheduled a MedTech appointment tomorrow morning ahead of the Sabbath. It doesn’t look like you’re in an emergency. Cool?
Over the water, a flare shot up from either end of the Shav, illuminating the whole thing a final time against the sky. Again he remembered Meta, barefoot beside him, the two of them looking up…
He sighed, content. In the memory her hair was now blond, the way it had been in the photo. Her feet seemed different too, he couldn’t say how. More feminine.
Cool? the voice insisted.
He turned and peered into the apartment, where Meta was invisible in the darkness, and tried to remember what it had looked like before she came. The old Arab walls, the old wooden doorframes, the tiles of the balcony floor, all these had been here—and a sinking feeling had been here too, accompanied somehow by the red glow of helicopter taillights. The damage on the beach was there, of course, and the silence throughout the battened, beaten city, and the roar of surveillance drones, and the first shoots of café life in the dust, the furrowed-brow gaiety, the hollow stares. But what else—right up here on the balcony—what strange gravity insisted to him now, pulling at his memory?
There had been someone else! That was it. There had been disappointment, perhaps even injury. Someone else had stood here. But he remembered only Meta. And all the photos, all the documentation, would show him only her.
The voice of the drones called in his mind: Everything all right, brother?
Where’s your lady? Looks like she’s still working on that order for Scythopolis. You know, it’s OK for someone to take a break every now and then. There’s still time to pose for a few evening shots, and we think they’ll look really good in the twilight. You want to—
“Just a minute.” Rosembaum winced: he had to confess. “My eye still hurts.”
“It feels like a bug in there. I can’t concentrate.”
Give us a sec… Like we said, our best reading is keratitis from shingles. Technically it’s a kind of herpes, but not the sexually transmitted kind.
“OK, cool,” said Rosenbaum. “But is there anything I can do for it?”
We’ve scheduled a MedTech appointment—
“Before that. It sucks right now.”
Hold on a mo.
Rosenbaum went inside and crossed the parlor, where Meta was concentrating on whatever she was concentrating on.
“What’s the matter?” she murmured.
“Something in my eye.”
“Yeah. It’s really frustrating!”
She shrugged, keeping her hands in place. “You should take out the lens.”
“Are you kidding?”
“It would be cool!” she said. “When’s the last time you had it out?”
Rosenbaum stood before the tiny bathroom mirror, scrutinizing the eye. A black pupil stared from the green-brown iris, reflecting Rosenbaum in nauseous miniature. Over the pupil he caught the pale green glow of command lines sent from the drones—millions of them, nanoscopic and lightning-fast—which the permalens had been beaming to secret places in his brain for years on end. Rosenbaum was reminded how insignificant he was, how little he knew of the drones’ workings. He was just a shimmer over deeper waters, moved by the guiding hand. He drew closer to the mirror. Where was the problem, the invisible insect? Was it stuck behind the lens—or was it in the eyeball itself, darting and fluttering, drying its wings? Should he take the lens out? Would that free the bug? Might it convince the bug that it didn’t exist?
“Akhai,” he said, “any word?”
Seems normal, brother. Like we said. Some minor irritation from the lens because of the keratitis. Nothing to shit your pants about.
“But the feeling,” said Rosenbaum. “It’s like I’ve got a roach in there. Is that part of it?”
Psychosomatic, brother, said the drones. It’s in your head. We could do some talk therapy if you want?
“No, no. I’m going to take the lens out and see what happens.”
Whoa, hold on a mo. Listen to yourself a second. You’re not thinking about your role in all this. And that takes power away from you. You see, there’s the lens, and then there’s the eye using the lens, which is your eye, brother. You’re the one seeing. Who’s the shaman of your life?
Rosenbaum shuddered. “I am.”
Exactly. Who went and got herpes?
“You said it wasn’t the sexually transmitted kind.”
What’s important is that you start thinking about the positive power you have to change your situation. That power is turned on when you decide to accept responsibility for what’s happening. Flip the switch, bro.
“Akhai, this is driving me nuts!” Rosenbaum fluttered his eyelid. “Just tell me how do it. I haven’t taken the lens out in years.”
The drones were silent a moment, then: Bro, it only puts off the problem when you externalize it. We’ve got the best research on this.
“This is a free country, isn’t it?”
Another silence. Yeah, it’s a free country, brother man, the drones sighed. You want to do this, you’ll need a gallium-nitride-safe saline lubricant.
“Do I have one of those?”
Not in your current inventory. Fastest delivery is three to five days, without the Sabbath. Should we place an order?
Let us try to reboot the lenses.
“That’s not going to work!”
The drones took the voice of Rosenbaum’s old unit commander: Damn it, be a man! You think this is the worst thing that’s happened to anyone? You think out in the Territories they’re bitching about a little piece of shit in their eyes?
Rosenbaum sighed. “No.”
No. They’re lining up and shooting straight, and thanking God and the government for the guiding hand.
“Fine,” Rosenbaum said. “Reboot lenses please.” There was a bright instant where the world flooded with light, like opening a door onto a summer day. Then a dark square appeared in the right side of his vision and merged with the square floating on the left side. The now unified square blanched and expanded, and became one with Rosenbaum’s natural vision. The world was back where it should be, behind a gentle mediating screen. In the bathroom mirror scrolled the familiar (unmirrored) words:
|BIRTH||9 APR 2022||/USA|
|MIL RANK||XV BRIGADIER (RETIRED)||/NAHAL—INTEL|
|CIV RANK||XV STATE COUNCILOR||/CULTURE|
Rosenbaum grimaced. For a moment he saw himself as a matrix of data points, the way a drone would. Immediately the flutter resumed. The roach in his eye seemed angrier, less patient. Rosenbaum hadn’t ingested anything all day besides coffee. He felt gray and dry inside. Bending to the sink he took a drink of water, then nosed up to the mirror. He examined his eye, moved the lids apart and got close up as another flutter took hold. No pinkness showed, no perturbation.
Bro, everything cool? the drones asked.
“Word,” said Rosenbaum.
Remember, you’ve got MedTech tomorrow. Isn’t everything fine now? Should we cancel the appointment? It would save you six hundred twenty shekels.
Rosenbaum brought his thumb and forefinger to the edge of his iris and pinched. The bite of pain sent him back from the mirror. His eye filled with tears; he blinked furiously and hunched again over the sink. In his pupil he saw the green glow of command lines.
BRO WHAT ARE YOU DOING? the drones screamed through his mind.
A burst of fluttering jerked Rosenbaum’s head back. He blinked hard, and the lens came clattering into the sink. He bent forward and squinted. The microscopic lines were still scrolling across it, their meaning as unyielding as ever. As he watched, the little lens dried up, curled inward and collapsed into nothing. Immediately his eye stopped fluttering.
Problem, bro! the voice shouted in his mind. We’re calling an ambulance!
“No, akhai. No ambulance.”
Bro, sit down NOW. You are at risk of falling. We’ll call an ambulance and send a BFF to hang out with Meta.
“No! Listen to me!” Rosenbaum shouted. “Do not call an ambulance, and do not send a BFF.”
It’s a free country, brother. But we strongly advise…
“Akhai will mute until further notice,” said Rosenbaum, and the voice was silenced. He held his hand up to his naked eye. The knuckles were gnarled now, rough-looking. He made a fist. Not horrible. He passed the fist in front of the other eye, whose permalens was still firmly in place. Immediately his skin lost its age and character, gained its former animation-cel clarity. For an instant he was revolted. It—he—looked like a cartoon. Was this the world they’d made for him, and to which he’d grown accustomed? But the instant passed, and he recognized his hand for what it was. It was him, for better or worse; and like the drones said, he should shut up and thank God for it.
Rosenbaum shut his lensed eye and saw his hand turn old again. He opened and shut his fingers a few times, getting used to their details, the fine lines and spots, the asymmetries, then lifted his head to the mirror.
What he saw there was not quite a shock, not exactly a revelation. It was not his grandfather who looked back at him with one eye shut, nor his father. It was Rosenbaum himself, recognizably so. The difference was not as clear as it had been with his hand. He didn’t even appear to have aged that much. He opened his lensed eye and closed the naked one, then switched back, and marked the differences. The lens made him a bit of a hero: more attractive, more streamlined. It might have shortened (or at least gauzed) his eagle’s nose, but on the whole it amounted to set of modest touch-ups. Rosenbaum sighed. He would go to MedTech tomorrow and get a replacement lens. Maybe he’d dial down the filters a bit and get used to his actual skin. He let both eyes open, wondering if his mind would find a common image between the lensed eye and the naked one. Leaned in close, he inhaled deep through his nose as the images converged. When he exhaled his breath fogged everything below his eyes, and he got confused staring at himself: the inside of him looking at two different outsides, those outsides looking back in. But how many insides were there? As many as there were outsides? Or even more? He shifted his focus right and left and right again. The command lines raced across his remaining lens. What instructions were they sending to the back of his brain? What directives were they following? And what of the naked eye, which could now see the directives in the mirror, on the opposite side—could it read them backwards? It occurred to him that an eye in a mirror holds an infinite regression: the eye reflected in the pupil reflected in the pupil reflected in the pupil…and so on, into the nanosphere. He could not stop staring, though he no longer knew what he was staring at. He felt he was inside a matrix of questions and commands—a broken matrix, where it was unclear who was commanding whom, who was asking, who was listening, who was lost. Yes, something was broken in here. He came closer to the eyes in the mirror. One of them was afraid.
“Meta!” he cried, and strode out of the bathroom. The parlor spread before him: the paintings, the sculptures, the balcony doors, the black leather couch. “Meta!”
There was something there. It was not Meta. It was a broad triangular mass, dark gray, almost as black as the couch. Slouching and heaving, the thing gave off a dampness and a smell like rotting wood. It was undulating in place, like an octopus, squeaking against the leather.
“Ah, god!” Rosenbaum shouted, squeezing his eyes shut. Opening them he gasped. The creature had vanished; Meta sat in its place. She held her hands up as before, modeling whatever she was modeling in the faraway factory. Then she sighed and gave a little shake, and smiled at her husband. Somehow he could also see the black triangle, heaving and burbling in her place. “Ah, god!” he cried. There were two different creatures there—no, only one creature. “Is that her?” he muttered. “Is that what she actually is? Akhai, unmute.”
The voice of the drones returned: We told you this was a bad idea, bro.
Rosenbaum stared at the floor. “My god,” he whispered.
“Aloni, what’s the matter?” Meta asked. “Holy shit, did you actually take the lens out?”
“Mmm-hmm,” he nodded, without looking up.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.” She giggled. “I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”
Rosenbaum swallowed and raised his head. It was Meta, his Meta, smiling under a furrowed brow. “Listen, don’t be scared,” she said. She seemed to pulse, as if she were a skin pasted on some other body. Her eyes didn’t waver or blink. Who was she? he wondered. What was a model, after all? He imagined her looking at him with the eyes of the drones. What did she see when she looked at him? Could he, a useless shimmer, hide from the drones? “Can I?” she said, standing—approaching. She exhaled, and it was her breath he smelled. She came close and lay a hand on his shoulder. “It’s OK, right? Still me.” Slowly she moved against him and placed her arms around his shoulders and his waist. He shuddered—half of him felt Meta’s touch, but the other half felt a leathery dampness, and the odor around her turned sweet and vomitous, the saliva of an overgrown child. Whatever it was swiped a piece of itself against his face: a hand?
“Akhai, what’s happening?” he whispered.
You know what’s happening, brother.
Meta sang into Rosenbaum’s ear. Exhausted he leaned against her, feeling her body. Her touch was immediate, present; it was real, as real as anything. Yet it was a lie: it was just the command lines from his remaining lens—as soon as he switched focus, he’d lose her again.
“Sweetheart,” she said. There was a hitch in her voice. Before he knew it, she’d taken his face in her hands and was kissing him, fully. Without thinking he collapsed into her, squeezing his eyes shut, willing her to be real, willing himself to be the trim-lined hero he’d recognized in the mirror. He lifted her tank top over her head; she pulled off his shirt and scrunched his pants down to his ankles. They kissed hurriedly, forgetfully.
Leeore Schnairsohn’s fiction, essays, translations, and reviews have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Write Launch, the Slavic and East European Journal, Inventory, and Portals, among others. He has also written in academic contexts on the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam as well as other topics in Slavic and Comparative Literature. He teaches in the Expository Writing Department at New York University. The View from the Balcony is his first novel.