A Roof of One’s Own

by C. Kevin Smith

I had been in Buenos Aires a week when my landlady, Marta, gave me a key to the roof, where residents of my building can hang their wet laundry to dry.  The key was attached to an Eva Perón key chain, with the word ARGENTINA tucked into the picture, just under Evita’s chin.  The sepia-colored photograph had a compressed, lacquered look, as if one were looking at Argentina’s former leader from a distance, or through an old glazed and distorted window.

I was excited to go up to the roof.  Until now I’d spent my time figuring out what I needed to buy to get settled, where to buy it, and what it was called in a language I am just beginning to learn. I was adjusting to living in a big noisy city after five years in the remote quiet of Big Sur, California.  I was sleeping badly, felt stressed and anxious, and wondered more than once if coming here had been the right idea.

When I first unlocked the door and stepped onto the roof I was a little disappointed.  It seemed a small area, perhaps only slightly bigger than the average American motel swimming pool.  Four clotheslines spanned the entire space at chest level, all of them filled with laundry.  There would be no room for my wet sheets that were drying on an accordion-style rack attached to the wall hanging over my bathtub.  It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, evidently a laundry day for many people.  I wandered to the southern edge, across which stretched thickly ominous bundles of old dusty black electrical cables.  In the building’s terminology this might well be la terraza, but no one was setting a glass of Chardonnay on the gritty surfaces up here anytime soon.

I peered over the edge and looked down to the roofs of the adjacent buildings, two stories shorter than my building’s six stories.  And then I saw a teenage boy do exactly what I was doing, standing on the roof of his building and peering over its edge, down onto the street.  This is an urban pleasure, gazing at the kaleidoscopic variety of city life as it passes before, or under, one’s curious eyes.  This boy was less patient than I, however, for after a few seconds of looking he went to another side of the roof and stared over its edge, hoping, perhaps, for something different, for something (or someone) more eye-catching.  Soon I saw that he wasn’t alone: another boy emerged from behind a small rooftop shed, and now they both moseyed across the roof, this way and that, looking here, then there, waiting for something interesting to happen.

I let my eyes roam, and they were immediately rewarded with the pleasing sight of a young man on a nearby roof, sitting in a chair, reading.  I confess that the sight of someone reading outdoors holds for me more erotic potential than a nude sunbather.  Reading is such a privately intimate activity; to watch someone read unawares is to glimpse behind the social mask, to see a person raw and true, more naked than in a state of undress.

It didn’t hurt that the young man was handsome, barefoot, and aglow with the light of the sunny autumn afternoon.

As I turned to go downstairs I saw an open doorway I hadn’t noticed before, which led to a small room with a row of washbasins, relics from an era when people did not have their own small washing machines in their kitchen, as I and undoubtedly most other residents of my building do.  But more important than the washbasins was the fact that this room opened out to a much vaster rooftop, with crisscrossed laundry lines, and affording countless places to consider the city and its rooftops from other perspectives.

From this side of the roof I saw on other roofs a dog sleeping in the sun, small children playing soccer, women hanging up clothes.  A man sat on a stool, his body bent with concentration over a task I was too far away to see.  Perhaps he was repairing some kind of tool or household object.  It was the daily life of the barrio, a Saturday afternoon in Buenos Aires, invisible from the sidewalks, but joyously visible, at that moment, to me.

And then I felt in waves the city’s shell crack open, some suddenly perceived outer layer falling away at last, as if by discovering my neighborhood’s final, topmost surface I might begin to have access to its inner heart.   The roof not only gave me a wider, more enlarged sense of where I live, it reminded me why I love to be in cities, with their endlessly variegated and endlessly changing puzzle-shapes of avenues and buildings, sky-fragments and birds, buses and clouds and trees and people, the tantalizing window displays and the trails of laundry lines and electrical cables and the imagined stories that whisper in my ear, and yours, persistent as wind.

I went back to the other roof to check on my handsome reader.  He was still reading, still resplendently relaxed in his portable canvas chair and matching footstool.  This is a man who takes his reading seriously, I thought.  His rooftop was very different from the roof of my building, a much larger, vaster space, with only a small corner of the roof devoted to a single line of laundry.  He sat off to one side, and the juxtaposition of his singular and solitary presence amidst the spacious emptiness of the roof, considerably bigger than the roof I was on, reminded me of the watercolors of Sempé, who has made a specialty of the urban contrast.  And the pleasant familiarity of that reference added to my growing feeling that I too was a part of this sunny weekend afternoon, that suddenly I was not lost, not foreign.  I turned around to see if anyone on a rooftop higher than mine was curiously gazing at me.  I saw no one, but I didn’t care.  I had been given my key marked ARGENTINA.  Finally I had arrived.

Originally published in The Redwood Coast Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer 2008.  Reprinted by permission.