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Life and Dirt
His breath smelled of cigarettes, hard whiskey, and tooth decay. He held me with his dirty fingernails caked with dirt, against the large brick wall, painted with graffiti and scattered with chippings of brick and dirt. Everything in the neighborhood was half dirt: the sidewalk, the houses, and the people. People say I’m worth dirt, sometimes even to my face. And they don’t mean the clean, earth smelling dirt, like at the park across the street from my old, one room shack of a house. They mean the cruddy, sticky dirt. The kind of dirt that even the people like the foul man pressing me into this wall, with decaying teeth and no money to his name, wouldn’t bother touching for any other reason as vulgar as this.
He was fumbling with my sweatshirt now, trying to lift it over my head using one hand, the other clamped firmly over my mouth so I wouldn’t scream. It didn’t matter if I did scream, no one would dare intervene. It wasn’t that they didn’t think what this man was going to do to me was immoral, it was simply that the only way to survive in this town was to only think about yourself. To turn a blind eye to all the drug dealing, theft, and murder. It wasn’t selfish. It was just the way things worked. When it comes down to life or death for you or for someone else, you’ll fight for your own survival. It’s as simple as that really. So I was on my own, as I always was.
I felt helpless. I wanted to die then, right there against that painted wall with bumpy bricks jutting into my back uncomfortably. I imagined my death then. I imagined my body, crumpling to the ground like wet paper. I imagined the coldness that would come, the beats of my heart growing fainter, coldness that would consume my body. I bet it would feel nice. Peaceful even. He had gotten my sweatshirt off, and I think it was then that I finally registered what was going on. I became uncomfortably aware of my sweaty neck, my dry, cracked lips, and my plain clothes with dirt in their pockets, dirt in my old tenni's. Aware of my scorched skin, sprinkled with freckles, cuts and scars that were like a timeline of my life here in the neighborhood. He looked at my body too. Noticing the dirty old hand-me-downs that hung loosely from my body, my blonde hair, ratty with dirt and wet with perspiration. He noticed my eyes, large and green, and my lips, dry and cracked. He smirked with contempt, showing off his remaining festering teeth. I was dirt.
I bit him then. I bit his rough calloused hands with my yellow teeth as hard as I could. He withdrew his wounded arm like I’d hoped. His grasp on me released slightly and I bolted, knocking over trashcans with thunderous crashes against the pavement. I didn’t look back, but I could hear his footsteps behind me, their echo against that wall, the sound of his wheezing, livid breaths. I knew that if he caught me it would all be over. There would be no mercy. I didn’t want to die then, I wanted to escape. I wanted an escape from this.
My Momma was a druggie. She also was an alcoholic. She didn’t get much money, because she didn’t work much, but no one here really did. Our home was one room with a couch and an old black and white TV that never turned off. The room always smelled of bear, cigarettes, and sweat because we didn’t have any air conditioning in the building. My real home was on the streets where I was subjected to gangs, murder, rape, drugs, and anything else your Momma doesn’t want you to know. Home was h***, but the streets are worse, my Momma always used to say. I had to take care of myself, and my Momma for as long as I could remember. I don’t know why I stuck with her for as long as I did. Maybe it was because at the time I could remember the early days where she was kind and sober, when we slept beside me in her old queen bed and told me stories of places she’d been before she’d moved here; jungles and large forests, cities with buildings as high as the clouds and the moon. I’d remember her fragile figure rising and falling with her quiet breathes, thinking that my Momma had to be the most amazing person in the world. Those memories that were once so vivid in my mind now appear as only a fantasy, something that only appeared in my dreams to taunt me.
My Momma died before I could leave, and before she could ever take me to those places she had been to and promised to take me to with her. She overdosed on sleeping pills and alcohol. I found her slumped on the couch, mouth open as if calling my name, demanding more boos or cigarettes, screeching with her nasally voice about how I was such a disappointment. Telling me that I was the reason that she was this way. I was a failure. I was dirt. I didn’t bother calling 9-1-1. I sat down next to her cold body and turned off the TV. The silence was deafening and so unnatural, so I began to talk to her. I told her that I forgave her for being such a lousy mother for all those years, and that I was sorry for being such a failure. I told her that I was going to visit all those places she had told me about. It was probably the best conversation we’d ever had. I didn’t cry, because I didn’t feel anything for her. I just felt alone.
I slowed down, my chest heaving with pain; sweat dribbling down my forehead into my eyes. I looked around, wondering where I was and recognizing the place instantly. I had wound up at the park across the street from my apartment. The last time I had been there was when I had watched the paramedics wheel my Momma out of our one room house on a stretcher with a crisp white sheet over her body. I wondered if they had closed her mouth. I hoped they had. I collapsed onto a bench at the edge of the river, cradling myself like I used to do when I was a child, when I was only afraid of the dark. There was no one to comfort me now, no one to tell me that those shadows around me were nothing to be afraid of. I sobbed quietly like that for hours.
It was dusk when I finally stopped running. The sun was setting over the murky river in an array of dazzling colors, shining some beauty on the dirty neighborhood and even dirtier people. No one stopped to admire this. The people around me walked briskly, clutching their bags and purses with untrusting eyes that saw all. This neighborhood could turn even the most kind and affable people into incorrigible, inhospitable ones. This town kills you, my Momma used to say. I’d ask her why people didn’t simply escape, and she told me that they were scared. I always resented my Momma for not leaving this town. I was convinced that we would have had a better life, but I’m not entirely sure of that now. I always used to imagine what my life would have been like if we had left. I imagined an old blue farmhouse, a neighborhood with paved roads and sidewalks, and a big yard with green grass and lots of trees and flowers. I would have my own air-conditioned room, and my Momma would have a job and her own money. She would be happy. We both would be.
The bridge that ran over the river shined in the sunlight. It looked magical, the colors of the sunlight reflecting against the water onto the bridge. I watched the sunset until only a glimmer of light remained, reflecting from the water onto the bridge in murky orange colors. I saw him then, a figure standing on the edge of the bridge, wobbling unstably on the railings. He was just a blur in the distance. I wanted to believe that I hadn’t seen anything, that the supposed figure of a boy standing on the edge of the bridge was simply a large, vertical board or railing with some cardboard plastered onto it that looked like a human when seen from afar. I tried to act oblivious like the people around me. I didn’t care about that boy. I only cared about myself. I was surprised when I bounded to my feet. I couldn’t lie to myself like all those other people. I began frantically yelling, pointing at the boy on the bridge, but no one stopped, no one even looked. I was just a homeless, dirty girl on the streets, and he was just a boy that wanted to escape. To intervene was to care, and these people certainly did not.
I began sprinting towards the bridge, my gaze unwavering from the boy standing on the railing. My limbs ached with a burning pain; my breathing became frantic as I approached the bridge, tripping over cracks and curbs in the darkness. My legs are ablaze, stinging with fresh cuts. Faster. Faster. My legs pounded into the bridge’s pavement. I feel the vibrations in my feet, and I know the boy must hear me now. Faster. Faster.
He’s looking at me with a puzzled, pitying expression, standing on the silver rail. I ask him what he’s doing, even though I know exactly what he’s doing. He doesn’t answer. He’s much taller from up close. He’s wearing a ratty sweatshirt from the town’s only high school, and jeans with lots of holes. He’s handsome with his large brown eyes and firm jaw line. He looks familiar, but I don’t tell him any of that.
Neither of us said anything for the longest time. He stood on the silver rail, and I stood below him on the pavement. I didn’t know what to say. I now regretted being there. I regretted trying to save this boy when he obviously didn’t want to be saved, and I didn’t want to save him. Truthfully, I was jealous of the boy because he was going to escape. I couldn’t escape like that. I was too scared.
“I haven’t eaten decent food in weeks,” he told me, his voice vanishing in the wind.
“Huh?” I grunted unintelligently.
“I’m hungry…and tired…and cold. My life…is nothing. Death will be better. It has to be. Don’t those guys at church say so?” he asked.
“Ugh…I don’t know. I guess…” I shrugged.
“Thought you came to stop me,” he laughed sadly.
“Yeah…I thought I did too…It’s your life ya’no. ‘S how I see it…”
“Yeah?” he sighed, repositioning his feet.
“I think I’m jealous of you,” I blurted.
“Huh? Why would you be jealous of me…?"
“You’re goin’ to escape,” I leaned against the railing, averting my gaze from the boy’s.
“Bet your a** I am. I’m escaping to heaven where life will be a h*** of a lot better than this sh** hole,” he smiled happily. “Why don’t you join me…"
“I don’t think so…”
We were quiet for a while. He looked down at the dark, icy water below him, and I looked at him in the darkness where I knew he couldn’t see me. He looked so calm, so composed. Just like Momma after she died, I thought. “Death must be peaceful. My Momma died…cause of an overdose…and she looked so peaceful.”
“Yeah? I figure the dying part aint’ that peaceful, but death must be,” he explained, shivering slightly.
“Yeah…” I didn’t know if I should leave then. The whole situation felt uncomfortable. The wind on the bridge was icy, and the night air was hot and humid against my skin causing me to shiver.
“Here, take my sweatshirt,” he jumped down off the rail and threw me his ratty sweatshirt. The smell was foul, but it was better then nothing. “I won’t have much use for it where I’m going…” he smiled.
“Wait…um…Well. Don’t you think that…you don’t have to kill yourself to be that peaceful? I mean, there’s gotta be another way…right?” I choked emotionally. I hadn’t expected to feel such heartache for this boy that I had just met. Tears trickled down my face and I was relieved that I was veiled in a blanket of dark night air. It was the first time I had cried since my Momma’s death. I think the tears were more for her than for this boy.
“Girl…the way I see it is: there are plenty of ways to be happy and peaceful or sh**. I’ve lived my whole life tryin'. Busting my a** to make more money, cause that seems to solve a lot. I got more money. I got a wife. Got a kid. But right after I got all those things, they disappeared. Slipped right threw my f***ing fingers. Guy…came into our house n’ shot’em while I was out cause he wanted a couple bucks and a drag. Life’s a b****. Taunts you with happiness and lets it die by your own hand. F***.” He shook his head and climbed back onto the silver railing once more, stoned face, jaw clenched, eyes closed. Then he fell. It was effortless, graceful, horrifying, and beautiful in a way.
I carefully climbed onto the railing. I spent hours staring down at the roily water, the churning waves that had wrenched the boy’s body under it’s unforgiving waves. If I do jump, I thought, no one would ever know. The only person that would have actually given a sh** was Momma, but she’s dead now… I jumped down onto the pavement and walked back across the bridge. It must have been very early in the morning because the streets were earie with silence. The sun was rising in the distance, and I kept walking.