“Welcome to your new home,” the woman said. Her voice sounded flat. A smirk stretched her chapped lips. I wanted to peel the outer layer of them off, like an onion, but decided against it. She pointed to a bunk at the end of the room. “The top one is yours. There’s a chest at the head of the bed for your things.”
She turned to face me. Her eyes looked dead. “I’m Ms. Kole and I run the home. You’ll be up at 6:00 AM. Breakfast is at 6:30 AM. You will need to leave by 7:00 to get to school and will be expected back no later than 5:00 PM. Dinner is at 6:00 PM and lights out is at 9:00.” Ms. Kole crossed her arms over her chest. “You will sign in and out each day so we can account for you, and we do bed checks throughout the night, so I suggest you not plan on going anywhere once you’re here.” She paused. I chewed my lip in the hope she would subconsciously get the message. She put a hand to her mouth but did nothing else. “Any questions?”
I shook my head, knowing my vocal chords were going to refuse to give way to sound.
“Good. If you need the staff, we’ll be at the front desk. There’s no call button here and we don’t like having our time wasted. Dinner is in ten minutes. I suggest you get ready.”
What does she mean by ‘get ready‘? My worldly belongings amounted to a small bag of personal items and certainly not many clothes. In addition to the fact that I came from nothing, I was always reminded how difficult it was to find clothes in my size. Well-intentioned people donated items, but most of them didn’t fit. Sometimes, I would take them and throw them in the nearest dumpster, mostly out of disgust.
I scanned the room and my eyes darted back and forth, taking in every detail. Ten sets of bunk beds lined the walls, enough for twenty girls to a room. We had passed a large restroom with shower stalls on the way down the hall, but I had no idea how many girls would fit in there at a time, or if we had assigned times we needed to ‘get ready’. The beds were simple. All of them were made. It was all militantly meticulous.
The floors looked like poured concrete and had a glossy finish to them. I could imagine children roller skating on them, bouncing themselves against the edges of the wooden bunks, giggling. All of the chests had thick locks on them, but there would be no semblance of privacy here. This wasn’t the place for it. I made my way down the length of beds and found mine. At least, I thought, I am near a window. It could be worse. I could be surrounded only by other girls and the concrete block walls, which were a shade of green that was probably meant to be soothing, but instead looked cold and institutional.
At 4’11” and well over 200 pounds, there really wasn’t a way for me to get myself in and out of the top bunk. I sighed and sat on the bottom bed, looked out the window, and hoped for nothing and everything all at once. Then I leaned down and opened the chest, and set the lock to my own combination, 4-1-9-7. My birthday. I was an April Fool’s joke of the greatest proportion.
People judged me as lazy and slow. I was sixteen and couldn’t climb into a bunk bed. And while I had no real use for math or science, books were my escape. I had been tested years ago at school and my mother was told that I read at least three years beyond my grade. She had pursed her lips and said nothing. I supposed she only read at an elementary school level and would just use this as another thing for which to resent me. I shook the memory off, shoved my bag into the chest and locked it, and pulled hard on it to make sure it stayed shut. I didn’t have much, but what I had was mine. And it was everything.
I visualized the path we’d taken to get to my room and reversed it in my mind, so easily found my way to the cafeteria. Already, a long line had formed. Everyone talked to someone. A tall girl punched another in the arm, and I hoped they were joking. I watched the steam rise from behind the sneeze guard. I wasn’t hungry for a change, as I was too nervous to eat. Also, my habit was to skip a meal and then binge later when no one was watching. Maybe I could take a few rolls back to my room and stash them in the wooden chest, I thought. No. I will get caught, and I do not need any more attention drawn to my weight. I am already one of the biggest girls here. It was difficult not to notice.
I made my way slowly through the line, and kept my eyes focused on my feet. I was wearing mismatched socks. Although I knew it, no one else could tell. The woman with the hair net asked me what I wanted and I just pointed in a circle. I wanted everything. I wanted nothing. I wanted out. There was nothing she could do for me except scoop mashed potatoes, corn and what I think was supposed to be meatloaf into a compartmentalized paper tray, and shove it beneath the thick sheet of plastic that separated us. I didn’t thank her. No one else did either.
I reached for a carton of apple juice. The pickings were slim, and I don’t like water. Apple juice it is, I thought, and made my way to the only empty table I could find. The possibility of a friend was going to be too much to ask for. Not only was it too soon, but girls like me don’t trust anyone easily. I shrugged like it didn’t bother me to sit alone, but I felt every pair of eyes on me. The metal seat creaked when I put my weight on it and I worried that without someone sitting across from me, the entire thing would tip over and I’d be covered in what I could only imagine was mediocre meatloaf.
“You’re new,” a voice said, hovering above me. I didn’t bother to look up. Thick thighs leading to a small waist covered in denim, invaded my space. “I said,” she moved closer. “You’re new.”
“Then this is your first and last warning: get up from my table.”
I looked up at her and saw a burning fury in her eyes. I knew it wasn’t personal. This was just the type of person who felt like they had to control everyone. “Here you go,” I said, and picked up my tray and walked away.
She laughed, cruelly. “Somebody ain’t got no backbone,” she shouted after me.
I knew better than to fight about it. Instead, I took my tray near the window, held it in one hand and ate with the other. Let them think I am weak or crazy, I told myself, none of it matters anyway. Deep down I didn’t believe it, but I also figured that if I just kept telling myself it didn’t matter, eventually it wouldn’t. I practically inhaled my food. I did not like standing. It hurt my back. I dumped my tray in the garbage can near the door and walked back to my room. I sat on the lower bunk for a few minutes before I heard a voice next to me.
“That’s my bunk,” the voice said.
I craned my neck to see her. “Yeah, sorry about that. I was just resting for a minute.”
“Where’s yours? Did they assign you one yet?”
“I’m above you.”
Her eyes widened as she took in the size of me. “You’re . . . above me?” she asked, confusion clear in her voice.
I nodded slowly. “Yep.”
She bit her lower lip. “I don’t see that happening,” she said. “Ms. Kole was just being a bitch. She had to have known you couldn’t get up there.”
“Thanks,” I said, with as much sarcasm as I could muster, and then I rolled my eyes for good measure.
“Well, I just assumed,” she paused. “I mean . . . can you?”
“Well, no offense, but I don’t even think I’d feel comfortable with you above me. Do you want to switch bunks?”
“Sure.” I eyed her up and down, full of suspicion, and took in all the details. In sixteen years, this was the kindest thing anyone, let alone a stranger, had done for me. “Do we have to switch lockers?”
“Nah,” she shrugged, “don’t worry about it.” She climbed up to the top bunk with ease. I heard the wood creak and realized her offer to take it was really in both our best interests. “Oh, by the way,” she said in a chipper tone, “Don’t use your birthday for your code. It’s practically public knowledge and anyone can find it in a file. The staff sucks at keeping anything private.”
“Too late,” I said, dejected.
“Do you have a name?” she asked.
“Ella? That’s pretty.” I heard her whispering it repeatedly. “What are you?”
She laughed. “No, I mean, what’s your background?”
“Oh, me too,” she said. “Ella, huh?” She paused and I waited for her fill the silence. “Wait, it’s not Ella at all, is it? Your parents just named you ‘she’?”
“Isn’t that why we’re all here?” I asked rhetorically. She didn’t respond. Eventually, the room filled with the other girls. They created a lot of noise, but I was in my own world. I had my ragtag copy of The House on Mango Street, and despite knowing every word and placement of punctuation, I clutched it in front of my face, reading it anyway.
I’d stolen the book years ago from the shelf of one of the string of psychiatrists I was forced to meet. I liked the cover, but that was all I knew about it at the time. The first few visits, I’d read it quietly while I waited. Sometimes, I would bring it into the office with me and flip the pages rather than talk.
Eventually, I got the sense they were going to assign me to someone else, since they often did if we had four unsuccessful sessions. By this they meant that they couldn’t garner participation. Unable to part with the book, I’d shoved it between a textbook and notebook and carried it out with me so it wouldn’t be noticeable.
My mother found it later, beneath my pillow, and demanded to know where I got it. I lied and told her it was from the library, and she never caught on that it didn’t have the library information anywhere in or on the book. Other than food, which I justified as needing to stay alive, that book is the only thing I ever stole. Well, that and an item I kept to remember someone that meant something to me at one time. Sometimes, I felt badly about it, but most of the time I didn’t bother wasting the energy to feel anything at all.
I hadn’t asked that girl her name. I tried imagining what it could be, but decided to give up. Names are important to most people, I suppose. My mother, Malda, was named for her mother and her mother before that. My younger sister, Maria, was named after my aunt. My youngest sister, Yvette, was named after an aunt on my father’s side of the family. This is the way it goes for most of the people I’ve met.
Not me. I’m a personal pronoun. I spend a lot of time with this fact because most people don’t find themselves in this predicament, and have no way to relate. “Ella” seems like it could be short for something else, or maybe I could be a mysterious Italian girl. But I am not. I am simply She. My parents couldn’t even be bothered to name me. I often think about what that exchange might have looked like in the hospital; my mother covered in sweat, legs still spread in stirrups, a pool of human tissue between her legs. In my mind, when the nurse carried my wrinkled, crying body to my mother—swathed in a standard-issue hospital blanket—she must have just looked at me with utter disgust.
“What is it?” I imagined her asking the nurse.
“It’s a beautiful, healthy baby girl,” she squealed with excitement. “Look at those big, brown eyes and full lips. She’s going to be a handful!” I pictured the nurse handing me over to my mother without a shred of suspicion. “Have you picked out a name for her?”
“Well, yes, her. This little bundle of love, right here,” she said as she pinched my cheek, and my face instinctively shied away from her touch.
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” my mother repeated. “Dame el papel,” telling the nurse to give her the paper. As she scrawled the letters, E-L-L-A, she gave the correct pronunciation. “Eh Ya.” Ella. She.
“Oh, Ella, that’s a pretty name.”
My mother looked at her furiously, and then she wrote S-A-N-T-I-A. “Ella Santia,” she said simply.
“That’s a beautiful name,” the nurse said, and then whisked me away to the neonatal unit. I imagined that my mother gave her typical scowl before rolling over and going to sleep, pain medications coursing through her body.
The sound of people speaking snapped me back to reality. So much for my imagination. “Who’s the new kid?” someone asked no one in particular.
“Looks like just another bitch,” another one answered.
I went back to reading my book and eventually, as I predicted, the harassment stopped. About a half hour later, I saw waves of jet black hair streaming over the side of my bed. “Want to go up to the roof before they lock the place down?” the girl in the top bunk asked.
“Do you have a name?”
She smiled. “Lara.” I found her crooked teeth endearing.
“How long have you been here?”
“About a year.”
“They haven’t placed you in a foster home?”
She tumbled over the side of the bed, landing hard on her feet on the concrete floor, and did a small curtsy as though she was in an Olympic performance, and then shrugged. “I’m a runner. They finally realized it was better for everyone if I just stayed in a group home.”
I eyed her suspiciously. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“Well,” she said, “someone has to be.”
I shook my head. This just did not register with me. “Actually, I could really use a shower.”
“Let’s go to the roof for five minutes and then we’ll head to the showers. It’s not exactly something you’ll want to do alone.”
“I didn’t figure it would be.” I eased myself off the bed. My back ached. It was my weight, but these shoddy state-issued beds weren’t going to improve the situation at all.
Lara watched my slow movements. “Are you up for this? We’re going to have to take the stairs.”
“How many flights?”
She looked upwards and appeared to be counting on her fingers. “Five,” she paused, “well, five and a half if you count the landings, or whatever they are.”
I rolled my eyes and muttered, “Let’s go.” We made our way past the curious looks in the room. The hallway was far too bright, and the fluorescent lights bounced off the shiny floor. The sickly walls absorbed most of it, but if you held your head at a specific angle, it felt quite possible to be blinded. We walked past the staff office. I was surprised no one asked where we were going, since most of the other girls were either in the community room or already in their own bunks. Loud arguing came from the communal lounge as we passed. No one ever agreed on television shows in places like this, and it always came down to whoever was the most physically intimidating.
“So, how old are you?” I asked.
“Fifteen.” Her distorted teeth peeked through a smile.
“I thought you were younger.”
“I’m used to that.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and added, “People usually only think I’m thirteen.”
“Do you think that works to your advantage?”
She faced me and her look turned serious. “It absolutely does. People discount everything about me. I’m small for my age. I know that, but there’s a lot of power in here.” She pointed to her forehead then to her heart.
I smiled. I’d never felt a connection like this with anyone else, certainly not my family, and I couldn’t say I’d had many of what you could actually call friends. This was a new experience for me, and I found myself conflicted between racing to tell her everything about me, and maintaining my guard. I opted for the latter, only because I had enough experience with the things people could do to others by using their most intimate secrets against them. Preying on weakness was an art form in which many were well versed.
We trudged up the bleak stairwell. Lara didn’t seem impatient with my frequent need to rest. I held onto the railing, and by the third flight, felt like I was pulling myself up by my arms and that my legs were just weighing me down.
“Do you want to go back?” she asked.
“No, we’re more than halfway there. Let’s see this magical roof of yours.” We climbed the next two and a half flights in silence. Well, relative silence. My breathing became labored and my heart pounded in my ears. I was self-conscious, and supposed she could hear every heartbeat along with the wheezing.
“We’re here!” she exclaimed, and pressed the metal bar of the door and shoved it open, making sure she replaced the rock which held the door ajar so everyone could get back in. We made our way onto the roof, and I noticed that a few girls were hovering in small groups. Some of them were passing cigarettes back and forth. Some were passing joints. A few loners crouched on their haunches, staring blankly in front of them.
We made our way around to the other side of the building where there were less people. “Hey,” she said while tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention, “if you look past that water tower towards 125th street, you can see where I grew up. My birth family still lives there.” She pointed outwards and my eyes followed her delicate fingers.
“It’s nice up here,” I said.
“I come up here a lot. I like to watch people. I imagine entire lives for them: routines and conversations. I watch women juggle shopping bags and strollers and toddlers’ hands. I watch men sit outside bodegas for hours drinking coco jugo and smoking cigars.”
“You said ‘birth family’,” I interrupted her. “Were you adopted by another family?”
Her eyes narrowed. “No.” We stared off in silence for a while. I listened to the sound of taxis and men cat-calling women on the street—it wasn’t a tall enough building to make this a silent movie. I watched the lights of the city ebb and flow, and looked for the familiar dark patch of nothingness at the end of Central Park, but it was completely out of sight, just as expected. “Can you see your place from here?” she eventually asked.
“No.” I said nothing else about it. The truth is, I was physically too far away to see anything from my past. Mentally though, it never left me. I could never escape it. I drifted off around the other side of the building, despite knowing I would never see The Baruch Houses from here, and I didn’t even want to face that direction. Next, I moved to the west side of the building and craned my neck to see if the Hudson would come into view. It didn’t.
“We should head inside,” she said. “Showers are a commodity around here.”
“That doesn’t sound very reassuring.”
“I mean, we’ll get one. It’s just a question of what misery we’ll need to put up with, and of course, whether or not there will be any hot water left.” We made our way back down the stairwell. My knees hurt, but we did it in much less time than the initial climb. I counted each set of stairs; they alternated between eight steps and a landing for each floor. I thought about why the architects could have made it such a strange number. If they bothered to count eight stairs, why not just round it up to ten? Clearly, my obsessive-compulsive disorder was in overdrive.
Lara showed me where to get toiletries. Most of the girls didn’t bother to have their own. The little bit of money anyone seemed to have went towards drugs, liquor and cigarettes. If the state provided shampoo and conditioner, that was just fine with everyone else. “We only use towels once,” she said and handed me two of them. I looked at her quizzically. “Trust me, you’ll want two.”
She took items off another shelf and placed them on top of the towels. “We reuse the other usual stuff and just store them in our lockers. But really, no one bothers with the towels. That’s part of the reason you need to get in here before the crowd. I’ve seen new girls go days without a shower because there weren’t any towels left by the time they got around to wanting one.”
I followed her lead. “Do you have chancletas?” she asked. I shook my head. Despite it being summer, I had very few belongings, and flip flops had been the least of my concern. “It takes a few days for the staff to figure out what new girls need, but when they come around, make sure you add them to the list.” She looked down at my feet and sighed. “I’ll shower first and then lend you mine. At least you know where my feet have been.”
I laughed, “Do I?” She punched me lightly in the arm.
We made our way to the showers and they were far better than I expected. I once had to shower at a YMCA and the flimsy curtain, paired with my size, meant the majority of my body was exposed. It was beyond uncomfortable. I remember dodging in and out of the way of the shower nozzle as quickly as possible. I didn’t even bother washing my long hair because of the time involved.
Rather than standard-issue half-walled stalls, these were fully enclosed and had frosted glass doors. I hung my towel over the inside of the door for additional privacy. You could never be too careful in places like this. I balanced the small bottles of shampoo, conditioner and the bar of soap on the small curved shelf and made the water as hot as I could stand it, as the knots in my back unwound themselves. If I were a different person, I may have even hummed a tune. But I am not.
The water squished between my toes and ran off the sides of Lara’s chancletas. She had propped herself up on one of the sinks and was waiting for me to finish, but she didn’t seem to be in a hurry either. I heard her talk to a few other girls as they went by. She appeared to be friendly to everyone. Maybe that was her survival tactic, but whatever it was, it worked for her.
When I was done, I dried off and threw on the clothes I’d been wearing all day. I stepped out of the shower and walked over to the row of sinks where Lara was perched. “Same clothes,” she said matter-of-factly.
I looked down at myself. “I didn’t bring clean ones in with me.”
“No matter,” she said, “let’s go.” We went back to our room, which at that point was full. I sat down on my bed while Lara shimmied up to hers. She leaned down and looked at me. “You’re okay, kid.”
“I’m older than you,” I said, holding back laughter.
“Maybe,” she shrugged, “maybe not.”
I unlocked the chest and took my book out, to read a little more before they came around for bed checks. No one paid any attention to me, and for that I felt grateful. “Lights out,” Ms. Kole announced. Feet scurried around the floor, covers were thrown back and beds squeaked as the other girls climbed into them. “Random checks,” she said, “per the usual.” A few loud groans answered.
One girl muttered, “Same shit, different day.” Another girl laughed.
“Goodnight.” Ms. Kole said in a sharp voice.
I spent most of the night tossing and turning, unused to sharing a room with so many people. In fact, it was quieter than I was used to, and it made me restless. I shifted beneath the covers then decided I was too warm, so I shook them off and tried reading by the sliver of light coming through the window from the almost-full moon. It didn’t help. I counted the slats beneath Lara’s bunk then extrapolated that out to guess how many might be in the entire room. I made a note to myself to count them the next day just to be sure.
My mind raced and nothing would slow it down. Usually, I found the counting to be calming. It distracted me from whatever else was going on around me. Tonight though, it made me particularly frustrated. I thought about what I might do the next day. It was a weekend so I wouldn’t have to worry about starting again in a new school just yet. I had no idea if any of these girls were allowed to work, or what people did here when they weren’t in school or being tutored. I assumed most were in tutoring based on some of the conversations I had heard in the previous few hours.
I could hear Lara breathing deeply above me and decided not to wake her up with questions like these. They could wait. She’d been here for a year and I had two more to go until I aged out of the system. When they had initially removed me from my mother’s house, I thought that living with a foster family would be ideal. I had been placed in one of them in the past few months, but it hadn’t turned out like I expected it would. In the end, a group home was my only option, aside from homelessness, so I jumped at the chance to be moved here. I wasn’t regretting that decision. Yet. I mean, it had only been a few days since I found out they’d placed me, and only a few hours since I walked through the doors.
I heard the staff making their rounds. I tried to estimate how long they took between them, but there wasn’t any clear pattern. Maybe it just depended on the employees’ moods or when there was a commercial break. Sometimes, there would be a noise, like someone moving about, and I thought that maybe a staff person would come by to check on it, but that didn’t happen.
Despite all the warnings about sneaking out after lights out, I wasn’t sure how people would do that. We were on the fifth floor. We had no balcony, and in fact, our windows only opened enough to flick a cigarette through. I had seen a few girls do it in haste. I made a note to ask Lara about escape plans as well. I always liked having escape routes planned out in my head.
Before I would enter any building, even a crowded bodega, I’d take the time to look around and see what obstacles would be in the way. When I entered, before I purchased anything, I would walk around and look for the back exit. The law states that you need more than one egress, so it’s just a matter of finding them. I discovered they’re not always in logical places. Once, I found an exit hidden in an employee bathroom. I never did figure out how that was supposed to help people inside the store if an employee was actually using it.
My mind drifted into meaningless images. Faces shifted. I relived experiences, and tried to control the stories, but it never worked. I hoped that each time my brain presented a memory, I’d have a chance to do it differently, but it never turned out that way. No matter what I did, what variable I changed, the end result was always the same. I am She. I am always She.
Eventually, I noticed the sky had transitioned from the blackest black to a navy blue. The sun would be coming up soon. I pulled my book from beneath my pillow and picked up where I had left off. Holding the book was primarily for comfort; that, and to let people think they were distracting me if they interrupted. But the book wasn’t necessary. My sister Yvette used to play a game with me, one of the few things we ever bonded over. She would take the book and open it to any page. “Page forty-seven, fourth paragraph, third sentence,” she would direct, and then giggle in delight when I would say the words she was reading there. No matter what random selection she made, I always knew exactly where to begin.
An unfamiliar authority figure flicked the light on abruptly and announced it was time to get up. “Breakfast is in thirty minutes, girls. Let’s go!” None of the staff seemed genuinely friendly here. Do they all come from the military? Do any of them have kids of their own? I wondered if they, themselves, were ever children. The room came to life with moans and groans. I stayed put. Before I knew it, Lara was sitting on the edge of my bed. I hadn’t even heard her move.
“You’re stealthy,” I said.
She giggled. “We should get in line. Nothing is worse than juevos rancheros when they’re cold.”
“Is there a standard menu here?”
She nodded. “Yeah, it’s pretty predictable.” She tugged at my arm and I followed her out of the room, down the hall and into the cafeteria. We were the seventh and eighth girls in line. This time, the staff didn’t bother to ask me what I wanted. They just scooped items onto trays and passed them along to us. I grabbed a carton of cranberry juice just for something a little different.
We made our way through the maze of empty tables. Lara found one near the windows. “I saw you here yesterday,” she said. “I know you like being near them.” She shifted her eyes upwards to indicate the small openings.
“We can’t sit here,” I said, panic evident in my tone.
“Why not?” She had already ripped open her carton of milk and took a long swig from it. She wiped her face with the back of her arm and set the carton on the tray in the puddle of condensation that had formed there. The moisture soaked through the recycled paper trays from which we ate.
“Because that girl said . . .”
“Oh, Tamara? Don’t worry about her. She ain’t nothin’.”
“I don’t know her name,” I said quietly. “It isn’t like we were formally introduced.” I scanned the cafeteria and saw the girl in question standing in line. She glared at me from across the room, and I pointed her out to Lara in an attempt to not be obvious about it. “She’s there, by the second lady. She’s wearing a green shirt.”
Lara glanced over her shoulder and made it appear as though she was looking at the door. “Yeah, that’s Tamara.”
“She kicked me out of this table yesterday.”
“Don’t worry about her. You hadn’t washed off the newbie scent yet.”
“I didn’t realize there was a particular smell.”
“You know what I mean. Look, you’ve been around enough to know. There’s always a Tamara. She’s almost aged out and she’s been here for as long as anyone knows. If there were campfires in Manhattan, we would be telling stories around them; stories about how she’s older than dirt and no one knows where she came from.”
“Like the ether.”
Her eyes glazed over. “Yeah. Whatever that is. Anyway, she treats everyone like that at first. It’s how she tests you. If you give in, she’ll keep picking on you because she knows you’re weak. If you fight her, she will act like she hates you for a few months, but eventually you’ll be part of her inner circle.”
“Then why are you here and not there?”
“I’m not political.” She tore into her eggs, shredding the mess with her uneven teeth. “These things are like rocks,” she said under her breath.
“But if the only two choices are to let her win or join her, how did you get out of it?”
“Because there’s always more than two choices.”
I realized that despite having more questions than answers, I didn’t want to continue with this line of discussion. “So,” I said nonchalantly, “what do people do around here on the weekends?”
“Same rules apply. We have to be in by a certain time, but there aren’t really restrictions on what we can do when we’re not here.”
“Then what are you doing today?” I was only half-hoping for an invitation.
“Same thing I do every Saturday.” She chewed loudly, with her mouth wide open.
“Well, since I’ve never known you on a Saturday . . .”
“Oh, I go walk the High Line.”
It sounded like a well-rehearsed lie. “All day?”
“You walk the same mile all day?”
“That’s it.” We sat in silence for a while. Then she asked, “Want to come with me?”
I shook my head. “I’ll just slow you down, but thanks for the invitation.”
“Well,” she reminded me, “I have all day.” I smiled then agreed to go. “You should really change your clothes though,” she said.
We made our way back to the dorm room and I went through my locker. I found the only thing I thought would be suitable in the almost-summer heat—a long, teal tank top and black leggings. I don’t wear jeans except in winter, and I absolutely do not wear dresses. I added a pair of flats and tied my hair in a top knot. “Let’s go,” I said.
She looked me up and down, “Much better. Someone might mistake you as mildly happy.”
I smirked, “Don’t count on it.”
We stopped by the staff office and signed out. Interestingly enough, they required that we also complete the column informing them where we would be going. I could tell from the signatures before ours that no one was honest about it.
“Just know,” a staff member I hadn’t previously met said, “we do random checks.”
“You’re already understaffed,” Lara said snidely. We headed out of the building and were on the street when she turned to me, “No one truly cares,” she said. Talk about an understated sentiment.
“Oh, I didn’t realize that.” I said. She rolled her eyes. “Sorry,” I continued, “I didn’t know.” Sarcasm at its finest.
“We have nothing to worry about today anyway. We’ll be where we said we would be. Just remember it in the future.”
At least now I realized how the girls managed to come back high, failing the chaotic drug tests or still getting arrested. I was never that kid so it didn’t bother me much. Lara didn’t seem to be that kind of girl either; if so, she wouldn’t have managed to stay in the home as long as she had.
We exited the building and headed towards the train. “They give us passes,” Lara said, “but they aren’t unlimited, so we need to be careful about how much we use them. I really only use mine on weekends, so I almost always have extra. They’re a good way to barter around the home, so keep that in mind too.”
I nodded, but didn’t bother to respond. I had suspected this would be the case.
We walked to the 145th street entrance. The stairs smelled of urine, and the few garbage cans in the station overflowed with trash. Frankly, this was nothing new to me. The poorer neighborhoods always had less city employees, and the ones they did have were generally not motivated to do much except take their breaks. Around here, people knew how to get to where they were going. Tourists rarely made their way this far north. If you were here, it was because you had nowhere else to go.
Because it was a weekend, the train crept into the station after a long wait on the platform. When the doors opened, we squeezed our way inside and held on for dear life. There were no available seats in the entire car. We were used to this. At 125th street, it got a little better and by the time we arrived at Columbus Circle, most of the train had cleared.
Lara sat nearest the door, and I watched her thin, short legs swing at the hinge of her knees. She couldn’t reach the floor except where her rubber soles barely gripped it at the toes. I was invisible, but much older men stared her down. She glared back at them. “Are you used to that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said as she raised her voice. “Men are pigs. I’m barely a teenager!” They looked away, shame apparent in their eyes. She turned to me and smiled. “I actually don’t care what they do, as long as they don’t touch me. It’s nothing new to me, but I do enjoy watching them squirm.” I looked away, staring at a piece of gum that was stuck to the ground. “Doesn’t this happen to you?”
“Of course not.” While I knew exactly where we were going, I got up and walked away, acting like I was reviewing the subway map. It was an uncomfortable topic for me, but I wasn’t ready to share that with her just yet. There are few things I can easily open up about, and my experience with men was not one of them.
Before I knew it, we were at our stop. I followed Lara off the train and up the stairs. I’d be out of breath before we made it halfway there, and didn’t want her stuck behind me the entire time.
The sun was blinding when I finally emerged, and I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hands as we headed west. It wasn’t going to be a long walk, per se, but the flats I wore were making my toes numb. I really didn’t have a choice in my shoes, because I only had three pairs, and these were the lesser evil of them all. If we chose to walk the entire High Line, it would be at least a mile. That may not seem like much to the average person, but given how little physical activity I’ve ever found myself engaged in, it would probably end up being too much for me.
Lara spent the walk to 30th street talking incessantly. She pointed out stores and people, and yelled at cab drivers as we made our way through the streets. I laughed at her but didn’t say much. Every now and then she would ask whether or not the same things annoyed me, but for the most part they didn’t.
We made it to the High Line, and took the elevator up to the park. I had occasionally seen the construction process years before as I walked by, but I’d never bothered to come up here when it was finished. “Wait,” I said, “can I just take in this view for a second?”
She smiled. “Of course. I mean, we have all day.” She emphasized the word ‘all’.
Being above the street and the traffic gave me an entirely different view of the city. All the typical noise which constantly surrounded me seemed so muted it was almost non-existent. The park itself was beautiful, but I was far more interested in seeing the city from this angle. Eventually, we began our walk toward Chelsea. We took it slow, not even because of my numb toes, but because we had so much time to waste and neither of us wanted to go back to the home until curfew.
Children ran through the park with absolute satisfaction on their faces. What must it feel like to be that free and uninhibited? I’d never been in a situation where I could feel that way. I was always on edge. I was always prepared for the next attack. My doctors told me it was because I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I read about it, but most of what I could find was about how many soldiers returning from wars suffered from it. There wasn’t much information given to me about kids in my situation, and I was tired of hearing how my reactions to things were normal given the abnormal circumstances in which I found myself. They just gave me a diagnosis, wrote me a prescription and sent me on my way.
I drifted off into my own mind. Lara’s voice was barely perceptible. After my lack of response on the first few questions or comments, she simply gave up talking to me directly. Every once in a while I would hear her say something that seemed irrelevant and I would shrug, but I still had nothing to say. I was a sponge, absorbing my environment. I wanted to breathe in every aspect of this place and use it when I needed an escape; like when Tamara would inevitably try to start an argument with me. I knew I wasn’t safe.
Lara and I walked to Chelsea then continued on to SoHo. Lara wanted to explore St. Mark’s Place, even though we had no money to spend, and it wasn’t really the scene either of us preferred. “There are interesting characters there, at least,” she said. She ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ at some of the silver jewelry, but since we were broke, we eventually gave up and headed back to the train. I felt relieved, because the closer we got to the Baruch Houses, the more my anxiety kicked into high gear.
By the time we got back to the home, dinner was close to being served. We signed back in at the desk. “Did you have a good day?” one of the staffers asked me.
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
“Where did you go?”
“We just walked the High Line,” Lara said. The staffer eyed her suspiciously.
“That’s always your answer, Lara. I’m starting to think it’s just a cover for whatever it is you really do out there.”
“I’m not sure I know what that means,” she said in an overly sweet voice, and with what I realized was her typical sarcastic smile on her face.
We didn’t bother to go back to our room, but killed time by hanging out in the community lounge. When dinner approached, we made our way through the line as quickly as we could, but we still ended up being some of the final stragglers arriving in the cafeteria. It turned out that dinner was pizza. The same kind provided at school. You know, the kind with cheese that peels off in one fell swoop, to reveal an unbearable crust laden with holes. There were no other choices, so I ate it fast enough to not have to taste it.
They also threw Little Debbie brownies on our tray. I made sure to enjoy every bite of them. At least they were familiar in a positive way. “Hey,” Lara said in a low voice, “I don’t like these.” She had her fingers around her brownie. “I’ll bring it back to our room and put it away for you for later, if you want it.”
“Thanks.” I felt terrible because I had nothing to offer in return. In the last twenty-four hours, this stranger had taken me under her wing, showed me the ropes, kept me entertained and essentially gave me anything she could, including what I wanted to believe was genuine friendship. “I’m exhausted,” I said. “I think I want another shower.”
“I’m going to stay up and watch some TV,” she said, “I’ll get you the chancletas for the shower and put this away for you, though.” She paused, “Oh, and remember to ask the staff for a pair of flip-flops tomorrow. They keep a bunch of other supplies away from the girls, because if they were left out, everything would be gone.” In the course of a day, the toiletry closet was almost bare. “We’re professional hoarders,” she said and laughed.
The quick shower felt great. I could smell myself while we were having dinner, and the metallic scent of the sweat that clung to me was unpleasant at best. I appreciated that Lara hadn’t mentioned it. When I was dried off and back in a t-shirt and new leggings, I lowered myself into bed. I reached for the book beneath my pillow and melted away into the familiar story.
The last thought I had was a wish that I wouldn’t wake up. I asked for this every night, but it had yet to materialize. I’d already lost faith that it would. We are dying from the moment we are born and yet, somehow, I am still breathing. How unfair is that?
Copyright (c) 2014, Lisa Collins Mauro