(excerpted from Awaiting Identification, Fish Out of Water Books)
NYC Girl stepped off the now vacant bus that had been her prison for the past twenty hours.
“You take care out there, okay?” the driver said, a split second before she turned her ankle on the broken concrete of a city she no longer recognized.
She bent down to rub her ankle, grabbed her suitcase, and glanced around the empty bus terminal as though she were expecting a welcoming committee. But despite her brief self-delusion, NYC Girl understood one simple truth: nobody was expecting her.
I’m a ghost.
In fact, not a single soul even knew she had returned home from her seven-year Big Apple experiment. At one point, she would have preferred it this way. But not now. Not even close. And what did “home” even mean now?
Seven years of rejections and wrong turns.
Fitting that it all began with a nasty argument between a daughter and her coked-up mother over dirty dishes, followed by a broken mirror while frantically packing for a fresh start, on the heels of a vanished “mercy” scholarship for graduating from the school of hard knocks. Despite her flaws and the endless roadblocks, she somehow managed to keep her grades up. Before she simply threw it all away.
Life had been a conveyor belt of bad luck ever since. There wasn’t a day that had gone by when she didn’t replay that scene in her head. If only she had tried to be the better person and just washed the damn dishes.
Would her life have turned out differently? Or, was that simply just the straw that broke the camel’s back? After all, the dam of built-up resentment can only hold water for so long before it bursts.
And rather than picking up the pieces and trying to make things right, she did the “easier” thing.
Her homecoming felt like self-surrender. But it was time.
Time to make things right. A return to starting position. Sometimes a fresh start means returning back to where you started, before you begin anew.
How in the hell had it been seven years?
She wanted to believe that her luck was about to turn, but she knew better. Her whole life was a shattered mirror. Fractured shards of glass interlaced with sharp, invisible slivers.
But that certainly wasn’t going to stop her from trying to sweep up the mess. She was never one to quit, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to start now. On the other hand, it would have been the logical thing to do.
Now that she had found the guts to return home, she wished she had a better idea as to where her life was headed.
For the majority of her ride aboard the sweatbox of a Greyhound bus, she was convinced that she had it all figured out. But by the time the bus had entered the Detroit city limits, her thoughts had begun to waver. One thing was clear: she needed food and shelter.
But when your only option isn’t really an option . . .
NYC Girl was getting ahead of herself. What she needed more than anything was rest. But where?
I just have to get through the night.
And then, maybe, just maybe, she would finally see things more clearly.
Without doubt, she would need a concrete plan beyond tonight. She had to find work. She would rather die of starvation than turn another trick for a lukewarm meal and bed.
She needed a restroom. Again. A natural, irritating side effect of the unwanted, bastard parasite she was carrying. Adorned in knock-off gray and pink-trimmed workout clothes, she dragged her rolling suitcase and headed inside the Greyhound building—which appeared to function more like a halfway house. It smelled of piss, shit, and vomit.
If any of the few, scattered bums happened to look up from their own misery, they would have seen someone who—in a different lifetime – could have been a model, a dancer, or a Broadway star. It wouldn’t have been a stretch. After all, that was her plan. But in NYC Girl’s dark, lonely corner of the universe, the spotlight only shone on the unpolished poles of seedy strip clubs.
She made her way toward the restroom door.
She approached a ticket clerk, who was asleep with her head propped up by an ashy, callused hand.
“Excuse me…” she began, startling the clerk awake.
NYC Girl was equally jarred by the sound of her own voice.
When had she last spoken?
“I need to use the restroom.”
“It’s locked,” the clerk said with a disdainful yawn.
“Well, can it be unlocked?”
What the fuck?
This was her welcome committee.
She headed outside onto the broken, familiar streets of her youth. Steam rose from sewers like smoke serpents.
Home sweet home.
Rainbow smoke billowed out of smokestacks above dirty, stained civilization, in tandem with scattered, half-lit skyscrapers aglow like orange embers in the night—anchored by the massive, not-quite-as-promised Renaissance Center. She was waiting for her own, personal renaissance.
Waiting to mend the broken pieces of her life.
A phoenix of the night in a world afire.
She boarded a city bus en route to the only home she knew prior to New York. She took her usual seat at the back of the bus and immediately felt something squishy beneath her foot.
A used condom.
She nudged it loose with the broken heel of her sidewalk-ravaged shoe and shoved it until it was hidden beneath her seat.
Her preference for the back row was a safety measure—to be able to see everyone ahead of her, rather than wonder who might be lurking behind.
NYC Girl struggled to wrap her head around the fact that she was back in the place she vowed to turn her back on forever when she charged out of her house, suitcase in hand, toward a smoke and mirror-coated dream that had quickly turned into a nightmare.
And now. Back to the place where her dream was first born.
Once upon a time, a little girl with big dreams danced in a pink tutu. If only she could go back in time and beg herself to give it all up before it was too late, before the damage was done.
If only . . .
Maybe then, she could have avoided boarding a bus that was in even worse condition than the one from which she had just escaped, headed to southwest Detroit.
At least this ride would be shorter.
NYC Girl noticed a few scattered construction cranes rising above the city skyline. She never remembered seeing a single crane during her childhood. They resembled the skeletal remains of dinosaurs, shrouded in smoke, juxtaposed against rows of abandoned buildings—tombstones of a bygone era.
An echo of an ancient civilization.
What could they possibly be building?
Yet, the nostalgic factor made the decay strangely comforting.
She realized that less than an hour ago, she was riding on this same stretch of road aboard the Greyhound bus, heading in the opposite direction.
Her life was an endless loop.
She clutched her faux gold and ruby-encrusted “I Love NYC” medallion with one hand and, with the other, her lower abdomen, where a new life grew—just like her mother almost thirty years prior.
The rotting apple doesn’t fall far from the rotting family tree.
A tree that her mother gave two shits about, evident in an abundance of ways. After all, if you don’t give a shit about your own offspring, why would you give two shits about the ancestors that came before?
For instance, even though her abuela had raised her mother to speak Spanish, her mother—despite NYC Girl’s pleading—had been too lazy or too strung out to teach her daughter any part of her heritage.
Most kids could give two shits about their heritage. And most parents practically have to force it upon their children. But not NYC Girl. She wanted to learn. To keep the past alive, before it could be erased from history altogether. Her mother, however, all but erased herself. It was up to NYC Girl to somehow find a way to carry the torch. To keep the past alive. Before it was fully erased. Before it became a ghost. Or nothing at all.
Meanwhile, NYC Girl was following the footsteps of her mother. But for all the wrong reasons. Just like her mother’s situation, the father was a roulette wheel of possibilities.
The only evidence as to the identity of NYC Girl’s own father could be found in her dark caramel complexion, several shades darker than her mother’s Mexican DNA.
However, unlike her mother, NYC Girl refused to bring a child into a world of suffering. That would be the immoral choice.
Yet, she couldn’t help but waver over what she had earlier considered a slam-dunk decision. Then again, is there such a thing when it comes to a matter such as this? She had thought so back in New York. But the closer she got to home, the murkier everything became. And whom better for a girl to discuss such matters than with her own mother?
The closer she drew toward her destination, the further her mind drifted from the certainty of her decision. The bottom line was, going home meant facing her greatest fear: her mother.
But who the fuck was she fooling? Even if she wanted advice from her mother, would she be available? And even if she were available, what kind of advice could she expect to find from someone who had been through countless abortions herself?
She had no choice but to make this decision on her own.
NYC Girl had not attempted to contact her mother during her seven-year exile. In fact, she had vowed never to talk to her again—just as she had vowed never to return to Detroit.
But if anybody knew anything about empty promises, it was her.
Had her mother tried to look for her? NYC Girl certainly didn’t leave an address. Besides, there were so many, it wouldn’t have made a difference. But in all likelihood, her mother never gave a shit.
Which was worse?
Every time she convinced herself that making amends was the right thing to do, she talked herself out of it. Partially out of stubbornness. But mostly out of fear.
But deep, deep down, no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t shake the instinctual bond that could only exist between mother and daughter.
What hurt the most was the fact that her mother had so quickly severed the cord.
Though NYC Girl pretended not to care, she did wonder from time to time if her mother ever felt the remnants of their spiritual synapses.
Like a phantom limb.
NYC Girl could justify a child cutting ties with a parent—but not the other way around. Though it made leaving so much easier, it was this bond that had indirectly led to her slow, full-blown implosion.
Would her mother want to take her back? Did she even want her mother to take her back? Her biggest fear was being turned away at the doorstep. This led to the onset of a panic attack settling into every fiber of her being. To calm herself, she just had to remind herself that she didn’t have to go through with it. She could choose to continue. Or she could choose to simply get the hell out.
The world was her motherfucking oyster.
But she wasn’t fooling herself. She was only choking on its pearl.
She had returned to the rotten corpse of her childhood home; not because she wanted to, but because she felt like it was the only thing to do.
But was it?
She realized that a major reason for her apprehension stemmed from the fact that as long as she did not contact her mother, she could continue to perpetuate the illusion in her mother’s mind that she was fine, thus proving her mother—and in some way, herself—wrong.
Besides, how does one tell their estranged mother news such as this?
Her bus passed the hollowed-out ruins of the former Michigan Central Station, which stood tall like a gateway into hell. A land-dwelling, urban Titanic.
A lump formed in her throat as she passed beneath a railroad overpass onto the edge of Mexicantown. She knew she was getting closer to home – not just by sight, but by smell.
The bus finally reached her destination—Delray—which, like much of the city, had seen better days, but refused to go down without a fight.
Essentially isolated from other parts of Detroit, and in many ways a no-go area, Delray felt like a ghost town within a ghost town. Much of its population had moved out once big industry and a giant wastewater plant moved in, but a small number of residents showed their true grit by refusing to budge, still living amid squalor and the industrialization that had replaced people with belching smokestacks and an omnipresent stench.
Around the time NYC Girl had left town, you were more likely to encounter gang patrol than police patrol. Of course, NYC Girl had firsthand experience. It was almost impossible for a neighborhood kid to avoid it. Fuck a gang member and you’re fucked for life.
But in this moment, there were no signs of human life, aside from the distant, haunting cries of trains, accompanied by the diesel driven rumble of semi-trucks, rattling as they hit pothole after pothole. It all felt strangely comforting. It was the sound of home. And it was music to her ears.
Maybe things were better? Maybe nobody was left?
Looming in the distance along West Jefferson, she could see the industrial behemoth of Zug Island, a man-made island floating in the middle of the Detroit River.
A dystopian habitrail.
Zug Island’s black towers resembled an enormous, scrambled pipe organ topped with orange and green flames, accompanied by a techno cacophony of clicks, clanks, bleeps and bloops of whirligigs, gremlins and what-not overlooking an industrial wasteland devoid of human existence.
A couple of blocks down Dearborn Street, in the heart of an old Hungarian enclave, NYC Girl plopped down on a graffiti-laden bench to pop the loose heel back into her shoe, chipping one of the long nails that she kept both for aesthetic and self-defense purposes.
At that moment, an all-too-recognizable refrain rang out behind her.
“Excuse me! Excuuuuse me!”
She immediately got up and walked on, not even bothering to turn around.
“I don’t mean no harm,” the voice continued, working off a familiar script as he closed in. “But I’m hungry. I’m homeless. Please, can you spare a little change to help a brother out?”
NYC Girl quickened her pace, certain that surrender was imminent. But he continued to nip at her heels. At least he wasn’t giving up on her.
She could hear loose change in a cup. From the sound of it, it was very likely that he had more change on him than she did.
She detested being called that—by anyone. He was lucky that she was too exhausted to let him have it.
She he was holding s a tiny, paper American flag, hoisted on a toothpick, held by a homeless man with a slight limp who bore an uncanny resemblance to Redd Foxx.
Despite a constant twitch, he seemed harmless enough. She was smart enough to know that the moment she laid a finger on his flag, payment would be expected, a rule she understood all too well.
She tried to ignore him, but he waved the flag in her face, trying to force surrender. She bit her tongue to suppress her growing rage.
“Please, sweetheart. Help a vet,” he begged, in an obvious ruse to fill a prescription from Dr. Smirnoff, Hennessey, or Colt.
She remained silent and held her ground.
“Well, have a nice evening, ma’am, and God Bless!” he said, waving his flag in self-surrender.
As he limped and twitched away, she realized she had more in common with him than she wanted to admit. Only, he had found a way to make money.
She had no place to call home . . . so, by definition, was homeless.
And all before the age of thirty.
At least she still had her faculties intact.
Or did she?
She had never been more in doubt of her own sanity.
As she continued to watch the drifter fade into the distance, she felt an unfamiliar twinge of compassion. She chalked it up to exhaustion.
She used to feel sorry for people like him—no matter how many shits life took on her. Now, having pity on them would mean feeling sorry for herself—which she absolutely refused.
She now realized that the embers of empathy still burned deep inside. It reminded her that she still had a soul—or, at least, the charred remnants of one.
The remnants that mattered most.
Her only belongings were jammed into her tattered, secondhand rolling suitcase with a busted wheel that trailed behind her on the crumbling concrete of Vernor.
As dusk folded into night, downtown loomed through a heavy fog as NYC Girl dragged her broken suitcase, which made a rhythmic clunk-clunk sound that reminded her of the techno rhythm of Detroit’s factories.
From a distance, one might assume that a beautiful city filled with promise was on the horizon. Detroit always looked best from afar.
It was all one, grand illusion.
And to think that once upon a time, she thought she could find her utopia in New York. Never has she been more wrong.
She wished that desperation wasn’t a factor in her decision to return home. Even though she felt it was the right thing to do, she still wasn’t fully convinced it was what she wanted to do.
No matter how things had transpired with her mother, she tried to take solace in the fact that coming home was a giant first step.
But in what direction?
She was in the heart of one of the most dangerous and most polluted zip-codes in the nation. However, it was so deserted, it was difficult to imagine anything left for criminals to pillage or plunder. She probably had a better chance of being attacked by wild dogs than being mugged. From as far back as she could remember, this stretch always consisted of an endless slideshow of abandonment and decay.
Now, it somehow seemed worse.
How was that even possible?
When the pimps and hos have to go, a neighborhood reaches a new low.
So many places from her past had simply vanished, replaced by vast expanses of unkempt land. What remained were burned out homes and empty lots, morphed into urban prairies fecund with trash. Existing structures adorned with graffiti and broken windows reflected the broken tenements.
And there didn’t appear to be a soul in sight.
She took a short bus ride over to Mexicantown, getting off on Vernor, dotted with Mexican restaurants and littered with fast food joints, barbershops, gas stations, auto repair shops, storefront churches, thrift shops, Cash-4-Gold emporiums, beauty parlors, and nail salons, with names such as Sis’ta Sa’lon, Nailz ‘n Such, and Bongz & Thongz.
Ahead of her was the neon glow of Mo’s Fuel Palace—her former hangout spot—where she and her friends could be themselves: raw, uncensored, and unrated. When she was sixteen, she served a brief stint as a cashier, eventually tripling her earnings by turning tricks in the restroom, which ultimately paved the way for her current predicament.
She entered and was instantly greeted by a familiar face shelving liquor behind the bullet-proof glass-enclosed counter: Mo Jr., the owner’s son―put to work at a young age to run the store while his father had his way with hookers in the backroom, herself included, or frequented the neighborhood strip club. Unlike Mo Sr., NYC Girl didn’t have to blow Mo Jr. for cash. She did it for free.
“Holy shit, am I seeing a fucking ghost?!” Mo asked.
“Yeah, something like that,” NYC Girl replied, dreading any obligation to provide details.
Mo came out from behind the wall of bulletproof glass and gave her an enormous hug. Though NYC Girl wasn’t “huggy” by nature, this was far better than the physical attention she was accustomed to. And to her surprise, it felt good.
“I kept looking out for you on TV! And now you’re back!”
She was already forced to admit defeat. And though she once craved entertainment headlines, she realized that the headlines she once sought were more likely to have been traded for the crime beat.
“Yeah, well, you wasted your time,” she replied.
“Maybe you should have tried Hollywood instead?”
“I wanted to be on stage. Not screen,” NYC Girl snapped.
“So, what brings you back?”
“Still trying to figure that out. You hiring?”
“Wish we were. Barely staying afloat as it is.”
“I understand,” she said.
One down …
“Can I use the restroom?” she asked, hoping to at least accomplish an even more immediate goal.
Mo headed back to the counter and slipped a key through the rotating door on the counter.
“You know where it is.”
She grabbed the key, still attached to the same late 80’s Winston-Salem keychain from her high school days, and, dragging her suitcase, headed toward the restroom in the rear of the building. She could already smell its putrid, yet oddly nostalgic, stench.
She pushed the key into the graffiti-littered door, but the lock was broken.
Great. Just make it easier for them.
Did Mo know the lock was broken? If so, why hand over the key?
She hesitated, then entered anyway.
The first thing she noticed was that the door to the stall was now completely missing. Piss and shit were smeared over the toilet seat.
She tried to keep things in perspective.
The only roll of toilet paper was half submerged in the bowl, which contained a mixed stew of shit, piss, tampons, and condoms. The leftover shredded remnants of what was once a bar of soap sat on the sink, next to a rusted-out cloth towel dispenser, from which hung the torn, yellowed remnants of what once passed for a towel.
If Detroit is the armpit of America, this restroom is the armpit of Detroit.
She squatted over the toilet, still managing to graze the cracked lid, distracting herself by reading juxtaposed graffiti, splattered with caked feces and other human waste. One scrawled quote was untouched by excrement:
“They have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward. Her filthiness is in her skirts.” Lam. 1:8-9
Unable to wipe herself, she headed to the rusty sink, then decided that not washing her hands there was the more sanitary choice. Anxious for a fresh change of clothes, she opened her suitcase and removed a skirt and halter-top. Sure, it was cold, but that wasn’t going to stop her from looking good. Besides, she had a job to do: finding a job.
Once dressed, she pulled out a make-up bag, and fumbled to add a layer of pretty over her damaged interior.
She looked at herself in the cracked mirror.
Still look damn good!
Despite it all, the one thing she never lost confidence in was how fucking hot she was. She knew it. And men knew it. By that token, it was also her downfall. Before she headed out, she turned to glance at the fractured reflection of her hot ass and put her jacket back on.
She hadn’t looked―nor felt―this good in weeks. It was amazing what a little makeup could do.
Even if nobody else gave a fuck.
Back inside the gas station, NYC Girl set the keys on the front counter.
“Wow!” Mo said.
“You sure you’re not hiring?” “Trust me, I really wish we were.”
“So, when was the last time you cleaned that shithole?” Mo shrugged with a smirk. The fact that he didn’t seem to give a shit came as no surprise.
NYC Girl searched the aisles for a snack. She settled for a granola bar. While Mo’s back was turned stocking shelves, she debated over whether she should steal it, before she remembered the promise she made to herself before she left New York: she was never going to steal again.
Easier said than done.
“How long you in town?” Mo asked. “Maybe we could meet up for a drink once you get settled?” “Time will tell,” NYC Girl replied. “And, yeah, a drink would be nice.”
But she didn’t mean it.
Now that she was back home, part of her preferred to start over with a blank slate, rather than dredge up the ghosts of her past—even if that meant starting with a primer made from arsenic and shit.
As far as drinking was concerned, she knew she technically shouldn’t drink in her condition, but also knew it didn’t really matter. Even though her mind was almost made up regarding her condition, she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt whenever she drank. Perhaps there was a motherly instinct buried somewhere deep inside her after all. Or, maybe she knew deep down that there was still that one percent chance she would keep it. Maybe coming home would somehow alter her view?
“How’s your dad?” NYC Girl asked, attempting to change the subject. By the same token, she really couldn’t give two shits about the motherfucker.
Mo pointed upward, to a heaven she didn’t believe in.
“Yeah. Robbed. And shot. Right where you’re standing.”
NYC Girl looked down, half-expecting to see a bloodstain; not feeling a twinge of sympathy for the dead fuck.
“I’m sorry,” she said. But really she wasn’t. She’d be kidding herself if she didn’t fantasize about killing the fucking asshole herself.
“His legacy lives on,” Mo said, surveying his inherited Fuel Palace with pride.
As NYC Girl continued to mull over her beverage options, she caught Mo’s reflection in the door, staring at her ass from behind the register.
Like father, like son.
She whipped around, catching him off guard. He pretended to be looking over an invoice. She brushed it off and grabbed a bottle of non-fat milk and headed back to the counter. He rang her up. She dug through her purse until she managed to find a couple of crumpled dollar bills. Her wallet had been stolen months earlier, her knife even more recently. The sad truth was if she could only afford to replace one, she’d probably have more use for the latter. At some point, she would need an ID, although in this town, nobody usually gave a fuck.
She scrambled for loose change to make up the difference.
“Shit. I don’t have enough,” NYC Girl said, needing to keep enough for bus fare downtown. “Just the milk, I guess.”
“No worries, it’s on me,” Mo said. “Like old times.”
“These ain’t old times no more.”
“Ain’t no problem.”
“Well, I ain’t here for charity.”
She put down enough for the milk, leaving the granola bar behind. “It’s not charity,” Mo insisted. “Just trying to help a friend.”
Had he offered to give it to her free from the get-go, she would have been more inclined to take it. But now, the whole transaction just reeked of desperation.
NYC Girl grabbed her milk and turned toward the door.
“Nice seein’ you. Take care out there.”
As she made her way out the door, he added, “Don’t be a stranger.” But NYC Girl headed out into the night without a response. She looked back once, but Mo had resumed shelving liquor, as though she had never been there at all.
Like a fucking ghost.
She gulped down her milk like a hungry baby on a tit. She already regretted that she hadn’t accepted Mo’s offer of the granola bar, considering she hadn’t had an actual meal in over twenty-four hours—which was half the amount of time since her last full night’s sleep. She would have to find a way to sleep and eat eventually.
If not, then nothing else mattered.
It wasn’t too long ago that she would have gladly given a lap dance in exchange for a bag of chips, or a hand job in exchange for a warm meal and bed. Pride could only outlast hunger pangs for so long. But she wouldn’t go back—couldn’t go back.
She would find a way. She always did.
But how? And when?
She realized that despite all the uncertainty, she did at least have some semblance of a game plan; and, so far, she was sticking to it:
Step 1: Come home.
Step 2: Find a job.
Step 3: Make things right with mamá.
It all made sense when she first mapped out her plan two weeks earlier, lying in a bed belonging to some corporate fuck whose face she never even saw outside of a thrusting blur.
And thus far:
Step 1: √
As she finally reached her old neighborhood, the lump in her throat felt as though it would explode, as she passed by abandoned houses that were once homes she knew so well. Some ceased to exist at all. It would come as no surprise if some of the vacated houses were in better condition than the inhabited ones.
Nobody was around to do further damage.
NYC Girl turned down her street, pausing in front of the one lone bright spot on the block, illuminated like an urban Thomas Kinkade painting. This was the residence of Mrs. Harris, the grandmother everyone wanted, or—in NYC Girl’s case—the surrogate mother she desperately needed. As long as Mrs. Harris was still alive, so was the neighborhood. Even criminals knew better than to prey on Mrs. Harris. Break into any other house and they might get away with it. But break into Mrs. Harris’s home? No way. Not without retribution. NYC Girl lost count of how many times her own childhood home had been robbed.
Seeing Mrs. Harris’s habitat still in such pristine, immaculate condition could only mean one thing: Mrs. Harris was still alive and well.
And the day she goes, so goes the city.
Some could argue that the city had already gone a long time ago. If so, then Mrs. Harris had outlived them all.
Mrs. Harris was truly a guardian angel. And not just to NYC Girl, but to the entire neighborhood. She longed for the fresh-baked cookies and milk after school, often followed by a warm, tasty meal, contrasting with the expired, processed food from her real life. She used to pretend that Mrs. Harris was her actual mother. However, it wasn’t long before reality erased any remnants of the fantasy life she longed to one day have for herself.
More important than her cookies was the fact that Mrs. Harris not only helped a young girl realize that the way she was treated at home wasn’t right, but she taught NYC Girl how to keep her head up high as she waited for brighter days ahead.
The latter was key.
“And as God as my witness,” Mrs. Harris proclaimed during one of her annual outings to Boblo Island. “Those days will come, child. Those days will come.”
As much as Mrs. Harris disapproved of NYC Girl’s mother, she never once badmouthed her.
“She’s sick, dear,” Mrs. Harris said. “And needs help she can’t afford. She doesn’t mean to do what she does.”
For the first time, NYC Girl understood. This was no small feat, considering NYC Girl’s disdain toward her mother began before kindergarten. It doesn’t take a child long to discover what love is—and isn’t.
And the gap between the two couldn’t be wider.
Incidentally, there was only one person on the planet who ever took issue with Mrs. Harris: NYC Girl’s mother. This stemmed from an argument that was sparked when the former attempted an intervention with the latter, after eleven-year-old NYC Girl came over with yet another black eye.
“For the love of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of your only child, get your damn shit together, woman.”
It was the only time NYC Girl had heard Mrs. Harris swear. Chances are, it was the only time she swore, period.
When NYC Girl’s mother reared back to slap Mrs. Harris in retaliation, she slipped and tumbled on the porch. Weak and feeble Mrs. Harris rushed to help NYC Girl’s mother to her feet and cradled her like a child, repeating over and over, “God is listening, honey child. God is listening.”
For once, NYC Girl felt something she never thought she would ever feel for her mother: pity. And it was no surprise that Mrs. Harris had something to do with it.
She continued to stare at Mrs. Harris’s house, overcome with bittersweet feelings of nostalgia and regret. She had never said goodbye to Mrs. Harris—the person she would most miss—before she skipped town; the guardian angel who actually encouraged her to follow her dreams when nobody else cared—which at times, included herself. She learned early on that it’s difficult to follow your dreams when you’re too busy chasing after your next meal.
Mrs. Harris taught her to keep an eye on both.
At the time, she couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye because deep down, she knew that she would probably never see Mrs. Harris again. Now, due to circumstances fucked up beyond belief, she was being given a second chance, though she dreaded admitting defeat to the one person who believed in her more than anyone else; more than she ever believed in herself. NYC Girl couldn’t help but feel that in letting herself down, she was really letting Mrs. Harris down.
As she passed Mrs. Harris’s house, she noticed a broken mailbox, hanging lopsided by a rusted thread. Though not unusual in this town, the Mrs. Harris she knew would never stand for something to remain broken for so long. She would have found a way to fix it.
And usually with her own hands.
How long had it been broken? Hopefully not long. She would make an effort to fix it. But when?
NYC Girl finally reached her mother’s modest single-story ranch. It was shrouded in darkness. It had fallen into such disrepair she wondered if her mother still lived there, or whether she was even still alive for that matter.
Overcome with trepidation, she held a hand over her swollen belly, as though expecting to find an answer there.
She attempted to move toward the weed-covered sidewalk that lead to the front door of her former life, but she felt as though her feet were encased in concrete. She peered toward the window to see if her mother was inside, but giant ghetto palms obstructed her view. She had travelled more than six-hundred miles to get here and now she was unable to take ten more steps to reach the front door.
Fuck it. Maybe it was simply time to leave everything buried in the past. But did burying the past mean going in, or avoiding it all together?
Like sewage water under a rotting bridge.
Once upon a time, she would pray during moments like this. Now, she knew better. The way she saw it, prayer was no different than talking to herself; it was not only a sign of being crazy, it simply expended unnecessary energy.
NYC Girl felt her body pull away from the house, as though she were a marionette, toward the warm illumination of Mrs. Harris’s domicile. For a brief moment, she considered seeking refuge there, but she refused to beg. Those days were behind her—or so she hoped. She also realized that doing so would probably mean never going home. Then again, maybe this was her home. She finally made up her mind: she would return after she got her feet back on the ground. When she had both the upper hand and the ability to hold her head up high. First to make peace. And then to find it, rather than crawling back on her hands and knees—to give Mrs. Harris any reason for further concern. And she absolutely refused to give her mother any reason to have the upper hand. That would be the greatest act of desperation of all. Furthermore, the last thing she could stomach was another “I told you so,” at least not until she had something resembling a plan.
She realized these thoughts were probably all an attempt to justify her apprehension.
To somehow seek an easy way out.
But since when is anything easy?
Certainly not in this life.
As she began to walk away from her childhood home, she caught herself off guard when she realized how much part of her wanted to be seen. She imagined her mother watching her only child turn her back on her one more time, after waiting so long for her to return home.
Minute by minute.
Hour by hour.
Day by day.
Week by week.
Month by month.
Year by year.
She still couldn’t shake the feeling that her mother didn’t care at all. Or couldn’t. But deep down, she knew better. That beneath the drugs, and abuse, and neglect her mother did care. Despite the rage and hatred bubbling at the surface, it was because of this deeper understanding that NYC Girl continued to imagine this same woman—hobbling from a body ravaged with crack, and a life of slipping through cracks—walking into her daughter’s bedroom, untouched since she left seven years earlier. She envisioned her mother picking up the framed picture of her when she was six, in her ballet costume, and staring through the dusty glass, wishing that she could go back in time and make everything right.
As she passed Mrs. Harris’s house, she took note of the broken mailbox. And in its demise, she saw unexpected hope. That despite being broken, things can be fixed. As she rounded the corner, she encountered a tiny break on the horizon of gray clouds up ahead, as though the sun wanted to catch one last glimpse of the dying city before it turned in for the night, even as the moon suddenly revealed itself from behind a cloud as if to remind the sun of its place. Surreal rays suddenly made of a mix of moonlight and sunlight burst through, shining upon the city, like some sort of blessing from a heaven she didn’t believe in. As she looked around at the density of ashen desert, the sudden presence of otherworldly light seemed to defy all logic, giving her a respite from despair.
Another cruel illusion of hope?
As quickly as it came, the sun and the beams of light were swallowed up by the same clouds that momentarily parted for this glimpse of temporary beauty.
For the first time in ages, she felt a tinge of steely determination, evaporating the clouds of doubt plaguing her since she first made the decision to return home.