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Authors: Nina G. Jones

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BOOK: If
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BIRD

I SHOULD’VE JUST
taken a cab.

It had been a long day. That morning, after I had taught a boisterous class of four-year-olds how to dance, I went home, ate, showered, and went back out for a long shift at Bossa Nova, the restaurant where I worked.

I didn’t mind the jobs I had. Yeah, I was on my feet a lot, but this was the way things were out here. You worked and paid your dues and eventually you would get your break. I didn’t allow myself to think of the thousands, and maybe even millions of dreamers who executed this formula with no shiny reward at the end. I couldn’t commit to this grind if I allowed myself to think there was a chance I wouldn’t make it.

But it was hard. Shuffling from one audition to the next, dealing with the side glances, feeling like I was just as good as the ones who got called back . . . except I didn’t. Dreading the end of the month, when I had to move money around to pay the essential bills, occasionally accepting money from my generous sister, Jessa, when I just couldn’t make ends meet no matter how hard I tried.

This was that time of the month, when bills were plentiful and cash was scarce.

I met Jordan, my best friend, just outside of Rage, the club where he worked. We almost always commuted home together in Jordan’s car. If I had a shift when he didn’t, he would usually give me a ride.

“Shit, Bird, I’m sorry. Two people didn’t show and I have to work a double.”

“Oh, that sucks,” I frowned. Jordan was a dancer, too. He had taught several classes early that morning, and now he would likely have to work at Rage until close.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” He threw his arm around my shoulder. “Shit, I wish my car wasn’t in the shop. I would just let you take it home. Do you have money for a cab? I don’t want you walking home alone.”

I nodded. It was a lie. I mean, yes, I did have cash from tips, but I had just paid rent and bills, and this cash was my money to eat for the rest of the week; I didn’t want to live on ramen. I loved Jordan, but he had already helped me out so much, and I didn’t want him to shell out another thirty-five bucks on me.

Jordan was right to be concerned. Our apartment building was located near the border of Skid Row and the more developed part of Downtown LA. Our building provided access to free parking, but that was in a detached garage several blocks away.

Getting back to the building meant walking through Skid Row, a place that lived up to its infamy. Homeless people slept under tarps, the stench of urine was pervasive, garbage lined the streets. I thought myself brave and cosmopolitan, like that hipster who moves to the crime-riddled area, thinking that because they weren’t on the streets, they somehow hovered above its dangers. If I just minded my business, no one would bother me, I told myself. But the truth was I almost always had Jordan, all 6’4” of his statuesque dancer build, right by my side.

I guess that was one of my flaws—I didn’t like to admit when I was scared.

Besides, it wasn’t that late, only seven-thirty or so. I would be fine. I knew if I told Jordan I was busing, he would force me to take money, so I just saved myself the embarrassment and him the fight.

“You sure?”

“Yup. I’ve got it handled, my love,” I said to him, as I tugged on his sparkly short-shorts. “I wish I could fill these out like you.”

“Honey, you got a booty too,” he kissed my temple and glanced back towards the club. “I have to go. Text me when you get home so I know you’re safe.”

“You got it.”

The bus ride home was so much longer than a cab ride, but you get what you paid for. Unfortunately, by the time I stepped out of the bus the sun had long set, and I had a much darker walk home than I had anticipated.

As I stepped off the bus, I considered Jordan’s voice nagging me to find a cab. I did a quick mental calculation, and it just wasn’t worth the hassle and money when I could just walk for five minutes and be in the safety of my apartment building. I looked around, and took a deep breath to fortify myself for the short walk.

If I just minded my own business, no one would mess with me. That was usually how it worked out here.

ASH

I bet in a million years, no one who knew me a few years ago would have thought I’d have ended up on Skid. I know I wouldn’t have. But it was exactly where I needed to be. Hidden. Somewhere I could be forgotten and where I could forget; the people I’d hurt, the opportunities I’d destroyed.

I had lost it all—some things I had no choice but to lose, and others I surrendered.

At one time, I had something valuable, something that gave me so much promise—my ability to paint the world in a way that could only be seen uniquely through my eyes. But I couldn’t do that anymore, because it triggered something ugly in me. The only solution to that ugliness was to turn it all off.

I had no purpose anymore. No job to go to. No friends to visit. Each day I wandered. I might spend weeks at Skid and then move elsewhere for a while, maybe stop and visit my brother, the only person from my old life who I was still connected to. But it was all the same: a monotonous blur of cars, trees, buildings, and people on their cell phones.

People went on about their lives around me, and I was a living ghost, walking the streets of LA.

It’s strange though, how amidst the grayness of depression and destitution, a light can shine through the cracks.

There was this girl. Whenever I was on Skid, she walked by at differing hours of the day. I usually spent my days inside of my head, disengaged from the world, but when I saw her laughter or her voice, I had no choice but to pay attention. I don’t want to use the word
excited,
but I’d be lying if I said that knowing she was about to pass by didn’t make me just that.

She was usually with a guy, tall and muscular, but if I had to wager a guess, he wasn’t batting for her team. I don’t know why it made me happy that they were likely not involved, but it did.

I had a way of experiencing the world that was different from most other people. It used to be a gift I cherished, but when I gave up my old life, I had surrendered much of that, too. And yet this girl was rare, with her deep red explosion of curls. When the wind picked them up, they floated behind her like flames on a chariot. Her long legs, her kind hazel eyes, her full lips, her freckles over lightly-tanned skin; she was the best of what nature could offer. A mixture of everything beautiful about womankind. But it wasn’t the things everyone else saw that troubled me.

It was the way she always had a halo of lavender around her, the way her laughter flashed before my eyes and sent waves of heat from my neck down to my fingertips, where I felt fuzziness, like the coziest blanket. My world had been colorless and dull for over a year now, like everyone else’s, but she was a walking aurora.

I tried not to look at her whenever she’d walk by with her friend, but it was impossible not to. How do you not look at a person who glows, who makes the piss-stench of Skid Row disappear into something faintly perfume-like?

This girl, just by the simple act of walking by and smiling, was forcing me to reclaim the gift I had surrendered. She was shoving it in my face like a piece of cake to someone who was on a diet. Every time, I would shove it back. Sometimes the desire to grab that fucking cake and shovel it in my face was so strong, I had to leave my post on Skid and wander for a bit. Go back to a world of mostly ordinary color. A world where I only tasted food, heard music, and could only feel on my skin what I touched with my flesh.

This girl didn’t know I existed, and that was perfect. I had no chance of knowing her and that’s just the way I liked it.

BIRD

SKID ROW IS
a term synonymous with dejection and broken dreams, yet I had to walk through it to try and achieve mine. Whenever I did pass through, I would try to look straight ahead, not acknowledging my fears and doubts about why I moved to LA. So much of that already existed from the outside world and I didn’t need to pile it on myself.

And, just like the way Skid Row shatters the perfect image of the sunny beaches and hilltop houses that one imagines of LA, the fact that my disfigurement halted my chances of getting work became a sobering reality shortly after my arrival.

My walk home through Skid Row, also known as 5
th
, was like walking through a giant metaphor. Sometimes, it felt like my parents wished this place into existence to intimidate me.

Yet no matter how hard I tried to look ahead, to not acknowledge the reminders of despair, I always noticed this one guy: alone, quiet, hunched, always looking down, as if he couldn’t be bothered with the world around him. I could swear I felt him watching me, but whenever I would slyly dart my eyes over, he was always looking down. Whether he was standing or sitting, his eyes remained focused on the ground. We never spoke, we never locked eyes, but I always knew he was there, and I had a feeling he always saw me, too. He wasn’t in his spot every day. I might see him for days or weeks at a time, and then he would disappear. After a while, he would be there again, like he had never left. He always seemed to wear the same white T-shirt, dulled from days of wear on the street, jeans with tears that revealed his skin underneath, and boots whose thin soles told of countless journeys. Despite the beard, I could tell he was young. Far too young to have given up.

We were just two people, unconnected except for the same street we occasionally shared for just a few minutes.

That is, until that evening I walked alone from the bus stop instead of taking a cab.

I had made it about halfway home, feeling less anxious with each step closer to my destination. The walk was quiet. Most of the homeless were under their makeshift tents or somberly sitting in the shadows. I passed the occasional person on foot who was also making the short journey through this hell from their relatively comfortable lives. Then, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was right at the spot where that guy usually was. I couldn’t make out what was happening in the darkness, but there was shuffling and suspicious mumbling. Something felt wrong.

On pure instinct (and naiveté) I crept forward for a better view. That’s when I saw my hunch was at least somewhat correct. Two people were surrounding the guy I had passed hundreds of times: shoving, laughing, mocking. He stood there stiffly, his hands in his pockets, with his gaze down as always.

“Take his fucking bag,” one of them said.

I didn’t even think. I just saw someone who needed help.
If I just minded my own business, no one would bother me.
Well, I was about to throw that whole motto out the window. “He—hey!” I called out. “Leave him alone!”

The shadowy figures stopped moving, shifting their attention to me.

“How about you mind own your business, bitch!” one of the guys called out, stomping towards me. The second attacker stayed behind with their original victim, pinning him against the wall.

My mouth had acted far before my brain could make sense of the situation, and right in front of me was a snarling face. Pockmarks peppered the mugger’s skin underneath his navy blue hoodie. He was shifty, likely a tweaker, and his nervous energy made it hard to stay calm. “Take his shit,” he said to his friend, keeping his gaze on me, almost taunting me to do something.

The tweaker smiled. His gums were receded, one of this teeth was shrunken and brown, and there was a gap where another tooth should have been. From the odor that climbed out of his shirt and up my nose, it was clear Tweaker hadn’t had a bath in weeks. He was young, but he looked weathered. Though his age in years may have been close to mine, his body had been put through decades worth of assault by his own hands.

I stepped to the right, hoping I could just walk away, call his bluff, and make a call to the police when I was out of sight, but he blocked my path.

His eyes scanned my face. First the good side, and then his gaze drifted to the other side. Sometimes, because of the way I tossed my hair across my face, people didn’t see it at first. I could usually tell the exact moment when someone noticed the disfigurement. There’s always a millisecond where the eyes widen, or the jaw stiffens. Others might not notice, but I have had a lifetime to recognize those small hints. Of course, this guy didn’t care for social convention.

BOOK: If
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