I spend so much time getting ready, trading this shirt for that one, wearing my hair down, pulling it up in a ponytail. Painting on too much lipstick, wiping most of it off, only to find that high school is just a bigger grayer version of junior high school: huge gated windows, fortress-like doors coated in years of paint, indifferent security guards, chirping walkie-talkies at their hips. They herd us into first day orientation for incoming freshmen and sophomores, then we go to homeroom, then our first class, which just for today, is third period. I have Global Studies. None of my friends are here. Only Jenika Saunders, who I know from Junior High who, because we’re sorted alphabetically, I have to sit next to. Again. We don’t much like each other but we say hi anyway.
The teacher Abadi is a short skinny guy, neatly dressed and nervous, with small hands and clean nails. He tells us we should pronounce his name ah-body, he writes it on the chalkboard, shaky, slow, like he’s trying to hide the fact that he has bad handwriting. He insists we call him Dr., not Mr. “I’ve got a PhD,” he says, like we give a shit. Global Studies is his passion, he tells us. He has one of those removable earth globes on his desk. He tosses it in the air “It is not so much a study of the globe as it is,” he says, then catches it, “a survey of the history of our world.” I wonder how long it took him to nail that. How many times this week will he say the same thing, catch the earth on the same cue? Abadi, like the rest of the teachers and deans talks at us, through us. They’re here with us but they never see, they babble but they never hear. “Look around. Every one of you represents some facet or another of our global world,” Abadi continues.
A girl walks in 15 minutes after the bell. She wasn’t at orientation.
“I got lost,” she says. She looks at us like we’d been waiting for her the whole time.
Abadi reaches for her program. She’s interrupted his performance. “Ruth Cruz?” he asks.
“Call me Ruthie.”
She’s pretty and audacious. For the first time today we are captivated. She used to go to catholic school. I can tell. Catholic school girls tie their shirts up and roll their skirts at the waists to show off their stomachs and legs. Ruthie’s skirt hit mid thigh in front and just grazes her ass in back, a telltale sign of waist rolling. Catholic school girls like attention and are shameless about getting it from every situation, at least that’s what everyone says. They’re not the type of girls to wipe off lipstick just because they put too much on. This is why they say girls should never be forced to go to those schools because all they learn is to be loud and to dress like sluts. Something unholy just happens between the plaid skirts and the separation from boys. A lot of them end up becoming actual sluts, or so I’ve been told. But I don’t know much about that. I’m a public school girl. I don’t wear skirts.
Abadi assigns her a seat in the front of the class, not far from his own desk. He orders Eddie Curtis to move his bag, but Ruthie waves him off.
“No, I can’t sit so close to the board,” she says. “I’m farsighted. I won’t be able to see nothing without my glasses. They’re getting fixed right now. I’ll bring a note from my grandma. She’ll explain everything.” And without waiting for him to say yes or okay, or anything, Ruthie Cruz walks down the aisle and takes the empty seat in the back of the room, by the window, next to Toni Zachary, Abadi’s precious alphabetical order ruined.
Jenika Saunders and I have sat next to or near each other on and off ever since the sixth grade. She smells like the corn nuts she eats every day and always has a liberal dusting of baby powder on her chest to “keep the titties fresh,” as she loves to say. Jenika has planned her whole life: She will go to Howard. She will pledge a sorority. She will study law. She will become a lawyer. She will make a ton of money. She will marry her college sweetheart who will also make a ton of money. She will hyphenate her name. The end. In eighth grade I had to listen as she bragged about being selected for Who’s Who in Junior High Schools. I got the same letter in the mail. They wanted 80 bucks for the honor. She paid, I didn’t. Once when I told her I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, she gave me a judgmental disappointed-mom kind of look.
Jenika, who loves gossip even more than bragging, even more than corn nuts, crams a note under my hand as soon as Abadi’s back is to us. It says, that girl is a W-HO-R-E!!! Look at that gap between her legs. She been split apart so much, she can’t hardly close them up right. She waits for me to acknowledge. I smile and nod until she looks away. Jenika cleans corn nut residue from her braces, she opens wide and pulls a thin rubber band from the back of her mouth and cleans that too. Revolting. Abadi babbles about expectations, classroom behaviors, homework procedures, blah, blah blah. Ruthie writes in a pink-paged Hello Kitty notebook. The sun lights up her tightly coiled, slightly frizzy orange curls. Her hair looks like fire.
I understand Jenika’s jealousy. Ruthie’s legs are beautiful legs, not the thick chacha thighs and knock knees Jenika and I inherited from our mothers and grandmothers.
Ruthie’s legs are Rockette legs, prostitute legs, white girl legs—slim thighs that never touch, never rub together, nice hip-to-knee and knee-to-ankle proportions. Rounded, but not stumpy, calves. Slender, but not bony, ankles—the kind of legs I’ve always wanted to have. She does not wear pantyhose. Her legs cross twice, once at the knees, once at the ankles. She catches me staring. I imagine she’s used to catching people staring, probably likes it. Not knowing where else to rest my eyes, I go back to Jenika’s note. I don’t dare look up. I sketch Ruthie’s legs on the back, careful to preserve that gentle braiding, every sinew, every curve, snakes entwined.
The bell rings. We head out among crowds of kids that swell like fire ants into the halls. It’s a first-day-of school kind of bustle. If we girls are not careful, the older guys will see the newness in our faces. They’ll follow us in the crowd, pinch and grab at our crotches and butts, sometimes if they position themselves right, they’ll rub against us until they get hard. I learned this lesson after homeroom. Ruthie learns it on the way to lunch. I don’t see it happen, but her reactions tell me all the same. “What the fuck!” she says. She stops the flow moving towards the cafeteria. She holds her hands to the back of her skirt, searches the faces behind her, every one of them guilty and innocent at the same time. At least she doesn’t just take it, doesn’t just ignore the snickering, doesn’t let it keep happening over and over until the boys bore themselves and move onto another unsuspecting ass.
Ruthie pushes her way into the second floor bathroom. I follow, hide in one of the stalls. Her hands tremble as she unfolds the waistline of her skirt and smoothes the creases flat against her body. She takes a pack of cigarettes out of her bag. They’re girl cigarettes, the kind with turquoise stripes and pastel flowers on the package. As if flowers have anything to do with tobacco. Ruthie leans against the radiator and closes her eyes. Smoke clouds so thick in front of her she looks far away. I flush. At the sink, I think I feel her looking at me so I smile but she’s cracked the window, blowing smoke out of it, her back to me.
We’re two weeks in and the cool have sniffed out their own—gum snapping girls in too-tight Levi’s and the matching boys who fuck them for sport, huge in puffy coats. They collect in the lunchroom; sit at the coolest tables in the coolest corners. Survival of the fittest at its most vicious. I wander, friendless, unclaimed, sitting on the edges, in the empty spaces, watching everything. Not Ruthie. Things are easy for her. Boys of all types, cool, uncool, short, tall, sophomores, seniors, you name it, all orbiting planets in her universe. None sit too close. Ruthie has a boyfriend.
Ruthie’s man deals. We all know it because she won’t shut up about all the money he has and all the things he buys her. He’s 23 and drives a white BMW. He makes a thing of rolling down our street, slow so we can see him before and after school, so we know she belongs to him. He keeps Ruthie fully decked out, hot sneakers, name brand clothes, Figaro chains, a nameplate ring, more jewelry than she can wear. Today she shows off gold doorknockers with I ♡ Lenny in the centers.
I sit at my stupid assigned seat and wait for Global to begin. Jenika is absent. The chalkboard beside my seat has our homework assignment written on it, the words DO NOT ERASE in big block letters above it. So of course, someone has run their fingers through tomorrow’s assignment, something about the Sumerians, something about their writing system. Most of the words are blurred so they are unreadable. Abadi sees it only after everyone is seated. Yet another in a long line of slights against him. These ungrateful kids. Yet another show of disrespect. Yet another disregard for him and everything he does for us, when he could just as easily teach college. He’s a PhD, goddamn it. He shouldn’t have to deal with this nonsense.
“Who did this?” he says. The careful American accent breaks a little, betrays an ethnicity he’s worked hard to disguise. “Well?”
People giggle, make fart noises.
“Do you think this is funny?”
I do. I think it’s funny. Abadi stares me down. “Cari, did you do this?” he asks.
I do what I can to control my laughter but Abadi’s got his hands at his hips, resolved to make me pay for the class’ insubordination.
“You did it,” he says. “You smudged it with that big body of yours on the way to your seat, didn’t you?”
My voice does what it always does when I’m confronted. It thins to a pip, a squeak, a whisper. “What? No.” My stomach cramps. I can feel them all staring. That big body of mine. “I didn’t,” I say. No one hears.
He fills in the obliterated letters, rolls his eyes and returns to the front of the classroom. “Be more careful next time,” he says.
My big body. Thighs uncrossed, plump, spilling off the sides of my seat. Fuckin’ Abadi. I don’t look up. I can feel everyone, I can feel Ruthie, examining me, my body now public property. I can feel their thoughts: wow, that is a big body. Big, sloppy, graceless enough to erase the board without me even realizing I’d done so. Except I didn’t and now I wish I had. I retaliate. I draw on my desk, a cartoon Dr. Abadi, mouth opened wide, gagging on the massive torpedo of a penis someone had already drawn. The bell rings. Instead of lunch, I go to the second floor bathroom, which is out of the way, almost always empty. I lock myself in one of the stalls, fold my legs up and rest my eyes on my knees. I hate Abadi. I hate my body.
I sleep until sixth period, until a thudding sound wakes me. Ruthie, in tight jeans and heavy boots, sits on the radiator. Her feet dangle and bang against it. She’s opened the window again, and is staring past its gates. How long has she been there? It’s bad enough my fat body was called out in class. I don’t want her to think I had been taking a shit too. Just leave, I tell myself. She won’t see you anyway.
But of course she sees me and says, “Aren’t you gonna wash your hands?”
I turn towards the sink. She thinks I took a shit.
“Hey, you got a cigarette?” she asks.
I tell her I’m out. I make a note to myself. Buy cigarettes. Take up smoking.
“I’m Ruthie, by the way”, she says still looking outside.
“Yeah, you’re in my Global. You sit in the back by the window.”
“Yeah, fuck that front-of-the-class shit. I like the window seat. I like the sun. I like daydreaming about being outside, ‘cause that class is effin’ bor-ing.”
She sings that last part. I nod, laugh. Global Studies. The Abadi thing still stings.
“You don’t really wear glasses, do you?”
“Hells no,” she says. “Even if I had to I wouldn’t wear ‘em. It’s a fake excuse. You know St. Brigid’s? I used to go there. All the teachers are old nuns, except they don’t wear all that bullshit on their head. They were super strict but I used to run all types of excuses on them. I stay with my grandma. She don’t speak English. I write up the notes. She doesn’t know what the hell she’s signing. She don’t really even care. I go to school just to keep her off my ass.”
Ruthie laughs a lot when she talks, a girly laugh that, much like her words, just spills out without much effort. It’s this too that I envy about her—her lack of restraint, her ability to speak to me as if I’m an old friend rather than a stranger. “You’re lucky,” I say. There are no more paper towels. I dry my hands on my jeans.
“Sometimes.” She says. She stops smiling, like a light switch flicking off. She hops off the radiator. The afternoon sun makes a silhouette of her body, the lines long and slinky along the wall.
“I’m gonna take off, see if I can get me a cig,” she says.
She leaves as suddenly as she appeared, gone without even asking my name.
At home I lie to Ma, tell her I’m too full from lunch for her arroz con gandules and chicken legs. She still has her work clothes on, her tiny stockinged feet stuffed into too-small slippers, her straight brown hair unraveling from her bun. She wipes her hands on the dish towel tucked into her pants.
“I’m just not hungry,” I say.
“What do you mean not hungry?” Pa says. “You on a diet or something?” He’s had one beer already. I roll my eyes. Rolling my eyes is the only thing I ever say to him anymore. “Caridad on a diet. Finally.”
“It’s Cari. And I’m not.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Carrie. Carrie is on a diet.”
“Can I be on a diet too?” Aliyah asks. She takes a bite of her chicken and runs to the living room.
“Yeah, maybe, so you don’t end up fat like your sister and your mother.”
“I’m not fat,” Aliyah says.
“No, not yet, but if you keep eating like that…”
“Enough,” Ma says, “sit down and eat your food.” She swats Pa’s shoulder. “Y tu, leave it alone. Aliyah’s not going on a diet. And Cari’s not on a diet.” She looks to me again. “You’re not, are you?”
“I’m just not hungry.”
“Maybe you’ll lose some weight,” Pa says. He puts his fork down, dabs at his mouth with a balled up paper towel and encircles the air in front of him with his hands, each fingertip touching its opposite. “Before your mother got so fat, I used to be able to do this around her waist. Recuerdas, Nina?”
“I was in my 20s,” Ma says. She shakes out her hair, “a kid. I still had the body of a little girl. I’m a mother now. Anyway, my waist’s still small for my size.”
“Ha,” Pa says. He looks at me, means for me to hear, but I look away. Only Aliyah hangs on his words. She’s the only one that likes him, probably because she’s 10 and doesn’t know any better. “All the guys wanted to get with your mother,” he continues. “You shoulda seen her. Like I hit the loteria. What a prize, they’d say. Damn, Tito! Man, you lucked out, bro. The prettiest girl on the block. They don’t say that to me no more.”
“No one’s looking at you either, with that panza… All that beer you drink,” Ma says. “Like you’re hot shit, give me a break.”
Pa ignores Ma. “No, they don’t say that anymore.”
“Why not?” Aliyah asks.
“Cause she blew up like a fuckin’ balloon. That’s why not.” He laughs. Aliyah laughs. I don’t see what’s so funny.
I leave my plate untouched, my family bickering. I lock myself in the room, take off my clothes and stare at my naked body, shoulders slumped from years of hating myself, long thin arms and small tits mismatched against my bulgy hips and legs. Aliyah bangs on the door.
“What do you want?”
“It’s my room too.”
I open the door. What I wouldn’t give to have my own space.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Mind your business. Do your homework since you have so much of it you can’t give me a little bit of privacy.”
I climb to my bunk and extend my legs up against the wall like I used to do as a kid. Gravity slims them. I pinch the loose skin on one of my thighs; force it back making my leg even thinner. I fantasize about cutting the excess skin with a scissor. I try to double-cross my legs like Ruthie in Global Studies. They don’t go. My calves are too big.
I fold the last page of my notebook in half. On one side I draw a picture of my body as I see it. It is, I think, an honest depiction. On the other half I draw a second body. This one I model on a figure I remember from an anorexia nervosa pamphlet I read in the doctor’s office last year. In it a chubby brunette in a red one-piece swimsuit becomes thinner and thinner as the pamphlet unfolds. Stage 3 is where her body is perfect; it’s just before she gets skeletal, just around the time she loses her mind and starts hallucinating that she is massive. Anorexia would have been a successful diet if only she had been able to stop herself at Stage 3. Ruthie’s body is Stage 3.
Monday morning, I ignore rows of buttered raisin bagels in the deli. The smell of bacon and eggs frying on the small grill in the back nearly destroys me. Ruthie walks in with two identical girlfriends, dark shades take up half of her tiny face.
I smile. I wave. The girlfriends, nearly in sync, roll their eyes. Ruthie doesn’t say a word. She sobs, her doorknockers clang against her hoops. She has mascara-tears. Her friends console her with pretty-girl talk and a pack of Starburst. “Here, your favorite,” one says to Ruthie. “Just don’t think about it,” says the other one. “Everything happens for a reason. You can get any guy you want, you don’t need that muthafucka.” Ruthie cries harder.
Then, “it’ll be alright, mama. You’re gonna be alright.”
Ruthie grips the candy. Her lips, swollen like the rest of her face, quiver as if she’s about to speak.
“What’s the matter with her?” I ask the girlfriends. I hand Ruthie a pack of tissues from my bag, glad I have them, glad I can help.
“Don’t worry about it,” one of them says.
Ruthie removes her glasses and wipes her eyes. Her friend hands the tissues back to me.
“Keep ‘em,” I say to Ruthie.
“She doesn’t need your tissues,” the girl says. She drops the pack on the floor when I don’t grab them fast enough, and helps Ruthie, who’s crying again, out of the store.
I pick up the tissues and scan the things behind the counterman, the Advils, the condoms, the lighters.
“Let me get a Starburst,” I say. He slaps it on the counter. “Fifty cents.”
“And a pack of cigarettes.”
There are so many, stacked in neat rows, colorful crushproof cartons and shiny cellophane, among them the turquoise stripes and pastel flowers of Ruthie’s girlie brand. “Those,” I say. I hide them in my book bag and unwrap a Starburst, let it dissolve without biting.
Ruthie does not show up to Global. Jenika sends me a longer than usual note. Poor Ruthie’s all tore up ‘cause Lenny got caught. Got sent up to Riker’s. One year. My cousin was up there for a year and a half and he ain’t been right since. And my cousin can take care of himself. Lenny’s little ass won’t last… Ruthie’s a fool, shoulda knew better than to get mixed up with a guy like that.
She’ll break up with him, I write.
If she’s smart… But she ain’t smart. A smart bitch wouldn’t date no damn drug dealer.
Maybe she loves him.
At this Jenika raises an eyebrow. She narrows her eyes and smirks. Her lips gather as if pursing to spit.
She tears a new page from her notebook, writes on it hard, doesn’t even bother to fold it. Well, she won’t be the only one loving him. Everyone knows what happens in them places. His ass will get took his first night. Guaranteed. And just in case I don’t get her meaning, she draws a stick figure behind bars getting raped by another stick figure, while a third stick figure, with wild curly hair looks on, crying in the margins. It’s more than clear who’s supposed to be who.
I look past Jenika to Ruthie’s seat, her chair pulled out as if it too awaits her arrival.
For a week after I avoid regular food. I survive on Starburst and cigarettes. I save every wrapper. If I feel hungry, I smoke until I’m too nauseous to eat. Sometimes I can make myself throw up, especially when I inhale deep. It takes discipline to get to Stage 3.
My pen rolls to the floor. I must’ve been asleep. It’s all I have the energy to do anymore. I bend to pick it up and swear I see her through the small glass window in the door, a comet of orangey blond hair whizzing past, then I hear the giggle, running footsteps. Then nothing. Did I imagine her? The bell rings. Lunch. Strawberry Starburst and two cigarettes in the second floor bathroom. Yum.
Ruthie hasn’t shown up since Lenny got arrested. People talk. I listen selectively. They say all types of things. They say she slept with Sherrod, nasty Sherrod, popular for popping every freshman cherry he can get his hands on and then passing the girl on to his entourage of look-alike, sound-alike friends. They don’t say Ruthie got passed around but people whisper just the same.
Jenika’s notes become daily reports: I told you that girl is hot in the ass. I knew it when I first laid eyes on her. Lenny’s only gone a few weeks and already a bunch of guys been inside that. From what I hear, she don’t need a bed neither. She’s a TRUE ho. People seen her in the boys room, bent over in the back stairwell, in the gym afterschool... I’m telling you, a porno star in the making.
I don’t reply. The Dr. Abadi drawing on the desk has changed. Someone gave the floating penis a body and wrote the words Abadi sux fat dicks.
I barely get out of the building after school. The electric charge of a just-ended ass kicking hums through the crowd. Ruthie didn’t see Sherrod’s girlfriend Brenda coming. Spots of blood on the floor mark the exact place where her doorknockers were ripped from her ears, splitting one of her lobes in two, sending Ruthie to the hospital and Brenda to central booking. The stains brown by the second. There are other remnants: hair weave, Vaseline, the trampled remains of Ruthie’s Hello Kitty notebook. The earrings are gone, a souvenir in someone’s pocket. I tuck the torn pages of the notebook back in, and shove it in my bag. People whisper and stare.
I move my fork around my plate just enough to keep Ma and Pa off my back. I count the granules of rice. It’s surprising how many there are conspiring against me, thousands of them, every one a weapon. Sometimes I’m tempted to eat. Whenever I feel myself begin to cave, I think of stage 3, Ruthie’s body. I think, some day a boy will wrap his hands around my waist and brag about its impossible tininess. But resisting something you love is hard. Sometimes, when it’s my turn to wash dishes, I sneak forkfuls of rice when no one is looking. It happens more often than I’d like. Sometimes I skip the Starburst to balance it all out. Sometimes I stay so hungry my stomach hurts. But I like how empty it is, the way I can suck my stomach so far in, the way my ribcage pushes out when I do.
I set Ruthie’s notebook on my desk beside color-coordinated stacks of Starburst squares. The stacks tip over, landing among flattened wrappers of meals gone by. I restack them. They look like jewels. I fold one of the wrappers into a tiny origami peace crane. I place it in a box among others like it. These mark my progress. When I reach Stage 3, I will celebrate by stringing them across the ceiling over my bed, a cloud of cranes hovering over me.
Some of the pages of her book are torn, some stamped with footprints. There are notes from Global Studies. Ruthie’s signed her name with Lenny’s last name in the margins. On other pages there are no notes, the pages instead decorated with hearts and Ruthie and Lenny 4-evers. I finger the indentation of her name, trace the signature with my nail. Ruthie Cruz. There’s a tiny heart over the i, an exaggerated loop in the z. I mimic the writing; first signing her name, then mine, making sure to add the same touches.
Ruthie returns on a Wednesday, just two days after the fight, but by Friday she is gone again, this time for “vandalism.” Jenika’s note, sweet and to the point, waits on my seat. Vandalism my ass! You know what’s what. That bitch got Lamar fired.
Everyone buzzes. Ruthie, caught by the Dean in the gym after school on mats stacked beneath the corner window, the elevator operator, Lamar, on top of her. Students, they like Lamar. He gives elevator rides to the pretty girls and the cool guys. He’s married. He has a baby. Ruthie is a troublemaker, a fighter, a class-cutter, a slut. Jenika’s note says what the whole school feels. I ball it up and stick it to a still-soft wad of gum under the desk.
After lunch I see Ruthie heading to the Dean’s office, a small bandage holding her lobe together. She leads a short confused-looking woman. The woman speaks Spanish and looks like she doesn’t get out much. She wears a thin dress and pilled green sweater buttoned to the neck. She has a folded coat and a small brown purse in her arms. Ruthie’s grandmother. I imagine the conversation that will take place. How Ruthie will have to translate into broken Spanish for her grandmother the reasons for her suspension. How she will have to recount to her that a half-naked, older, married man lay on top of her, her skirt lifted above her waist, her panties dangling from one ankle.
By Thanksgiving no one sees Ruthie anymore, not in class, not in the hallways or stairwells or cafeteria, though word is she’s back. They say she’s getting transferred to one of those remedial high schools. Others say she’s going back to catholic school. Maybe she’s gonna drop out? None of these would surprise anyone. People tire of talking about her.
I don’t ever go to lunch anymore. Too much temptation. I stay in the second floor bathroom, the quietest, most private place in the whole building, smoking cigarette after cigarette. At first I didn’t like the way the smoke got caught in my throat, burning everything on its way down, the way my mouth tasted afterward. I changed my mind fast. I like having something to do with my hands. I like packing new cigarettes. I like the way they catch the flame from a match. I like how light I feel, how I float just for a second, the same way I used to as a kid, when I’d spin around and around in the living room after Ma and Pa fell asleep, my head feeling like it would break away from my body if I spun long enough.
The bathroom is mostly empty. In the mirror I see I’m nowhere near Ruthie’s body, nowhere near Stage 3. And I’m hungry, always hungry. I light a cigarette. Ruthie comes out of a stall. She hasn’t slept. Her roots are harsh and dark against her scalp. The orange part of her hair is pulled into a tight bun. She swims in a too large sweat suit.
“Those are my cigarettes,” she says. “I mean I smoke those too.”
The cigarette dangles from my mouth. “How can you tell?”
“The flower by the filter. The smell. I know it anywhere. They remind me of my moms. She used to smoke them too.”
I offer her one. Ruthie stares at me as if trying to place me.
“You’re Cari, right?” She lights and drags. “Global studies, right? Abadi’s class?”
A breeze spreads the smoke between us.
I nod. She knows my name.
“You look skinnier, like you lost weight or something.”
“I’ve been trying.”
“It looks good on you. The ciggies help. My moms was skinny-skinny, all she did was smoke. She even gave me my first puff,” she says. She smokes a lot faster than I do, like she’s devouring the smoke, like she’s binging on it. She blows it out of her just as violently. Her cigarette is near the end.
“You coming back to class?” I ask.
“Probably not. My grandma’s making me see a counselor or a psychiatrist or something. She won’t let me out of it. And she’s changing me out of this school.”
“Why? You failing or something?”
“Because of the thing with Lamar, because of how everybody hates me for getting him in trouble.” Ruthie points to her forehead and rolls her eyes. “Because I have problems.”
We face each other. She is as small as a little girl.
“I know what you mean,” I say. “I have problems too.”
“No you don’t,” she says. She snuffs the butt on the radiator. “I mean I’m sure you got shit going on in your life. But you’re a good girl, a smart girl. You don’t get in trouble. You’re innocent. Not like me. I promise you, it’s not the same.”
“I’m not innocent and I’m not good.”
“I know, I know. I get you.”
She stares at me, reaches her hand towards my face and brushes my cheek. Her fingers are warm and soft. They graze my lips as she takes the cigarette. “You’re sweet,” she says, never looking away as she inhales.
She hands me the half-smoked cigarette. I want to tell her how I worship her, that since I’d seen her, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be able to walk away from my own clunky body, to be inside hers, to wear it like it was mine. But I can’t say anything. I don’t. We finish the cigarette together.
“You think I could have one for later?”
I light one last one for myself, and hand her the rest. “Keep it,” I say.
“It’s a gift.”
“I owe you,” she says before walking out the door.
After she leaves I climb onto the radiator and face the window. I see classes in session, including the one I should be in right now. I see sleeping window-seat students, and empty tablet-arm chairs, the first floor corridor, tar-coated and strange looking from the outside. A lone pigeon hobbles across on scaly red feet. My cigarette burns nearly to the end, has a long strand of ash dangling from the tip. I flick. I drag, holding the minty smoke for a second. How quickly we learn to love bad things. I exhale, throw the butt at the pigeon. It misses. The pigeon shuffles towards it. Another pigeon sees it too. They tussle; levitate a mess of flapping feathers. The butt rolls to the ground, but the birds are too engaged in their fight-flight to notice.
Olga M. Feliciano is a New York City native whose heart will forever reside in the neighborhood she grew up in, the same Lower East Side her characters live, love, and die in. She is working on a collection of linked stories about these characters and the complications that come with becoming women and mothers in this setting. Her (geographical) home is Houston, Texas where she has lived since completing her MFA in Creative Writing. She teaches writing to a wide range of students, from middle school to college, and is currently a Lecturer at the University of Houston Downtown.