Photo by Borna Hrzajna
A short-story by Mary Margaret Park
Night in the city was like a live wire, it gave me a sense of security, but it was artificial. I was marooned on a concrete bench at the corner of Jackson and 5th, counting the hours until daylight. As cars whizzed through the intersection, I wondered about their passengers, where they were going and if they had warm beds or children to go home to.
I took refuge in those strangers and the lives I imagined they led, longing to crawl through their car windows and sit next to them.
“Where are we going?” I’d ask—if I could.
I heard glass breaking and pulled my eyes away from a young couple in a Mustang. A bottle sailed through the air. I watched its arc until it finally landed in an explosion near the mouth of an alleyway. Two young men appeared, their attitudes set in the careless sway of their steps. They tossed another bottle into the air; it shattered the darkness with a satisfying pop, a ‘fuck you’ to the world more effective than graffiti. I watched them sway and jive until they grew distant. Two black specks lost in a shroud of glare, then gone—I resisted the urge to call after them.
The bench was uncomfortable so I stood up and stretched. An old man needing a shave and a wash brushed past me. He nodded then crossed over to the liquor store on the corner. The air stirred, washing away the smell of sickness that trailed behind him, and I thought of my Mother’s pleading eyes as she lay dying of cancer—I looked back towards the intersection, hoping to see the young couple in the Mustang, but they were gone.
I felt abandoned; hollow.
The feeling wasn’t new, I’d spent a lifetime running from it. I felt naked and empty, as if I’d been given the worlds largest grief enema—you’re not good enough, not worthy my mind amplified and behind that, the softer, kinder, echo of my Father’s voice.
Over the years, I’d managed to keep my doubts locked away, behind the doors of not being good enough, a sword born of perfection and humility—well, never mind, tonight they’d escaped.
The low hum of traffic soothed me. I longed to disappear into the warm haze of light and whirring tires. God, if I could only get somewhere, anywhere, in order to feel safe.
The light at the intersection turned red and traffic slowed. A teenager driving an SUV was singing and bopping to the music pouring from her window—Oh God, I wanted to fly, fly away, get away, go home—I didn’t care whose home it was. She was probably going home to watch movies on a big screen TV and eat popcorn, the light turned green and I sighed, studying my tennis shoes.
A gaggle of young women stopped a few feet from where I was sitting. They were waiting for the bus. Their laughter cut through the darkness like warm butter. I watched the one closest to me light a cigarette; the smell of tobacco was delicious. I breathed in, savoring the aroma, it made me think of better days.
They were talking about a party a few blocks over, trying to decide whether or not to go. The girl with the cigarette noticed me, “You want a smoke?” she asked.
I nodded, grateful.
Their bus squealed to a stop and the girl turned to leave. I sat frozen, with tears in my eyes and a sob stuck in my throat, wanting to say thank you.
The bus pulled away, taking the voices and laughter along with it. The girl’s kindness had given me hope—I wanted to believe that I was salvageable, that my life had meant something—I took another puff, tasting the smoke, and picked up my bag.
My eyes searched for someplace to settle, a haven—an old couple in a light blue Buick pulled up to the curb. I watched them get out of their car and smiled.