by Julia Condon
The public bus was heavily air conditioned as if to distract from the smell of feet and sweat pouring from laborers now slumped in their seats, some asleep, the rest appearing as though they wished they were. They were creatures of various vocations – some sporting scrubs, others in dirty jeans, more in hotel uniforms. Behind rows of tired workers were Rachel and I – a pair of pubescent girls, radiating a stench of excessive hormones, Victoria’s Secret perfume, and unadulterated excitement, snickering as we observed the unfortunate souls before us with the detached pity of suburban children of white collared workers.
It had been that way, Rachel and I, always in that order, since childhood when we dressed our Barbies in the cutest outfits and used them as tools with which to imagine our own uncomplicated future lives with our beautiful plastic husbands, mansions and pink corvettes. Rachel and I befriended a new group of girls each year, the two of us the only static factors in each other’s lives.
Rachel had learned to appreciate being gawked at by men from an appallingly young age. She loved moderate trouble: any situations which appeared potentially dangerous from which there was a large probability she would escape unscathed. She had incessantly flirtatious chocolate brown eyes and long, jet black hair that she would toss dramatically over her shoulder before beginning any argument.
And I was simply Louisa. Better known as Rachel’s friend. I wasn’t funny, witty or beautiful from what I could discern, though I wished there was someone out there who would argue otherwise.
“Gin?” Rachel offered, flashing a row of straight, white teeth. We had stolen the bottle from Rachel’s parents and were coming to regret our choice.
I accepted the offer, took a swig and cringed theatrically, contorting my entire face. “It tastes like pine needles,” I observed. Rachel laughed.
The bus jerked a few times before coming to a complete stop.
“Last stop, folks, Rosewood Heights,” the bus driver mumbled into the intercom speaker.
Rosewood Heights was a neighborhood familiar only in reputation to most suburban dwellers west of Elmwood, often referred to synonymously as the “bad side” of the city. Under the shroud of darkness that accompanied the impending dusk, Rosewood Heights looked like anywhere else – apartment buildings, pizza joints, and convenience stores lining the streets. Still, my stomach churned with apprehension.
We were headed to what was promised to be another great summer party. It didn’t matter to us who was hosting or where; those years existed as an opportunity to chase the allurement of free alcohol, sloppy drunken hookups and trivial drama before we became mature enough to make fun of ourselves for ever living for such things. We would look back on nights like these as a summation – one huge Party. We’d forget most of the ugly parts and keep the ones we did remember to ourselves, because everything turned out relatively okay so they didn’t matter anymore.
We approached a convenience store on our route to the party as the last of our gin trickled down our throats, warmed our stomachs and slowed our brains.
“Perhaps we should buy something else to drink?” Rachel suggested, nodding toward the store. I had no say in the decision as she marched to the door and swung it open. I froze in place a couple feet from the door, feeling cautious and unwilling to follow for once.
“I’m already pretty drunk,” I said, resisting Rachel as much as I’d ever dare.
“Well let’s get drunk-er,” she urged, visibly frustrated, wedged between the door and the frame, the cool of the air conditioning and vibrant light spilling onto the sidewalk.
“I’ll stay out here,” I spoke with my gaze to the ground.
“Suit yourself,” she said, pivoting and entering the store alone. She wasn’t one to wait long for you to change your mind.
I watched silently as she examined the wine rack, her denim shorts riding up as she bent to take a closer look – part of her strategy. She would then flirt with the cashier with such exaggerated theatrics so to distract the cashier from asking for the of-age ID she didn’t have, as I’d watched her do so many times that it was no longer amusing nor impressive.
Distracted by Rachel’s act, I hadn’t noticed the man who approached me from behind before he tapped me on the shoulder.
“Please, Miss, a little change?” A man wearing tattered, soiled clothes and smelling of urine and body odor stood too close, shaking a near-empty Styrofoam cup, clanging the few cents inside together. He wore an unruly mane of grey hair and was licking his lips feverishly.
I then recalled a moment in my youth, walking down a city street with my mother and passing a beggar seeking spare change. She ignored his pleas and gripped my hand tighter as we passed. When I later asked her about it she called the man a “panhandler” and told me he only wanted her money for drugs. I spent the next few years of my life taking wide turns around homeless people on the streets, not sparing a dollar.
This man wants money for drugs, I thought as he shook his cup at me impatiently.
“I don’t have anything, sorry,” I lied, unconsciously clutching my purse.
Noticing, he laughed a little, drawing closer and examining my eyes, “Don’t be scared, little one. Ain’t you ever seen a homeless person before?” I had, but only from a careful distance.
I didn’t reply.
“You shouldn’t be so scared of me, youngin” the man repeated, “I’m just like you. I’m just like you,” he said frantically, “I was a little like you once. I had a house and a family and I didn’t talk to strangers because I was told to be afraid of ‘em. Until I became a stranger,” he licked his lips with increasing fervor as his story gained momentum, “the war took everything from me. I came back with dead friends and no job and woke up sweating every night with awful dreams. It took everything. It took half my leg,” he lifted up the pant of his left leg revealing a rusty prosthetic beneath a thigh sliced with a thick pink scar that drove from the stump where his kneecap should be and snaked top of his thigh. I turned away, suddenly lightheaded.
“Oh, you think that’s so bad, honey?” He laughed wickedly, “You think you’ll be so young and perfect forever?” He pointed away from the store, toward the world beyond, “The world’s waitin’ to take everything you’ve got. It might not ruin you the way it ruined me but it’ll find its way. I was just like you, honey. Someday you’ll be just like me.”
Just when I thought, when I prayed he was finished he leaned in close enough so I could detect the faint smell of stale onion on his breath and asked, “so what about a dollar?” then he quickly offered another scenario, “what about you give me a dollar or I take it from ya?”
I scrambled through my wallet with shaky hands, pulling out a twenty and handing it to the man frantically. He released another wicked laugh before hobbling away.
It was then that Rachel returned, completely unaware, grinning like a champion, an illegal bottle of wine her trophy.
I felt nauseous, clutching my stomach as we continued our journey, walking toward the beckon of loud hip-hop music and upbeat shouts and cheers and hundreds of conversations blended into one noise. This time, the familiar sound didn’t excite me as it usually had.
“I saw some old man talking to you,” Rachel laughed lightly, “what was he saying?”
“Gibberish,” I lied, because Rachel and I weren’t the friends to share our discomfort. Everything was fine. Even as my heart raced, as his words echoed in my head. Everything would always be fine.
The rest of the night was spent like any other: dancing to forgettable music and making out with one another, feigning embarrassment for our drunken actions the morning after… anything to distract from the fact that our youth was slowly slipping away, for now comforted by the cushion of time that separated us from impending adulthood.
I spent most of the night facing the bathroom mirror as I was unable to sleep. I examined my smooth, soft, pink skin, free of blemishes and scars for now, a physical reminder that I was unscarred, unhurt by the world for the time being.
“Someday you’ll be just like me,” the old man’s voice echoed desperately in my head. But I wasn’t. I was young, immortal, unblemished. How could I foresee, at that moment, the terrible things that existed in my future? For now they belonged to someone that didn’t yet exist. My current world was smooth and shiny and filled only with great things and trivial troubles.
No, I wasn’t just like him. Not yet.