… Her room was filled with all the things I would want in my own, if I had a room. It took all the breath I had left for the day to walk up the six flights to Lela’s apartment. Situated a few blocks from the yellow beach, her windowsills were speckled in shells, incense and statues of animals. On one wall hung a tapestry with a mandala. On another wall hung a giant floral anatomy poster, complete with a magnetic wooden frame that mimicked schoolhouse pull-down charts. Her bed had the soft, cooling linen that one only finds in a room like hers— creamy in every sense of the word: texture, color, and scent. Each item in her room was perfectly spaced out from the others, like a well-designed landscape. I felt entirely out of place there, wearing my ripped jeans, faded t-shirt and boots that were starting to come apart at the seams. My hiking pack was covered in dirt. My hair was a little messy, and mousy brown, and my skin was excessively tan, from being outside all the time.
The woman I was with, Lela, asked me if I played guitar.
I said, a little bit.
I knew some songs from teaching myself in high school, checking out books at music shops, a few I learned from other house-less people on the street, and a few riffs I had invented myself. I picked up her guitar and played the loop of sounds I had grown acclimated to playing when the opportunity presented itself. I always made money playing, and some people said I was good, but I always figured I was paid out of pity.
Lela tapped her feet to the tunes and started to hum along with me. When I sang “Wagonwheel” she sang along. As she watched me, her gigantic green eyes glistened, and my heart felt warm and full, like a heated stone sat inside my chest, comforting me. After a few minutes, she left the room to get us glasses of water, so I decided to scrutinize her bookshelf. She collected books on social justice, rebellious art, philosophy and science fiction. Of course, she had Nickel and Dimed, which had made an appearance on every bookshelf I’d seen in the last six months. It was high time I finally read it.
When she returned, I abruptly turned around, as if looking over her books was an act of treason. But that’s what one does when offered a view into another’s world this way. Her glorious green eyes widened at my startling. She stood there with her silky blonde hair, flowing skirt, soft cotton peasant top and the tiniest leather jewelry—artsy and resplendent.
She offered to paint henna tattoos on me. She said it was the perfect way to cool down on a hot day, because of the delicacy of the act and the stillness of our bodies while we decorated our skin. As she said this, her movements were gentle and every contact her body made with itself was light and smooth. She was keenly aware of her own body that way.
As Lela laid thin brown lines on my hand, and used sculpted ink with the consistency of icing, my heart slipped by itself. My breathing got shallow. I suddenly became far too aware of every movement I was making, of the smell of my breath and hoping I wouldn’t pass gas while she was so close to me. Was I attracted to her? In more ways than one. It was her beauty, the way she moved, my desire to be as gentle and magnetic as she was. My hands were feminine, of course, but not as delightful as hers. My desire to live entrenched in the same environs. My desire to accomplish similar things. The henna art took over an hour of attention to the most minute details. Each mandala was a masterpiece. Throughout that hour, I forgot the shell-like empty state of non-feeling I often found myself in, too accustomed to the motions of my life. I forgot about how I had originally left home to explore the world and myself. I forgot about how I fell into the repetition and refrain of a never-ending cycle of working in the weather-laden streets and not knowing where my next meal was coming from. And then we were done.
Suddenly, her roommate, Maddison, came home with the raucous clanging of keys, shopping bags, bottles and shoes that accompany many homecomings. In that instant Lela, the woman I had followed into this apartment, sprang back from me. She must have been entranced in her work before that, or if I could hope, in me. The moment after it was finished, I yearned to have her hands back on mine.
Her roommate was a well-to-do type of woman. She wore dress pants and a polo shirt, smelled like flowers and had her hair held neatly back in a bun. As we shared pleasantries, I learned that Maddison was attending graduate school for teaching, had family nearby, enjoyed scuba diving and volunteered at an animal shelter. Another impressive person, who had far more going on their life than I did. Far more to be proud of, I thought. She offered to make us French toast, because she was in the mood for it. We accepted.
As we hung around the kitchen, we got to talking about bigger social questions. They were both secularists, and had been raised with a certain level of privilege for which they felt a certain level of guilt. I had been raised religiously, but I couldn’t help but be agnostic in such a broken world. Despite my mother’s attempts to make me believe in God, making me go to Church every Sunday, I could never see how a God could allow such horror on this earth. They couldn’t help but be agnostic because it made more sense to them logically, which is a very different thing. We all wished the economic system were more egalitarian. We also had in common our understanding of politics as corrupt. We shared a wish that we could trust our leaders, but alas we could not.
At one point in the conversation, Lela and I were laughing and leaning in towards each other. When we got what I guess was too close, she abruptly stopped laughing, turned around and walked to the other side of the kitchen. I couldn’t help but think she was keeping me at a distance because of this roommate.
As the thick Texas toast, coated in eggs and milk, floated on a layer of butter, and sizzled on the medium-hot griddle, we heard a fiddle playing through the portal window that was open above our heads, the only open window in the house. Well, they called it a violin, I called it a fiddle. Lela went into the other room to see where it was coming from. I followed her, like a puppy dog. As we gazed at the onlookers, we saw a large crowd had formed around a friend of mine and another man. They were dueling with fiddles to the sounds of clapping and whistling that encouraged them. I told this woman I had followed into the apartment that I knew one of the men. My fiddler friend, the one with cargo shorts so torn and dirty that they would’ve felt as smooth as suede, and an old t-shirt you couldn’t read the words on any longer. I suggested we go out and get a closer listen.
She said, you know him? I’d love to meet him!
We asked Maddison to join us, but she said, that’s not my type of crowd, but have fun.
We hurried down the six flights of stairs, making the air in the cylindrical stairwell smack our faces like a fresh morning breeze. We went out to the corner, and with every step we took, the fiddles got louder. The crowd was clapping to keep time and served as the percussive force in the symphony of street sounds. The fiddles got faster, their riffs more complicated, and their players sweatier and redder in the face. Finally, my friend brought the song to a crescendo that the other fiddle player was unable to match. The crowd whooped, hollered and cheered as the performers took their bows and collected their coin.
My fiddler friend made a few hundred dollars during that one show, which is an amount it normally takes a street performer all day to earn; and street performers often earn a fraction of that in the span of eight hours. He offered to take us and a few of our friends out for drinks. Lela hesitated, she stumbled over her first two words, and finally she said yes. I was elated. It was my turn to be the guide of our pair, my turn to show off how cool I was with my friends, perhaps even stoke her jealousy of me as mine had been stoked of her.
We went to a nearby bar. On the way, Lela complimented my fiddler friend on his performance. She said she wished she could play like that, or at all. She admitted to barely knowing how to play guitar. (Oh good, maybe I had impressed her earlier).
My fiddle player friend said, but I bet you don’t wish you lived like us, do you?
And she responded, how do you know I don’t?
He said, I can tell by your clean fingernails, your bright hair and the look in your eyes when you saw us collecting our cash. She smiled in return, not knowing what to say.
When we got to the bar, we were well into a conversation about economic disparity and whether house-less people live freer lives, and if it’s worth that freedom to be without home and hearth. At this point in my life, it was more a matter of principle than an emotional urge—I was much calmer and less feeling, young still but experienced. A few of my other friends had joined in on the conversation.
One of my friends wished she had somewhere to live that felt like home. One of my friends was looking for somewhere to shower every day so he could get a job. One of my friends had left home because it wasn’t a healthy scene there. I was looking for myself, had left home to know myself better before embarking on another stage of life. My friend the fiddler refused any of these notions. As we spoke, Lela’s glossy green eyes flickered and blinked a lot. I could tell she wasn’t very comfortable.
My fiddler friend said, I live like this because I want to. I live like this because I can go anywhere and do anything whenever I want.
Lela said, I respect that. I’m lucky I have a place to live but I wouldn’t mind experiencing that freedom for once in my life.
I had met these friends when I got to this town. We had met when we were all hanging out at the community center, each in need of different things. We had come from all different corners of the country—me from the northeast, them from the southwest, northwest and southeast. My fiddler friend had come from the midwest.
Lela said, I wish I was as brave as you all. I wish I could live life like you do.
My friend the fiddle player challenged her. So why don’t you come with us when we head north for the summer?
She said, I have school, I take summer classes.
I guess she didn’t want to admit that she might not be able to handle it. I didn’t mind, because her softness was one of the reasons I was attracted to her in the first place. Maybe she was attracted to me for her own reasons.
One of the kids in the group said, you know, Jesus didn’t go to school, or work. He was a traveling bum like us. He said this knowing Jesus traveled around penniless while preaching and studying gnosticism. A fact commonly referenced by travelers and homeless people. It meant you didn’t need money or a job to be a good person.
Lela said, I don’t do what Jesus did, I don’t try to.
And a few of the kids in the group looked at her with disrespectful eyebrows and widened eyes. I thought to myself that underneath my agnostic bravado, I tried to be like Jesus too.
Personally, I missed having a home, but I rarely admitted that in front of these friends. I had grown up in a cozy house. We didn’t have much. We lived in the cheap part of a wealthy town, so I had a great education but little luxury. My father was never around, he had disappeared when I was very young and we never talked about why. I think my mother didn’t even know where he was. I realized only a few months ago that his disappearance was part of why I left home. I was mimicking him by being gone, searching for his replacement, searching for him in my experiences. I was reading some psychology book that explained how our parents and our religion are parallel to each other. That our ideas of higher authority are coded by what our parents did when we were children. I lacked a certain definition in that respect, growing up—like I lacked him. My mom had to work extra hard to pay for the basics in a town like that, without him around. I missed out on a lot of things my rich friends were able to have and do, but I didn’t mind it. I found solace in books and television and school sports. I became my own authority, but I didn’t have mature direction. I saved up for a guitar and taught it to myself with tablature I found online. I had grown up thinking my friends were materialistic and that my way of life was better than theirs.
Lela invited me to stay on her couch that night, which I accepted. I could have slept on the top of a few different buildings in town, on the beach, or gotten a ride on a skiff to the small island a few hundred yards from the docks on which many of us made camp. But I wanted to be near her, and the air conditioning.
When we got back to her apartment, after the long haul up those impertinent steps, her roommate had her feathers ruffled. Maddison said she was annoyed that we had left her for so long, without eating the French toast she made for us.
Lela said, we’re so sorry, we got distracted and forgot, how can we make it up to you?
I should have been miffed that she was speaking for me, but I found it more intimately charming than anything.
Her roommate responded, you don’t need to… Thanks for saying sorry. The toast is on the stove.
And she went in her room and gently closed the door.
Lela and I spent the rest of the night watching a movie on Netflix, but we barely paid attention at all. We were so enthralled in our conversation. As we spoke, her bright green eyes stared at me so sharply I felt she was uncovering who I really was. Those eyes were the color of emeralds. We agreed on so many things:
Politics: Both social democrats bordering on democratic socialists, I said I believe the government can have a meaningful role in creating equity in society and protecting socially liberal civil rights. She agreed.
Macro economics. She said, with more appropriate social programs, competition would be left to only competing for the extraneous. I agreed.
The purpose of art. She said it was, to engage feeling in the audience. I agreed.
And, our appreciation of our own mothers above all other family members.
We didn’t have quite the same upbringing though, and I felt I was learning about the world through getting to know her better. She grew up with brothers, and I didn’t. When she told me about them, it gave me a glimpse into the pressures men face to be men in a certain way.
She explained, society doesn’t want them to feel things, it wants them to be strong, and they’re not allowed to cry, it’s tough being a guy. And I couldn’t disagree.
She grew up with money, and I didn’t. She said, I did a lot of different arts as a kid. My parents always had me at dance, ceramics, drama, painting, photography, things like that. I also did horse-back riding, gymnastics, lacrosse, swimming and diving.
I responded, I never had a chance to do any of that stuff. I think I would’ve been a lot happier and more fulfilled if I had access to that. This was something I just realized now, or maybe I had always felt this way and never admitted it to myself.
She said, Sure, those things are important, but my parents were always somewhere else—they were either at work late or away on a business trip. We never had family dinners. We never had weekend outings. They gave us those things because us kids were alone most of the time and we couldn’t be left to our own devices. They didn’t trust us. As an adult, I see that they had to be that way to pay for all that stuff, they had to work. But as a kid I resented them for it. Besides, I never wanted the extra things they bought me, I wanted them. I mean, my mother would have serious talks with me when they came up, and that got me through some really tough times, but she wasn’t there for the day-to-day stuff.
I said, I don’t know, I always assumed money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s a cliché but it’s true. Looking back now, I think I always valued the immaterial because I never had the material, and the other kids around me did, and I wanted to be proud of what I had. I see now as an adult that it would’ve relieved a lot of the stress in my family. I always knew that When you don’t have enough, you miss the money. At a certain point though, more money doesn’t bring more happiness.
She said, I think that’s true. A happiness study a few years ago said as much. At a certain level of income, I think it’s $75,000, any additional money won’t make you happy. Besides, you had all that extra time to teach yourself guitar and play outside, I wish I had that.
After that, we laid there for awhile. I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I was thinking about where I had come from, and why I had chosen this life. I remembered how I explained it to my mother.
I had told my mother that I felt like I had to leave. She had talked about giving me a good education, that she had worked so hard as the poorest in a rich town so I could have that education, that I shouldn’t throw it away. She had wanted to make sure my friend Misty was coming with me. She had said I was sheltered. At the time I had been packing quickly and roughly. I had felt annoyed with her that she was worrying so much, so my answers to her were short.
She had said, Maybe we shouldn’t have brought you to this town. It put silly ideas in your head about what matters and what the world can be.
I had defended myself, and said that it exposed me to the higher class I didn’t want to be. It had taught me to have higher purpose. I said something about how their luxury let them have ideals but their parents were corrupted by it.
She said, You didn’t get higher purpose from them, you got it from me, from God.
I said, Sure, it’s an amalgam of factors that led me to this point.
She asked, What’s an amalgam?
And I explained it to her. And that calmed her down a little. Then I explained that she spent too much energy focusing on getting me into the higher class.Then she claimed she was the source of my self-righteousness. That infuriated me. My face had gone flush and heated and I had started packing even more quickly. I had had enough.
When I thought about it now, in Lela’s sweetly soft apartment, I never realized before that underneath my claim to being “deeper than that”, I really wanted that privilege. Such a woman with a beautiful heart like Lela’s made me take another look at it. I acknowledged that she was lucky for her opportunities, that a person could be good on the inside and have good things on the outside at the same time. I thought of how I should have afforded my mother more compassion.
The conversation I was having with this woman I was with, about these disparate corners of life and philosophies, was more satisfying and uplifting to me than any conversation I had had over the past six months or more. I missed this kind of rapport that I usually only got in school.
We kept talking, deeply engaged in each other’s ethos, so that when the movie ended the screen rested on the after credit suggestion and her television served more as a still lighting source than entertainment. We fell asleep talking, her on her bed and me on the floor. I barely remember how the conversation ended.
The next morning, I awoke to the smell of pancakes and eggs. She was cooking for us both.
I said, I think I woke up because it smells so good.
She responded, I thought that would get you out of bed. But you seemed so comfortable I didn’t want to interrupt your rest.
Over breakfast, we laughed about the movie we saw the night before, and that we didn’t really watch the end of it. She suggested we restart it again tonight, from the point when we had started talking and stopped watching. She offered me her floor again (I had stayed there, rather than the couch, because we were entranced in each other’s words). I, of course, accepted with glee.
I said, I’d love to bask in the luxury of Netflix and air-conditioning with good company!
She was going to her ceramics studio at the college to pick up some of her work that day, and she wanted me to come with her.
She implored, come on, you’ll love it, I have a feeling you’ll fit right in.
I needed a shower beforehand, so she let me take one. Her shampoo was white grapefruit, which I had never encountered before. Her soap was oatmeal and lavender. I smelled like a barrage of flora, and I smelled like her, ensconced in loveliness. Once I was ready, we headed to the college.
When we got there, we walked up the scuffed marble steps into the art building. As we swung the heavy glass doors ajar just enough to fit ourselves through, a gust of cold air escaped the containment of the building. The echo of her boots and the skidding of my sneakers rang clear as bells dropped in a quarry—encroaching on the ears and unavailing. We turned around a few rounded corners, molded that way for the safety of the kids, until we reached the ceramics studio. Inside were seemingly unending rows of shelving, with small pieces plopped down in the depth’s centers of the butcher’s block slabs of oak. It smelled of wet clay—like clean mud, matcha and almond milk—raw wood and toast. I could only imagine the hundreds of hours it must have taken the students to flip, slick, mush and mold that clay into the pieces of art I saw before me. I was intoxicated by the smell and by the serene placidity of the vibe. I could almost hear the heartbeats of everybody there, asynchronously beating to the tunes in each of their earbuds, as the sounds clashed in the shared chamber of the room. As I passed each one, it was as if a DJ with a short attention span was slowly turning the volume up and down on different songs. The perfect environment for the unique transposition of sundry, young, assiduous minds. A few of whom looked up at us as we entered.
Three of the students plucked out their earbuds mid-crafting, pocketed them, and walked over to us. They wore crisp shirts and clearly blue, clean jeans—one of them with designer holes, you could tell they hadn’t been ripped by accident. While the woman I was with collected her various pieces of art into a cardboard box, which had seen too many rainy days, we chatted with her friends.
I asked them, why did you all choose ceramics?
They shared ideas of what drove them to create: For me it’s about expressing emotion, said one. For me it’s about seeking perfection, said another. I like the feel of the clay in my hands, said a third.
I heard names of artists I had never known existed before, like Takaezu, Glick and Leach. They proffered about what they had learned in class, and debated whether class can curb your natural talent. They couldn’t agree on whether I would be better off going to college to learn anything, whether art, music or something more academic; but they didn’t realize there would be no other way for me to access any kind of studio, or that level of knowledge, besides state-funded education.
Your privilege allows you to look past the benefits of a diploma, what it can do for a person economically, I said. (This new me was allowing myself to want such a thing, to acknowledge that it would make my life better too). After I told them this, they stood quietly, considering it.
The conversation started up again, and one of them asked me what I was interested in studying.
I said, I don’t know exactly. I can just tell right now that I’ve been craving the intellectual stimulation, and the chance to explore the arts. I’m sure I would figure it out during general ed classes.
They suggested I take a spin on the wheel and see if it was for me.
I took a wet, slippery lump of clay and slammed it down on the potter’s wheel. At first I moved the wheel slowly, afraid to press the pedal too hard. But as the lump spun around it only got more lopsided. One of the kids suggested I put more pressure on the mound and hold my hands in place, evenly spaced around the center of the wheel. I repositioned my hands and applied more pressure. The clay no longer felt slippery and smooth, it felt more like icing—slightly rough in places because it was moving so quickly and my hands were scraping layers of clay off and around. As I spun, the ball got taller, it became a cylinder. The next step was to make the center dip in the bowl. I naturally figured out that all I needed to do was press my thumbs into the center of the top of the cylinder, keeping that steady pressure and positioning. The bowl spread itself out quickly, as if I was watching a montage transformation in a movie. It got a little lopsided, but I fixed it by pushing parts of it in and parts of it out. By another kid’s suggestions, I moved my hands to one side of the spinning space, to one end of the wheel, placing one hand inside the bowl and one hand outside. That way, I could even it out if I just kept my hands steady. In this position I was able to make interesting grooves in the side of the bowl.
I formed a perfectly round bowl with symmetrical grooves. I thought this would be a given, with the wheel to guide my hands, but this was a rare thing for someone so new to the craft. Or so they said. Maybe they only said so to encourage me. Either way, I left that day with the inspiration to try new arts, and enough confidence in myself to try to get into college. I realized that feeling of lacking I often felt, that unnamable emptiness, could be filled with the expansion of the mind. Playing on the wheel made me feel like I could mold my own life however I wanted it. What I wanted were more intellectual conversations, and more creature comforts. I left my piece there, and they said I could come back in a week to pick it up; it would have gone through the kiln by then.
As we drove away in Lela’s car, she smiled and said, see, I knew you’d like it there. Are you serious about enrolling in classes? She darted her effervescent green eyes back and forth between me and the road as we talked.
I said, yes, definitely, if they let me in.
She said, I think you’d fit right in. It’s the perfect place for a mind like yours. Especially with all your unique experiences, people would love to hear about them.
I told her I was serious and excited. She said she was excited for me.
My brief foray into her world proved to be one of the best days of my life. Not only because I was with her, though that was a factor. Not only because I was in air-conditioning, comfortable and being well-fed, though those were factors as well. But because I felt at home and I felt that I had value, in that mix of twenty-something self-righteous involved-in-the-world people. It was the day I decided I would go to college.
After climbing the dreaded six flights of steps up to her apartment, we slumped down into her couch and sighed in unison. Relieved to be back in the air-conditioning, after momentary subjection to the heat, we sprawled out in her living room for ten or twenty minutes. Her roommate wasn’t around this time, which I was thankful for. When we had laid down, my hand happened to drape across her wrist, and I didn’t move it. Neither did she.
I was getting comfortable in this life. It was easy to get used to it. I started to wonder if maybe Lela would let me stay with her for a few weeks. Maybe we would get together for real and I would end up living here with her, and I could go back to school. We could even commute together. If her roommate didn’t get in the way. I hadn’t been this excited in who-knows-how-long. Drinking almost every day made the feelings dull. I had to harden my senses because living on the street wasn’t as pleasant as I had hoped when I left home. I got used to feeling nothing because it was easier than feeling discomfort. But being in this comfort was bringing feelings back up. For once I didn’t feel like an alien while staying at someone’s house. I hadn’t felt belonging since I lived at home with my mom.
After a sufficient cooling-off period, she asked if I wanted to finish the movie we had missed the end of the night before. I agreed. So, she made popcorn, covered it in that almost-butter flavored seasoning you get from that mini bottle shaped like a beer glass, and started up Netflix again. This time, we were entirely silent as we sat shoulder to shoulder on the sticky leather couch. At one point, during a sweet scene in the movie, she laid her head on my shoulder and said, aww.
When the movie was over, Lela asked if I was ready for dinner. I told her I could go get us supplies from the store, using my food stamps, that it was the least I could do for letting me stay for so long. But she insisted we make something from the kitchen. She had tarragon chicken salad and some Texas toast leftover, so we made sandwiches. While we were eating we talked, about how she met her roommate—craigslist, and how she figured out she wanted to focus her studies on ceramics—the luxury of trial and error, a luxury which she was self-aware about. She asked me more about my family, which we had briefly discussed the night before. I told her I missed them often, but I was glad I was getting life experience. She asked if I would return home to go to school.
I said, I can’t stand it back there. I don’t agree with them on most things. I don’t like the local culture. I have to be somewhere I enjoy living if I‘m gonna settle down again.
She nodded as she half-smiled into the corner of her mouth, plumping up her cheek.
After dinner, Lela said she wanted to go to bed early. We each had a turn to shower. As I stood swaying under the freckled droplets of the shower head, I reflected on my day and my life up until then. I had spent so many years aimlessly adventuring across the country, getting to know what I really believed in, getting to know the world around me, realizing I wanted more out of life once I had less. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a chance to shower twice in one day, and I was grateful.
Later, we watched another movie as she fell asleep in her bed. I was buzzed from the day and evening, so I couldn’t fall asleep. I decided to start reading Nickel and Dimed, and I fell asleep on the floor with the book on my chest. I was in perfect comfort there, in her temperature controlled room, under her silky, soft, beige blanket, laying on her giant faux fur teal pillow, surrounded by the innocent trappings of a life lived for daily reiteration.
The next morning, I woke up to the sound of bacon sizzling on the stove and the smell pervading the room. I can’t stand the smell of bacon (which I couldn’t help but think of as a good quality, because the Bible says it’s dirty), so I packed up my things and told the woman I had followed into this apartment that I needed to spend the day making money.
I would be playing guitar on the street, and I told her, you should come check me out while I sing for my supper.
Lela said, I’d love to get a taste of your life. As she said this, her silky green eyes quickly flashed up to meet mine.She said I was welcome to leave my pack at her apartment for the day, since she knew I’d be hiding it somewhere less safe instead. I did so and thanked her, and went on my way.
When I got to the youth center where I kept my guitar, a few of my friends were hanging out in front. I bummed a smoke and joined in as usual. One of them asked me if I had a good time housing up with that woman. One of them asked how I met her. One of them asked what we did together for two days. One of them said it was a good idea to get her to like me, so she’d help us all out with food and cash. I answered all of their questions. Then, one of them asked if they could stay with her too, the next time I was invited. I said I didn’t think so, since her roommate was so strict, but I could ask. I also wasn’t sure if I was supposed to stay there again that night, since she hadn’t offered but she had asked me to leave my stuff there. When my cigarette was down to the butt, I put it out, threw it in the trash like I always do (I’m good to the environment, in my opinion), and went inside to pick up my guitar. Then I went out to the most lucrative corner I knew that was empty of street performers.
After about an hour of playing, I made about ten bucks. As I played, my hands went numb, and I fell into a trance, paying attention to the chords and motions. I kept thinking about how I had met the woman I was with all weekend, hoping she would come up to me again while I was playing guitar today. It had been awhile since someone got into my head like that.
Lela had passed by my spot a couple dozen times over the past few weeks. Sometimes she would stop and watch me intently, smiling, moving her body to the tunes. She always put money in my guitar case. A few times, we had stopped and had conversations together about where I had come from, where she grew up, why I was on the road, the basics of what she did in her daily life.
Two days ago, the day I first went to her place, she had stumbled up to my spot in the middle of the day. I had assumed she came from brunch. Her green eyes were sparkling like cider in the sunlight. A few people were listening to me play Friend of the Devil, and they all dropped some cash in my case and walked away when the song was over, except for her.
Hey! It’s the pretty girl with the pretty songs! She had said to me.
I asked her what she wanted to hear.
She said, Wagonwheel! Of course!
So I played the song for her.
She asked me where I slept at night, if I had somewhere to stay.
Lots of different places. There are a few roofs, a few little corners under porches of abandoned houses. The church yards, most of the time. They always have food in the morning.
She said, You sleep outside! But it’s so hot and humid and disgusting out here!
I said, I guess. People invite me into their homes to stay for a night or two once in awhile. Usually on the weekend. Mostly women, of course. I don’t feel safe going home alone with men. Unless they invite a whole group of us to stay. Which happens sometimes—people get lonely and want to party.
She exclaimed, Well, come and stay at my place then! It’ll be fun! I’ll paint henna tattoos on you and you can take a shower.
As we had walked back to her apartment, I started to get nervous. I wanted to be on my best behavior, because I thought so well of her. Because of her beautiful, heart-stopping green eyes. That’s when I saw her stairs for the first time, and her room. It was unlike any space I had ever seen. Most people who had invited me home were sloppy and poor. They had very little to risk by bringing an almost-stranger into their homes.
Now, though, Lela was nowhere to be seen. No one was stopping for very long. At least I was making money though. After about three hours of playing I made twenty bucks. After four hours of playing I still only made twenty.
That’s when I took a break for lunch.
After perusing the ready-made aisle in the grocery store and deciding on turkey and Swiss, I went around the corner from the entrance to eat my lunch, where a lot of us bums hang out. It’s a tiny empty lot too small to build on, stuck between two owners who didn’t want to annex it.
I saw my dirtiest friend there who was hunched over and throwing up. His cargo shorts were caked in mud, his t-shirt was tattered at the edges, there were scratches across his face and his shoes were falling apart. His leg was lifted to the side as if it was broken, but I saw nothing wrong with it. I asked him what was hurting, and he turned his leg so I could see the inner seam. I was able to see that he had a giant staph infection, which was covered with dirty gauze, covered in mud, blood and Neosporin. Nowhere near adequate care. I should have been engrossed and grossed out, I would’ve been when I first left home, but things like this didn’t phase me anymore. I asked my dirtiest friend if he had been to the youth center for medical attention. He said they’re the ones who wrapped it two days ago. He, of course, didn’t have health insurance.
He said, I can’t go back to the hospital, that’ll be the third time this month, they won’t see me.
I said, they have to see you and take care of you, it’s the law, no matter what, fuck the debt.
He said, of course fuck the debt, I just think they’ll think I’m there because I’m a junkie, so they won’t help.
I said, they won’t if you don’t ask for pain meds, they’ll see the infection and know it’s for real.
He said I was right. He needed antibiotics at the least, if it wasn’t MRSA. They could give him more effective cream to put on it. He asked if I would come with him. I let him lean on me as we hobbled the six blocks to the hospital, the long begrudgingly hot road to recovery. He winced at every step and a few times we nearly fell over. Those six blocks felt like six miles, with how long it took and how much energy it took to carry him.
I walked him inside and told him I needed to get back to playing, that I hadn’t made enough money yet that day, while I still had the corner to myself. He thanked me for getting him this far. I left him there, knowing there was nothing more I could do for him. If anything, I could smoke him up later when he got out, if I made enough money that day. I could even buy him a shower at the truck stop, which he desperately needed. It was commonly known that women make more money than men on the street—for some reason, people are more apt to take care of us. So, I went back to my post to pick up my guitar again.
The whole thing reminded me what was wrong with this lifestyle. It wasn’t healthy, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t safe. I spent too long ignoring these things and living life day to day. I spent too long finding minor pleasure between the discomfort. I had gotten so used to the discomfort that I became numb to it, but deep down I wanted relief.
As I played guitar for no one, I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my future. I was finally realizing I could still have one, that’s what my view into Lela’s life was showing me. But could I go to school without having a place to live? Where would I get the money for housing? Could I just stay on the street and hide my pack somewhere during class? Would I definitely get federal student aid? It’s supposed to be easy if you have no money. Would it be enough money to go to school? Would I be willing to take out loans? Did I need them? What about new clothes? Did I need them? What was I going to study, anyhow? Shouldn’t I know my major before committing to it financially? Time would tell if I was up to the challenge of commitment.
I decided I would run these thoughts by Lela when I got back to her apartment that night. I was sure she’d be supportive, but I worried she might secretly think I wasn’t good enough, or dependable enough. She hadn’t showed up to watch me that day. Maybe she was busy with someone else.
After eight hours of playing, I made fifty bucks. Enough to buy a few drinks, buy some weed, share with my friends, and save the rest. I decided I would also get a new book—finally, my own copy of Nickel and Dimed. With no overhead, and food stamps, it’s really only some food and extra treats I played for.
When I was done playing, the first thing I did was head to the bookstore. Luckily, they had one copy of the book I wanted left. So I spent some of my money on it. The book smelled like it was warmed by the golden light of walking home from school in the afternoon, and the pages were crisp like the air on a day like that. After the book store I went to put my guitar back in a safe place, and those same friends were hanging out in front of the youth center. I had made enough to buy us all boxed wine from the convenience store. After I spent an hour drinking with them in front of the church, I thought it was a good idea to get back to that woman’s apartment in time to hang out with her that night. I was daydreaming about getting back in her shower.
When I arrived at Lela’s apartment, at the top of the unforgiving cylindrical stairwell, and I knocked on the door, no one answered. I decided I could wait there a little while until she got back. I fell asleep on the steps, and her roommate woke me up. She said Lela was out for the night and she had no idea when Lela would be back.
The roommate said, you can’t sleep here like the bum that you are. You’ll cause a scene in front of the other tenants.
I said, like you’re so wonderful? What makes you any better than me? How dare you be disgusted by people like me. You’re not a very kind person. I was only waiting for Lela to get home. She’s the one who asked me to leave my stuff here for the day. If you’re so worried about the other tenants, let me wait inside.
The roommate said, absolutely not, you smell like the street!
I asked to get my things at least, and she said to wait where I was. A few minutes later, she came out with my pack and told me to be on my way. I had no other choice at that point, I wasn’t getting back into that apartment.
I decided not to wait in front of the building for Lela. Her roommate would bother me again, ask me to leave, and it was better to give it some time between asking Lela for things. That way they she wouldn’t get sick of me.
Besides, I knew the roommate didn’t want me to ever come back. Maybe that’s why Lela wasn’t home when I came around—she was avoiding that awkward moment when she had to turn me away. This made me sad, which I hadn’t felt in a long time because I usually drank it away. She didn’t even care enough about me to make sure it went smoothly.
I ended up spending the night on the roof above the barber’s shop in the middle of town. It had a nice cool breeze so I wouldn’t get too sweaty, like I would have if I slept in the church garden. It also had a nice little pergola so I wouldn’t get covered in rainwater if it started to come down. Propped up against my pack, stretched along the top of my fluffy sleeping bag, I watched the stars. I thought of the woman I had spent the weekend with. I was attracted not only to her, but to her lifestyle. I wanted it more than anything. I wanted to attempt going back to school. I could manage the logistics if I really put my mind to it. I decided I would try again to see her the next day. That night, when I saw a shooting star, I made a wish. …