Photo by Charles Wagner on Flickr Creative Commons. flickr.com/photos/chazwags/437393020
There’s a simple beauty to South Central Los Angeles. The way the sky glows orange and pink from the California smog over rows and rows of tired houses that look like dusty square cakes sagging with age and stories. To live here, one takes for granted the emptiness of the simple brown-green lawns until they see a dead body facedown on the sidewalk coming home from school.
I grew up in a tiny two-roomed house with my grandmother and sister in Crenshaw. I hated my home so much that staying cooped in four paper-thin peeling white walls was like having a vise around my throat.
When I was seventeen and a half, my grandmother had a stroke and passed out in our backyard. It was just my sister and I when it happened and we both panicked and cried. I called 911 and it took thirty minutes for the cops and an ambulance came up. A young policeman gave me tissues and asked me questions while he took notes. They were personal like “does your grandma treat you well,” and “where are your parents?” Then he asked me some personal questions, like if I had a boyfriend or not. Before I left, he gave me a receipt with his phone number on it, and I saw him in the neighborhood again when my sister and I walked home eating Rite Aid ice cream.
I was eighteen when we got married and I moved from Crenshaw to Culver City. Leaving the neighborhood wasn’t as great as I thought it was. It still came back in bits and pieces even when I was in there – teenagers asking me to buy liquor for them on the bad side of town. There was even a part where the middle-class blacks inhabited, away from the whites. I had been envious of them, but now I realized they were outsiders as well. I felt like I was lifted from the bottom of a pyramid only to be clutching on awkwardly to a higher rung. I traded comfort for exotic appeal. I often walked alone by myself because my husband would be out working all day. People would exchange glances with me on the sidewalk and I felt like they could see right through me.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that my husband was attracted to children and also a serial adulterer. It became more and more obvious that he was having an affair – one he flagrantly tried to hide as if he thought I was still a naïve seventeen-year-old with no knowledge of deception or corruption. He would come home late, talking in a boyish hushed whisper with dripping words as if he was admiring a puppy. On days that he had work off, he told me that he would meet friends on weekday afternoons and come home late in the evening. It became painfully clear that he was seeing someone much younger than me, probably someone that was still in school.
I was hoping to gather my courage in confronting him one day, though I had dropped sour hints for months, which he waved away like gnats that left smarting but annoying bites. I knew eventually the two worlds would collide but I had to set up the stage first, so I conveniently let him know whenever I was spending a night at a friend’s house on his days off. I did this for weeks to let him get used to me not being around. It all paid off when we were both at home. He was sitting on the toilet seat, with the bathroom door open to lecture me rudely on something I found trivial. Mid-speech, a storm of childish ding-dongs rang; breaking the rumble of frustrated married life with its cheerfully mocking melody. We made eye contact for a split second – the look of fear and disbelief on his face was priceless – before making a mad dash for the door. He was closer to the door but I managed to push him aside while he was unbalanced and trying to pull his shorts on his way out of the restroom. I had forgotten that he was a policeman and much bigger and stronger than me – in this moment I was unstoppable.
I got to the door and slammed it open, to find a young girl, slightly younger than I was when he met me, holding a hand-drawn card and take-out bag of tacos. It took us both a second to realize who each other were. She was wearing a school sweatshirt and a backpack too big for her. Her face said straight-A student, the fresh sweat meant that she had taken the metro and walked. She had meant to surprise him. I could only imagine if I had gone out that day if he would he be mad or amused, “I told you not to visit me here.”
I was in a robe, hair unkempt and braless – desperate for truth while her husband stumbled after with his pants halfway up his thighs. At that moment, we understood each other. It was the same shock, fear, and betrayal we saw in each other’s eyes. I couldn’t decide who to feel more sorry for. It was me looking at a reflection of a younger self. It was her seeing what she could have been. It was the first time I felt completely understood by another stranger since I was married and yet we were automatically enemies by circumstance, time, and place.
I grabbed her shoulders and squeezed them hard, my fingernails digging into her shoulders underneath the blue Dorsey High sweater. I held them there even as my husband tried to pull me aside, only managing to pull her tiny body in with me. I held them until I was sure they would leave bruises, until tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, until all three of us were screaming and crying in front of the door in a tangled mess of unhappiness. But I never forgot the way we looked into each other’s eyes – both searching for answers, transfixed.
I saw a young woman with a hunger in her eyes.
She saw a scared girl that wanted to get out.
This story was submitted to the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction contest.