Tria Andrews and M. Joseph Irwin

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Shopping in a cheap boutique beside the ocean. Nothing fit properly or the way I expected and in the fluorescent light my body was a mass of imperfect flesh. I find I am surprised at aging like I was surprised at the onset of puberty. I don’t know why, but I expected everything to happen at once—not little, horrifying changes you observe one at a time like inspecting something foreign under a magnifying glass. The point here is I felt sorry for myself.

I can’t see anything without looking through myself first. Not, I see things as I am. Not, I see things through my own perspective. I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING BUT THROUGH MYSELF. As if a little me was strapped to my chest. Not a child—a small, mute me, head just covering my line of vision. Most of the time I’m not conscious of him, but I’m conscious of looking to either side of him. I’m conscious of looking through him. Of considering him, even if it isn’t exactly him that I recognize as the obstruction. He’s there and not there—like my nose.

My sister found something and we stood in line waiting to pay. A group of younger girls came up behind us and I could hear their laughter and childish talk. I do not use childish here pejoratively. I love hearing snippets of childrens’ and adolescents’ conversation. I love watching them touch one another and whisper into each other’s hair; sometimes I think observing these interactions is what makes being a substitute teacher bearable.

At Jersey Boys last week, I was reminded why I don’t like mainstream theatre—one simple-minded, crowd-pleasing number after another, strung together by sentimental dialogue and one-dimensional emotions. That we didn’t pay made it bearable; being polite afterwards was unbearable. Outside the Civic Center, while the Playhouse crew debated what to do next, a homeless man caught my attention. I looked at him and he at me, and I looked away. Excuse me, sir, he yelled. He stood at attention. Permission to approach, please, sir. Sure, I said.

Three of them it seems to me and I grazed over their bodies so as not to appear interested. Slight, beautifully awkward, quite pretty, but then my eye caught something not quite right. I turned back and one of the girls wore her arm in a sling, but it wasn’t the sling. My eyes moved to her face, one half perfect, flawless, the other side—the same side as the arm with the sling—freshly mutilated, scarred, horrifyingly ugly. Then I did something that still makes me sick to my stomach. I visibly shuddered and what’s much, much worse—she saw me.

He had a painful stutter. Small guy. He trembled. Handsome face. He took off his hat and, holding it in his hand, seemed to forget where it had gone. Bald with a rim of hair below his crown. A plastic grocery bag from Vons clutched to his side. The other arm waved up and down wildly looking for the words. After struggling for a while, he said, I’m. in need. of. rep-resen-tation. I wanted to help. I asked if I could help. People I knew joined me. He thought I was a lawyer, as we were in the Civic Center. He wanted a cigarette. A few dollars. He wanted to tell me a joke that he couldn’t articulate. Sir, he said, sir. Just. tell. my. family. I did my best. Then he calmed. His trembling stopped, and he looked to the friend next to me. Her boyfriend would propose in the morning, and she was the only who didn’t know. The whispers behind her back. The conspiracy of good intentions. Miss, he said, Miss, do you think I have redeeming qualities?

My sister and I left the store. I felt like crying. We’d planned to eat lunch, but I felt sick at the pit of my stomach. I kept thinking about how the girl had seen my reaction, internalized it. I thought how this outing with her friends was in all likelihood the first time she had left the house since, what I gathered, was some sort of terrible accident. I thought of her beautiful, youthful body, untouched, and junior high dances and high school dances and the faces of the boys she would like who would not like her back, but once might have, and what her parents must feel and all the times she would lock herself in her room to cry.

You have a beautiful heart, the girl said. Okay, that’s okay. Not the best thing she could have said. Patronizing, but okay. Now what? He closed his eyes and with his hat-clutching hand put his fist to his chest. He said a few more things, started to say a few more things, thanked us for listening. The spell broke. My phone rang. My girlfriend who had walked her friends to their car and was walking back. Where are you? I said.

Walked toward the ocean. Had my sister seen her? Yes. She listened to me quietly. Words, words. Finally, when I was finished, she said, But did you see her hair? She had it fixed perfectly.

Her boss said at the pre-party downtown that he understands there’s got to be homeless people, but why do they have to hang out outside a restaurant? People who hate him for other reasons took issue with the second half of his statement, but I struggled with the first. How does he know there’s got to be homelessness? I’d really like to know. And what is the why? Laziness? Economic hardship? Disease? Moral turpitude?

Coward, I told myself. Coward. I walked away. My lady found me and wondered what was wrong. A homeless guy, I said. But she didn’t get it—I was sweet for talking to him. She didn’t get it. Not her fault. She tried, and I kept my back turned to him out of embarrassment for myself. But it didn’t matter. When I finally turned around, he wasn’t there.

I’ve thought about writing this moment before but couldn’t. Not much to it. I felt sorry for myself and then I didn’t. It changed nothing. I’ve found if I keep myself busy, the less mindfulness I put into it. I haven’t seen the girl since. I’m still not sure what to make of what my sister said or why it stayed with me. I want to take that shudder back, the recognition in the girl’s eyes as she watched me. I want to take the accident back and make her whole again. Why, though? I have asked myself that many times. Perhaps because only then could I feel comfortable in her presence.

I haven’t thought about writing him. I imagined myself as him. Even as I looked through myself, I looked from within him. I couldn’t speak. My fist was tight around a plastic bag. I wasn’t in a position to help. I needed help. But I wasn’t him. I don’t pretend that I empathized with him. I just mean I was there with him. Then I wasn’t.

Let me put it this way: sometimes, when I’m high, the little me pulls in, further into my chest, so that he’s almost not there at all. I’m aware of the space between me and others and how that space is no space, a thing without things. They fall off. Words. Protections. Fears. Without little me, the choice to engage seems obvious, necessary. Regarding the pain of others, let it be said that I have no choice but to be others unless I want to be me all the time . . .

Sometimes when I’m high, I have the feeling of otherwise being trapped within myself. I’m high and I realize what we fight over has no importance. Aware of my heart beating against my chest or the life in my leg resting on the sheet or how much he must love me when I pretend to be asleep and he slides his shoulder gently from beneath me, guiding his hand someplace nonsexual. When I’m high I think my throat is going to close up. Pray to a blank god, please just let me get through this and I’ll never do it again.

I promised to stop masturbating once after I fucked the wrong girl, who was not the wrong girl at all, but because we didn’t use a condom and I was interested in a more prudish girl. I took an AIDS test and for two weeks told god I’d stop masturbating if he just got me through this.

Does it ever strike you that we hate to be alone? Even in sleep we are together. If you’re afraid, just reach out an arm.

Does it ever strike you that in another life we are lovers? In this life, we are strangers with common interests. Maybe we are friends and lovers in this life, an arm’s length away, jaded by ourselves, our bodies, our hurts—seeking reassurances, retreating from love out of fear.

I substitute teach. I’m somewhere new practically everyday. No one is very nice to me because what’s the use, they’ll never see me again. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I think it’s the perfect job for me.

Sometimes I hate everyone and everything. Friends the most. People who know me. Obligations. I want to sit in my room in the silence, pick out a spot on the wall.

I want to get out on the street and see people. I want to shake, shake the people I work with, see their facades crumble. I feel like I’m always pulling up my own facade like a pair of ill-fitting jeans, hand to the back waistband. They like me, acknowledge my work. I hate myself for not having the courage to get out.

The kids, they’re beautiful. In Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, she writes that in youth even the ugly are beautiful. Even the picked-at skin, greasy hair, overripe bodies—I find them beautiful. They pull me aside. A problem with a girlfriend. Miss A, he says, a boy I have known for twenty minutes. Miss A, do you think she’ll leave me? Her parents say they’ll send her back to the Philippines if she keeps seeing me. Do you think they will?

They all need to go to the nurse. They’re young, sick for attention. All the girls have cramps and it seems they must all be bleeding all of the time. They need two Advil. What they really need is someone to stroke their hair. The accidental brush of skin that comes along with handing someone two flesh-colored pills.

A woman in my office, her son died in Iraq. It was earlier this year; I went over to her house in Ramona with a group of people to be with her. I rang the doorbell. She answered and hugged me until I wept.

She didn’t want her boy to join. Sure, it saved him from dangerous proximity to meth and a rural East County faux-ghetto “lifestyle” of low rider trucks and white boys talking/dressing/acting like black rappers, but she didn’t want him to join. When he did, she turned her energy toward supporting him, waiting for his calls, sending him packages, talking about him at work. Shorty finished basic training today. Shorty joined Airborne. Shorty’s on leave and he’s coming home for three days.

I got my hands on their essays. They’re beautiful. One I’ll never forget, a seventh grade boy’s. They were writing firsts. My first this. My first that. His essay was My First Time to Be an Uncle. My sister was standing there and all of a sudden we heard SPLASH! There was water all over the floor. Then everybody left for the hospital, my mom, my sister, and my brother. Everybody except me. I stayed home and cleaned up the slippery water that was all over the floor.

Another boy: My Chihuahua is named Boo Boo. He teaches me responsibility because I wake up every morning to walk him. Boo Boo looks so cute when he’s sleeping. The car hit Boo Boo. I was yelling. I was crying. I was so sad, but I know Boo Boo is in a better place.

I’ve noticed they all write past. Past vs passed. Past away.

He kept a blog. Friends and girlfriends, family telling him they missed him, thought about him, couldn’t wait to see him. His replies, he missed them, thought about them, couldn’t wait to see them. Had enough of the war—the sand and heat and waiting, the constant clatter of machines and artillery. For four days, he didn’t write an entry and on the fifth, his mother got the news from a 2nd lieutenant at her door. A mortar shell hit his Humvee.

They have babies. Eighth graders impregnating their twenty-three-year-old girlfriends in Tijuana. Kids still interested in stickers and Saturday morning cartoons. Miss A, you have any kids? No? Well, I guess I beat you to it.

Another girl hands me a letter for her teacher. My name is Isela Cruz. I am twelve years old. I like shopping, listening to music, and hanging out with my friends. I have a big smile, but if you look into my eyes you will see they are sad. If you lift up my shirt, you will see cuts and bruises. They are always fighting. I wonder what I have done to make them so mad.

Like a wedding, everyone made it about himself. Hugs, tears and bravado from Army vets, Hoo-rah Shorty, you took one for your country. Their memories of Shorty, what a wonderful person he was. But also their pain. His mother held a wake in Ramona, the way Shorty would have wanted it, with tequila, barbeque, and fireworks. She went from table to table consoling and telling stories. She let everyone cry, but she didn’t cry. She was all cried out, so she sat at tables with friends, strangers, coworkers telling them what a good man her son had become. Handling it so well, they said. Her husband was piss-drunk with his brothers and crying in the front lawn, wishing god would crush him.

The kids snatch passes from your fingers. Tell you you’re not their motherfucking boyfriend so you can’t tell them what to do. Tell you you need to show some respect. Say they hate you. Sometimes they do. Say they’ll slap you. And sometimes they do. When you tell them you’re there to help them, sometimes, just sometimes, they might listen.

The world is populated exclusively by good people. I believe this, Tria. Good people with real pain or self-pity. Desiring a better world. A world that will treat them better. But no good deed goes unpunished, as Celine said, and the good people learn to take take and protect themselves with whatever bullshit reasoning. They live out childhood injuries, full of vengeance and self-hatred. So, for fuck sake, let us treat children with kindness and insist they do the same. When they don’t, let us understand but also stand up against them lest they take their hurts out on naive 18-year-olds, whole countries full of hurting children, pregnant mothers, older people, who just want someone to confirm that their lives somehow matter.

Tria Andrews has published fiction, poetry, and photography in red, Eyeshot, The Strip, See You Next Tuesday, and Fiction International.

M. Joseph Irwin has published numerous A&E and news features; however, this is the first publication of his creative work. His fiction is also forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail.

This story is included in issue #41: Freak. Copyright © 2008 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.

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