Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Color of Absence

It’s cold. The sky is endless black, punctuated by barely visible stars. The city is dark, too, despite all the light glowing inside buildings, and the wind is up, rushing and biting at her skin as Nikki hurries down the sidewalk toward The Dive. She’s been cold for the two days because business has been slow, and she wants to have a chance to revel in the warmth of the building before she gets on stage. This is her first gig this month, and she's glad for the extra money.
Once she's inside the club, she heads toward the backstage area, slipping through the crowd, and nodding to the greetings sent her way, Nikki knows most people here solely from playing at the club or seeing them on the streets. She borrows a guitar from the owner, and plays her songs acoustic when there's an open slot. It’s fun, and she gets paid a little from the Ray, and it's warm. Ray tends to look past the fact that she may smell like she's been sleeping in a garden- that thick smell of soil- because he likes to help out the street kids. He’ll open up odd jobs to them first; Nikki sometimes wonders if he's been out on the streets himself.
It’s not until she's actually on the stage that Nikki takes off her jacket. It’s a brown hoodie with a little bit of raggedy fake fur lining the collar. It’s a size or two too big, but it's a lucky find, and she doesn't put it down much, afraid of someone stealing it. As she's turning around from laying her jacket down on the stool set up on the stage, Nikki catches sight of a group of kids who look familiar. After a few moments of staring, she realizes that, fuck, these are her friends. Or, they were her friends, before she was on the streets. She’s struck cold for a second, because she never thought she'd see them again.
Their houses aren't near here. Their school isn't nearby. Turning her attention back to her guitar, she takes her eyes off her old friends and quickly finishes tuning. As she steps up to the mic and clears her throat, she feels their eyes turn to her. At least, she thinks she does, but there's no way to know, and there isn't enough of her that cares to make her turn her head in their direction.
Nikki plays a thirty minute set and gets a decent amount of applause at the end. She heads back stage, tugging her jacket on, and deposits the guitar in the changing room Ray keeps. Then, she drifts out into the crowd, searching intently for Ray; she wants to get her money and get out, fast. But Life is being a bitch, and Ray is standing less then six feet from the kids Nikki knows. She walks over, hands stuffed into her pockets, and doesn't look at them once.
“Hey Ray,” Nikki says, sidling up to the aging man.
"Hello, Miss Nikki. You want your money?"
"Of course not, I just wanted to bask in your company,” she says, a grin tugging at her mouth.
Ray snorts, reaching into his pocket for her money. He knows to only give her cash.
There's some commotion off to their right, and Ray quickly excuses himself to see what's going on. Nikki is mid-turn when one of her friends calls out her name. She turns back in their direction, cursing her lack of bitchy attitude and her inability to just ignore them.
"Hey," she says, giving them a small nod, a small smile.
There are only four people standing in front of her. Jenna, who used to be one of her closest friends, two others that her just part of their general group of friends-a guy and a girl-, and another guy Nikki doesn’t recognize. But that figures, since it's been over a year. The three people she does know, Jenna especially, are staring at her, blinking a few times too many, like they don't recognize her. Nikki takes a second to inventory herself and compare it to how she was before she left.
On the outside, not too much has changed. Nikki is scrawny, from the lack of steady food, but she doesn’t think it's as noticeable with her jacket; her red and brown mess of hair is cut short, close to her head, and she's got a bruise on the underside of her jaw.
"Where did you go?" Jenna asks right away. Her voice is tight, angry underneath the surface. “One day you were at school, and the next you weren't, and we couldn't get in touch with you. What the hell happened to you?"
Nikki shrugs, swallowing. She glances from the ground to her friend's face and holds her gaze. "I got kicked out."
Jenna stares at her, then lets out a sharp,” What?"
"I got kicked out of my house. And I couldn't really stay up there. Homeless kids would really stick out in a neighborhood like that."
"Who kicked you out of your house? Why?"
Nikki shook her head easily. "It doesn't matter who or why. But I’m sorry I didn't let you know I was alright. That was pretty shitty."
Jenna's eyes are back to the angry glare.
"You're shitting me, right? You're homeless? As in, living on the streets. What do you do, hustle for money?"
Nikki's face cloud over at that, and Jenna spots it.
"You fuck people for money?"
Nikki can feel the disgust about to enter the conversation, the lecture about how dangerous and awful it is to prostitute. As if she didn't know firsthand. As if there was any other way to get by.
"Look," Nikki says, abruptly,” I’ve got to go find my friend, alright. If you come around here again, you'll probably find me." She pulls away from the group, quickly, unable to see another part of her life turn into a mess, unable to have that weight on her shoulders. She moves straight for the door, letting herself out into the cool night.
There are people milling around the parking lot like it's and outdoor extension of the club. Nikki walks to the corner of the building, to rest against while she smokes a cigarette she had bummed off another performer earlier that night. As she's settling her back against the brick corner, she hears muffled noise come from the small alley way directly to her right and behind her. She turns her head to look, briefly wondering if someone is having sex back there. She's not at all prepared for the sight she sees, dropping her cigarette and feeling like her heart has stopped.
Lying on the ground, just barely in the light, Nikki could see Izzie. She would know that blond hair anywhere; Izzie had refused to cut it because it had reminded her of her home. But, now the golden white color is tainted with red. Nikki's chest constricts tight, her hand applying a death grip to the brick corner, before she pushes herself off and over to her friend. Nikki drops to her knees next to Izzie, alternately shouting her name or shouting for help. She fumbles for Izzie’s hand, runs her fingers across the wrist for a pulse; Izzie's eyes are closed, her mouth slightly open.
The air feels like it's getting colder, and Nikki keeps shouting. People are coming there way, and she faintly makes out the sound of someone calling 9-1-1, but most of her attention is focused on Izzie. She shakes Izzie's shoulder gently, calls her names, ignoring the fact that someone behind her is saying her name. Nikki pulls Izzie into her lap, cradling her head and repeating her name in hushed tones. Club patrons are still watching, and behind Nikki, Jenna is wondering who this person is.
The ambulance arrives fast, pulling Izzie into the back and tearing off towards to hospital, the EMTs not seeing Nikki when she asks if she can ride with. Instead, she's left standing on the pavement, watching the flashing lights retreat.
"Hey," someone says softly.
Nikki looks at the hand on her arm, then the face it belongs to. Jenna.
"Look, I'm sorry about what i said in there. We can drive you to the hospital. You don't have a car, right?"
Nikki shakes her head, and is led into the backseat of a green car. She sits there, boneless in the seat, staring fixedly at the handle to open the door. As soon as the car pulls in front of the hospital doors, Nikki bolts out of the seat and into the hospital, straight for the front desk.
"Is Izzie Santinaro here?" she asks, eyes wide.
"Are you family?" questions the nurse, eyes flashing to her computer screen.
"Yes, I am. Is she here?"
The nurse nods, moves the mouse a few times, then nods again. "She's in room 205. The doctors probably still in there so-"
Nikki is already running toward the stairs, up to Izzie's room. She slows outside Izzie's door, peering into the blue-wash room. There's a man in a white lab coat standing next to the bed, writing something on a clipboard.
'Is Izzie alright?" Nikki asks the doctor, walking into the room.
The man looks up from his papers. "Yes, she'll be relatively fine. She was beaten. As far as we can tell, that's the only thing that happened. It wasn't severe, but whoever did it did knock her out, so we'd like to keep her over night. She should wake up soon from the medication, if you'd like to stay."
Nikki nods, stepping around the doctor and pulling a chair up to Izzie's bed. The doctor quietly leaves the room, hanging his clipboard at the end of the bed. Nikki tangles her hands with Izzie's, watching her friends face. She can't understand how Izzie got hurt. Or, why.
They were just kids, in ratty shirts and jeans. The shirts were almost always too big, because they got the majority of them from strangers who tended to buy the shirts in impersonal fashions and sizes like that would make the kids they were giving the shirts to less real; or, the got them from older women who thought that fitting shirts exposed them to men, and therefore enabled the men to 'demean' them. Nikki always wanted to argue that it was up to her what was demeaning, but she didn't want to chase away free clothes.
Besides not looking particularly fabulous, the area around The Dive wasn't known for its violence or crime rates. Nikki sniffles, trying not to cry. Even though the doctor had said Izzie would be fine, Nicki was still scared. Izzie and she were the last of their little group of gutter kids. There used to be ten of them, squatting together near and abandoned park with metallic rusting slides. Now, Nikki just had Izzie.
"Please be alright," she said softly, her voice coming out a little horse. "When you get better, we can look for real jobs, okay? And we can try and find an actual home. We'll be better, just make sure you wake up. We can clean ourselves up and get some decent clothes. Maybe start school again, or something. Find you a boy to fall madly in love with."
Nikki imagined Izzie rolling her eyes and laughing at the last statement. Izzie was a firm believer in finding somebody to love and be loved by, somebody cool and fun. She'd always laugh, saying she could find a Prince Charming to take her away from that shit hole. Nikki didn't want the same; she wanted to be able to not touch and not fuck for a long, long time. But she understood Izzie wanting to, and they drew imaginary dream-guys on the sidewalk with chalk or rocks when they were bored.
Nikki dropped her head to the edge of the bed, letting her eyes close. Outside of the room, Jenna and her friends had caught up to Nikki and had watched the whole exchange. After a moment, Jenna pulled her friends away, back to their car to go home.
In the morning, Nikki is woken up by harsh voices. She raises her head, looking around the room, then at her friend; Izzie is still asleep, so Nikki stands up and walks out into the hallway. The doctor from the night before is standing a few feet away, talking with two people who look vaguely familiar. The doctor spots Nikki out of the corner of his eye, and waves her over. She looks at the two people standing with the doctor, both looking older than him, a man and a women, one with blond hair, one with brown.
"What's going on?" Nikki asks the doctor.
"These," the man says, motioning to the people in front of him," are Isabel's parents. They would like to take her home."
Nikki's stomach drops out from under her, a miniature repeat of the night before.
"What? They can't do that!."
The woman turns sharply towards her. "Oh yes, we can. Our baby has been corrupted and beaten on the streets. I will have no more of this happening."
"It's your fault she's on the streets," Nikki snaps, her insides twisting with anger. "You kicked her out of your house."
"But we never knew she would become a-a-"
"A hustler? What else do you think we can do to survive? Do you think some homely little church go-er is going to come and take us into their home?"
Both of the parents are slightly open-mouthed, the mother nervously fingering a cross she has around her neck.
"The most they ever did was throw pamphlets in our faces about saving our souls and re-virginizing ourselves. They never offered food or shelter and even spare change. What did you think you were sending your daughter off into?"
The doctor clears his throat, trying to dispel the tension. "We can address this later. But, in the examination it was noted that Isabel had bruises around her face and neck at least a few days old. Do you know where they came from?"
Nikki turns to the doctor, flexing her fingers. "Me."
"You?” the mother gasps, her voice haughty.
"Yes. And she gave me these," Nikki replies, gesturing to the few bruises scattering her own face and neck. "It's better to look worn down on the streets. The creeps tend to go for the pretty kids, so if you have bruises, or short hair, or whatever, the usually stay away."
"Creeps?” the father asks, tentatively.
"Yeah, you know, the guys the cut you open once they get you in their car. We try to stay away from them." Nikki can't keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
The mother's face is shocked, and she’s about to stomp off, when she catches a glimpse through the window of Izzie waking up. She quickly hurries into the room, pulling her husband with her.
Nikki clenches her teeth as she watches the reunion. It's not that she doesn't want Izzie to have a good life, but she doesn't trust parents that can be so unloving and kick their own kid onto the streets. Plus, Izzie is her best friend, and she doesn't want to lose her. And, that may not happen, but you can't say for sure when you're on the other side of the state from someone, and one of you is homeless.
Nikki is numb, later, when Izzie pulls her into a hug and tells her about going home. She holds on tight through the hug, and takes the phone number Izzie presses into her hand. Izzie promises to visit soon, with this unbelievable grin on her face. A Nikki smile back, nods, and tries not to feel it when Izzie walks out into the parking lot and gets into a car with her parents.
Once the vehicle is gone from sight, Nikki's insides collapse, and she sits down on the curb, pulling her knees up to her chest to keep all the hurt in. Nikkie sniffled, keeping her eyes low. What did she do now? There wasn't anyone left. All of the kids in their group had gotten out. Some had found friends to take them in, some had found group homes. Others had gotten sick, or hurt by stupid men. Now, Izzie had left with her parents. Nikki let out a small whimper, pressing her fingers against her legs, feeling cold and hopeless. What do you do when you're the last one left?

© Copyright 2007 Abby Almon

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