AP American Literature
Living As A Vice
The street boys are enigmatic; beautiful in the way they reveal sordid secrets with just one surly smile. They scuff sidewalk corners with loitering feet, crushing cigarette butts into the concrete with over-zealous confidence. Sometimes they strut through alleyways, where shredded paper caught in broken bottles scratches the Air Force One sneakers they so proudly wear. Sometimes the sun shines through what trees there are and the unnaturally healthy green glow settles on their wide-brimmed baseball hats, embroidered with letters like B and D and NTG.
They grow up like kings, playing pickup basketball on broken asphalt courts and drinking Arizona Iced Tea for ninety-nine cents. They wear baggy red t-shirts that accent their broad shoulders and thick biceps. They refuse to acknowledge the wider world and laugh in the face of the law. Some people call them an epidemic spreading with the rap music but the street boys call it reality.
Sometimes I watch them. Their eyes squint with beautiful cruelty, and I catch their disease with a quick glance. There was only one boy wouldn't let me heal the sickness after I had caught it. It was his eyes that kept me infected: washed out blue like spilled Gatorade and crushed ice. They could be bloodshot or half closed in exhaustion, but they always watched me with dangerous care.
I used to go see him. A little while on the train and I'd be in his town, where he picked me up in a rusting red two-door Nissan with a bass system that cost more then the rest of the car. The windows were down even in November, because he needed to blow his nicotine addiction out in obsessive clouds of choking smoke.
Forget the vices. Before him, I had laughed off the jokes and walked away with a swagger. But those eyes, faded like crushed mollusk shells and just as sharp; those eyes were a disease with no cure. Not that I was looking for salvation.
Keep in mind: this is the streets. Parking lots littered with broken brandy bottles whose dark glass glittered under the flickering streetlights. Shadows always stretched longer, sounds echoed louder, sirens screeched like the world was ending. There's a peace in the fear, a calmly chaotic stillness because it's always the same here.
We sat on the hood of his car outside a Walgreen's while he smoked a Newport and started to tease me. The stillness echoed through me and I forgot that it's dangerous to tease a street boy: that they won't accept anything stronger than them. I threatened to punch him, smiling coyly because it was funny to imagine me being able to hurt him.
His eyes darkened to the sickening color of paling bruises, and he stared at me. I didn't want to look at his eyes, didn't want to let myself keep catching the disease. "Baby, baby, baby," he condemned, shaking his head and watching me, waiting.
I wondered if I could even still look him in the eyes. Could I damn myself? Could his chiding sweet nothings conquer disease? Could I forget the vices? Do we submit to fear just to keep the stillness real?
Maybe what I learned that day should be taught like Math or Chemistry. Basic truths. If you take a piece of someone inside you then they hate you. But they'll cover up that hate with beauty and something like love. Submission is another word for letting someone hate you. Hate themselves.
I learned from his eyes, took the crushed pain and washed out memory and put it into my eyes as they tried to show a steady refusal to resist him. I kept looking into his eyes until they faded from bruise to sky and knew that the bruises might be mine now but he'd still call me baby.
I wanted to know what gave him those eyes. But it would always just be a sordid secret to me because I could never submit enough. Even those thirty seconds wouldn't be enough. He'd expect more, and I'd have tried not to resist. But submission's not my nature.
I would have liked to live that life, to live as a possession in his bedroom like one of his hats. He could own me in the way that I can't own myself. I might learn how to be really beautiful, so that I wouldn't mind the submission. That is, I'd like to be as addictive as his cigarettes so that he would want to keep me with him always. He could light my fire and I'd take away his breath. I'd like to warm his blood and rest in his hand like the half empty bottle of Southern Comfort he so often has. I could bring him high up to slurred happiness and attraction. I might even learn to be as sharply jolting as the plastic wrapped cocaine, making his eyes open and his mouth open in happy shock.
After I stared in his eyes he tried to pull me in, make the submission complete. That was the end. I twisted away and pulled up the hood of my sweatshirt. I couldn't let myself touch him. But "I missed my chance. I should have gone for the throat" (Dillard). A few gentle kisses and I could have been all his.
Well. We could have lived together. Lived in a falling down house in the projects of suburbia where I would be like a living breathing picture of beautiful controlled by cruelty. We could have picked up the broken pieces of color in his eyes and painted the walls. I could have never changed, could have let him hate me because he hated himself. I could have embraced the bruises, and eventually the blood. I could be pure vice: passionate, touching, bleeding, burning and jolting. He could whisper baby and I would be "open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will" (Dillard).
"We could, you know" (Dillard). We could all live in submission: hatred, fear, beauty, cruelty, and never-changing faces. It would be easier, a simple choice to let someone else have control. Is that really damnation?
Perhaps all I needed to do was to have kissed back, chosen to take his hatred and make it my love. But that would be wrong. Diseases aren't meant to be embraced. Pure vice is full of vomit and wasted paychecks.
I think it would be well and good if you took your self-hate and dragged it through the streets like tormenting memory follows your shadow. It could fall off in shreds like torn newspaper, trickling down into the gutter with pale blue Gatorade and the smashed bottles of Southern Comfort. You could let it drag until it was another scuff on sneakers, another smear of ash on a street corner; could pull it through empty parking lots and under the flickering streetlights until you could no longer hate yourself, could only hate the stillness, could only hate the cruel beauty of the streets.