"If you don't risk anything, you risk more"
brbr -Erica Jong brbr
There was once a chance I didn't take. It was the end of the hot barrio summer and, for some reason, he smelled like peppermint and evergreen and heady cigar smoke. Never did he smell like sweat, though my arms were slick with it, my armpits and under my breasts marked by dark, soggy splotches. I wasn't made for this kind of humid weather; I was designed for rains and overcast skies and the shockingly green, rolling hills of Ireland. The Irish were known for founding the American ghetto, but the Hispanics and African Americans fared better in this. The heat made you feel like every building and body and shiny automobile were right on top of you, crowding you out. My pale, freckled skin only blazed red, redder than my Shirley Temple curls, which only frizzed into unmanageable heaps.
Maybe that's why he chose me, anyway; for the clear and damnably obvious difference. No matter what, it's all speculation now. But, whenever I smell peppermint candies being sucked on by the customers that circulate in my little country store, or in the cold winter, the pine needles waft in their distinct scent, I'm brought back to my fifteenth year. Back when I looked more forward to the dark nights and the cooling breezes that rode shotgun with the moon. Back when I held my breath in bittersweet anticipation for him.
He was dark-skinned, the color of caramel or butterscotch hard candies, and his eyes were an eerie shade of jade green. He drove a gaudy, mint-green El Camino with an interior I never got to see, but in that long summer I daydreamed about it, wondering if it was cream, or maybe black. From my far vantage point, he was well-defined, his shirt tucked into his back pocket, his chest with its small, dark nipples glistening in the noon-time sun. I would sit, feeling deflated and an utter mess in the silent roar of the sun, just for the chance to watch him talking to the boys of the neighborhood. I could never stand it too long, sitting steamed and bent on the concrete steps of the stoop in front of my mother's apartment building.
I had thought I was invisible to him, to them all. Imagine my surprise when I heard the rattle of steps on our metal fire escape. I panicked, truthfully. I wish I could say it was like Romeo climbing the wall to Juliet's balcony, but it wasn't. My mother worked the nightshift at a factory, the best, sturdiest work for women. Even in this day and age, it was hard for females. The oscillating fan in my room was broken, clicking out the monotony of the hot night, struggling in vain to move one way and then the other. I was laying without a stitch on, naked as the day I was born, on my stomach in my bed. I had kicked the sheets off the bottom off my mattress onto the floor. I had no bed frame.
And I heard the rattle on the iron, one, two, three steps closer. Four, five, six and seven. I couldn't think fast enough, I couldn't, I just couldn't. The knife in my drawer was in my hand before I even remembered the sheet lying useless at the foot of my bed. Eight, nine, the top of his head, his trimmed to the quick buzz-cut hair. Ten, eleven, his eyes, the knife held out before me, hands steadier than my heart felt.
He hissed out a "Shh," and stopped his ascent. Stopped everything, in fact, and became a statue, his face caught in a moment of pure, utter surprise and approval. I don't know if it was the weilding of the knife or the lack of clothing that brought him up short, but his eyes roved, as hard and palpable as the touch of his hand. Slowly, as if approaching a crouched tiger, he swung one leg and then the other over the window sill and into my sparse bedroom. There were no posters on the wall, no door to a closet that didn't exist. There was one dresser filled half-way. The magazines thrown on the floor were old doctors' office discards. We couldn't afford much. But he didn't even stop to look at these things, not at the stained sheet tucked into the corners of my mattress, both of which we'd gotten from Good Will. Not at the dresser whose paint was chipping off, revealing a blue paint job, probably done for some baby boy long before I'd been the sparkle in my mother's eye.
His eyes achored me to my spot, the blade of my knife pointed to him like the arrow of a compass, pressing forward south-southeast. They grounded me firmly and ate me up all at the same time, making me feel naive and scrambling for a grasp on what I had thought my reality was. I was up in the air, spinning like cotton candy on Coney Island, and light-headed with shame and fear and something I couldn't name then and still probably couldn't put words to. brbr He continued his shuffling approach, sweeping his hand upward with the utmost care, to reveal a white lily, looking so out of place in his calloused palm. Where he got it, I'll never know, unless he bought it from a vendor or a florist. Our barrio was not known for its gardens, even in the lots behind the apartment complexes. They were only dirt, once landfills until the city demanded they be cleaned up. He never touched me, and never said a single word aside from the hush. I was visibly shaking when he slide his legs back out of the small room, into the warm night air, and down the stairs to the alley. My knife dropped to the dingy rug and I could only stare at the flower.
That flower is still pressed and dried between the pages of my Webster's Collegiate dictioary, between the words I learned in school. I don't know if he ever went to school, if he even knew the meaning of the words I'm using to write about these memories. There are many flowers pushed flat under the weight of the pages, all fingerprinted by his rough and yet merciful hands. A white lilac, a red rose, a lily-of-the-valley and a purple dahlia. Whether I woke or not, there was a flower placed softly on the bedside stand, winking at me and waiting for me in the unyeilding morning sun. This continued for maybe two weeks. There wasn't a day that I didn't remember, this time, to wear some pajamas. But still, he didn't touch me, he didn't say a word.
Not until the 12th of August, anyway, when I picked up a scavenged newspaper, missing its classifieds, its crossword and word jumble, its Living section and Sports section. In the southern-most, left corner, there printed was an article, his name emblazoned on the front page but not important enough for the headline. Dully, I thought how odd it was that anyone from this invisible piece of the city had even made it to the first page. I couldn't really read it, and though my recollections of him are vivid, this bit of a newpaper still comes only in snippets, in synapses of dread and youthful, naive misfortune. Believed to be... Warrant for the arrest of... fingerprint on the evidence is...
He came that night, no flower held deftly between his slender, tan fingers. I was sitting up in bed, awaiting him, hoping beyond any reason that he'd show up. He did not let me down, and for that I'm glad, if only because I don't know what I would have done with myself and the torment in my heart.
He said my name, quickly, quietly, forced. I would have laid down for him right them, the way my name sounded on his tongue, like a drug to a recovering junkie. I would have spread my knees to his strength and accepted that goodbye. Though I had pondered it all day, turning it over and over and refusing to acknowledge what was going to happen, I knew now. It struck me suddenly and perfectly, clear as a pane of glass, as a cut diamond. He would leave before he'd sit in a jail cell. But, it wasn't my surrender he was begging by whispering the simple syllables of my Christain name.
"The car's ready. It's outside. I left a lot of shit, but that's ok, we won't need much, do you have a bag? You should pack quickly. Oh, fuck it, we'll get you new clothes. You're coming, right?"
I shook my head, trying to comprehend the slur of words he was pushing out from his full lips. I stared at him, his eerie eyes flicking from me, to the dresser, out the window, down to the idling car, then down the street. He started at the sound of the siren, something so familiar in the barrio that we wouldn't know how to sleep if all we heard was crickets outside our windows. He was crouched next to the window he'd come through, looking in all directions, casing the joint like the police would do when one of his friends made a deal with the DA and gave up names. Mine was one of them, someone he'd spoken about, someone he'd rambled about to his friends. How I'd gotten under his sun-drenched skin.
By that time, he was well-gone. In this moment, I could briefly see us flying down the Interstate, to anywhere. We'd be living above the law. We'd be our own law, our own judge, jury, and executioner. Our own Bonnie and Clyde. But it was a moment, and only that-- the next second I was back to reality, anchored again, but this time, not by his eyes or the infatuation that sucked at me. He knew well before I whispered, "I can't."
The silence was heavy with need. His, mine, it didn't matter, it soaked the air between us. It drowned it. And then he was gone.
I finished high school and graduated valedictorian of my graduating class at SUNY. I used my Business degree to open a small store in the most middle-of-nowhere town, somewhere that my name didn't echo scandal and police and interrogation rooms. Somewhere that didn't reek of snitches and the gang in the barrio that knew me through his teenaged love. Somewhere that the pigs didn't know my name.
He was a chance I never took, but a chance I never gave away. I held the memory of him as close as a carress. Somewhere in the world, there is a boy that was rivetted by me. Most days that's enough. But there's still that stray day, when the ennui beats at me, and I wonder,