My headphones turned up loud, playing Atreyu, I wandered through the streets, nowhere to go, nowhere to be. I was in some random neighborhood, not quite the ghetto but on the outskirts of it, definitely not a "nice" neighborhood, as my parents would say in their nasal, falsely genial voices. Thank God I'd left—well, partly left, partly was thrown out. To get away from them, their hypocrisy, and their judgment was a sure blessing. But I had no place to stay, so I'd camped out wherever possible for the past month. This neighborhood seemed like a good place to hand for however long I could, except that even through my rock music playing directly into my ears at full volume, I could faintly hear hip-hop music playing somewhere nearby. That was bad for two reasons: one, I hated hip-hop music, and two, I tended to hate those who loved hip-hop music. Unfortunately, every step I took seemed to bring me closer to the source of it. I rounded a street corner and immediately stopped in my tracks.
There, in the street, in front of my very own eyes, a black kid stood next to a set of large, high-quality speakers blasting the aforementioned sound. I paused my ipod and pulled my headphones down to rest around my neck, placing a hand on my hip. The kid turned to hit a button on his own ipod, plugged into the speakers, and saw me. I raised one eyebrow at him, knowing I probably looked not only lost but also very strange—a white girl with ashy white-blonde hair in a black, almost ghetto neighborhood. My nose ring, snakebites, and three earrings in my left ear didn't help that image much, although they at least portrayed me with an edge. I gave a sardonic half-wave and smile as he started in my direction. He stopped walking about ten feet from me, studying me like I studied him. Upon closer inspection, he looked about my age, or at the most a year or two older than me. He wore the clothing you'd expect around here: dark-washed jeans, nearly falling off, as was the style, with a plain white T-shirt, a jacket over that, and a baseball cap turned backwards on his head. His skin was one of the darkest shades I'd ever seen, and his hair was braided tightly against his head in small braids. His eyes swept over me, and then he met my gaze, inscrutable. I absently wondered what he thought of me, in my dirty, torn jeans and my equally filthy hoodie.
"Hey," he said after a moment, his voice deep and low.
"Hey," I said back, making sure my voice was strong and firm. First impressions were everything when you lived on the streets, as I'd learned quickly. Judging by the unusual distance he made sure to keep between us, he knew it too.
"Marquis," he said, gesturing to say it was his name. "You?"
"Devi," I replied.
He sized me up again with a strange look in his eyes, like he didn't quite believe me. "Strange name for a doll like you."
"Yeah," I said, shrugging.
"What you doin' here, Devi?"
"I'm looking for a place to crash for a while, if that's all right with you," I answered with a bit of attitude behind the last part, tilting my face up to look him directly in the eye. "Or I was, until you got in the way with your hip-hop. Maybe I'll find somewhere else."
He laughed at my words. "You tellin' me you livin' on the streets?"
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, why? Is there some problem with that?"
Marquis chuckled again. "Naw, baby. You got some attitude, get ya in trouble 'round here. You sayin' you need a place to stay, you got one, but you gotta follow my rules. You get yourself in a mess, I ain't never seen ya before, got it?"
Wary but pleased nonetheless, I nodded.
"Aight, girl, you gonna behave? No workin' the streets 'round my place," he held up a hand briskly to stop me from speaking as I opened my mouth to protest, "Yeah, yeah, I got it, you ain't that kinda girl, whatever you sayin'. All I'm sayin' is, no business, you hear? Might wanna stay outta da streets at night, even if you ain't hookin'. An' keep this quiet, nobody need to be knowin' I got some white chick stayin' wit me."
I closed my mouth with a snap, ignoring his comment about me being a prostitute, and glared, but nodded again anyway. Marquis turned around and started away from me, towards the speakers. He grabbed his ipod and said over his shoulder, "Oh—almost forgot. You stayin' round here for a while, you gotta be gettin' a mark."
"A mark?" I questioned, curiosity getting the better of me.
"Yeah—you know, a tattoo. Learnin' the lingo might help you out if ya ever get in a bad spot, too."
"I understand you just fine," I snapped back.
He laughed. "Yeah, girl, but I ain't the one wit da accent here. You learnin' to talk street so ya don't get into trouble, not so's you can talk to us. Listen, we goin' to get your mark 'fore we go back to my place. You ain't got no business hangin' round near here wit no tat. Dangerous." Marquis flipped a few switches on the speakers and walked away, leaving them there.
"You're just going to leave your speakers there?" I asked, hurrying to catch up with him.
"Yeah," he said, glancing over his shoulder. I sped up just a bit more and fell into step with him. "Ain't nobody gonna touch 'em on these streets. These the good folk, they ain't messin' wit our stuff. They too afraid to. I ain't nothin' to fear, not 'round some of da others, but they don't know it." I processed this for a moment, and then began to wonder who the others were and just what his house was like.
"So we're going back to where you live, right?"
He smiled at me, seeming to warm up a bit. "Yeah, it's my place. Well—it ain't good as you prolly used to, but better than where you been headed. I like it."
I smiled back, trying to make a good impression. "It'll be better than I'm used to, I'm sure. Unless you play hip-hop constantly."
He chuckled. "What you got against hip-hop? Naw, them speakers are my good ones back there. I take 'em out here to let 'em get some air. Plus, nobody gonna pull a knife on me for playin' music out here like they do 'round home. So you ain't listenin' to my kinda music, what you got playin'?" He gestured to my headphones, still around my neck, and the cord leading down to my ipod inside my jeans pocket.
"Rock, mostly," I answered. This response seemed to give him amusement, because he smiled knowingly.
We chatted on for a while, it being surprisingly easy to talk to him, and before I knew it we stood in front of a dingy building with lights glowing through grubby windows. He opened the door and went inside. I followed reluctantly, knowing this was probably the tattoo parlor where I would get my "mark." It wasn't that I was against getting a tattoo; in fact, I wanted to get one—eventually. But I wanted to do it on my own time and get my own design, not one that was apparently given to every person to live in these parts. I sighed and stepped inside. Inside, it wasn't much cleaner than it looked from the outside. The floor was grimy and black in places, though white in others, and as I looked around I only hoped that the needles would be clean and I wouldn't catch an STD. Marquis stood next to a counter, talking to a man with dark skin and a moustache. I walked over to stand with Marquis, trying to be quiet and not interrupt.
"...just the usual. She say she gonna stay a while. I warned her, yeah..." Marquis was saying in response to something the man said, ignoring me. "She ready. Just do it."
The man gave me the once-over, then turned back to my companion. "You paying?" He nodded. "In what?"
"What I paid wit last time, what you think?"
The tattooist produced a thin smile and beckoned to me to sit down on a stool behind the counter. I smiled uncertainly, looking to Marquis, and at his nod, did as the other man suggested, preparing myself for pain.
. . .
I walked out of the small building behind Marquis, grimacing with pain and feeling the back of my neck hesitantly. It hurt—a lot—but at last it was over. I was glad I got to choose the place, anyway—the back of my neck was a subtle place, but easy to show off as well. Evidently that was good, because this tattoo was supposed to keep the gangs' hands off of me, for the most part, at least. I didn't even know what it looked like, but I hoped it wasn't something overly crude. I mean, it was permanent, after all.
Marquis once again struck up a conversation, as if he knew what I was thinking. "Now baby, I got some more to go over wit you. Stay outta da way if I got company over. They see you, there be trouble, and no mark's gonna keep you outta some of these guys' paws. Somebody touches you and you don't like it, you tell me. Don't go near da plants 'less I'm wit you... you get high by yourself, you on your own. Beer's in the ice hole, I ain't got no fridge...you see when we get there..."
Once we arrived at his home, I saw exactly what he meant. He was right-it wasn't what I expected, but I liked it even more than I thought I would. Marquis himself proved to be very friendly, and his place reflected his personality pretty well, or so I thought. It was hard to describe, which explained why he didn't try to tell me about it directly before. It was located in the ghetto, for sure, but I didn't mind that. It wasn't a house so much as a very tiny apartment, by itself, on the ground, without any other apartments surrounding it. It was small and cramped and cozy and messy and dirty, and I loved it. It seemed the perfect place to crash even for just a small period of time. There were only two rooms-one was Marquis' bedroom, and the other was what might be considered a living room. There were no doors to separate them, though-just doorframes. In the living room there was a worn couch that was fit inside somehow, spanning almost the entire space of the room. I assumed that it would be where I slept. Tattered blankets and a couple of pillows were piled all over the floor. A semi-nice flat screen TV on the floor leaned against the wall across from the couch, and in one corner of the room, the floor disappeared, worn away by something or other, and became the ground, into which was dug a good size hole. Upon inspection, this hole revealed itself to be the "ice hole," containing drinks and a few other items, and of course, ice. Where he got the ice from, I refused to ask...or the TV, for that matter; I didn't want to know. As soon as we reached his place, Marquis brought me sweatpants and a T-shirt of his own, and then fell asleep on a small bed in his room. Meanwhile, I discovered that in fact there was a third add-on to my new humble abode: a restroom of sorts. It had a working toilet and toilet paper, which was all I needed to know before crashing onto the couch, grabbing a blanket, and falling asleep myself.