On the Fire Escape
I’ve been pretty skinny most of my life, but my legs have always been kind of fat. When I was younger, I’d walk down the main street in short shorts because it was scorching hot in the summer. Old men would stare at my stubby, fat legs and make nasty sounds with their mouths thru their missing teeth. I ignored them most of the time. Except for this one time that I didn’t.
I was walking down the main street and an old guy was sitting there on a plastic chair chewing tobacco or something gross like that and he said something disgusting and I told him to go fuck himself. It was raining and I had no umbrella because I don’t believe in umbrellas and he was rude so I didn’t feel bad about it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when people are being rude on purpose or when they just can’t help themselves because rudeness is in their DNA.
That afternoon, after I cursed the old guy, the rain finally got to me the way it sometimes did and I got all depressed and cried all the way home. I unlocked the metal gate and walked into the dark hallway of my green apartment building. My neighbor was standing there in the hallway drinking a beer like it was his living room. He was only 30 but he was always acting like he was so much older and more mature than me because he had a job and was married to a tiny, real ugly woman that never smiled and I was still in high school.
His pants were hanging half-way off his ass and he looked at my shorts like they were wrong. He never said nice things but that day he stared at my rain-soaked hair and my fat legs and as I was walking up the stairs he said, “Nice legs.” I smiled to myself and didn’t say anything but I walked up slower than I usually did in case he had something else to say that wasn’t stupid like, “go do your homework.” But he didn’t say anything.
I boiled myself a hot dog and scarfed it down with sandwich bread because I didn’t believe in hotdog buns. I made a cup of bitter instant coffee and crawled out onto the fire escape to smoke a cigarette. My neighbor was outside then smoking a joint and I could see him all fractured through the black grid beneath my bare feet. He looked up and said, “You shouldn’t smoke, kid. It’s bad for your health.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I said.
So I crawled back inside and sprawled out on the couch with my walkman and my journal. It was the nineties and I was making a compilation of awesome song lyrics. I’d go play, pause, scribble. Play, pause, scribble. Like that for hours until I had the whole song drawn out like poetry.
He knocked on the door when I had just started deciphering the good part about the girl’s dream in Ministry’s Dream Song. I opened it and he just stood there in my doorway drinking his beer like he was still in his living room.
“You gonna stand there all day or what?”
He smiled and grazed my shoulder as he pushed past me and walked in like I’d invited him.
“Nice place you got here,” he said.
He sat down on the couch and grabbed my notebook. I reached and snatched it from him real quick ‘cause some things are just personal. He went to light a cigarette and I told him he had to go outside for that ‘cause my mother didn’t like anybody smoking in the house. He didn’t say anything but he pinned me down by my shoulders and stared at me like he was looking for something he’d lost in my face. I started crying because nobody likes to be pinned down and he was holding me hard and my shoulder was wedged between the couch and the wire of my journal.
Then a real strange look flashed into his face and he let me go and sat up and curled his whole face and head into his hands and started sobbing like I’d never seen a grown man sob. I just sat there because I didn’t know what else to do and tried not to look at him because nobody likes to be looked at while they’re crying. But I couldn’t help myself and every now and then I’d look at him a little and his whole face was still buried in his hands and he just kept sobbing and sobbing like that for a real long time.
Finally, when his face and his neck and his arms were all covered in snot and tears, he stopped. He wiped the snot off his face with his sleeve and lit a cigarette and I didn’t say anything about my mother. I walked to the fridge and brought us each back a beer and we sat there in silence drinking them.
When he finished his he stood to leave and I didn’t know what to say so I said, “Thanks for visiting.” And he said, “Yeah, thanks for the beer. And stay out of trouble, kid.” I let him out and locked the door behind him. Then I changed out of my fat-leg shorts and into my sweat pants and crawled back out on the fire escape and lit another cigarette.
by Letisia Cruz