It’s hard to keep track of the date when you experience every day as an extended round of Russian roulette. A never-ending game, and with each daybreak, a new round begins. I measure out my temporal location in units of steps, constantly calculating distances to the next block, the next corner. Where do I run if someone tries something right now? How long will it take to get there? What about now? Where do I run if someone tries something?
Defining my actual location is an act of triangulation. Half a block up from that store I was harassed in last week, sixty-eight steps south of the dumpster with neatly tied bags of day-end bagels, two blocks east from where I decided that pretending to want a back-alley fuck was a smaller price to pay than losing my tenuous hold on my own belief that I could fend for myself out here.
The streets are no place for a pretty young lady like you. Why you hiding that smile? Hey, where you going? You need some company? Why you walking so fast, girl? Come here and have a good time.
Don’t ever forget it. Every day is a fucking struggle. It’s like a fucking contest from one block to the other: How many different stories and traps can you pack into one stretch of concrete? I could draw you a treasure map of the places that are least safe to be, but if you asked me to mark the X on the spot that’s the safest, I would have no idea where to place it.
You play these games constantly out here. But you gotta switch it up enough to keep yourself guessing. Some nights I curl up on a bench, drift off to a few hours of sleep letting myself believe that as long as I’m off the concrete, I haven’t hit bottom yet. Other nights, it’s just not worth the energy it would take to imagine that hard. On those nights, I find myself slumped against a wall, too defeated to stretch out, already feeling the stiffness of waking up cold a few hours later. Staying half-awake nights is a different kind of pretend, when I wrap myself in the blanket of a little sense of security, dreading the idea of being wrenched awake from a decent dream by the call of the reality waiting on the other side of my eyelids.
You know, worry isn’t a precise enough word. I have had more than enough time to ponder this: There isn’t one word powerful enough to capture the mix of fear and despair, the terror of not knowing the moment you’ll finally lose the battle against your wanting to throw it all down and just — stop. More than a few nights, I have forced myself to just kept walking, to push forward so it feels like I’m moving toward something, going somewhere.
I remember this one time in school, a science teacher told us all a story about sea glass, the way it gets tumbled smooth by the constant friction against water and sand. Rocks do it, too, in the ocean. They just get worn down and down, until they break into smaller rocks, then into tiny round pebbles polished by the crashing waves. How long you think that takes? I wonder if the rock ever questions if it’s worth it, the pain of being sanded down, having pieces of yourself rubbed away, never sure when the process finally stops. All those things we think are beautiful, they come from hardship: the pearl borne from an oyster’s pain, the diamond that started as a poor lump of coal going through hell. You don’t think about what all that takes, just romanticize the idea of being forged through fire. Maybe it’s not the triumph of spirit and will we tell ourselves it is. That oyster is just trying to protect itself, throwing up walls within its own flesh, because the shell failed to keep the intruder out. The oyster hardens from the inside out, like the diamond that shrinks in on itself, girding its heart against the overbearing pressure.
And the sea glass, catching the light just so in your palm, when did the pieces give up? At what moment did letting the world scrape away your skin become easier than fighting back? Now, they offer no hard edges to reach out and cling, they are tossed and buffeted by the waves, then thrown ashore for you to gather and remove. Those pieces of frosted beauty started as something else, as shards, and — before that, a long time ago — as a whole.
Is that what it takes, transformation? I wonder about the process, the lengths it will ask me to take. If I let the world keep chipping, grinding, smoothing, will I become beautiful again?