(Written in 2012)
The nighttime lights flicker with a dying breath, but fervently they grasp with clammy hands onto their brightness, their lives. Fluttering on and off, these were the last moments of something once beautiful, like a butterfly with wings so spectacular that their presence slowed everything around them into a silent standstill. Their heads whipped around to take glance of the awe-inspiring sight. Yet, there was something tragic about the occurrence, the anomaly of a dying butterfly, for how rare it is when one takes a moment to think on how often something so enthralling fades from existence and memory. These lights that flickered, coughing almost, startled those watching; they were the butterflies of the city, things that were common and unappreciated until it came to lay witness to the inevitable death that all things must have done onto them. The ephemeral nature of the lights ought bring a fascination to the phenomenon that was their presence, that was the color and dazzling radiance for the sake of catching our eye. These lights were just like the lights down the street, glaring on the blur of the restless crowds and the cacophony of dialogues, too overlapping and too unconcerned with the other pieces of the movement, of the chef ‘d’oeuvre. The light, on its threshold, fluttered its spectacle one last time, and with a dying spark of life, vanished.
The street was calm, the blaring of cars muted in the peace of the night and the people in small clusters passed by quietly but cheerfully. To see their faces was to see the miracle of living in a place of vivacity, full of lights and motion, not the desolate insipidness of a suburban wasteland. The man rollicked in it all. He absorbed the brilliance of the lights, never ending, and he took in the energy of the people, never dull, and he moved with purposeless love in his El Dorado, golden with experience. It was not basking in artifice, though, to walk under the glass suns, but instead in a kinetic magic of flowing lines and atmosphere shouting joyfully. Joy had begotten joy in his smile, and the parade of grime below his feet did not deter him for he glided above it; an ethereal aura had possessed him.
As he transcended his conscience to a plane of urban nirvana, a place detached from worldly anxieties, a woman approached him. There was a slight lapse to her rhythm when she walked, a hiccup of a step, and the voice she spoke was drawn into lethargic hisses when she begged his attention. She clasped at his arm, sinking him back to the immediate world. She held his glance in this moment of bewilderment, but it was so calm. She was bewildered by the demons that tried to stay her pleading arms but failed, and he was stricken in the bang of the door, the neglected portal that hid in dusty annex of the subconscious that was always present yet never noticed. It rattled in his mind, and his world paused for but a moment at a conundrum of whether he ought to acknowledge the banging of the door, the shouts from behind it. Tormented wails whispered silently and slipped under the cracks their hushed pleas and the floor was consumed by the smoky haze slipping with these words, these words that sounded distantly in his ear, “water”. She begged him for water. She turned his focus onto the market behind her, sharp lights oozing from it. She asked him if he could purchase a bottle of water. These were the lamentations of the voice that slipped from the door. It was a slurred voice, unrecognizable of the person speaking them, of their persona. Desperation impelled her mouth.
The man could have lied, nay, should have. To acknowledge this door is to threaten the harmony of his bliss with the dissonant bellows and wails of a darker world, disintegrating the sustained order of an enduring concerto, of a deceiving art, to the flux of everything. His world, this concerto, was allowed to be constructed in an orderly manner; others were born into the chaos behind the door. See, tranquility is the greatest fabrication that a man may delude himself to, the absinthe the privileged are served in their everyday doings. If he opened the door, he would notice a distinct smell that was different than the aphrodisiac of his mind, and it would be pungent to him. He did not know this.
He went into the store and calmly searched for a bottle of water. The money, he felt, was a frivolous matter in helping another, for his personal purchases would have been far less important, if not downright vain. Or so he told himself when he was forced to purchase another on account of the harrying rule regarding credit card minimums, but he couldn’t be bothered. He hurried outside, tapped the distraught women on the shoulder, and he presented to her his gift of sobriety. When he cracked the door open to slip the bottle behind it, it enticed him, used the opportunity to speak louder, more clearly. She asked the man a favor, but just as quickly dissuaded the thought. But then returned to it and the man patiently stood, watching her fidget with the cap on the bottle. He took this moment to observe the woman, the muted colors of her dying jeans as the fangs of her draconian life had torn them asunder, as well as the gashes he noticed on the underarms of her plain black shirt. And these certainly weren’t the luxurious slashes of designer pants, priced at exorbitant sales as though to outright spit on the downtrodden; as though looking poor were suddenly chic, something cool. They were malignant and angry gashes with untidy endings that ominously sought to continue.
She decided, finally, to speak to him and the darkness seized his mind. He developed an unforgiving fixation on the horror that overwhelmed his tranquil demeanor as the door burst open.
“ I don’t know what to do. I tried to go to the hospital yesterday and they told me they didn’t have any room. They kicked me out on the streets. I had been having seizures for the last couple weeks, and just yesterday morning. And I was so scared, because they keep getting worse. Do you know if there’s anywhere that I could go to stay?” Her eyes, he glanced into, were swirling tide pools of green putrefied with pain. Her voice was broken and slow, the drunken hands that played one’s affliction made guttural sounds.
All the while, a derelict man roamed the block, asking for the blurs of people to spare a dime so that he may have a slice of pizza, which most thought should have quotations on the word pizza. And, then, he approached the broken woman, and asked the man, “Is she telling you about her sad story about how she can’t stop being a junkie?” His eyes were closed, hair frazzled with the negligence afforded only by homelessness, and his clothes offended with their shabby, greasy appearance.
And she scolded him furiously, the derelict, as furiously as she could summon her strength to be. “I’m trying to have a conversation with this kind man, who was nice enough to buy me a bottle of water with his own money.” The man tried to interject by saying it wasn’t a problem, but seemed only to add to the eruption. “I’m talking to him about something private, so just leave me alone. Just leave me. Like you always do.” The derelict didn’t waste his breath, and he resumed his dutiful vigil for the blurs of lively colors that walked affluent in the streets, indulging in the revelry of a Friday night.
She looked back at the man, his gaze so fixated on her eyes, and the carcass of her soul from them clenched onto his heart. She had such pretty green eyes. Her face was wrought with age, but she seemed to be a younger woman in the budding years of adulthood, barely having tasted the dew of a newer day. The skin was wretched, not quite drooping but still poorly tended to. Her features underwent corrosion from the tumult of life. Her face hinted at a beautiful woman, if not bereaved by addiction. “So, do you know of anywhere I could go? Because I don’t know what to do.” The man asked if she had tried going to a hospital. But her face, her eyes in particular, seemed stricken with a look of pained betrayal as she began to say, “But I already told you-”
“I meant, have you tried going to another one? There’s probably many other hospitals in the area that could take you in.” His heart heaved with laborious throbs and his lungs collapsed, but he tried his best to contain the anguish he felt, the helplessness of it all. There was an attempt at this moment to seem heroic, so to say, to deem oneself in the position to save another human being, so fragile and dismayed. Alas, she reprimanded the advice with a flooding of her eyes, but never did the pools descend. They were caught in the vacuum of pain’s gluttonous abyss on the surface of the eyes, as though frozen to a glossy plane by the unforgiving frigid air.
“I did try! I went to the hospital and they said they didn’t have any room. I’m asking you if there’s any place you know.” The derelict came walking by again, no doubt pursuing another person and also trying to listen in on the conversation, and she seemed to cower a bit, hushing herself and asking if her boyfriend was gone. The man would confirm that her boyfriend, the shabby drunken man, was indeed gone. Consequently, this piqued his interest and the boyfriend returned, and asked the woman, “Mary, are you still bothering this man? Are you making me look like shit to this guy?”
“No! I am not bothering this kind man who did more for me than my damn boyfriend did!”
“Boyfriend?” He was aghast, but it was so unnoticeable for he was in no condition to accurately portray any real emotion. “Mary, I’m your damn husband! We’ve been married for five years.” He looked at the man, “Lemme tell you something. I worked hard to keep her happy. Married five years. And I turn my back for one second, and she’s fucking another man! Five years and right around the corner she goes and fucks another guy!” And all the while, Mary was regressing more and more into this misery, with every word a dagger to her very heart and she spouted rivers that collected in her emerald eyes that were so lackluster and faded. Her voice would chirp a broken sob, and her expression was wrought with regret.
The husband left, hunting with looks for a little decency from the pockets of the fortunate, and Mary approached the man again, clutching at his shoulder which trembled with fear for her. “I’m so afraid. I have nowhere to go.”
“I’m sorry ma’am. I’m only a student at the university. I don’t know how to help you besides doing what I’m doing right here. Please understand. I really wish I could, but I don’t know how.” Her eyes tormented him, and the carcass of her soul, with its fetid stranglehold around his heart’s throat began choking it, squeezing from it every last drop of emotion he could possibly contain. But they remained within, hermetically sealed so that he could maintain the guise of someone authoritative, someone in control, even though he clearly was as much in control as she.
She replied, her eyes watering again, “Can you do me a favor, then?” The man, no longer a man but the helpless and naive child he truly was, complied. “When you graduate, or get your degree or whatever it is you need to do,” she struggled to explain as if the very concept of an education was lost on her, “could do something so that people like me don’t have to live like this?”
Somehow, the boy surmised his scattered courage into a slightly stuttered phrase, but nonetheless the phrase stood with the audacity to roar ambition and nobility reckoned with in literature. It popped in his mind, he didn’t know how, but it did and he declared, “Ma’am, I don’t know any other reason to pursue an education.”
The impact of words at times supersede the mere composition of sentences, where the simple placement of specific words can evoke impactful blows to one, to be dumbfounded by speech. Mary, her eyes glittering for but a single moment when he said these untraceable words, stared with a saddened admiration. Then he asked her, as her eyes began to collect sorrow, if she needed a hug, and they embraced.
Realizing, as he looked at the second water bottle, that it would stagnate in his dorm, he offered it to Mary as well. She needed it far more than he did. She accepted gratefully, but seemed to struggle holding the two liter bottles and this enormous bag she carried, the burden of one’s whole lifestyle carried with them forever. Her husband returned, offering to hold her bag, and he told her that she needed to eat something and that he was successful in getting some money for a slice of pizza. The boy was pained in thinking that the derelict believed that he thought poorly on his character. Yet, as he watched him lovingly take the spilling bottle out of her hands so that he may gently release her from the burden of the bag, he was frozen in tragic beauty. Tragic beauty that saw two people at odds with the indifference of the world, trapped on the other side of that portal which restrained storms and horrors, and yet they remained together, holding one another in the blistering bellows of nonchalant cruelty.
As he was about to take her to the pizza parlor, she asked if she could have a moment with the boy, the “man” as she called him, and in that moment she repeated her plight, and yet it never lost its poignancy, if not amplified. She was afraid that she would not wake up the next morning, that this fleeting moment would be the last before it vanished from the collective memory save the boy’s. She feared, like all people, that who she was would be forgotten in the extensive annals of human endeavor as a mere speck, and that her final moments were teary-eyed and broken. And all the boy could tell her was to hold on and to keep looking for help; he promised her things would get better. What a horrible, cowardly thing he did, to play the prophet that foresees the land of milk and honey, when waste would come first, he knew.
Finally, he departed, solemn and looking back as Mary and her husband proceeded to do something he did twice that day so selfishly, without concern of how precious it was to eat a meal. And as he looked back, he saw the flickering light of the market, the final shuddering flaps of a dying butterfly, and he could no longer contain his tears. His sadness and sorrow escaped him like a violent bloodletting of emotions gutted from his heart and it poured all over the pavement as he cleared the corner in a cathartic bawl. Never had he felt so helpless, so weak. Too weak to help Mary; too weak to help one dying anomaly of a human. So his emotions in this weakness escaped the body in tears, for he had lost the strength to hold it.
The city is settled, the movement has quieted to the echoed footsteps of a few people, and the subway stations howl with the wails of a longing saxophone. The city has lost its order, flustering chaos has unleashed its tempest upon his mind, and the door holds itself open. But in moments like this, there is still beauty, even if it is in tragedy. Tears obscuring the color of lights so that you don’t notice that one no longer shines.