Like Nothing

Robyn Carter

Now the man is telling you there is a customer, so creep down the rickety stairs and stand with the other girls against the wall yellowed from cigarette smoke and veined with cracks. Follow the lines with your eyes. Look at the spots where the plaster is chipping away and notice how the walls have been painted a thousand shades of white. Think about the girl who was here for the very first coat when the building was new and full of promise, blooming from ashes and rubble. You might think she’s a ghost, but she’s not; her skin glows with the arsenic pall of someone else’s passion. The bones of her corset cradle her lungs, protecting them from hazards like air. Her shallow breath is ragged with panic just like yours. Is a tiny molecule of the oxygen she breathed still here in this room? Maybe, but if it is, what does that prove? You’re grasping at air, at nothing. Let go.

At eighteen, you realize you are one of the oldest here. The girl next to you, the one called Mei, has drawn clownish red lips on her face and painted her brow bones a sparkly blue that deadens the terror in her eyes, makes it look pretend and doll-like. She wears a filmy red nightie and through its transparent ruffles you can see she is not a woman yet. She is reaching for your hand, and you take it. Let go. It would be better for everyone involved if she scratched and bit you instead. When this day comes, be relieved. Smooth the hair away from your eyes and smile because the customer is pointing at you. Smile at him even though he does not smile back. Don’t be alarmed at the way he fucks you with bureaucratic efficiency. All you need to do now is become a form with empty spaces for him to fill in. Pay attention to the way he leaves the spaces blank and skips to the end and checks the box that says yes. Don’t assume this means everything went smoothly.

Next time you’ll get it right, but this time there is a problem. The customer asked for moaning but he didn’t speak your language and you misunderstood and gave him silence instead. The customer wants his money back. He is making a scene, yelling at the man who forgot to board up the window. This is why the man is beating the soles of your feet with a pink plastic hanger. Look through the pastel blur in his fist, straight into his face, and tell yourself you’re safe because the rusty zipper of his teeth reminds you of home. Nobody will see the welts, but the injuries will deliver a private message to you each time you take a step, so all you need to do is take as few steps as possible. This message is so much clearer than any message the man could say with words. But, if for some reason he were forced to use words, he would say I will let you eat the old mangoes the shopkeeper across the street leaves on the sidewalk to rot. But I won’t do this because you are hungry. I will do it because I am hungry.

There is a jar of salve for your wounds on the bathroom counter. Take slightly less than you need. If you use too much the other girls will be mad because who knows when another jar will show up? Screw the lid on carefully and then kneel down next the bucket of crayfish on the floor. Even though they come from freshwater streams they are the source of the briny smell that lures your mind to the sea you crossed. Its promise is still wet on your palms so open your fists and let your skin dry. Good girl. You’re getting the hang of things now, but watch out for the bucket. Be careful or you might get pinched. The animals come from the butcher shop next door to Maria Luz Oscurrado’s lace-shrouded fortunes. The crayfish are gifts from the man to the girls. The lonely ones cuddle the creatures like pets. The hungry ones put them in the microwave. Two minutes on high is enough. Everyone agrees the sound of them cooking is unbearable but all you need to do is cover your ears and hum.

When you return to the attic, be careful not to walk over the little mat where you will sleep. A bruised mango is waiting there for you. Peel the skin off with your teeth and be careful not to drip when you bite into the fruit. This is no place for stickiness. You’ll attract roaches and the younger girls are clingy enough as it is. Be grateful you’re sucking on a slippery mango pit instead of someone’s cock. When no one is looking, throw the pit out on the fire escape through the window then quietly slide it closed. Watch pigeons fight over the pit and imagine yourself with claws instead of hands and wings instead of holes.

On the street below, Ki-Ki is unloading boxes from a truck. He owns the shop on the other side of the consejera’s storefront. Ki-Ki is the one who sells the mangoes. He notices when the man who forgot to board up the window takes the fruit that falls to the sidewalk, but Ki-Ki says nothing because he understands that the sidewalk belongs to everyone. If the human shit and dirty needles there belong to all of us then so do the limes and mangoes. It’s only fair. Ki-Ki’s store also sells electronics and haircuts and a special spray for getting rid of demons. Bins full of dried beans line the store’s back wall, and if you reach deep down through the smooth piles you will find treasures wrapped in wrinkled plastic. Packages of Diazepam from El Salvador, para tension nerviosa y ansiedad. Conjured by spirits or delivered by mule because digging a tunnel with your fingers for seven thousand miles normally takes years. But if you would rather buy a single disposable diaper than a pill, Ki-Ki will open up a pack of knock-off Huggies and sell you one for a dollar.

Next to the dried beans there is a giant rubber band ball. It is six feet in diameter and Ki-Ki had to remove one of the haircutting chairs to make room for it. He says it’s the largest rubber band ball in the world. If you ask him how he can know for sure, he will tell you records are kept for that sort of thing. You will never actually see the rubber band ball or the special spray or the special candle or the consejera but the man will tell you about them. He will also mention the one-dollar diapers, but you don’t need to buy any because your baby is sleeping safely on the other side of the world. Someone else is changing her diapers. Try not to think about diaper rash. Try not to think about dying. Be thankful for the pills from El Salvador. Be thankful the world is so small. Things can cross continents and time zones like weather. But so can people, so you should also worry that the world is too big and full of places for demons to hide, but you can’t buy the special spray. Think about it though. It is another thing like the special candle, another option among millions. Another choice that isn’t a choice. There are so many of these in America that you will soon feel like you’re drowning in them. You inhale them because they are part of the air. They float from the little TV on top of the cardboard box of white lab coats for you to slip on when the police come. You can stop coughing when your body adjusts to the new climate.

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