If, p.3

If, page 3

 

If
 



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  I think Jordan felt like I was his responsibility, and Trevor, being his boyfriend, became an extension of that. They knew I was alone out here and they felt it was their duty to watch out for me, like two older brothers.

  “Well, it’s good he’s okay. I know you wanted to visit with him, but at least you know,” Trevor said, bringing the conversation back to my failed mission of the night.

  “He’s in the area often. I’m hoping I’ll see him around. I just feel like I need to help him. Part of me thinks I made it worse with my heroics. He could have just run, but he put his life on the line for me.”

  “How do you know he’s around often?” Jordan asked.

  I realized I had sort of given away my little secret: that I had noticed him for months before the incident.

  “I’ve seen him around. I just noticed him. I don’t know why,” I said, fumbling with the contents of my plate so I wouldn’t have to make eye contact. But I did know. Because there was a presence about him. Something that made me want to know his story. And it made me feel like a bit of a bitch. What made it okay for me to walk past dozens of other homeless people and relegate them to human fixtures on the street, but made this guy worth the extra thought? Was it his striking sage-green eyes? His mysterious brooding? The fact that I felt him watch me? Or was it because he was young and homeless and had my life turned out slightly different, if I hadn’t hit the adoption jackpot as an infant, I could have turned out like him? In a way, I was relieved this had happened, because it both justified and awakened my latent curiosity.

  “You know . . . this would make a really great human-interest piece at the station. Girl saves homeless guy, homeless guy saves girl. I bet we could raise some funds for him. These things tend to go viral pretty easily.” Trevor now had his producer hat on.

  “I’ll think about it. I’m not sure I want to be on the news.” While I wanted to make my living in the spotlight, I didn’t want my face plastered on TV. In the first case, my dancing would be the focus of attention, but in the second my face would be filling a screen. “Maybe we could just feature him.”

  “We could. Just think about it. It could really help him. And if we did it, the reporters could help you find him.”

  The proposal was tempting, but I wanted to see if I could find him on my own first. From what I could tell, he was kind of withdrawn, and I wasn’t sure if he’d take well to being dug up by reporters.

  BIRD

  Trevor had to get ready for work, so he dropped Jordan and me off and went back to his place. We both had a second wind and I settled onto my futon while Jordan dropped the needle on my record player and marked some dance moves as he spoke. Draped in a sunburnt orange blanket, the futon was the only substantial piece of furniture in my studio apartment; it served as my guest seating during the day and unfolded to become my bed at night.

  “It’s going to skip.”

  “That’s why I like to use it. It forces me to be light on my feet.”

  Jordan did a high arabesque, his muscles contracting as he fully extended his long limbs, his toes pointing perfectly. He was a sublimely gifted yet effortless dancer. His physical proportions were created to be admired in fluid motion. When we practiced lifts together, his sheer power made me feel like I defied gravity. Watching Jordan move distracted me from the anxiety still coursing through my body.

  “So, we’re doing Thanksgiving in your place right? You know my place is a hot mess.” I appreciated Jordan trying to reestablish normalcy with routine holiday planning.

  “I guess, but you have so much more room,” I insisted. “Have you considered, ya know, tidying up?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

  “Even if I cleaned up, my shit is just cluttered. I might have more square footage, but you have way less furniture and one big open room.”

  “Trust me, I am not a minimalist. This lack of furniture is called poverty. But, sure. I’m happy to host. I don’t have a table though.”

  “We’ll just drag mine across the hall,” he said, while doing a sequence of turns across the floor.

  “And we’ll have to cook most of it in your kitchen, my oven is tiny and the place gets so damned hot when I use it. It’s just going to be me, you and Trevor, right?”

  “Yup. That’s perfect, we can cook in my place, eat and hang out in yours. Combining our apartments is almost like having a really small house.”

  And it was. We fluidly moved from his apartment to mine. Our doors faced directly across a narrow hallway and we had keys to each other’s places. Run out of toilet paper? Coffee filters? Almond milk? Just scoot over and raid Jordan’s stash. And I can’t count the number of times Jordan would just barrel through my door to show me a funny YouTube video (even if I was in the shower), as if it were a matter of national security.

  “So there’s a guy I want you to meet,” he said as he moved his arms from first to second position and back.

  “A guy?” I asked, as if I hadn’t heard him.

  “Yes, his name is Javier,” he said, punctuating the sentence with a pirouette. “He’s handsome, he’s straight, he has a delicious accent. He’s a set designer. I thought I could set you two up on a da—”

  “Hell no,” I said before he could finish.

  “Bi-i-ird,” he stretched out my name, like a nagging child.

  “I don’t do blind dates.” I would never say why aloud, as I assumed he knew my reasons.

  “Then we could go out. You, me, Trevor, Javier. It wouldn’t be a blind date.”

  “It’s still a date. I don’t want that pressure.” The truth was, I didn’t want to put the pressure on anyone else. If he didn’t like me, then he was a jerk, because he wasn’t giving the girl with the messed up face a chance. It had to happen organically and, unfortunately for me, organic hookups were extremely rare. Most guys looked right past me to other girls with flawless skin.

  Jordan leaned onto the wooden arm of the futon. “You are young, and you work so hard. I just don’t want you to miss out on these years. You would be in college right now meeting guys, dating, enjoying your early twenties, but you don’t have that campus life. So you have to get out there! All you do is work, audition, and sleep.”

  Jordan had a point, but rejection was already part of my daily life with dancing, and I didn’t need any more of that in the dating world. I was used to being passed over. It’s not that I hadn’t ever had interest, but the interest was always fleeting. I was the girl in high school who was a friend, always the confidant. When I did get the guy, it was short-lived because he would either move on or he would care what people might think. It made for an embarrassingly lame track record with the opposite sex. Translation: I was still a virgin.

  I can’t even tell you how many thoughtless adults said to me in passing how beautiful I could have been. How my one-of-a-kind looks could have been successful in the modeling or dance world. The world of dance is harsh. You are shamelessly hectored about your weight. Your body is treated like a commodity, as if your legs, and breasts, and butt aren’t attached to a soul that can be damaged. Ironically, I was blessed in ways that many other dancers might have issues with: I was tall, thin, my breasts were small and unobtrusive. It was my face, the thing most people didn’t have to worry about, that held me back. Especially in ballet, where one’s hair is to be pulled back. A pristine face is important, and half of mine looked like Edward Scissorhands went to town on it.

  It was something I was always conscious of, I suppose the way other women might feel about having a big tummy or some other “flaw.” But mine wasn’t just some common human flaw. It was a story that begged to be told. You couldn’t look at my face without wondering . . . why?

  Beauty is symmetry, and one half of my face did not match the other. It was the artifice of my deformity that was especially unsettling. I wasn’t born with a big nose, a lazy eye, or cankles. Someone did this to me.

  And yet, I came to LA anyway. Naively, I thought people would see my talent as a dancer and be bl
own away enough to forget about my face. But I had been here for well over a year, and I had hardly gotten past the first round of an audition. When those negative thoughts crept in, I shoved them back into the dark crevasse of my brain where they lived. I was already poor and I couldn’t afford doubts.

  I never uttered my insecurities out loud. Not even to Jordan. I pretended as though it didn’t bother me, that people less talented than me got more work, because to say it would make it real. I know others might call that delusion, but don’t you have to be a little delusional to follow a dream?

  “Let me at least show you a picture. He’s gorgeous.” That’s why I know it would be pointless. In LA, beauty abounds, and I was no beauty.

  “Maybe tomorrow, but I’m tired,” I said.

  “Me too.”

  I wondered if Jordan would spend the night with me or go across to his place. The truth was, I was still a little shaken up and I didn’t want to be alone, but I didn’t want to admit that after all the assurances I had given earlier.

  I opened my futon and laid out a pillow.

  The popping of the record player stopped as Jordan pulled the needle off and gently placed the vinyl back in its sleeve.

  “Lay a pillow down for me too,” he said.

  ASH

  I MOANED IN near-ecstasy as the steaming hot water sprayed over my bruised body. The night before, I slipped out of the hospital as quickly as I could. I hated closed spaces and I especially fucking hated hospitals. So, I got myself stitched, answered the cop’s questions, and then I got the hell out of that sterile, soulless place.

  The incident shocked some life into me and I wandered for a bit, trying to figure out what to do next. I had a lot of nervous energy and nowhere to place it. After several hours, the jitters settled and the first thing I wanted to do was take a shower. The second, was get some genuine rest. The pain meds made me woozy, so I used every bit of waking energy to get into this shower with the ultimate reward of passing out on a fresh bed.

  Once I finished showering, I gently stepped out and wrapped a towel around my waist. My entire torso ached from wrestling that waste of space and the stab wound emitted this pulsating throb that spread throughout my left side. The pain killers could only do so much. I suspected that with my background, the doctors intentionally didn’t give me enough to completely knock out the pain.

  “I didn’t know you were here,” my brother, Miller, said.

  “Jeeeesus!” I spun around in a fright, and that pulled on my stitches something fierce. I winced.

  “Holy shit, Ash. What the fuck happened?”

  “Nothing man.”

  “Dude, this is not the time for your bullshit.”

  I hated how he just waltzed in, unannounced, and I barely had the energy to keep my eyes open, let alone explain the incident which led to the stabbing. But this was his guest house, his rules.

  “Some guys were messing with me and some chick tried to interfere. Then they started messing with her, like seriously I think they were gonna rape her. So, I had to step up.”

  Miller shook his head. “Why can’t you just stay here, man? None of that would have happened if you just stayed here.”

  “You know why.”

  “Actually, I don’t. Why? Because you hate being enclosed? Well, it’s warm and I have a pool, a yard . . . you can be outside most of the time. It’s not safe out there, man.” He gestured to the world far beyond his manicured lawn.

  We both knew the real reasons were beyond my bouts of claustrophobia. But we were guys, and we didn’t want to discuss the heavy stuff. So we went through this probably once a month, Miller insisting I stay for longer than a random night here and there when I showed up to do laundry and shower. Then I would tell him I wasn’t going to live in his guest house, it wasn’t right for me to just live there like that, and I preferred to be out on my own with no constraints. I was like a wild animal, attempts at domestication only made me snap at the ones who cared for me.

  Miller sighed and sat down. “So what happened to the girl?”

  “She was fine. She didn’t get stabbed or raped, so there’s that.”

  “Ballsy move on her part. Is she . . . ?”

  “Homeless? A crackhead? No. She was just a normal person walking down the street.”

  “Real ballsy.”

  “Arrogant.”

  “Dude, you should be thanking her.”

  I grabbed a fresh T-shirt from my bag and slung it overhead. “Maybe. But she shouldn’t have put herself in that position for me. And I would’ve been fine. Her getting into the situation blew it up. Those disgusting fucks saw a pretty girl and it was like a pack of wild beasts.”

  “Nonetheless, I’d say it was admirable of someone to do. Especially a girl on her own.”

  “I guess. I can’t afford that kind of idealism. Whatever. I’ll never see her again anyway, but if I do, I’ll give her your number so you can be friends.” I was in pain and exhausted and still pissed about, you know, getting stabbed in my torso. I sighed. “Sorry man, I’m being an asshole. I am just tired and a little moody.”

  “Moody?”

  Ugh, how I hated that he was always trying to monitor my damn psychological well-being.

  “Moody like you normal folk, not Asher moody.” I was fibbing. At that moment, thanks to the whole adrenaline rush, I was leveling out to something resembling normalcy. But I was in an Asher mood when those assholes came at me.

  “Hungry?” he asked.

  “Nope. Just exhausted.”

  “Hey, you know I gotta ask this,” Miller sighed. I knew what was coming. Holidays were around the corner. “Mom and dad are hosting Thanksgiving.”

  “I can’t, bro.” I was an asshole for rejecting my parents, but I could not look them in the eye. They thought that they wanted me over there, but I was the source of all their problems. I was doing them a favor by staying away.

  “I know,” he said sadly. “They miss you though.”

  “Miller!” His wife, Ella, called out for him. She usually didn’t come to say hi and that was fine by me.

  “That’s dinner,” Miller said, pointing his thumb in the general direction of his house. “Alright, well get some rest. I’ll save you a plate and bring it over. And please stay safe. See me before you leave?”

  “Yeah.” My eyelids were starting to rebel, shutting mid-word.

  “Rest up, man,” he slapped me on the shoulder and I jerked to brace for the soreness.

  “Uh huh,” I said drunkenly, sliding onto the cool bed sheets.

  BIRD

  I lay on my futon, binge-watching The Walking Dead on Jordan’s Netflix account. Thank god for less-broke friends.

  It was my one day off that week and all I wanted to do was lie on the couch and move just enough to allow my lungs to inhale and exhale. That was the problem with the grind: it zapped so much of my energy that hardly any was left to practice the very skill I came out here for.

  The benefit to teaching a few classes was that it forced me to revisit and hone my own skills several times a week, and since I was already at the studio, I could stay behind to get some work in. But increasingly, my energy was being saved for, and drained at, auditions. Dancing began to feel more like a chore, amplifying my insecurities when it used to be the thing to make me forget them.

  I started to doze off into a glorious afternoon nap when my phone rang. It was my sister, Jessa, who I spoke to at least a couple of times a week and who I had made a point not to call since the mugging. Ever since she had her kids, she had grown increasingly motherly towards me, and I just knew she would spontaneously combust when I told her about the incident. I had already ignored a couple of her calls, so I had no choice but to finally take this one.

  “Hey Birdie!”

  “Hey . . .”

  “Were you asleep?”

  “Sort of.”

  “Oh, well anyway, what’s up?” The sound of a children’s TV show played in the background.

  “Are t
he kids watching TV in surround sound?”

  “Is it really that loud? Hold on, let me turn it down.” The sound of the TV was replaced by a baby cooing and gurgling.

  “Is that Emmie?” I asked.

  “Yes it is,” Jessa said in a cutesy voice. “She just woke up from her nap and she’s surprisingly in good spirits, considering. Wanna say hi?”

  “Of course.”

  “Say hi to auntie Bird!”

  Emmie’s nonsensical baby sounds came through, making me feel all warm and fuzzy.

  “Hi, little Em!” I said into the receiver.

  “Okay, let me drop her into the playpen.”

  This was usually how calls with my sister went, about 85% of it was her verbally wrestling with motherhood peppered with our fragmented attempts at conversation.

  “Okay, Em’s safe and Benji is napping, so you have me all to yourself. How’s everything going?”

  “Good, work is the same. I picked up an extra class at the dance school teaching five-year-olds. Oh my god, they are so cute. A handful, but cute.”

  “And how’s everything with money? Are you doing okay?”

  “Yes, thank you.” My sister was the reason I could afford to live alone, even in a tiny apartment in LA. She was the only true family support I had. And I tried really hard not to ask, but occasionally it was do that or a bill went without being paid. “How’s Alec?”

  “Good, he’s busy with work as usual and the holidays are coming so we’re revving up for that. Are you coming home?” She already knew the answer to that.

  “No . . . I can’t afford it anyway.”

  “I’d get you a ticket.”

  “It’s not just that. You know that. It’s not like I’ve been invited.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous. If a formal invitation to come home is what you need, I’ll tell mom—”

  “No. Don’t. I have plans here anyway.”

  She sighed a sigh that admitted yet another defeat in the battle of getting Birdie home.

  “Anyway, something happened earlier this week. I’m okay though.”

 

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