Hollowly

Megan Mertens

 

It all starts with shoes. Blue shoes, vibrant shoes, even zebra stripped shoes. That’s all I care to see of pedestrians as they pass me by on the sidewalk. I sit against the marble wall of a jewelry store, waiting for my friend in the alley to finish going to the bathroom. I vaguely listen to a couple’s conversation as they walk by:


“I think we should go to Sandals for vacation. We’ve been to London twice already.”


Must be nice, I think to myself.


I’m homeless, fourteen and only know one person in a world of seven billion people. If the rest of the places on earth are as great they say they are, I would do nothing but disagree. I’d gladly give up the chance of being wealthy if it meant being surrounded by the kind of people money can’t buy. Living on the streets isn’t the most ideal place, but losing everything, and having nothing is definitely the ultimate test of who cares about you and who honestly could not give a shit. And tests . . . well, they’re not fun, especially the ones they give in school from what I’ve heard. But I never went to a public school. My mom didn’t want me going to one. I overheard her say once to the social services that she was scared I might get bullied.


Luckily, because my Mom was educated before she became homeless, she had the choice to school me while we were living in a shelter. She taught me everything she knew. Though she only briefly went over the basics of science, and Algebra, she mainly lingered on literature and I read any and all books that we owned. She always read old, beaten up volumes of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway each night as I fell asleep. Most people didn’t enjoy Hemingway the way I did, mainly because no one understood him. He wasn’t a gray kind of person. You either loved him or hated him, black or white, there was no in between. That’s the kind of person I am, the kind of person you’d hate not to love or would love to hate.


“I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.” She said that to me before she passed away . . .
“Hey, Audrey!” I perk my head up to see Cyd waving at me from the mouth of the alley. I quickly get up and run over to him.

 

I stood inside of a dumpster, digging my way through piles of trash, hoping to find more than just of speck of food to eat. It had been at least five hours since I had last eaten, and my stomach was certainly reminding me of that as it rumbled louder than someone trying to start a lawn mower in an empty room.


“Any luck yet Cyd?” I asked

 

Cyd, with turquoise eyes that were as clear as the Caribbean Sea I’d once seen on postcards in convenient stores, looked over at me from the other side of the dumpster as he scrunched his mouth to the side. “Not yet,” he said. “What about you?”


I shook my head, “Nada.”


I turned back around and continued digging in the heap of garbage that had the foul smell of Axe cologne. The scent was so strong my eyes began to water. It was as if it had been graffitied all over the damn trash can. I pushed aside a broken broom handle, wishing I could personally meet the guy who invented Axe so I could shove it up their ass. But as I continued to dig, the odor of the cologne started to die down and the delicious aroma of cheese pizza took its place. As it hit my nostrils, a huge burst of energy erupted (or perhaps it was just my hunger taking over). My hands moved at a concerning rate, tossing a collection of plastic Pepsi bottles and torn cardboard boxes out of the way when I stumbled upon a greasy Little Caesar’s pizza box. My mouth watered like dog being teased as I picked it up and quickly opened it. But I should have known. No, the box wasn’t empty, but only had one slice left inside. It was better than nothing I suppose.


“Hey Cyd,” I called to him.


His head perked up as he stumbled over to me. “Find something?” He asked, hope ringing in his voice.


“Yeah, but it’s not much.”

 

I held up the almost empty pizza box, showing Cyd the remainder. He sighed slightly. “Well, I guess vultures can’t be choosers, right?”


“Right,” I nodded.


Cyd took out his red pocket knife.  He once told me his father gave it to him as a gift before he passed away. He then carefully cut the pizza in half, handing me the slightly larger piece.


“You can have the bigger piece,” I tell him. “You haven’t eaten since six this morning, and it’s probably almost nine.”


“No,” he said sternly. “I insist. You found it; therefore you should be the one to have more.”


I hear my stomach groaning again and sigh. There was no arguing with him, especially on an empty stomach. I take the piece from him, clanking my slice against his like a wine glass.


 “Cheers,” we both say and quickly devour our tiny slices.


By the time we got back to our home, which consisted of a tent and two sleeping bags that sat under a bridge, the night sky was covered in a thick layer of clouds that had a sort of mauve color to them. It was starting to spit droplets, a warning sign it was going to start pouring rain at any moment.


We didn’t have much luck with dumpster diving today since most of them had been emptied by the garbage men. If only I had their job, then I would get paid and have leftovers from the garbage. Next to me, I hear Cyd’s stomach grumble. Instead of snickering like most people who are guaranteed to be fed, I narrow my eyes in worry. Our stomachs were still hungry but we couldn’t do anything about it tonight. But we didn’t return empty handed. We had found unused toothpaste and a container of a few dry moist towelettes to help us smell less like garbage and more like cleaning supplies.


As I brushed my teeth and wiped the dirt from my face, I quickly changed into my pajamas: black shorts and an off white tank top that had obvious pit stains. I hung up my clothes that I had worn from today on the chain linked fence behind our home. Raining to us meant laundry day and since the wind was picking up, hopefully they’d be dry by tomorrow night. They’d be too cold to wear, but at least they’d be clean. After that, I crawled into the tent Cyd and I shared and lay down on my sleeping bag, waiting for Cyd to lie down next to me. I made it a habit not to fall asleep until I was sure he was next to me. I had a strange fear that if I fell asleep while he was changing, some of the other homeless people who called themselves Wild Boars would attack our home. They branded themselves this name because they’ll eat anything, take anything and do anything just to sleep with a full belly every night. Their weakness is compromise, they don’t know how to. I once read an article from a day old newspaper on the street, the Wild Boars cornered an innocent old, homeless man and stabbed him to death all because they wanted his wool hat. A wool hat! Is that really worth killing somebody over?


A flash of lightning erupted through the silky fabric of the tent, outlining Cyd’s shape as he brushed his teeth. As I waited, I took out my broken spine copy of The Tempest, compliments of my mom. I opened the book and started to read random sections, keeping a sharp eye on Cyd as he changed his clothes before hanging them up on the fence next to mine. He crawled in after me in his primary colored sleeping bag that I had given to him, and calmly covered up his body with the covers. He glanced over at me, cocking his eyebrow.


The Tempest?” he questioned. “Don’t you find silly Willie exhausting to read?”


“You’d think that I would, but no. I don’t know why but reading it always helps me fall asleep at night.”


“Probably because it’s so boring.”


I shot him a nasty glare.


“I kid,” he chuckled, turning over on his side and running a hand through his light brown hair, similar to how a puddle looks when dirt is kicked into it and swirls around. “Maybe it’ll help me sleep too; will you read me a piece?”


I nodded, flipping through the pages until I came across one of my favorite lines.  “Miranda asks: Do you love me? To which Ferdinand replies: O heaven! O earth! Bear witness to this sound, and crown what I confess with kind event, if i speak true! If hollowly, invert what best is boded me to mischief! I, beyond all limit of what else i' the world do love, prize, honour you,"


I close the book as my eyes float away, swimming into an ocean of forgotten memories I had long since stored away.


“Wow, that’s pretty damn deep,” I vaguely hear Cyd say. He turned over on his back, snuggling into the sleeping bag. Another flash of lightning illuminated the tent, and this time thunder followed closely behind, exploding throughout the city like a bomb. I uncovered my hand and held it out as Cyd’s hand met mine halfway and we intertwined our fingers.


“Good night Cyd.”


“Good night Audrey,” he answered.

 

The next day, we rose up bright and early for some dumpster diving breakfast. Unfortunately, I had a hard time falling asleep. Not because of the storm, but because my stomach was so upset that I failed to collect more food. Cyd was just as famished as I was so I wanted to work twice as hard to ensure he ate today. We went through several cans, finding a case of grapes, recently expired carrots, and half empty water bottles. This wasn’t the best food in the world to eat, but I was thankful to receive whatever I was given. After we had finished the scraps, our minds managed to become clear again. Hunger, in my opinion, is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced.


I remember when my mother died; I wanted nothing more than for her to return to me. To wrap my arms around her waist and let her know how lucky I was to win the mom lottery. I remember feeling that want, that desire burning in my chest like a wildfire wanting to devour more trees. But now anytime I feel sad, or disturbed or just plan pissed off, the want for food makes all of those feelings go away. And I suddenly find myself acting less than who I really am, willing to do anything in order to satisfy that hunger. Even if it meant throwing any integrity I have left and spend the rest of my youthful days in a trash can, digging through things people with full bellies don’t wish to see rotting in their refrigerators.


“Hey Audrey,” Cyd said, chuckling.


My foot caught the side of the garbage can, tripping me as I nearly fall flat on my face. I somehow managed to land on both feet before turning my face into a pancake on the concrete. I turn back to Cyd, acting like nothing happened and luckily he didn’t notice. “What is it? Did you find something?”


He stood up, a smile seeming to dance on his lips. “Found a box of used condoms.”


I scrunched up my nose. “Eww and you’re touching them?”


He pretended like he was going to chuck the box at me but then threw it back down. “At least someone is being responsible.”


I shook my head. “Yeah, and their responsibility is now all over your hand.” I watched him wipe his hand on his shirt and I shook my head, trying not to laugh.


“You were right about that book by the way. It does help put you to sleep.”


“That makes one of us at least.”


As Cyd climbed out of the dumpster, I took one look at the muck and the banana peel that was stuck to his shirt and realized we needed to clean ourselves up since we had used the remaining moist towelettes this morning. Usually we used the public restroom at Burger King, but since it was clear across town, we decided to use McDonald’s just a few blocks away. The manager working there wasn’t a very nice guy and wasn’t afraid to let us know we weren’t welcome. But one of the older people working there, Jeana, understood our situation and was nice enough to not let the manager know of our visits. She was nice enough to sneak us French Fries and apple slices, but that was only when there was nobody around.


On the way there we passed a booming Chinese Buffet. I swear every time I see anything Chinese, Bowie’s song “China Girl” drifts into my mind and I find myself dancing to the quiet beat inside my head. I started to do the sprinkler and then the crazy leg and soon an audience, consisting of a few bystanders sitting on a bench, began to stare. Cyd shook his head, but smiled nevertheless.


“She does that,” he said to them.


“Oh baby, just you shut your mouth!” I sang to him.


The elderly couple on the bench smiled at us. But some of the other members in the audience weren’t as welcoming. Two girls passing by exchanged a glance with me, and everything seemed to slow down. I could see my reflection in their judging eyes, analyzing me as if I were an alien. I looked myself over: stained khaki pants, a faded navy blue shirt and green slip on shoes over my white socks. We get stares and glares all the time, and I know baggy clothes that looked like they were run over with a car aren’t “the latest trend”, but I am not an alien. I have no idea how people would really react to seeing a real alien, but if I were an alien I would say: “Yeah, I’m from Uranus that’s why I get fucked a lot!”


But I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut. I’m too much of a coward to say anything. I wanted to say something, make them understand my wardrobe wasn’t my choice to wear, it was a necessity. But the words never came out. It was as if they were all clogged up in my throat like one big hairball.  My sudden good mood vanished with their retreating shadows. I came to a halt and bowed my head, staring blankly at the evenly spaced cracks in the sidewalk.


“Hey,” I heard Cyd say. I glanced up to see his eyebrows furrowed. “You okay?”


“Yeah,” I lied and stepped past him. “Let’s just hurry. I can smell those carrots on my breath.”


“O-Okay,” he said.


As soon as I walk through the door, I immediately spot Jeana helping someone at the front counter. She noticed the two of us walk in and gestured a kind nod our way. I did the same in return before we made our way towards the restrooms. Cyd and I parted ways as I entered the little girl’s room. I triple made sure I was alone; for nothing is more awkward than trying to wash your body while someone is washing their hands. I remember I once found a pack of unused razors in the trash and took the opportunity to shave my legs that put Sasquatch’s to shame. However, one woman and her very young son thought it would be a good idea to walk into the bathroom while I was shaving. Did I mention the manager was working that day too?


I exhaled in embarrassment. I washed my face, arms, legs, and part of my back. The part I managed to reach that is and then brushed my teeth. I may be homeless and smell like shit ninety percent of the time, but I will never let my teeth rot clear out of my head. I never understood that concept when it came to people who were homeless, allowing their teeth to be the first thing to go. Steal a toothbrush; borrow one from a friend, I don’t care! At least keep one section of your body clean. I got Cyd into the habit because nobody wants to smell a whiff of expired food seeping from their friend’s mouth. Before I walked out I went the bathroom, washed my hands, and then went back out into the sitting area. Cyd wasn’t out yet. Perhaps he was trying to avoid awkward situations like I was. I’ve never known a guy to take more time in the bathroom than a girl.


As I waited, a woman with her newborn baby was sitting in a booth a couple tables down from mine. The baby (assumed it was a girl from the pink dress) was in a high chair, smiling and pounding her tiny arms against the tray, hastily awaiting another bite of Gerber applesauce while the mom ate a parfait. The woman was making faces and pretending the spoon was an airplane just to get the baby to giggle and drool all over itself.


Seeing how happy the two were, I couldn’t help but smile. But it also made me feel sad all the same. Witnessing a mother and her child together in bliss made me think of my own mom and moments we shared together. I recall how she used to call me her troublemaker because for such a small girl, I made an awful lot of noise. The smile on my face gradually faded as I subconsciously began to slowly lean forward on the bench in yearning.


“I’m done.”


I flinched, hitting my chest against the edge of the table. “Ow,” I said, rubbing my nonexistent woman hood area. I glanced behind me noticing Cyd standing there, his face and hands appearing cleaner than before.


“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you were so deep in thought.”


“It’s fine,” I whispered. “I was just daydreaming.”


“What were you daydreaming about?”


“Things I shouldn’t be thinking about.”


“Don’t we all?” I looked up at him in curiosity just as he asked, “Are you ready to go?”


“Yeah, let’s get out of here before the manager kicks our asses,” I said as I stood up from the booth.


As we migrated toward the exit, I glanced back at the mother and her child. The woman noticed my stare and flashed me a quiet smile. I quickly turn away, feeling my face turning redder than a tomato as I hurried after Cyd through the glass doors.

 

 

 

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