Sunday, May 31, 2020

“Bergen Street” by Mel King - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Bergen Street


Mel King

Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 2010
I’m leaving to pick up Nevada, high school crush turned maybe new flame, from Port Authority. Shorts and a t-shirt do nothing to abate the crushing Brooklyn summer humidity. I’m leaving early because I’m not sure I made the right decision about inviting her and want to control every possible variable about her arrival. I pull the swollen apartment door into the jamb, lock the two sticky locks, and begin the five-floor descent.
The stairwell smells like cigarettes and garbage from the usual indoor smokers and the open windows to the building’s trash yard. In my three days of being a resident, I’ve seen my neighbors heave full bags of trash out their windows, to smash on the concrete below. I only make it down one flight before nearly colliding with a woman crouched on the landing between the fourth and fifth floors, blocking my way forward.
          She is small, easily half my width and several inches shorter than my 5’8”. She is wearing grey sweatpants and a thin t-shirt that might have been white at some point. Her body is doubled over on itself and her sweatpants are pulled down slightly. She seems to be groping inside her clothing. It takes me a second to process the situation.
          “Are you okay?” I ask, not wanting to engage, but unable to walk around her and unwilling to leave if she’s in pain.
          She mumbles a response, her words coming out in fits like she hasn’t spoken to anyone in a long time. The words I hear are “maybe bleeding,” but her slurred whisper makes me doubt myself.
          I’ve been accused of not listening when I say “What?” before my perception catches up and I can piece together what someone has just said. I stand there a second to see if I can do that now, as my thoughts race with the time ticking down. Still, no.
“Can I do something?” I ask. My fingers fidget with the house keys in my pocket. “Can I get you something?”
          She looks up, acknowledging me for the first time. I’m not someone who can readily identify ages, but I can tell the dark shadows under her eyes and her hair, matted and knotted at the base of her head, make her look older than she might otherwise be. The dark caverns of her eyes narrow at me.
I realize she might not speak English. I swallow, force myself to breathe, try again. “English?” I ask.
          She nods, giving me an exasperated look. That is not our language barrier.
          “Do you need an ambulance?” I ask.
          “No! No, no. Tissues?”
          “You need tissues?” I ask, grateful for an actual response. I think, Is she having her period? Is that the blood?
          She nods her head vigorously, agitated, excited almost.
          “Okay, hold on,” I say. “Stay right here.”
          I bound back up the stairs to my apartment, unlocking the two locks and using my shoulder to break the bond of swollen wood and doorframe. Inside, I remember I don’t have any tissues. I barely have anything someone would need in an apartment. I’ve only been here three days. Fuck, I think. I clutch fistfuls of my hair in my hands and bite the inside of my lip. I have to leave! But I can’t leave her.
I’m about to exit the apartment for the second time, when I remember the toilet paper I took from my dorm’s plentiful supply, given out for free to residents. I filched enough before I graduated to have a few extra rolls stashed under the sink. I grab the roll from the holder.
          I come back down the steps and find her there, still doubled over and groping inside her sweatpants. The twinge in my gut tells me I’d been hoping she’d be gone.
          “Here.” I extend the roll of 1-ply to her and she snatches it from my hand. “This was all I had.”
          She rips off several lengths and stuffs them inside her sweatpants. I’m stuck sweating on the steps, watching as she adjusts wads of toilet paper in her crotch area again and again.
          She looks up at me and we stand there, frozen in time as she assesses whether or not this is a solution to the problem she can’t articulate or I can’t understand.
          “Bathroom?” she asks, shaking the roll at me.
          “Yeah,” I say, a little embarrassed. “Toilet paper from the bathroom.” 
          “I use?” she tries again, pointing to herself with the roll. “Bathroom?”
          “Oh! Oh, um…” I hesitate and she sees me immediately.
          I watch her watch me, sizing me up as I size her up. Am I a good enough person to let a stranger in to use my bathroom? Can I take her down if I need to?
          I look at my watch. I’m supposed to pick up Nevada at 3pm and it’s already 2:15. I wanted to give myself the whole hour to get there, factoring in the unreliability of the midday C train.
          But I think of all of the times I’ve had to go to the bathroom, my bladder expanded and wrenched until the pain is worse than feeling like I’m going to piss myself. I think of every time I would have done unspeakable things for a moment’s release in a non-gendered bathroom.
I remember, too, being a kid in the car with my mother driving the back roads outside of Albany—to school? home from somewhere? She jerked the car over to the side of the road and stopped hard. What she had seen, but I hadn’t, was a man on his back thrashing in the grass on the shoulder of the road. It was the first and only time I've ever seen a grand mal seizure. It might have been my mother’s first, too, but she knew to hold the man still and have me dial 911. It didn't matter that we were strangers. My mom saw someone in distress and dropped everything to help.
          “Okay, yeah,” I say, surprising myself. “I have to leave soon, but you can use the bathroom.”
          Her dark eyes open wide with excitement and the gnawing feeling in my gut comes back. My body already knows I’ve gotten myself into something bad.
          I ignore my instincts and lead this small person up the stairs. I’m ahead of her the whole flight, but in front of my apartment,I fumble with the keys. She’s standing so close that I can smell the sweat on her skin and all the odors that must have caused the stains on her baggy clothes.
I shoulder my way into the apartment again and direct her straight ahead into the small bathroom.
“Thankya, thankya,” she says, nodding vigorously, as she shuffles ahead into the bathroom, leaving the door ajar.
I don’t want to look, but I see her squat and pull her pants down, shuffling toward the toilet. I pull the bathroom door closed from the outside and wince at the slam.
I walk into the open kitchen, which shares a wall with the bathroom, and lean against the countertop. I slide my phone out of my pocket, a slider that makes a shiksound each time I push the screen up to reveal the keypad. 2:21. I chew the inside of my lip so hard I can taste a thread of copper in my mouth.
My thumbs tap out a text to Nevada: Running late. Be there ASAP.
The response comes a few seconds later: cool thnkim in nj. dunno. cant wait 2 see u.
My decision to invite her at all felt dubious, but I’m grateful for the distraction of her right now.
          What feels like forever goes by and my visitor has not made any move from the bathroom, though she flushes again and again. I check my phone again. 2:29. I think: This is not a normal bathroom visit.
          I’m antsy and scared to knock on the bathroom door, paralyzed by the unpredictability of her behavior.

          When she finally comes out of the bathroom, she is pale and clammy. Her body is covered in a sweaty sheen.
          “What do you need?” I ask, slowing my breath to slow my words.
          “Water. Ice.”
          I pull two of five plastic cups I own from a cupboard. I fill one with ice from the tray in the freezer and water from the sink. I fill another with just ice and hand them both to her.
          She sets the cup of ice water on the counter and takes a cube from the other cup. She runs it along her forehead, neck, and the lengths of her arms, skin on bone, before popping the ice cube into her mouth. She sucks loudly on the ice before crunching it between her teeth.
          She says something around the crushed ice in her mouth, but I can’t understand. She brings the ice water to her mouth.
          “What did you say?” I ask.
“Nuhhhh, baby,” she says into the cup.
I hear a moan of distress followed by the word “baby.” As if she’s calling me “baby” or remembering some other “baby.”
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
She looks up, irritated.
“Nuhhhh. Bayyybyyyy. Nuhhhh” She slows down every syllable, staring me down, her eyes deep whorls.
          The sounds—more vowel than meaning—do not form into words in my brain. I swallow hard, worried about irritating her further, and take a guess.
          “No baby?”
          She nods at me, eyes wide before turning solemnly back to the cup of ice. She takes another cube and runs it along her skin again before putting it, too, into her mouth.
          I wrack my brain, trying to think past my growing anxiety about this stranger in my home, about being late to pick up Nevada who I’m now only slightly sure I should have invited in the first place. There’s no baby. No baby here? Obviously. She’s a mother, but her kid isn’t a baby. She doesn’t have a baby. She had a baby, but she doesn’t have it anymore.
          When the realization hits, it nearly flattens me. My body flushes with adrenaline, cold fusion in my veins. There’s no baby because she lost the baby. She lost the baby. She had a miscarriage. She miscarried. Just now. In the hallway. In my bathroom.
“Oh, god,” I exhale. “Can I call someone? Ambulance?”
          “Muhsihhhsster coming. Muhsihhhsster.”
          “She knows? Where is she meeting you?”
          “Across th’street.” She shrugs. It’s nothing.
          “Are you sure?” I say, knowing exactly nothing about aftercare in the event of a miscarriage. I’m sure a doctor should be informed. I’m sure a relative should be present. “Do you want to call her? To make sure she’s coming?”
          “Nah, nah.” She shakes her head, straightening up and stiffening her whole body. Whatever defenses she’s let down are coming right back up. She goes back into the bathroom, shuts the door, and comes back out just as quickly. Her face is damp and I imagine that she’s just splashed water on it to cool down. She jams her hands in her pockets. “Go now,” she says to the floor. “Thankya, thankya.”
          “Yeah, of course. Are you sure I can’t do anything?”
          “Nuhhh.” She tries to open the front door, but her small frame is no match for my heat-swollen front door.
          I move beside her and replace her hand on the doorknob with my own. I give the door a hard shove with my shoulder and the barrier gives from its frame.
          She stands there and looks at me one last time. Her dark eyes flash up at me and at once I’m stricken with how sad it all is. I want to help her more, but I don’t have any money, no ability to get her the help she needs. I wonder fleetingly what she’ll remember of me. A nice kid who tried to help? It’s the most I can hope for. She shuffles out the door and is gone.
          I close the door behind her and am overcome by the desire to fall asleep for several hours. The adrenaline that has kept me moving through this encounter leaves my body as quickly as it came and I’m weak with its departure.
          Heading back down the stairs again, a full half hour or more after I’d departed the first time, I half expect to see her standing on the landing again. She’s not on the landing between the fifth and fourth floors. She’s not on the landing between the fourth and third floors. She’s not on the landing between the third and second floors. She’s not on the landing between the second and first floors.
          Opening the front door to the building, I realize how she got into the building. The faulty lock that has been rattling at least since my soon-to-be roommate and I visited the building has finally snapped. The building’s front door can no longer lock.
          I start down the block toward Franklin Avenue to the train. Across the street, a line snaking out of a building catches my eye. Only then do I see that the building directly across the street from my new home is a methadone clinic. There’s no time to process that information. I have to go.

No comments:

Post a Comment