Only the Homeless Find the Divine
by Nanette Rayman Rivera
Nausea unlocked slowly, like magnolias or roses, pink flowers mostly, and the demon that lay silently waiting to come out, came out, and I looked out the barred window. With a moan rising up from my bowels, the way scraps of paper quickly catch fire in an ashtray, I cried, why is my life like this? I looked at this man I married saying words, demands I couldn’t hear anymore. Then like someone hearing a far-away call, a spirit, I put my finger to my lips, and showed him the signal for quiet to begin, a quiet that gradually blanketed all consciousness.
Hurled out as nomad, as a pile of molecules attached to no one and no thing, except for Jose, I shove down my fear. This December, I pump a hobo’s heart, all I own boxed inside my skull, bagged in Duane Reade shopping bags. We’re being driven by the government to a homeless shelter for couples.
Up here, the air smells oily. We haven’t even passed the J-train station, but already the air thins with the threat of our destination. All the buildings sink their roots into the corroded sidewalks; reach their rotted foundations into the pavement and garbage, leaning so far their gnarled concrete and wood can barely hold up. Around their edges, heaps of cigarette butts and soda cans clutch the lead outline of potholes, and old tar fills in with more cigarettes and lost lead pipes, a sneaker here and there, and more than a few lost people, crack pipes their only accessory. The J train up above rattled and beveled so it dulled the sky further, turned the gloomy streets to traps and reflected back gray light to the ground. Non-descript bare trees loom over everything like bald would-be warriors with huge thighs. How late each moment of our life is.
This is why I know I am in for more than a bumpy ride. This was my worst fear, unyielding in its batty light, a detour into a place no sane woman would enter freely.
I know it’s only time before our whole bodies will be dislodged, allowed to drift and sink. The homeless shelter would seal us over and that’s how it would end. You would never know there had been Jose and me at all.
The van-driver says, we’re in Brooklyn. Bushwick.
The windows of the shops made of cheap glass, are so dirty they are almost the color of dung. Around their bases skinny bands hold a battery of dead cockroaches and the thin glass plate above catches no light, turns no colors, reflects only gray. These windows alone make me feel ugly. As if all the prettiness I had felt and worn my whole life is caught in these windows, slopes away. This is a beginning of an end that has never left me. Not once.
There may have been a time when all these storefronts were lovely. When all the brick frontispieces were carved and each line created a picture – elephants and lions and curlicues set into brick. Some set with glass, the doors’ brass bells ringing clear when the cords were pulled. Now the carvings are encrusted with mold and dirt, painted over in green, white and orange gang symbols. The fine detail lost. No chords to be pulled, no fresh cakes in the window, just months-old candy that could break your teeth. The dirt and snow never cleaned until the first buds of spring, if then. No sense of pride from the owners. Did they know that thugs would destroy any polish, any trace of a dripping soapy sponge?
The dwellers of this neighborhood took no care, just took. Wiped the gargoyles with so much attention. Wiped it all with sick strokes of anger. It wasn’t life these hoods were thinking about then. The crazed sweeping motions of their arms as they worked all over the glass, showed that, hurling and spitting and spinning the paint all over, stains rising from the glass, from the sidewalk, from them.
Here was a land so unfamiliar, a place that has bred a new me, a woman unfamiliar to me. A woman I kept at the edge of my mind precarious as jukebox pop songs. The people on the street could not stop staring, how they glared. They carried an aura around them like a huge beaten suitcase, a mist of venom and hate, unlike other poor neighborhoods, where little grandmas smiled and pushed carts of groceries and little shops beckoned with their rellenos and sausages and one hundred flavors of bagels. This was the backwater, the dump, the place at the end of the earth where shops sold stale candy and drugs and Chinese food places were pit stops for men and women waiting for a fix. Where the tiny row of shops stood like frightened whores under the beams of the J train, apart from the no man’s land on either side of them. A place where you breathed hard going down the steep stairs from the subway to the ground, hoping you’d make it past the dangling punks and the pot holes that resemble murder, the whining line of babies hanging off mothers’ rococo made-up faces. And the faces like motorcycles, steel faces, chain faces, knifed heat of a Chernobyl-like grayness everywhere. How I could just lie down and die now. Lie down and die now. Lie down and die. Lie down, lie.
No one reads this part of the story.
A woman demeaned hath more fury than a woman scorned. This battered woman will deliver an eloquent speech about sorrow. I’ll show you. Today I want peace, there’s nowhere to run; I give up my self, dreams of a life. Today is preparation for low life.
In the play of my life, I am now the thing, the character I most fear. A godless woman enamored of glamour re-routed to back-lots, walking through crack-heads and their funhouse mirror faces, their burnt lips, right into a prison. I smell like peonies and pot, the back of my velvet skirt taking on the shelter stink, dirty windows fogging over. I dream a theatre of my own, heat in our room. I dream a husband with carcass intact, one that knows money. I dream no husband.
Someone who looks like me smiles from a billboard, shampoo girl. Bless me.
What would happen if you heard me? Mayor Bloomberg, you, what if you visited us in this dump, would Bette Davis or Elizabeth Taylor come to mind, your condescending face ting-ting-ing in locomotion away, away, a whisk back to City Hall, a brick wall letting my complaints go unanswered or answered by some flunkie denying what I say. Would you admit there is a woman here who doesn’t belong, whose face and talent could have opened into those movies, just playing women who could say: What a dump! Would you deny what you allow in your splendidly awful homeless shelters? Allowing the homeless to feed on slop, while the fake social workers scarf down the luscious cakes and three-decker sandwiches delivered by City Harvest. For us, Mayor. For us.
What would happen if you heard me? Would you scrawl your we-cleaned-up-we-helped-the-homeless mantra on my flesh, a fuchsia testimony tattoo to all you do, Mayor? To all your lies. Would you investigate my allegations of the other shelter, the one on Beaver Street where they take your welfare, SSI, or job checks for “safe-keeping?” Would you admit they have no right, they aren’t allowed to horde your money as theirs in interest-bearing accounts in the name of the Trinity Church? You haven’t yet. Mayor.
How I could carry my own lies in my tote bag, my shopping bag, my baggage? My lie that everyone forces me to say: It’s not so bad. Things get better. The same lie they spewed and forced me to say when I couldn’t get a job. The lie. Lie down. Lie. I wish for chocolate in my pastry, something to make me lovelier. A way out of this life that burns me, fierce and mean as government.
* * *
My mother could
never stop carping about my father, how he loved to buy her pretty things, gave
her no security, was so blackly proud of work habits, the forsythia and willows
out back, the living room lit by candles' flames that leafed the warm walls
gold. He had those ways, my mother said, like Jose had them, from his
birthplace. They were there in the way he would pick up a fallen wildflower from
the street and present it to her as they sat together outside in the sunshine in
the first weeks they knew each other, in the other shelter, the one without
beds, the one that frowned on their love. This is a homeless shelter,
not a disco. Get your lips off her, Jose. In the way he ran his finger
like a razor blade down the side of my still-fine face when he looked at me. A
That daughter doesn’t even deserve a husband. Doesn’t need dresses, an education, a purpose. That daughter’s gonna end up in the gutter, or dead. That’s what. Nothing I can do about it. That daughter’s too pretty and pretty gets me mad. Pretty makes me hate her makes me want to crush her like she crushes anisette stars in her mind, makes me want to darken reverie into nightmare. You’ll see, I can make it happen. I can get that husband of mine to kick her out. Eighteen. That’s when. Never to bother me again with her needs, her theatre dreams, that face that makes me look ugly. Stone, by stone, I’ll turn, you’ll see, she’ll be a woman singed, sooty woman, homeless and married to a man who does drugs. Sad and married to a man who’ll bring her down.
* * *
Looks like urban blight shanty-land. Smells like low-life spirit.
We enter the shelter by buzzing a two-step buzzer, then walk through a heavy wrought-iron covered cement door, into a passageway so narrow you can touch the sticky walls on either side. You’re told to turn left into a green room resembling a psychiatric hospital’s waiting room. Against one wall is a television blaring Iraqi bombers bombing…
The locked door is for me more than a barbaric reality; its density encodes the secrets of fate itself. Although I’ve yearned for it to be any other way, much freer and good-spirited, more in the stream of merit and beauty, I know right at this moment, my life is precisely where fate wants it to be, that I could not have altered my outcome no matter what I did. I know right at this moment, as a tenant gives me the what-are-you-doing-here-look, that my life withers without witnesses, that my ugly fate might be called delicate beauty, like an orchid silently blooming, then dying, consumed in its own passion, my life is only a sacrifice demanded by the gods. The madman has not come too soon. I believe God is dead.
A shadow falls across the dumpy living room, an out-of-time shadow casting film-noir-prison-movie light above the stained couch where we drop our worldly possessions. The shadow is a big black guard ordering us to empty all bags, to prove we have no guns or knives.
I wish I did.
How low can I sink? At least this shelter will give us a bed. Not like the one where we slept on metal chairs, stinking rotting men smelling like orchid-meat cursing in the night.
All you religious freaks who believe we are punished for our sins, that we must have done something to deserve our fate… Look! What did I do to end up in a shelter being frisked by raccoon-butt ugly freaks?
Oprahisms – if you do good – good will come to you, when you know better, you do better. If you work hard – you’ll be successful - You can do anything with your life. You are all masters of your fate. Free will is everything. – pieces of phrases in my head.
Why doesn’t anyone see that if fate were based on doing the right thing, or on the merit of my talents and intelligence, I wouldn’t be standing here crime-less in the big-house? Didn’t Nietzsche say that a living thing desires to vent its strength? That life is a will to power? That self-preservation is a consequence of it? Didn’t he say that the herd mentality upholds what is beneficial to the weak? That the weak think strong and independent individuals are evil?
Why am I lumped in with the weak? Why can’t the system, the homeless welfare machine keep its slave values to itself?
The Greeks had it right. Fate is everything. The Gods play with us. When the time is ripe, the sun makes our decisions.
If we look closely, a life has a pattern, a paradigm the owner can’t escape. How can I think otherwise? When every miniscule opportunity is snatched, when each door is slammed and no window is opened, how can I not know my life was ordained this way?
What is the meaning I’m supposed to take from being homeless? What could it be? I believe there is no meaning, only that homelessness, in one form or another, is my destiny. A Christian friend pointed out that a Jewish life is nomadic. Am I the poster child for all Jewish Diaspora and wandering, a headshot for homelessness?
I better find some jism of strength or I’ll lie in gutters, under subways, hair tangled, teeth rotting for eternity, X-acto knives in my face.
Don’t ever allow yourself to be homeless. Keep your dreams in the keyhole, not the pothole. Don’t ever have nowhere to go. You will not drown; just almost drown, like hair that won’t go down the drain.
This winter night I ditch my left-over optimism and spin in a mad teacup. The city now pays bigger bucks for my imprisonment. $3,300 for the two of us stashed in an unheated, electrically mis-wired room. And the government gives us only ten dollars a month for the two of us, in food stamps, because they believe this shelter is feeding us. Dogs wouldn’t eat this food. Some nights we starve so we don’t puke.
All the crack-heads caged in baby-diarrhea-yellow plastered rooms holler, play their one-note music over and over, louder and louder. I smell them as fate, fingerprints, and odor, bad, like the stench of sulpher and unwashed bodies.
We all lead lives of quiet desperation. We all do the unheard of to save ourselves.
Did I marry Jose to escape homelessness? Would I have married him anyway?
But, Dad, what would you say if you lived, if I told you? Would you turn me away and say: Stop sipping starlight, girl, get thee to a synagogue before you’re a nailed woman.
Voices from my past encircle my ears like ravenous ravens:
You oughtta be in pictures. A movie star. The new Natalie Wood.
It’s as if I awake from years of dreaming. I sit on the pockmarked yellow sofa, in the center, like a weird featherless bird, brailed in this cacophony of pockmarked and knifed faces. And those voices. There are women singing about some damn sex-you-up stuff, like that’s all that matters, when not one of them has the time or years left to be worried about sex right now, yes, they’re stuck like me and not one of us, not even educated me can climb out of this sewer.
Every prison movie I ever saw, the black and white ones, with the nasty woman-wardens, pops into my brain. I expect a lightning storm to break against the dirty window.
Jose. Jose. Jose.
I want to love you through this sorrow, through this thundering hell like the thud of a guillotine. I want to feel love and I do. I don’t want this agony of always finding a rhythm to fit into. Surely, this daily hunt and lust for a home is not for me.
Jose. You’re so nervous, you’re pacing and I hope you can survive this. The hurt, the stress is unbearable, baby, I know. Hang on.
You disappear into your own brain, your own private hell; I harden into wood, and like the hem of a ghost orchid, I hang and burn.
Jose thinks he can say love and kill the whisper. I am a homeless woman – I am a loser voice - He thinks, seeing me on the verge of breaking, he can kill the bile the breath holds under.
He says to me, Nanette, it’ll be over one day, baby, it will, and I pause to look at his leg shaking. I pause to breathe. I slip my hand into his; lay sloppy kisses on his blue mouth to still my own.
Dusk. Cold and clouds break. Wind rocks the oaks and skinny nameless trees; a taupe sky dims between branches. My slide downward is steady like a pulse. It’s coming now, it’s an omen, spread everywhere like an acid trip in a canyon, a voice that is not a voice, spreading inside me:
Run for your life. You will not rise above this. You have met your fate headfirst. You are living the plan your mother had for you.
I dream of sugar. Sugarcane, my mind already fuzzy. Sugarcane comes sweet; you only have to lick the ground.
Kiss the ground.
Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.
Outside the street is strung with shack buildings, burnt fences. The J train rumbles yards away. The fences blink throughout the landscape; the boys with pants down to their knees slip drugs into fake handshakes, wink at the pigeons, and me when I step outside to smoke.
* * *
I don’t know how long I sit among the freaks and hairies, waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the House Manager to check us in. Logged in. Opposite of logged out. But when the realization comes, it comes first as vertigo, a chasm opening into a fun-house nightmare, the mosaic of dirt and gray and stench blinding me.
I couldn’t be more of a sore thumb if I were naked. Now, a woman with earrings the size of her ears is moving toward me, and I resent these moments. Hard. The acrid breath of intimidation masquerading as friendliness.
I fake smile, go through dissociated motions, and don’t catch her name. I don’t care.
“You haveta empty out all ya stuff. They wanna know if ya have a piece.”
“We don’t have a piece. I wish we did.”
The intimidator looks at Jose, his fingers twitching, his cow-eyes huge and open, his knee trembling.
“Is he crazy?” She barks it so loud; her voluminous earrings almost whack her in her own head.
The fucking nerve of her.
But you are, to ask such a rude question. Where were you brought up, and by whom – wolves?
We have to empty out everything we own onto the floor, so the guard can check for knives and guns. X-acto’s, .38’s. Lugers. Swiss army knives. They even check for mirrors. Even reflection can be used as a weapon.
For hours. No one offers us water or juice or a piece of food.
A tough broad in Via Spaga – maybe-not pumps, and a white medical-looking coat over her skirt and sweater appears to “intake” us.
Paperwork and questions. The nuts and bolts of homelessness.
She tries all she can to discover any information to use against us, reminding us over and over of our wretched state.
“You don’t get it, you don’t, I can’t get a job, that’s how I ended up here – that’s how!”
“You expect me to believe that a woman, who looks like you, a woman as well-spoken as you, can’t get a job?”
She starts in with the usual routine: Did you go to temp agencies, did you try everything?
“You do sound educated, that’s why I can’t understand…”
“I thought you wanted to know why I can’t get a job. Why can’t you just let us go to sleep? What do you care?”
“Because, look at you, so pretty. Very. It’s odd. Someone like you. Maybe we can help.”
Jose rolls his eyes so I don’t have to.
“OK. You asked for it. The human resource people are given the power to take my life away. And there is no one, no agency, no religious temple, no tribunal for me to complain to. The world has it all backwards. Pretty, smart women are supposed to get jobs.
I’m talking about.”
And I hear the voice again…
“Continue…about the jobs.”
“Yes. I’m with a friend, a friend with a family and a job. We smoke millions of cigarettes and she goes on and on about the other-worldliness of it all. About maybe a demon hovering over me.
The phone rings.
After months and months of not even having even a one-day temp job, I am offered three days work as a receptionist. After years of being told I’m overqualified to answer phones, that I should be an Executive Assistant, and then not getting those jobs either, here it is: My big reward. Three days work at $9 an hour.
My friend tries to calm me, to trick my mind, to soothe the bile rising all around me. “It’s better than nothing.”
Ten minutes later the temp agency calls me back. Without explanation, without an apology, “We gave that job to someone else.”
“But you gave that job to me. What are you doing?”
“I saaaiiiidddd…The job went to someone else.”
But it’s mine, it’s mine, you can’t do that. What are you doing?” Don’t you know how weird this is? But they had already clicked me away.
I was one of the first candidates at the new Temp Agency when they opened their mega-ferned office. I called and took tests and offered my services to answer the phone. Anything to get a job. And now they take a job away from me. I never heard of something like this. The job given to a Jennifer-come-lately. Surely her name must be Jennifer. All the temps are named Jennifer.
A few days later. Another agency calls.
“We just found your resume. We moved the file cabinets. It was stuck, lost back there.”
“Did anyone else’s get stuck, lost back there?”
In the play that is my life, this woman stands stage right, perplexed, but tired.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Me either. That’s only the tip of it all. I could go on forever.”
* * *
Curfew is 1:00 a.m. There are no mirrors allowed, because we might kill ourselves. How will I know myself, how will I know Jose, if I can’t see us embrace in the mirror, find my innards in the mirror, know the lace of my bra in the mirror. I need a mirror to blow-dry my hair; I need to find space in the mirror.
If the husband or the wife leaves and never comes back, the abandoned one has to leave, get out. Back to a singles homeless shelter, or the street. Your preference. Violence won’t be tolerated. You must listen to your social worker when she tries to get you housing. There is no smoking – political correct fascism even for the browbeaten.
* * *
At last, at last…she takes us to our room.
It isn’t even a room. It’s a tiny airless cage with waffle patterned open grates that let in all the voices and sounds, the smells, the low-life fighting from all the other rooms. The walls don’t go up to the ceiling. Open air. It’s an orangutan-cage for people; the trail of snuck-in booze and crack stinks up the oxygen, leading to my utter abandonment of hope - the broken light-bulb fanging back and forth…back and forth…and forth. How can I not cling to Jose, though I know…I know…he lives in his own Prolixin-soaked hell.
It’s all public: Sex, noise, fighting, hours of ghetto-drug-talk – these words want to take back our breath; waves of sound want to splinter our insides and sully our bodies, make us primates.
The second day.
A swell-eyed migrained me awakens to a knock at the door by a guard in blue. You’re being placed in a new room, a room for those who make it through the first night A room that says: You’re here for the long haul. Maybe forever if no apartment accepts you.
And we wait. We can’t look for work, or go outside into the endless rivulets winding through the coyote-colored snow. Into the other-world of crack dealers and crack whores on every corner, ready to hijack your bones and wallet for a small drug crystal.
In the middle of the afternoon, another knock. You’re moving to that room over there. He unlocks the door to the new room and a blast of cold air demolishes any hope for comfort.
The new room. Wired to blow. The electrical outlets barely work. If I blow-dry my hair and watch our cheap little television, the fuse blows. The guard saw me put up my little mirror with the stand. No trouble and I won’t tell about the mirror. I just want to look nice. No trouble – no tell.
The fuse blows and the whole room pales like lilies, all the light gone, and then I have to run down four flights of stairs to the surly teeth-sucking guard and beg her to turn the fuse back on. The radiator is cold. It’s nineteen degrees. Our room is this withered.
Snot. Spit. Shit. I give our room these words.
Morons. Imbeciles. Protozoa. I give the government these words for paying so much money for this. For letting so many people into this country, legal, and worse, illegal, and feeding them, letting them work, giving them medical care, housing them, while I, a woman born here, is homeless, left to sleep on pavement, or here, crushed by prison codes and a sub-freezing room. Why am I treated like a perp, a murderer, a rapist, a drug-dealer, when I’ve already been punished? Don’t those employment agencies and casting agencies and CEO’s of corporate-sludge jobs punish me enough by not hiring me? No good reason not to, and my voice billows and peals after it all, me whose eyes gaze nowhere. Howling nomad mad woman cut the bullshit pretty woman can’t get a job woman and why? The answer never to be known. Criminals, stinking women, dumb women, inarticulate women, ugly women, mean women get jobs. Hell, my mother got a job, once.
It is so cold. This is what I will remember most. I see three blackbirds circling the telephone wires. They land carry something off, what it is I can’t see. Later my head hurts. People with homes can do what they want to the homeless. Freeze them out, if that’s what they want. Beat us down with misery so there is no incentive to get out of bed. Down the hallway etched with the ornate shadows of Security, I weave my way to the ladies room, hoping for warmth, but finding cold, and the smell of unwashed bodies and pear flavored body spray.
We wait to get to the top of the apartment list; half-starved on fly-infested soggy macaroni, the portion enough to feed a bird through a dropper. Why wait, when putting a .38 to my face is as simple as smelling all these rotters? A handful of pills would smell like rose-petals.
Jose kisses me hard on the lips and he’s gone, away to the outside where he can smoke in the open. You know we sneak cigarettes, leave the window open, put them out in soda bottles we cover up and hide under the bed. Today he’s outside where it’s warmer than inside.
This is America. Land of the free. As long as you don’t smoke, don’t dream; as long as you are lucky enough to get a job. How can I love America through the ache and the balefulness, through the rawness of my manacled world, devoid of normalcy? How can I love America, in my hourly hunt for work and a place to live, for a tempo to fit into?
I’m here, here, here, dying in a homeless shelter, dying to escape this ghetto rhythm.
* * *
The fire-drill clang. Fire drills day and night. In the middle of the night. Guards bang bang banging at the door - Get out, get out. Fire. Fire. The fire never comes. It’s really just a way to torture us, to see if they can catch crack-smoking or cigarette smoking.
In the halls, gangs of gangs conduct blind-studies on the latest crack rocks and how they burn, double-blind studies on how to get me to crack – up. If you do not succumb to drink or drugs, if you miss the basic food groups, and privacy in the bathroom, if you must love and fuck and scream without an audience, then even your false Gods, and the moon above, won’t comfort you here. Nietzsche, oh Nietzsche – my favorite philosopher, my beloved writer – you were wrong about one thing. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Jose stumbles and drops. Only the side of the bureau holds him up.
How can he go anywhere from here? This is where we are. This is our place in the world. There’s no empty field to turn him out in, he’s not a wild beast. No river, no beach. His exile is here. With me. In the Eddie Harris Homeless Shelter for Couples. Trodden down, not in the good earth, but bent and broken in a cold, damp room, right here in our heart’s dark place, dark as a river’s dark heart. And the rap music pounds on.
He may be finished with himself here, and I may be too, but he’s now all of me, my reason to be. So much time has passed in this silence, in this darkness of soul, too much time.
It isn’t even possible to close our eyes…
Jose, close your eyes…
Would anyone know, would they, if I just…
Couldn’t I just say, I don’t want to live like this…
Sleep, Jose, sleep like a bush, like a jellyfish moving in….
Oh, oh, oh, I’m on fire…
Forgive…These politicians know not what they do…No…They just don’t care.
I drift. He drifts. Slowly, slowly, to the in-between world that is stronger than death.
* * *
I want to sleep. I want my heart to stop…
I fumble around with the caps of Jose’s pills. All the pretty pills lined up.
Pills for anxiety. For movement control. Stop shaking, Jose…
Pills for mood. Pills for anti-psychotic episodes.
I sleep…perchance to dream…
When I wake, Jose is standing over me, shaking me like a rag doll. What did you do? What?
Swift as breath, he’s on me. Sadness and grogginess run down my body like oysters.
He’s on me.
He’s with me.
He’s crying. He’s walking me limp around the cramped room.
I see the pills, brown, yellow, white and orange scattered on the floor, crushed in the sheets.
Saved from what? I remember now. I didn’t take the pills, I fell asleep, my own sleep overtaking me, no chemicals. I hadn’t done anything to myself, but Jose is out of his mind now, afraid.
Wanna-fuck-ya-sista-music, banging doors and hollering husbands beating their wives. The noise, the noise, the migraine-noise. The window is pushed open. Had I done those hours before when the afternoon winter sun slithered in? Now the air turns frigid, a thick black and purple that seems to smudge and change the silhouette of things to a soft, less threatening reality. Less real. The street is blurry, the malnourished trees seem fuller, as if they had grown, and the street seems less of a ghetto.
Jose is kissing me, pulling my hands away from my face. To look. To see.
Shadows – slices of moving dark –cottony – I feel…
A body without a head.
This is not the first time someone saved me from dying…
* * *
I get up every night, even if I’m sick, even if my body refuses to move.
Prison-guard-women stroll, and they waddle down the hall – pounding on doors so we can line up like POWs and sign for our bed, prove that we are in our bed, prove that we aren’t doing any nasty drugs or liquor, prove we’re in our husband’s bed. If you miss signing two nights in a row, you will become homeless-homeless, kicked to crack-on-concrete.
I have to line up most nights. I feel like Susan Hayward in I Wanna Live. Jose is zonked out on Benedril and Thorazine.
Sometimes the halls are still when I stand here in my Chinese robe, another present from Jose. Sometimes the air is a sleeping rhinoceros. The loudmouths do not speak; they do not move. The humungous fan in the hall looks like Big Brother. My insides weigh a lot, like boulders. It is solid entrapment, cement air. Nothing moves on the surface of it all, it all waits for the bed-checkers to move to another floor.
Static. The quiet is an imprint; even the guards seem to move more slowly so as not to disrupt it.
Other times, there are the women inmates – talking in nasal tones, loud and unrelenting. Garbage-talk. Some are creatures from under the sidewalk, from who-the hell-knows-where, creatures like you’ve never seen. Tank engines gossiping about other women, ranting on about slight imagined slights, as if all this writhing and fuck-you-ing will distract them from their real problem. Lots of them are homeless because they are irresponsible, drug dealers and drug-doers, they are drinkers, they don’t want to work, they refuse to behave like humans, they have spirits housed in aching meat and they won’t realize it.
It is hard to be around them. They are another species. Not once, in five months do I hear one snippet of conversation about books, movies or ideas. It’s only who-fucked-whom, who disrespected someone, or how high they fly. It’s all made to make me lose track.
I don’t. I’m a fish, floundering on land. I move awkwardly through space, my eyes glaze over, flickering like a silent movie, traversing a road that turns into snakes. They all turn and stare, that goon look women get when another woman is out of place. The look women get when they want to pounce, the look they get when they want to shout, why is a pretty woman like you in a place like this?
There are a few sweet women. I’m just too lost to care.
Other times there are the men. Creatures. Like new-born babies that haven’t been wiped clean, they ooze and slime up the place. Vaga Mundo. Wanderers of earth. They are not-quite men, a notch below human, somewhere between man and ape, the missing link. They look like men, with their beards and their penises, but they are animal. They sell their wives as easily as they sell drugs. Vagavundo country-men. They pummel their wives; they bellow and threaten to fuck-you-up. They hang outside my door banging a basketball – boof – boof – bang. I want to open the door and send their VIM-clad bodies spiraling through the air. I want to pour hot oil on their heads, anointing them as low-life – inconsiderate hogs.
And the music, if you can call it that. Pound-shboom-Pound-shboom-boom-boom-boom rocks my door.
They twist their bodies and their fingers in ways they weren’t made to bend, and they’d waste you as soon as look at you. They look at me like I’m a flaming steak as soon as Jose looks away.
They are not worth the gunpowder it’d take to blow them to kingdom come.
Their brains die from atmospheric pressure. They are perfectly still intellectually, they are bundles of sully, they are hollering shit:
“I know you fucked him. You’re a liar. Liar. I know you fucked some guy.”
The little bitty man with the huge voice, who looks like Spike Lee, screams Liar about forty-seven times. The wife never says a word.
“Get the shit. I gave you ten dollars. Get the mother-fuckin’ shit.”
The voice. Every night.
Voices of tricksters and addicts and loud-mouthed ninnies. Up and down the hall. Off the wall.
I don’t move. As if a string holds me captive, my wings are opened, but unable to advance at all. The halls are a sifting climate, air that hangs like hay and I become inconsolably restless.
Outside, heaps of crack dealers stand hawking their wares. Skanky shaggy hos and pit-bull-faced men congregate in front of C-Town, they lurk in front of a dusty deli – you can’t even go for a five-minute walk in Bush-Dick. All eyes are on you. Waiting. Sirens wail like bad opera, one over the other, kill-the-ho, kill-ya-mutha rap music pounds, homeless shelter inconsiderates squall and kill each other down the hall. And the bed-checkers are blind.
We are lovers. We are in this together…
I dare to dream. Something I haven’t done. I lie dreaming of a small Cape-Cod house on the beach, high grasses and weeds blowing in the sea-salt and sand. I stand there, my hair whipping in my face, my gypsy skirt hugging my thighs. I stare out at the water.
I imagine Jose is still with me.
We are lovers.
We are in this together…
* * *
“Wake up Nanette. Give me the ATM card.”
“Get away from me…sleeping…”
“I’m going to check the money.”
“You said I would go with you. You said you were going at 9:30.”
Give me the card. His eyes, vacant icebergs. While he stares, he doesn’t see me for the woman who loves him. He’s only staring at air, places between us, and I think, yes, I won’t draw a breath, I’ll stare at the same air at the same time, and I’ll see what he sees. I’ll see what turned him bad after months of good.
Now he’s only looking at my pocketbook, his own two hands.
He wants to check to see if his money is there, safe in the Chase Bank, in my checking account left over from before-homelessness. His SSI check. He made me his “payee” when we got to this dump. He made me the guardian of the money, because he’s not able to handle the money, and now this. It’s my ATM card, my bank account, and we’re married. He’s supposed to support me, to look out for me. I know something is up. I think one of the drug-dealers living in this building has gotten to him. I know.
“Why why why? are you acting like this?”
Our voices getting louder. Surely the guards will come. Surely there will be points against us toward getting an apartment.
“Cem-on, Nanette, I just want to check, only to check the check.”
“Then why can’t I come?”
“Because, you, and your hair, your makeup…”
“I won’t do my hair today. I’m coming with you. If you’re not going to blow the money, then why can’t I come?”
My skull is a canned cauliflower. I feel the fear; I feel his paranoid poem blown against me. Though I know he can’t help it, that it’s either his schizophrenia, or it’s a descent into drugs because he can’t bear this hell, I blow into rage. His is louder.
“Gimme, or I’ll leave. I will. And never come back.”
And because we’re caged in this Hades, I can’t think, can’t know what I know, that he’ll never leave me. Never. He has nowhere to go. He loves me.
“It’s my card, mine.”
The guards don’t come. And now his fingers are twitching, rubbing themselves raw, and he whispers, Gimme the card or I’ll disappear.
Darkness fills the window, poured across the floor. It petrifies me, how dark it is. He has these fears. What if the money doesn’t come, Nanette? What if?
I have my own fears. I never had one person. Surely not a man who loves me this much. And now he’s a low-life druggie?
I need him. Without him, all the years will crush me, leaving me in a heap. Helpless to survive alone again, sent off to a worse place, a woman’s shelter where they carve you up in the shower, blade to neck.
I have my fears.
He terrifies me. Those eyes.
Do you still love me, Jose?
I love you more than the sky, he says.
I can’t breathe and I can’t stand the fighting. I give him the card and I know I’m taking a chance he will take the money and run.
He comes back empty-handed. The money isn’t there. The smug, Social Security Office-idiot-worker never input the new information. Hours in that hole, watching that spastic, condescending man typing reams of information about us, and the idiot was inept– somehow, by some quirk of quarks, the info never made it into the computer. And we trudge through twenty-five blocks of filthy snow and the sunless tomb of Brooklyn to the Social Security office again.
The smug Social Security worker is telling me not to ask questions, and not to question his incompetence. He’s now telling me that maybe I shouldn’t even be Jose’s payee, after all, you do seem to be very opinionated, and you have a quick temper.
“Of course I have a quick temper. We sat here for six and a half hours last month, while you chicken-pecked the information into the computer. And now it isn’t there. His check isn’t here. It’s funny, isn’t it, that I don’t have a job, so I’m homeless, and you, you amoeba-brained lump, you have a job, and you’re beyond incompetent!”
“One more outburst and you can go.”
And Jose is up out of his chair, sticking his yellowing finger into the worker’s face, words sputtering out. She didn’t say anything that isn’t true. You did screw up. And she can ask anything she wants. She takes care of me. I was worse before I had her. I love her. He’s pounding his fist on the jerk’s desk.
“Sit down! Mr. Rivera, or…”
“Your wife is yelling at me and I will not stand for it.”
“You’re outta your mind, I’m the one yelling at you. You must have a problem with women.”
I look at the smirk on the frog-face of the worker and I snarl my lip at him. He’s right. “What is your problem, guy, don’t like women? Jose’s the one yelling, not me. I only asked a question.”
“I don’t like the way you axe questions.”
“Did you say axe? Isn’t the word ask?”
Now the frog-face is up out of his chair, I’m goin’ to get my supervisor.
And Jose, pounding on the desk, go ahead. Do that, you jerk.
* * *
Often, your love petrifies me. Your schizophrenia unhinges me. Your sleeping hours, and man, they are a lot, trip me up. Your waking hours annoy me; they collapse time. Sometimes, when you grab my ass and you never want to give me space, because you love me so much, and there’s half-done coffee cups strewn on every ledge and blueberry bar wrappers lying on the floor, I know I just want to be alone, so I can spread out my papers and pens, so I can walk around in my frilly panties without your sticky fingers nosing around, without your anxiety and ants and rhythms getting in my way.
This morning I woke to your puffy puppy face so close up to mine. Elation curls my toes – you are still here – alive, your sun-baked face, cottony liquor poured from lips, leaning in, pouring in to me, I have to curl up under your armpit to savor you.
I’m trying to understand all the sparrow and hawk moods of you.
* * *
Reaching over and under me. Sidestepping me, not letting me leave the room.
I owe thirty dollars. I have to pay it now.
“No you don’t. Not right this minute; I’m going to dinner.”
I know now. He’s smoking crack. I know.
I hate you, Jose, with a hate that could singe your converging eyebrows right off. With a hate that could electrocute an angel. The stress – the stress – I can’t take it, my new husband at my heels, his voice between my bones, his hands reaching for my shoulder to pull me down.
“No. No money for drugs. No money, period. Leave me alone. Leave me alone, monster, creep, ingrate.”
My belly drops.
I could turn a gun, if I had one, into his mouth; I could spit into his crack-mangled face.
I could exhale.
Jose sneers, his fingers fluttering, twittering, his breath furious.
“C’mere. I need the card.”
“It’s my card.”
There’s the bang of heads as I scramble and fight to leave the room. He’s after me, dragging me, pulling my skirt.
I run straight past him, always the boom-boom music in the hallway, my huge pocketbook bouncing off my shoulder, the shoulder strap falling like a reign a husband could grab on to. Jose yanks my purse to get the card to buy booze. I call it crack, but I’m not sure.
He doesn’t fool me.
I am running, tripping almost falling down the stairs. People are screaming at him. It’s like his ears are boxed. He hears nothing.
Run run run little girl. Another bad man chasing you.
Jose doesn’t see a guy pulling him, he doesn’t feel it.
Get off your wife. The cops, they’ll call the cops.
Jose only pulls at me tighter to get what the crackhead wants.
I am not going to miss dinner. I feel spit at the corner of my mouth and I want to finger it. That could be the split second that kills me. On the stairs, down and down, sidestepping again. Fooling him. I stop short, saying, “Come on, asshole, let’s go to the ATM machine.” And then, right at the stairs, I bolt down to the kitchen. Here he is, hollering, throwing things, my teeth grinding, they almost crack, and I don’t even want dinner now, I can’t eat, this is my baby, a Frankenstein, an abusive husband, a man who will murder me. All my tears are sausaged in my chest.
I can’t breathe.
He’s pushing me. He’s lit matches in my heart.
I can’t remember what happened next, but he’s gone, don’t remember the walk down the gray hallway to the florescent kitchen. Don’t remember the food.
I see faces and eyes, bright nauseous lights, a flash of black and red. The black of Jose’s jacket? The black of early death? Blood? Mine?
And then one of the guards, all legs and southern drawl, is telling me, come upstairs, your husband is out of control. I leave my tray on the table and follow the guard to the House Manager’s office.
In the trippy bunch of seconds when adrenaline and disbelief become migraine and belief, and I feel: this is it, my marriage is over, my baby, my love, my sexy cowboy, my muscleshirt- man is not what I thought, and I feel I will die for sure, and there he is in the office. He’s heading toward me. I hope he will explain, tell me he loves me, like he does 100 times a day, but no – he’s throwing a huge machine at me. A fax, a TV, I don’t know. He‘s hurling CD’s at me. I crouch in the corner on the other side of the room. The House Manager checks me for blood, while the guard tries to hold Jose back. But Jose’s on fire. He’s all legs kicking and body-twitching and the guard is telling him to cool it or the cops will lock him up.
Nothing stops him. He still wants the ATM card.
It is not every day that he throws a television at you and later says he saw dead people around you. They would kill you, baby, had to get them away from you.
His eyes, the color of water; the eyes of a soaked mummy. And the House Manager screaming, the police, do you want me to call the police?
I get up. I sit down. Over and over. What to do?
Jose breaks free of the two men, both bigger than he.
He walks slowly without moving his arms, and it appears that his legs are barely moving. I don’t know if he came from the doorway or from where, because my brain is fog and the room is blank. I do not look back or to the sides. I’m trying to think, this will get him kicked out, and if he’s kicked out, then out I go too, I would only have forty-eight hours, and then off to a domestic violence shelter. That’s how it is. This is a “couples” shelter. Single people barely have rights in the government’s homeless system. Single people don’t get on this “fast-track” to an apartment; they can’t go to EAU. Single people are nobodies. They matter less than cockroaches. I learn fast, a single woman will wait until her menopause is over to get an apartment.
And here, at least, a door keeps the lions and tigers away. I try to think, am I ready to give him up even though his mind is feathers, even though he’s trying to kill me? I’m trying to think, when suddenly he fixed his eyes on me, as if seeing me for the first time. He nails his eyes on me, very slowly, as if identifying me breast by breast, eye by eye. The waters of his eyes are deep, like a night of mist and storm. He freezes a few feet from me, a glimmer of love in his water-eyes, and then-
Give me money – Go to the ATM Gimme gimme gimme cem- on gimme, I owe the guy.
Now there is no doubt. He’s admitted it. He owes the guy. And the television? Why isn’t the house manager doing anything?
In a dream I see myself, it’s a hot spring day. I am ten or eleven, my hair shines and one tiny piece strays out of my barrette. I walk far away from home and there on the other side of the lake is my father waiting for me, ready to take me home. It’s a new home with daffodils and roses on either side of the steps, and my mother is like Donna Reed, and she takes me upstairs to my bed and makes me hot chocolate.
A way-back machine where I can write the details. A time warp where I can change all this.
Liar liar liar. I try to scream but the words are caught.
And Jose doesn’t even wait until we’re alone, he shoves me, he screams the only words he seems to know now:
You better give me money.
What happened to - You are my inspiration for not doing drugs – you are my only hope, Jose?
Liar Liar Liar.
If he doused me in kerosene I could not have burned badder.
He’s in front of me. And he denies denies denies, that he’s on drugs. That he’s a prick.
The House Manager is right next to him like a shadow. I look out the window, beige skeins of weeds brushing against a dog’s legs, the nude sky hovering like a bride.
Gimme gimmegimme His words like a woodpecker, its beak on my skull.
The house manager now holding him back. Me now standing up to him.
Don’t come near me – ever – ever –ever.
And he back-hands me with the force of a rhino right in my left ear.
I want him out. For the night. I want him gone.
And the cops, who’ve just arrived, those nitwits, telling me I can’t press charges because he’s schizophrenic. The raging stupidity of cops. Of course he can be arrested. Schizophrenics have been arrested for assaulting people.
And me, not ready for that, anyway. Not ready for any of this. I married Jose, and now it’s official, he’s a crack-addicted bully and I want him out, at least for one night, so I can think, so I can have peace.
The cops, young and flat-topped, look me in the eye, they tell me to get Jose some help. They don’t even ask why I married him, how a woman like me is living in a place like this. They don’t even ask why my father doesn’t help me. Just two clean-cut cops with jobs anxious to leave the stinking shelter.
As soon as they leave, as soon as the manager writes his report, sends us back to our room, Jose starts up.
Gimme the card.
For an hour he stands over me. I throw ten dollars at him; I need to breathe. I’ve learned that drugs and love make husband and wife strangers. They make us deeper in hate, yet deeper in love.
I need this time to grieve alone. How does grief begin? When you realize your husband loves you but he doesn’t even know what he’s doing, he’s so hopped up on needing crack. Does suffering start when your husband is cracked, or only when you know it?
This is how it went down.
Jose did come back hours later.
Slamming the door, a real bum, no more my baby, my love. He doesn’t want to talk. He wants to get away with it all, to wake some other day with no memory of it. He’s high on crack. I know it. There are red burn bumps on the top of his lip. He thinks that I believe that he only drank Hennessey.
He tells me we owe $43 dollars to one of the other crack-bums. Two weeks to his check and already we’re $43 in the hole. Yeah - $53 worth of Hennessey. No stink of liquor. He wants to get away with it all. His body nothing but a marshmallowed hump of himself, a sweaty bag, hardly a healthy man, hardly a man at all.
My heart trips – music coming from next door – Aren’t we happy – hoo –hoo – 5 – 10 –15 –20 –25 – 30 years of lo –o –ve.
Aren’t we happy? Oooh-oooh…
I feel the truth-words crystallizing in the room before he cries them. With one hand I clutch my chest, with the other I try to falsely reassure him, cupping his chin. I have to think fast – what to do – what? I have to get him to finally confess.
“I need money, Nanette.”
“Take the damn money, take it, you scum.”
Giveit giveit giveit…
Take it, my love my baby, just never lay your dirty paw on me again, never smother me, my love, my baby.
I’m sighing out the words like I’m blowing out candles.
“Get out Get out!”
“I don’t want to go, Nanette…I can’t help it.”
Throughout I sit on the bed, only in my panties, avoiding his eyes. I make him nothing. To me, he’s just a man on stage now, crying his heart out. I make him nothing, like rain or snow, a thunderstorm crashing and burning, releasing, clawing, soon he’ll be spent, and I’ll lie down and breathe.
He shakes and sputters, eyes red, snot dripping down, he gets on his knees, down and down into the bottom of his guts and toxins. The more I ignore him, the more words he finds to tell me he loves me, while I sit mute on the mess of a bed.
I love you I love you I love you – you can’t leave me. You’re my whole life –I’ll poison myself, please, Nanette, please I love you I love you.
His fingers are flapping. I know he wants me to reach out to him, pull his head into my breast, but I just sit there looking right through him. I know what he is. I know that he loves me.
Up in this room the nicotine, chicken wings and a smack of crack on his jacket, his breath, and all the stinky chemicals could seal over my lungs, and that’s how it would end. You would never know there had been a wild girl once, a full, beautiful, spirited woman-in-bloom once. Down the barred window the rain will fall from behind the shoddy buildings, seeping into my own lipsticks, even the stolen ones, rain.
Rain on unsalted snow. Rain on rats. Raindrops over the Williamsburg Bridge and into Manhattan, dripping …from the naked branches and the cunts of the tree peonies, rain sliding into gutters.
In my new lemon panties and demi-bra, the ones Jose forced me to buy, I lie here. A trick Jose uses to get his crack now. He buys me more pretty things so he can justify his stealing money out of my pocketbook, out of our savings to smoke crack. Even though we need to save money in case we get an apartment. He buys me more pretty things.
Even smoking seems too much of an effort. I tilt my face to the rain, to the moonlight. A spill of silver, like the moon was pushed over and you could see clear inside it.
Like a skull slit open.
* * *
He wraps me in the stained brown blanket, rough against my skin. Still, I shiver, short spasms, but I’m hot. A hotness I’ve never know, like drowning in fire, lying at the bottom of it, watching the flames dance, then close above me, scorched hard.
He rips his T-shirt into rags, runs to the men’s room to wet the pieces, and lays them on my face.
Please, baby, please…be ok.
His love and sweetness are killing me, confusing me. Every gesture is my real Jose, the man who loves me, adores me.
Please, Nanette, breathe right. You’re scaring me. I need you, I love you.
His words precious now. You’re beautiful face is swollen. Please, be all right.
These words, meant to show he loves me, as if these words could unconstrict my brain’s aching vessels.
He holds my hand. Over and over he promises to be better.
I can’t stand it.
* * *
I used to lie with him in the just-cut grass by the Japanese Garden, that fertile expanse in Battery Park, which buzzes and smells inert and lush. And the boy-smell of him, of his sun-drenched skin, of lilacs, mosquitoes and the mid-afternoon sun would sink into our bodies, and I never knew what took hold of me, what loosening of armor over-powered my will, my sense.
In this blur my heart festers, an open sore that only bears his touch. In this blur, I watch in pictures, my life, and I’m back at sixteen, hot for a boy, and I’m palpitating, and the next thing I know I’m crying for what I had so long ago, and what my life becomes.
And because your arms around me are hot…
And because you once said: Your shoulders, open in that sundress, are butter melting.
I let it all go.
* * *
An apartment is a privilege.
Months and months. If we are good. If we are in on time. If we don’t get caught smoking in our room. If Jose doesn’t smoke crack and get caught. If I don’t cut my wrists with my contraband mirror. If we go to all our welfare meetings and pay for the subways out of our paltry checks. If we don’t fight with the other inmates even as they play their music so loud I feel that wanna fuck ya up sista is part of my liver. Months and months. Maybe years. Who will I be I get out of here? A woman who went to a homeless prison just for being ill-fated. Riverine dream-spent woman.
This is what dying is like…
A man’s face, a menacing moon turned pale, the scent of vanilla, and off his cheek, off his unyielding mouth…
This is what dying is like…
A lonely thing, a swoon of velvet, sleep at her back, his aroma ever in her face.
This is what dying is like…
Gone like my mother, my father, my only escape is gone. This make-believe world, a world safe in its fever, this dark shadowy world….
Already my open eyes and waiting flesh are shriveled. The musk of my perfume, pretty lipstick tubes, my little gloves and matchbooks, scraps of paper – half formed poems, all these things have gone already, into dust, drawing patterns in cobwebs, in boxes, in empty halls, dust, instead of fever, dust.
And it’s so late, or so early, there is darkness, silence, in the room and the world is closed up, only a street light flickers. Still, I go to the window, with ache still in me, tears falling, and I am all bent over, walking to him, through him, through his shadow, walking through cold blackness and I fall, but the weight of him, the skin of him…
My insides are crumbling down.
I am somewhere long ago.
Daddy, come back, don’t die, Daddy…
And I dream of all I used to be. A girl. Of my breath coming quickly as I ran in light footsteps across the lawn and the way the last of the sun caught my hair, my ballerina arms caught in the willows, then later, standing with a young man, who is fumbling with a lavender corsage, then his hand on the pale organza of my skirt.
I used to catch the light.
That long-ago girl.
As pretty as it is for five minutes, I hate it when it’s city snow, and Brooklyn snow is deviant. Bush-dick snow barely covers the dense ugliness of the chain link fences and decomposing shit-brown buildings.
Beware. You want to imagine the snow as a veil over it all. Beware. An hour later any beauty is marred by decaying ugliness and drug-dealers re-claiming their corners.
So another day begins its long haul.
Scratch the surface of snow and violence erupts: it’s lurking under the sleeping-white of snow.
Nanette Rayman Rivera lives with her husband in New York City. She graduated from New School University with a degree in Writing and Philosophy. In addition to being a writer, she is a trained actress, having studied at Circle in the Square Theatre School, The Gene Frankel Studio and The New England Shakespeare Festival. She has performed in many plays off-off Broadway, in independent films, and played a waitress four times on All My Children. She has been published in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Worcester Review, Dragonfire, MiPOesias, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Pedestal, Carousel, Wicked Alice, The Pebble Lake Review, AntiMuse, Sein Und Werden, andwerve, Barnwood, The Centrifugal Eye, Words and Pictures, Her Circle, Poesia, Arsenic Lobster, Stirring, Flashquake, A Little Poetry, DMQ Review, Velvet Avalanche Anthology, Verse Libre, Erosha, Three Candles, Snow Monkey, Jack, Flutter, Small Spiral Notebook, Carve Magazine, 5 Trope, Mindfire Renewed, Grasslimb, Wanderings, Concrete Wolf, Rogue’s Scholars, remark, eye-rhyme, Central Avenue, Red River Review, Mannequin Envy, and Underground Window among others. She was nominated for two Pushcart Prizes this year: Arsenic Lobster for poetry and Dragonfire for memoir. Her first poetry book, Project: Butterflies will be released this year by Foothills Publishing. Upcoming: Gambara, Wheelhouse, The Externalist. She is also a proofreader for Moondance Journal.