The elevator doors close behind us and we walk up the ramp. I’m holding my daughter’s tiny hand, carrying the print out with the room number in my other hand. Huge windows let in sunlight and friendly pictures of crayon drawings hang in neat frames along the walls of the corridor. It’s the stench of disinfectant that betrays the sunny disposition.
Automatic doors swing open and a middle aged woman, a mother, with shoulder length brown hair and her mother I’m guessing, walk through the doors. The mother scans her eyes on me, on my daughter and blurts, “I’m just so scared.”
She collapses at the knees and falters. Her gray-haired mother grips her hand and my stomach clenches. I hurry past them, speaking loudly to my daughter.
“Look at that picture of the Legos! What’s your favorite color, Ava?”
I frown at her. “Pink. Your favorite color is pink.”
She pushes the handicap button. The doors click and swing open. We sit in the waiting room. Rylee looks at the fish. I don’t have a gray-haired mother with me. I am alone with my child and do not have the luxury of fear right now. I had my break down at work, but right now I am a smiling face. A steel façade.
Even in the waiting room you could smell that overly clean hospital smell. For some reason it makes me think of that overly dirty New York smell.
It was August 1997 and I was walking to work. I lived with my boyfriend on the border of Hell’s Kitchen between 9th and 10th and my receptionist job was the GM building at Central Park. Subways still took tokens and I didn’t want to waste any money on them, so I walked.
It was dark still. My shift started at 6:30 a.m. and I was wearing my new beige suit and heels. It was Monday, trash day. The putrid smell was inescapable as bags of trash lined the doors. Brown liquid dribbled along the sidewalk making puddles to jump over.
A man was standing next to me. I’m not sure where he came from. He carried a tattered red backpack.
“Good morning, pretty lady.”
Oh God. “Hi,” I said with a half smile.
A restaurant worker in a dirty white tank top dumped a bag of trash and went back inside. We were alone on the street.
“You ok talking to me?”
“That’s a pretty suit.”
“Thanks. My boyfriend bought it for me.” Should I walk faster? I scan ahead and see no one. The city of eight million people and the street is empty.
“Can I have some money? Just five bucks?”
Oh. I stop smiling. “Sorry, I don’t have any.”
“Come on. Give me some money.”
I say nothing and walk straight ahead, faster but not running. I can’t run in heels and there’s no one to run to anyway. Everything is locked and we’re in the middle of the Avenue.
“I bet you think your pussy’s really big,” he hisses.
“WHAT?” I stop for an instant but then walk faster, not looking at him.
“Oh you don’t hear me? Yeah, you think your pussy’s really big! Soft blonde hair.” His dark fingers danced up the nape of my neck before they twisted in my hair and yanked my head back.
All I could think was an episode of Oprah where some expert said if you are being attacked and there is no way out, stand and face them and they will back off.
“STOP IT!” I shouted facing him. Did he have a knife? Did he know where I lived? How long was he following me before he spoke? Maybe I should run, but fuck him.
“Hey! You stop bothering her!” A man holding a cup of coffee comes up to us from across the street. Who is he? Is he my protector? Does he know this man following me? The man with the coffee is next to us. “I saw the whole thing. You get outta here now, buddy.”
My aggressor smiles broadly and laughs, but not before first licking his lips saying to me, “You’re good enough to eat, Blondie. You think about that.”
My hands are shaking and I keep moving as fast as I can toward the traffic light.
“I saw the whole thing. I think he’s a homeless guy. I’ve seen him around.” The sun rises through the buildings and hot steam shoots up the grate in the ground over my heeled feet, making me feel dirty.
Later that day the news spreads around the office. I shouldn’t have told Allison. She can’t ever keep a secret, especially if the gossip is salacious. Brokers in expensive suits with manicured hands want to hear the story. I don’t want to talk about it.
Grady drops a stack of newspapers on the green marble of my desk. He is in his late seventies. A short, stout man, I feel bad that he is so old and still working, rolling Wall Street Journal’s to all the tenants in the building.
“You can’t let it scare you, kid. Not if you want to live in this town.”
I shrug my shoulders and I line up the papers in neat stacks for the brokers to pick up with their coffee.
“I tell ya what I tell my dawters. Tonight when ya go home, ya grab a stack of newspapas and ya make two fists and start punchin.” He balls up his fingers, swollen with arthritis, elbows at his sides and punches the air in front of him after each clipped word.
“I. Am. Not. Afraid.”
I notice the tattoo on his arm, some military thing, faded through the years. I wonder which war it is from.
“Ya punch those papas until ya knuckles bleed, until ya feel it in ya body.”
It’s nighttime now and I’m standing in my apartment. David isn’t home yet. Our place is one large box with a stove and a door sheltering a toilet. The carpet is gray and no matter how many times I vacuum cannot get the purple glitter out of it from the previous tenant.
Something is off. My equilibrium from the day’s events.
I look at the stack of newspapers on the table next to the door, The New York Times, Backstage with audition dates circled in blue pen. A cheap mirror hangs on the wall before me. Feeling ridiculous, my fingers ball up into fists and I begin to punch.
I. (punch) Am. (punch) Not. (punch) Afraid. (punch, punch)
My knuckles are black with ink and the skin around my knuckles is raw. I see them in the mirror. Reflections of fear are in my eyes, but that’s not the only thing I see. Slumping in the corner behind the kitchen chair it rests. The tattered red backpack.
“Davis? Ava Davis?” calls the nurse. I blink in the buzzing white lights of the waiting room before the name registers.
“Here,” I say, gathering the diaper bag and my daughter into my arms. Her hair hasn’t come in yet, but the hair that is there is platinum blonde.
“Look at you little blondie! Aren’t you just good enough to eat?” she says overly sweet to my child. Then, to me, “Ready, Mom?” the nurse asks efficiently. I know the drill. All the nurses call you ‘Mom’ so they don’t have to learn your name.
Cartoon characters are on the walls. “Look at the princess, Rylee,” I say. Her eyes are large.
“I’m going to need you to hold her down, Mom.”
My stomach clenches but I start reciting Goodnight Moon from memory. My job is to be brave now. My job is to lie. I hug her shoulders as they strap her down.
“I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you,” I whisper. The needle is drawn and she screams, thrashing in pain. She stares at me through betrayed eyes.
I. Am. Not. Afraid.
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