A girl and a woman approach each other on the street going the opposite direction.
The girl is 15, maybe 16. The woman is three times her age, maybe more.
The girl is with a boy. The woman is with a bag of groceries.
It is a paper bag, and the woman carries it loosely off her right hip. The air is swollen with unfallen rain, but the woman is in no hurry. She takes a slim pink can out of the bag and plucks it open with one hand.
The boy leans in to kiss the girl, but the girl isn’t looking at him. She is looking at the woman. She is admiring the woman’s messy blonde bob, her dark jeans and tall boots. She is thinking that the woman looks glamorous, like a child’s idea of a princess, only grown up and smudged around the edges.
When the boy’s mouth moves toward her, the girl smells metal on his breath. She smells fire. She smells rust. She thinks of a pot left to burn, the food blackened and lost.
The girl steps sideways and bumps into the woman.
The woman drops her bag, and its contents land on the sidewalk.
Red wine splatters onto the boy’s pants. A box of crackers and a chunk of soft cheese wrapped in thin plastic land between them.
The girl says sorry.
The woman says you’ve got to be kidding me.
The boy says you’re going to pay to have these pants dry cleaned.
The woman says I’ll pay when I’m dead.
The girl is ashamed. Ashamed to have run into the glamorous woman. Ashamed to be with the boy who is so unapologetic. Ashamed that she long ago categorically refused to even try soft cheese, and that she has stuck to that decision so thoroughly.
She is ashamed of her clothes, which are uninspired, and her hair, which is unstyled. She is ashamed that she has blue eyes, rather than brown ones like the woman’s. She is ashamed that the sun isn’t shining, ashamed of the trash on the sidewalk, ashamed that she even lives in this city and walked down this street in the first place.
The boy and the woman are talking louder now. The girl thinks they look like puppets, with their jerky movements and hard-edged faces. People begin to curve away from them on the once-busy sidewalk. Two small children watch openly from inside an apartment window. Someone pulls them away, but their ghostly prints remain.
The boy is looking at something on his phone. He says he is trying to assess the cost of the upcoming dry cleaning bill.
The woman says she isn’t going to pay for some kid’s ratty jeans to be dry cleaned.
The boy says hey lady these are my nicest jeans.
The woman says of course they are. She says give it a rest. She says maybe this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to you if you dated girls your own age.
The boy is not really a boy but a sort-of-man. He is almost ten years older than the girl.
The woman licks her lips, glances between them. She says how much younger is she—five, six years?
The boy’s smile is plaster. He says we’re both 18. He puts his hands in his pockets and looks the woman in the eyes.
The woman snorts with laughter. She says sure, Romeo, sure. She makes a show of asking the girl if she is ok, if she needs help of some kind. She touches the girl’s arm.
Gentle drumbeats of rain start to fall on the sidewalk before them. The girl feels light pinpricks on the top of her head. She pushes the woman’s hand away.
Suit yourself says the woman. She steps over the box of crackers and starts to walk away.
The boy bends down to pick up the chunk of cheese. He winds his arm back and says hey lady you forgot something.
The woman turns, and the cheese lands against her left cheek. A glassy smear of cream runs from her nose to her ear. The rain is coming down harder now, and the woman’s hair clings to her cheeks.
Hard pellets land on the girl’s head and roll down her face. She watches as the boy runs down the sidewalk, back in the direction they came from. He raises his hands over his head like some strange bird trying to take flight.
The girl’s hair and clothes are soaked. She sees no point in seeking cover now. She spies the chunk of cheese, half-wrapped in plastic and swimming in a pool of rainwater, and she goes to it. She pinches a piece of it between her index finger and her thumb and raises it to her mouth.
That’s not your cheese says the woman. She is yelling, but over the rain, it sounds like a whisper.
© Leslie Trahan
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Leslie’s interview]