It’s circle time. We’re splayed out like an atom, feet facing each other, bags propped on laps, headphones hanging as necklaces on our chests. How was your day? Delilah asks. We pass around Peppa Pig, her stuffed pink snout browned from trampled floors and soiled hands and summers on dusty shelves. Exhausting, Jada says, and passes left. Boring, Evan says. Mariana takes the pig and two big breaths and we know it’s something, because usually she’s all gum slapping and pero like and dark hair twirling in her manicured nails. Today she talks slowly, about her basement apartment and illegal gas and her grandma and the people from the city and a hotel in Astoria and it doesn’t matter how far the shelter is, wherever there’s room, that’s where they’ll go. She’s almost chuckling, a crack in her voice, until Damian reaches out his hand and she throws him the pig and he starts telling her she’ll get through. I was never in no hotel, he says, but I was with my grandma and gone from my family and it’s so hard when you don’t know and me? I wore sunglasses and my hood up for weeks, but you gotta stay strong.
That’s when the tears come, wet and pretty and small as they fall, her thumb catching them before they reach her chin. I don’t care about the hotel, she says, even though there’s no kitchen and we got no money to buy all that outside food, it’s just my mom. How come it never ends for her and why’s it always gotta be something and first it was her job and then my grandma getting sick and my father being drunk and do you feel me, Miss? Why’s it never end?
Everyone else gets quiet. They look and don’t nod, like they know something I don’t. It’s gonna work out, they finally tell her and Anna talks about that NYCHA rule in Marcy Projects, how a single mom with a daughter only gets one room, and Jazmyn says you’d never believe where I used to be, I didn’t have clothes like this (pulling on her orange Umbro sweatshirt) and Delilah says it used to be nothing in the fridge but some Spanish soup from the corner, just one bowl for all of us, we even shared that nasty little spoon, and Terrell stares, jaw looking like it would rather be dropped, and Brady goes to the door when people knock, shakes his head no through the small glass square, and Alicia holds her purse, legs crossed and lips tight, and Saskia is quiet next to me, but I see her pull up apartment listings on her phone—Canarsie, Crown Heights, Bed Stuy. 1600 a month, new kitchen, shiny laminate floors. My body feels so hunched and small as I flip through the Rolodex of my experience and realize I’ve got nothing, so how can she accept my love as I walk over and lean down into her jean jacket and squeeze? Her mascara marks my shoulder in tiny black brush strokes, her hair smells vanilla and coconut cream like the body spray I saw lined up in size order atop her dresser when she showed me that picture of her bedroom after she repainted it a month ago, a fresh coat of pale pink to match her butterfly comforter, pillows fluffed. What a cozy little space, I’d thought. Full of light even without a window.
What about your stuff? I ask. It’s there, she says. But Miss, the door ain’t mine.
I’m just scared, she tells me, so I grab her hand, watching the way our fingers grip, because sometimes my love is all I can think of that’s not a lie. And I’m picturing the packs of people plodding through Grand Central with their rhinestone sandals and Nordstrom bags and selfie sticks, foreheads creased like life is some sort of problem. I know for weeks I’ll look and listen to the echo of its grand hall and wonder what about these kids, are we really just going to trudge towards our tracks and board our trains and open our newspapers and cross our legs while our kids are sinking, holding the pig, holding each other, arms outstretched like broken rafts in hopes the current will take them somewhere else, and is there even another place to land? I need to know before I tell them, hold on tighter, don’t let go.
© Emily James
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy. Read Emily’s interview]