It’s raining again and Danni wears a slicker out the door to catch the trolley. No longer their door, just hers. A homeless woman who has become a landmark of Danni’s mornings gibbers to herself from the piss-reeking trolley shelter. She and the woman are always the only black people at the stop.
It starts to rain harder, but no one will risk the smell or the woman’s possibly volatile company to sit in the shelter. A man without an umbrella made the mistake of wearing a tissue-thin dress shirt this morning. It is now transparent. He scowls in the homeless woman’s direction, not ever really looking at her person, just directing the violence in his eyes at the space she inhabits. Danni hates this violent not-looking for reasons that might appear at first to be altruistic. She did not sleep the night before. Sleep is like a scabbing-over, she thinks, without it we’re a bit raw the next day. It might be for lack of sleep that she decides to look in earnest.
The woman’s eyes roll fast away from contact. The skin under her restless eyes is bruised and shiny as the fabric of Danni’s polyurethane slicker, as if she hasn’t slept an entire night through in the longest of long whiles. Her layers of black clothing have dirtied to a silver sheen. The wig that shows beneath her baseball cap is brittle as straw. Danni stands so that she is yards from where the woman is hunched over her packages but also still just in the rain. She holds her breath and moves closer to the shelter. The uric smell, Danni realizes, is strongest near the odd little door that, in all her years of using this stop, it has never occurred to her to open. Clearly it has occurred to the woman. There is a heavy, once-white towel where the door meets the ground and it is yellow. A voice in Danni’s mind says this means the woman’s own mind is terribly present; the fact that she uses a towel to somehow contain the toilet she has made for herself is presence of mind. A new voice argues it’s childish to wish the woman’s mind were all the way gone just so it wouldn’t pain Danni to think about what the woman is thinking. A third voice, or maybe it is not so much a voice as it is the archetypal “hush” that keeps us from dwelling in hopelessness, notes that the trolley has appeared on the horizon. It will arrive in two minutes to take her to work.
But Danni is in a mood to be aggressive with herself this morning, so she decides to miss this trolley. Her girlfriend of five years dumped her a few nights ago and Danni still has not cried. Maybe a further break with routine will allow her to tap the grief that must have taken the place of a certain future. She’ll call in sick. Decided, she resumes her study of the woman. The longer Danni looks at her, the louder the woman’s gibbering gets. She catches some phrases: “stupid boy,” “out of luck,” and “rice and beans.” Danni cannot tell if the woman sees her and knows Danni is seeing her, whether the mounting volume of the nonsense words is a warning or a bridge. Though she’s aware that she might be making the woman uncomfortable, now that she’s begun looking she cannot stop. There is something familiar about the woman, like a song often heard but not listened to through the walls of one’s apartment. Danni keeps looking and keeps looking to trace that familiarity and maybe to punish herself, until she notices that among the woman’s many bags is a plastic one on which is written PATIENT’S BELONGINGS. A small stuffed cat peeks out of it. The woman looks Danni square in the eye then, her crow’s-feet softening for a moment before she starts with her gibberish again. Danni could cut herself on the woman’s edges if she pushed down hard enough. Instead she’ll push down softly. She moves to sit in the shelter, rolling up her sleeves as she does so, trying to think of what a kind person would say in this situation. The words “Are you okay?” poise themselves on her tongue.
Back in her sophomore year of high school, a good friend mistook the ladder-rung cuts on Danni’s wrists for a very different type of desperation and reported her to the guidance counselor. She was called out of her social studies class and told by a weepy administrator that she would have to leave school immediately. They’d called her mom from work at the hospital so that Danni could start getting help right away. What the administrator did not say, but what they both knew, was that Danni had become a legal liability the moment her friend reported her concerns. The administrator blew her nose. Danni tried to cry for the administrator’s sake, but could not. It was dim in the office, the blinds had been drawn and the overhead fluorescents were switched off. All that was allowed to burn was a desk lamp. It cast a breathing yellow light that was too intimate. While they waited for Danni’s mother, the administrator, who never failed to comment on Danni’s “goth” outfits, said that she hoped the younger woman would still take her shopping someday.
The scariest part of this day would not be Danni’s admittance to the loony bin, she mused wryly—it would be the moment she and her mother were alone. In those days, her mother just managed to support the family by herself with every hour she worked as a nurse. She would not appreciate having those hours truncated today.
True to form, Danni’s mother nodded and gave one-word answers through pursed lips as the administrator gave her the rundown. When they got to the car, mother and daughter navigated the weighty silence like the professionals they were. Danni shone with sweat with the effort it took to finally say, “I’m sorry.”
“Now I have to take you to a mental hospital so CPS doesn’t take away my other children,” Danni’s mother said. “Do you know what it’s like to get a call like that at work? The entire floor was worried about you or nosey about you, it doesn’t matter which.”
“You should get the story ready for your aunt, because we’ll call her when we get home and you can explain yourself to your relatives,” she said. “I should never have come to this country. Children here are so much likelier to turn out wicked.”
Danni’s mother’s sister, who had never left home, was fond of insisting on this last thing about wicked American children whenever Danni or her brothers got into trouble. This was the first time her mother had agreed with her sister in Danni’s hearing.
“At least this happened the day before spring break, so you’ll miss less school.”
Danni could not even feel a feeling for the trip to the city she and her best friend were supposed to take the following week, and the music festival she would miss, even though she had been planning to tell her best friend how she really felt about her in the park among the city lights. The embarrassment of being caught mutilating herself by her proud and practical immigrant mother was enough to fill her up completely. They rode in silence for a moment and it started to drizzle. Danni, who listened to a lot of orchestral rock music at the time and mostly wore black, thought, How atmospheric. Then her mother said, in a more confidential voice than her strident lecturing one:
“Take them off.”
Danni had not been expecting that. She stared straight ahead, attempting to shrink down around her cuts. Her mother had to repeat herself twice. They were stopped at a blurry red light, the wipers off, the hum of the car engine suddenly loud. Even now Danni remembers how the fingerless elbow-length gloves she used to wear to hide fresh cuts had fused to her arms as those cuts crusted over; what a perverse relief it was to reopen them sometimes. Not this time. As she tore the gloves off, blood slid down either side of Danni’s outstretched forearms like brilliant ink. She thought for a moment that these cuts looked a lot worse than they usually did, that perhaps in her nervousness about coming out to her friend she’d been a little overzealous and that her mother would think she was really trying to die. But her mother was an ER nurse. Blood did not faze her. They listened to the drip in the cup-holder between their seats. A tear slid down Danni’s cheek as she realized that her mother wasn’t looking, hadn’t looked, and had no intention of taking her eyes off the road. The proud practical woman said a lot of things to her daughter that day, things her daughter would never forget. What she didn’t say was “Are you okay?” Perhaps, Danni reasoned now, her mother had wanted Danni to get used to not hearing the words.
Maria Pinto was once called a dark horse by someone she trusts to judge that sort of thing, and thinks the phrase is just as pretty as "cellar door." Her recent work has appeared or will appear in Bartleby Snopes, The Missing Slate, Literary Orphans, 100 Word Story, and elsewhere. She was an Ivan Gold Fellow at The Writers' Room of Boston, in the city where she lives. Her debut novel is in search of a home. She is working on her second.