He’d promised himself before he left for Toronto. He’d made the promise to his mother as well. That he wouldn’t let the new country corrupt him. He’d heard horror stories about other people’s distant cousins. Never his own family of course, but distant cousins, who’d gone to a new land and forgotten their own tongue. He could recall his mother’s easy tears the day he left, and it had been easier to assure her that he wouldn’t let the new land poison him. The promise was always fresh in his mind whenever he’d been tempted over the years, though he’d never succumbed to the pressure. Even when that girl drunkenly sat on his lap on the streetcar, Anil had no trouble feeling disgusted or looking visibly disturbed, despite the mirth of the other passengers.
Most people were drunk on the streetcar on a Saturday night. But if you examined the scene closely, there was always a passenger here and there who was quietly just trying to make it home from work. Two in the morning happened to be prime time for everyone getting home. The drunk and the overworked and everyone in between. Anil was used to the sight. He’d been doing it for a few years now. Washing dishes in the King Street restaurant was good money for him, for now. Most times, he just dozed off on his way to his sister’s, able to easily drown out the din of laughter and crying, nothing compared to the cacophony of Gulapganj, which never slept.
Canada and Toronto had been good to him for the most part. People were content to leave him alone and Anil would do whatever it took to maintain this distance. On the streetcar, he always sat in the back corner, eyes closed. He wouldn’t open them for the smell of piss and alcohol nearby or for the smell of the most exquisite perfume right beside him. He wouldn’t open them to see where the music was coming from, heard through someone else’s blaring headphones. If he had opened his eyes, he would’ve been a little disgusted. Cold men with hands jammed in their pockets with forgotten purpose, next to women who were never alone, laughing like they were immortal. Anil had no time for any of it. It was 2AM on a Saturday night, and that meant sleep. It meant darkness and quiet. It was time for djinns to prey and corrupt the hearts of men while all other trustworthy, stalwart souls lay peacefully in slumber.
Anil first heard a commotion before he suddenly felt the weight in his lap. Anil started in shock, eyes opening to take in the harsh light. There was a girl sitting in his lap in a black minidress, laughing incoherently. His vision was obstructed by the girl and all he could make out was her overly straightened brown hair, falling down her back, and the silhouette of blinding white around her darkened figure. She smelled like cheap candy, the kind for which his niece loved to pull on his shirt whenever he took her to the corner store for milk. Anil was about to shove her off until he remembered. If she got mad, took offense and called the police, he was screwed. His broken English would be no match for a group of drunk native sons and daughters. He instead looked around imploringly for help that wasn’t there.
A fat man in a red beard with tattoos on his face and a baseball hat affixed to his balding head was taking pictures. His cellphone in one hand, his face flushed so it almost matched his beard, he was chuckling to himself, clearly unbothered by his missing follicles. Across from her, the girl’s friends were themselves sitting on each other. There were three or four of them. Anil couldn’t tell them apart. They were all on each other’s laps in a stacked pile, a mess of little black dresses and white thighs tangled up. They all had their cellphones out and were laughing incoherently while the girl sitting on Anil made a peace sign with her fingers and people snapped away. Everyone who wasn’t laughing was too busy ignoring the sights and sounds, but the light revealed their faces all the same. The streetcar started and stopped periodically, gusts of cold air blowing in each time, and it wasn’t until the streetcar driver said something on the microphone and Anil uncomfortably adjusted himself in his seat, that the girl got off. She stumbled and fell to the dirty ridged floor. Anil choked up in fear. If the red-faced drunks thought he’d done that to her he was in trouble. Luckily, the girl laughed and stumbled over to her friends with another wild story to tell at tomorrow’s brunch.
Anil made sure to stay awake for the rest of his commute home. He didn’t want to be caught off guard again. The people seemed drunker than usual tonight, and Anil had learned, after three years on the streetcar, that one emboldened action just led to another, each drunk, frenzied activity building on the other, acting as a substitute for rape or murder. Anil had no need or desire to indulge in any of it.
He got off the streetcar a few stops early and decided to walk the rest of the way, uncomfortable continuing on a journey where so many behaved in a way so unfamiliar to him. Anil’s brother would’ve known what to do. His brother was loud and brash. Though younger than Anil, he was always one to say what was on his mind. He would’ve cursed them all out in Sylheti, and worried about the legal fallout afterwards. Anil smiled to himself at the thought. His brother had had to stay back and attend to the dying wood mill their father left behind. Anil walked home alone under the bare boughs of the oak trees lining large homes and quiet wide streets in the dying winter, no dust or dirt in sight. Everything was paved. Lights hung overhead. As a result, Anil had no trouble spotting the dark, huddled figure in the distance under the streetlights.
Anil really wished his brother was there. His brother would’ve known what to do. He always acted quickly, for better or worse. Anil was too methodical, too pensive. He was split between diverting his route and continuing on past the figure. As Anil continued to walk, unable to decide, he realized the huddled figure was a young girl. She was sitting on the sidewalk, her head on her knees, her feet extended onto the street. Her hands were on her knees just above her head and she gave no indication that she’d heard anyone approaching. She had the reddest hair Anil had ever seen, and truth be told, he’d believed red hair to be a rumor before he came to this country. Even seeing her lustrous red hair glimmer in the night, Anil still had trouble believing it. It fell on either side of her obstructed face, falling towards the pavement, her face down on her thighs. She was small, and Anil realized as he got closer that she was just a teenager. He decided to try and walk past her like it was a regular Tuesday afternoon stroll. As he walked past he breathed an imperceptible sigh of relief. But the sigh was premature.
“Hey,” he heard her say. He turned to look at the girl.
She was looking at him, her eyes red with tears but even that could not hide the resplendent blue at their epicenter. They were a hurricane, a storm staring back into Anil’s dark eyes, that gave nothing back. Anil had no idea what to say or do.
“You are okay?” he ventured.
She was silent for a minute, pulling the sleeves of her purple sweater needlessly over her already covered hands. There was a hood on her sweater though she didn’t pull it up. She fidgeted uncomfortably for a minute, shifting her weight while she stared into the middle of the street before answering.
“No. I think I’m…broken.” She said quietly. Her voice was soft on the empty streets. She looked like she lived in one of the houses on the street and not in one of the basements. He would see the teenagers around in the neighborhood sometimes. Always on their phones or in groups, preoccupied with problems Anil didn’t know could be important. He never imaged their voices could sound this soft. He understood the word ‘broken’ in her sentence.
“You break something?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied quietly.
“I can call hospital?” he asked.
“No, not that kind of broken,” she said without panicking. She silently pointed to her chest with a finger. Anil noticed the fingernail was painted a bright turquoise.
“The pain is here,” she said. Anil finally understood the kind of pain she was referring to. He stood for a minute, and then realizing he had nothing to offer to the girl, he turned to leave but her voice stopped him again.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. Anil thought for a minute.
“You can…be strong,” Anil said, nodding his head, wishing to escape.
“I’m weak. How do I be strong?” she asked, her hands were wrapped around her knees now, but she was looking at Anil.
This fucking girl. I just worked at grocery for eight hours, took two-hour nap, and washed dish for another eight hours. She must have her Father’s balls, asking me how to be strong.
The darkness facilitated Anil’s reply.
“I just worked at Grocery for eight hours, I took two-hour rest, then I work for another eight hours washing dish. Today. I don’t know strong, weak.”
“Sixteen hours?” she asked in disbelief, her blue eyes widening.
“Six-teen hou-rs,” Anil replied, emphasizing each syllable.
“Wow, you’re strong,” she said, shaking her head.
“Not strong. I have the pain too. I miss my brother, my family. I want to be home. But I have to do this,” Anil said, hoping she understood.
“Do I have to?” she asked.
“Yes, of course. You have to,” he said, nodding, glad she understood.
“How will you eat?” he asked rhetorically.
She laughed and Anil allowed himself a wry smile.
“I just…I gave him everything. I thought it was love. He was everything to me. How am I supposed to eat?” she asked.
Her warm laugh on the cold street was still on Anil’s mind when he answered. He ventured a few steps towards the girl.
“You will eat. It’s okay. Don’t worry.” He looked right into the girl’s blue eyes.
“What do you mean?” she asked. Anil stood closer to her, hoping the distance would bridge the gap where his language couldn’t.
“It’s just a boy. You know. Boy.” He said, attempting to say ‘boy’ like it was disgusting, elongating the word while he continued.
“You are study hard, be good girl, gentle human, you will find good boy, gentle human.”
“Like you did?” she asked.
“You have a good girl?”
“Nonononono. I’m too busy,” he said, protesting with his hands.
“Yes, sixteen hours.”
The girl was quiet for a minute, staring into the street with her feet on the road. Anil looked at her. She was an odd sight, not just because it was the middle of the night, or her age, but also because she was alone. Anil seldom saw girls like her alone. She looked like what Anil thought would be stylish. She didn’t look like other teenagers he’d seen on the street, derivative and difficult to tell apart. She stood out. Her loose blue jeans were faded, ending in a few rolls around her ankles, and on her feet she was wearing two different shoes. They were worn, but tastefully so. One of them was solid red, and the other one was a mess of paint streaks, all sorts of colors. The red was deep and dark, fitted to her foot perfectly, covering the light curve of her instep as it stretched out onto the pavement. The shoe that was a mess of colors stood proud next to it, welcoming the difference, celebrating its color without shame. They were perfectly even in size next to each other, toes pointed to the night sky while they smiled shyly back at Anil, revealing nothing but love and beauty. Both shoes had neither tongues nor laces, and they looked perfect on her. Anil had questions. People usually wore shoes that matched, and this girl’s small feet offered no apology for her choice. His eyes stayed on the shoes for longer than he thought they would. He’d never thought anyone would think to wear their shoes that way on purpose. It was a choice that told him so much about her and raised so many other questions.
“If you are good, gentle girl, and study hard, you can find good husband. Sylheti husband,” he said finally.
“Sylheti husband. Where I’m from.”
“Yes. Hardworking. Good, honest. Gentle man.”
She nodded and chuckled.
“Okay, I’ll find myself a Sylheti husband.”
“Nono! Not now! First you study. Now, boy is not good—”
Their conversation was cut off by an approaching car, their time together broken by the headlights of a police car. Anil gulped and straightened himself. He was way too close to the girl to play the situation off like he’d just been walking by her. He hoped the car would just drive by the way sentenced men held false hope on the day of their executions. The car stopped in front of them and the officer rolled down a window, trying to make sense of the scene. A dark man with a moustache, in oversized black dress shoes and a huge backpack and stained chinos, standing next to a young red-haired girl whose eyes were tired and hoarse from crying. The officer kept his car running and unclicked his seatbelt and got out.
“Excuse me, sir, can you go stand over there for a second?” The officer pointed to a well-lit tree a few feet away. Anil stood by the tree, out of earshot, and waited for what felt like forever. He watched the officer and hoped the girl would save his life. He cursed himself for stopping to help the young girl. Finally, after some time, the cop approached Anil.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m just walking home, sir. Just from job.”
“Mhmm. Okay. And why did you stop to talk to this young girl?” The officer asked, a notepad out. Anil looked into the cleanshaven man’s blue eyes.
“She asked. She told me she is pained.” Anil’s anxiety didn’t help his language.
“So…you just stop to talk to an underage young lady, because she says something to you?” The officer asked, making it sound like the stupidest thing in the world. Anil felt stupid but he answered anyway.
The officer shook his head in annoyance.
“Okay, let me get your information. Where do you live?”
Anil answered all of the officer’s questions, where he worked, lived and how he could be contacted, right down to the numbers on his ID before he was summarily dismissed.
Anil couldn’t walk away fast enough. Each step fell in front of the other faster than the last one, trying to escape that night. He wanted to forget everything that had just happened. He willed himself to purge every moment with every step. The fear and disgust and inability to escape or connect or save or help were dulled with every passing step and day. He would soon forget, as we all forget, most of the details of nights like that. But he could only escape so much. There are always one or two moments and memories that stay with us, whether we like it or not. For Anil, no matter how far he would tread in life, he’d never escape the warm memory of two different colored shoes, one red and the other one splashes of paint, every color possible, adorning two small feet, tongueless and laceless.