His first nights in the streets, he barely noticed the vibration of trucks passing by, the police sirens or the occasional sound of drunken arguments and broken glass. The first few nights, all he could think of was how damn hard the concrete was. He had lived his whole life only making contact with this under appreciated man made composite through the bottom of his feet, guarded by a thick layer of rubber soles and cotton socks. He felt his bones being pulled downward by gravity, piercing his insides against his new non existent mattress.
So this is what it’s like? How long would it take before his consciousness would abandon his body long enough to let the two rest?
He tried sleeping on his side. It felt like his ribs were collapsing into each other. Better flat on his back, he thought, at least that way any contortions would be symmetrical. He had forced himself to keep his eyes closed the entire time, hoping to trick his body into falling asleep. It felt like hours had passed before he gave up and opened his eyes. Was morning near? He had absolutely no idea.
He looked at his watch, a souvenir from the life he was leaving behind, a bitter reminder of what it felt like to have everything you need. 2:50. Less than two hours had passed. He stood up. This was not going to work.
He needed cardboard. He couldn’t imagine it helping much but it was the only thing he could think of that would be of some use and wouldn’t be too hard to find.
He stood up and took a good look at his surroundings, trying to imagine exactly how long he could survive exposed to the elements like this. For now, this was the only place that he could call home, the tiny space below a pedestrian bridge, a half hour walk from a part of the city that felt more like a city.
That was one way to look at it.
Another was that the whole world was his home and he was free to go anywhere he wanted. Whenever he could muster up a sliver of optimism, he would think to himself “This is what freedom looks like”.
He preferred this way of looking at things, but it was a struggle, staying positive after being stripped of comfort and convenience. He also knew he needed to be able to find shelter from rain and a shady place to escape the sun. He quickly found that out here, it would sometimes be in his best interests to avoid others so it was wise to find unclaimed territory, a place to hide out.
He found it easiest to carry two concepts of home and to jump back and forth between them as he pleased.
He realized that he had been daydreaming when he heard the sound of fire engines in the distance, remembered the task at hand and set off for the nearest convenience store. It would be about a fifteen minutes to walk, but with so little to do every day, any task made time move much quicker,and so he was hardly conscious most of the way.
“Cardboard. Cardboard. Let’s find some cardboard.”
About thirty steps from his destination, in front of the convenience store, he noticed two figures looking towards him. A white light flashed in his eyes.
“Aliens? What are the chances?”.
He was so sleep deprived that the thought evoked neither fear nor excitement in him.
As the reality of the situation dawned upon him he found himself fantasizing that the light was coming from aliens, ready to take him away. His sleep deprived mind played with the idea while his body instinctively held his hands up.
The cops snickered at him, they’re faces still blurry as his eyes adjusted to the light and his mind continued to play with thoughts of extraterrestrials.
“We don’t have time to arrest you, move along buddy.” The cops made their way into the store.
He rushed around back to look for a new paper thin mattress, still fantasizing about the prospects of making contact with a visitor species who had their heads on straight, the idea suddenly a lot more exciting as the smells of the alleyway introduced themselves. He found a single dumpster, with no sign of a place for recyclables.
“Only one place to look.”
Imagining what his friends and family would say if they could see him now, he climbed up into the black hole. His subconscious mind seemed to be warning him of the dangers of sharp objects and mysterious goo, but he could only think of the task at hand.
He recklessly felt around as his eyes struggled to see. The dumpster was nearly empty with no cardboard to be found but there was something even better, something that he knew, from the bottom of his heart, had been discarded just so that he could find it.
Laying folded over where there should have been plastic bags full of who-knows-what was the greatest gift he had ever received. Doubts fluttered around his head but he quickly swatted them away. He wanted sleep so bad he hardly cared if he ended up a hotel for fleas. He grabbed the blanket in his arms just as he noticed footsteps behind him. The policemen had finished with their shopping.
“Hey! Get out of the damn garbage, that’s private property."
“Might as well save your breath, it’s where he belongs”
“I said move along and I meant it, I’d knock you out if you weren’t so friggin’ dirty. Scram!”
The other officer laughed under his breath. “Let’s go, I gotta go catch another 4 or 5 speed demons, tomorrow’s the end of the month.”
“This late at night you can just stop ‘em for anything. I sneak up behind them and turn on my siren. Scares the crap out of them. They rarely argue, and if they do you just put on a mean face and play the stickler and they shut right up.”
The two officers continued on until it became too difficult to distinguish what they were saying. He wondered if he would have been privy to information about how they met their speeding ticket quota had been wearing clean clothes and looked like he had somewhere to go.
“Absolutely not…” he said out loud.
As he walked back to his spot under the stairs of his pedestrian bridge, his attention wandered back to the blanket in his hands, finally a chance at sleep. In his current state, he could barely reflect on his life situation. He felt satisfied at the simple thought that he’d finally be able to sleep.
When he arrived back at his not-so-quiet little refuge, he folded the blanket in half for thickness, laid it down and rolled onto it without bothering to inspect it. He was ready to drift off into a world that was better than this one. He spread his arms out and stretched.
Only two seconds passed before his brain interpreted a whiff of piss and vomit. He spent a few more seconds pretending it wasn’t that bad, then a few minutes pretending he could deal with it, and finally a few more minutes in complete resignation.
“I’m sleeping in someone else’s bodily fluids”.
He said to himself, and as he said it, his whole world came crashing down. All the efforts he had made to stay sane despite all he had been through went out the window.
He wanted to cry but nothing came out. He forfeit control over his body in complete acceptance of whatever the universe wanted to drag him and his body through. He had been as hard and strong as he knew how to be, but he could feel the dam break as his emotions rushed to the surface.
As the tears finally started flowing down his face he felt the first bite of a flea in what he suspected would be the start of a long relationship. He couldn’t bring himself to get up and out of the stench, he couldn’t even bring himself to scratch the itch. He tried to say something to comfort himself but could conjure up nothing but tears.
He laid there a long time, carefully paying attention to each second but unaware of how many had passed as they melded together into infinity. He lost track of the the dry sweat and the itch of new friends inhabiting his body. For the first time in his life he believed in hell. He knew could describe it in great detail as if he was there himself. He was.
It was his bladder that finally brought purpose back into his existence. He already smelled like piss so his decision to get up was made involuntarily, part of his programming that had still not be overridden by this new uncomfortable environment. He wondered how much longer he had left before he no longer felt the need to get up and pull down his pants.
He walked about 100 feet from his bridge to a spot right in the middle of the highway exit. The exit seemed to lead to an industrial area that may very well have been abandoned and only two cars had passed the entire night. If a third decided to come full speed and throw him across the pavement, so be it. He felt a single raindrop hit his forehead. Instead of pulling his pants down just enough, he decided to strip down to nothing. It had been five days since his body had felt fresh air, and the law, like oncoming traffic, didn’t invoke the same fear that it used to.
As liquid waste started to leave his body as it had countless times before he outstretched his arms and started spinning in a circle like a sprinkler, only to find that he enjoyed the feeling of the wind resisting his hands. All else faded. He was a helicopter.
“I’m helicopter pee man!” He shouted to no one.
He knew full well that any observer would assume he was batshit insane and he probably wouldn’t argue with that assessment but he couldn’t care less about any of that now.
“You have no idea what my day was like.” He said to his imaginary spectators.
The rain was much more noticeable now and by the time he was finished spinning, it was coming down by the truckload. The world around him became a myriad of asymmetrical patterns forming from a cascade of raindrops.
Something had changed within during those past few moments, as if the resignation had cleansed his soul and his sudden act of creativity had revived it. A few moments prior he was teetering on thoughts of suicide and now he was born again.
He looked up at the sky and found himself happy. It almost shocked him. He had been loosened from the tight grip of his ego.
“How can I be happy right now? …but I am….happy.”
For a split second he thought he could see the world the way the raindrops did. He suddenly realized that they had thoughts and feelings too but experienced them the way ants might. Their sense of self was hazy at best, they could function as individuals but hardly felt the need to, there was a greater task at hand.
They washed away the smell of pollution, of piss and vomit. They drowned out the chaotic sounds, the swooshing of cars and buzzing of trucks. They provided a background for which all sounds would harmoniously chime in. He could feel everything wash away. Along with the itch and the smells went the pain and the hopelessness he had been marinating in for the past week, or perhaps the entirety of his life up until that moment. The rain was an equalizer, a tuning fork with which he could bring himself back into attunement.
A new sense of resolve filled him. He still marvelled at the situation with which it arised.
He had no guarantee that tomorrow would be any better than today but whatever came his way, he would face it with a divine sense of harmony. If at any time he felt corrupted by the dissonance of the city and the overwhelming gravity of his situation, if at any time he felt the doubt that comes with a lifetime of devout resistance, he now knew where to turn.
The universe was always singing its tune and when it was drowned out in the static of humankind’s angsty adolescence, he could always turn to nature for peaceful unity. It could be easy or it could be painful but it was all up to him.
He was dancing now, in complete synchrony with the entire universe. Everything was perfect in its imperfection, even in this terrible little pocket of existence for which he found so much that could displease him. He didn’t let it.
For the first time in his life he believed in heaven, and he could tell you exactly what it looked like and maybe even how to get there.
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