When I was 17, I saw a motorcycle run over a dog in front of my house in Dominican Republic. The driver didn’t turn back to see his own damage; he sped off into the clear, blue horizon. The neighbor forced the front gates of her white and grapefruit colored house open, and found her dog twitching in the middle of the road, skull cracked and bleeding out on the pavement. I’ve never watched anything die before. I’ve only ever seen the states—alive and dead, maybe even sick. Getting from Point A to Point B is crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with a fear of heights, and trying not to look down.
I was 15 in high school when I heard about the gang initiations always taking place around October. Halloween was just another cautionary tale in the Bronx. Sundown was your timestamp. If the sky casted you in a Freddie Krueger movie, every choice from thereafter carries a risk; you choose the less riskier one, always.
For Halloween 2014, I was 20 and wanted to be American Mary—now for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, she’s a medical student who eventually starts her own underground surgery organization. It’s a revenge story, but I won’t tell you of the kind. All you have to know is that she gets back at her shit professor, sews an ear onto his chest, amputates his limbs, hangs him by the skin of his back and sews his mouth shut. It’s amazing what rage can do.
I knew a girl in my Arabic class who had some weird, cool spiritual connection with everything and the future and she told me to go to the Bed, Bath, and Beyond on 66th street instead of 149th. The only thing was that the mall on 149th was much closer to my house, and less out of the way.
Now here’s the thing a lot of out-of-staters don’t get. Unless your area is heavily gentrified, it is an unspoken rule to never take out anything of value. Living in a financial war zone drapes you in paranoia. It’s just a reality we never get to argue. The bus is full of drunks and angry commuters. It’s one of those places where being pretty gets you killed.
(But only if you’re in certain parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens. If you’re in Manhattan, then you’re okay.)
There were only two mistakes I made that day. The first was taking the bus home from 149th. The second was believing the world wasn’t cruel.
I stood in the middle of the bus. It was my favorite place to be when I was little, because it was its own little world turning when the rest of the bus wasn’t. If you’ve ever been on the Mad Tea Cup ride at Disney, you’d know what I’m talking about. You spin while the bus can’t keep straight. You’re the joint of the bus. You’re the reason the bus can go anywhere.
There were plenty of people riding the bus, and a noteworthy three girls who stood too close for comfort. One kept playing a game of cat and mouse, ending at the back of the bus and starting where I stood. My thoughts jumped to conclusions, my gut wrenched, but I’m an anxious person living in a crowded city, and it’s filled with devils dressed in cheap retail.
The cat and mouse girl was the biggest of the three. She had long braids with some reddish-pink woven in. The color reminded me of Ursula’s lipstick, when the sea witch convinced Ariel she did not make these souls poor and unfortunate—she only tried to help them.
The girl kept staring at me. She had an ill smile on her face, a sort of glint in her eye sharper than a kitchen knife. I kept my eyes on my phone and tried to win 2048 again. You just don’t look at people like that unless you want to start a problem.
I was two stops away from my house when I peeped her hand inching towards my wallet, and there it was—the big curtain call. She was a thief, a robber, everything my brain had told me she was but I just couldn’t believe. I put my phone in my pocket. Her hand retreated, and I walked towards the door to leave. Tremont wasn’t my stop, but I’d rather walk a bit than they know where I live.
We were at a red light, but she took it as green and followed me.
Followed me right to the door.
No one did anything when she grabbed me once the doors had opened. Her teeth flashed off-white and yellow underneath the bus’ superficial lowlights. I don’t know how I pulled her off the bus, but she wrapped her hands around my neck, dug her nails in places I’ve only been kissed and then asked me, while I wheezed and struggled and tried to make sense of everything—“You can’t breathe, right?”
Two other girls, one in a mask, another showing her face, stepped off the bus and surrounded me. The people walking by only watched. A woman had her phone pointed at us, but it wasn’t to call the cops.
“You can’t breathe, right?”
The bus drove off into a purple, cloudy sunset. The driver never turned back to see the damage.
Her friend took my phone out of my pocket. The masked girl started coming in for my wallet. I tried to un-nail this girl’s fingers from my neck, but she squeezed harder. I cried.
“You can’t breathe, right?”
She was laughing, like this gave her joy. Like she had woken up to Christmas for the first time and was getting what she always wanted. I had woken up to a fire in my bedroom.
My body moved on its own.
I broke the gold chain around her neck, pulled the weave out of her scalp, and let her resistance lead me off the wall. But her grip was so strong I was seeing dark spots. I could hardly hear anything anymore. Did I have her on the floor? Was I almost on the floor? It was like I was drowning blind.
I heard someone say stop. One of her friends, I guess, because he breathed warning into her name and stopped her. She got off me, and I breathed, like a fish falling into water for the first time, like a baby crying for their mother after meeting the doctor’s cold, rubber gloves. I had never breathed so much air than I had the first time it was stolen from me.
They walked the other way, waving my phone around. I walked home in the middle of a panic attack. My mother made the phone calls, and my sister accompanied me to the police station. My brother, always much more fearful and sensitive to the plights of our world, knelt with my grandmother in prayer.
Turns out, the girl already had a record. 150 pounds, last name Bright. I had trouble finding the light in her name.
The next day, my friends came over. We watched The Nightmare Before Christmas, and American Mary, and ordered 50 dollars worth of Chinese food.
When I signed up for Kickboxing, the scar on my neck felt itself into my skin. The girl in my Arabic class told me that cocoa butter is good for getting rid of scars—you don’t want it staining your skin like that. I heard her, but I didn’t want to wipe away the imbedded wound as if it didn’t happen. I flash it when I hear them say, “You wouldn’t last one day.” I don’t wear it like a secret.
I wear it like a badge.
Scarlet Gomez is a writer and art history nerd studying Creative Writing in the City College of New York, right in the heart of Harlem. She is slowly learning to share herself and her ideas, unapologetically, with the rest of the world.