There were too many people. Too much movement. Feeling like a fish trapped in an ever-closing net, Tracy knew that what was left of her sanity depended on her getting off the main thoroughfare.
The El Paso, an upscale outdoor mall, brought Tracy a measure of relief. Her breathing slowed; the sense of overwhelming panic retreated. She soon found herself in front of a small boutique that sold exotic sandwiches and epicurean salads. Her mouth watered from the smell of freshly baked bread.
She looked through the window and watched customers being served. It came as a shock to her when she realized that she hadn’t eaten produce of any kind since coming to the city, this from a girl who loved salads above everything else. Looking down, embarrassment added color to her face. What she saw was the poundage that her carb-heavy diet of leftover breads, doughnuts and pizzas had added to her body. What she did not see was the concentrated, innate thinness that her near-starvation diet had inflicted upon her slight frame.
Peaking inside, she saw girls her own age eagerly lined up at the counter. Of course, she didn’t question why they weren’t in school. Such mundane affairs of the world no longer interested her. A pang of envy kicked her tender stomach. Ubiquitous white earphones dangled from their ears. That was another thing on her list of have-nots since her arrival in Santa Barbara. She hadn’t listened to music on her iPhone in what seemed like decades. Frowning, she remembered a time when she couldn’t live without her sounds. Now, sounds of a different kind dominated her life, seldom leaving her in peace.
Other kind memories tumbled forth. The dam had been breached. A gentle smile relaxed some of the granite hardness of her eyes and mouth. Youthful innocence radiated. She couldn’t hear the giggles, but she saw their innocent laughter when an inside joke was shared among the girls. Tracy’s smile died. Discomfort descended on her when she noticed the fashionable clothes that they wore — the same kind she used to wear. Looking down, again shame physically pained her. Their clothes — her clothes of old — were so unlike the tattered ones that she currently wore.
Hunger came to her rescue when it forced all her mental energies to focus on the sandwiches she could see being prepared. Moisture-starved saliva tortured her parched mouth. A loud gurgle rolled her stomach. Not only was she hungry, but thirsty as well.
Luck strolled out the door when a hurried tourist tossed a half-eaten bagel into a trash can and walked away. It took all Tracy had to stop herself from running over to the trash bin. A loud groan came. Looking into the bin, she saw that it was mostly empty. Standing on her tiptoes, she tipped herself into the trash bin. Stretching, she was just able to reach the bottom. She grabbed the bagel. A predatory smile announced victory. The bagel was covered in cheese and jalapeños.
Tracy stuffed the bagel into her mouth. Her cheeks popped out like a chipmunk. She had never tasted anything so exquisite in her life. It was only when she looked back that she saw that the girls her age had exited the eatery. They stood off to one side. Their collective stare welded onto her. Her inner voices told her that their giggles were directed at her, mocking her, savaging her in their condemnation. The voices robbed her of sight, so she didn’t see the shock and sadness that pulled at the girls’ eyes, aging them a decade in a matter of seconds. These girls had never utilized their eyes without the prism of indifference. They were obviously deeply moved and troubled by what they were witnessing.
The voices shrieked louder, demanding that she turn and flee back to her entombment where they would have her alone, to once again terrorize her without witnesses to offer her comfort. After all, Dorothy, Sam and Jeffrey were usually gone during the day, and frequently at night as well; besides, they — the voices — had already done a good job discrediting them. It wouldn’t be long now till Tracy would be all theirs.
In her haste to flee, Tracy stumbled into a bench that lined the outdoor mall. An exposed rod cut through her pants and into her shin. She corrected her line of escape and ran like hell. She hadn’t seen that one of the girls had held out a drink towards her. She didn’t see that another girl had broken into sobs, and yet another one had left her uneaten sandwich on the top of the trash can in hope that Tracy would return. She didn’t experience the humanity of the girls as she surrendered to the hideous terror of mental illness, of the aloneness — the cruelest symptom.
Tracy ran like the devil was clipping her heals, leaving questions and hard-learned truths in her wake. Rescue would have to wait another day. That is, if it came at all.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.