Someone just brought a baby in here; I can hear it out in the kitchen. The baby itself hasn’t made much noise but the two women who brought the thing in have fussed over it enough to alert the whole house to its existence. In here, where all the undersides of the spoons are blackened, where all soft surfaces have been burned, where no one seems to eat, ever. There’s a baby in here and I know that he/she is probably going to grow up to have a difficult life. A life of being dragged through a warren of such houses, places right downtown, still somehow falling off into the peripheral, places with notes on the door pleading with ‘visitors’ to please leave after a certain time, places with ladders resting against the eaves, ten years after the reconstruction effort, places where people stay in their rooms all day and night long, places with recycling bins overflowing with gallon liquor bottles. Then one day the baby may make his/her own way through such places, reliving the past and trying to understand it.
The baby is remarkably quiet, maybe he/she is contemplating his/her fate in a rudiment kind of way. The baby is sitting at that burnt-spoon, syringe-grey table in the kitchen while my housemate is in his room making a bizarre humming/moaning noise, like a small, ineffective vacuum cleaner. It’s possible that the baby can understand something of this environment, can differentiate it from, say, the WIC office, or the shelter, it’s possible that the baby can already see the difference between these places and the places he/she sees on TV.
Last night I woke off coughing, a dry hacking cough that went on for what seemed like half an hour. I had no water in the room, only a stale container of limeade. I drank the dregs hoping to alleviate the dryness, but found it instead in my lungs, where I could not get into it. The air around me suddenly seemed more mephitic, I began to smell old vomit wafting up from the carpet and the black mildew that lattices my wet windows. I remembered the last time I was sick, in Tashkent, in an equally filthy place, luckily then it was summer and I was able to keep the windows open wide, letting the higher breeze above the city twist out some of the miasma. In these places, at these times, one starts to feel an odd sense of belonging, of membership.
The baby’s name is Jimmy. I have heard them call his name in their intoxicated drawls, each slightly different, slightly more or less incoherent. To Jimmy these are the voices of adults, of the world outside of babyhood.
The music is on now.
“’Cause you’re amazing, just the way you are.”
I think of that night in Tashkent, feeling wounded and crouching in defense in a squalid room, hiding my vulnerability away from the world, like a dog I remember seeing once who had been hit by a car, crouching in a small stairwell, eyes wet with the euphoria of intense pain, blood smeared all over the stairs. I tried to give him something to eat. It was all I could think to do. Again, it was in an unfamiliar country. There was no vet I could go to, nothing I could do to help. In Tashkent, shaking from fever on my stained bed, in a place where I couldn’t communicate with anyone I remember thinking about my life, not that I had a near-death episode, but I remember thinking about the people I had met and the places I had been. Even then, when even the warm summer lights humming in the sweltering night without felt cold on my febrile skin, I remember feeling a sense of joy that I had done the things I had done. That I had gone out to see the world regardless of the consequences, that, if nothing else I knew what Samarkand looked like in the early morning, when the rising sun swarmed the lapis lazuli tiles. I knew that in one of the most impressive Islamic cities no call to prayer ever swung through the morning skies, and that no one cared. Somehow even this piece of information comforted me. I could have read about the religious apathy of the Central Asian peoples, but I had experienced it and had been able to compare it with other places such as Syria, Turkey and Azerbaijan, and somehow that was enough to justify possibly expiring on a brothel mattress in a place where a lot of Americans wouldn’t even be able to locate on a map.
That’s one of the things I struggle with since I have come back to America. I have all these experiences that don’t seem to have any bearing on the things that people care about here. I don’t mind discussing smoking bans and fashion choices, but I don’t think I would be comfortable on that mattress that night if those things had formed the bulk of my memories. I think I would’ve felt even more like that dog, a feeling I can only guess at as robbed.
I wonder if that baby, if Jimmy, will be able to find such experiences. I wonder if when that night comes for Jimmy if he will be able to survey the immediate area, note how disgusting it is, and realize that these things are all incidental, because he’s living his own adventure, because he’s seen enough things firsthand to justify a few nights in a wet garage, the back seat of an abandoned car or a meth. lab, just to add depth to his experiences, or, if perhaps, he will only see these things as inevitable, as the continuation of his childhood, as inescapable.