Bumper to bumper traffic clogged up the round-about on Eighth Avenue in uptown Manhattan. I drew my second-hand fake fleece closer as I emerged from the subway warmth.
There was a bite in the air after last night’s snowfall. Joggers and walkers tiptoed gingerly around little grimy glaciers on the side of the pavement. A young man in spandex ran past me, with his honey-coloured boxer trotting alongside, panting, tongue out, and keeping pace with his master. Dog and master deftly side-stepped the glaciers and crossed the lights on 110th street.
Just a few more blocks to go, another 10 minutes, if I kept up this pace. I did not want to be late for my Zumba lessons again. With warm air blowing out of my nose and mouth, I lowered my head against the wind and propelled myself purposefully towards Broadway.
I spotted in the distance a few plastic bags. Lined up on the sidewalk opposite the park, arranged neatly around a lamp post outside building #207. Also were pieces of furniture – two chairs, a table lamp, and a sewing table. Made of solid wood.
I stopped to take a closer look.
Three clear bags tied neatly with kitchen strings: dishes, crockery, and cutlery in the first one. Dresses, sports clothes, and a jacket in the second. Shoes and other odd ends in the third.
Gabby Sanders watched the tall woman from her kitchen window. Blonde, dusky, wrapped in a dark brown fleece, rummaged intently through the garbage bags, lifted a few clear bags, and carried them to one side. Then she sat on one of the wooden chairs and peered at the motif on the sewing table.
Gabby wiped the moisture off the window with her sleeves and stood on her tiptoes to get a better view. Pixie whimpered behind her. The poodle needed a walk. Caroline usually took her out for a walk every day after dinner. Then they settled down to watch TV. But she was not home tonight. Maybe she will never come back home. Something had changed irrevocably in the morning.
Caroline was landing last night from Paris after the latest round of fashion shows. Paris was in high season, and she was in demand. She would land at JFK by eleven and be home by midnight, thought Gabby. When the bell finally rang, it was past 2 am.
Large snowflakes fell silently on the dry potted plants outside the building, covering them with a thick blanket of whiteness. Gabby opened the door. A large woman wearing a red bandana and black midi-dress stood outside the building holding Caroline by the shoulder. She had Caroline’s overnighter in her other hand.
“I found her in ‘Purple Turtle lounge,’ in their restroom….slumped against the wall. She was quite out of it, puking on herself. If I had left her there, trouble would surely have found her.” The woman rapidly spoke and spewed warmth out of her nose and mouth.
“You don’t remember me. Do You? I am Amy.
Gabby looked at her blankly.
“I had come over last month to drop off a dress for Caroline. I work with her designer.”
“Thank you very much, Amy.” Gabby held Caroline by her shoulders as the woman disappeared into the cold, silent night.
Caroline sat at the table the next morning, holding her head. A glass of orange juice and Alka Seltzer in front of her.
“If not for that woman… that Amy, you would have been in deep trouble, Carol.”
“I do not wish to hear your lecture first thing in the morning,” Caroline retorted.
“You tend to do only what you feel like. No consideration for me.” Gabby persisted.
“You never get me. I want out, from modelling, from studies, from you… from everybody around me. I feel like my legs are stuck in a cauldron of hot tar. None of you are helping me. I have to get out of this by myself.”
Caroline walked out of the living room, slamming the bedroom door behind her. Twenty minutes later, she walked out of the house in a crumpled T-shirt and cotton pants, saying no farewell nor leaving behind a promise of return.
Gabby later found her daughter’s phone on the bed, its battery dead.
It had been over four hours since Caroline left. Dark shadows lengthened in the living room.
Caroline had signed several contracts last month and received advances. But she walked away from it all. A promising career. Five years of hard work and opportunities.
Gabby’s anger welled up. She quickly cleaned Caroline’s room, gathered the furniture she had brought home when she moved back from her college dorm, packed all her stuff into clear bags, and left them out on the sidewalk.
Caroline would probably never return, not after the hurtful insults they had hurled at each other over the last few months.
Pixie scratched the door and barked impatiently. Gabby walked over and picked up her leash.
Seated on the classy wooden chair near the garbage bags on 110th street, I examined the pink, white, and blue flag painted on the side of the sewing table. I knew what it was, of course. I wondered why the sewing table was on the sidewalk and who had owned it.
A woman in flowing floral robes came out of building #207 with a small dog on a long leash and walked past me, adjusting her headphones. The dog and mistress headed towards 8th Avenue.
I checked my phone. Just a few minutes left for my class. I hastened past the Lady and the dog towards Broadway, reluctantly leaving behind the stash I had discovered.
“You are late again, Daniella,” Petti sounded sharp. “You wanted to learn dancing. I got you the sponsorship. Now start taking things seriously.” Petti turned away abruptly as the teacher whistled, calling us to attention.
I needed help to cart the stuff I had found to someplace until my one-room rental apartment in the Bronx was ready. The sewing table, the two classy chairs, and the lamp were just right for that space and also the items in the clear bags. Petti rushed off after class before I could tell her about what I had discovered on 110th street.
The night was still young. I hurried towards my garbage bags. The woman in floral robes stood outside #207 with her little dog, watching the garbage truck haul the furniture, piece-by-piece, from the sidewalk. I ran towards her.
She looked away, avoiding eye contact.
“Lady, I need help. I need someone to store some things for me temporarily, just for one week. Please.”
She turned towards the building. The dog growled and bristled at me.
The young man in spandex jogged past us with his boxer in tow and inserted the key into the lock. The two dogs greeted each other, and the woman followed them swiftly. The door slammed on my face.
The garbage truck was almost ready to drive off.
Only my clear bags are left on the sidewalk. I grabbed them with both my hands.
Gabby went into the apartment and took up her position by the kitchen window again, and watched the woman. Pixie was stretched out by the fireplace listening to jazz.
The woman was still standing uncertainly outside the building. Two men walked past, looking at her curiously. One of them stopped and approached her. He moved close and tried to grope her. The woman turned around deftly. One kick in his crotch and he doubled up in pain. She was taller than her assailant, and her moves were sharp and defensive. She swiftly turned around to tackle the other guy like a dancer pirouetting on one foot, swinging the clear bags wildly as she moved. Robust, agile, yet graceful.
The man had disappeared.
Gabby withdrew from the kitchen window and walked quickly towards the front door.
“Stay Pixie, Stay,” she said firmly and stepped out of the apartment.
The bags weighed heavy in my hand. I still hung around building #207, feeling safer than anywhere else. I could hear a dog yapping inside one of the apartments.
A door clicked open behind me.
The woman came out of the building. She walked towards me. The look on her face was interesting. Was she baffled? Bewildered? Evidently, she had not encountered anyone like me before.
She hesitated and then slowly held out her hands.
“Give me the bags.”
“I want to take them.”
“No, they are mine.”
“No, they are not.”
“Lady, I found them on the sidewalk. This and the furniture. How can they be yours?”
“I was the one who put them out there. Do you want me to keep the bags for you? Then stop talking and follow me.”
“Then how about we get the furniture also?” I pushed my luck.
The truck would not have gone further than the next block. There was still time to chase it.
The woman opened the main glass door to the building and turned.
“If you do not shut up, you are welcome to leave.”
I entered the foyer behind her with my lips tightly sealed.
“Where are you from? You have any family or friends?”
“I am Daniel-la.” I liked to stress the ‘la.’
“I am from Saugatuck.”
The woman looked puzzled.
“In Michigan. You probably have never heard of it …. a small town of hardly a thousand people. Nothing like New York. I am part Caribbean, part Indian, by the way. The Indian half is actually native American,” I volunteered.
“What brings you here?”
“I came to New York looking for a job when I turned 18. No longer wanted to depend on my folks.”
I was trying to impress her. The lady looked elegant, her accent measured, and posh.
“This is my daughter’s stuff,” she held up the clear bags.
I stopped, just outside her apartment door.
“It is nice of you to let me have her stuff. Thanks.”
“That’s OK. Caroline doesn’t need these now. My name is Gabby.”
She opened the door.
I smelt a lingering perfume. Jasmine?
“Shoo, Pixie.” The little dog growled and backed away slowly.
Muted lighting, plush carpeting, paintings on the wall, fresh flowers, jazz music in the background, I yearned to enter Gabby’s world.
The traffic on 110th Street, the glass door clicking shut, the elevator door opening everything seemed to be in slow motion, deliberate and measured.
“Come back and collect the bags in the next few days. I will put them out into the garbage next week if I don’t see you by then.”
Gabby’s voice broke my reverie.
I slowly backed away from the apartment door.
Downtown Manhattan was warming up with activity. Petti wrapped the scarf tightly around her neck and stepped out of Penn Station on to 34th street carrying a pizza box. She turned to look at the vents outside the subway out of habit. A young person huddled near the vents on a piece of torn cardboard. In winter, the vents provided warmth. They were a symbol of comfort to the homeless.
“Hello, are you OK?”
The young man looked up with warm liquid eyes, flawless skin, curly auburn hair, and a confidence that seemed to be born out of privilege. He said in a measured accent, “I am Carl.”
“Where have you come from?”
Carl looked up at her without opening his mouth.
“My name is Petronella. Petti for short.”
“Here is pizza. I will not be able to eat the whole thing.” Petti carried on without waiting for his reply. She kicked off her shoes, sat near him on the sidewalk, opened the pizza box, laid out a bottle of water, and handed him a tissue. Carl grabbed the pizza slice hungrily, wolfed it down, took long sips of water, turned away from her, and huddled over the vents.
“I am on my way to the next block to meet a few friends. Would you like to come with me?” Experience had taught Petti to keep in contact with the young ones on the street. They were clueless and the most vulnerable.
Carl kept his eyes averted as if he had not heard her.
“And the vents are not really comfortable. I know because I have sat on them myself sometimes.” Receiving no response, she continued. “Alright. If you do feel you want to join, I will be in Joe’s kitchen just two blocks away, on the corner of 31st street and 6th Avenue.”
Petti got up, dusted herself, and put on her shoes.
The street folks had not yet started arriving for their meals. Petti wore her apron, arranged the sandwiches, chips, and black coffee on one side of the table. The cold drinks and water on the other end, and lit up a cigarette. She had been unnecessarily harsh to Dani earlier in the dance class. Dani had tried telling her something, and she had cut her off. She dialed Dani’s number.
“Hello Petti, glad you rang. You will never believe what I …..” Dani’s voice was high pitched, excited.
Petti noticed a movement on her side. Carl emerged from the shadows of the food truck and walked toward her.
“Hold on a sec, Dani,” Petti interrupted.
“I need a place to stay somewhere tonight.”
“What?” Petti was surprised at this leap of faith.
“You heard me.” He was rude.
“Dani. Listen. There is a young man here. He needs help. Can you come over to Joe’s kitchen and takeover the shift? I need to fix a place for Carl tonight.”
“What did you say his name was?”
A lot had happened in five days. Petti forgave me and took me out for dinner, I found a futon by the roadside and was ready to move into my apartment that evening.
I took the trouble to fix my makeup and put on my best coat before reaching Gabby’s apartment in the afternoon.
Pixie stood wagging her tail and making whimpering noises as Gabby opened the door. He seemed to like me.
I hesitated at the doorway.
“Come in. Into the house.”
I glided over the plush carpet into the sunlit living room facing Central Park, pleasantly taken aback by the invitation. The fragrance of jasmine lingered.
“I came to collect the bags.”
Gabby looked at me, searchingly.
“Sit down. Tea..?”
“Yes, Please. Thanks once again for agreeing to…”
I sank into the soft couch and was swallowed into its silken luxury.
“How do you take it?”
“Just black, no sugar, please.”
My voice sounded far away.
Pixie stood near my knee, looking up with her liquid brown eyes.
“Neither the dress nor the wig suits you.” Gabby’s voice startled me.
“The dress and the wig. Both look ridiculous on you.”
I looked down at my pink dress. I had bought it online from Target.
“Open that bag.” Gabby pointed at one of the clear bags.
“Take out the sapphire blue dress.”
I got up.
“You must be my daughter’s height. That dress will fit you. Go up the passage, the second door on the left. That is her room. Get changed, and for god’s sake, remove that wig.”
I walked back to the living room; my wig cast aside, my auburn hair loose and flowing, the silk dress a perfect fit.
I heard Gabby gasp and clutch her throat.
“Blue suits you. And your form is just like my daughter’s. This dress is hers,” she sobbed.
The much-longed-for daughter, beautiful with auburn curls and clear, peachy skin. Caroline, a gentle and well-behaved child, a successful model at a young age, an ace student in college.
“She is now in search of a new life. She does not need any of this to bog her down. She wants to be free. To… be who she wants to be…,” Gabby cried.
I took her hand into mine.
Washing windows, delivering newspapers, sweeping our yard, and running errands, Saugatuck and my past seemed so far away from the Manhattan apartment.
I was born a boy. I have this memory of being in the playground at primary school with boys. I felt totally out of place, awkward, a misfit. I could not relate to any of them. But when I chatted with one of the girls, I recall connecting to her immediately. It was effortless.
I was Daniel, the twin who was different. I grew tall and lithe by 16, with silky auburn hair and honey-colored eyes. I also got straight As in school. My twin brother Barry was brawny and bull-headed. The boy-man in the family who did poorly in school, but grew into a strapping young man with a baritone voice, attracted beautiful girls and had the choicest cuts at the dinner table.
I used to dress up in my mum’s best dress and jewelry, put on a fancy wig with curls that she kept in her dressing table, take selfies, and sent them to a guy I met on Facebook. I became Daniella for him and for my own sake. He said I was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
I packed up and landed in New York in search of him when I turned 18. I never located my Facebook admirer, but a burly guy I met in an alleyway raped me on the second day of my arrival.
I lived on the mercy of soup kitchens, often fearful of being assaulted or falling ill and dying on the streets of New York. It was not a kind city for people like me. And I ignored my mother’s million calls. Picking the call up would have been like admitting defeat for me.
After nearly four months of no money, no food, and abuse in alleyways, I met Petti at Penn Station. She became my lucky charm.
“Would you like a slice of Pizza?” she asked me when she saw me the first time. I was huddled near the vents at Penn station, drawing warmth from the steam coming out. She became my sister, my friend, my mentor. She arranged a counsellor for me and a part-time job at a recycling unit in the Bronx. With her help, I talked to doctors and started my treatment. I have finally learnt to accept Daniella with all her flaws and failings.
“I am so sorry you had to go through all this.” Gabby’s face was streaked with tears.
“Come with me.” She steered me to Caroline’s room.
On the inside door of the wooden cupboard, I spotted the same pink and blue flag motif that I had found on the side of the sewing table.
“When was this done?” I asked Gabby.
“When Caroline was 14. One day she came home from school, got her watercolours out, and painted this flag. Not just here but in her notebooks and on the side of the sewing table. She even got a t-shirt made with that motif. I had no clue what this meant.” I noted the past tense.
“We were never great communicators. She was better with her dad. After his death, we barely communicated with each other. I was ambitious and quick to judge her. I never listened. I should not have been so hard on her.” Gabby’s voice was filled with despair.
Gabby knew that Caroline was trying to align her existence. Just as I had done with mine? And like me, she too would bear the consequences of acknowledging her identity and experience the accompanying pain and pleasure of that journey?
Our journeys were solely ours to own and navigate. No one else could shape nor bear the consequences of our choices for us. Gabby could have only gone that far.
I remembered my mother. Her silent support for me. Her patience with my anger and frustrations. She could not have done more than that. My father would not have allowed that. I had tried slashing my wrists with his razor but botched it up. Mum found me in the bathroom and rushed me to the emergency to get it bandaged. She never mentioned this to him. I tried running away when I was fifteen. Mum found me not too far from home and brought me back. And now her persistent calls after I finally moved away without saying goodbye, went unanswered.
I slowly eased out of my uncomfortable heels and settled deeper into the plush sofa as we continued talking. Pixie lay at my feet, sleeping with a paw resting on my bare toes.
My phone rang as I walked out of Gabby’s apartment three hours later. I did not ignore the call this time. I was about to speak to my mother for the first time in six months.
“Do you think this dress fits me? Maybe one size smaller would be better?” I walked out of the cubicle towards the floor assistant in H&M.
I had got my salary from my first full-time job as a shop assistant at a book shop and was now on a spending spree.
“Yes, I think so. Let me get you the right size.” The young man walked out. “Here. Try this. Blue suits you.” He kept his eyes trained on the dress as he passed on the hangar.
“You should check out other shades of blue. Let me get you a few more options.” He vanished again into the noise and sea of apparels in H&M.
“You are tall and will carry them off well with that auburn hair of yours.” He brought back shades of blue and designs I would not have considered.
“Wow, you sure carry that off very well. You should be a model,” he remarked in his posh accent when I walked out wearing one of his selections.
“Hi, Carl? Isn’t it? I would have recognized your voice anywhere. This is Dani. I met you a few weeks ago in that place downtown, with Petti.”
He looked up at me for the first time.
“I do remember you. It was good to meet Petti and you that night. That was my first night out living on the streets of New York!”
A stylish auburn curl rested on his forehead. His smile reached up to his eyes. It somehow reminded me of an elegant lady I had spent an afternoon with not so long ago, drinking tea and sharing my story.
Madhavi Srinivasan Johnson is an Indian national born in Chennai. She spent her early career years working as a Copy Writer in an advertising agency in India. Her passion and engagement in women’s issues and rights of girls led her later into a career in international development/ humanitarian work with UNICEF in India, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Namibia, and the USA (New York). She lives in Ballarat in Australia, hosts a blog (miaamicamadhavi.blog), and mentors young men and women from developing countries.