Everything I have, aside from what I’m wearing, is in a light brown vinyl purse with two outside pockets. The arm strap and the bottom are darkish grey, cracking with age, just a hint of the original color showing through. The main zipper is broken, and there is a large silver safety pin keeping it semi-closed. I hold the purse close at all times, and I sleep with it under my head like a rigid, desperate pillow.
It’s close to the end of November 1980. The day is cloudy, and there are snowflakes floating around like ashes from a dead fire, but they are not yet sticking to the ground. The harsh air is almost unbearable, and my chest tightens knowing that this bitter cold will relentlessly shroud me for the next several months.
I’m wearing a pair of Jordache jeans with frayed hems, a long-sleeved blue velour V-neck shirt, and a pair of red-swoosh Nike running shoes that are two full sizes too small. After several months of constant wear, the shoes and my feet have made concessions and now accommodate each other fairly well. My five-foot nine-inch frame weighs just under 105 pounds. I haven’t had a period in over a year, and I can’t remember my last full meal. I am wearing a light blue polyester ski jacket. The sleeves are too short, and the thin material does very little to protect me from the severe Minneapolis cold.
The first outside pocket on the purse holds my Marlboros. A book of matches from the gas station where I purchased them for seventy-five cents is neatly folded into the cellophane on the back of the pack. Whenever I have a new pack of cigarettes, I pack them down by hitting the top of the pack against the lower palm of my left hand. Then, peeling away the gold-colored cellophane strip, I open the pack, take out the foil that covers the cigarettes, blow off the little bits of loose tobacco, and pull out the center cigarette, which I turn upside down. That upside down cigarette is always smoked last because a wish made while smoking that special turned-over cigarette is guaranteed to come true, but only if it is smoked last. I always make the same wish.
Inside the other front pocket is an almost-gone cherry chapstick, a tube of black waterproof mascara that is glued shut, a broken powder compact in medium light, a black eyeliner pencil, and an old Estee Lauder eye shadow quad with powdery green and gold shades. I don’t use these things anymore, but I feel compelled to keep them.
In the main section of the purse is the book I’m currently reading, The Stand by Stephen King. It’s quite large for a paperback and it takes up a lot of space in the purse. The book is very important to me; it is a barrier between myself and the world. A fifteen-year-old girl by herself will be approached one way or another, but a fifteen-year-old girl by herself reading a book is left alone. I don’t want to be approached. I want to be invisible, and as far as most people are concerned, I am.
I have had many different paperbacks in the purse, and I always use the same bookmark, a plain off-white business card with the names and contact information of the husband-and-wife counselor team I saw with my mom a year ago. The reason I use the business card is that it is the perfect size for a bookmark. I’ve never called the counselors, and I couldn’t tell you their names without looking at the card.
I only saw them twice. They were kind of hippy-ish, middle-aged, and oddly timid. The counselors had no solutions, and we shared no common ground. The second and last time I saw them was when my mom had set up an appointment for the two of us. I was there long before she showed up. I was nervous and guarded talking with the counselors. They might as well have been from another planet, and although they didn’t feel threatening to me, I did not trust them. When they asked me where I had been staying, I told them honestly that I didn’t have a place where I could sleep. The words fell out of my mouth like a collapsing house of cards, and I regretted them instantly.
They asked me what I wanted, and I said I wanted to live with my mom. They liked this and insisted that I tell her when she got there. I told them I couldn’t do that. They asked me why, but I didn’t know why. I just knew that I couldn’t. They told me everything would be okay and that I would be fine. The wife gave me a cup of awful-smelling tea after I told her I didn’t want anything, and I pretended to sip from the cup. They awkwardly talked with each other about a home repair and a dinner they were planning for some out-of-town guests. The more they interacted with each other, the less anxiety I felt being there. I wanted to disappear.
She arrived to the appointment about thirty minutes late, wearing a new, bright blue leather jacket with matching high-heeled boots and a turquoise silk blouse. Her short hair was disheveled from driving with the heat cranked up and the T-roofs open on her sports car. She looked cheerful, and invigorated; likely due to her lavish cocaine habit. Her face was beautiful without makeup, and her hair was blonder than it had been the week before. “So sorry I’m late! I’m having a crazy week at work!” she said loudly and almost laughingly to the counselors.
The counselors seemed captivated by her. They both smiled widely and assured her that they understood and forgave her lateness. She sat down and glanced at the clock, the door, and the counselors in rapid succession. The room was steeped in a combination of leather, Opium perfume, and patchouli.
After she sat down, they insisted I tell her what I had told them. She looked at me for the first time since she arrived. A subtle but distinctive feeling of anguish slowly washed over me, and the world seemed to become heavier and slower. I felt like I was in a dream, like I was trying to move but my limbs were too heavy to lift.
I looked down at the floor and noticed that she was lightly, almost indiscernibly, tapping her left heel against the leg of her chair. It made a sound that reminded me of a keenly ticking clock. I looked up, and our eyes met briefly. In her eyes, I saw unsettling indifference, and I looked down again before, at further urging from the counselors, I said, “Mom…can I come and stay with you…for a while?” I couldn’t look at her, and I felt a dread rise in my stomach. I thought I was going to throw up or pass out. I intently gripped the cup of awful smelling tea, trying to keep the room from spinning.
Her face tensed as she smiled and laughed slightly. “That’s impossible!” she said. “I don’t have any room for you, and how would you get to school?” She turned to the counselors. “I can’t have her live with me. I don’t have the room, and you know I need to be on my own for awhile.”
The counselors looked at each other, at me, then at my mom. The heel-tapping had stopped, and all three were silent as I got up and walked out of the room. I didn’t know where I would go, but I knew that I was entirely on my own. I didn’t cry or get upset. I didn’t feel anything at all.
In the main part of the purse, next to the The Stand, there is a plastic sandwich bag with travel-sized soap, toothpaste, and a toothbrush inside. Next to the bag is a large, dark blue plastic comb with a beige hair tie wrapped around it. On it is a picture of the Pink Panther saying, “Stay Groovy.” I won the comb at an amusement park arcade when I was twelve years old. It has just the right amount of space between its teeth for my wavy thick hair. Next to the comb is a nearly empty 1.7-ounce bottle of Love’s Baby Soft cologne, which I have had since this morning.
I was standing right outside of her back kitchen door when she unlatched the lock. “Don’t let my mom see you,” Stacey whispered, sounding sleepy and faintly annoyed. As I walked into the kitchen, warm air enveloped me, and I exhaled slowly. I nodded to Stacey, and silently headed toward her room. Her walls were adorned with softball trophies, gymnastics ribbons, and Shaun Cassidy posters. I glanced fleetingly at her bed. It looked impossibly comfortable. I pushed the thought it out of my mind and lay down on the floor between the bed and the wall. Stacey threw a comforter over me and said, “Don’t forget to lock up when you leave.” I smiled at her, gave a thumbs up, and closed my eyes as I pulled the comforter up over my head.
Stacey’s parents and two younger brothers woke up soon after I arrived, and I silently listened to the sounds of breakfast and showers and everyone getting ready to go to school or work. The smell of coffee was strong and bitter and made me feel uneasy, reminding me that I didn’t belong there. I was as still and quiet as possible, breathing as silently as I could, trying not to move a muscle. I stayed this way until everyone had left and the house was eerily still. I waited a good ten minutes before getting up from the floor between Stacey’s bed and the bedroom wall, and carefully walked out of the room.
I was a trespasser. If Stacey’s parents knew I was there, they would be furious. I was not supposed to be there, I did not belong there, and I felt ashamed to be in their home.
I walked into the bathroom, where a slight smell of hairspray and soap lingered on a thin layer of condensation covering the mirrors and surfaces. There were damp towels and various clothes on the floor. I was careful not to step on anything as I pulled back the shower curtain and turned on the water. I undressed and got into the shower as quickly as I could, but there was only about ninety seconds of tepid water left. I felt vulnerable, cold, and exposed. The thought of someone coming home and finding me there almost paralyzed me with fear. I listened intently for sounds in the house as I washed my hair. I found the least wet towel to dry myself off with, being very careful to leave everything as I had found it.
When I stooped to pick up my clothes, I saw an empty Love’s Baby Soft cologne spray bottle in the trashcan. The translucent pink liquid was almost gone. It must have been Stacey’s. I picked it up and held it up to the light. The small bottle was smooth and solid in my hand. I removed the top and closed my eyes as I inhaled the fragrance. It smelled beautiful, fresh, and light. A lot of the girls at the school I used to go to wore Love’s Baby Soft. I put the nearly empty bottle in my purse, imagining that its presence could make me feel, even just a little, like I belonged in the world.
I pumped out a little of the liquid soap on the counter and used it to wash out the pair of pantyhose that I had been wearing. I wrung them out as much as possible, and then replaced the dry pair I had in my purse with the newly washed one. They had several holes and snags, but they were clean, and I liked to believe they kept me a little warmer than underwear and socks, which, even if I had some, would have been impossible to keep clean and would take too long to air-dry inside the purse.
I pulled up the pantyhose and put my clothes back on, including the jacket and shoes. I picked up the white Revlon hair dryer that hung on a hook next to the sink and began to dry my hair. I didn’t like looking at myself, and I tried to blur my field of vision by focusing on a warped area of the bathroom mirror. As soon as my hair was dry, I left the bathroom, double and triple checking to make sure that I hadn’t left any evidence of being there.
I stayed at Stacey’s house for most of the day. I didn’t turn on any lights or the TV. I sat in silence on a chair in the living room where I could clearly see the driveway and the walkway to the front door. I would have been able to quickly leave if anyone came home. I was cold because the heat was turned down when they left for the day. I pulled out The Stand and read for a few hours, until I had a feeling that it was time for me to go.
Before I left the house, I looked in the kitchen to see if there was anything I could bring with me. I didn’t feel hungry, but I didn’t know when I might have access to food again. Wrapped in shame and humiliation, I grabbed a piece of bread and a slice of cheese and stuck them in my jacket pocket on my way out. I almost forgot, but went back to lock the door before I left.
I have a plain metal key ring in the purse. It has a single key that used to fit my dad’s front door. I tried to sharpen it on river rocks so I could use it as a knife, but now it’s just a dull jagged piece of metal. Also on the keychain is a safety pin, it’s the same size as the one on the purse’s main zipper. I use this one as a makeshift dental tool. I have two unfinished root canals on my top middle molars in each side of my mouth. The temporary fillings fell out last year, and I use this safety pin to clean out the holes left by the root canals. At first the pain was constant and sharp, but it waned over time. A lot of things that hurt a lot eventually fade, or maybe the pain begins to feel normal. I try to remember to burn the top of the safety pin before I put it in my teeth, but sometimes I forget.
On the bottom of the main section of the purse is a Rubik’s cube, which was stolen out of a car parked in the university’s lot by the river last month. I have never been there when the guys break into cars, but they usually give me the things they don’t want. I always get the girl stuff, but sometimes other things, too. I used to feel innocent of the thefts because I wasn’t physically present. The material things are what we take, but what we really want is hopelessly beyond our reach. I like the Rubik’s cube, but I haven’t been able to solve its puzzle yet.
The heaviest thing in the purse is a large choker-style dog collar, which I use several times a week. It fits a skittish German shepherd–collie mix named Jake. Jake belongs to my on-again-off-again boyfriend, Tim. Angel dust and various other drugs have severely impacted his mind, and while he’s fairly intelligent and charismatic, he can barely read or spell. He treats me with a contempt that is familiar to me. He goes out every night with his friends, normally getting back to his parents’ house after the bars close. He’s usually back by 2 a.m., unless he hooks up with someone.
After nightfall, everything gets quiet and frankly scary as hell. Things that are undercover in the daytime come out in the night. The fear of being alone in the night is the worst part of living like this. I think that Tim will let me into his parents’ house after he gets back from the bars, but that won’t be until after 2 a.m. At around 9 p.m., I head over there and let myself in through the back gate. Jake always runs up to me with his ears back, wagging his tail as I slip the choker collar over his head. He is a big dog, I don’t know exactly how tall, but when I slip my finger through the loop of the collar, he is the perfect height to walk right beside me. He is nervous and hand-shy from being abused as a puppy. He’s afraid of most people, but he is big, barks loud, and looks tough.
Other than my attachment to this dog, I don’t feel anything but fear anymore. I don’t feel jealous of the others who have families and homes. I don’t miss my parents, or my sisters. I’m not even hungry. I don’t feel anything. I am invisible from the inside out.
I pull the Marlboros out of the front pocket of the purse. There is only one cigarette left in the pack: the wish cigarette. I take it out of the pack and roll it lightly between my fingers before lighting it up as I continue walking desolately into the freezing solitude of the November night. The cold and the smoke combine to produce a surreal sensation in my mouth that is weirdly both pleasant and repulsive. A nicotine buzz satiates my brain as I exhale into stolid darkness. I wish I had a place to go.
Featured image by Clarissa Fischer.