jolie laide

jolie laide

I started this when I lived in Brooklyn and struggled for grace in a city that grants moments of beauty and ugliness breathtakingly close to one another. Now I live in a place where things are a different kind of ugly and the beauty is pedestrian. I struggle with that.


We are standing on the platform waiting for the train. When it comes, the doors open and it's a crapshoot with all of us tumbling into the car like dice. It's late and we are all angling for a seat. I don't want the small disgrace of hustling and jockeying, I'll risk not getting to sit for this ride.

One long bench has one end open and there are three of us left so we slot in. I lose out, I get the least desirable seat, next to the listing hunched man. My other two companions have taken full advantage of sitting first, taking up extravagant amounts of real estate, forcing me right next him.

I take him in with a sideways eye. He is rocking a little, caressing the neck of the bottle between his thighs, sliding the black plastic bodega bag over the screw threads, crinkling. I am trying to be subtle, but he is watching me too. He catches my eye and turns towards me, turns his full face to me.

It doesn't feel confrontational, his face is wide and guileless as a baby's. His mouth is working, he is trying to say something. Through the crash of my headphones I hear "I hate you."

That doesn't match the expression on his face. And maybe because I've just come from teaching a room full of social workers, or maybe because I am looking for a scrap of grace, or maybe because I am simply curious, I make my eyes wide, turn my full face to him in innocence and ask "You hate me?"

His mouth starts to work again, he is making noises in response. He says it over and over, it getting a bit clearer each time, until I understand. He is saying "Behave. Behave. Behave. Behave." And there I see the monsters he keeps on a leash, the wind howling under his skin, the slice of needles in his head.

I could move away, jump up and go to the other side of the train. The people across the way are watching us, uncomfortable, edgy. But I don't want to leave him. I don't want to shame him, reject him, dishonor him and his attempt to simply be. I smile my brightest, most encouraging smile and say "That's good." And we both turn back into ourselves.

It's a long trip, and later he will fall asleep, the grip on the bottle loosening, it falling to the floor and spilling its pungent contents. The rocking of the train, his muscles relaxing will make him occasionally fall against my shoulder before he jerks upright. I don't flinch when this happens, I let it, let him rest his head on me, that is what I can give him, if only for a moment.


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