He never should have left the hospital -- that much seemed clear to him now. Not much else was. As he looked up at the offending window from the street below, he knew what lay on the other side: the medicinal smells, the hushed tones that spoke of so much that was not said, the rhythmic beeps that both reassured and intimidated. All of this made it hard to go back once he had left.
Outside, the world was so much more peaceful, so much more normal. A cool night breeze tousled his hair. Above, the sky was clear, and even past the streetlights of the surrounding, trendy commercial district, the stars were shining through. Portland in late Spring was seldom so fair. Normally one would expect constant grey clouds and cold, steady rain that always seemed to find a way to penetrate your bones. The old joke was, how can you tell when it's summer in Portland? The rain gets warmer. Evan smiled. The rain gets warmer. Okay, it wasn't really that bad, but the pessimism fit his mood.
Evan looked at the people hurrying past him. There was life out here. The street was lined with small trees, which had just exchanged their colourful blossoms for fresh leaves of various shades of green. Evan smelled a whiff of roses from a nearby floral shop, the aroma of fresh coffee from a nearby Starbucks and a trace of curry in the air from an Indian restaurant he knew to be around the corner. Pigeons patrolled the streets and stood sentry on the windowsills, as if they had been commissioned by the city to gather and evaluate every crumb dropped and every food-like substance left unattended.
Yes, there was indeed life out here -- life with both its peace and its urgency, life with its aromas and visual feasts. Once you have touched life, how can you go back to the sights and sounds of impending death?
Evan was especially drawn to the life of the children and teens out on the street. To one side of him some Asian teens were playing loud music, and to his other side, down a block, some Latino teenagers practiced their skills with skateboards. Of course, Evan's own daughter wasn't down here with any of them. His mind flashed to the hospital room, but he quickly sought to reconnect to the street life. The hospital room would have to remain behind that window for now.
A different kind of teenager now caught Evan's eye. Like the skateboarders, she was Hispanic, but she focused her attention on the adult men who came down the streets alone. She wore a black leather mini and a red blouse with spaghetti straps. She had her jet-black hair gathered on top of her head in a manner that suggested to Evan one of those Spanish flamenco dancers he used to see in old Westerns. As she looked up and down the street, Evan could see deep chocolate brown eyes accented with make-up that was far too sophisticated for her age. She couldn't have been any older than…well, she was at best barely out of middle school. Evan wondered what had brought her to such a place in life.
Evan got so caught up in pondering the girl's background that he didn't notice she had turned her gaze toward him, and before he realized it she was crossing the street in his direction. He looked for an escape route, but that action came too late.
"It's too beautiful an evening to spend all alone, don't you think?"
Evan could feel the blood rush to his face, and he turned away. "I'm sorry, I wasn't meaning to stare."
"That's okay. I don't mind. It's what guys do. You don't think I dress like this to impress my girlfriends, do you?" As the young girl spoke, she seemed to caress him with her eyes. "I mean, what does a girl need to do to get some attention around here, huh?"
As the girl had spoken these last words she had placed her hand gently on Evan's right arm and leaned toward him just enough for her blouse to reveal a little more of her ample cleavage.
Evan blushed even more deeply. "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I've given you the wrong impression."
"It's okay. You're shy. That's all right. I do business with shy guys all the time. My name's Carmen, and I'm not shy."
Carmen now extended her hand to him and smiled so sweetly that Evan took it and smiled back.
"Carmen, it's not shyness. It's just…how old are you?"
"Fourteen, but don't worry about that. Nobody's going to press charges against you or nothin', if that's what you're worried about."
"Fourteen? I…Carmen, you're a very attractive young girl, but this isn't what you should be doing when you're fourteen!"
Carmen's face quickly clouded over. "Yeah, but I'm afraid I'm just too much of a klutz to skateboard. Excuse me." Carmen turned quickly, and started back toward the other side of the street.
"Carmen!" The young girl turned back toward him. "Carmen, I'll pay you. I'll pay you, but not for sex, okay? I mean, even if it weren't for the fact that you're so young, sex is just not what I'm looking for right now."
"So, what are you lookin' for?"
"I don't know. I just…There's a park around the corner, isn't there?"
"Yeah, but the cops police it all the time. I've been busted there a couple of times and--"
"I told you I'm not looking for sex. How much do you charge?"
"Hey, if I leave here with a man, I better come back with two hundred dollars."
"Two hundred dollars!"
"Yeah, and I don't take VISA."
Evan glanced up at the hospital window. "Okay. Two hundred dollars. There's an ATM on the way. What do you say?"
"You're not going to get all weird on me or anything, are you?"
Evan shook his head. "Of course, girls have thought of me as at least a little bit weird ever since I was in junior high, but, well, this is about as bad as it's going to get."
Carmen shrugged and grabbed Evan's arm. "Okay, whatever."
They walked quietly over to the ATM, where Evan pulled out his debit card and slipped it into the relevant slot. He reached to key in his PIN number, but he suddenly thought of the person beside him and looked her way. She turned and faced the street.
"Hey, I wasn't going to look! God!"
"I didn't say you were. It's just --you know -- a precaution."
Evan keyed in the four-digit number, and then selected the amount -- two hundred dollars. He couldn't remember if he had ever withdrawn so much from an ATM. As he slipped it into his wallet he looked up and noticed the expressions on the face of several passers-by. Eyes rolled. Several shook their heads. One older woman screwed up her face and put her hand over her mouth like she was trying to suppress a vomiting reaction. Then she too looked away.
Evan felt his stomach becoming a little queasy himself. "Oh God, what they must be thinking."
"He's paying me to go to the frickin' park!" Carmen snarled at the older woman. "You got a problem with that?"
"Come on, come on!" Evan said in a near whisper. "I'm looking for less attention here, not more."
Carmen curled her arm through his and gave him another of her sweet, enigmatic smiles. "Sometimes you just gotta get in their face, ya know? If you shrink up when they give you one of those looks, then you'll never get your spine back. They'll take it and store it in one of their trophy cases."
"Yeah, well, I'll try to remember that."
The park was well lit and had a number of tall trees and little flower gardens, and yet what Evan sought was not vegetation. What Evan had envisioned he now saw straight ahead. The children's play area had four swings, a teeter-totter, a wooden climbing gym, and a short tunnel through which children could crawl.
"You've brought me to a children's playground? I'm a little old for this."
"When a guy pays you, you're supposed to do what he asks, right? Unless, of course, it's dangerous or something."
"All right, then."
"Well, what do you want me to do here?"
"Whatever you want. I want you to talk to me and do what you want."
"For two hundred dollars?"
Evan pulled the money out of his wallet and handed it to her. "For two hundred dollars."
"Whatever." She stuffed the money into her bra.
Carmen walked over and sat in one of the swings and Evan followed her, sitting in the one next to hers.
"You see," began Evan after a few seconds of silence, "this is one of the few places in the world where things are still what they're supposed to be. Children laugh; they play. Even adults don't have to be adults here if they don't want to be. Over there on the street you can pretend you're an adult. Here? Here I can pretend you're a child."
Carmen sat in the swing, making patterns in the dirt with her shoe. For several minutes neither of them spoke. They looked around at the playground and occasionally into the sky at the stars. Even with this little amount of separation from the streets of the city, Evan could more clearly hear the night sounds of crickets chirping and a lone hoot owl. Carmen eventually added her own quiet voice.
"Would you push me?"
Evan stood up and moved behind Carmen, putting his hands on her shoulders. She was small-boned and delicate. His hands paused there just a couple of seconds before he began to gently push her forward. As the arc of the swing lifted higher and higher, Carmen laid her head back and swung her feet up toward the sky. Evan gave her one more push and then made a move to get in the other swing.
"No! Higher! Higher! Do an 'underdog'!"
Evan responded to the request, catching her this time at the small of her back and pushing her forward as he ran underneath the now-squealing young girl. He turned around and looked as she flew forward so high that Evan almost thought she would launch into the sky. But a second later she returned back to earth, only to swing almost as far backward as she had gone forward.
"Good one! Good one! That was great!"
Evan now sat in the swing next to Carmen's and swung himself forward much more gently. Going much higher would prevent him from watching the young girl next to him. Soon she slowed down and came to a near stop.
"You've done 'underdogs' before, haven't you? You knew what I meant when I asked for it."
Evan nodded his head. "Of course."
"You have a child?"
Evan knew he nodded again, although this time he guessed that it was almost imperceptible. "A daughter."
Evan's whole body seemed to freeze over. The only movement he could feel was a twitch at the right corner of his mouth. Carmen looked his way, and her voice grew quieter.
Evan wanted to open his mouth, but all he could manage at first was to get it twitching more. Breathing now seemed difficult, even in the midst of the fresh night air. He felt like crying out, and still his mouth wouldn't open. Evan focused. He brought his breathing rate down. He shut his eyes and relaxed the muscles in his chest, back and shoulders. He let his mouth open, and then he spoke.
"Fourteen. She's fourteen."
Evan did not look directly at Carmen, but he could feel her eyes looking at him. She sat perfectly still and did not speak.
"The park was always her favourite place when she was little. When I finished a day of teaching, she would want me to take her to the park. The first day of summer break, after school was out for the summer, she would want me to take her to the park. Two years ago when her mother died of cirrhosis, related to her alcoholism, the day after the funeral, she wanted me to take her to the park. I always climbed wherever she wanted to climb, and when she swung high, I would always cheer her bravery…and yes, she loved 'underdogs,' because she knew that would send her as high as she could go."
Evan could feel a small head rest lightly on his shoulder, and he could smell the sweetness of what seemed to be her freshly washed hair.
"You're speaking in the past…" she whispered.
Evan nodded. "That hospital over there. She's in a bed on the fourth floor. She has cancer, Carmen. She wakes up every now and then and smiles at me. But even that hurts. I can't lift her high into the air any more, Carmen. I can't. I can't even make her squeal or smile. She's lying there in bed, Carmen, and she's dying, and there's not a damned thing I can do about it."
Evan heard the quiet weeping on his shoulder, and he felt the tears trickling down onto his arm, even as his own tears now cooled his warm cheeks.
"Fourteen-year-old girls shouldn't die, Carmen. They shouldn't."
Carmen lifted her head off his shoulder and began wiping the tears from her eyes and face.
"My mother is an alcoholic, too," she said. "It will kill her some day, I know that."
"Sarah's mom just couldn't handle this world. That's all there was to it. She couldn't see the ugliness of it all without taking a drink. Pretty soon that ugliness just overwhelmed her."
"That's my mom, too. She's a good person. She really is. If she knew what I do, it would kill her. But she never asks, because she doesn't want to know. When she's sober she spends her time watching romantic old movies. Stuff where it all turns out good and beautiful and all. She likes that."
Carmen pulled the roll of twenties out of her bra and looked at it for a moment. "I really should give this back to you, you know. But the problem is that if I did, I would get the crap beat out of me, so--"
"Then don't go back at all. Put yourself in the protection of the court. They could set you up with people who can take care of you and--"
Carmen stood up. "No. My mom needs me. And besides I don't trust courts and police and all that. They say they're going to do stuff for your good, and they set you up with some family who doesn't understand you and ends up taking advantage of you. It's happened to some friends of mine, and I don't need that. I've learned what I need to know to handle life this way. And it's good money. I better go."
Carmen just gave him a little wave without even looking back.