I was on my way home, it was late, the city streets dark yet blinding, slick from rain. I don’t remember what bar or party or rendezvous I was coming from, but I remember talking to the cab driver as he easily cruised through a mostly abandoned Brooklyn. He was from Ghana; I must have asked his name but that memory escapes me. We chatted about menial things—he was gregarious and friendly and told me about his family and how driving all night makes his wife miss him too much. After a while, he dropped me off in front of my apartment, turned around, looked me square in the face and said “Thank you.” For what? “For speaking to me as if I am human.” And he drove off.
We threw a party at my college apartment. We had a lot of parties—sometimes the memory of one, or more specifically, something insane that happened at one, will sneak into my mind unannounced and I’ll wonder how I survived those years. This one scene in particular: a group of us were clustered in the living room, it must have been afterhours; we were still holding bottles but the initial mania had died down. One kid was way too drunk—to this day I still still cringe thinking about how he stumbled down the stairs to move his car, trying to avoid a parking ticket. The engine revved and his car crunched into the one parked in front of his, and then the car in back, several times before he figured it out. Crunch, swerve, crunch; we watched in horror from an upstairs window. He brought a friend up on his way back. A woman, very old or just moderately old but ruined. Her eyes were yellowed; she wore a tightly wrapped turban. She walked in, surveyed the room—I remember this very vividly, her strange combination of nervousness and ease, almost grace—and pointed directly at me. “YOU, gypsy. No one understands.” She turned around and left.
I was young; maybe 5, maybe 7. Any age between the one where I could read and the one where I lost some of life’s awe. I sat at the counter at the diner, visiting my mother at work. She had to finish her sidework, so one of her regular customers came over to occupy me. When you’re that young, you think no one has your number. You don’t know that an adult can see you’re almost painfully shy, or grumpy, or lying. This man sat next to me, started fast talking like a cowboy. His eyes stayed focused on my face while his mouth ran, his hands deftly folding a paper placemat into a much tinier version of itself. He was telling me a parable: something about a dead man waiting to hear St. Peter’s verdict at the pearly gates. As he spun the tale, a pair of small scissors began to snip snip snip through the folds of the paper. His words described the man’s choices in life, the bullet points that would determine his fate in the afterworld, constantly asking my opinion—all the while making strategic cuts corresponding to my answers. The man did something bad? A cut here. Something good? A cut there. In retrospect, I now know that each cut was part of a design, and my answers to his questions weren’t revolutionary. But I was invested—as the story crescendoed, my little heart beat faster and faster. What was to become of this man, this sinner/saint? There was one last question. I answered it. The man asked if I was sure, and I nervously responded that I was. There was one last snip. He began to unfold the paper, carefully detangling peaks and valleys, and spread it out on the counter. A series of cutouts unveiled themselves, forming letters: H E L L. I said nothing. The man folded it all up again. “If you had chosen this instead…” he said, making several more cuts.”This is where he would have gone.” Once more, the paper was unfolded, spread out; the original word was gone and replaced with: H E A V E N. My mom finished her work and came to collect me. He tipped his hat, winked at me, said “nice to meet ya,” and walked off.