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The Woman on the Sidewalk (3rd Prize Winner - Group III)

March, 2011
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A woman sits on the sidewalk, an orange blanket spread out in front of her as if her entire life is on display. The blanket has a thin blue border that’s faded with age, a certain shade no one can fake.  Lying out on it are knives, traditionally carved and Swiss, and pieces of jewelry, silver necklaces and beaded bracelets. She doesn’t smile, but if she did it would most certainly be yellow with gaps, framed by lines that whisper years on the corners of her lips. She will ask you three times more than what any item costs, and if she’s lucky she might end up making a few cents profit, just enough to scrape through. Every lunch time she will meet up with other women from her minority, and together they’ll spend the next hour eating and swapping stories like most normal women in the world. She has one kid waiting home, no money for school, and a husband who works late every night at a construction site. And as all this happens, hundreds of people will walk past her as she sits there with the orange blanket, just another woman hawking items on the street, and she will go unnoticed. This will happen every day, of every year, until the day she dies. How does he know this? Because every day, of every year he’s ever remembered, he’s walked past women like her without so much a single glance, and has watched as other people react the exact same way.

Just a month ago, he would’ve walked by too. But that was a month ago. A lot can happen in a month. Or, more accurately, nothing can happen at all, but that’s still a lot, isn’t it? That’s enough, at least. Enough for him.

One week, one week, he’s only got one week, and then it’s gone, all gone, everything he’s known gone, gone, gone…

"What’s the matter?" she asks him when he abruptly stops next to the woman with the orange blanket, “we’re gonna be late to the party.” The woman looks up at him with eyes that shine hard earned experience and sizes him up in a split moment. "What you need?" the woman asks him, and though he’s been asked the same question by many people just like her, for the first time he notices the tiny hope that edges her words, hope that expects to be thoroughly crushed as soon as he walks away, only to come back the next time someone stops by…

"Just to be crushed again," he says out loud. The girl gives him a questioning look. "Huh?" she asks, puzzled.

"Oh, nothing. Just thinking out loud," he answers, slightly embarrassed. The girl squeezes her grip around his arm. "And what were you thinking of, exactly?" she asks him, smiling.

The woman listens to them talk in a language she doesn’t fully understand, and strains her ears for any keywords: ‘buy’, ‘knife’, ‘necklace’, ‘pretty’, ‘how much’, ‘that one’. Not hearing any, she waits for one of the two to speak to her.

He looks around and finds a bench right across from where the woman’s sitting. "Let’s sit there," he suggests, and they walk the few steps to it wordlessly. The woman notices them walk away, and concludes that they aren’t going to buy anything from her. She sighs and waits for someone else to walk by.

"So tell me, what’re you thinking about?" the girl asks him again as she slips her arm around him. Instead of answering immediately he watches a man in a black suit walk by, his steps marked with a certain determination. Rule of thumb: if the man’s a foreigner, the suit is probably expensive, perhaps tailor made at a well respected shop in a well respected part of the city. If the man’s Chinese, the suit is probably cheap, always bought in a box from a street shop that only people who live there know about. This is not racism. This is life.

 He sighs. "I don’t know," he says, hoping to brush it off. "It’s just…I guess I’m gonna miss all this, you know? The people, the sights, hell, even the smells, whatever they may be." He gives her a grin. "I guess some things are better left a secret," he adds.

She smiles at the last part but still isn’t completely satisfied. "No, there’s something more than that that’s bugging you," she points out. “Don’t think you’re gonna get off that easy.”

She never misses anything, he thinks. But how can he put what he’s feeling into words? He never had a way with words, not before, not now, not ever. Still, she’s asking him, so he’s going to have give an answer, one way or another, or never hear the end of it. He hesitates.. "Well, it’s just that… I guess now that I’m leaving in a week, I feel like there’s so much I didn’t notice, or even like, bothered to notice. I mean, living here we get used to things we’re not supposed to get used to. You know, things that everyone knows about but chooses to ignore anyway. And I feel like I’m just noticing it, after all these years, but it’s right before I’m about to go, and it feels so…well, bad. Guilty, even. Whatever." He sighs and looks down at his feet. His shoes alone could probably finance the woman’s family for weeks, probably more. Since when did it become so…obvious?

She turns her head and looks at him with thoughtful eyes, eyes that seem to genuinely care. "Look at me," she says. He rolls his own eyes but does what she says anyway. She smiles and gently touches his cheek. "You’re a good guy, and you know that," she tells him, "and don’t say that I’m wrong, cause we both know I’m not. Don’t feel guilty, you didn’t do anything to deserve it. I mean, yeah, crap happens and we can’t do anything about it, but that’s exactly it. We can’t do anything about it. You know what I mean?"

And though he knows she’s probably right, it doesn’t make him feel any better. In fact, for what it’s worth, it made him feel a bit worse. She shouldn’t be right. The fact that bad things happen and they can’t do anything about it shouldn’t be a fact at all. He knows she’s trying to help him, so why does it feel as if she’s actually trying to make him feel more guilty? “I know, I know," he says instead, "but still, that doesn’t make me feel any better. I mean, well…well, look at that woman over there." He gestures with his hand at the woman with the orange blanket sitting across from them on the ground. "She sits here every day doing her best to earn whatever she can get with what little she has. She’s probably here illegally, she works all day, rain or snow, and in the end the money she earns to get through the day is a fraction of what we spend on, like junk food alone. I mean, we probably spend more money per week than she gets to spend in a month. And the things we spend on we don’t even well, need." She doesn’t answer him, and he doesn’t really expect an answer anyway. Instead, he leans against the bench, tilts his head back, and closes his eyes for a brief moment, then opens them again. What he sees is a gray sky, a sky where there is only one gray cloud, a cloud that stretches as far as the eye can see. And despite the fact that he knows its not a huge cloud at all, that it’s actually pollution that’s killing him slowly, he smiles. "You know what?" he asks, almost as if he’s trying to change the subject.

A pause, then, "What?"

A sheepish smile creeps across his face. "Believe it or not, I think I’m going to actually miss these gray, polluted, lung-damning skies. Heh, if you had told me a month ago I was gonna say that, I would’ve laughed you away. But now, now that I’m leaving, I don’t know what I’m going to do without waking up to a gray fog. It’s all I’ve ever known, I guess. Heh, it’s just so…stupid."

She smiles too and looks up at the sky with him. "Yeah, it’s really stupid, but I guess I understand." She sits up straight again and turns back to the woman sitting in front of them. There’s something about the woman that catches the girl’s eye, something she didn’t quite notice the first time she saw her. The way she sits, maybe, or how she carries herself with that posture. Or something. To her chagrin she can’t quite pinpoint it. “Is that what’s bothering you so much?” the girl asks, nodding her head towards the woman.

“Not ‘what’. ‘Who’. And yes, she is.” He sighs. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I just can’t help but imagine what her life is like. I mean, I don’t want to sound all pompous or something, but every day she sits here and hopes that someone decides to buy something from her, and more often than not, they don’t. And then the little she does get, it’s after the price gets bargained down to half or even less . And well, once you think about it, do we really need that extra ten or fifteen we manage to save? I sure as hell know I don’t, but I do know that she probably needs it more than us.” He glances at the woman and notices she’s looking right back at him, her sharp eyes seemingly reading every thought in his head. Feeling suddenly ashamed, he hurriedly looks away. After a quiet moment, he continues, “And the worst part is that I’m finally realizing all of this like, right before I’m leaving, before I can actually do something about it. It’s so freaking stupid. I mean, I’ve only got a week left. What can I actually do?”

The girl gazes down at the ground, deep in thought over what he’s said. When he finishes talking, it takes a while for her to realize that he’s asking her a question, albeit probably a rhetorical one. She brings herself back into the real world and looks at the woman again, who herself is peering down the sidewalk, watching the people as they walk towards her, come up to her, and then pass right on by. “You know what?” she says in a quiet but firm voice, “you’re absolutely right. It’s wrong, just wrong, the way things are here. We can’t just sit around and let the problems pass by and hope they fixes themselves. We’ve got to do something.” And deep inside of her, she begins to feel the sparks of the same guilt he had from the very beginning.

He feels encouraged by her words, their shared sense of justice, but one thing still bothers him, and he knows it’s no small matter. “But well, what can we…do?” he asks her.

“Not much, I guess,” she answers honestly, “but well, at least if we decide to do something about it we won’t need to feel so guilty. I mean, it’s a start, a step towards the right direction. It’s not the act that counts, but the spirit.” She shrugs. “Or something like that.”

The more he thinks about it, the more he starts to like it. Here’s something he can do, something he can pour himself completely in, one week or not. And like she says, once they decide to do something about it, they won’t need to feel guilty about it at all. They’ll be doing their part to make the world better. Here’s a way to relieve the guilt and do something good for the world as well. His face breaks into a smile, the kind of smile you make when you feel like you’ve just been released from prison. “So, what should we do?” he asks her, thoroughly pumped up with enthusiasm.

His energy is infectious, and soon she’s beginning to feel it as well, a bubbling emotion that feeds off of her anxiousness. “Well, I guess we could start by buying stuff from that old lady over there. I mean, we do kinda owe it to her, in a weird sort of way. It’ll feel kinda right if she’s the first person we help.

He thinks it over for just a moment and finds himself completely agreeing with her. “I like it,” he tells her, and she grins. “What should we buy?”

“Anything, I guess. Doesn’t really matter. Here, wait a second.” He reaches in his pocket for his wallet, then pulls it out and opens it. One glance, and just like that the smile on his face disappears as fast as it had come. What he finds in his wallet isn’t exactly what he had hoped for. What he finds is exactly…nothing. “Uh, I don’t think I have any money left,” he mumbles, angry at himself for spending the last fifty on fast food. “Do you have any money? I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

She shrugs. “Why not,” she says, then pulls out her own wallet. Her own cheerfulness dissipates as quickly as his did. “Nothing.”

They both sit on the bench, an awkward feeling of embarrassment slowly stealing over them. He lets out a nervous laugh and blames it on the recent adrenaline. She doesn’t make eye contact with either him or the woman sitting across from them. After a few long seconds, she says, “Well, we couldn’t have known.”

“Yeah, I guess.” The easy way out. “But now what?”

And now they both feel the guilt, a guilt they can’t exactly name but know it’s there, gnawing at their hearts. “I guess,” she finally says, “I guess it’s the spirit of the act, right? Even if there is no act. You know what I mean?” her last question is hopeful, pleading, desperate even.

The feeling of guilt is unbearable. He doesn’t hesitate to respond. “Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s the decision we made that counts, right?” She nods, and they both let out a sigh of relief. “It’s the decision that counts,” she repeats.

After another long moment he finally breaks and says, “I think we’re gonna be late to the party, right?”

She hurriedly nods her head in rapid agreement. Together they quickly get up from the bench and speed walk away, their feet winged with hidden embarrassment and shame.

Ten minutes later and in the subway, they’re laughing again.

An hour later, they’re at the party. Thank God they didn’t miss it.

The woman watches them leave with silent eyes. When evening arrives, she packs the orange blanket away, counts the money she’s earned for the day, and begins the long walk back to her home.

 

By Eugene Ahn,

International Academy of Beijing

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