ballerina in a wasteland
friends, i turn thirty today. in celebration, i’m publishing my first work of fiction (or vignette? short story?) this piece juxtaposes defiance and resilience with ruin and decay. it’s somewhat an analogue to previous essays: the messy middle, and the battle between Fear and Doubt.
if you enjoy this — my only birthday wish, if I may be so bold — is that you tell me why. that would mean a lot to a writer trying to find his way .
Standing by the side of a road I know too well, I reach into my purse to check the time. A tide of needless notifications floods my phone screen and I'm left waddling in the water trying to stay afloat.
Several group chats are competing to see who can set off the most buzzes in my bag. Ayo's surprise birthday chat has devolved into a contest between two rival best friends vying for creative control. It’s a painful watch, everyone knows Tatiana, her childhood best friend is fighting a losing battle, but in a last-ditch attempt for custody, she creates a separate chat and accidentally excludes the other bestie.
"On Sunday, should we get brunch then drinks, or drinks AT brunch?", she texts in this secret chat. The difference — I learn, is crucial for her outfit choice — as if I give a flying toss.
I chuckle to myself as I imagine my future coroner declaring “death by a million texts” near my warm body. Even in the graveyard, my resume finds a way to stand out.
OK intrusive thought over — I can’t bear to deal with this mess now. So I do what I do when I’m overwhelmed, I reach for the hammer and smash everything to pieces.
With one clean bang, I clear all notifications and whoosh, the flood drains into the digital gutter. Mmm peace at last. But I need to remember why I reached for this damn phone in the first place.
Ah yes, the time. The numbers beam back at me: 12:12pm. OK perfect, that's enough time to walk the long route home.
On a day as smooth as this, when the pleasant burn from above radiates such warmth, I'm glad I left my headphones at home. Let the sweet drivel of the world entertain me instead. I want to hear the chirps from the birds, and the colorful cusses bikers throw at reckless drivers. I need that delightful chorus of city chaos.
I step onto the sidewalk and cross the street. Right as I return to the concrete, I nearly trip over a fluffy puppy chasing a ball by my feet — he looks me dead in the eye with the most sincere gesture — as if to say "Sorry hoo-man." I find it easy to forgive him. On my left, I see the city in its summer glory — groups of five and six seated in jagged circles sipping boxwine and smoking joints on the lawn. Sundresses that sat idle in dark cupboards let loose on the bodies of the carefree. All around, the city beats with a vibrant buzz of summer life.
Despite the buzz, the town seems a little empty for this time of day. Here, we are strangers to the sun. So whenever she decides to visit, small armies swarm the streets. That's how it's been for the last ten years I've lived here. Especially on a Saturday like today. I wonder where everyone else is. Maybe there's one of those college football games. Ah, who cares, more roaming space for me.
As I cross over into the next street, a lady too engrossed in her phone nearly barges into me. Without thinking, somehow, my body knows to pivot on its weak foot, swiveling as I summon my hips to comply with the getaway. I escape with a smooth pirouette. "After all these years, I still got it", I think to myself until —
"Watch where you're going, fool!" is screamed at me. Surprised at the audacity, I look up to find this stranger's index finger wagging at me from a few feet away. The pride I felt a moment ago turns into pure rage. I hate when people talk to me like I'm a nobody.
"What?! You barged into me?!", my voice breaks in rickety high pitch.
I start to flush red. My heart starts to beat faster and I throw my hands up in exasperation. Who gave this silly goose the cheek to speak to me like that?
And right here, I'm interrupted by my dance teacher's favorite saying. The words I hated to hear during practice because it reminded me of my imperfection — the many times I fell flat while trying to land a twist in a new routine.
"Keep your center, grace in chaos" rebounds through my ears and after reciting a paragraph of cursive expletives in my mind, I let the seething slip away. The day is too beautiful to let an idiot ruin my mood.
A few blocks beyond the near-shove incident, I'm enjoying the walk again. I stroll past a woman wearing an unmistakeable emerald necklace that screams Catalan elegance. Something about the way it dangles free but holds firm—resistance amid a collective larger story — speaks to me.
She offers a warm generous smile that's long enough for me to sense the kindness in her eyes. But in the highest mercy, she withdraws it quick enough so we don't need to force a conversation. I smile back in appreciation of this gesture.
This neighborhood has a unique soundtrack. Competing street artists perform a compelling mixtape — boombox roadmen who refuse song requests, construction workers who clank metal rods against each other, and street magicians who yell and hand out pamphlets to upcoming shows — where the gig is that you get robbed if you show up!
I feel at home. The sweet background noise comforts me. This is the city life I yearned for after spending too much time following rules — counting steps and repeating routines that kept me in time but constrained.
Ahead of me, I hear the orchestra of ambulances and fire tracks BLARING in the distance. Headed in the direction I'm walking towards. One, two, four….eight trucks rush by me? How many do I need to see to start worrying? I go through my usual lines of affirmations
delusions to calm myself down. "It's a big city, this happens all the time." Maybe this is a city-wide fire drill or something.
I stand still for a moment to look for clues. Is anyone else bothered? In standard city fashion, nobody cares. I'm not even sure if they can hear it. This shouldn't surprise me. We step over dead mice and starving hands everyday. What's a little ear candy gonna do? I give it a few moments and the rumble fizzles in the distance.
I continue walking and end up at Pierce St, the bridge between the central part of the city and the land of the bourgeois. A street with more patisseries and wagyu butcheries than laudromats. This side of town is usually plush and cozy. But today, the air has lost its crisp.
Instead of the refreshing taste of clean air, we are left with a plausible cousin — a substitute teacher for the real deal. Each breath requires more lung work, my alveoli hitting the gym trying to filter the dust. As I stand there, trying to understand how a neighborhood so pretty could have such bad air, I see something else that doesn't belong here — a gaping, leaking pothole in the road.
Like a giant forehead pimple pissing with pus on a beautiful face.
Baffled, I look around and the rot festers! They are everywhere. In the bikelane. By the stop sign. Under the traffic lights. The rich street has measles. Little crevices form by the edges, and graduate into bigger cracks and craters in the middle of road. Some of the cracks hold water with an unkind respite: it's clear enough for you to see a faint hint of your reflection in it. But it stinks.
God, it stinks.
The rancid smell puts an end to my exploration in boujie town. But, I still have a few hours to spare so I change directions. Alright, I need to rejig this walk. No more cussy morons, no more smelly streets, I need some sanity. So I head to Clemory Park, a hidden gem on a slow street that many locals don't know about.
I walk four or five blocks and see its silhouette in the distance. Fond memories from this park flash through my eyes. When Sabrina ambushed our cozy park hang to surprise me with an impromptu wine tasting that I nearly ruined with my Aquarian stubbornness. The time when Tricia and I agreed to meet here for a challenging hike, only to abandon the plan to eat affogato instead — a decision I stand behind.
But as I get closer, I don't like what I see.
The entryway that once housed beautiful flowers is withering. Wilted flowers, broken stems, and fallen leaves adorn the pathway. Pirate weeds looking to steal nourishment from their fatter fed friends have invaded the space. Nobody is here to sweep up the mess.
Instead of the high-pitched squeals of children playing tag on the park lawn, there's barely a whisper. Where did they all go? Are they watching that football game too? Why do people even like that sport…Ka-lack…..Ka-lack… a distant sound interrupts my internal monologue. I can't make out what it is. Something metallic with a dull weight behind it?
It has a weird rhythm to it. Like a bus that arrives on a schedule. Something this city couldn't comprehend. Silence for several seconds then Ka-lack, off it goes again. It doesn't sound threatening, rather it oozes an eerie calm, and at this point, I'm desperate for that gorgeous city-wide view from the summit of the park. I need that sweet toffee panorama to end this walk on a high.
I head for the hilltop and imagine I'd see a finicky swing or a rusty door or something that explains the sound. Instead, as I near the summit, I catch a glimpse of the 360-view and my eyes are rewarded for the upward trek. But it's not the view I hoped for.
I start to feel my fingers trembling as I, I, I—don't believe what I'm seeing…
Everything is broken. Gallant trees that used to parade their necks high in the sky lie fallen and crumbled in the road. Power cables shredded into flimsy, dangling wires shake in the breeze. Stop signs scattered around the street like seasoning on a steak. Whole balconies resting on the ground. Sidestreets bejeweled with reams of shattered glass.
Driverless cars run into each other trying to evade all the debris. The ones that escape form long queues by the traffic light, but the light, or rather, the headless pole that remains has no instructions to give, so the cars wait and crowd up the little available street space.
I can vaguely see my usual spots. My go-to second date spot where the bartender gave me free shots if I listened to her latest relationship waffle is within eyeshot. The outdoor seating is jambled up — chairs and tables seated in their fractured filth. Even the overpriced boutique store that sold Bohemian bathmats for $250 looks destroyed. This mess — whatever caused it — didn't discriminate, everyone got a jab to the jaw.
At this point, I feel sick. There's an awful pit in my stomach I haven't felt in many years. Not since that time my dance coach told me to watch my plate or risk being cut from the team. Despite the fear, my jelly legs seem intent to take me down to the scene. Maybe if I get closer and lay my palm on the ground, I'll understand my eyes were lying to me. I pinch myself to end this dream but it doesn't work.
I get down to ground level and it's worse than I imagined. Everything is wet and disgusting. Puddles of muddy water and piles of soggy socks accompany abandoned babywalkers. Hypodermic needles and reams of plastic bottles lie strewn on the road. Lollipop wrappers and cigarette butts are united in disarray.
It's much louder than I imagined. The driverless cars got tired of waiting and are now honking at headless traffic lights. This sets off an absurd call and response dance where each automated BEEP BEEP honk is replied with the WEE-WUH WEE-WUH from nearby car alarms.
And right here — in this urban hellscape with crumbled trees, potbellied puddles, live power lines dangling around, feisty car alarms, and roads riddled in layers of filth — I feel defeated.
I just wanted a smooth summer walk where I could people-watch and get my steps in. But I feel like I’m on stage for a dystopian play I never signed up for. How long will this scene last? What’s on the other side?
Misery loves company so my thoughts are interrupted by the uninvited repeated thuds of rain dunking on my head.
I run to find shelter in a little space barely three feet by three feet. It's not much and it feels like a cage. I want to wallow in self pity but I know where that road leads. So I gift myself a small mercy — five minutes to wallow, then, I must dance.
Coach always said to dance through the pain but it’s hard and I’m unsure. Sigh ok, I’ll give it a go. I stand chest out in defiance ready to move, but the wet earth beneath me gives way and I stumble. I beg my core muscles to come through — if we can dance here, everywhere else is a cakewalk.
My mind and core are convinced but my legs are wary. They bear the pain of previous tumbles. They bear the score of torn ligaments and broken trust between mind and body. They know all my “bright ideas” that landed me in hospital.
“Conviction and Delusion wear the same dress”, I hear them say.
“Yes, but either way, you're right. The cynic dies at home knowing all the ways everything fails but they never move.”
So I stand there in this makeshift shelter with sirens blaring and rain flogging the ground, and I start to find my counts. One, Two, Three, Four — my rhythm returns to the fore. I tiptoe over a used drug needle but it doesn’t pierce my resolve.
If I’m going to be cast here, I'm going to dance until the director cuts the lights.
one-two, one-two, step, step, step.
dodge the puddle.
skip the needle.
dig deep, pull through,
find your breath.
stutter then swivel,
land en pointe.