Konstanz Muller Hering
The red man glares at you from his little box across the road. Well above your height, he stands tall among the unforgiving streetlights. So easily he turns, green glow radiating cold endorsement, somewhat of an arranged consent. The countdown begins, it’s drumming quick and commanding. Though the change of tune is welcomed, his actions are surely questionable. Nobody seems to mind, there’s no time to wonder why. Around you, wheels screech and engines boast. Bright headlights accentuate the outline of your figure. Beyond the show, a youth’s roar grows. The crowd has exposed you; the stage is set.
The city is loud at night. There is always music to be danced to and drinking to be done. It gets quiet sometimes, have you noticed? It’s not always pleasant. Noises are always louder when the city is quiet. It’s not a matter of when, but a matter of where. And when the time comes, I’ll be there with you.
Your agitated breath follows suit as you rush past bars playing ear-piercing music, and nice restaurants too, where women have gotten dressed up only for men to dress them down. If not with their hands, their eyes will do fine. They reach and tug; lingering fingers tracing the curves of strangers. Greedy men with their greedy hands. Soon, they’ll be after you too. They’ll catch your scent and see where it leads. For now, it is masked by the strong smell of spilt drinks and smudged mascara. The air is moist and sticky and there is a pulse here, jagged and all-consuming. Your heart matches its rhythm. I dance.
Laughter bounces off of the crevices of the city so seamlessly, it reaches alleyways not even shadows can. Choking is a lot like laughter when the lights are out. The wheezing and chopped up breathing bear a remarkable resemblance, wouldn’t you say? I’ve heard I have that effect sometimes, making it difficult to breathe. Perhaps it was a compliment.
One deep breath and the second-hand smoke blown into your face turns your throat into a rusty exhaust pipe. The desperate coughs attract looks and once again you are faced with unwanted attention. One breath and your heart no longer matches the pulse of the city’s livelihood. It is faster now, desperate and ferociously clinging to life. There are signs of sympathy in the eyes of some, pleads in the corners of others. There are smirks too, behind beards and beer bottles, and there is light laughter. They tease but you cannot hear them now, the voices in your head are too loud. I’m the one who let them in.
I wouldn’t say we were friends, rather close acquaintances. With the women whose photos were on the news, the ones whose stories your mother remembers better than you do. I hardly get mentioned on the news. A real shame. If anything, I’m the real protagonist. Centre stage, all eyes on me.
Along with the voices come the bodies. Women, with torn dresses and broken smiles. They whisper in your ear; guide you, warn you. They give me strength, make me harder to ignore. Breathing, touching, smoking, screaming; you can hear it all. Don’t worry, I’ll be there when it happens. I’ll never leave you. And afterwards, I will hug you tighter than ever before. You can trust me when I tell you, you’ll never feel alone again. The women remind you that “if they’re not ahead of you, they’re behind you”. You twist your head so often you might as well be walking backwards. When you do, wisps of hair mislead you like shadows crawling behind. They prickle the wispy hairs on the back of your neck. I admit, I am of no help.
When you were young, you were told shadowy figures were the ones to be feared. But the truth is, the stories always get it wrong; shadows can’t hide in the dark, they disappear. Only men remain, figures coated in black liquor. And with them, I emerge. The worst misdeeds occur in the dark, I would know. Shadows can’t touch you like men can.
By the time your lungs recover you’re almost past the last pub on your side of the busy road. A woman not much older than you stands at the entrance with some friends. Her lips are forcibly curled up into a smile. Her friends cheer her on. They place a shiny sash around her, one they bought for the occasion, and promise free drinks and a night to remember. ‘It was my birthday too’ one of the voices whispers. ‘He was a friend. He was nice, they can be nice. He gave me something cold, don’t let them give you something cold.’
Have you seen the ads yet? The scrunchies that double as drink covers. Pretty handy on a night out. A little reminder that you’re never truly safe, that strange powders dissolve so easily out of sight. You can never trust strangers at a bar. You can trust me though. Buy the scrunchie, but I’m still your best bet.
‘He’s too close.’
‘Look at your phone-
‘Don’t look at your phone!’
‘What was that?’
The voices are restless. I don’t try to quiet them; they make for good company. The pubs and clubs are long gone, and you now walk under tall buildings made of glass and steel. Although the drunken ruckus is behind you, your walk is neither peaceful nor silent. Cars still rush beside you, and though fewer and more composed, there are still strangers on the loose. We both wonder which is worse.
Glass castles can hide the deadliest of sins. Conveniently transparent, no one looks too closely. No one knows where the stains come from or what they are. I’ve been inside glass castles before, in elevators and coffee rooms. Behind closed doors too. But then again, I go everywhere.
Like most, the street we walk comes to an end. This time, there are more red men in their tiny boxes high above the ground. Two at each corner, they take turns, one by one, patiently waiting for the other to lure the crowd. Your chest does not rise and fall as quickly as it did before, but your shoulders remain stiff and your stomach clenched, just like I taught you. There is a park ahead, a shortcut, with a path shaped like a double-edged sword. The drumming starts and the green glow beckons you closer. The man taunts you. You stand your ground. Good Girl.
There’s a moment, every time you’re close to home, where you relax, just a little. Just enough. When you begin to recognize familiar shadows and can almost hear your neighbours’ voices. In those moments, it is up to me to remind you, you’re not safe yet.
We take a turn, and then another. We stay far from the park, but you keep your eyes on the shrubbery. We walk up a hill. It’s quiet here. I wonder who would rush out into the street if they heard your screams. Who would leave their warm beds and half-eaten meals to come to your aid? You ignore me, but deep down, you’re curious too. We reach a brick house with a neat front garden. You open the gate and walk towards the entrance. Today, I leave you at the door. You walk in and are greeted with smiles. When asked about your shift you say it was good, as good as the night shift gets.
I say goodbye as you close the door. I will miss you, but it’s alright. I know we’ll meet again tomorrow.
Konstanz is a first-year Creative Writing student. With a strong passion for visual arts, she hopes to one day publish adult picture books along with her poetry. Her works delve into the essence of growing up as a woman as well as exploring her experience as a ‘third culture kid’.