It’s past 2 am on the southside of Chicago when my aunt Danielle, my father’s older sister, brings me and her daughter Ginai along for a late-night alcohol run. With each step, every part of my aunt ripples. Her hair is half-pressed half-shrinking from the dry summer heat. On her right thigh, clear packing tape covers a hole where she says a spider bite ate away at the flesh. I am too young to know that “spider bite” is a euphemism for an infected track mark.
“Damn girl, you wore those shorts just for me didn’t you?” a white man calls from across the street. I tug my shorts down in the back, even though I’m only 12. A whistle punctures the night air like a needle, and whoops and laughter follow as I grab my cousin’s arm and quicken my steps.
The neighborhood streets are alive, meetings happening in front lawns and at bus stops. The smell of fried foods and grease breeze through windows and out onto the broken sidewalks. S Merrill Ave glistens white against the tennis-court green of the street sign. Dr. Dre raps from the inside of a white Chevy Impala idling in front of someone’s house, the bumped-up bass rattling from the subwoofer in the trunk. I can see my reflection, my wide eyes in the windows’ dark tint. The distant sound of a siren is ceaseless.
We walk past groups of black and white men in white tank tops and black shorts. One group crowds us as we pass, and my aunt twists off the cap of her vodka and takes a swig in response. I tip-toe on the balls of my feet as I walk through the trashed sidewalks in foam flip-flops, avoiding the little glass bowls of broken bottle remnants.
“I gotta pee,” Ginai announces as we walk beneath a small highway overpass.
“We got a while before we get back to the house,” I say. “You can’t hold it?”
“Not for that long.” She turns back towards my aunt, who is stumbling along a few feet behind. “Ma, I’m about to pee.”
“Hell no, not under here. People sleep under here, the hell is wrong with you?” She recaps her bottle and when she catches up, she pulls out a cigarette from her red pleather purse and lights it. “Where some bushes at?”
By the time we find bushes in an area secluded enough, I have to go too. When we ask for tissue, my aunt reaches into her purse and produces a few balled-up napkins with her dark red lipstick on them. When we hesitate to take them, she pinches her cigarette from her lips, blows smoke directly into our faces. “What? You afraid of a little lipstick?” Her breath stinks of menthol and other tongues.
We pee behind the bushes and wipe with the lipstick napkins. I smear red down the back of my thigh, past the point where my shorts stop. This doesn’t stop the whistles or the hoots or the hollers.
“Aye, why don’t you cross the street, shawty?” Another white man calls to us as we near home. I turn my head towards his group, take a mental snapshot of the black and white faces, of those sharp jaws and gravelly beards all neutralized and washed orange under the colored streetlights.
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower