Rosa has five minutes left of lunch and one shoe off when she spots the older man in the window, phone to ear, hand pulling back the curtain. Definitely watching. Shit economy victim in a pressed shirt, the busy boredom. She makes a show of shaking out a pebble from her sandal, purple toenails for the cops. Criminals and transients—bums everywhere else but here—don't get pedicures. She sticks her bare foot back in the strip of parkway the whole while, and sucks and sucks and sucks.
“We're tree people,” her mom explained the day that Rosa got her period and realized she was ravenous and tore through the kitchen, eating everything and not feeling full, thirsty and barren and woozy with fatigue, until her mom grabbed her hand and pulled her screaming for food out into the backyard and pinned her down, clothes stripped off so Rosa's naked body was flat on the unkempt lawn, her mom next to her, barefoot grinding into the rich soil and face to the sun, exhaling, “This is how we eat,” and then, “Your blood is sap now.”
She spots the older man in the window, phone to ear, hand pulling back the curtain. Definitely watching.
Sap that chewed out her stomach and erupted from between her legs like a viscous river, still a living, breathing girl on the outside but her skin sang up to the sun and called for the earth, even while her heart beat in rhythm for the sapling boys who grew like reeds in her mind, until one day the tug of soil and water wasn't enough, and she lashed out under the hot summer haze, “Being a tree doesn't mean I'm not alive, Mom!” So, when Rosa moved to the big city to see the world where thickets of men brood under ghost lights, her mom packed her up with a list of tips and tricks, the toenails among the survival rules. But neither of them thought about how the grass is green under a vomit blanket of pesticides, how Rosa pays the rent with a job that leaches her whole sunshine day, how the lavender she rubs between her fingers makes her drunk, how sand is inedible so the beach doesn't help, how the jobless men tap on their windows and gesture even when she pretends not to hear, until the metal security door squeaks open and he is there pointing wildly at the only patch of soil in three square blocks where she can put down roots.
Neither of them thought about how the grass is green under a vomit blanket of pesticides
“My dog goes there every morning! What the hell's the matter with you?”
There isn't an answer Rosa can give, the grass around her foot yellow and brittle from urine that she tastes in her throat, her body retching and the man stepping back as she swoons from starvation, worried that whatever she has is contagious and he has an interview tomorrow, and Rosa—like the dying know to do—tears open her blouse for one last chance as she hits the paved sidewalk with her eyes twisted sideways and up to her sisters, the sycamores.
The concrete tastes like stone.
Homa Mojtabai is a management consultant and Wharton MBA turned writer. She lives in Los Angeles and her work has previously appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, VanityFair.com and the LA Times.
Illustration by Meher Khan.