A note from the author: Natasha is a name often given to sex trade workers brought in from Eastern Europe.
The air was rough with cold. Tasha took the same streets home from work every day, well lit and populated. Not for the first time, she noted the electronic slogans above the door of the defunct Ellice café. Come and stay a while. She fought the coarse wind with less charge than usual. That day at the shelter, she’d witnessed an overdose of one of her favourite clients, and her hope for change was at a record low. The wind was cool like her mood and bit at her scrunched nose as she paused before the pharmacy.
A huddle of men slouched around the sidewalk, the narrow path between them daunting and shadowed. Tasha bit her lip and shrank into her neck warmer. The men didn’t look at her, but shadows grew longer and her fear grew stouter. It was ridiculous to fear the faded tan of their skin, but her imagination grew wild with images of them surrounding her and asking for money or worse. In the middle of her worst permeation, one of the men let out a guttural laugh, which shocked her out of her own bigotry. Shaking it off, she slipped between them, unnoticed, unharmed and virginity intact. Trotting away, she scolded herself for applying racism in her weary but normally understanding thoughts.
Her self-sermon lasted another block or two. Tasha pounded her feet into the pavement with self-flagellating fury. Halted at the intersection, she thought a man beside her offered to sell her a bus ticket, but when she turned to him, she realized that he wasn’t speaking to her or any other visible identity. The open-faced man directed his impassioned sales pitch for a Dominican timeshare to no one in particular, his arms wide to the darkening sky above.
When the signal turned, Tasha rushed across the road, narrowly avoiding a Handi-Transit van. Tasha glared at the driver, obviously in the search for new clients, and let out a heavy sigh. The problem with downtown, despite its centrality, was that she could never leave work behind her.
With new fervour, she charged toward her street, ignoring a black man pallid from hunger and cold. She normally emptied out her change purse for him. His mouth opened to ask the usual question, but she sped past him. On the home stretch, her entire body reaching, her eyes searching for the broken Christmas lights and yellowed fence. She was so focused on seeing home, she walked straight past a man lying on the front steps of the yellow apartment building, blood caked on his face.
She took three steps before she stopped and realized what she had seen. Rounding and going back, she found the man on the steps. On closer inspection, she saw his nose was twisted and broken in two places. Blood had settled and begun to dry around his nose and in the mashed corners of his ripped mouth, which was cracked and bloody.
Suddenly thirsty, she struggled to speak.
“Can I help you?”
The man stared at her.
She repeated the question. Still nothing.
“Should I call 9-1-1?”
He shook his head and visibly expelled some air as if he was talking, but she couldn’t hear him.
No reply this time.
She asked again but he shook his head, or as much as he could with his bleeding nose. He expelled air again, and looked at her with a question in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, I can’t…” She motioned to her ear.
He tried again. Still not close enough to hear, Tasha tentatively moved closer. The breathless man whispered “Can you—” and put his forefinger to his thumb and dragged it to the corner of his mouth and away again a few times in a sewing motion.
Tasha, open mouthed, grunted, unsure of how or if to respond to this request. She’d sewed several patches but that wasn’t enough to stitch a man’s wounds. She closed the conversation with an apology and a quick message of God’s blessing, her habitual phrase of shock. She backed off toward the pavement as he watched her shuffle and turn.
She walked toward her house again, slower, closing in on the last string of houses before her own. Tasha mourned and prayed for the man, wished she could help him, wished she was more than a girl on dark streets with bad reputations. The street grew darker as she thought on this and the street lamps clicked on. As Tasha drew closer to her house, she saw a shadow of a woman on the sidewalk in front of her fence, looking into traffic. The girl had the sad look of a used dishrag. Tasha drew in her coat and scarf around her, even as the girl tugged at her tank top and leggings. As Tasha moved to open the gate, the girl turned to see her, with a touch of surprise. Tasha’s hand hovered over the gate as the girl continued to look at her with sad expectancy. After a moment, Tasha understood.
“Oh, I’m not…” Tasha swallowed. “I live here.” The working girl’s eyes and shoulder’s dropped. “ I’m sorry!” Tasha said, but the girl frowned and turned back to the street. Tasha stood in the snow-dusted garden a few moments, looking at the shivering girl with lackluster brown hair. She looked to be eastern European, maybe Russian or Polish. Tasha was reminded of a few girls who came into the shelter regularly and wondered if they were her sisters or cousins. Her mind went back to the shelter and replayed her walk home. She thought of the man with the broken nose, the timeshare salesman and the cluster of men, and the client whose breath she watch fade that day. She had held his hand as the light flickered out, as the last pressure on her hand released. Tasha fought tears. She couldn’t save Raymond and she couldn’t save them the rest of them from their demons, their vices and their city. She considered this as she watched the girl, not that much younger than herself, whose eyes swept the street for someone to buy her. Tasha couldn’t save her either, but she could maybe—
“Do you want some tea?”
Tasha spoke before she knew what she would say.
The girl turned to Tasha briefly and gave a quick nod, before looking back into the street. Tasha smiled, and went into her warm house. Once she’d opened the door and turned to invite her new friend in, she realized that the girl was watching her from the sidewalk. Tasha motioned the girl inside. She tiptoed up the steps but hovered in the doorway.
“Come in!” Tasha said, waving her inside.
The girl joined Tasha in the hallway and Tasha grinned. “What’s your poison?”
The girl jerked to look at Tasha, fearful.
“I mean, tea.” Tasha said.
The girl gave a tentative shrug.
“Peppermint okay?” Tasha asked.
The girl nodded. Tasha hadn’t stripped out of her winter gear, but she slid around the kitchen with two plastic bags around her boots to put the kettle on. She glided back to the entrance.
“You must be cold…” Tasha trailed off. “I haven’t asked your name.” Tasha looked at her expectantly. When she didn’t reply, she tried again, “What’s your name?”
The girl was quiet for a moment as if that question was more complicated than it seemed.
Tasha laughed. “That’s funny! I’m Tasha.”
Natasha didn’t seem to agree. Tasha’s laugher echoed for a moment in the entrance before it fell away. The two Natashas stood in silence for a moment before the water began to boil. Tasha tripped over her plastic bags and discarded them after taking the kettle off the stove. She poured the steaming liquid into her favourite mug and gave to the girl. In return she got the smallest smile.
“It might be a bit hot, might want to wait for a bit,” Tasha said, returning the smile.
Natasha turned back to the open door, watching the road.
Tasha swallowed. “You can take it out there, if you want to watch for…” She trailed off, not wanting to consider for what or whom Natasha waited. Natasha nodded and took the slow crawl back to the sidewalk. She threw her hair in the wind and presented herself to traffic. Tasha frowned when a car drove up and the girl jumped in, still holding the mug. The car began to drive away, but soon stopped with a jerk and Natasha placed the mug on the curb. Tasha didn’t watch it drive away but pulled her jacket tight around her and stepped out again. It was still cold, but the lights on the street seemed to glow brighter and the wind seemed to blow softer as she climbed over the snowy bank to the street. In her favourite mug, with its lit menorah painted on the side, she found a packaged Trojan inside. Chuckling, she pocketed it and went back indoors to her own tea.
Hannah Foulger is a British Canadian writer in the forms of poetry, prose and drama. Her family immigrated to Cambridge, Ontario in 1991. Here she developed a love for the page, stage and screen. At twenty, she graduated the Broadcast Television program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario and, while working at a summer camp on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, she suffered a stroke. Now a documented survivor, she puts new determination and fervour in writing and her studies in English, Film and Theatre at the University of Winnipeg.