In the beginning, there was nothing.
In this place, I had a new face. My ears were funny, my eyes were too dim and my hands, oh my hands were too slow. Too many calluses, too rough, too dirty. I shuffled where I had to walk, walked where I needed to run, stopped and looked instead of jumping right in. It is the way of cities, to leave you out if you don't fit in. But cities, they also take you in. They give you shelter and they give you a name. It is full of people who were once lost, and it is full of people who have found their place. All these people, the hairy ones and the bald ones and the ones with hair in their ears and the ones with hair on their toes, all of them, they're still looking.
So on roads, by carts of tea with cigarettes I could barely afford, I made fleeting friends. Friends whose names didn't matter and faces hadn't camouflaged into crowds. A conversation, two, about things that weren't us anymore. Things we held on to, only to give us something to hold on to while everything was nothing. Where we were from, what languages we spoke, the sound of our dialect, the price of onions, the smell of firewood in our kitchens at home. The things we missed here, but things we could never go back to. Merely fillers. Because there was nothing else.
Because there was nothing.
I remember little from this time. A man pouring tea into a glass under an orange streetlight. A scar under his left eye. The warmth of conversations. Him telling us about his wife and children. Two daughters he had to pay dowry for. His cows. His land. Him not telling us about the other things. A son who was killed for the father's gambling debts. There was no going back, he said. Not anymore. But why would he want to, he asked. The city doesn't judge. Another man I shared a blanket with. He didn't talk at all. Not about his ink-stained fingers, not about his ink-stained face. Not about wandering the trains in the day pretending they're carousels, not about our waking dreams. Not about our numb, blue toes on that cold, cold night. Not about anything at all. But why would we want to? The city doesn't interfere.
It was a life that wasn't a life. It was time I spent in exile. Time I spent gathering myself (bits of me that I recognized); time I spent leaving behind things I couldn't hold on to anymore (things I still held on to in my mind); time I spent moulding my face into one that could blend into malls and metro stations, buses and parks, alleys and under-roads, slums and pavements.
I did many things to merely survive. I went with a gang of children who did many different kinds of things to get high; all of which were easily available, none of which were ineffective. I knew all the places to get free lunch on every day of the week, and how much to bribe every guy who controlled the entry. I knew where to find the good enough garbage to sell, but wasn't already collected by someone specific. I knew where I could sleep without being woken, I knew which policemen to avoid and which places paid an honest day's wage to anyone who worked. I knew how much hunger I could deal with, and how much hunger would make me have delusions and my head spin out of control. But none of these things were things I wanted to know or things I cared about.
It was just the beginning, and it was nothing at all.