debbie millman

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Blood and Concrete, 1985

by Edwin Rivera



One meaty thud in the eye and I'm down like a satchel of bricks. Bawling, crawling longwise on my belly, struggling to get away from my tormentor.

Brian O'Terry. He of the buckteeth and braying laughter, lanky dirtyblonde hair, muckcaked skin. Smelling of antifreeze and spoiled milk. Barefooted, hopping from one foot to the next as if the concrete was steaming. It looks like he's dancing a jig. Would be funny if he didn't have his fists balled up, pummelling me. Every inch I move he rewards me with a sharp blow, and I'm slogging like a drowning segmented worm desperate for deep earth.

Snapkick and I'm on my back, winded. I'm walking in the deep blue above me. Trying to figure out sun from sky in my dizzy head but none of it makes sense. Flat and swirly like abstract art.

Get up you goya bean, you motherfucka, he says, bony fists knocking against the knob of my spine, my hips, my head. Fiery pain screams along the bone, a whitehot detonation that wants to dance my eyes right out of their sockets.

Mouthful of blood, grit lodged in my jaws, pebbledust in my nostrils.

Leave me 'lone, I manage to croak.

The neighborhood punks are enjoying the spectacle of my beating on this fine June morning. Jump out from one kind of education to another-- the real school is in the streets. They're hopping around like they're on trampolines, waving sticks and warcrying, kicking away crack vials, forty-ounce bottles, glassine bags, egging on their favorites. Nobody expects me to win. They expect me to die.

Jennifer and Sandra Martinez, the twins from apartment six-D in my maroonbrick building, sit disconsolately to one side of the concrete, picking at the ants and leafdust in between the cracks. Cars and trucks chug past without stopping. The people weaving past see right through us, anxiously searching for the corner boys.

Jennifer is mildly retarded, harelipped, jittery. She always wears two dresses, one on top of another, and they're always patterned with the kind of garish and hideous flowers that look as if they'd eat flesh. She's oblivious to my beating, picking at the filthy pockets of skin at her neck and studying the dirty speckles with drooling fascination.

Sandra watches me with intense interest, crouched beside her sister, her forced-upon charge, grit and dust sifting through her fingers like time. She never said a word to me before, though we'd been in the same classes, crossed paths in the bodega, whacked each other with rubber balls during gym, avoided the same evils and heard the same language, squinted at the same hazy sun. But just because she is real to me, I could never be sure how real I am to her.

I'm not sure why Brian is beating me up this time. I know that he thinks I'm a geeky spick, that he's a born sadist, the one white boy on the block who manages to become a walking terror. But I think it's more than that. He feels that my nose is always up in the air, because I'm not as dirty as he is, because I don't live in a room with tumble-down walls, because my father works and my mother is not a junkie, because my sister doesn't quarter around the living room wearing nothing but skimpy panties, panties that slide down for any boy willing to put up a few dollars, and you could see the shadow of her head bobbing in an alley, any hour of the day-- sometimes, she'd give it away for free.

If only Brian knew that both of our fathers were drunks of the same temperament, then maybe we could be brothers. But he can never know, because these are the things that I keep to myself.

What went on behind closed doors was too strange for him to fathom: the rapidfire voices, the strange smells emanating from the windows and sleeping ghostlike on kidclothes, the jungle-hot music, the dark complexions browned by an unfamiliar sun, in a distant hemisphere, in a land he would never know. And yet me of all people he pegged as the instant outsider. As if I didn't have enough problems.

Kissing the concrete, hands over my head, I wonder where my mother is. Probably lost in her telenovelas, or singing loudly to the cuban music that bursts out of the kitchen radio as she prepares one of her crackling meals. She doesn't go out much these days. If she needed anything from the bodega, she'd send me, even though I'd sometimes come home crying. I'd put down the brown bag of cilantro or platanos on the kitchen counter, a smudge of dirt on my cheek or the beginnings of a bruise forming at my brow, and mami would thank me and kiss me on the cheek and return to her cooking, salsa-stepping behind the pots and pans. My mother is still beautiful, but she looks lost more and more.

I feel a thud against my leg but it doesn't hurt as much. His blows are getting lighter. Like he's holding back.

Suddenly there is a quick patter. I can hear hoarse breathing, can see a blur of lacywhite socks and pink sneakers. Above the socks are upthrust towers of pale flesh, a light and golden down of hair. When I look up and see the angerflushed face of my older sister, Tatia, I can swear from my vantage point that this is no mere thirteen-year old girl of flesh and bone but a revenging apparition descended from gold dust and sunfire.

She hurls to the sidewalk and shoves Brian away. He skids backward with a flurry of arms, right onto his bony ass. He scrapes his elbow on the hollow barkskin of an elm tree. He sits there, nursing his raw elbow, glaring at my sister.

The crowd hushes, awed. A girl has felled the badass bully. Defiance of the natural laws, world turned upside down.

Sandra is standing now, arms akimbo, face serene and unreadable.

Jennifer picks her nose and inspects her findings.

Leave my brother alone, you ugly fuck, Tatia says, all whiplightning defiance.

Tatia. My protector, my sometime enemy.

I might as well confess now, since I feel heavy guilt weighing my soul ballastlike, that the month before we'd gotten into a brutal battle over television rights while my mother was vacuuming the living room carpet and General Hospital was on in the Zenith, and I wanted to watch He-Man and Tatia didn't and I called her a bitch and she called me a fuck and I went into my mother's bedroom and picked up a hefty length of the suction pipe my mother was using but had set aside and in a clean but nasty arc I whapped Tatia just above the left eye, right where the bone meets the slash of her eyebrow, and I'd never seen so much blood gush out, just like in the Jason movies, and I didn't know that a face could swell up so quickly, and I screamed louder than she did, thinking I'd killed her, and ran out still screaming, out of the apartment, down the stairs, screaming all the way down the street, and I hid out in the dead-dog park, throwing rocks at the dead pond, looking away from the sweaty and smelly people that passed ocasionally and ocasionally begged for money, walking back through our door with hung-head when the stars dipped across the sky, seeing more stars in my head when the buckle of my father's belt snapped against my ear.

But the wound has healed, as they often do, and Tatia had forgiven me weeks before, and here she is now, bending to retrieve me, twining her arms beneath my armpits and drag-walking me to an upright position.

Show's over, folks. Nothing to see here. My sister and I head towards our building, ascending the short flight of steps, and as I look behind me dazedly, searching for Sandra, there is a violent rushing of arms, a tangling of legs, and fingers describe insane pictures in the air. Tatia keels backward and bangs her head on the stone ledge of the stairway.

Now she's the one crying, only this time no one is cheering and laughing and Brian is statue-quiet.

Blood trickles down the stone steps, drips from the ledge, stains the concrete. So much blood, once again pouring out of my sister.

The kids are silent. Feet tap the ground, hips swivel, mouths are agape. They look as if they want to call out for help, run, only they can't reach the apex of courage necessary for action, because they're all kids and they've all been beaten down before and no one has ever rushed to their rescue, so they're rooted where they stand, doomed to watch the nervous flow of blood, to absorb the negative energy of a good time turned bad, and there is something in their eyes that tells me that they know that this scene will play out in their lives again and again, bystanders who watch things happen and can't do a thing in the world about it, even when it's happening to themselves.

Favoring his elbow, Brian struts to my sister's prone and crying figure, hawks up a great gob of snot, and launches it right in her face.

Spick cunt, he says.

Then he walks away, into the chipped-gray rowhouse next door. Proud, victorious. Only there's something off in his walk, the cockiness betrayed by the trembling of his hands.

The kids spread out in an expanding radius until they are in the street, on the sidewalk across the way, down and up the block, and thus, evenly fanned, they watch the scene with a dispassion bordering on hatred.

I'm the one bending over Tatia now, and I feel as if my heart is going to shatter into a billion pieces. I try my best not to cry, but there is so much blood, just pouring out of my sister. Nosy neighbors at every window now, on every porch, the do-nothings, the layabouts and sorry-for-themselves, the noncaring, the inconsequential. They point, observe, gossip. And they don't do a fucking thing.

Fingers brush through my hair. I look up, feeling the tears streak my cheeks, shocked to find Sandra standing before me.
Her eyes are accusatory, but there is a hint of sadness to the set of her features, a general softening of the bones, as if her skin was all frown.

You lost, she says, quietly, again running her fingers through my hair, a loving gesture, the gesture of one who is in love. That was how my mother used to touch me, before she became lost.

Sister in hand, she walks up the stairs, into our building, and I know that she is gone. No more real than if I'd slapped her into the air with watercolors.

And as for myself? I'd paint myself away, if I were any kind of artist.

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Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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