Why you should care

Because — one step at a time.

Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a writer living in Texas.

I had one pair of shoes between the ages of 11 and 13: a pair of white Nike sneakers with a black swoosh and a thick Velcro band of red. They were named after some basketball player I’d never heard of and I’d begged my father to buy them for me. A few years later, I learned that he’d sold some of his guitar equipment so he could.

I never felt poor at any point in my life, but looking back now I realize I was for my entire adolescence. After my father lost his job at a large corporate bank, we lost our house and our car. My Nikes carried me and all of my possessions, as my parents, sister, brother and I walked across the street to a neighbor’s house, where we would live for several years.

I’d been desperate for the shoes, which arrived oversized and pristine in a crisp box. They smelled of new rubber and cost more than a week’s worth of groceries, but came with a guarantee: that I would belong. As happy as I was to strap my father’s gift on my feet, I started to feel bad. As bad as the time my friend Angela stole weeks’ worth of my father’s food money from his wallet. She denied it, but I knew it was her, based on the mounds of cash hidden in her closet, profits she’d pilfered from our school fundraisers. My dad looked grief-stricken when he opened his empty wallet. I ran off in my shoes, afraid to share the truth.

I was trapped by my own needs, just like my friend.

The stream itself held promise, after a rain especially, when it flowed wild, unkempt and oblivious to its ugliness.

My Nikes took me to the library and bookstore, where I’d sit in the stacks and devour series by V.C. Andrews about girls who dug their way out of dangerous situations, stories about the Holocaust and survival and science fiction, where the world is surreal and unexpected.

They took me on solitary bike rides along Greens Bayou, a small tributary of the bigger Buffalo Bayou in Houston. The banks were overgrown with weeds, littered with Coke bottles and trash. The bayou was topped by industrial-sized pipes that loomed overhead, letting heat escape from it in steamy curls. But the stream itself held promise, after a rain especially, when it flowed wild, unkempt and oblivious to its ugliness.

I’d ride my bike on the rocky path along the bayou behind my house, pedaling so fast it felt like I was flying. The wind would whip my long hair. The bayou was potent with the smell of sewage and mud, but that didn’t stop me. I’d crossed the path toward the orange sky beaming behind our neighborhood of low-slung houses. The urge to keep going was palpable; the urge to avoid the situations that I, like my classmates, was headed for: gangs, early pregnancy, dropping out of school. In the evening, I would feverishly read and write, working late into the night on homework, promising myself that I would escape my fate.

At home, my brother would say, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you trying to look like a gang member?”

It was the bayou that saved me, I’d realize later. At the time, I felt just like it: ugly, deformed, sluggish. At 5 feet tall, I weighed only 65 pounds and wore baggy clothes, both as a way to hide my severely skinny body and to try to fit in with the uniform of my peers. But walking in the hallway in middle school was a dangerous event. I’d leave the classroom enshrouded in a big black sweater, and still I’d hear the kids’ taunts: “Look at that skeleton, man. What an ugly girl.”

At home, my brother would say, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you trying to look like a gang member?” He and my sister would make fun of me for my dark lipstick and spiked hair, my mood of indifference. But at school I was the quiet, bookish one, eating her lunch alone while the other girls gossiped about the latest fight between Las Locas and Las Chicas.

They’d talk about their older boyfriends, some of them high school dropouts and members of adult gangs that the girls wanted to join. If I wanted to fit in, I needed a Spanish accent. I was Latina but I “sounded white.” I straddled two worlds, and fit into neither. So I feigned an accent, ashamed that I knew hardly a word of Spanish. It changed nothing — still I was invisible at school.

In the dim light, she whispered how she was forced to have sex with all of the men in her brother’s gang to join.

One fall night, I was invited to a slumber party. A girl I kind of knew told me how she once saw another girl from another gang on the street. She bragged about how she beat the girl on the sidewalk, kicked her between the legs until she bled. Then almost in the same breath, in the dim light, she whispered, tears running down her shadowed face, how she was forced to have sex with all of the men in her brother’s gang to join. We were in the sixth grade.

Now I am 35, a mother of two young children and living in Houston, in relative privilege, economically and socially. I have more than enough shoes and clothes — so many shoes and clothes they burst out of my closet, all over my bedroom.

Still, I will always be a child of barely enough. When I take my kids shopping, I relish the joy they find in all of these crazy, new neon-colored sneakers, flashing lights turning their feet into an oncoming fireworks display. “Do they fit OK?” I’ll ask with a smile I can’t hide. They are so happy about their brand-new shoes. As we walk out into the world, they literally light up every step.

Cover Image by Shutterstock.

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