This is a short story I began writing my senior year of high school. It is written in the form of a letter intended for a man who single handedly changed my life. I met this man in 2008 when I was a young girl living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. While we never actually talked to one another, his presence has remained with me all these years. I wrote this letter as a dedication to him and his life, and to let him know, wherever he may be, that his struggles were not without meaning. ‘I AM’ is the only name I thought appropriate to title him under, since his real one is unknown to me.
Dear I AM,
I feel endlessly tied to the message you handed me. A battle of both shame and gratitude claimed me entirely as your image replayed. Days have turned into years, but the grasp of emotion has no stopwatch. You click on, still requesting me…I hope as you read this letter you can hear the respect I have prayed to convey to you. I wish nothing more than to give you the integrity I believe you so wrongfully lost by this world on your last day— you deserved so much more than what you received, both from me and from the people who dismissed you.
For as long as I can remember, Sunday mornings have been my favorite. Regardless of my family’s relocation, we always attended Sunday mass— and with it came this habitual feeling of peace and restoration. After service, we would drive to a fresh produce market located at the edge of a favela in São Paulo. It should be said, though, that this particular Sunday morning, of which I am about to convey, was nothing in accordance of perpetual custom.
It was 2008. My eyes were fixed on the concrete floor beneath my out-toeing feet. With each step, I liberated my nose to the exhaustion of the exotic fruits at hand— they seeped an aroma of a sweet surrender as their prime conceded— remaining nonetheless immaculate looking.
I felt this urge to look up and and engage with the environment surrounding me— the smell of the fruit in their venders drew me in, and I wanted nothing more than to coin each respective reflection with its scent. Yet, I knew better— a blonde-haired foreign girl— her place, my place, belonged to the floor.
Yet, with such notion in mind, I decided to go ahead anyway and disregard the forewarned repercussions that could come from being inattentive. My parental-enforced intuition of self preservation was simply put on hold, as I liberated my eyes outward. Lifting my head, I peered straight up to where the sun met the thick fiber glass encasing the inside of the produce market. One could practically see the moisture dew to the dust particles circulating the venue. Streams of sweat dripped down the windows in front of me. I notice that people passing by were using the end of their shirts to pat their upper lips dry— some even carried around small, torn-up rags to wipe the wetness accumulating over their brow line. Grave humidity— that’s one way to put it— yet I feel as if words cannot properly explain the denseness in the air. It clenched to the skin with a complete omission of remorse— I’ll leave it at that.
“What a typical Brazilian summer,” I thought to myself. Attempting to distract my discomfort with the heat, I focused in on the bold colors and sweet smells surrounding me. My eyes skipped in a playful prance toward the fruit. I devoured each color, enticed by their bold appearance. I circled my gaze up and down taking in each fruit lying upon their wooden venders, separated by their individual rows. Smooth skins on one side disjoined the prickly outer coats to the right. A vender to the left of me was selling mangos, which, without question should be everyone’s most beloved fruit, perhaps even food. It is, in my opinion, next to chocolate, that mangos are God’s most kind gift to us. Unfortunately for me, one could easily lure me away with the proposition of a mango; subsequently so, there I was, following this trail of an undeniable sugary aroma, leading me straight toward the promise of yellow, yet semi-red at the edges, yummy goodness. There had to have been over a hundred mangos lying there— so I did what anyone would do, and dragged the tips of my fingers over every one. I jumped at the sound of the lady behind the stand clearing her throat; my eyes darted up, meeting her disapproving glare. A shiver down the middle part of my back followed, not necessarily because she frightened me, but because the reality of my own laxity to pay attention became quite clear to me.
I stopped moving “Where are my parents?” I questioned. My eyes began darting around desperately searching for the familiar face of my mother. My heart began thumping quick and hard. I placed my hand over my stomach; it was churning slowly, and I was starting to feel slight waves of nausea take forefront over my body. Foreign faces passed by with lethargic gestures; my mother’s words “Stay close, Erika” echoed over and over again in my head, each time resounding louder than the last.
My body took over, alleviating my mind of any trace of apprehension. I could feel my feet pick up and hit the floor with grave intention. “I need to get outside,” I thought to myself, “My family is out there.” My legs made a quick shift right, meeting the corner of the produce market. Curtains of plastic beads served as channel-ways in and out of the venue. I pushed myself against the sea of people funneling themselves through the opening. Within a few seconds, I began to feel the sunlight welcome me outside; the rays blinded my view, so I squinted my eyelids together trying to piece out the shadows of people’s faces. Making use of the heels of my feet, I began spinning around, searching for my Dad and Mom in every possible direction. Before I could reposition my feet to keep twirling, my body halted in motion— I stood completely still rooted into the dirt flooring of the alleyway. The sight of the outside food vendors, and people passing by began to diminish into the blackening of my surroundings.
I think of it now as some sort of twilight, somewhere between destiny and free will, I felt this overwhelming feeling of heartbreak. In this moment I became no one. My dear, I AM, this is where I had finally met you.
Bareness was not far from many people’s daily expressions here. Extreme need walked through every alley, slum, and street in Brazil. Poverty had sucked the life out of many stick-like bodies and there was little abundance for many. I had foolishly assumed from my previous two years here that I had seen almost all that I could. However, reality had rose to the occasion, once again, and in that fragile moment, I could have never been prepared for the exiguity blighting my glare.
While I was turning, a man had interrupted the left corner of my eye. My gaze moved to him, as if they had to meet ten other eyes before they met his. A moment in time, I looked to you, I AM, as you slugged sitting inward on the side of this alleyway— for anything— a sign, an emotion, anything— yet, you gave me nothing; you truly were worthless, so I became worthless too, with you.
Your body seemed recently scalded; your skin was as fresh as the prime cut papaya’s basking in their fruits juice, each one slashed from a knife with intention to eschew the fruits natural form— so vulnerable they laid on the produce stands. In a liquefied end, skin dripped off each and every limb of yours— a puddle of human defilement stilled around you. Every burned wound pulsed with a white dishonor. I watched as you inched each vertebrae in your back up to a stiff upstanding demeanor. Each click was followed by an unyielding sob almost too dull to apprehend.
I stood there feeling a warm pool of tears dwell in my eyes. “How could anyone live like this, God?” I was so angry. “Why does anyone live like this?” I screamed. I was disgusted at myself for the life I lived, and for the self-pity I had ever allotted myself. “How could I ever complain?” I thought, for I could not hear you accomplish one discontent. Who was I to ever feel sorry for myself? You had the reason to feel affliction, yet you sat there in silence. Your face spoke for all the words you would not say. Agony grabbed each corner of your face; each laceration produced a torturous pain only your eyes could explain. It was as if silence was your last way of maintaining some sort of dignity. You knew, regardless of your pain, and of the screams you could have admitted, people were going to overlook you— and you were right.
All I did was stand there, and as every single person bypassed you, I realized no one cared. Not one person even gave you the chance of survival; there was no emergency call or desperation to help. In fact, you were only a quick glance before carrying on with conversation. There was no silence or peace for you to hold onto— the lack of compassion was deafening— and I soon realized that I was just as guilty as the people who dismissed you. I could not save you— in fact, I could give you nothing but my eyes that were fixed on yours.
The only thing I could offer you was a promise— my promise that your soul would not die in vain. So, in that moment, I made a commitment to you— that it would be me and you forever. I don’t know what your purpose was here on this earth, but I do know one of them was to guide my morality throughout this lifetime. I never wanted to leave you— so I didn’t. You’re in every smile of mine, good deed, adventure, conversation and life decision. Every positive accomplishment is completed with my hand but your heart— you made me soft and understanding, loving and compassionate. I owe you the world for your suffering; with your anguish, you taught me the message of compassion. My life is your life now and everyday you live through me and with me— this was my promise to you.
I felt a hand grab my shoulder; I looked up to see my mother’s face. I could tell she felt the severity of the moment— that this man in front of us would be etched on our consciousness for the rest of our lives. Tears streamed down my cheeks as she pulled me into her chest. Her comfort was so needed, yet felt wrong. Even the smallest acts of consideration are ones some people never receive. I hated myself in that moment for all the undeserving comforts allotted to me. This feeling of unworthiness is still a struggle for me, but I don’t think I am ever really meant to find peace with it. You see, I AM, you are a constant reminder to everyone that all the privileges we have are borrowed and temporary. What really matters is how much of yourself you give to help others.
I look back now and I realize why I was so connected to you. Why you were perfectly placed in my life. As I find myself getting lost in my imagination and gazing— I see you everywhere— in the sky, in my family surrounding me, in the fruit at my house. My Dear, I AM, I now know who you are— you are everything.