I'm the little sister, the nice girl, the pal. But those are all just synonyms for what I know myself to be. I'm overweight. I don't bother with make-up. I don't trouble myself with hairstyles that take more than two minutes. I'd rather wear glasses than stick contact lenses in my eyes. And accordingly to most of society, this makes me ugly.
I'm used to it. I'm a big girl (no pun intended), so it's not as though I allow myself to wallow in self-pity. That's a weakness, and living in New York City has taught me that people like me can't afford to show weakness. It's like walking around with a big "Kick Me" sign on my back.
Tonight's different, though. I recently graduated from high school, and decided to work at the same place that I've held a summer job for the past three years. They always wanted me to work longer than the summer, and sticking it out with them for a full year will earn me enough cash to go to a city college without needing to take out any loans. Master plan, right? Wrong. Turns out that this is the one year they didn't even want me working seasonal. They didn't need me. And now I'm jobless.
This predicament's been going on for three months. Everyone I know is either starting up college or beginning their last year in high school. Me? Chronic unemployable. My bank account's dwindling down and I'm too proud to take money from my mother anymore. I can tell by the look in her eyes when she tries to hand me money that she's disappointed. I didn't turn out like Yvette, who got so many scholarships after high school that her college had actually paid her to attend. I didn't turn out like Sean, who joined the Army after graduating and is making a difference in the world. I didn't even turn out like Jennifer, who dropped out of high school and is now a highly-paid model in LA. I'm just a failure. The kid that shouldn't have happened. Every family's got to have one, right?
I've been sitting on the rooftop of the tenement building I live in with my mother, as I've got a tendency to do when I get depressed. I don't know why; there's so much pollution that you can't see the stars and you always hear the police sirens going off to break up some crime or the other. It's even more depressing up there than it is in the small bedroom that I would have thought that I'd have moved out of by now.
When I realize that I'm crying, I stand up, disgusted with myself. Weak. Unneeded. Ugly. No matter how hard I tried to stop thinking that way, I can't keep the thoughts back. Walking closer to the edge, I put one foot on the ledge and look down. It'd be easier, wouldn't it? Funeral expenses would be cheaper than supporting an unemployed daughter for all eternity, wouldn't they? And it'd be quick and relatively painless… wouldn't it?
"You're only five flights up," a voice says behind me. I turn around, not having heard anyone open the creaky door that leads to the roof. I can see a shadowy outline of a person leaning against the door, apparently looking at me. "If you're thinking what I think you're thinking, I should tell you that many people have survived a fall from this distance. You run a very big chance of accomplishing nothing but complicating your life even more than you think it is now."
I don't recognize the voice as any of the neighbors, and I don't smell the alcohol or marijuana that is usually the main reason for other people hanging around up here. I can tell that the person's male by the sound of his voice, but other than that, I can't make anything out and don't know what on Earth he's doing up here… or how he even got up here in the first place.
I decide that it doesn't really matter. At this point, what does? I turn away from him again, looking back down at the alleyway beneath me. I'm about to tell him something about how I don't talk to strangers, but he speaks up again. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Why?" I ask him, hating the fact that my voice was breaking. "Because you know that you can't possibly pick me up to carry me to safety if I decide to jump?" My words only got me more annoyed at myself, so I ball my hands into fists at my sides and close my eyes. "Just get out of here. I didn't ask for an audience."
"I didn't ask for a show," he replies. It doesn't sound like he's gotten any closer, so it's safe to assume that he has no intention of attempting to physically stop me if I decide to do it. "I only asked if you'd like to talk about it."
I try to think of something to tell him. I'm not even creative enough to think up memorable last words. I literally can't be more interesting if my life depended on it. The only thing I can think of is the feeling of freedom of not having anything under my feet, of just freefalling for the rest of my life. It's a nice thought.
Forgetting about the stranger behind me, I step off the ledge.
I make the attempt, at any rate. I open my eyes when I feel a strong pair of arms encircle my waist from behind and pull me back. I try to jump out of his grip, but he pulls me onto the floor, pinning me down underneath his body. I think that he means to do something to me, something awful, and I struggle against him even harder. I don't know what he could have done to me that would have been worse than what I planned to do to myself.
Scared, both of what this guy has in mind and of what I nearly did, I stop fighting under him and start sobbing. I hate it, I hate how I resort to tears any time things go wrong. I hate how I don't have it in me to fight this guy, because he's too fast, too strong, too unpredictable. All of those traits point to the odds that someone as slow, fat, and stupid as me is going to end up regretting any false moves I make around him.
"Not much of a talker, huh?" Even though he had restrained me easily enough, I could feel him breathing hard against my back. Either he's worried… or I'm in trouble. "That's okay. I've got all night. When you're ready, you can say something. Just thought I'd let you know, though, that you're liable to get uncomfortable sooner or later."
I'm surprised by how soothing his voice is. Even more surprising is that he does nothing as I continue to cry underneath him. He doesn't make any move to comfort me or to… do anything else that I had been worried about. He just lets me be. Like he thinks I need to cry. How stupid can he be? Doesn't he know that tears don't accomplish anything? Tears don't pay the bills or make people able to stand the sight of you. Tears are just one more thing that makes me uglier. And we all know how much I don't need that.
It doesn't take me too long to discover that he was right; lying with your cheek pressed down on the cold concrete isn't one of the most comfortable positions in the world. I'm facing right, and the guy has his face at the back of my head, making it impossible for me to see him at all. Though he feels lean, he's pretty heavy and is making breathing a little difficult. I wonder if having his arms pinned down under both mine and his weight would make him break away from me, but he stays still as a board.
"There's nothing to talk about," I finally tell him. I try to move under him again, but I'm still rendered immobile. "Really. Just get off of me. Won't do it again." I swear I can almost feel his eyes on the back of my head.
"I'm willing to get off so I don't cut off your circulation," he says, "but I'm not letting you go. I'm not stupid, you know. Even if I somehow tired you out for the night, there's still tomorrow. I won't be here then, and I don't want to have to worry about what's become of you."
"Worry?" I ask. "What's there to worry about? From the sound of it, I don't know you and you don't know me. I'm just a useless, unproductive member of society, so I don't see what you have to lose sleep over."
"You're a person," he tells me quietly. "You're breathing, you're thinking, you're feeling. I don't see how that makes you useless."
I almost start crying again, though these would have been angry tears. So much for not wallowing in self-pity. I can feel him looking at me again, and know that the minute he gets off of me, I'm running for the ledge as fast as I can, even if I need to drag the would-be hero down with me. That has to be better than this coil of hatred in my guts.
He eases up off of me a little, his hands moving to hold my arms in place at my sides. I try to peer back at him, but he still manages to lean just far enough away to remain out of sight. I attempt to move my arms, but that only causes him to press down on them harder. This makes me feel even more vulnerable, which—unfortunately—makes me cry even more. It's a vicious cycle.
"Who would say that to you?" The question sounds thoroughly confused. "Who on Earth would say something like that to… did anyone say that to you? Or are you just using your own perceptions of beauty as a way to gauge your appearance? Because I don't think you're ugly."
His words make me press my lips together. Fantastic. A bleeding heart who's going to tell me to look for the beauty within. Why do people always tell ugly people to look for the "beauty within?" It's just like when they tell fat girls that they have a "pretty face."
My sarcastic thoughts slowly start fading away as he continues to speak. "I mean, what is ugly, anyway? It sounds more like something that you would use to describe what's inside the person, like it's akin to 'evil.' I can understand saying that someone has an ugly personality or an ugly temper… but an ugly face? It sounds so sophomoric. There might be such a thing as being unattractive, but isn't that all just a matter of perspective?"
"Is this leading up to something," I ask him, "or do you really like hearing the sound of your own voice? Because if these questions are all rhetorical, let me know so I can block you out now."
He doesn't answer for a moment, but then mumbles something under his breath about how I remind him of someone. "The point is," he finally tells me, "just because you don't like the way you look doesn't mean that you should go skydiving without a parachute. I know what it's like to be unsatisfied with what you see in front of the mirror, but I don't-"
"I'm not that shallow," I interrupt fiercely. "This has next to nothing to do with my looks, okay? Not that it concerns you, but I'm poor, trapped, alone, and a big fat disappointment to everyone who ever placed any faith in me. So stop giving me some lecture about how you know how I feel, okay? Just get off of me and let me do whatever I feel I need to do."
"I can't do that," he says quietly. "If I do… then I'll be a disappointment; a disappointment to my family, my friends… to myself. A disappointment to everyone who has ever valued human life. I can't just step away. Especially since you don't want me to go."
Confused, I ask, "What part of 'get off of me' did you not get, buddy? What would make you think that I don't want you to go?"
"Because if I go," he states, "you'll be alone. And loneliness is one of the things that made you want to jump. I'm here. I'll listen. And more importantly, I won't leave you alone."
Tired of the tears and from my exertions to try and get away, I say nothing for a moment. Then I ask him, "Who are you, anyway?" Probably sensing that I'm growing weary, he lightens up on his grip on my arms.
"My name is Leonardo," he answers.
He says nothing else for a long time. Is it my turn to say something? Am I supposed to introduce myself? Should I invite him downstairs for some chips and soda, while I'm at it? My ineptitude at social situations threatens to make me want to go kamikaze again. "I'm Kristine," I finally offer.
I feel his weight slide off of me, though he's still got my arms pinned down. He's apparently sitting off to the side, still not entirely trusting that I won't attempt to make a dash for it. "Hi, Kristine. Since it's clear that you don't want to talk, I'll ask some questions to get us started, okay? Just don't try to deck me if I ask the wrong thing. Remember, I'm only trying to help you." He pauses, but I say nothing. Finally deciding to continue, he asks, "Have you ever tried anything like that before?"
"Yes," I answer before I could stop myself.
I try to pull away from him again, but he keeps me in place. Although I don't want to talk about it, I wonder if it wouldn't actually help. Though I can't imagine how talking about painful memories can make one want to stick it out in this world, I reply, "My brother stopped me." Leonardo remains silent for a moment before asking me to elaborate.
Feeling another tear stream down my cheek, I whisper, "My dad was driving me and my little brother home from school, and we got into a car crash. They didn't make it. When I came to in the hospital room and my older brother told me that, I started ripping tubes and stuff out of my arms and made for the window, trying to climb out. I don't know what I was thinking, and Sean practically had to choke me in a headlock to get me to stop." I stopped for a moment before throwing in, "I don't even remember a one-on-one conversation the two of us have ever had since then. It was like he was mad at me for being the one to survive instead of Dad or Louis."
"I doubt that," Leonardo says quietly. "You scared him. He lost two family members in one day because of an accident; he wasn't about to lose another one on purpose."
"Right," I mutter sarcastically. "I'm sure you would put your little sister in a headlock to keep her from jumping out of a window and then not look her in the eye for weeks afterward."
"I do worse to my brothers," he says with a touch of humor in his voice. "And I do it on a nearly-daily basis. But trust me, I do it out of love. Sometimes you have to hurt people to make sure that they won't do worse to themselves. Speaking of, you're not bruised, are you?"
"You mean you're willing to let me go if I am?"
"Well, I can always put you in a headlock if I really want to stop you again."
Despite the lightheartedness in his voice, I have no doubt that he could do worse to me than Sean had ever done. I pause before I admit, "My arms are getting a little numb." I'm surprised when he actually lets go of them. I'm about to try to get up, but he puts a hand on my back, pressing me back down.
"Just relax," he tells me in his gentle whisper. "I know it's hard, but I'd rather you not attach a face to my voice yet. It's a strange request, but just humor me for a little while. You'll understand why when this is over." I do think it's strange, but I can't help but calm down when I feel his hand squeezing my shoulder. "Why tonight? What made tonight different?"
"The bills came in," I say simply. "The phone bill, my internet bill, my credit card bill. And I don't have a job. I'm eighteen years old, so these things are really my responsibility now, but no one will hire me because I don't have a degree or any experience. A little hard to get experience if no one's willing to give me any. Let me guess; you know what money problems are like too, huh?"
I could almost hear the smile in his voice when he responds, "Actually, no. I've got a pretty smart brother who's built a generator for our home, so we don't need to pay for electricity. And our place is pretty… self-sufficient, I guess you can say. Other than food, we don't really need money for anything else. Though I do sympathize; I've a friend that's almost been evicted from his apartment numerous times because of his lack of a steady job. He's always managed to find something to tide him over, though. And trust me, if someone can hire someone as… 'unique' as my buddy Casey, then I'm sure you'll find something before long."
"Comforting words," I murmur, not the least bit comforted. "It doesn't do much when the past due date is fast approaching and the serotonin levels in your brain are reminding you of how much of a failure you are. Even McDonald's won't hire me. Jeez, you'd think that I was too intellectually defunct to dunk sliced potatoes in grease before sticking them into small, medium, and large boxes."
"Intellectually defunct, huh?" Leonardo breathes. "Serotonin levels, too? Something's telling me that your unemployment problem doesn't have anything to do with you not being smart enough to hold a job."
"Of course it doesn't," I mumble, trying to press my face even closer to the concrete, as though trying to sink away. "It's the way I present myself. I know that. No one hires a person that their costumers wouldn't want to look at."
"Are you starting that again?" Leonardo asks distastefully. "Kristine, listen to me. There's nothing wrong with the way you look. Take it from me; the simple fact that you can walk down the street without people screaming is a blessing."
"I'm fat," I tell him blandly.
"You're larger than other girls I know, yes," he confesses. "Is body size really that much of a factor in attractiveness around here? I honestly had no idea."
"Where do you live," I ask, "in a hole?"
"Something like that," he puzzles me by saying. "The fact of the matter is, I personally don't see what that has to do with how presentable a person is. I've never considered attractiveness to rely on exteriors. A person is beautiful because of their spirit, because of the way they choose to live. Beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder; it's all in the beholder's heart. And the person who's going to be beholding you the most, Kristine, is yourself. If you're not at peace with the way you look, that's going to show. Your self-loathing will be obvious by your body language, and people—whether they're employers or potential friends—are at the very least subconsciously trained to decipher body language."
"Great," I laugh bitterly. "You need to love yourself before other people can love you. You don't like the way you look? Then change. You need to carry yourself with pride. Wow, where do you get these original pearls of wisdom from? Fortune cookies?"
"Now you're really reminding me of someone I know," Leonardo mutters. "All you need is the tough guy accent. Look… life's hard. That's one thing I do know. It can be downright cruel sometimes. You'll lose people that mean a lot to you, and you'll have certain people that you can't stand remain as a constant thorn in your side. But there has to be something you enjoy enough to make you want to go on living. You couldn't have lived for eighteen years without ever experiencing happiness or contentment."
I thought about it for a moment, hearing the tired desperation in his voice. I'm surprised to realize that I'm afraid that he'd give up on me, that he'd decide I'm just a wasted effort and stop talking to me. It was good to talk this out, apparently. I guess, ever since Jenn moved out and Mom found out I wasn't going to college right away, I haven't really been… talking.
"I was happy with my family," I finally said quietly. "Dad and Lou—I miss them the most. But I know that I can't get them back. It's just… I'm one of originally five kids… and I feel so alone. Yvette and Sean are gone, and Jenn never writes anymore. And every time I look at my mother… I know I've let her down. And that's what hurts the most."
Leonardo had begun to softly rub my back as I spoke. He stopped now, brushing some of my disheveled hair out of my face. "My father used to tell me," he murmurs, "there is nothing a child can do that will truly let a parent down. Watching it live, watching it laugh and grow—that's enough reward for a parent… because all parents fear that they won't be good enough at raising a child to actually watch their young ones mature. Kristine… the only way you can ever let your mother down is if you give up. If you willingly take away from her what Fate took away the day Lou died. As long as you're alive, you still have the potential to make her the proudest woman in the world. I believe that. I truly do."
I start crying again, and for once I don't immediately begin hating myself for it. Had I really just tried to take something away from my mother that she could never replace? Did I really believe that doing that would help her or my siblings? Or was I only thinking about myself? More, "o woe is me?" Is it really possible that I care so much about my own insignificant problems that I just tried to…?
Leonardo was pulling me up, and I was in no position to stop him. I thought he was trying to help me to my feet, but I soon found that he was getting me to sit back against something. When he put his arms around me, I realize that I'm now lying against this stranger's chest. I'm too drained to be suspicious about his motives, though. Besides, something about his tone of voice tells me that I wouldn't have to worry. I can't worry. Not with him.
"Do you see that?" Leonardo asks, whispering against my ear. "You love her. You love your mother so much that you want to make her proud. You can't give up, Kristine. Your family needs you. The world needs you. We need more people with that kind of love in their hearts. We need more beautiful people in this world. Don't take that away from us."
I'm exhausted. I have no idea what time it is, and I feel like I'm absolutely drained. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that I slowly nod against him. "I won't," I tell him in a wavering voice. "I promise."
This seems to be good enough for him. He moves his hands to grip my shoulders before telling me, "Then keep your promises. I'd like to see you again." He suddenly moves away from me, and I can't feel him behind me anymore. I turn around and discover that I'm alone.
I shakily get to my feet, looking around. There's no way he could have disappeared so fast, unless he decided to jump the ledge himself. "L… Leonardo?" I keep looking around. Though I can't see him, I can still feel his eyes on me. Maybe he's some kind of guardian angel?
Slowly plodding back towards the door, I hope that things will make a little more sense in the morning.
The following night, I'm back at the same place.
Only physically, though. Mentally, I'm a bit better. A lot better, actually. Better enough for me to sit on the ledge with my legs dangling down, not even feeling tempted to shove myself off. Besides, I'm only five flights up. I don't really have the money to go to the hospital for two broken legs and a concussion.
"I don't have to put you in a headlock, do I?"
The voice startles me, but I feel two familiar hands rest firmly on my shoulders, both to keep me steady and to keep me from willingly jumping. "No," I answer with a small smile. "I just had the feeling I'd see you up here. I thought you told me you wouldn't be here tonight."
"I lied," came the simple response. "Actually, I just worry. A lot." I felt him kneel behind me. Though he isn't restraining me this time, I don't feel the urge to turn to look at him. "Do you feel like talking tonight," he asks, "or are we going to have to scuffle again?"
I laugh quietly as I look over the crumbling buildings all around us. "I want to thank you," I tell him. "You prevented what could have been the most horrible irony of my entire life." He asks what I mean, and I answer, "I got a call this morning from a temp agency. They finally got me something. Barely over minimum wage, but it's money, with a chance at a permanent position. I don't start until next week, but my mother's offered to lend me the money for my bills until I have enough saved up to repay her. She told me she was happy for me."
"I am, too," Leonardo says. "That does sound like it would have been a rather horrific irony." He stays quiet for a second before reluctantly asking, "What about the other problem you had? About your perception of yourself?"
"Still there," I reply. "Not gonna change any time soon."
He says nothing for a long time, and I begin to wonder if I didn't disappoint him somehow. "How's your eyesight without your glasses?" Leonardo finally asks. I think that he's trying to make some kind of metaphor, but he adds in, "Tell me the truth, too."
I tell him that it's pretty awful, a result of sitting too close to the television while playing video games as a kid. Leonardo grabs one of my arms and surprises me by reaching over and snatching my glasses off of my face. "Hey!" I turn around and try to take them back, but he steps away after pulling me off the ledge. Scrambling to my feet, I squint at him and tell him to give them back.
He asks me what I see. I can't tell how far away he is from me, but it looks like he's a dark-skinned guy… or wearing a lot of dark clothes… and he's a lot shorter than I would have thought. "Blurs," I tell him. "Just blurs of color. Green, brown… maybe a little blue? Now give me those glasses back; I really don't like being blind."
"No," he says as though not hearing me ask for the glasses. "I don't mean with your eyes. What do you see?" I blink at him, not sure what he means. Finally deciding that he's being metaphorical, I look him over again—as well as I can, given the fact that everything is just a mishmash of shadows and colors.
"I see a guy," I tell him. "A guy who saved my life. A guy who's probably saved other people's lives, too, and who isn't going to stop saving lives for a long time. I see a guy who cares a lot about family and who cares a lot about people. I see a guy that wants to see the best in people, even when they're at their worst."
Both of us remain silent for a long time. As far as I can tell, Leonardo just continues to look at me steadily. Finally, he asks in a low voice, "Do you think I'm ugly?"
"No!" I respond immediately.
"How can you tell," he asks, "if you have no idea what I look like?"
I stare at him blankly, realizing that he had just proven his point from the night before. Granted, I'm a little more clear-headed now, so I don't feel the need to scoff or argue. I maintain my ground as he walks over to me, telling me, "Ugliness is in here." He points a finger towards my heart, and I can see that there's something wrong with his hand. Is he disfigured? Is that why he didn't want me to see him?
"The good thing is," he continues, "that's also where beauty is. It's all right to feel like one sometimes, so long as you always keep in mind that you're really the other." He holds out his other hand, and I realize that he's offering me my glasses. "People have the tendency to judge what is within by what is without. Now that you feel one way about me, are those feelings going to change when they see my exterior?"
I take hold of my glasses and look back up at him. He doesn't move, waiting for me to enable myself to see him. I make no movement to do so as I reply, "No. Because changing my opinion based on what my eyes tell me is only going to go against what my heart tells me. And that will make me truly ugly."
I can't see his reaction, but he seems to be pleased. "You're a fast learner. You'll do well in life." I'm about to ask if he's a teacher, but he shocks me by jumping over me. Turning, I see him running for the edge of the rooftop.
"Leonardo!" I yell as I fumble with my glasses and run towards him. I don't manage to get them on until he jumps. I stop at the ledge, aghast. What did he just do? Did he really-?
I look down and see a dark green figure land in the alleyway below. He's got something big on his back, like some kind of pack or something, but he doesn't look hurt. He picks up the manhole cover of the sewer down there and stops. He slowly looks up at me. Leonardo? He gives me a smile before jumping down into the sewer, closing the lid over it as he disappears.
Did I really just see that? It looked like a giant… turtle. A giant turtle wearing bandannas and other accessories. A giant turtle who could talk and jump and… and smile. A giant turtle that can love, I realize. A giant turtle that can see past the outside… because he knows that society won't treat him as anything other than an ugly monster... which he's not. Society. Heh. Who needs them?
As I turn away, I realize that I had been telling the truth. My opinion of Leonardo hadn't changed after that quick glance of him. So I do listen to my heart. And my heart tells me that Leonardo was one of the most beautiful creatures I'll ever meet. And you know something?
It's telling me that I'm not too bad myself, either.