It was an early burn, and Louisa waited out the first cramps with a piranha grin. She caught her reflection faintly in her bedroom window: a young girl gargoyle hunched over the end of a tiny bed. A rattle of beads, and her sister’s head appeared in the doorway.
“You still got that stomach?”
“¡Ayúdame! Like fucking fire.”
Her sister smirked. “That’s what happens when you eat shit.”
“Not like you were helping,” said Louisa, flopping back on her bed.
Her sister came in and sat down beside her. She said, “You’re old enough to look out for yourself, puta. I’ve got a life to lead.” Despite her usual insults, she began stroking Louisa’s forehead.
Louisa counted up the cracks in the ceiling. There seemed more every week. Fat Osvaldo upstairs saw to that, stomping around his flat like he was in a marching band. “We gotta buy some proper food,” said Louisa.
“Nothing’s stopping you. You coulda eaten something proper last night instead stuffing your face with 3rd Avenue calzones.”
At the thought, Louisa’s stomach wrenched. “Where else am I supposed to go?” she said. “How’m I supposed to eat something proper when there’s no proper food anywhere?”
“Ay, Bendito. How am I supposed to know?” Her sister sighed, ran her hands through her hair, bangles clacking like an old train over tracks.
Louisa gave in, knowing the conversation could go on forever. Neither of them really knew how they managed to survive. Not really. “Sorry, hermana,” she said. “I’ll try harder.”
“I know you will, Lou.” Patting her leg. “Why don’t you get some sun? Have a walk. Work off those upset guts.”
Louisa took the bus down to 1st Avenue and got off just outside the big soccer field at Thomas Jefferson Park. Usually at mid-morning on a weekday it was wonderfully empty. She liked to walk down the side of the field, marvel at the fake grass all mapped out between the white lines.
This morning, though, a team was out there on the grass. All girls, all wearing orange and white striped jerseys that shone in the sun. As Louia approached she could see the words Spanish Harlem YWCA emblazoned on their backs. She had never heard of the Spanish Harlem YWCA. Sounded like a street gang. Except street gangs didn’t wear orange jerseys and knee-socks.
She watched them run for a while. They dribbled balls around little plastic markers on the pitch, jogging in crisp zigzag patterns, each girl just missing the other. They were mostly Latinos, she noticed, but some whites, Italians probably. And the looks on all their faces—man, such grim determination, like they were going to die if the ball rolled away from their feet. Louisa rubbed her stomach, which grumbled restlessly. She was hungry, somehow, which was really fucked up.
She hadn’t noticed the lady with the ponytail until she was right up next to her. She wore an orange shirt—the same orange as the jerseys, except hers was a polo, with Spanish Harlem YWCA stitched on in white above her breasts, which drooped like dog’s ears towards her belt. She had thin blonde hair that she’d tied back with a band, and wore a whistle around her neck.
“Did you come to try out, sweetie?” she said to Louisa.
“It’s okay if you did, it’s just that we’re full up right now.” The lady gave her a smile that sat a little too high on her face.
“I’m just going for a walk,” said Louisa. The sun was getting really hot on her head. Her stomach tightened abruptly and she let out a little cry.
“You okay, sweetie?” said the lady.
“Yeah, fine. Just ate some bad food last night.”
The lady looked suddenly concerned. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
Louisa didn’t need this shit on top of gut cramps. “Told you,” she grimaced, “I’m fine.”
“Oh,” said the lady quietly. “Didn’t mean to upset you. Do you live around here?”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
“Don’t you think you should let them know?”
“Not really,” said Louisa. “They’re dead.”
The lady crossed herself quickly. “Oh my sweet Jesus. You poor girl.”
Louisa remembered what YWCA stood for. Young Women’s Christian Association. They’d come to her school once—back when she still went to school—and handed out these stupid fucking pamphlets that kept using words like potential and self-worth, and had all these pictures of racial rainbow girls giving each other high-fives. “Listen,” said Louisa, rubbing her stomach hard, “I’m fine. Me and my sister, we get by great. We don’t need God or no one, okay?”
“But with no parents!” The lady seemed near to tears. “What do you do to support yourself—financially?”
“My sister works at the hospital. She’s eighteen, so it’s all legal. Housing Authority gives us money.”
“You’re in Public Housing?” The lady used the words like just saying them would make her dirty. Some of the soccer girls had stopped playing and were watching the scene unfold.
“I gotta get going,” said Louisa, turning away. “Have fun with your game.”
The lady put out her hand and took hold of Louisa’s arm. “I really wish there was something we could do,” she said. “But the team really is full up. Even our bench players. You could maybe carry some water, equipment, that sort of thing?”
Louisa wrenched her arm from the lady’s grasp. “Keep on saving the world,” she said, over her shoulder, as she walked back up 1st Street, stomach growling like a panther. She’d get food on the way back home. She’d keep going.