sometimes it is our shield
that walls us into destruction
a self-made cage we yield
to the darkness raging within us
“If you didn’t tell me,” I ran my thumb over my knuckles in an attempt to rub warmth into them, “would someone else have?”
“I doubt it,” Kayden tugged at the scarf. “People like me have hopes for people like you, you know? Nobody would want to jeopardize that even if they hated your guts.”
“I still don’t understand, but I can try to.” I knew that he wasn’t talking about my privileges or his homelessness and I also believed him when he said we were in two different categories. I just had no knowledge to link back to his words.
My mind drew up complete blanks at the idea that people of both genders weren’t valued in the same way and it baffled me. How did I know so little about the world I lived in? How come I’ve never asked any questions before?
“You were taught equality,” Kayden said, as though he had seen the gears turning in my head. He looked right in my eyes. “If you find yourself standing next to a woman, you don’t naturally think you are inferior. Do you know how empowering that is?”
I stared at the snow melting around my boots, not willing to let him see the emotion that I dealt with whenever I thought about Mother. She was a woman and I feared her, so no despite believing in equality, I barely thought about it or applied it to any situation I faced. Then again, she wasn’t just a woman either, she was my mother.
Still, he was right. I had never thought that I was inferior to Arleen or any other person. I just felt inferior in general. . . sometimes.
“Is the reason no one likes me,” I accidentally scratched myself. I sucked in a breath as I watched blood bead along the line I had cut across the base of my pinkie.
I looked up at Kayden and shoved my hands into my pockets. “Is the reason no one likes me because of the fact that I’m somehow meant to make things better but my appearance isn’t—”
“Ask another question,” Kayden cut me off then surprised me by wrapping his scarf around my shoulders. “You shouldn’t rush yourself. The world’s not going to change anytime soon. Digest it slowly.”
That made sense. The answers to my questions wouldn’t change anytime soon. If he told me everything now, I would probably get confused.
I am already confused. I decided to think about something else to get my mind off the lies I had been told all my life. His scarf for example.
It was one of the softest things I had ever felt. It smelt like coffee and oranges, just like my bedsheets did now. I managed to resist the urge to run my fingers through the patterns knitted into the grey wool but it was hard to keep a smile off my face.
“I’m not cold,” I returned my attention to him. “Really.”
“Well, I insist,” Kayden said. “And don’t say that I need it more than you do. I like the cold and I’m not taking the scarf back until you’re safe in your toasty apartment.”
“Okay,” I dipped my head back and looked at the sky. I couldn’t see any stars but I knew that they were out there, just like I knew that all the answers I wanted were out there. I just needed the patience to find them at whatever pace Kayden set for me. “Why don’t you mind pink?”
“Alright, this is a question I can answer,” Kayden nodded, looking awfully pleased with himself. “Imagine a room. The walls are white, the floor is white the ceiling is white.”
I closed my eyes and did as he said. I saw the room. It was like mine in a sense—an extension of one color—just with no furniture.
“There are seven ponds in the room and each contains water that is one color of the rainbow,” he continued. “Now there are seven people in front of each pond and they are dressed in white. They jump into a pond of their choosing and then come out.”
“Which of them is a man and which is a woman?” Kayden asked. It was a simple question but it sounded like a riddle. I didn’t think there was a right answer for it.
I opened my eyes and saw him smiling at me. It was a curious smile, like he truly wanted to know what I thought. I hoped my answer wouldn’t disappoint him. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know because you aren’t willing to guess,” Kayden said and pulled on his gloves. “Other people might have said that a man jumped into the red or blue ponds, or a woman jumped into the violet or indigo ponds, or made random guesses for the others.”
“Why? I mean if there was a pink pond maybe a woman might have jumped into it but. . . I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure but other people would be. Because most people are driven by opinions, not fact,” Kayden tapped on the shirt he wore. “Colors have nothing to do with gender or race or sexuality. People are the ones that associate color with other things, and the more people associate a color to a particular thing the more popular that opinion gets until everything escalates to the point where an opinion is almost considered a fact and no one remembers how it all started.”
“Like red. It’s associated with war because of the color of blood, isn’t it? And black,” I looked down at my clothes, “is associated with evil and death because crimes used to happen more at night?”
“That is exactly what I mean,” Kayden said with what I could only hope was an encouraging smile. “Red can also be tied to passion, desire, love or strength. Black can be related to elegance or mystery or power.”
“And pink? Is it associated with anything other than being girly?”
“I could tell you, but I’m more interested in what it means to you, to be honest.”
“It’s my favorite color,” I blurted out. When I saw no change in Kayden’s expression, I decided to bite the bullet and continue. It was already out in the open anyway. I couldn’t take it back. “I mean, that doesn’t help things. I know. I really do but I can’t change it. I hate wearing it, even though it’s the color I like. I just hate what I know what people think when they see me in it and I hate not being able to wear what I like just because I look like a girl, I really—”
Kayden grabbed me by the shoulders before I got too lost in my rambling. It was only then that I realized that I had said nothing and everything at the same time. Only God knew what he thought about me now. And we were having such a nice conversation, why did I have to ruin it?
I would have hidden my face behind my hands if I wasn’t so scared of moving. What was going to happen now? I was sure that he would stand up and walk away? It was okay if he liked pink, no one would call him a girl. But why did I have to like it? Why did I have to put a target on my back for no reason?
“It was just a question,” Kayden said quietly. “Breathe, Olly. And stop thinking whatever you’re thinking right now.”
I blinked at him and tried to keep my mind blank. My hands were folded into fists inside my pockets and usually that helped me concentrate. Usually. Even counting backwards from sixty didn’t seem to sweep my thoughts under my imaginary rug but Kayden didn’t seem to mind.
He watched me for a moment then pulled his hands away from me. “You okay?”
I nodded. If I opened my mouth again, I didn’t know what I was going to say. It was better to remain silent until I was sure that I wouldn’t do anything stupid.
“I understand you,” Kayden zipped up his jacket, “so don’t think I’m going to get upset or suddenly make fun of you or whatever. I already know that you like pink, or at least at one point you did. If you hated it so much, your room would look different.”
“I know what it’s like to love and hate something at the same time,” he admitted. “My favorite color isn’t pink, I’m not going to lie about that, but I don’t mind wearing it. I also think it’s the color that looks best on me, don’t you?”
He chuckled then reached across me to grab the guitar and suddenly the awkwardness I felt disappeared.
“Yeah, it does.” I answered cautiously, careful not to elaborate on how good I thought he looked in my shirt. “So, what is your favorite color?”
“Blue. But I don’t wear it.”
“It’d be too cliché and I like to think that I’m a rebel,” he said, but I knew from the way he avoided looking at me that that wasn’t the whole story. There was a reason he didn’t wear blue. Maybe he also hated his favorite color just as much as he liked it.
At that moment, I had a funny thought.
If I got bullied for wearing pink here, did people also get bullied for wearing blue wherever Kayden came from?
It was weird for me to imagine someone laughing and pointing at Kayden because he had been caught in a blue shirt but it was possible. With everything I had learnt this past hour, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true.
“Hey,” Kayden snapped his fingers in front of my face.
“I’m going to return this,” he motioned to the guitar, “and collect my pay for the day. Do you want to wait for me here or come with?”
For a moment, I considered tagging along, then I remembered that I had done enough interacting for the day. Right now I wouldn’t be able to cope with anyone other than Kayden staring at me and I didn’t want him to see what the other people in this city actually thought of me.
“I’ll wait,” I told him with a smile.
“Okay,” he got to his feet, “but you have to be here when I get back or I’ll be sleeping in front of your apartment door tonight.”
“I’ll be here. I promise.”
He nodded then walked into the store. When he was out of sight, I finally got my hands out and buried them into his scarf, appreciating it’s warmth as my fingers thawed.
At that moment, I felt like everything was perfect, like the planets had aligned and this was where I was meant to be.
Every time I got scared of how Kayden would react to the things I said or the opinions I had, he somehow managed to surprise me with his open-mindness. He wasn’t in any way like Arleen. As sweet as she was, there were just some things she didn’t understand; there were just some questions she couldn’t answer. And despite knowing that she didn’t discriminate, I still couldn’t tell her about some things.
In front of her, I couldn’t be me.