my friend.

I needed to get out of Chicago for a bit. I was feeling lost and claustrophobic. Feeling accosted by opportunities rather than excited. The ambition was there, but every time I acknowledged it, I was mowed down by overwhelming anxiety. Here I am right now, just outside of Philadelphia, looking back at that and wondering if those feelings ever really did exist.

It’s nice to escape. I’m lucky to have the chance to just… go away for a bit, I guess.

There was always one thing though, that made me feel as though I was holding on tight to the reins. The theatre workshop I facilitated for adults with developmental disabilities through Still Point Theatre Collective. It’s been just over two years since the first time I walked nervously into the gymnasium at Esperanza Community Services and landed on an entirely different planet. On this planet, Big Foot eats dinner with the president, you can buy laughter at the store,  and the aliens just dance, and dance, and dance. A planet where dying is sometimes referred to as graduation. And it can be viewed as a gift.

On my first day at Esperanza as I was getting to know everyone somebody said “let’s do the scarf dance.” I followed the clients back to a circle of folding chairs and took a seat as Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” began to play, and a woman with a golden scarf took her place in the middle of the circle. She draped the scarf around her shoulders, and over her face. Swept it on the ground, and waved it through the air. A woman with a beautiful body perched atop stiff, avian legs. Her face frozen in a look of stunned concentration- eyes wide and unfocused, lips puckered. Later she would smile at me and I would notice she was missing one front tooth. At first her movements seemed ossified and slow, but as the music picked up, she began to spin. A cyclone of petrified gracefulness. The scarf rippled through the air. And as she really got moving, she laughed, delighted, eventually moving her way out of the circle of chairs, spiraling through the gym.

Her name was Sherice. And it was possible that on the days she didn’t get to do the scarf dance, she would bang her head on the wall over and over and over. Some days she would scream and curse. Throw out the middle finger. And weep. Sometimes I would take her out into the hallway and sit with her while she cried. The few soft tufts of hair she had tickled my face as she lay her head on my shoulder. Her hair was the only soft part of her body. Her hands were like hard blocks of black wood. Dry and cracked, and pinched in at the joints so much that it seemed possible you could squeeze them too hard and pieces of her fingers would fall to the ground.

Word on the street was it was a bad case of frostbite. Word on the street was that someone found her in a dumpster when she was a baby. I don’t know the real diagnosis, I just teach theatre.

Sometimes, when she would bang her head on the wall, or throw her body into it until someone pulled her away, I wanted so badly to know what she was thinking about. Because to me, it seemed as if she was just trying to find a way to escape. We’d never know what she thought, because she couldn’t really speak. Except for at the end of class, when she would sit back in the circle, and point at every single person and say, “my friend.” One day she got ahold of my phone and managed to record herself walking around class for about 10 minutes. It’s possibly the only time I’ll ever really get to see the world through her eyes. It’s actually a fascinating video.

I wanted to sit down and write about how things are going here, in the present. But today I found out that Sherice has passed away, and it’s been on my mind. The idea of escape. If I had to guess, I’d say she lived a lot of her life in pain. However, in order to touch on all the joy and pure happiness she exuded, I’d have to write another 715 words, at least.

It’s just that I can still hear her saying “my friend,” and it’s a nice voice to have inside my head.

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