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If
Author: Nina G. Jones

IF. I ALWAYS hated that word. It was only used to suggest the things that would never be, to describe the possibilities that I wouldn’t achieve.

If you didn’t have those scars on your face . . .

you could have been a model

you’d have a boyfriend by now

boys would the kids in school wouldn’t have made fun of you

you’d get more auditions

What good is that word to me? What’s the point of reminding me of the things I would never experience? The life I would never have?

“If” is unfulfilled potential. It’s dreams that didn’t come true. And nothing scared me more than that. I guess that’s why I decided to risk everything to become a professional dancer. I knew I had potential and I wouldn’t let fear or judgment get in the way of its fulfillment. On the outside, it might have looked foolish; a girl as young as I was dropping out of college, leaving Madison, Wisconsin, and venturing out on her own to LA. A girl with a damaged face pursuing a career in an industry that relied on physical appeal. But I wasn’t a fool; I worked during my first year and a half of college to save money, I had fifteen years of dance training under my belt, and I had a fearlessness that only comes with living your entire life with a facial disfigurement.

I knew I could be great. I believe my parents thought so too, but we had very different ideas about my potential. They wanted me to finish college, climb corporate mountains, to have that piece of paper validating the dollars they spent on my education. But to me, that would have left me with one huge “If.” What if I went out there and gave it my best shot?

I already lived with so many what ifs, and this was one I wasn’t going to add to the list.

My dad nicknamed me Bird, and I guess he had a premonition, because I flew from the nest far earlier than he had hoped. And, just like a bird, there’s always the risk of plummeting to the ground with that first lonely step out into the world. But without taking that risk, how could I ever hope to soar?

 

 

BIRD

I SHOULD’VE JUST taken a cab.

It had been a long day. That morning, after I had taught a boisterous class of four-year-olds how to dance, I went home, ate, showered, and went back out for a long shift at Bossa Nova, the restaurant where I worked.

I didn’t mind the jobs I had. Yeah, I was on my feet a lot, but this was the way things were out here. You worked and paid your dues and eventually you would get your break. I didn’t allow myself to think of the thousands, and maybe even millions of dreamers who executed this formula with no shiny reward at the end. I couldn’t commit to this grind if I allowed myself to think there was a chance I wouldn’t make it.

But it was hard. Shuffling from one audition to the next, dealing with the side glances, feeling like I was just as good as the ones who got called back . . . except I didn’t. Dreading the end of the month, when I had to move money around to pay the essential bills, occasionally accepting money from my generous sister, Jessa, when I just couldn’t make ends meet no matter how hard I tried.

This was that time of the month, when bills were plentiful and cash was scarce.

I met Jordan, my best friend, just outside of Rage, the club where he worked. We almost always commuted home together in Jordan’s car. If I had a shift when he didn’t, he would usually give me a ride.

“Shit, Bird, I’m sorry. Two people didn’t show and I have to work a double.”

“Oh, that sucks,” I frowned. Jordan was a dancer, too. He had taught several classes early that morning, and now he would likely have to work at Rage until close.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” He threw his arm around my shoulder. “Shit, I wish my car wasn’t in the shop. I would just let you take it home. Do you have money for a cab? I don’t want you walking home alone.”

I nodded. It was a lie. I mean, yes, I did have cash from tips, but I had just paid rent and bills, and this cash was my money to eat for the rest of the week; I didn’t want to live on ramen. I loved Jordan, but he had already helped me out so much, and I didn’t want him to shell out another thirty-five bucks on me.

Jordan was right to be concerned. Our apartment building was located near the border of Skid Row and the more developed part of Downtown LA. Our building provided access to free parking, but that was in a detached garage several blocks away.

Getting back to the building meant walking through Skid Row, a place that lived up to its infamy. Homeless people slept under tarps, the stench of urine was pervasive, garbage lined the streets. I thought myself brave and cosmopolitan, like that hipster who moves to the crime-riddled area, thinking that because they weren’t on the streets, they somehow hovered above its dangers. If I just minded my business, no one would bother me, I told myself. But the truth was I almost always had Jordan, all 6’4” of his statuesque dancer build, right by my side.

I guess that was one of my flaws—I didn’t like to admit when I was scared.

Besides, it wasn’t that late, only seven-thirty or so. I would be fine. I knew if I told Jordan I was busing, he would force me to take money, so I just saved myself the embarrassment and him the fight.

“You sure?”

“Yup. I’ve got it handled, my love,” I said to him, as I tugged on his sparkly short-shorts. “I wish I could fill these out like you.”

“Honey, you got a booty too,” he kissed my temple and glanced back towards the club. “I have to go. Text me when you get home so I know you’re safe.”

“You got it.”

The bus ride home was so much longer than a cab ride, but you get what you paid for. Unfortunately, by the time I stepped out of the bus the sun had long set, and I had a much darker walk home than I had anticipated.

As I stepped off the bus, I considered Jordan’s voice nagging me to find a cab. I did a quick mental calculation, and it just wasn’t worth the hassle and money when I could just walk for five minutes and be in the safety of my apartment building. I looked around, and took a deep breath to fortify myself for the short walk.

If I just minded my own business, no one would mess with me. That was usually how it worked out here.

 

ASH

I bet in a million years, no one who knew me a few years ago would have thought I’d have ended up on Skid. I know I wouldn’t have. But it was exactly where I needed to be. Hidden. Somewhere I could be forgotten and where I could forget; the people I’d hurt, the opportunities I’d destroyed.

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