Nina and I were just kids when we started running into oncoming traffic. Dodging cars was something that felt natural – a part of growing up, facing demons we didn’t know we had. We’d sit on the low curb, flicking crisps into the gutter like cards into a top hat, then as we heard the rumbling of a car approach, we clamped hands and dashed into the street. We experienced short spurts of ecstasy, drifting away on a sublime high and yet the feelings were short-lived, elusive.
We had homes but we grew up on the streets and they were the backdrop to our lives long after we stopped playing games. They shaped our reality and the limitations that ultimately defined us.
We were never a couple, never destined to be together, not even close. But I still cared deeply for Nina, and it hurt me to see her as a teenager date surly older boys she’d met outside bars or lounging in parks, smoking weed. Generally, her guys had faces full of metal studs, wore sleeveless t-shirts displaying scrawled tattoos with names of death metal bands and with time, every one of them deserted her as if trying to escape a nuclear danger zone, leaving her distraught and desperate to find someone new, only for the cycle to repeat.
When I hit sixteen, I began to turn in on myself, I began to lose it. I stopped hanging out on the street and instead watched it, spying on the neighbourhood from behind a windowpane. I remember this period particularly well because at this time Nina was beginning to crash too.
I started to get into food, binging on anything cheap and available, hiding under my duvet with my secret stash, creating a heap of wrappers. Nina’s thing was bulimia. Our games never felt so distant.
Around this time, I watched a neighbour sell up and the new owners gutted the property, turning it into a grand design. The area was beginning to metamorphose into some strange shape.
Alessandro, my next-door neighbour was determined not to sell, despite rumours he couldn’t pay his mortgage and was a hopeless alcoholic. He loved his home despite the fact he treated it like a junkyard. It reeked of rot and toxic mould.
Alessandro would often loiter on the pavement before his place as the tarmac bubbled in the fierce summer heat and would eye us at play, bemused. But he kept his distance. He wore combat trousers and was often bare-chested, revealing a thin line of scar tissue, evidence of a triple heart bypass and a rough and rowdy lifestyle. He had a giant shit-heap of a car – army green with square pieces of cardboard used as makeshift windows and he squeezed this beast of a motor into his ramshackle front yard. The local residential association wanted it gone, wanted him gone, in fact, and as the years went by the opposition became more militant.
I watched Alessandro a lot in my self-imposed lockdown and I spied on Nina too. She became skeletal, floating around in her nightgown in her room opposite mine, her eye sockets and cheekbones jutting out of her face creating a deathly mask. In contrast, my body was rippling with fat and I could grab thick chunks of flab on my stomach and squeeze it with disgust.
At a late hour, hidden by the shadows of night, I secretly watched Nina lean out of her bedroom window and light menthol cigarettes with a zippo. The burning tip reflected in the rows of windows along the street like a fractal. I still felt a connection to her.
More houses changed hands as time passed. BMWs, Austin Martins even Bentleys populated the area. The poor, working class were pressured to sell. My family held firm; many others weren’t so strong.
Years later, I returned to the neighbourhood. I had forged a career for myself as a history lecturer at the local university. I hadn’t been back to see my parents in years. We were never close but more recently we were trying to build a relationship. The first thing I noticed along my old road was Alessandro’s car had gone and slate rockery was arranged across the front yard like a zen garden.
My parents told me Alessandro had died, that they had to drag his dead body out of his house as if he was clinging on to his domain. He really went out on his shield. Nina’s family had sold up years ago. Now some international crime lawyer and his brood lived there.
Nina’s family home was now painted white, had skylights in the loft conversion and a conservatory. A sports car with tinted windows was parked in the driveway. The whole neighbourhood was transformed. Soon, I told myself, I’d be able to afford my own place in the city, with two rooms even, then a family, a normal life, the kind people talk about.
My parents said the last thing they heard of Nina was she had been involved in a crippling car accident. The thought had a sickening symmetry about it. But I wasn’t ready to accept that version of events yet, so I put it down as just idle gossip and tried to dismiss it out of hand. But her story, real or imaginary, haunted me.
Standing by the curb, outside my childhood home I felt the loose skin under my chin, my jowls rubbery and soft, proof of all the weight I’d lost – the fruition of years of painfully starving myself. Across the street was a young girl holding her mother’s hand, waiting for the right moment to cross. I heard a van clunking over speed bumps, getting closer with alarming force. I had to pull myself back from stepping into the oncoming vehicle. Truth was, I couldn’t dodge traffic without Nina by my side. After all, the streets were the past and it was her game.