I am the fourth of six children, and in order to help my family, my brothers and I collect recyclables to sell. My father is a fisherman. He only comes home once every three weeks. I know him as a humble and kind-hearted man, and I sense that my mother is in better spirits when he is home. I have known no other life but the hardship we face every day. My family is extremely poor and hunger is a constant guest at our dinner table.
As I exit our hut, I’m immediately blinded by the piercing sun. The sweltering heat is pungent with the smell of garbage and feces. Rows of makeshift homes line the sides of the dirt path. Walls are improvised with rotted plywood and cement blocks, and rusted sheet metal serves as leaky roofs. Looking down from these decrepit towers are the dark, sunken eyes of their inhabitants. Everywhere I turn, faces young and old tell the same story—waiting to die and sowing the seed of bitterness over the path that lies before them.
It’s my best friend, Ren. He lives nearby with his grandmother, who makes a living begging outside a grocery store. Sometimes she comes home with a bag of discarded fruits and vegetables, and Ren will share some with us. His dad abandoned his family when Ren was six, and his mom committed suicide not long after.
He and I walk to the river together to pick up recycling and split the money. Halfway through, our path is blocked by an imposing shadow; it’s Junco and his group of urchin thugs.
“Going to the river again?”
Ren and I stood there silently, both us hoping Junco had better things to do so we could continue on our way.
“Are you two still too stupid to realize that I’m offering you a better life? Do you know how many kids would kill for this kind of opportunity?”
“We’re not selling drugs for you.”
Junco raises a hand and turns to strike Ren. In a moment of instinct, I jump in front of him and feel the full force of the blow. The impact of his fist with my face knocks me to the ground.Blood erupts from my nose, and a deep cut opens below my eye. I roll over, expecting a finishing blow, but Junco hesitates. Instead, he stares at us like a piece of trash stuck under his shoe. He spits at the ground and walks away.
Ren immediately runs to me. “Paolo, what were you thinking?!”
As I slowly climb to my feet, blood trickles down my shirt. “My mom’s gonna kill me.”
The river’s stench is enough to make anyone retch. A veritable soup of raw sewage, refuse, and mosquitoes, its surface is black and glossy, like an oil spill. I jump in the muck in search of materials, and the cut on my face stings in the putrid water.
Diving deeper, the murky water surrounds me in a black abyss. In that instant, I remember the life that awaits me on the surface: moth eaten hand-me-downs from two older brothers and a meager meal of rice once a day. Awash in isolation and despair, I cease to struggle and slowly sink deeper toward my fate.
* * *
Jarred awake by violent pain, I hear Ren shouting as he pounds on my chest. “Paolo, what are you doing? You were down there for so long!”
Ren takes a step back, tears flowing down his shallow cheeks.
“Were you trying to drown yourself?”
I sit there, frozen. Looking at Ren, I see a friend barely hanging on to hope. The anguish of my own selfishness and fear floods over me. He was right; I didn’t want to come back.
“Paolo, you’re all I have.”
I stare at Ren and realize that the course of our lives is not dictated by misery, but by opportunity. “Don’t worry Ren, I’m not going anywhere.”
He smiles and offers me a hand as we journey back along the dirt path.