The sweat from working on late afternoon chores still clung to her skin as she arrived in the city and was greeted by the smell of smoke and plastic. It should have been enough reason to turn back to their little farmhouse along the city borders, but it wasn’t. Even as the revolting stares of men and their expensive cigarettes made her stomach churn, she had learned to like it, even want it.
The noise grew louder as vehicles and vendors continued to flood the streets past sunset. Soon enough, more people emerged from the towering buildings, whirling past each other in their tailored clothes, overpriced watches, all attention attached to the screens on their hands. Others had tattoos that stretched to their necks, crucifixes in silver rings, giving them the look of the type to have little packets of uppers hidden in their pockets.
Though she was only wearing a plain unbranded shirt and pants without shiny pieces of jewelry or towering shoes, versatility was her advantage. She could find comfort in a place where vices and virtues are taught to be the same and where lines between gentle and brutal lay invisible.
Every night she finds herself next to men with a single signature smell: alcohol. Their hands are uncalloused, soft, and untouched by brutal labor, unlike hers. Though beautiful, their hands leave marks. She doesn’t know yet what passion looks like or love, but when fire dances in their wild eyes, looming over her frailty, she recognizes hunger. A feeling she knows too well.
Tonight, one of the men reminded her of a wise king. He wore a navy blue overcoat that gave him a look of authority and the entirety of his jaw is covered by a thick, black beard. The creases on his face and the strain on his features give away his age. However, what struck her was his eyes which held a kind of curiosity that could easily be mistaken for concern.
Regardless of what they meant, it made her open up, and for the first time in her life, she encountered a man who was kind enough to listen and interested enough to ask. Suddenly, the corners of the familiar room did not seem so bleak anymore. Though the bed and the bottles of beer that sat on the bedside table remained untouched, her heart didn’t.
She spoke to the man of the things she would have done if things were different, as if he was a lifelong friend. She told him how she would have been happy if she had the money, the status and the luxuries.
He said no word about it, though disapproval was clear in his grimace and closed knuckles. She realized that it was the same look her mother gave her the first night she came home from work.
His head fell back into the backrest of the chesterfield. What she sensed as hypocrisy in his lack of reaction gave her the idea that he might not have paid her for the same reason as the other men. Perhaps, he was just in need of someone to talk to. Perhaps she thought, they are more alike than meets the eye.
After a long silence, he croaked, “You’re hungry.”
Before she could deny it, realization slapped her twice. The first came from the literal fact that she hasn’t eaten a full meal in days and the second from the void clawing at her from the inside.
“No one alive is not hungry,” he explained, eyes fixated on the ceiling. “From the moment we were born, we feed so that we could grow. After that, we discover ways to feed ourselves with not just food; beauty, arts, passion, pleasure—anything that makes us feel good keeps us full.”
There was no uncertainty in his voice, and it scared her. He sounded like a teacher with wisdom that never blessed her and a father with words that spoke of truth and love, neither of which she had growing up.
“You’re hungry, and for a long while, you have not known what it’s like to feel good. I assume that both food and other things were not so easily accessible to you,” his eyes lingered on an invisible trail above him. “So it’s easy for you to hate your life, to want more, to search for the things you couldn’t have just to satiate the hunger you feel inside.”
For a moment, he turned and held her gaze, waiting for a response that never came because flashbacks have replaced the words in her head.
She’s back home on her brothers’ birthdays, and their table lay empty. Her father’s suddenly alive but has collapsed on the concrete floor, lips blue and barely breathing. She heard her mother’s sharp cry as she approached his body with shaking hands. It was not a cry for help, nor agony. She knew they couldn’t bring him to the hospital. She was already grieving.
“It doesn’t stop there. You think you’d be happy once you’ve risen to the top, that you’d finally get to feel good once you stand around the marble-filled rooms, sit on expensive leather, and eat with gold-plated utensils. You won’t. Because that’s when you’d feel the most alone.”
His words didn’t linger for too long before she realized that she disagreed with him. His definition of happiness differed from hers. Whereas he has spent all his life in comfort, with his privilege safely stashed in his pockets, he does not know her version of loneliness or the dull ache that sits upon her chest when she can’t recall the last time she saw her mother smile.
More so when she starts disappearing before the sun begins to set and only coming home once everyone’s fast asleep, only to dedicate her body and abandon her emotions for a job that could provide easy money.
It was past midnight when she left work but even then, the city remained busy, cars continued rumbling and honking on the roads, streets were still well-lit and people still gambled on street corners.
Though she tried shaking the words of the stranger before they embedded in her head for good, the possibility of him being right haunted her like her own shadow.
When she arrived home, their house was pitch black except for the faint light from the kitchen. She fought the burn behind her eyes upon noticing her little brothers cramped up in a little mattress on the corner. They might have slept hungry. Hungry. Have they found the things that keep them fuller than food?
She lifted her mattress, tucking today’s earnings beneath. Then she felt the presence of her mother and the weight of her stare. When she met her gaze, she could barely see her features, but her hunch was obvious—the weakness in her fingers and the questions in her glassy eyes.
“Why do you do this?” Her mother’s frail voice was barely a whisper, but the disappointment was eminent. “What is it you want that keeps you out every night?”
“The same things you want.” She responded, plopping onto the mattress as her knees trembled.
“Three meals a day, a decent education for you and your brothers, safety, sufficient water and electricity,” She sniffled. “Aren’t those the same things you want?”
Silence fell between them. The old man’s words echoed inside her head, but she no longer denied its truth. She is a girl with a hunger she can’t contain, whose very hunger led her into a path no mother would wish for her daughter.
She had once toyed with the idea of the alternative and knew that she could have strived for success and she would have achieved it. Instead, she decided that her appetite for luxuries and the temptations of the sinful world weighed greater than the idea of a simple, stable life.
In the end, it was not the kind of hunger—dried mouth and ribs poking through her skin—that led to her despair. No. It was a different kind of hunger.