Occupy Me by Barbara M. Fried.
We climb out of Shylas ancient beat-up Subaru, into the piercing sunlight of October in Denver, and are immediately swallowed up by the idealists, the agitators, the homeless, and the street hustlers at the demonstration. I have followed her to lots of protests in the past three years. We have protested against the war in Iraq, against regulations on illegal immigrants, for gay marriage, medical marijuana, and more environmental causes than I can count. Like so many others, I am a satellite, caught up in orbit, revolving around Planet Shyla.
She grabs my hand and pulls me along so we dont get separated in the crush of people. There are blue-collar guys in jeans and boots and middle-aged hippies with frizzy gray hair, John Lennon glasses, and serious expressions. There are college kids like us and several unshaven homeless men in dirty clothes pushing grocery carts. Every so often, someone shouts into a megaphone about corporate greed and how the world is watching. I get hit on the head a couple of times by a woman carrying a sign that reads, Peace is Power. Everywhere we go there is the skunky smell of cannabis in the air. Shyla is sucking in all the energy and reflecting it back out. This is her scene.
Cars drive by, honking support, and dropping off clean clothes, food, water, and flyers. There is a mad rush to a table supplied with sandwiches, drinks, bananas, and oranges. People are devouring everything in sight like ravenous seagulls at the beach. Im not sure how the demonstrators are surviving sleeping out here in tents and sleeping bags and staying out all day long. I wonder what they do to kill time. I wonder how they pay the bills.
Shyla walks up to a group of women about our age standing behind a folding table.
Wow. Thats a great skirt, a short blonde woman with a pudgy nose says to Shyla. Where are you guys from?
Were from Boulder, Shyla answers, smiling her radiant, orthodontically perfect smile. Whats going on?
You guys just missed the General Assembly. We decided on our mission statement, and came up with ground rules, says the blonde. I look around. This demonstration doesnt seem to have much of a mission, and this crowd doesnt seem interested in rules. Its funny to me that a protest started by anarchists has leaders, a mission statement, and an assembly. We also talked about the police over-reaction to Occupy Denver.
Shyla nods her head. She keeps talking and laughing with the group. A round of introductions ensues. I can tell that she has found herself a new group of admirers. They are taking her in, from her wild Medusa head of blonde dreadlocks to the delicate henna tattoos on her ankles and feet. I wonder if these women are like us, getting ready to enter a hopeless job market while being woefully in debt.
Then its time to move on, and Shyla starts bantering in Spanish with a group of Latino men and women sitting on a blanket. They look like they are at a picnic that just happens to be in the middle of a sea of people. One woman holds a baby tucked into her blouse. The baby somehow manages to nurse obliviously in the midst of all the chaos. Another toddler dozes in his stroller.
In one corner of the park, theres a drumming circle that alternates between spacey hypnotic rhythms and migraine-inducing pounding. We find a spot on the grass near a circle of folding chairs. Its less crowded and frenetic here. Thankfully the drummers take a break. Two guys are strumming guitars and singing Peter, Paul, and Mary songs. I lie back on my elbows, breathe in the air, and begin to relax slightly for the first time today. Shyla wanders off while I listen to the music.
My morning started in bed, waking to the realization that there was an alien presence spooning me from behind. There had been a party at our house the night before with twenty people or so, but I didnt remember anyone ending up in our bedroom other than Shyla, her stoner boyfriend James, and me. Shyla and James usually shared her bed on the other side of a large tie-dyed sheet we would hang in the center of the room for privacy. If Shyla and James were getting busy, I usually found my way to the couch in the living room.
I recognized the familiar smell of lilac, clove, and coconuts, and turned my head slightly to find Shyla wrapped around me. She was sleeping soundly, her breath rhythmic and gentle, her chest rising and falling. Her head full of dreads was spread on the pillow behind her, like a psychedelic dandelion. Her right arm was wrapped around my torso, her hand beneath my breast. I could feel her nipples and warm smooth skin against my naked back. It was weird but pleasant. Her body was soft and hairless, unlike the guys I had been with. I couldnt understand how she had climbed into bed with me without my noticing, but there she was. I could hear James snoring away from the other side of the room divider. I was a bit freaked, but decided it was probably best not to make a big deal of it. I disentangled myself, put on my robe, and got out of the room quietly, trying not to wake either one of them. I found my way to our bathroom to scrub away the nasty taste of my morning mouth. Too many guys with bad aim had visited last night, and the bathroom was a stinky mess. I stepped over the crashed out bodies on the floor in our living room like a soldier trying not to trample the casualties and found the coffee pot.
After breakfast, we drove south from Boulder to Denver. I wanted to tell her how bizarre it was waking up with her in my bed, but it was hard to have that conversation. She had once asked me if I had ever been with a girl. I told her I preferred hot dogs to buns, and left it at that. Shyla always knew how to screw with me just enough to make me uncomfortable, but not enough to make me leave. Besides, I wasnt sure what I would do without her to keep things interesting.
I looked out the window at the the prairie dogs standing atop their mounds of dirt like little kings in the fields that ran alongside Highway 36. I felt jealous of them. All they had to do was find a mound, find a mate, find stuff to eat, and not get carried off by a hawk or run over by a car. Their lives were so simple.
Shyla started talking about the need for public transportation to get to Denver and the airport. She had plans for hydroelectric and wind power and recycling just about everything. In spite of myself, I got caught up in her enthusiasm. She was beautiful and when she got going, she generated more energy than any windmill ever could. I always found myself going along for the ride.
Yknow, Shyla. Ive been thinking, I said. Maybe I should be spending more time figuring out what to do after we graduate. I havent even told my parents I dont want to go to law school. Thats their dream. Not mine.
Well, you wouldnt have to worry so much if corporate greed werent destroying the economy, she said. Thats why were protesting. Maybe the job situation wouldnt suck so much if the government put more focus on helping people get jobs and healthcare rather than just bailing out banks and criminals.
Its just us, Shy. You can cut the rhetoric. My familys not wealthy like yours. Ill die if I have to move back home after college.
Thingsll work out. You worry too much, she said. I worried that Id hurt her feelings. For all the craziness wed shared, she was always the one who cheered my successes. She was also the one who hung out with me on the Hill, eating bad diner food and lamenting my sorrows each time one of my stupid artist/musician boyfriends decided they needed to dump me to pursue their art or sleep with other girls for inspiration.
I wished that I had grander aspirations other than graduating, getting a job, getting married, and having kids, but I didnt. I knew Shyla would change the world one day because thats the kind of person she was. I wasnt always sure what purpose I served in her life, other than an admiring audience member and a girlfriend who could keep her tied to reality when she started floating away into the ether. It helped that I was pretty and not intimidated by a gorgeous woman like her. She had a way of scaring off other women when they realized they were no competition.
The drummers start up again, and I can tell Shyla is on the move. She kicks off her sandals and starts to gyrate slowly and seductively. It starts as a slow undulation that comes from the ground and reaches up toward the sky with her sinewy body as a conductor. She has a sly grin on her face as she sways languorously to the beat. As she turns faster, her gauzy skirt kicks out like a flowers petals abruptly coming into bloom. Strands of beads come to life now, too, as they spin out graceful arcs around her neck. Her thin layers of t-shirts lift a bit, revealing the silhouette of perfectly-shaped breasts. She leans her head back to the sky, extending her neck and arching her back, opening her tanned face to the sun and bringing her arms over her head like a perfect question mark. Its almost a religious moment. I can feel the eyes of everyone around us at the demonstration turn to her. They give her room and stop what they are doing to watch. As she turns, she is a whirling dervish of reds and oranges. I am wondering if she has scored some Ecstasy or if she is just being herself. Its hard to tell. She motions to me, trying to get me to dance with her, but theres no way. I have to smile at the amazing scene she creates and that she would even consider having me join her. Shes gotten me to streak with her across the quad and dance on the bar at a fraternity party (big mistake), but Im not giving in this time.
As Shyla finishes her dance of the seven veils, a crowd of groupies surrounds her. Men and women want to know her. I stand against a tree, watching my friend from a safe distance and wondering if someone is going to offer her the head of John the Baptist or just more sex, drugs, and adoration. The crowd is getting bigger and louder again.
I am lost in my thoughts when I see a cop on a bicycle heading straight for me. He yells, Hey! I look around, expecting someone to be doing something illegal, but I am alone. He keeps getting closer. Hey, Rachel! I cant figure out how or why he would know my name. I havent done anything wrong. I drink too much and smoke a little weed with James and Shyla once in a while. Ive got some unpaid parking tickets. I dont know. My guilty conscience is getting the best of me. What is this about? I cant outrun him; hes coming too fast.
Rachel! Its me, Tim Connor. He brakes to a stop right in front of me. I certainly dont know any cops and cant think of any Tims. He unbuckles his bike helmet and pulls off his dark sunglasses, revealing a babyish face with pale skin, blue eyes, and a blonde buzzcut that makes me think of velcro. He looks vaguely familiar.
Columbine High, Class of 2009. I sat behind you in chemistry. It comes back to me. He was the skinny awkward guy who always sat behind me. All my girlfriends called him the albino. I would never have noticed him then because he wasnt a good-looking artist with a tortured soul. I can feel shame rising in my face as I hope that I didnt say anything terrible to him. High school was the epitome of bitchiness.
What are you doing here? he asks. It is a question I want to know the answer to as well.
Just checking out the scene. Drove down from Boulder this morning.
Are you at CU? he asks. I nod. What are you studying?
Poli sci. Waiting to join the ranks of the unemployed.
Tim laughs, and when he smiles, dimples sink into his cheeks on both sides. His baby face is pleasing, and I notice that he is no longer a skinny kid. He looks different--more adult-- without his head of wavy tow head hair. Riding a bicycle agrees with him; hes got muscular legs that look like they are ready to burst out of his black shorts. Under his police windbreaker, I can see a walky-talky, gun, and plastic wrist ties attached to a belt. I feel a chill when I think about why hes here.
Well, you look just like you did in high school, he says.
You dont, I say, looking him over one more time. Whyd you become a cop?
Pays the bills. I have to keep bad guys like you in line. Again with the killer dimples. I want to be a detective, but I gotta put in some time before I can take the test.
I see. Whats with the funky hair?
Cut it short while I was at the Academy. A lot cooler like this under the helmet. You like it?
Can I touch it?
When I reach up to run my fingers through his hair, it feels like a thick nap of velvet.
Be careful there, Miss. You keep that up and those hairs may just start getting longer and stiffer. I pull my hand back.
I dont remember much about Tim, but hes funny. Not an artist. Not my type. I wonder what he thinks about the demonstration. All these people hanging out in the park. Tim is working and probably not making any money. We talk about some of our old classmates and teachers. I wonder if Ive changed as much as he has. I dont think so.
So, Rachel, just so you know, you and your friends should be careful today. Most of the folks here are harmless, but theres a group that really wants to get into it with police.
What do you mean?
Im just saying. We have orders to keep everybody off the Capitol steps. We both look up at the gold-domed cupola, across a busy street from the park where the protestors are. I think how ironic it is that most of the people who came to Colorado in the first place came for the gold. Most of them never ended up with any. Now we all just fight about how to distribute what riches there are.
So, if things get ugly, you guys should make sure you stay over by the barricades at the edge of the park.
Okay. Hes making me nervous, but I like the fact that hes protecting me. It feels nice. Most of the guys Ive been with never seemed concerned about my physical safety.
Oh. And one more thing.
You wanna get a beer sometime?
They let you guys drink?
Yes, but only with cute girls from chemistry class. He smiles again and hands me his card. He waves at me as he pedals off into the crowd.
Shyla strides over to me and my tree a few minutes later. Hey! Whats up with the pig? I am not sure if shes kidding or not.
Oh cmon. Hes just some guy I went to high school with. I cant decide if shes annoyed with me for not supporting the cause or not dancing with her. She eyes me suspiciously but lets it go. She is excited, telling me about all of the interesting people she is meeting at the protest. I am happy for her in spite of feeling out of place in all this craziness. I debate telling her more about Tim but decide against it. We share a bottle of water and a couple candy bars I brought with us. Im starting to think that its turning into an okay Saturday after all.
Then, someone starts yelling through a megaphone, and people begin to push east toward the street and out of the park. A line of police officers walks through the park, cutting the demonstration in half. Theres an officer duck-walking his motorcycle behind the cops on foot. A protestor grabs the tailbag on the back of the motorcycle, and with one good shove pushes the bike down. The cop hops on one leg to keep from getting pinned under it. And with that one action, chaos erupts.
Three cops chase down the protestor, tackle him face down, sit on him, and zip-tie his hands like a calf in a rodeo roping competition. A crowd surrounds them, pushing, spitting, yelling, and recording everything with cell phones and cameras. Shyla and I are getting swept into the vortex by people running toward the street. I wrap one arm around my tree to keep from getting pulled under while holding onto Shyla with the other hand. She lets go and joins the herd. Im screaming her name but all she does is wave back as the crowd pushes forward into the street toward the steps of the Capitol.
Oh shit! This is not what I signed up for. In front of the Capitol steps, I can see a line of police officers wearing helmets with shields that protect their faces like welders. They are dressed in black and look like a line of storm troopers. They are clutching batons in front of them, pushing against the onslaught of people, yelling, Get back! Get back!
Demonstrators are hurling themselves against the line of cops chanting, Fuck you! and The world is watching! I am really panicking at this point, scanning the crowd for Shyla. I am also desperately looking for Tim and his bicycle and praying that hes safe. The police are hopelessly outnumbered. Theyre getting pelted with fruit and trash.
More cops start arriving as reinforcements. They carry spray cans and guns with pepper balls. A protestor grabs one cops baton and pulls at it. He gets a face full of pepper spray and immediately drops to his knees on the ground, clutching at his face. A few more demonstrators come at the cops, but each one is repelled with a shove or a spray. Its a sickening sight. I see Shyla push forward and before I can even register whats going on, shes down on the ground, grasping at her eyes. The crowd is getting louder and more agitated, but the mad rush for the Capitol steps is dying down. People are moving back into the park. The line of police officers is retreating.
I extend my arms in front of me to push in the opposite direction through the crowd, forcefully doing the breaststroke though a giant pool of people. I finally make my way to Shyla, who is still sitting on the ground, eyes squeezed shut, with tears running down her face. I squat down on the curb and put my arms around her, holding her to me to keep her from getting trampled by the receding crowd. I look up at the line of cops. They are even scarier close up from my vantage point on the ground.
A couple of guys help us up and we retreat to the makeshift medical tent that has been set up in a corner of the park. Shyla rinses her eyes with water, but I cant tell if thats making the burning better or worse. It looks painful. So much for a peaceful demonstration day in the park.
Hey, Shy. Are you okay? Can you see? Can you? I am amazed and scared by my crazy friend, worried that she is blinded all because of some stupid stunt. When she finally uncovers her face, I am shocked to see that she is smiling.
Yeah. Actually, Im good. You okay?
Fine. You wanna get out of here? I ask. She looks into my face with her watery irritated eyes. A spiderweb of red blood vessels obscures the whites of her eyes. I think of the monsters in the zombie movies we always watch together.
Actually, I think Im going to stick around here tonight. See how things play out. You wanna stay with me? Tears are still streaming down her face. She is even tougher than I thought.
For the first time I can remember in our friendship, my answer is no. I surprise myself when I hear the word coming from my own lips. I ask her if there is anything I can get for her, but she waves me off and tells me shell be okay. We both know that is the truth.
Shyla grins again and strokes my hair. She passes me the keys to the Subaru and gives me a hug. I wonder if I will ever know another human being like her. I doubt it. I watch as she heads off with the two guys to join her new friends in the park. It occurs to me that its getting late. Its time for me to find my way out of here and head back home.
The car starts with an agitated groan, and I slowly merge into the lines of traffic heading north onto the interstate. Everything about the car makes me think of where Shyla has taken it and what she has done with it. Shes got a dream catcher and a weird patchouli air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror and too many bumper stickers. Rust spots are starting to show through the ethereal blue paint, and theres a spring poking through the upholstery in the back seat. The shock absorbers feel shot and the transmission is clunky, but the damned thing keeps going. I want to tell her to take the car in and get it serviced, but Im not sure shell listen to me after today.
Something sharp is poking me in the hip through my jeans. I reach down when the traffic comes to a stop and pull a business card out of my front pocket. Its Tims card. I look at the blue and gold police department seal and run my thumb over the raised print. I could call him. It would be interesting to see what hes like. Maybe have that beer sometime. I smile as I think about Shyla flipping out if she ever saw me with a cop, but thats her problem--not mine.
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