Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Thanksgiving Story: How I Fell in Love with a Homeless Woman

In recognition of the ultimate "thing to be thankful for"--love--I present this short story (fiction).

First off you should know that I am not homeless, nor am I especially sympathetic to homeless people in general. I am definitely not one of those who make their living off the maintenance of the homeless population. Until quite recently I considered the homeless as either an urban-landscape issue to address in my profession or as a physical annoyance to be avoided. I am typical in this regard, I think, and typical in much else besides: employed by a government agency, and consumed with the usual preoccupations and solitary miseries of a single man in his mid 30s.

I think it fair, then, to state that no one could be more surprised to fall in love with a homeless woman than myself.

I can faithfully report that one falls in love with a homeless woman in the same manner as one falls in love with any other woman: your eyes meet, and some spark passes between you which is beyond easy description.

I cannot recall what she was wearing when we first met; I reckon blue jeans and a non-descript blouse of some sort; but I do remember her eyes and her face most vividly. A deep brown intelligence, alert but not entirely guarded, flashed in her eyes, and I saw something of her in those first seconds I shall never forget.

Her face reflected both her youth and the indeterminate nature of her heritage; such brown skin could be a mix of Africa, Southeast Asia, Italy, The Levant, Central America--the opaque origins and ubiquity of such a lovely brown made her exceptionally American.

Her hair was cut short, about shoulder length, and fell in a chestnut-black cascade unadorned by clips or barrettes. She asked if I would buy an issue of Street Sheet, and I gazed at her for a moment before replying, for she did not strike me as a homeless person; her gaze was too bright, and her bearing too unworn. She smiled quizzically at my pause--after all, the average person walked by without even acknowledging her existence--and I made some fumbling comment about buying a copy when I finished shopping. She nodded at this entirely banal excuse and I left her with a difficulty I could not have imagined a moment before.

It is not easy approaching complete strangers to sell them a copy of Street Sheet, for in doing so you are announcing the transparence of your vulnerability.

This account has flustered me even more than expected, for I have focused only on who and completely ignored what, when and where. She was standing outside a Walgreen's, and I was there to buy cleanser and a 9-volt battery for the defunct smoke detector in my apartment. I know this short list makes me sound like an overly cautious person, but it is more a reflection of my great laziness than an extraordinary concern about being burned to death in my sleep. The detector had stared in baleful uselessness at me for months, and more as an excuse for a bike ride than a pressing need I'd roused myself to make a list of what I could profitably buy at Walgreen's.

With the woman outside in the background of my thoughts, I found the items and picked up a Symphony chocolate bar which was on sale. Hoping she was still there, and still alone, I approached her with a dollar in hand. She turned to me in mild surprise--for how many people who excuse themselves to go shopping actually return to buy a Street Sheet-- and handed me the folded newsprint.

"You don't look like somebody who needs to do this," I blurted, and though I keenly felt the foolishness of my statement I didn't care, as it was true. She smiled thinly but made no reply, and our eyes met for what can only be described as the classic long moment. "Take care, OK"? I said, and she nodded in acknowledgement. With nothing else to say, I impulsively reached into my shopping bag and handed her the chocolate bar. Surprised, she hesitated, and I pressed the gift into her hand. Realizing that she would have no doubt preferred cash to candy, I strode away in hot embarrassment to unlock my bicycle. I then rode off, but not without gazing back at her twice.

I tried to chalk the meeting up as one of life's strange little interludes, but could not dismiss thoughts of the woman so easily. The next day I found time to ride past Walgreen's, and was disappointed to find a homeless man positioned by the glass doors, stack of Street Sheets firmly in hand. Future visits were equally fruitless, and I proceeded to cruise the standard begging spots in town on my bicycle, hoping to spot her at another venue.

Failing that, I swallowed my discomfort--or perhaps I should say outright shame--and inquired about her at the city's main women's shelter. The staffer eyed me suspiciously--after all, why would a non-homeless man be inquiring about a homeless woman unless trouble was afoot--and suggested I check at the city's co-ed shelters.

Balking at the suggestion that the object of my affection was already romantically attached--to a homeless man, no less--I resolved to ignore her advice and wait by the entrance through early evening, when the occupants returned home, as it were, before the doors were closed for the night.

As I waited--unobtrusively, I reckoned--across the street in the city park, another thought struck me and I felt a deep chagrin at my absurd persistence. Perhaps she hadn't looked like a homeless woman because she wasn't homeless; perhaps she was a shelter staffer or graduate student playing the part of a homeless woman as a research effort. This seemed possible, if not actually probable, and I almost turned away in disgust at my own pathetic hopes for romance with a fake member of society's outcasts.

Whether it was sheer stubbornness, a vengeful desire to punish my own stupidity, or perhaps a sort of prescience, I do not know, but I waited until dusk had settled over the park and the streetlights had come on. At the moment of rising to leave, I spotted her on the opposite sidewalk, making her way briskly toward the shelter's doors with a knapsack slung over her shoulder. After a brief hesitation of shock, I ran across the street, dodging a speeding bicyclist clad in bumblebee black and yellow spandex, and stopped her just shy of the entrance.

"I've been hoping to see you again," I said, and her look of confusion was a grave disappointment, for clearly she did not recognize me. "I met you the other day, in front of Walgreen's," I said helpfully, and she dutifully nodded, saying, "Oh, right." She looked more drawn down than she had that day, and I wondered if I'd built her up in my imagination. Her expression telegraphed neither recognition nor its absence, and the ambiguity of her reaction rendered me speechless. I had clearly caught her off guard, and at the end of a trying day, for I could feel her assessing her response; and at that moment I keenly regretted the entire venture of finding her.

"Well, it's lucky you found me," she said conversationally. "I've been staying at another place, but they had some problems, and I only came back here yesterday."

As she awaited my reason for seeking her, I blurted out, much less naturally than I'd planned, "I was wondering if you'd go out with me."

Her smile mixed surprise with a sort of knowing anticipation, and after a long pause she said, "So you want to go out with me."

"Yes," I replied. "Is it that strange an idea?"

Leaving my question unanswered, she shifted the knapsack to her other shoulder and asked, "What did you have in mind?"

"I don't know," I answered. "One of the usual. Lunch, a movie. . . coffee."

The tension in my chest rose as she pondered my request, and I sincerely hoped she would brush me off so I could be rid of the foolish illusions plaguing me. Instead, she looked across at the park with a wistfulness which can only be born of memory and hardship, and some reserve seemed to break inside her. "Sometimes I wish I could go on a picnic, you know, the kind with a basket, and friends. . . ." She glanced at the entrance briefly and added, "And ants, of course, lots of ants looking for crumbs."

Recognizing that the humor was shielding her heartfelt expression, I smiled and said, "Then a picnic it is."

"I didn't know we were friends already," she said with a practiced guardedness, and I shrugged, "You gotta start somewhere." She hesitated, obviously unsure of my intentions, and I said, "Down by the Marina. There's lots of kids, and people flying kites. It's nice there."

She considered me in the dimming light of day and then said, "The building where I was staying had bedbugs. A bunch of crackheads lived there and the bathrooms were disgusting. I'd saved up thirty bucks but I had to spend it on shampoos and doing all my laundry."

I stifled my dismay at her story of pillaging parasites and my mirth at so transparent an attempt to repel me; it was certainly a guaranteed repellent topic, but I refused to be set off by mere bedbugs. Besides, I reassured myself, she'd ridded herself and her clothing of the pests, and it wasn't her fault that she'd been living in such a filthy pit of wastrels. The thought also occurred to me that she'd invented the tale to test my resolve. "I'm sorry," I said lamely, and she flashed me an uneasy grin. "What I mean is, I can't bring much."

"That's OK," I said hurriedly. "It's my treat."

She gazed at me with inquisitive eyes and casually asked, "Why are you doing this?"

"Because I like you," I said honestly.

"How can you like me when we've barely met?" she pressed.

"You know how it is," I replied as easily as I could manage. "You either like somebody or you don't, and you know that in the first moment."

She was quiet and I launched my own brief interrogation. "Do you even remember me?"

"Yeah. You gave me a Symphony bar. That was nice. Of course I remember you."

"Well then, what time shall I pick you up on Saturday?"

"Say eleven o'clock," she replied briskly. "I'd rather not meet here, so I'll be in front of the library."

"If you can't make it, is there any way to get in touch with you?" I asked.

Gazing up at me, she said, "Don't worry, I'll be there."

With that, she turned to the entrance and then glanced back, catching me looking at her. As she gave me a goodbye wave and disappeared through the doors, I had the sinking feeling that she would not be standing outside the library Saturday at eleven. Well, I told myself, it was worth a try; another strange little interlude comes to an end.

Saturday dawned in an overcast fashion and I reckoned that would set the appropriate mood for my foolishly hopeful vigil at the library. I then spent several hours agonizing over the menu of the picnic, for even if I felt it unlikely that she would show up, I had to be prepared for the eventuality. Though I cannot claim to know many homeless people, I knew enough from various charitable interactions that they could be famously prickly about meals and the manner in which they were treated. The reason was obvious to all; the best defense against the indignities of charity and third-class citizenship was a spirited facade of normalcy of at least the second-class variety.

Knowing this, I designed the picnic menu to be neither so high falutin that it could only be seen as either charity or an attempt to impress, nor so plebian that it appeared to be designed specifically for steerage class diners. Tuna fish sandwiches? Perhaps she didn't like fish. Peanut butter and jelly? Too lowly and reminiscent of childhood. I settled on chicken breasts with spinach and sliced tomatoes on whole-grain bread, some red grapes and sparkling water which I flavored with orange Torani syrup. As an inside bit of humor I also included two Symphony chocolate bars for dessert. Reckoning I could navigate the dangerous waters between the Scylla of charity and the Charybdis of third-class no better than this, I set my mind to balancing my checkbook.

Of course I failed to calm my fears of rejection--so absurd, to fear rejection by a woman perched on such an insecure ledge--but she was a woman nonetheless, and one that I wanted to know.

I would like to report that I arrived at the library precisely at 10:58, calm and secure, but that would be a laughable fabrication. I arrived at 10:45 and immediately began pacing most nervously. All attempts to berate myself to serenity failed, and as my watch clicked over to 11:03 I cursed my own inability to see her rejection upfront, and my weakness for internal fantasy.

The shelter was only a few blocks away, and I reckoned she had little cause to be late. A picnic planned for two but consumed by one had a pathetic air about it, but it was better than wasting such lovingly prepared food. I was walking back to my car when someone touched my elbow, and I spun around.

"Sorry I'm late," she said in a rush. "Some bureaucratic hassles ate up my whole morning."

"That's okay," I said, mildly shocked by her prettiness and the effort she'd made to dress up. She wore a long, airy skirt of cream-colored taffeta and a matching top which reveled in her bared brown shoulders. She wore no makeup--from what I'd seen of shelters, there weren't many spots suited to applying makeup--but her expression held a lively, fresh-scrubbed energy and I was pleased to see the bright curiosity in her eyes.

"My car's over here," I said, and as we walked, a dozen questions and doubts came to my mind. "You're not a vegetarian, are you?" I asked querulously, and she shook her head. "That would be a luxury," she replied wryly. "Sometimes the only, quote, vegetable, unquote, we get is iceberg lettuce. You know how much nutrition is in iceberg lettuce?"

"Basically none," I answered, and she nodded acknowledgement, adding, "No, I take whatever I can get. The meals for a quarter worked for me, but then they closed that down. The city said the workers had to get a living wage, and the church couldn't afford that, so they closed the whole thing down."

I didn't know what to say--it certainly seemed perverse--and I was saved by the mechanics of unlocking my car. It's not an easy thing to casually inquire about life as a homeless person, and I had struggled with how to do so while preparing the picnic lunch. I ended up deciding that talking around the elephant in the room was both futile and somehow demeaning, and so as she sat quietly looking out the window I said, "You look great today."

"Thanks," she replied. "I actually borrowed this outfit. I don't have anything this nice right now."

"You looked great the other day, too," I said, and she waved away the compliment with a sort of weary rejection, saying, "Oh, sure. And what was that? Blue jeans and a T-shirt?"

"Something like that," I said uncertainly, and she smoothed the wrinkled fabric of the skirt over her knee with just the sort of self-consciousness I would have used on a borrowed tuxedo.

"You know," I said conversationally, "you don't look like someone who needs to be in a shelter. Do you mind me asking what it's all about?"

"I was hoping you'd ask," she said wryly, and I couldn't tell if it was light sarcasm or a veiled relief. Her summary was completed before we even arrived at the marina parking lot, a matter of five minutes or less. It was a typical tale of the underbelly of American life: the self-absorbed mother, the two stepfathers, the last one creepy enough to pursuade her to move in with a druggie boyfriend at 16; as a favor to the boyfriend, she'd muled a shipment of marijuana and was of course caught; an unpleasant stay in the juvenile justice system--how unpleasant could be ascertained by her acerbic use of "juvenile injustice system" to describe the proceedings and subsequent jail term--eventually dumped her on the street with a record and little else but an acquired taste for the gauzy smoothing of life's edges provided by marijuana.

I gathered it wasn't a junkie's sordid life, but more of a roller-coaster of living with boyfriends who happened to be dealers and the high-life interrupted by occasional busts which characterize that lifestyle. She was off the weed but not finding many resources for going straight; you can pick up trash all day forever, she'd commented dryly, and that's not gonna lead to anything better.

I was relieved it wasn't worse--and it could be so much worse in this land of the free, as I well knew--and I laid out the goza mat and picnic with a sense of relief that the worst was over and now we could proceed with the present. She ate the offerings with gusto, and I realized how much I liked women with appetites, women who weren't afraid to be hungry and lay right into a chicken breast sandwich with gusto. Girls about ten or eleven have no scruples about eating with gusto; they're hungry and it looks yummy, so they eat just like boys do, with a natural abandon. The fear of showing hunger comes later, along with the fear that there might be mustard smeared on your cheek; but Josie had few such prissy qualms, and I liked that in her.

She was named, she said--who knows if she'd taken the name recently, or made it up for my benefit, but I think not--after a classic jazz-rock tune. It seemed to fit her description of her parents' worldview--she wasn't named Claire or Emma, after all--and I reckoned the name fit her in being uncommon.

"How about you?" she asked as we finished off the red grapes. "What have you done with life?"

"The usual," I replied. "A career in urban planning, not as grand as I'd once hoped, and the typical number of failed romances."

"No arrests?" she asked mischievously.

"None that I can remember," I said, and I liked her sudden laugh. Reaching into the basket, I retrieved the two candy bars and handed one to her, saying, "I thought we'd celebrate with style."

"My, my," she said, examining the bar with feigned curiosity and then slowly unwrapping it. She nibbled on the chocolate, and looked rather pensively over the grass to the sparkling wavetops in the Bay. "I don't need saving, you know," she said firmly, and I was taken aback by the barely concealed hurt in her words.

Repressing my own hurt--as if that was the sum total of my interest in her, to be some gilded savior of the poor homeless--I issued a big sigh and said, "I was hoping you'd bring that up."

Her somber expression broke at my poor attempt at humor, and she appraised me with new eyes.
"I am in fact a living saint whose only interest in life is uplifting the poor and needy," I intoned, and as I'd hoped, she couldn't quite suppress a giggle. "Believe me, I surprised the Hell out of myself by inviting you on this picnic," I said with the surety of truth. "You want to know why I did?" Answering my own question, I said, "Because I like your face. I've been thinking about it, and that's what it boils down to. I like looking at you."

She was quiet and I added, "Pretty dumb, huh?"

"Not at all," she said, and I found a soaring power in those three simple words.

May you have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving-- CHS. 

My new book Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It is now available in print and Kindle editions--10% to 20% discounts. 

 Thank you, Catherine M. ($5), for your most-welcome generous contribution to this site--I am greatly honored by your support and readership. 

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