Chapter 1

(2007)

 

I stepped outside my favorite pub near Union Square for a smoke, belly full of bangers and mash. I was used to the cold, damp fog of the Bay Area by then, and there was no shortage of it that night. I had just taken my first long, after dinner drag when a teenage girl–no more than seventeen–with an Army jacket and backpack walked up to me, ghostlike and wordless, communicating her desire to bum a cigarette with a faint hand gesture. In the flame, I could see that her face was blue and green on one side, and for a brief moment, her dark brown eyes pierced mine. They were hard eyes, but there was something about the way she looked at me that let me know that she was in great need. Before I had a chance to ask, she was disappearing into the fog at a swift pace, glancing back at me only for a moment.

I had grown accustomed to the significant number of people on the street; she was just one more person. There were people in need everywhere I turned, and I’d learned that it was best not to make eye contact with them because there’s something about the eyes that make people believe that you might be of help to them. She had caught me off guard.

I walked back inside for a final toast to another day of being a lonely drunk in a city that mostly ignored me, even on the occasion of my thirty-fifth birthday.

I might have forgotten her altogether except that I saw her again the very next night, tucked in the shadows near the pub. She seemed to be watching me. I held out my pack of Camels, but she didn’t move, so I popped out a cigarette and lit it up for myself becoming distracted by a group of boisterous young revelers streaming into the bar.

When I turned to face the street again, she was there before me, just as she had been the night before; silent, weary, and bruised. I held out my pack and expensive Dunhill lighter, waiting for her to take it. She looked at me with hard, discerning eyes and then at the lighter.

“Help yourself,” I said.

She took them and flitted away. I opened my mouth to call after her, but she was gone before any words formed. I finished the rest of my cigarette, stamped it out, and began my walk up to my apartment. When I reached my block, I stepped into Li’s for a new pack and a new lighter.

“Camel Blue?” said a small, middle-aged Chinese man behind the counter.

“Yeah, and a lighter. Just had mine stolen.”

“Stolen? A pickpocket?”

“No. Just what I get for showing a little kindness.”

I grabbed the first disposable lighter and dropped it on the counter with a twenty. Li pulled down a bottle of Scotch and held it out to me.

“Have a drink with that, Mr. James?”

I thought of my quickly-dwindling supply and nodded. Never hurts to be stocked.

When I got to my place, I tucked the bottle under my left arm and fumbled for my keys, but I dropped them. On the ground next to the keys in the center of my welcome mat was my Dunhill lighter. I picked it up and examined it for a second then looked around quickly to see if the girl was nearby.

For the next few evenings, I watched for her, but if she was there, she had kept herself well-hidden. Then one particularly chilly night, I walked out of the pub with leftover dinner and saw her once again in the shadows across the street. I held the styrofoam box out to her, and she swiftly crossed and took it from me.

We repeated this ritual for most of the next week. She never said a word.

When I arrived by foot at my first-floor apartment around the corner from Chinatown, I picked out a Laphroaig 10, filled a tumbler, and settled into my leather club chair to hopefully pass out into a dreamless sleep. The chair had been my bed for the months since I’d moved here.

I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep until I was suddenly awake again. She didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. She just stared back at me with a single question in her weary eyes. I wasn’t sure if she was actually there. My body still slumbered in a scotch-induced stupor, but my eyes were awake, and the shock of seeing someone at my window in the middle of a cold night had set my ears ringing. I understood what she was asking. When I opened the door, she bolted in and quickly shut it behind her. She was breathing hard and shivering. No words had come to my mind, so I did not speak, and even if they had, my tongue would have been too slow with drunkenness and sleep to form anything but foolishness. She gave me a hard look then sat down on my couch.

For someone who seemed to be living on the street, she didn’t smell bad–only of damp, night air and cigarette smoke, and her clothes looked relatively fresh; same jeans, Army jacket, backpack, and sneakers. I poured her a brandy from a crystal decanter – the one thing I kept for myself when I left – and sank back down in the leather club. She put the glass to her lips, her eyes never leaving mine, her mouth showing only a trace of a grimace from the strength of the drink as she swallowed.

She broke the silence. “I’m Amy.”

I took a sip of scotch and cleared my throat a bit. “I’m James.” The words hung around my spinning head as if they weren’t mine. “What’s going on? Are you in some sort of danger?”

But she did not answer. She wrapped herself in the Indian wool blanket slung over the arm of the couch and took another sip of brandy, making a sour face this time. She put it down on the coffee table between us.

“Do you need to call anybody?” I asked.

She shook her head and pulled the blanket closer around her. She was calming down.

“Amy, are you ok?” I asked.

She nodded and laid her head down on the cushion. She seemed so at home–or maybe just too exhausted to care.

I watched her sleep for a while and listened to her breathing–almost peaceful– unconsciously timing it with the ticking of the mantel clock. Asleep, her face was a child’s, spoiled only by the fading green and purple bruise under her right eye.

She was gone when I awoke the next morning. The blanket was folded on the arm of the couch precisely as it had been when she’d arrived, brandy snifter put away.

As I let the steam from my freshly brewed coffee rise to my face, I wondered where she was and if I would see her again. We were both running away from cruel hands; hers dealt with a blow to the face and mine dealt by tragic fate.

That evening, I was walking home from work. It had been a week since I’d found her at my door, and now she was waiting for the light to change with a cigarette dangling from her slender fingers, backpack slung over her shoulder.

The light turned green. I called her name, “Amy!”

She glanced my way and lurched across the street with strides as long as she could manage. I crossed the street to try to slow her down enough to exchange a few words. But what did we have to say? We knew nothing about each other.

“Hey, wait up!”

She turned and fixed me with a fierce stare. “What do you want?”

“You just took off. You could have at least said goodbye, or how about a thank you?”

“Thank you,” she said curtly and turned to walk on.

“Wait, what are you doing right now? Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

She stopped and shook her head. “Ok,” she said with her back still to me, “But I don’t owe you anything. I appreciate you helping me,” she turned to face me, “but I don’t need anything else from you.” She took a drag from her cigarette, dropped it, and stamped it out.

We stepped into a little cafe owned by a Lebanese friend of mine. “Farid! How are you? Can I get two regular coffees, black?”

“Sure thing, boss,” said a stocky, balding, sixty-something man with olive skin, a broad nose, and a gold tooth. He’d told me once that in a former life he’d been a debt collector for a loan shark in the rough side of Beirut, but I couldn’t imagine him hurting a fly. “You want that served in golden teacups, or are these old second-hand mugs good enough for His Majesty?”

“Very funny. If it’s not too much trouble, we’ll just take it over here in the corner.”

I turned around, and Amy was gone. I took my seat and wondered if I would see her again, but just as I was deciding that she had duped me, she emerged from the restroom and joined me.

I took a moment to take her in. She seemed to have grown a layer of toughness since that late-night weeks before. The bruise on her left cheek had mostly healed. She boldly returned my gaze, unflinching; her dark eyes, long dark wavy hair, and brooding eyebrows. Her face was young, but her eyes stared back at me with a maturity beyond their years. In that moment, I saw her beauty.

Farid dropped two coffee mugs on the table and made a habitual clucking sound with his tongue.

I raised my mug to Amy and said, “Cheers.”

She let out a slow breath and raised her mug to mine. “Cheers.”

A long silence followed our toast. We sipped our coffees and stared out of the window at the passersby and a black man wearing a toboggan hat and a tattered coat asking for change with one of Farid’s mugs.

“So, what’s with you?” I asked. “Do you have a place to stay? Do you need some cash?”

The city was growing grayer as she sipped her coffee, perhaps considering her next move. “Buy me dinner,” she said without looking away from the window.

I was surprised. “How old are you?” I asked.

She snickered unsmilingly. “How old are you?”

Perhaps she pitied me; I was just as lost as she was. Maybe she was just hungry. Whatever it was, I was hungry, too, and for just a little while, I thought I might find solace in a lonely world with another runaway.

The rain stirred the dormant smell of bum piss as we stepped onto the sidewalk. Neither one of us had an umbrella, but she didn’t seem to care, and neither did I. The water mixed with the dust on the sidewalk, creating a fine grit beneath our feet as we turned down O’Farrell toward the pub where we had our first encounter. Condensation clung to the windows of McMillen’s from the chatter of many warm bodies inside. I stopped outside under the overhanging, pulled out a pack of Camel Blues, and offered her a smoke. She waved it away and pulled out her Marlboro Reds. I tried to light her cigarette, but my lighter was on the blink. She pulled out a Zippo and flicked out a flame before I could give it a third try. We both stared out at the traffic of people–mostly tourists but some walking from work or to meet friends at restaurants and bars. I felt lame and old, and still a tourist myself in this place.

She leaned back on the painted brick and took a long drag, blew smoke out of the side of her mouth in a steady gust, dropped it onto the cement, and then walked past me into the pub. I followed.

We were seated in the far end of the pub away from the bar behind two men in expensive suits with lanyards around their necks–probably a conference at the Moscone Convention Center. She slung her backpack onto the back of her chair and slid into her seat.

“So what’s good here?” she asked as she perused the menu.

I wondered when her last meal had been. Where was she living? Did she have friends to help her out? Did she have a job?

“The bangers and mash are the best in town,” I said.

She grimaced and turned to another page of the menu.

“The fish and chips are delicious if you don’t mind a little grease,” I said.

We sat in silence as we waited for the server to take our order. Her eyes scanned the room as she sipped ice water.

“So tell me about yourself. Do you have a place to stay? Do you have a job?” I asked.

Her eyes met mine with a stern look. “Why are you that way?” she asked.

“What way? What do you mean?” I asked.

She gestured at me, head to foot.

“This way. Look at yourself. You’re alone. You’re buying dinner for a teenage girl. You know nothing about me. You don’t even know who or what you are.”

This teenage girl had just reduced my life to this. Just then, the waiter approached to take our order. He wore a crisp white dress shirt and a white apron.

“Two fish and chips and two Stella’s. And could you bring some vinegar with that?” I said. He took our menus and sped off.

I didn’t know what to say to her. She reached into her pocket and pulled out an iPhone and made a few swipes with her index finger then put it back in her pocket. She swept her hair away from her face.

“Look, I’m sorry,” she said, her tone softening. “I’m sure you’re a nice guy. I just don’t know a lot of nice guys.”

“It’s ok. Maybe you’re right about me. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing half the time. This is what my life is like: I wake up, grab a cup of coffee and a scone from the same cafe every morning, walk to work, leave work, come to this pub to eat dinner and drink a pint, smoke a few cigarettes, walk up the street to my house, and drink myself to sleep with expensive single malt. This is the first real conversation I’ve had this week.”

She looked down at the table for a moment. She slumped in her chair. “I ran away from home,” she said, still looking down. “I don’t know what I’m doing either. I just know that I can’t go back.”

She looked up at me, and there were tears in her eyes. In that moment, she was just a lost, little girl who needed someone, anyone, to show her only a little tenderness. I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her that everything would be ok. I reached out to touched her hand, but she pulled it away. She wiped her eyes hastily with the palm of her hands and took another sip of her water.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

When our food arrived, her hunger took over. She ate without saying another word, never stopping to wipe the grease that dribbled on to her chin and over her fingers. She sipped the beer tentatively.

I studied her as she ate. Her face flushed, probably from the beer and the warmth of the pub, and for a moment, I didn’t feel quite as lost.

A band began to set up on the other side of the pub. They plugged in amps and microphones and tuned guitars with a nonchalance that comes from having played a thousand gigs. One guy, maybe the singer, brushed his long hair aside from his face as he took a moment to survey the crowd. Had they come to see him? Or did they just come for the beer.

We’d come here to get out of the rain and share a meal. But what else? What was I doing here with this girl? Was it concern? Was it loneliness? Or simply curiosity. She’d been treated poorly. That was evident. I wanted her to know that there were nice guys in the world, but I wasn’t even sure I was a nice guy. I was half a bum, half a drunk, and the other half lost soul.

I ordered two shots of whiskey. The waiter never questioned Amy’s age, and she seemed content to drink with me. Maybe it wasn’t right of me to buy alcohol for a minor, but she’d been living hard enough to deserve it.

When the waiter brought the whiskey, I raised my glass to Amy and said, “Cheers.”

She stared at me while I drank, smirking. She sipped gingerly. It was a strong drink for such a young girl.

“So, James. What now? Are you just going to get me drunk and make your move? Is this what you do?”

“Relax, I don’t even have any moves. Hey, how about a smoke? It’s about to get loud in here.” I nodded to the band, who was starting their mic check.

I paid up, and we wove our way out through the growing crowd. A few guys sitting at the bar cheered at the television, and the chatter around the place was becoming a little livelier. The night was just beginning for them. She got out before I did, and when I stepped onto the sidewalk, she was gone. I quickly turned to find her. She was crossing back down the street at a rapid pace. I called after her, running. And just as she turned to look at me, my world went upside down.

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