In the early afternoon, Cindi asks me to come for a very late dinner, after ten o’clock. I oblige. It is my second and final night in my eight-by-eight and I’d prefer to lay on the soft bed, naked, dreaming of a life that is past. But I oblige.
“Evelyn wished she could come tonight, but we agreed it might not be the safest idea,” Cindi says when I enter her apartment.
I notice more tonight than last night. She has photos everywhere – on the mantlepiece, on the walls, on the bar between the kitchenette and living space. I recognize some of them as her birth family. Others are surely her adoptive family. A man stands with one arm around her in several shots taken in Baltimore. I used to love Baltimore. Once, like an intensely distant dream.
“Is this your partner?” I ask, pointing to the dimpled guy.
“Lucas. Yes. Well, I guess it depends what you mean exactly. We’ve dated for, gosh, seven years! Am I turning red? It sounds so embarrassing to say it out loud.”
“Don’t be embarrassed. If it works for you…”
“It does,” she says in a contented purr. For a second, she is lost in her mind. I wait it out.
“So,” she says, walking to the drop-leaf table, “what will you do tomorrow?”
I sit at the open seat across from her. She serves me Thai take-out, which smells too divine for this sinner.
“I don’t know. Any suggestions?”
“Look, a bunch of great people come through here, and they’ve either made some bad choices or some really good ones and need me for a few nights every few weeks. Where they go and what they do in between is something of a mystery. I can typically feel out the junkies or the ones on a death spiral. They’re the ones I try to help most, you know. A person can only stretch so far before they give out.”
“Are you able to help many?”
“Sometimes,” she says, pausing to finish a bite. “Sometimes I can help for a window of time, but the streets have a way of making bad habits worse.”
“How can people afford to keep up their habits?”
Cindi looks at me as if I’m a baby rabbit about to be snatched skyward by a hawk. I feel every bit that small and naive.
“People find ways, you know?” That’s all she says.
I eat second helpings and wash it down with as much coffee as I can hold. We talk about Evelyn. About Cindi’s work in the community. About her family. I start to make neural connections between my complicated feelings toward Evelyn and my gratefulness for people like Cindi and Cindi, herself.
“Seriously, where will you go?” Cindi’s voice takes on a motherly quality. She needs an answer before I leave. I don’t have one.
“Honestly? This is my first time being homeless. I don’t know what to do, where to go. By design, I’m trying harder to keep being homeless than to rise out of it, so I don’t know.” My own voice is petulant, childish. I’m frustrated. I want things to be easier than they are willing to be. And I weigh down with guilt for the absurd desire to wish becoming homeless was easier. It seems (because it is) like a slap to anyone with true hardship.
“May I make a suggestion?”
I nod, look away. Why do I act like a bruised teenager?
“Get started. On something, anything. Look, I get that you can’t go work on Capitol Hill. Do what you do best. Write.”
I ignore her assertion that writing is what I do best, or that she could possibly know what I do best. I’ve hit sullen.
“You need to set up a website with no connections to anybody or anything in your past life, right? Do it. Use the wi-fi you can get before you are too street to gain admittance anywhere. Then, let it simmer out in cyberspace while you meet…allies. Learn their stories. Learn the stories of the people who have lost everything.”
“And if they recognize me?”
“Street people can barely recognize themselves anymore. They watch little news. Many don’t look at people’s faces anymore. They tire of what they see – pity at best and disgust, not even the worst.”
A black hole forms in my gut, sucking everything inward.
“You just need to build relationships. Lean on somebody, help them remember how valuable they are. Then they’ll begin to lean on you a little. It’s going to take time, and you’ve been given as much as you could ever need. You have all the time in the world. But if you build those relationships now, you can begin to collect stories for later. Invest the time now so that you can change everything.”
I know she means well. I recognize a pep talk when I hear one. But I don’t want to be pepped. I want to be led? Or instructed? I don’t know the proper word.
“How can I lean on someone who has even less than I do?”
“Ahh,” she says with faltering amusement – or is that just my interpretation of something else? “It’ll come to you.”
We chat again and I stuff myself with take-out, switching to water after a few cups of coffee. Before I leave, Cindi asks permission to hug me. I can’t think it will be anything but awkward, but I allow it anyway. It’s a hug she’s given many times over. A hug to a stranger you want badly to be a okay. A hug to a person ‘in a bad way’, as my grandma would have said.