By Nykki Norlander
I held my sign at Interstate 94 for a while with no luck. I have five dollars to my name which will buy me one meal for today. If I sleep under the same bridge tonight, I might get beat up. It’s easier to target someone who looks like they lost everything, but it is what it is. I will try again tomorrow. I will sleep in a park tonight. One day at a time. Second by second to stay alive. A spiral black vacated bench catches my eye, I hurry over and sit. My legs slowly stop screaming from standing too long. I sink back, slump and sigh.
I look up to see young people standing a few feet away from me in silence just like the wind and the usual busy street known as Nicollet Mall. My home most of the time. The girl has dark brown hair and dark eyes, she is wearing baggy black jeans and hoodie, and carries a large black purse with silver rhinestones polka-dotting the entire bag. In her hands, she holds her cell phone the long way, taking a picture of the man. He is staring off into the distance, his blue eyes matching the sky. I admire his black Tripp pants with pockets lined with purple fabric and his blue hoodie zipped low. His ponytail is tucked under his hoodie and I check to make sure mine is too. I wonder who they are to each other. I wonder about my own love life. It’s as lost as I am. Friendship has no home in my heart.
I reach into a pocket I made on the inside of my torn windbreaker and pull out my surviving spiral notebook. I open the cover to the first page and gently slide my finger along Riley’s final words as if it was his strong cheekbone.
“I will always love you.” I read loudly in my head. His last love letter. 2 years ago. “For as long as I’m gay, I can’t be alive.”
I close my eyes and soak myself with the memory of his face, his laugh that made him hiccup and fart when he laughed too hard, his forest green eyes, and his soft voice that he hated. Tree. I called him. I smile through my unshed tears. Warmth spills through my heart like hot tea. If only he was still here, I’d still have it all. Unfortunately, his family had taken everything for I had no rights even though we were married for a long time. Laws aren’t like how they are now. Our love was illegal.
The woman lowers her phone and looks away as the man looked at her. She blushes. She starts talking to him and I lean forward.
“It was good to see you again.”
He smiles softly at her.
Bus 10 pulls to a squeaky halt and they hug quickly before he boards.
The woman glances at me and walks away.
At sunset I am in a park downtown, lying in the grass on my back on top of a hill. The sky is too light for stars to shine through but I’m somewhere else, pretending they are there. My notebook is tucked safely in my jacket and I feel the shape of its presence against my heart. The man and woman stay on my mind and I wonder if she was sneaking the picture. I used to sneak pictures of Riley like that. He hated taking pictures but you have to document something of yourself to show you existed and leave behind a legacy. I would tell him that and he’d still hide behind his arm or cover his eyes and smile, exposing crooked white teeth. Sometimes I walk past our yellow house in Northeast Minneapolis. It was two stories tall with a four season porch taking up the whole front of the house. It was big enough for future children with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The house now has cracks spread across like wrinkles and a few of the porch windows are boarded up. Riley would’ve never let that happen. I hug myself and close my eyes, pressing the spirals of my notebook deeper into my skin.
Six months later
I am headed down Nicollet Mall and 4th street, early morning rain has soaked me through, the holes in my jacket inviting the rain in. My pants have holes and are too worn and dirty as well. I don’t care anymore right now. The black spiral bench is up ahead and I sprint, and sit. I check my notebook and wipe away the water, trying not to smear the ink of Riley’s letter. I do the same to the front cover and back cover and the rest of the pages. I sigh and pull leaves out of my graying beard. They prickle in my hand and I drop them to the ground and brush my hands against each other. The wind is mighty strong today and keeps tossing my hair around and making ripples in my jacket.
Like now, when it chases stray leaves down the tiled sidewalk. They flee into the street and cars chase them the opposite way and then back again.
Suddenly, something flies at my face and I catch it before it can pierce me in the eye. I stare down at a picture of a man.
Tripp pants, blue hoodie, blue eyes blue as the sky. The bus shelter appearing smaller because of his height. He is staring off into the distance, oblivious and lost in thought. I feel a twinge and admire how good looking he is. Riley was just as good looking if not more. He had forest green eyes like the leaves of trees, and dark brown hair though. He would approve of this man’s fashion choice. I smile.
I recognize him from a long time ago. A woman was taking the picture.
I glance up as bus 10, pulls to a short halt across the street, the bus hisses, sighs, lunges forward and drives away.
The same man stands alone in the same spot he got off, holding a duffel bag. His expression is tearful, like a window while it rains. He is wearing a different pair of Tripp pants, except this time the pockets are lined with blue and the chains stoop lower at his sides and connect in the same spot, his front pockets. His hoodie is black and has a large pocket in the front instead of a zipper. His chains clang as he walks along. He doesn’t look at me until he crosses the street. He nods to me and reaches into his deep pocket and pulls out some money. He offers it to me and without looking away from his eyes, I take it with my empty hand. My hands begin to violently shake. I almost drop the picture. He smiles without showing teeth and walks away, headed back across the street, and stands where he stood before.
I count $100.00. My heart is flooding faster than my eyes. I look at the picture again, the frozen memory, at the beauty in his eyes. I remember the woman, her leg bent slightly at the knee, leaning on it, making her appear shy. I flip the picture over. I read:
March 21st, 2012. Justin. My best friend. I finally got a picture!
I open my notebook and press the picture onto the third page.
I take out my permanent marker a kind employee at the homeless shelter gave me and I write Thank you, Justin below the photo. I close the notebook and write the people who have touched my life the most. On page two, I underline Thank you, Mary. The name of the employee at the homeless shelter. Lastly, I write my first letter to Riley on page four.
Life gets worse before it gets better. I wish you would’ve believed that.
I close my notebook and as I hold it against my heart with my eyes closed, I wonder how long this picture has been traveling with the wind.