Fiction by Michele Rosen, Art by Jill Burhans
Stan slumped against the filthy tile wall. Every few minutes, he took a swig from a bottle of cheap vodka hidden in a crumpled paper bag. It was Friday, and it felt late. If he didn't see her today, he might have to wait until Monday, and he didn't know if he had enough vodka to last until then.
He had nothing to think about while he waited – nothing safe, anyway. For the first few weeks after he found her, he had debated whether or not to approach her. He wasn't crazy enough to think she would throw herself into his arms and beg him to take her back. And if she wasn't going to do that, then he didn't want to know what she would do – laugh, or recoil in disgust, or worst of all, offer him money. The way he looked these days, she might not even recognize him.
Instead, he passed the time reading the newspapers commuters dropped on their way from here to there. But he looked up frequently because he didn't want to miss her. During the few delicious, searing moments while she walked by, he didn't need to think. He was consumed by the living vision of his past and his present. As far as he was concerned, there was no future.
When he allowed himself to think about her, he focused on the early days, back in high school. They were in homeroom together sophomore year. He noticed her on the first day because she was the only girl in the popular clique who wasn't wearing makeup. Most of the girls wore so much foundation, lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, and eye shadow that Stan suspected a light tap would crack their faces like an eggshell. Not that he would ever get close enough to touch one of them. But Julia seemed to know that her translucent skin, her dark blue eyes, and the curly brown hair framing her heart-shaped face looked just fine the way they were. Stan agreed wholeheartedly. Of course he thought he would never get to tell her – guys whose fathers worked in the factory never got close to girls whose fathers ran the factory.
The guys, however, got very close to each other – particularly whenever the rich guys felt like boosting their egos by ragging on the poor guys. One day, at lunch, a particularly sadistic jerk named Danny was amusing himself by throwing fries at the back of Stan's head. Stan tried to ignore it. If he got into a fight, Danny's father would show up to explain how his son couldn't possibly have started it. Stan's father, on the other hand, hadn't stepped foot in Kent County High School since he dropped out. Stan looked up at the clock. Lunch would be over in five minutes. He settled in to wait it out. But then, Stan heard Julia say the words that still made his skin tingle when he thought of them.
"Hey Danny," she said. "Just because you've got more money than someone doesn't make you a better person."
Danny paused, not knowing what to say. Finally he came up with a brilliant comeback.
"Whatever," he said.
But he stopped throwing fries at Stan.
The next day, Stan got to homeroom early so that he could put a brown paper bag under Julia's desk without anyone seeing. A few minutes later, he watched her breeze into the room. Stan held his breath. She sat down and pulled the bag out from under her desk, set it on her lap, and opened it just wide enough to peek in. Stan couldn't see her face from where he was sitting. She looked in the bag for a few seconds, then folded it back up and put it in her backpack. Well, what did I expect? Stan thought. It was worth a shot.
That day at lunch, Julia sat down across from Stan. He stared at his slice of pizza, not daring to look up or say anything.
"Thank you for the painting, Stan," Julia said.
"You... you liked it?" he asked.
"Of course I did. It's beautiful," she said.
Stan had given Julia his best painting, a small beach scene at sunset he had copied from a postcard. No one but Mrs. Callahan, the art teacher, had ever complimented his work before.
"Thanks," he said.
Stan figured that would be the end of the conversation. To this day, he was surprised by what Julia said next.
"Do you want to hang out after school today?" she asked.
He looked up at her, unable to speak. But she smiled, clearly able to see that the answer was yes.
"Cool," she said. "Meet me by the gym door at 3."
With that, she got up and faded back into reality.
Against all odds, they became friends. Julia said she liked being with Stan because the kids she usually hung out with were all "shallow hypocrites." Stan liked hanging out with Julia because she was the only person in his life who made him feel like he was worth something. When he was with her, he could forget about his father's drunken tirades about Stan's mother, about how she had ruined his life by sticking him with this "useless kid" when she abandoned her husband and her 7-year-old son to run off with her boss.
For the first couple of years they had just been friends. He had always been afraid to make the first move, to lose the one valuable thing he had in his life. Then, one day, he told her he had won first prize in a statewide art competition she had encouraged him to enter. In response, she kissed him, first out of joy, then with passion. He wrapped his arms around her and melted. Nothing this good was ever supposed to happen to him. His father had told him so a thousand times.
His father may have been a drunken bastard, but as it turned out, he was right. Even though Stan spent a lot of time with Julia, he hadn't completely cut ties with his friends from the neighborhood. Adrian, Alberto, and Anthony – known collectively as the A-Team – had all dropped out of school as soon as it was legal. Adrian and Al took jobs at the factory, and Tony went to work for his father's landscaping company. They got a hole in the wall apartment together and partied every night. Sometimes, Stan would join them. On one Saturday night in April, the A-Team held a particularly raucous party in honor of Adrian's eighteenth birthday. Around 2 a.m., someone threw a blender through a neighbor's window. The cops showed up and arrested everyone they could get their hands on. They got Stan, who was carrying a couple of ounces of marijuana in his jacket pocket. Possession with intent to distribute plus a public defender plus a hardass judge resulted in a two-year prison sentence.
Through the whole ordeal – the arrest, the trial, and the first few weeks in jail – Stan kept expecting a guard to show up and tell him he had a visitor. But Julia never came. He sent letters to her parents' house, but they had all been returned unopened. After the fifth letter came back, he walked up to the first guy he saw and punched him in the face. The guards threw him in the hole. While he sat shivering in the dark, empty cell, he finally realized that Julia must have realized how wrong she had been about him after he got arrested. She had done the right thing by walking away. He had his chance to escape, but in the end, his true nature had won out over the image of himself she had helped him build by believing in him.
When he got out of jail, he drifted around the country, working odd jobs and living in a beat up old Monte Carlo that only ran about half of the time. Six years went by in a haze of alcohol and despair. He was washing dishes at a diner in Gainesville, Florida on 9/11. He barely noticed, even though the news was on 24/7. A few days later, as he was carrying a tray of dishes back to the kitchen, he thought he heard a familiar voice on the TV. He looked up and saw Julia, standing on a street corner in lower Manhattan, microphone in hand. She looked exhausted but determined as she reported on the city's efforts to recover from the catastrophe. Stan dropped the tray of dishes. He quit before his boss could fire him, sold the Monte Carlo for $100, and headed for the Greyhound station.
It took him a few weeks to build up the courage to go to Rockefeller Plaza, where WNBC's offices were located. Finally, he made it as far as the cavernous subway station that ran under the iconic building. There, he got stuck. He couldn't bring himself to go above ground, to stake out her office. But he couldn't seem to walk away either. So except for short trips to a nearby soup kitchen and the liquor store, he spent his time in the station, waiting.
He was so drunk that he almost didn't see her. It was late one Thursday. His first glimpse of her felt like a Taser blast. She was wearing the typical New York City uniform – a black suit, black blouse, black stockings, black leather pumps, and a black trench coat – an ensemble that would only be seen at a funeral anywhere but Manhattan. Her curly brown hair bounced as she walked, brushing her shoulders. At this distance, he could barely make out her dark blue eyes, her small earlobes adorned with gold hoop earrings, her full lips... He watched in stunned silence as she strode down the hallway with an expression of mild disgust on her face, as if she smelled something rotten. Within seconds, she was gone.
That night, he got good and plastered. When he came to, he realized he would have to cut back on the booze if he wanted to see her again. He would have to be vigilant. He tried not to leave his post between 5 p.m. and midnight, but sometimes the cops rousted him out along with the rest of the lost men and women who spent their days and nights in the station. Tonight, though, he was sitting in his usual spot when she appeared. He peered at her intently from under the brim of his Yankees cap and felt his heart begin to race.
Julia clattered down the stairs and into the dank subway station. Her momentum propelled her down the hall despite the fact that she had no desire to get where she was going. The station was fairly empty, most commuters having long since settled into their suburban nests for the evening. Dinner eaten, family time spent, and children packed off to bed, they were now doing the dishes or paying bills or arguing or watching Law and Order or ER or NYPD Blue or whatever drivel the networks had seen fit to send over the cable tonight. Julia snickered at her own cynicism. Where do you get off mocking them? she chided herself. You're one of them now, even if you don't like to admit it.
Julia strode through the cavernous subway station toward the turnstiles. Not only do you not like to admit it, she thought, you still refuse to accept it. Well, you'd better accept it. You're going to marry Andrew in June, and you're going to live in that enormous McMansion he bought you in Short Hills, and you're going to LIKE IT.
As it often did, the thought of marrying Andrew made her think of Stan, and that brought on the inevitable wave of nauseating guilt. After all this time, I still miss him, she thought. But what was I supposed to do? He was dragging me down...
Julia shook her head. No, she thought. That's what my parents said. They never liked him, never thought he would amount to anything. They never even bothered to get to know him – they just wrote him off from day one, like everyone else. Except me. I believed in him. He could have been a great artist. How could he be so stupid? What did he expect me to do – wait for him until he got out of jail? How was I supposed convince my parents he wasn't a deadbeat after he went and got himself arrested?
As she pushed through the turnstile and walked down the ramp toward the platform, she realized she had been fiddling with her engagement ring, shifting it from finger to finger as she walked. Mom's right, I am going to lose the damn thing. And wouldn't that be a shame.
That last bit of sarcasm gave her pause. What the hell is my problem? Why can't I stop dwelling on this? I made my decision. Now I've got a good job, a good fiancé, a good house. My parents were right. This is the way the world works. I had to grow up.
Despite her best efforts, Julia kept thinking about Stan. How he made her laugh. How he was the only one who could make her stop worrying about the future and focus on the present. How he had a sensitivity she had never found in her other friends. And then one day, he ended up just where everyone else had always said he would. Julia had cried for days after she found out he'd been arrested. She kept telling herself she was going to go visit him, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. She knew that if she saw him again she wouldn't be able to walk away. At the end of June, she packed up her car and left for college. She hadn't seen him since. I wonder where... I wonder where he is now? she thought.
Julia gasped as the ring slipped from her fingers. She stood frozen in horror as she watched it roll down the hallway towards the drain. Andrew will never forgive me for losing it, she thought.
Then she saw a homeless man lurch up from his seat on the filthy station floor and launch himself toward the ring. He slapped his hand down on it seconds before it fell into the drain. Julia felt a wave of relief, quickly followed by a wave of fear. What if he wouldn't give it back? Then he stood up. He was very tall, and he plodded toward her like Frankenstein's monster, head down, arm outstretched, holding her ring in his open palm. Instinctively, she backed away. So when the police officer came around the corner, he saw a homeless man advancing on a well-dressed woman who was backing away with a shocked look on her face.
Stan felt the ring in his hand before he saw it. He knew exactly what it was. The sharp edge of the diamond cut into the fleshy crease between his callused palm and his index finger. He couldn't look at it. He didn't have to. The ring burned like a brand. She's engaged. I shouldn't be surprised, he thought. He felt like he had just been kicked in the stomach.
He rose and walked toward her like a zombie, feet thudding on the tile floor, head hung low, open palm outstretched toward her, hoping she would just snatch the ring and leave before she got a good look at him. He usually didn't worry too much that she'd notice him when he was sitting on the floor, because no one ever looked a homeless person in the eye if they could help it. But if he got close enough to her, he was afraid she might recognize him. The thought both thrilled and terrified him.
As it turned out, he didn't have to worry about it. Before he could get near her, his path was blocked by a short, round cop.
"Freeze!" the cop yelled. Stan froze. Oh holy shit, he thought. She's going to see me. Please don't let her recognize me. Not like this. Not like this...
The cop grabbed his outstretched arm, twisted it up, and spun Stan around. Stan managed to close his fist around the ring and turn his head to the side before the cop slammed him into the wall. He did this instinctively. After being slammed into walls face first a few times, he had learned how to react.
Julia stared at the homeless man's face. She couldn't see much – his head was turned to the side, face pressed into the wall, and most of it was darkened by the shadow cast by the brim of his filthy baseball cap. But even though she hadn't accepted it yet, she knew deep down who he was. Finally she allowed the thought to seep into her conscious mind. Stan..., she thought. It's Stan... She opened her mouth to say his name, but couldn't bring herself to do it. Not in front of this police officer. She had to get rid of him first.
"Thank you officer, thank you," she stammered. "My ring..."
"What's that?" the cop said as he quickly patted the homeless man down and pulled his arms behind his back so he could cuff him.
"He has my ring," Julia whispered.
"Oh he stole your ring, did he?" the cop said over his shoulder.
The homeless man opened his right hand, and the cop snatched the ring.
"I thought..." Julia started to say, but the cop interrupted her.
"You thought he was gonna get ya, didn't ya," the cop said, turning to her and smiling once he got a good look at her. "Good thing I got here when I did, huh?"
Julia thought the cop looked like a pit bull waiting to be praised for ripping the head off of a squirrel.
"He didn't steal it," Julia whispered.
"What's that?" the cop asked again.
"He didn't steal it," she said more clearly. "I dropped it and he picked it up."
"Sounds like he was gonna steal it," the cop said.
"I... I don't think so," she said. "Can I have my ring back?"
"Well, no, ma'am, I'm going to need that as evidence," he said.
"Evidence?" she asked. "Can't I just take it and go?"
"Well if you don't want to press charges, it's up to you, ma'am," the cop said, his grin fading. "But you can't let these scumbags get away with anything. Give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile."
"That's alright, officer. You can let him go. I'd just like to go home," she said.
The officer looked disappointed.
"Alright, ma'am. If that's really what you want," he said.
"Yes, please," Julia said. "Thank you again, officer."
"Alright then," the cop said. "You be careful and you have a nice night."
"Thank you, officer. Goodbye."
The officer uncuffed the homeless man – Stan, she thought, as if recognizing him again for the first time. It's Stan.
"I'll be watching you, buddy," the cop said to Stan. "Don't screw up."
Then he smiled at Julia and walked away, whistling.
Stan hadn't been able to concentrate on the conversation between Julia and the cop. He just kept hoping that she wouldn't recognize him. Then he felt the cop grab his wrists and uncuff them. What the hell? he thought. The cop put his face right next to Stan's and made some idle threat. He was so close Stan could smell onions and cigarette smoke on his breath. Then the cop walked away. Oh shit, Stan thought. Now what do I do?
He opened his eyes and looked up. Julia was standing there, looking at him. He ducked his head and started to walk away, hoping she hadn't recognized him. Before he took three steps, though, he heard her whisper his name.
"Stan?" she said. "Is it really you?"
He considered denying it. I never wanted her to see me like this, he thought. He took another step, but then he stopped and turned, as if some outside force were controlling his movements.
"It's me, Julia," he said quietly. Then he just stood there, staring at the floor.
Julia didn't know what to say either. He looked awful – ten years older than he should, dirty, wearing ragged, mismatched clothing. Julia felt a stab of pain in the pit of her stomach. She still didn't know what to say. Finally, he broke the silence.
"Thanks for getting that cop off my back," he said.
"Thanks for saving my..." she started.
She felt another stab of pain lance through her gut as she realized what he must know now that he saved her ring from falling down the drain.
"Your ring," he said.
She could hear the bitterness in his voice.
"Stan," Julia said, her voice rising and panic distorting her face. "I..."
"It's okay, Julia," he said, enjoying the sound of his voice saying her name. "You don't have to say anything. You should just go."
"But..." she said.
"But what?" he said. "What is there to say? It's too late for... words. For anything."
Julia felt tears run down her cheeks. She couldn't just leave. There had to be something she could say, something she could do. But she knew him well enough to know that he would rather die than accept charity, especially from her. Finally, she thought of the only thing she could do for him.
"I've missed you," she said.
He tilted his head up slightly and looked down into her eyes. A wave of regret swept through his body, making him feel light headed and dizzy. What could we have been? he thought. What could I...
"Thank you, Julia," he said, trying to hide his pain. He couldn't quite bring himself to smile. "Thank you very much. But you really should go. Please."
The last word came out in a whisper. She understood then that he was deeply ashamed that she had seen him in his present condition. She nodded. The tears fell faster, and she tried not to sob.
"Take care of yourself, Stan," she said.
"You too, Julia," he replied.
After another moment, she turned and walked away. Stan watched her go, knowing he would probably never see her again. Somehow, though, he felt better than he had in a long time. It was as if a wound had finally closed. He turned and shuffled toward the stairs that led up to the street, heading toward the homeless shelter, and, for the first time in a long time, toward the future.
Julia took off down the hall, accelerating quickly to an all-out power walk pace. Inside, she felt as limp as Stan's hair. The thud of her heels pounding on the tile floor echoed through the hallway. The train was pulling into the station. She got on as soon as the doors opened and fell into the first empty seat she found.
Already, the encounter was beginning to feel as if it hadn't really happened. But some part of her knew that, over time, seeing Stan again would have a profound effect on her life, even if she never saw him again. She looked down at her engagement ring. It looked different, somehow. She had a lot to think about. A tiny voice at the back of her mind began to whisper sad and subversive thoughts. The train rode on through the tunnel, rumbling clumsily but inexorably into the future.