Sunday, June 05, 2011

Ruby Slippers in the Emerald City

"Excuse me, ma'am," he said tentatively and I paused my movement along the waterfront to smile at him. He blinked at me, this darling teenager with dark eyes and curling hair, and smiled weakly in return before apologizing all over himself for bothering me.

"That's fine," I said, reaching for the map in my bag to offer him as I assumed he was a bit lost. I was feeling rather superior, of course, as even my sense of direction can't steer me wrong when the ocean bounds my path. Before I could hand over the brightly colored paper depicting landmarks as silly cartoons, he tugged his sweatshirt closed, pulled it open again and hurried through his speech.

"I'm from Texas," he said, "and took the bus here." He looked at me beseechingly and, remaining confused, I nodded encouragingly. "I'm going to work on a fishing boat," he told me, "but there's a hostel where I left my stuff and I need $9 to pay for the night."

"Oh," I breathed, realizing he wanted money. He differed - in age and appearance - from the rest of the homeless I'd seen that morning that I hadn't known. And my reserve had faded as I'd walked through the dawning light - taking photos and admiring the neon lights and distant mountains as they both glimmered in the morning.

"I'm sorry to ask," he said again, his young face looking pained and I shook my head as my brain clicked immediately into worry and think mode. "Most people ignore me and you've been so nice. But maybe just two or three dollars?"

And I stared at him, taking in the scarf knotted around his neck, the heavy sweatshirt he continued to fuss with as he spoke, the way he looked in my eyes and spoke with clear purpose. And I thought of Henry. So instead of handing him all the cash I had - something I rather desperately wanted to do - so he would be safe and happy and the darting fear in those dark eyes would ease, I shook my head with deep and sincere regret.

"I'm so sorry," I told him and he nodded, stepping back immediately and saying he understood, thanked me for taking time to talk with him. "I'm sorry," I repeated and let my eyes meet his once more before I turned and walked away. Seattle is notoriously kind, I reminded myself then and now as I fret over him. If he needs help, he'll find it. And if he's buying drugs - conning money from suckers who walk along waterfronts and stand in line to board cruise ships - then he should not do that. But I wouldn't mind if you'd join me in saying a prayer for him.

Apart from feeling rather Wicked-Witch about the whole thing, my post title is a nod to my pretty red flats - the only shoes I brought in my ruthlessly efficient packing spree (3 days = tiny duffel and laptop bag. Stand in awe, people). They're comfortable but made of satiny fabric attached to a flimsy sole so I turned my ankle on the train tracks and gagged when I almost stepped on a dead bird and got them wet when I stepped a bit too close to admire water cascading off fountains. I also feared greatly for my safety when I decided to walk down the steep and gravely path next to the sculpture with the logs floating midair.

To be fair, I was immeasurably tempted by the flowers in the meadow around said art, impossibly drawn by the color and calm, the way the rising sun warmed some plants while leaving others in shadow.

"Look how pretty!" I would say aloud, alone in that section of the park. "Don't fall down," I would immediately caution as my fragile footwear slipped on a loose pebble or I grew concerned about the slope of the tiny path along the edge of the garden. "Look how pretty; don't fall down," I chanted softly as I descended. "Coolness," I pronounced when I'd managed it, glancing back at the prettiness and being grateful I did not fall down as I wandered back the way I came.

As I did, I smiled at the crowds dragging luggage on the sidewalks as they moved toward the port. The joggers who always said good morning or the other tourists who'd brought cameras far fancier than mine to capture the morning light upon Seattle's sights. I breathed in the scent of coffee, shaking my head at the plethora of places where it could be acquired and paused to inhale the gentle briny smell that came either from the sea or the aquarium - I wasn't sure which. Still, the reflections on the water and the waves lapping gently at the piers soothed me, even as I reminded myself to take my anti-depressant, knowing the knot in my stomach over the boy needing money down the street was an overreaction. It's a difficult balance - compassion and common sense - and I feared I'd gotten it wrong. Should I have walked with him back to the hostel? Offered to find him someone to help in a more meaningful way? Or was I just being completely naive?

Just very sheltered, I decided, constantly surrounded by people who love me and will catch me if I trip, unafflicted by urges that make me fall too hard or fast to be saved. And though the process of recovery - insomuch as it involves moderately poor performance at work or napping too often or gaining too much weight - is painful, it always seems possible somehow.

With that, I was suddenly and sharply homesick, though I'd barely been gone a day. I craved the comfort of my mother and Dad's strength, Little's questions and Smallest's giggles and the warmth of Chienne behind my knees as I slept. For Dorothy's lesson has never been lost on me - no matter how many places I see or people I meet, there's no place like home.


jo(e) said...

Beautifully written. I can just picture the kid you describe -- a haunting image.

Anthea said...

Yes, this is really well written and I can just picture the kid you have described.

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