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Authors: Nina G. Jones

If (7 page)

BOOK: If
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“Wait!” I said, sidestepping in front of him. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I just . . . I see you there all the time when I walk to and from work. And . . . I . . . I didn’t think you wanted charity, but what you did for me—you saved my life. I just want to do something to thank you. Don’t you understand what you did?”

He bit the inside of his lip and looked down and away for a count. “I’m glad you’re okay, but we’re even.”

“And you? Are you okay?” I asked. “I was so scared that it was serious.” I glanced at his torso and noticed he was wearing a fresh white T-shirt.

“I was lucky. It was a flesh wound. Deep, but it didn’t hit anything and they stitched it up.”

“I tried to visit you in the hospital.”

“I know. You said that.”

“Oh,” I laughed coyly.

“I just wanted to get the heck out of there.”

And now it felt like our conversation was coming to a real close. But I still wanted to do something for him. Clearly money and public recognition were not what he wanted.

“So, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I asked.

He perked up a bit, the question catching him off-guard. “Hadn’t really thought about it.”

“I’d like to invite you. It would be an honor to have you as my guest.”

“Thank you.” It was not an acceptance of my invitation.

“It’ll be small. Just my friend, Jordan, the one who walks me home most nights. I don’t know if you’ve noticed.” I felt kind of stupid assuming this guy even noticed me walking home. I never actually saw him ever look at me until the mugging. “Oh and his boyfriend. And it would be nice to have a fourth person. We’re all transplants, so we have our own little Thanksgiving.”

He nodded, then looked up to the sky, tapping his foot. I assumed he was trying to find a nice way to say no. He had gotten considerably nicer over the course of this short conversation.

“I just realized I don’t even know your name!” I said, sticking out my hand. Only after I did that, did I wonder if he was clean. He didn’t smell or anything, but he was homeless as far as I could tell and I couldn’t help the fleeting thought.

“Ash,” he said, taking my hand. His hands weren’t clean. His fingers were covered in a medley of colors. It looked like spray paint.

“Birdie, Bird . . . either works.”

“Bird,” he recited back, and he cracked his first hint of a smile.

“I’ll tell you all about it over a Thanksgiving meal,” I smirked.

“I don’t know . . .”

“Please, let me thank you.”

Our hands were still locked, and we both seemed to realize it at the same time, abruptly breaking the connection.

“Maybe.”

“Okay, well, I live in those condos on 6th, between Los Angeles and Main, apartment 7b. We start around five. I’m making enough food for you to be there, and I’m a broke starving dancer. So don’t let it go to waste.”

Another smile. This time it was a full-blown half-smile. I wondered what he looked like under the scruffy beard.

“I’ll see you around,” he said. His eyes appeared to go out of focus, as if he was taking in my silhouette.

“I’ll see you at my place,” I said, walking away before he could respond.

BIRD

BOTH JORDAN’S AND
my apartment were filled with the aromas of Thanksgiving cooking. Cherry and pumpkin pies were baking in my oven, filling my place with a spicy-sweet fragrance, while the bigger items were prepped in Jordan’s kitchen. Between cleaning and cooking, it had reached four before I had even taken a shower. Jordan and Trevor stepped out to grab some last-minute items before the grocery store closed early, and with the pies now resting on the range, I locked my front door and hopped into the shower.

Because of my jobs, I often found myself either in tights and sweatshirts, or my standard all-black serving getup. So I took the opportunity to dress up, even if it would only be for my gay husbands. I let out my elbow-length curls, pinning back two small braids on each side, and put on a royal blue, spaghetti-strap dress that was tight in the bodice, flaring out into a 1950s-style skirt. Faux fabric buttons formed a line from the low collar to the hem. I felt feminine, and dare I say . . . pretty.

The final stage was makeup. It was always a nice concept, but I struggled with this part the most. Make up is meant to not just highlight features, but cover flaws. Well, my flaws could not be covered, and it felt defeatist to even try. So I left the foundation and concealer alone and opted for the highlighting of features. I lined my hazel eyes with black eyeliner and liberally added mascara. I swept my lightly freckled cheeks with apricot blush, and coated my lips with red lipstick, which I rarely wore. Just as I was puckering my lips, the doorbell rang.

“I told you I would be in the shower—” I said, flinging the door open. Except it wasn’t Jordan forgetting to bring his keys, it was—well, it took me a second to register who it was.

The guy in front of me had his messy hair not under a beanie, but twisted into a topknot. His beard was trimmed down to resemble week-old stubble. And instead of a T-shirt, he wore a button-down plaid shirt over a fresh pair of jeans. For a second I thought I had it all wrong, but when I spotted the familiar rucksack on his shoulder, I knew it was definitely him.

“Ash . . .” I tried hard not to sound surprised. “You made it!”

I did not do a good job of hiding my shock.

“I can go. I understand if you weren’t expecting me.” He already began stepping away.

“Not expecting you? Don’t be ridiculous,”
I was so not expecting him.
I stepped aside to let him in and wondered if it was smart to let someone I didn’t know into my place without the guys here, but I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, he
did
save my life, so I felt pretty safe in his presence.

“How’d you get in?”

“Someone was on their way out when I got here.” He looked around and scratched his shoulder like it might be a nervous habit. “I brought this.” He handed me a box, and I peeked in through the cellophane to see an assortment of pastries.

“Oh you didn’t have to do that!” I said, amazed and confused by his generosity. Wasn’t he destitute? Did he buy this new outfit and food just to come here? And in a way, I felt like I had put him in a position to go beyond his means. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

We stood there for two seconds and it felt like two centuries because he doesn’t ever talk and his silence makes me blurt out things. “You shaved. You really look good.” Again, I felt like I should just not speak because that sounded a little intimate to say to someone I didn’t really know. But god he looked even younger than before. He couldn’t be older than his mid-twenties, but I thought he was closer to exactly twenty. He looked fresh and I could see the face that he had hidden underneath the beard and it was so boyish, but angular.

He tucked back a rogue tendril of his shiny auburn hair. His eyes flittered up and down as he looked at me. “You look really nice today. Colorful.”

Thank Moses that just then my door flung open and Trevor and Jordan were laughing about something and the crumpling sound of plastic bags and their laughter broke the awkwardness between me and Ash.

It took them a few seconds to even notice someone other than me was in the room.

“Oh, hi,” Jordan said. I could tell he didn’t recognize Ash, because he didn’t notice Ash like I noticed him.

“Jordan, this is Ash. The guy that helped me when I was being mugged.” I wanted to say “saved,” but I knew Ash would hate being called my savior. And it was more than a mugging, but I didn’t want to drop the heavy “R” word in a room full of men.

“Oh . . . Oooooh!” Jordan said, “My man, thank you so much.” He wrapped Ash in a bear hug and Ash’s arms hesitantly return the gesture. Jordan gave him a few good shoulder slaps. “This girl right here. She’s one of a kind. I don’t know what I would do without her.”

Ash smiled.

“This is my boyfriend, Trevor.” Jordan raised his arm in Trevor’s direction.

Trevor moved in for a hug too, and I realized I should have warned Ash the TV producer would be here. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to finagle the news segment.

“Nice to meet you,” Ash said, returning the hug with stiff arms.

“Likewise. It’s great to finally meet you. I know Bird was afraid you had disappeared for good.”

I was a little embarrassed that it sounded like I spoke about him even though it was already clear I had.

“She had mentioned inviting you a couple of weeks ago, but she said you probably weren’t coming.”

“I guess I didn’t give a definite answer. I don’t have her number or anything, so I didn’t know how to RSVP.” We all laughed a little. It felt a little crude to laugh at off-hand references to his situation, even if he was joking.

“Well, you look like a pretty strong boy,” Jordan, said clenching Ash’s bicep. I guess he did. He was taller than me, and I’m tall, so he had to be at least six feet. He was slim, not skinny, but perfectly built with just the right amount of muscle tone. It made me wonder about his eating situation. But if there was an abundance of anything on Skid Row, it was food pantries. “Want to help us move a beastly table and some chairs across the hall?”

Ash glanced over in my general direction before addressing Jordan. “Happy to.”

Jordan had that way about him. He made people feel like home. I wasn’t a wallflower, but Jordan engulfed people with his warm aura. Jordan had a way of getting people to fall into his arms. And in my interactions so far with Ash, I felt I actually pushed too hard in my efforts to welcome him. I felt like I sometimes put him on the defensive. You know, with him calling me stupid and ignoring me on the street and all.

Minutes later, Trevor was guiding the other two as they maneuvered Jordan’s table across the short distance between our apartments. I had pushed what few furnishings I had to the perimeter, making an open space for the table. By the time they were carrying in chairs, Ash’s posture seemed more relaxed, and I could hear Jordan telling him about Trevor’s horny Chihuahua that he forbid from coming to Thanksgiving since it would spend the entire night humping our ankles.

BIRD

“So, Ash, are you originally from LA?” Jordan asked.

“San Diego. My dad was stationed there, but my family moved to Pasadena a few years ago.”

It was weird, hearing about his background. He had a family, one that didn’t live too far away, and yet most of the time he was on the street. Usually at dinners, people ask about family, jobs, hobbies. You try to create a person’s story based on these nuggets of information. But something happened between growing up in San Diego in a military family and living on the street alone here in LA. And whatever it was, it wasn’t dinner conversation.

“Bird mentioned you’re all transplants?”

“Who isn’t in this city?” Trevor chimed in, uncorking some wine. He poured me some, then Jordan. He tilted the bottle in Ash’s direction as an offering. “No, thank you,” was all he said.

“Yeah, I’m from Madison, Wisconsin. Jordan is from Boston. Trevor is from San Francisco.”

“How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Trevor asked. Trevor was the oldest of the bunch at twenty-seven.

“Twenty-one.”
We’re the same age.

“How’s the wound?” Jordan asked as his eyes widened with realization. “Oh my god, I just realized I had you lifting this heavy-ass table! I am so sorry!”

“No. No, it’s fine. It’s healing well. Moving the table was not an issue.”

“Jordan is a terrible host. You get here and he immediately puts you to work,” I chided.

Ash looked at me and half-smiled. That was a rare moment for this dinner. I looked over when he was looking at Jordan or Trevor and he did the same to me, but our eyes rarely met. I wanted nothing more than to ask him a thousand questions, but for some reason I found myself desperately trying to play it cool at the table.

It didn’t take long before we were all stuffed. Jordan proclaimed that we would play Cards Against Humanity, but first, he had to scour his messy apartment to find the decks. He told Trevor he would need his help. Jordan came over and whispered in my ear as I brought my plate to the sink. “You’re okay for me to go look for the cards, right?”

BOOK: If
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