A homeless man said to me, “Spare a cigarette, love?” as I walked by. The dog sitting by him looked up and tilted its head as if awaiting my response.
“They’re menthol. Do you care?” I asked as I presented the open cigarette case to him.
“Nah,” he shook his head and took a one. “It’ll freshen my breath.” He winked. I laughed and walked on.
Kindness comes in the most unexpected places and I smile at the thought. There’s been more than a few occasions when I’ve experienced it and it made me think of that infamous line by Blanche about the kindness of strangers. I never quite understood it, but as I grew older and allowed people to see my soul I slowly learned what she meant. You have to be kind to yourself and let others be kind to you: you have to be vulnerable.
It was in New Orleans where I met the man who gifted me this little known secret. It’s a struggle for me to be vulnerable and after all these years, I still don’t really know how he did it. I cannot see how he continued to allow himself to constantly be that defenseless and still keep from letting the world hurt him. “Admitting your own vulnerability will allow others to comfortably do the same,” he pointed out.
We met almost on accident and he was kind enough to lend me his apartment while I was visiting. Today, can't imagine my life without him. Fate sent him to me at a time when I was at my lowest and he became the start of a foundation that I hadn’t known I needed. He saw in me someone who had the potential to make a full recovery and he shared his years of experience with infinite patience and fed me the confidence I craved.
On the surface he seemed nonchalant yet full of life, but only one of things was true. Life burst from him as if he couldn’t contain it and he shared it with whomever would let him. At first I wouldn’t let him. I didn’t see myself needing someone like him, someone who had everything together and hadn’t had a bad day in his life. I was so naive to think that there was anyone who hadn’t had days as bad as mine. I was so naive to think that he wouldn’t understand my plight because it turned out that no one understood better than he did.
“My heart feels for you," he once told me. "I’ve been to the bottom of the pit. I’ve sat with the barrel of a gun in my mouth, trying desperately to find a reason not to pull the trigger." I found myself unable to keep back my tears. He pulled me to him and kissed the top of my head. “But I survived and so will you.” I hugged him and wept into his shirt and he stroked my hair and wouldn’t let go.
In the mornings, he would return home from the graveyard shift and give my sleeping form a kiss hello. Always a light sleep, I would wake immediately and we would lay in his bed, wrapped in each other’s arms, and just talk. Despite being tired and sleep derived, he would always ask me about my visit, what I had seen and with whom, and I’d happily tell him. I’d ask him about work and he would tell me all the good and bad with he same air of false indifference he practiced. When we were all talked out, he would kiss my forehead and let his lips linger before turning over and drifting off into a well-deserved sleep. I would get up and get on my day with a smile, wishing there was a way I could wake up with this man every morning.
Though there was never anything romantic between us, I always envied his girlfriends. He maintained what his friend jokingly called a harem; each of his girlfriends was devoted to him and he equally to them all. Often, when he'd come home from a date and during a lull in our conversation, he would smile suddenly and exclaim, “My girlfriends are so good to me!” I would beam because I don’t know anyone else in the world who deserved it more. I aspired to make my romantic life similar to his: I wanted a life filled with romantic relationships where I got as much as I gave, where I was appreciated as much as I did appreciate and where there was nothing but openness and understanding in abundance. He encouraged it and as I stumbled through the exciting new world of polyamory, he watched me from the sidelines and advised me as I requested it.
“How do you suffer the world and still come out with such a positive world view?” I often asked him and his response was always the same: “You can't take it out on yourself. Whatever hardship you endure, you’ll only be stronger for it. But don’t get jaded; just keep loving.”