I met her at a bus stop in Hackney. She was sitting on the other end of the bench when I got there, reading a book by J.D. Salinger. I watched her out of the corner of my eye for a moment, debating whether or not to say something. Before I could overthink it and lose my nerve, I cleared my throat and told her The Catcher in the Rye was my favorite book of all time. She seemed to study me briefly, and I must have passed whatever test she had put me through because then she smiled and said it was the only one of his books that anyone knew. I told her I knew another one, and she asked which one, and I read off the title of the one she was reading. That made her laugh, and it was a sound like the chimes of far off bells, the ones that you hear from off in the distance and wonder what their purpose is, wonder who they are calling, what they are calling them for. It was the kind of laugh you fall in love with.
She was wearing a beanie that read “Erindale Lions” beneath a crest of some sort, which she explained was from the high school she had gone too, and the kind of jacket you’d expect to find in a thrift store, with patches of various images and words stitched on, seemingly by hand. Her hair was a blondish-red and it seemed to flow out from beneath her worn-out hat and onto her even more worn-out jacket like ichor from a mountaintop.
She had a piercing in her nose, and she told me the story behind each of her tattoos. I told her I had always meant to get one for my father after he passed away, but had simply never gotten around to it, and she said that that was really sweet and that I should do it, and I agreed.
She pointed out my headphones, now hanging from the inside of my shirt collar, and asked what I had been listening to. I told her, and she shook her head and said she hadn’t heard of them. I mentioned a few of my other favorites, to all of which she shook her head, laughing as she pressed her hands against her face, feigning embarrassment. Without saying anything I unplugged the headphone jack from my iPod, passing it over to her. Before she could object I told her I wanted her to have it, explaining that the music it contained had literally saved my life on several occasions, and that one day it might mean just as much to her as it did to me. She told me that she couldn’t accept it, and I said that yes she could, and not only that but I very much wanted her to. She said you know the chances of us ever seeing each other again are pretty low and I said well yes that’s true but now that you have my property I’d like to think they’re a bit higher, and that earned me a smile. I still see that smile in dreams sometimes.
She asked me where I lived and I told her and she said oh no I won’t be anywhere near there for a long time and I said I would be happy to wait and then before she could object again I asked where she lived and she raised her chin slightly and said proudly that the world was her home, that the roads and the back alleys and the fields and the forests and the cities were her home. I asked if that meant she was homeless, and her shoulders slumped a little and she said yes. We were silent for a moment and I felt bad for asking, but before I could apologize she said you know, you might never see this iPod again, and she didn’t have to say what we both knew she really meant. She said it in a quiet voice, and without even needing to think about my answer I immediately responded that it would be an absolute honor to have my iPod stolen by her. I didn’t have to say what I really meant either. She smiled to me, and opened her mouth to say something else but then a bus pulled up and she swore and said it was hers and she stood up and she left, but not before giving me a quick kiss, the kind of kiss you’re not aware of until it’s over, until you’ve missed it and all that’s left is a lingering tingling sensation in your lips, like front doors left ajar and bedroom window curtains blowing as the wind gently drifts into the room, like a song you hear on the radio from a past life, like running into old childhood friends when you’re back in the town you grew up in for your father’s funeral.
It was only as the bus pulled away, fading into the distance until it was nothing more than a tiny speck, like a stain on a windshield that you will never be able to rub away, that I realized I had never even learnt her name.
Sometimes I like to picture her listening to my iPod, maybe as she is boarding a bus, or settling in for the night in one of those cheap motels you see all the time on TV dramas, or lining up for breakfast in a soup kitchen, or browsing the isles of a thrift store. I picture her shoplifting a charger from some dollar store somewhere when it finally dies, and charging it whenever she gets a chance, keeping it alive, taking care of it even when it’s tired and has given up on her, not because it wants to give up but because sometimes things are just made the way they are, made fragile and weak and scared but still in need of that one other, the one that won’t give up on them, the one that will keep them going and won’t let them give up on themselves.
Sometimes, when I have bad days, I imagine her walking into a pawn shop. I imagine her walking out, counting through several bills and wondering if she should have asked for more. Whenever I picture this I try to tell myself that she wouldn’t do that, that she would only do that if she absolutely needed the money, and that if she did then I would be okay with it.
Sometimes I think I see her, a brief glimpse, a fleeting image, a face in the crowd. On the subway, in restaurants, on the sidewalk, at bus stops. Always at bus stops. I still wait for her. At night, after the orderlies call lights out and the building goes dark and the moon is out, I sit by the window in my room and look out over the street. And I wait.