You will see by the corner of this envelope that I’ve now left the desert. I left the bones and the flint and the yucca pods wobbling in the wind. I left the red dirt and the giant crows and the sky that went up and on forever. I left the empty mailbox whistling like a wiffle ball. And I left, most of all, the one-person lacks and loneliness contest I had going there. The winner needs nothing. The winner needs no-one. I was determined to win. I almost won, by sheer starvation. It’s strange how you can die from lack of a bite or sip. You can die from having no warm room, or, in the summer, from no puff of cold air. But you can’t die quickly or easily from a lack of human connection. Does petting strangers’ dogs count as physical affection? Does reading library books count as interaction? Not even a coroner knows for sure.
Now I’m in a city buzzing and whizzing with people—real people, not the paper voices of people. I watch them. I talk to them. I listen carefully for parts to scribble down when they turn away. Silently, secretly, I seem to be imploring every person I encounter: teach me to be human again. To eat, to get full, to give, to take, to take up space. You knew me in a summer river sheen but now the desert has marked me. I’m dry bones with a dusty complexion. My clothes and hair appear as afterthoughts, like they were tumbleweeds blowing by that just happened to stick. So how is it I’m being courted? I’m somehow being pursued by a towering punk (punk old school, he always clarifies) guy called Chicago. I met him while serving homeless breakfasts for the Dorothy Day House. There’s another whole letter, lots of whole letters, on the Dorothy Day breakfasts. Chicago, I said, when he told me his name. I hadn’t told him mine. Is that because you’re from there? He smiled from inside his studded hood, a smile both shy and dazzling. Who wants to know? He answered.
The young punks on Telegraph Avenue follow him around, flashing their zippers and chains and pierced rings. Maybe they follow him because Chicago has fierce posture and a knife and giant muscles that appear to be carved out of black onyx. Or maybe because he’s their dealer, I dunno. He has a pager but no home. He has a good fashion sense considering he finds all his clothes on sidewalks or in dumpsters. He wanted me to know, he told me four times or more, that he quadruple washes every item he finds. He rips the sleeves off shirts because his arms won’t fit into them. He also wears a black leather vest with this studded hood, often up. He has adorned his vest with silver lighter tops as fringe, and when I asked him how he got so many, and how he fastened them on there, he answered: One at a time. His giant left boot is patched with silver duct tape. I like you, I really really like you, he keep saying. He wears a spoon—the cheap cafeteria kind you can bend easily—around his wrist. You’re so great, he insists, You’re opinionated but you’re also wide open. He smiles and looks right at me when he says these things, too. And because he is brave in this remarkable way—a way I’m clearly not, a way you’re clearly not—I sometimes fall down beside him, not too close, on the pavement of Telegraph Avenue.
Chicago seems to know I’m starting over again from nothing in the business of being human, of being with humans. Only one time he asked what I was coming from and what I wanted from this city. But he was looking down—he was busy sewing a zipper up the side of his pants with a strand of mint dental floss. One time he drew chalk lines and we pitched pennies at them, and he got all the points. One time we used the second hand on the chained pocket-watch he keeps beside his pager to see how long each bird stayed on the wire. One time he tore a strip of the silver duct tape off his boot and coiled it into a tight little ring, asking how I felt about marriage. Mostly we just sit there, on the curb, until I have to go to work. Last week a suited guy striding past mistook me for a panhandler and lifted his hands apologetically, palms to the sky. What can I do? He seemed to say. What can I possibly do for you, when I’m me, and you’re you?
Chicago laughs by opening his mouth wide and making no sound, just little huffs of air. It’s so much like he’s choking I told him he should never accidentally cup his hand around his neck while he’s laughing. Once he said, Will you hold my hand? Which was a clever way of putting it. Not can I hold yours, but will you hold mine. And since it was inside a fingerless leather glove I did. Pretend it’s just a wallet, is what I told myself. There is always traffic here to look out on when faces are too much. After enough time had passed, two minutes maybe, I let go. My hand wiggled around freely, saying whew. But also it missed the soft leather, the heat. The slight pump and give of something alive. No wallet can do that because money is dead. On that day Chicago said, You have no idea how many ghosts I live with. He started to name the names of his friends and where they had been shot: in which area, in which body part. It sounded like a poem. But it’s his poem. Not even the street called South Paulina is mine to use, though I will use it here for you.
Sometimes Chicago buys me what we call lunch at the 7-11, in the form of a Slushie. The machine has four flavors. If you layer them and stir with the straw-spoon (what an invention, that duck-bill on the end), the result is beautiful. In a way you might call someone’s outfit beautiful, if she was wearing an airbrushed T-shirt and a clown wig. On the speckled linoleum floor of the 7-11 today we found a letter some woman wrote to a guy she perceived as poor. She called him that, in the letter. It was one page of lined paper tucked into a torn envelope. When I slid the paper out of the envelope my body gave a buck of happiness. It thought I had mail. I asked Chicago, Do you think the guy was, like, a loser and couldn’t love her? So she assumed he was poor in spirit? Chicago was shoving some paper napkins in his pockets for later. He said, I think the guy had no cash. The letter advised its recipient to pray for guidance, both to Jesus and to the Five Saints of Today, which she listed. None of them were women. Billy Graham was listed after Billy Clinton. At first the letter was funny. But then at the registers I got quiet. I said, This letter gives letters a bad name. Chicago pulled off his sunglasses. He stared at my face. He actually stooped down and leaned forward to peer into it, for what seemed like a really long time. I dunno, maybe I was wincing. Maybe because of your letters. Maybe because of the ones I got. Maybe because of the ones I didn’t get. He just kept searching my face with his eyes. It couldn’t have been for that long, because the one person in front of us was just buying a Sprite and a pack of filtered cigarettes. But it was almost too much. When we stepped out of the 7-11 Chicago slid a pink lighter out of his vest pocket and held it to a corner of the letter. He set fire to it, right there beside the obvious choice, a grated trash can. The paper burned from the edges in, curling up on itself. It shrivelled to a black potato chip. Our heads were bowed watching it, bowed I guess to the angle of people praying. Have you ever seen a flame dancing on a sunny day? In that bright light it seems like a secret message just for your eyes. A coded nudge, maybe, to stretch and shine and quietly do just that, to just do that.