by Su J. Sokol
Deux Voiliers Publishing, 2014
I take a deep breath. “Can I tell you a story? About how I met Laek?”
Roberto tells me he’d like that, so I tell him how I saw Laek for the first time when I was volunteering with a homeless rights group in Washington Square Park.
“He was working with the group too?”
“No, he was a street kid. It was right after he’d come east. He was still off the grid.”
“Really! I’d assumed you’d met at NYU. He went to the teacher’s college, right?”
“Yeah, but that was later, when I was at NYU law. This was when I was still an undergrad. Laek was only sixteen at the time. Anyway, I offered him a sandwich and talked to him about his legal rights, options, safety. You know the rap. He thanked me and offered me some of his own food. I remember, it was fruit and nuts. I thought to myself, I can’t take this kid’s food, it’s probably all he has, but some instinct made me accept his offer.”
“And I was rewarded with the most gorgeous, sweet smile I’d ever seen. I think I fell in love with him at that moment. We ended up talking for hours, and when they threw us out of the park for the night, I asked him if he had somewhere to sleep.”
“Talk about bringing home stray cats.”
“I was living with a bunch of other kids at the time. One more body wouldn’t have been a big deal. And I would have let him stay in my room.”
“That’s our wild Janie, stray cats in your bed.”
I laugh. “I wasn’t thinking that, really. OK, maybe a little, but mostly I just wanted to help. Anyway, he turned down my offer, but I could tell he wanted to stay. At the time, I thought it was pride.” I pause. “I didn’t see him again for three months.”
The train is now moving at a slow crawl through the tunnel to Manhattan, but thankfully, the next stop is Bowling Green.
“I looked for him on and off after that, first in Washington Square Park, asking the old guys who play chess there if they’d seen him. When it started getting colder, I began checking all the parks in the East Village. There are so many, and even the tiniest ones are gated! I eventually found him, not far from where I was living.”
“He was in bad shape. I don’t mean physically. He seemed … I don’t know, like he was waiting to die. I asked if something had happened. He didn’t respond. I remember offering him a candy bar. He just wrapped his arms around his legs and rested his head on his knees.”
“What did you do?”
“I did what I always do in situations where I’m unsure. I talked. And then I talked some more. I told him about myself, about school, my family, but mostly I talked about ideas—like fighting injustice and making the world a better place. He didn’t say anything, but I could see he was listening. Finally, even I was talked out.”
Now I figure is the moment when Roberto will make some joke about how he can’t imagine me ever being talked out, but instead he waits, looking at me with a soft expression on his face. I squeeze his hand.
“It started getting late, and dark and cold, but I still sat by him, not knowing what I could do but not wanting to leave either. Then he finally spoke.”
“What did he say?
“He said something about how I should leave now unless I planned to stay forever.”
“So you stayed.”
I nod, closing my eyes, remembering that moment like it was yesterday.
Laek had looked at me, lifting his hand slowly through the air until it was just touching my cheek. Then, he gently outlined the shape of my face, saying ‘It’s a heart,’ in a voice that was so tender that even now, sixteen years later, remembering it sends chills down my spine.
“And then?” Roberto prompts.
“And then, he laid himself down and went to sleep. So I lay down too, but I wasn’t used to sleeping rough and it was pretty cold that night. Finally, I drifted off. When I woke, Laek had his jacket and shirt over my shoulders and his bare arm wrapped around me.”
“Wow. So how did you get him inside?”
“It took a while. I learned why he wouldn’t stay in my apartment. He was terrified that he’d somehow bring disaster down on all of us, something he believed had happened before with his group. But being all alone was literally killing him. Laek’s need for community, love—it’s like food and water to him, absolutely essential to his well-being. That’s why … it’s why I’m so scared about what’s going to happen now, about what we should do.”