I was heading to the bank to address some diabolical bureaucratic error that was causing me pain – the kind of thing that makes me sweaty and twitchy with agitation. I was in between jobs and relationships and a bank error was just the sort of thing to send me into despair. My mouth was sour with anxiety as if I had spent my morning sucking on a dirty penny. The error was not mine, but up until that point in my life money and shame had always been Siamese twins that could not be severed.
I was only three blocks away from my house about to make a left turn when a pedestrian crossed in front of my car. He was using one hand to hold his other hand in what appeared to be a towel soaked in blood. My eyes followed him to the other side of the street. I needed to make my left turn and go and slay the bureaucratic dragon but instead I turned right and hugged the curb driving slowly alongside this bleeding man. His dress shirt was awash in sweat and he was sobbing on the sidewalk – wailing actually. Everything was horribly out of place and didn’t belong. His pain shouldn’t have been outside in the sun glittering in the daylight – it should have been inside somewhere that was quiet and dark – private.
I rolled down the passenger window and drove slowly alongside of him. “Sir, are you okay?” He didn’t answer so much as howl. I had never heard a man make that sound, not it real life, or theater, or film. Hearing that sound made me a little scared for us both. He continued to walk and nod without looking at me and I knew he was telling me to leave. I was an intruder trespassing on his pain. I wanted to turn around and respect his privacy but his body was betraying him – exposing his need for help. Sweat started to show on his dress pants turning the heather gray to charcoal. He was running out of dry fabric. I called 911 and said something I generally struggle to articulate, “I need help.” I then described to the calm detached voice the strangeness of what was happening and our location before I hung up and got out of my car. I looked down at this bleeding stranger’s shoes as I approached and decided that we would both be okay. His polished, black dress shoes reassured me that everything was going to be alright and that I could take what ever fear I had and put it aside.
“Hello. What’s your name?” My voice sounded like I had swallowed pea gravel.
The deep cry that had reddened his face and stole his breath stopped.
“Hi, Stephen. I’m Ann marie.”
Stephen’s eyes got heavier and a surge of sweat came flooding from his body. My own body tingled with memory. I’ve seen this once before in my life. My soon to be ex-husband went into shock and sweat from every pore of his being when our eighteen month old son nearly severed his finger off in a sliding glass door. My husband held onto his finger while I drove to the hospital and the moment he handed our son over his body released his fear in a wave of sweat. It was one of those moments that neither of us would forget. Marriage was not necessary to save some memories.
“Stephen I need you to do something for me. I need you to sit down.”
All six feet of Stephen moved toward the concrete. I crouched down with him. We were so close that I could smell his vulnerability. It was awkward and intimate and all there was on that sidewalk. Stephen proceeded to catalogue information at a rapid clip.
“My name is Stephen. I’m twenty-seven years old. I’m not crazy. I have more than a $100,000 in the bank and my mother hates me.”
He wanted me to know that what I was seeing wasn’t what it seemed as if I had any idea of what any of it meant or I was in any place to judge this man or his pain. He then opened his towel and offered me the sight of his wound as if this was proof of any of the information he had given me. His finger was barely attached. I instantly tried to make sense of the absurd connection between this event and my son’s identical injury. But there was no time to think hard or carefully. Stephen swayed back on his heels.
“Stephen, I need you to put the towel back and hold on to that. I have help coming.” I listened for sirens and kept my eyes on Stephen.
“I’m not crazy,” he sniffed.
“I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re having a bad day, a really bad day. I’ve had some pretty bad days recently myself.”
For the first time Stephen looked directly into my eyes. “Are you a Christian?” I wanted to give him the answer he needed to hear but instead I told the truth which seemed like the only thing to do sitting on the ground across from this man who was literally dripping in blood, sweat, and tears. “No, I’m an atheist,” I said under the sound of sirens. Stephen blinked hard and slow as if he was thinking about my answer.
“Then why did you stop?”
“Because you looked like you needed someone.”
Stephen nodded and cried without any sound. I sat and watched him and felt something like love. I wanted to cover his shame, mend the wound and make the unreasonable promise it would all be okay. It seemed impossible to be in this moment without love or something like it. Kindness or decency just seemed too small and not enough to hold either one of us together long enough. I wanted to tell him that I was sure his mother didn’t hate him but the truth was that I wasn’t and I couldn’t lie. Maybe he needed that lie but in that moment I was pretty sure he needed me not to lie.
“They’re almost here. They’re going to take good care of you.”
I was sitting on the ground when the firefighter approached and asked me what happened. I reported that I didn’t know. I didn’t tell him any of the things Stephen shared about his money or his mother hating him – the only two pieces of information I’d gathered seemed unrelated and too private all at once.
“How are you connected?” The firefighter was looking for some answer that could neatly into a report like friend, sister, mother, neighbor or wife.