Black Bathwater Shores
On a painfully cliche, chilly night in the beginning of October, Neil walked past the strip of familiar panhandlers lining St Claude Avenue. He nodded at each one, becoming comfortable with their contribution to his 2 a.m. walks home from his new job bartending at AllWays. They had finally stopped asking to read his palm, write him a story, or take a picture with their sad, old cats dressed as various superheroes at some point last weekend, once they realized that he was simply a new resident, not an out of state tourist. He didn’t blame them for their prolonged inability to recognize his permanent residency in the city. It had taken him a little while to acclimate from his Northeast DIY kid aesthetic. He even had had to part ways with the bike that got him through his last two years of college in Philly, after a woman with a dog and army green overalls mugged him during his first attempt to bike home following a late-night shift.
He felt strange saying it, or even thinking it, but the homeless population was a lot different in New Orleans than in Philly. He chalked that down to the city’s economic dependency on tourism and, of course, Hurricane Katrina. Neil had read somewhere that, despite a significant drop in the overall number of homeless individuals from its high directly post-Katrina, the number of homeless youth has been steadily increasing, primarily due to a myriad of issues facing young people once they aged out of the foster care system. He guessed that wasn’t specific to this city.
Neil wasn’t sure if the salience of this article concerning New Orleans’ youth homelessness was what drew his attention to the young man with a wiry mustache and sunken blue eyes, squatting behind a rusty typewriter and sign reading POEM FOR $2, or if the sight of him brought the article to mind. He slowed, then stopped. He turned around and awkwardly squatted next to the boy, stuffing his hand in his tip pocket. “Do you have change?” his voice came out hoarse and distant.
The boy blinked and cleared his throat, “Sorry man, it’s been a slow night,” he sounded ashamed.
Neil had no idea what he was doing. He hadn’t even paid any attention to the panhandlers during his trip down here over spring break senior year, outside of apologetic grins, ‘hello’s, and ‘sorry’s. “Then what can I get for five bucks?”
“Either two poems, or one really good one. Top shelf, Woodford Reserve” he sounded much more assured this time, bordering cocky, even. Neil grinned at the reference, knowing full well that his liquor preference was practically dripping from his L.L.Bean flannel sleeve.
“Give me one really good one,” this felt like a cheap Christmas lights lit backyard conversation over drunk cigarettes. “Do you need a topic or something?”
“No, just look at me.” Neil obliged, clearing his throat as he sat in a more comfortable position across from the young panhandler, “take off your glasses.”
“I can’t really see without them,” he weakly protested as he removed his frames anyway.
“Well, I can’t really see your eyes with them,” the gruffness in his retort gave Neil a feeling he wasn’t familiar with. His head felt hot as the boy studied his face. Maybe the bourbon shots (Jim Beam, not Woodford Reserve) he and his coworkers had downed before they took off for the night were hitting him. After a very long five or ten minutes, something flitted across the boy’s eyes and he began typing. He didn’t look back up.
Neil leaned back, feeling the tiny gravel rocks press into his palms. He glanced at the panhandlers to his left. They were paying no mind to the two young men, mostly talking amongst themselves or to their cats and dogs. He revisited a matter that frequently entered his mind. Despite the initial sad feeling he felt in his gut at the sight of a homeless person with a pet, he wondered if it was actually a good thing. He was sure that a furry companion’s presence increased a homeless person’s quality of life to some degree. Also, from his far-removed observations, many relationships between homeless person and homeless pet appeared loving. If the pet was without its homeless owner, it would be on the streets anyway, just alone. Or maybe it would have a home, but neglectful owners. He saw this too many times, especially among his many college acquaintances. Too many young people living in their first apartments seemed to like the idea of adopting a cute furry thing from a shelter more than the reality of taking care of something other than oneself. There must be something about not having anything or anyone else that would render such neglect unlikely.
“Yo,” the gruff voice brought Neil back. The boy was holding out a piece of paper, crumpling it slightly. Neil took it, and looked at the blurry blotches of ink stretched across the page. He heard a chuckle, “don’t you need your glasses to read it?” Neil laughed back before replacing his glasses atop the bridge of his nose, too embarrassed to look up, even though he wanted to see the grin he heard in the boy’s voice.
outside a dog barks
at a shadow, its own echo
or at the moon
to lessen the cruelty of distance.
it is always to escape that we close
the desert is nakedness without promise.
of being near without touching
like the edges of the same wound.
inside won’t fit inside,
they are not my eyes
that can look me in the eye
they are always the lips of others
that tell me my name.
Something about the poem felt familiar. Perhaps that familiarity was due in part to the indescribable chord its words struck somewhere inside him. It gave him the courage to look back up at the boy, who had a content and knowing expression sprawled across his face, and ask, “do you want to come back to my place?” His contentedness transitioned into confusion, “I have pizza bites.” That wasn’t why Neil invited him back, but he knew he needed to give some context to his spontaneous invitation.
“Sure,” Neil barely heard him, but the boy started packing up his things, glancing warily at his companions, who were now paying attention to them. He stood up and turned his back to the other panhandlers. One of them whistled as they started walking away.
“What’s your name?”
“Jacques, spelled the French way.”
Neil stopped to extend his hand, “Neil. Spelled…the American way.” Jacques wiped his hand on his pants, obviously counterproductively considering they couldn’t be any cleaner than his soot covered palms, before placing it in Neil’s. His grip was firm and grainy. Despite the many questions burning on the tip of his tongue, they walked in silence the rest of the way to Neil’s apartment in a converted old purple house deeper into the Bywater district. As they neared the 800 block of Congress St, Neil grew a little nervous. The few locals he had befriended during his just over two months living in New Orleans initially scoffed at his mention of the neighborhood, bemoaning its recent takeover by young, out of state hipsters. It sounded a bit like how long timers in Philly described Fishtown, but then again Neil and his friends thrived on weekends spent in precisely that neighborhood during their senior year. He guessed it was no coincidence that he’d ended up in the Fishtown of New Orleans. He glanced at Jacques, wondering if the poet panhandler ascribed to that same attitude surrounding the neighborhood Neil was attempting to call home. Then again, could Jacques even be considered local? Neil had no idea how long the boy had even been in the city. That thought finally sparked him to break the silence, “so, are you from the city?”
Jacques slowed, clicked his tongue, and looked down. Neil immediately regretted the question, especially the way it came out. Before he could frantically retract it, Jacques smirked at the ground, “you clearly aren’t.” His voice was low, but clear. It was riddled with something heavy that Neil didn’t recognize, but was also somehow reassuring.
“Where are you from?” Neil looked up, surprised by the question and to see Jacques looking at him curiously.
“Philadelphia. Well, I went to school in Philadelphia. I grew up outside of Boston.” They had reached the purple house. Neil sat down on the stoop, and Jacques followed suit. He sat on the same step, a comfortable distance away. The fact that he noticed the space between them stirred in Neil’s gut.
“North. Really north. Same with Boston, that’s even more north.”
“Boston…Massachusetts, yeah?” Jacques’ expression wrestled familiarity and distance.
“Massachusetts, yeah,” He figured he wouldn’t pry. “So how about some pizza bites?” Jacques nodded aggressively. Neil was thankful to see him return to the present. It briefly crossed his mind to ask Jacques to leave what was left of his shoes outside on the stoop, but he didn’t have the heart to voice his concerns. He figured he’d just mop the floor tomorrow morning. As they entered the house, Neil turned around, looked Jacques in the eyes, and put a finger to his lips, motioning towards the living room with his other hand. The television was blaring as Christian lay sprawled out on the couch, snoring softly. With all that noise, the over-exaggerated motions were probably unnecessary, but in no way did Neil want to risk waking his roommate. The little he knew about the guy suggested that he would not be thrilled at the prospect of his new roommate bringing home a dirty, homeless kid in the middle of the night. Neil figured that was the baseline assumption regarding anyone’s reaction to such a situation. Jacques laughed quietly enough to avoid triggering the anxiety creeping up Neil’s spine. Neil agreed that the sight was objectively funny, so he smiled back, until a grunt emanating from the couch, loud enough to soar above the sound of the television, propelled the anxiety to a deafening ringing between his ears. The immediate effect on his demeanor must have been painfully visible across Neil’s face, because Jacques’ laughter grew louder. Even though it sounded nice, more musical than maniacal, Neil could not have that noise in such proximity to the high-ceilinged living room. He grabbed Jacques’ elbow and yanked him into the kitchen, refusing to even glance towards his hopefully still passed out roommate.
Once they were safe behind the thin wall not quite completely separating the living room from the kitchen, Neil let go of Jacques’ arm with an audible sigh. Jacques shoved his shoulder playfully, laughter still present across his face. Neil attempted to direct a bemused look towards his companion through a suddenly racing heartbeat. Neil found that he couldn’t look at the boy, appearing even dirtier off the streets with the artificial lighting doing him no favors, for too long without running the risk of asking another, stupider question. He turned towards his freezer, muttering about pizza bites as he distractedly scanned its contents.
“Man, I don’t even know what a pizza bite is,” Jacques thankfully maintained the jovial atmosphere.
“Eh, they’re shit really. But they do the trick for,” he glanced at the electric green numbers blinking on the stove, “three in the morning.” Neil figured that sentiment might not make much sense to Jacques, but the boy didn’t say anything else, so he left it at that. They were silent again as Neil placed the individual pieces on a baking sheet. He took care to ensure equal spaces between the bites, not because that mattered to him, but because he had no idea what he might say if he turned back to face Jacques. Soon, the oven beeped, and Neil placed the tray on the top rack. He felt scrutinized as he completed the tasks at a painfully slow pace. “They should be done in twenty minutes,” he reported, his back still turned.
“Could I maybe…” Jacques’ voice trailed off. Neil looked back at him. He appeared as small as he sounded. “Do you have soap?” Their eyes met and Neil could tell that this might be the hardest thing Jacques had asked for in his life. The vulnerability emanating from the boy’s entire self in that moment struck the same chord that Neil first discovered within himself merely minutes before.
“I do,” his words sounded far away. If he hadn’t acknowledged it before, Neil now knew for what purpose he had offered to bring Jacques home. Following Neil’s lead, they walked back through the living room, up the stairs, and to the back room. As they stood in the middle of his room, Neil regretted the bare walls and mountain of boxes in the corner. He searched for an excuse, before deciding that whatever he could say to justify its emptiness would be inappropriate at best.
Instead, he took this moment to more fully take in the person standing beside him. Something about being in the privacy of his room gave Neil the confidence to abandon all initial reservations regarding the path on which there was now no turning back. Jacques was small, but then again so was Neil. There was maybe a one or two-inch difference in height between them, but the hunched posture Neil couldn’t hold against Jacques ensured that the similarity was not immediately apparent. The more pronounced difference between the two in size was again due to something Neil could not hold against him. Jacques was undeniably malnourished, with muscular definition noticeable due to both that fact and his admittedly attractive skin tone provided by the condition of being without a roof over his head in a southern state. His blue eyes and sandy hair worked unjustly well together, and Neil wondered if his hair would appear blonder once the dirt was washed out of it. This thought brought him back to their current directive. As he moved to prepare the bathroom, conveniently attached to his room, Neil briefly took note of Jacques’ seeming lack of offense taken at being so blatantly studied.
As he filled the tub, Neil heard the soft rustle of clothes hitting hardwood floor. His throat caught. He had heard that, in situations such as whatever this situation was, the parties involved knew; that there was some unspoken, shared acknowledgement of the events that would soon transpire. Despite not ever having given much thought to it, Neil regarded such a generalization as both unlikely and potentially problematic. However, now that he was here, preparing a bath for a man with whom he had exchanged not more than fifty words prior to this moment, it all made some sort of indescribable sense.
The bathwater turned black three times before he let Jacques into his bed, and pizza bites were left burnt and uneaten.
The following morning, Neil woke to an overwhelming emptiness next to him and a faint smell of smoke in the air. “Fuck,” he hissed, immediately awake. He jumped out of bed, pushing through the vertigo to inspect the damage he was sure the previous night’s string of questionable decisions left in the kitchen. Instead, he found a tray of indistinguishable black crisps on the stove top and the words ‘YOU DICK’ scrawled across a scrap of yellow lined paper secured by a magnet to the fridge. Christian surely had already left for work. Neil wrote a mental note to text an apology once the pounding in his head and nausea in his stomach subsided.
In the days that followed, Neil took a different route home from work. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his interaction with Jacques. Rather, if he was being completely honest with himself, something Neil always made a concerted effort to be, he simply needed time to process this potential new development of self. Soon, however, his instinctive desire to see Jacques again overwhelmed any urge rooted in logic to complete this self-assessment without distraction. It had not been one week since their first meeting when Neil began to actively seek out the panhandling poet. However, as someone must have once said, you find what you’re looking for only once you’ve stopped looking. Weeks turned into months, and Neil never stopped looking.
“Yello,” Neil quipped, picking up his phone. He knew to make a considerable effort to sound as cheerful as possible when Casey was likely annoyed with him. He also knew that his ability to mitigate her frustrations by doing so had probably long expired.
“Hey Neil, are you off yet? Dinner’s in an hour, remember?” Despite the calm, cool, and collected demeanor she was clearly forcing through the phone, Neil could tell his girlfriend was a little on edge. That was one of the many perks of dating a friend — they had already passed the decipher-what-the-other-actually-means phase not long after the relationship became official in its current form. After all, the gap between friend and boyfriend didn’t necessitate too big of a leap, Neil thought.
“Honestly, I might have to meet you there. I told you Tiff has me on this piece that I just can’t get motivated around. Sorry, babe.” Casey hated when he called her babe. Neil was hoping it was more of a light-hearted annoyance, but deep down he knew that probably wasn’t the case.
“Whatever. Just make sure you’re at Will by seven. Oh, and don’t forget the wine. Get a red, maybe a Cab Sauv? Franc if you can find it?”
“I thought you were picking up the wine?” Neil didn’t explicitly remember Casey saying she’d pick up the wine. However, he didn’t remember agreeing to do so either.
“No, remember I told you I didn’t have time,” she wasn’t attempting to hide her anger at this point. Neil glanced sideways at his co-worker at a desk not too far away. He guessed he couldn’t really call a full-time reporter his co-worker, as a freelancer. Paul was either great at pretending not to eavesdrop, or one of those rare good people who resisted the basic human inclination towards being nosey.
“I mean, I can stop in at the liquor store on my way, but don’t be mad if that makes me late.” This exchange was beginning to agitate him.
Casey released a drawn-out sigh, “it’s fine. I’ll get it. See you at seven.” She hung up before Neil could say anything. He looked at the numbers 6:15 bright across his iPhone screen and groaned. There was no way he was going to get as far on his piece as he needed to by the end of the day and make it to South Philly by seven o’ clock. He was a shit boyfriend sometimes.
Neil had decided to leave the office soon after getting off the phone, as he figured he wasn’t going to be able to get much done while worrying about his girlfriend being mad at him on their anniversary. With the extra time, Neil was able to pop into the Wine and Spirits on his way to the subway station, where he picked up a Cabernet Sauvignon on sale. He knew Casey wouldn’t be thrilled about the obvious lack of thought that went into the purchase, but it was either show up at the restaurant on time with at least something dry and red or spend 20 minutes in the France aisle Googling reviews and leave Casey to get even more upset while waiting. It had to be the thought that counted, he figured. He was beginning to feel less anxious about his girlfriend’s mood until, after about ten minutes waiting for her, he realized that he had blanked on letting her know he could pick up the wine. She showed up at 7:20 p.m., clearly late due to the exact activity that Neil could have saved her from, judging by the look of the bottle she placed on their table with purpose. A trip to the liquor store was never just a quick drop in with Casey. The look on her face once she spotted the brown paper bag at Neil’s feet was enough to start an argument, however, thankfully, neither of them were one to pick a fight in public. Neil thought for the second time that night how shit of a boyfriend he could be as he squeezed her knee under the table with a weak attempt at a reassuring grin.
Later, after a dinner that was good enough to dissolve any tension between the two, Neil and Casey returned to Casey’s apartment. She might out-snob him in all alcohol other than whiskey, but their snobbery regarding fine dining was undeniably equal. In fact, their mutual attraction to good food seemed to be integral to their relationship. Thinking in those terms, Neil lucked out both with the quality of the dinner and due to the restaurant being his suggestion. They joked about the almost fight only a couple hours before, coming to the light-hearted conclusion that the situation was probably for the best. Casey’s wine selection was, as always, on point, and they still had a moderate quality bottle to continue their buzz with at home.
The two collapsed on Casey’s bed with a shared contented sigh. After a moment, Casey turned to Neil. Through blurry brown eyes and rosy cheeks, she was giving him the look he’d come to regard as the I-wish-I-could-explain-how-much-I-appreciate-you look, because that was what she would say each time he bemusedly asked her, “What?” It was undeniably cute, especially with the added influence of wine, but it also annoyed him. Neil knew his girlfriend was holding back something she had the full capability to communicate. Still, he played along. “What?”
“I have something for you,” her grin widened as she abruptly sat up and pranced towards her dresser.
“Case, I thought we agreed not to- “
“Be a gift giving couple?” she finished his sentence, turning back to face him with her hands holding whatever the gift was behind her back. “I’m sorry, just, remember that pop-up book shop that was randomly across from Barcade one night we were out? Well, it was there when Sarah and I went out a few weekends ago, and I couldn’t resist.”
Neil wasn’t sure if he was more so embarrassed that he didn’t also get her something, or annoyed by the precedent this would set for him to purchase a gift down the road. He was a freelancer and she was in grad school, they really couldn’t afford to eat fancy dinners, drink expensive wines, and buy each other gifts. “But, I didn’t get you any- “
“Don’t worry about it! This wasn’t expensive at all, it’s really okay. I just had to get it for you,” she hopped back on the bed, and place a thick blue book in Neil’s hands. It was a poetry collection. He had always been into poetry, having taken a few electives in undergrad, but his appreciation for the literary form had significantly piqued upon returning from his failed six-month attempt to procure a life for himself in New Orleans. Casey knew that. She didn’t know why. Somehow, the perfection of the gift only made Neil feel worse. Perhaps, though, what was truly tugging so hard at his guilty conscious was that reason why the gift was so perfect. Not telling Casey about Jacques didn’t sit well with Neil, but at the same time he had never known how to tell her. How do you explain the significance of a one-night stand with a homeless guy that you can’t stop thinking about to your girlfriend?
“Do you like it…?” Casey sounded more annoyed by his lack of a reaction than concerned about whether she had made the right purchase. Neil blushed. He hadn’t realized how lost in his thoughts he had let himself get.
“Of course,” he made his best attempt at a warm grin, looking her in the eyes with forced sincerity. It worked. She grinned back as he kissed her cheek. She really was a great girlfriend. For the third time that night, he thought how shit of a boyfriend he could be.
Neil turned back to the book and flipped through its pages. Suddenly, the structure of a poem caught his eye. It was simple, with inconsistent stanza lengths and the final line of the last stanza aligned to the right. Still, something about it captured his interest. He read its title. “Shores” by Hugo Mujica. He thought he remembered reading Mujica in a poetry class, but wasn’t positive. He read the first line.
outside a dog barks
Neil’s throat caught. The black ink blurred across the crisp, white page and his ears began to ring with an unfamiliar anxiety.
“You remember that one?” Casey’s voice pierced through the ringing. Neil could hear her I-wish-I-could-explain-how-much-I-appreciate-you look, “I read it in World Poetry freshman year. I remember you seemed to be the only other person in class who really got Mujica. You said- “
“His word choice so simply evokes the feeling of needing another’s company.” Neil felt one thousand miles away from this moment. He saw black bathwater and a pile of tattered clothes on hardwood floor.
“Yeah. I thought you were so pretentious, but sort of in an irresistibly cute way. Ya’ know?” Neil turned to Casey, who looked like she was about to cry, or sing, or explode into some joyous proclamation. He felt numb. He couldn’t do this to her anymore. Casey noticed the clear difference in their dispositions. Her forehead creased with concern, “what’s wrong?”
“You’re perfect,” his words were empty. He leaned forward and captured her returning grin with his dry mouth. He couldn’t look her in the eyes anymore. Neil thought once again how shit of a boyfriend he could be. If he were being completely honest though, the knowledge of his inability to fully commit to the role had plagued their entire relationship.
Neil felt a buzz in his pocket. He put his pen behind his ear and stuffed his hand into his black jeans. Sinjin’s name flashed across the screen. He groaned. Even though he had told his boss to let him do this one his own way, his naturally hawkish superior hadn’t been able to resist checking in several times a day, often with a new lead or suggestion. To be fair, this was Neil’s first big assignment, and he had learned that Sinjin’s micromanaging came from a place of concern rather than a lack of confidence in Neil’s abilities. Even so, an in-depth report on youth homelessness across the nation had been entirely Neil’s idea. He figured it was too early in his journalistic career to embark on a passion project, but this had to be pretty close to that.
“Yo, man,” Neil didn’t attempt to hide his exasperation.
“Hey, how’s it going up there?” Nothing Sinjin ever said, even a question so seemingly casual, was devoid of worry.
“Great, Jin. I’m getting some really great material here,” the vagueness was intentional. He didn’t want to give his boss anything else to ask about.
“Did you talk to the community by the Charles yet?” Neil saw that one coming a mile away.
“Not yet. I have a few meetings with case workers after lunch, but if I get a chance before it’s dark I’ll make it over there.”
“Good, good. Well, let me know if you need anything else. I’ll check back in tomorrow.”
“I know you will. See ya, man,” Neil shook his head as he stuffed his phone back in his pocket. The man was neurotic as hell, but he couldn’t complain about his first stable job in the industry. Especially when it allowed him to work on assignments like this. His phone buzzed again. Only once, this time. He pulled it back out of his pocket, fully expecting to have received a text from Sinjin with a list of other suggestions he had forgotten to mention over the phone.
Hey Neil, hope Boston is treating you well. Make sure to see your parents at some point. You know they’ll be pissed if you’re up there for two months and don’t make the 20 min trip home. Stay warm!
Neil sucked his teeth. He should have expected something from Casey. She was having a hard time with the space they had agreed to take before becoming friends again after their break up. Sure, there were many perks of dating a friend, but the possibility of losing one when things inevitably ended was undoubtedly the biggest risk. He made a mental note to consider what he should say to her, if he should even respond, that night.
After a couple meetings, a couple cancellations, and an overdue reminder text from Sinjin, Neil was looking forward to posting up in a new coffeeshop to digitally enter his notes from the day over an Americano. Once he sat down however, he remembered that he had forgotten his charger, and his laptop was surely low from finishing up yesterday’s notes that morning. He sighed. It wasn’t even dark yet, or dinner time for that matter. He read back over the text from his boss. He guessed it was time to check out that Charles community. Outside of a lingering fear from when he and his friends would hang around the city as kids, there wasn’t a legitimate reason he had been avoiding the community. He wanted to believe it was more so to piss off Sinjin than due to that childhood fear, but Neil did like the guy. He shook it off. It was 3 p.m. on a weekday and he was 24.
He figured that he would just observe the community today. If it was as big and permanent as he remembered, this piece of the research would have to span a week or two. The tents weren’t hard to find. There were a couple stragglers along the river, but the clump of twenty to thirty orange and yellow ones was exactly how he had remembered it. If anything, it had grown in size. Neil swallowed a lump forming in his throat. He checked the time on his phone. 3:45 p.m. on a weekday and he was still 24.
He found a bench a safe distance away from the tents. There wasn’t much action outside of them. Since it was still peak daytime, Neil figured he’d have to wait around for a little until people began returning from the more populated areas along the Charles. He hadn’t been sitting for long before a lanky figure emerged from an orange tent. The man stretched. Neil found this a little atypical, but otherwise unnoteworthy. Still, for a lack of anything better to look at, he continued his focus on the man. He stood staring at the river for a moment before returning into his tent.
Neil thought how uneventful this was. His stomach growled. He was about to call it an afternoon, resolving to come a little bit later next time, until the man came back out with a typewriter. That was strange. The homeless population in Boston was notably lacking in the kinds of panhandlers Neil had encountered in the southern states. The man turned to his left at a sound down the river. Neil froze. That wiry rust-tinged mustache was familiar. Those sunken blue eyes even more so. As if instinctively, Neil shot up from the bench. He wasn’t sure whether his feet would take him towards the river or far away. They chose the latter. He didn’t return to the community. After months of wanting to see Jacques again, followed by months of trying to forget him after resolving that their existences had forever passed each other by, he was fully unprepared to run into him on an assignment two years after their initial meeting. He remembered the familiarity in Jacques’ eyes at Neil’s mention of Boston.
A few weeks later, Neil was wrapping up loose ends on his time in the city. He hadn’t visited his parents yet, and figured he’d leave a couple days earlier than planned to do so. The image of Jacques perched on the bank of the Charles with a typewriter had never left Neil’s head. So, when he saw the boy, who with two years’ time had turned into more of a man, sitting in the Boston Common with his typewriter in his lap, he thought at first that it was just his imagination. He walked to the other end of the square and looked back. Jacques was still there. Neil fingered a crumpled bill in his pocket. He remembered stuffing five dollars in there that morning, planning to grab a coffee and bagel on his way to his first meeting. He hadn’t had time. He cleared his throat and looked around. The park was full of people, not one of them paying attention to either Neil or Jacques. Somehow, he was now prepared. Although he didn’t know what they might talk about, and the possibility that the boy might not even remember him settled in the pit of his stomach, Neil knew what to say first.
He approached Jacques, who looked up at him with glazed eyes. There was life in his blue irises, but Neil couldn’t tell if there was recognition. He shakily offered the bill, “what can I get for five bucks?”