He was drunk. At least I think he was. I heard the can clink against the grey metal box on a pole I had never noticed before while I was still across the street. I had just finished rehearsing my performance for tomorrow night–a six-minute splathering of emotions into air–and here he was, clinging to his beverage can–I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he wasn’t drinking–just to keep his balance.

He was doubled over. Legs spread apart, one arm up on the can on this metal box I really had never noticed before–and I pass this corner at least twice a day on my walk to class and home again–maybe six inches over his shoulder, his other arm dangling in the dark, his body bent forward.

Maybe he’s throwing up. Or pissing. Just right there.

Except he isn’t. He’s only standing. Maybe he’s wobbling. Maybe I imagine it. Probably I did. Bathed in the blue light of the emergency alert tower with its big red button only three feet in front of him, and me coming up on the sidewalk from behind in my shiny jacket that can be spotted for miles around, I straighten my spine, point my focus in front of me, and keep my hands at my sides.

I want to look at him. There’s something painfully attractive about vulnerability. That moment when pretenses are dropped and expectations slip away and all that remains is the raw blood beneath the husk of our bodies. Lost in a drunken stupor–if he is–there’s something strangely beautifying in his midst. He’s wearing jeans, a black tank top that shows off his lean, muscled arms, well-defined shoulders, and a black baseball cap turned back. All this from a single glance as I walked across the street. Now I don’t look at him, though my eyes yearn to stare, to witness.

The brief thought crosses my mind that I might know him, and I try harder not to look–if he’s drinking, if he’s underage, I don’t want to be a part of that mess. Yet as I pass him by, I steal a glimpse–so does he–and for a split second maybe we’re looking at each other, but really we’re both looking past each other, and I don’t even catch a good glimpse of his face. I know I don’t know him, maybe he has a few pimples, a ‘stache, but really I just look at his forehead, that patch of skin showing in the half-moon opening of his baseball cap.

Then he’s behind me and I’m nervous to not look back. What if he does something? What if he gets violent or yells at me or says something derogatory? What would I do? I’m dressed in a fucking disco-ball hoodie, and though so far I’ve only heard praise–and from some guys I’d never even expect it just from the way they look–there’s bound to be that one guy who thinks it’s wrong for a man to shine and tries to beat me up for it.

But I’m not really afraid. The fear is just an involuntary response to my own inaction. As I approached him, watching as he stood there unmoving, doubled over, staring at the ground, his hand still clasped around that lonely can like it’s been magnetized to this metal box and it’s the only thing holding up, the only thing that crosses my mind is if he’s okay or not. Is he drunk? Is he safe standing on this corner? Could he stumble into the street and get hit by a car? Should I ask him if he’s alright?

I’m in the crosswalk by now. I mutter under my breath, “You alright, man?”

And I mutter in response, “Yeah, yeah, I’m good.”

Nodding to myself, “Have a good night, man. Take care of yourself.”

And now I’m far enough away that it doesn’t matter where he is or what he’s done and I look back over my shoulder, but someone on a bike rides past and I can’t even see him through the darkness now anyways. And my one-sided conversation meant nothing. What if he really needed someone to reach out to him? What if he really wasn’t okay? What if I could have been the person to change everything?

I didn’t look him in the eyes. I didn’t see his eyes even for a split second. But I saw them long enough, and he looked sad and confused and I just walked past him. I just left him there because I was afraid.

“You alight, man?”

I’ll never know.

2 thoughts on “Heartless

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