The first time I saw him he was walking around the shelter with another man. His hands were buried in the pockets of his hoodie and his gaze was fixed on the ground. He looked shorter than his actual height because he was slouching.
He and the man walked laps around the shelter while they talked. His expression was hard: Eyebrows furrowed, jaw tight, lips curled into a slight frown. He moved across the tiled floor like a sleek fish gliding through the water.
“Hi,” I said, introducing myself. “Do you mind if we talk for a few minutes?”
His companion kept walking as he coasted to a halt. His stony expression softened; his eyebrows raised and wrinkles appeared at the outer corners of his eyes as he smiled.
“Sure. Thank you.”
He and I walked laps around the shelter for the next few days. His father beat his mother, his brother, and him. At the age of 11 he found his mother’s body after she committed suicide. His father disappeared for days at a time. When he returned, his speech was slurred, clothes were dirty, and exhalations were thick with malt liquor. He stopped attending school. He ran away from home. He slept in alleys and underneath bridges. The police picked him up on a variety of charges: Theft. Drug possession. Criminal trespass.
The second time I saw him he lying on a mat in the shelter. The stiff blanket was not long enough to cover his entire body; his feet with their long toenails poked out.
He pulled the blanket off of his face and replied, “Heroin. Couple days ago.” Pulling up a sleeve, he showed me the collection of tiny bruises on his arm. He closed his eyes. Beads of sweat collected on the pale skin of his forehead.
“I’ll be done kicking dope tomorrow.” He pulled the blanket back over his head.
The third time I saw him he was sitting on the floor in the shelter, his arms hugging his knees.
“I don’t make many promises. I promised her that I won’t kill myself. I keep the promises I make, so I didn’t do it. I really wanted to.”
He accepted the invitation and got up. He and I walked laps around the shelter. He had yet to talk with her, though he planned to see her tomorrow. The last time he used heroin was over six months ago, but he was also in jail for four of those months.
“You didn’t use anything in jail?”
He shook his head.
After a pause, he said, “You know, I’ve seen you downtown. You were with a guy, so I didn’t want to bug you.”
“Is that where you’re staying these days?”
The fourth time I saw him he was standing on the sidewalk outside of a methadone clinic. The hood of his sweatshirt was pulled over his head and baggy jeans covered his long legs. His hands were buried in the pockets of his sweatshirt. The other man made a joke; he chuckled and wrinkles appeared at the outer corners of his eyes as he smiled.
I crossed the street. He was with a guy and I didn’t want to bug him.
The fifth time I saw him he had already passed me. Without realizing that I was reviving an old habit, I wrapped the long white coat closed as I looked over my shoulder.
“Smith!” the officer barked. “Stay where you are. Turn around.”
He stopped, turned, and looked up. We saw each other.
“Go back to your cellblock, Smith.”
He moved across the concrete floor like a sleek fish gliding through the water. Before he passed me, he nodded in recognition. I nodded back.
We both kept walking. I sighed.