From my new book The Lonely Children of New York. Find it on my author page: https://www.amazon.com/Lonely-Children-New-York/dp/1542891469/ref=la_B00QEL41LS_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494623751&sr=1-1
As the sun continues to rise, I find Gabriel sitting at the back of an alley, sitting against the wall and enjoying an orange.
Gabriel loves oranges. It’s one of his loveable quirks. Just oranges. He’s not really a fan of bananas, or a fan of apples, or a fan of pomegranates or grapes or blueberries. Just oranges. But oranges, he could eat all day. Something about the tangy flavor that he enjoys more than anything.
I can tell he’s enjoying the orange, and I can’t help but feel like I’m disturbing him, but he sees me, his face dripping with the juices, his eyes alight, and when he sees me, he tosses me an orange, and gestures for me to sit next to him.
I do as my friend tells me, feeling content and contented, and begin eating the orange, my breakfast.
“Where did you get these?” I ask, noticing they taste pretty freaking good.
“I got them from the kitchen, believe it or not,” Gabriel says.
“The kitchen?” I say, surprised. “These are pretty good for the kitchen.”
“I know, right?” Gabriel says. “But we know a miracle when we see one. The Virgin Mary is looking out for us.”
I nod my head, and continue to eat the orange beside my friend. We talk occasionally, but both of us are enraptured by the goodness and delicacy of the orange before us.
When we finish, Gabriel pulls out his handkerchief and wipes his mouth gently, like a boy or a bird washing themselves, and I look at the handkerchief, and am reminded of a past I know pretty much nothing about. It was a handkerchief that his grandmother hand knitted for him, and I know it’s important to him. One of the few pieces of property he has, besides his clothes, and a piece of property that I know means the world to him.
Gabriel then pats me on the back and stands up. I stand up with him, ask, “What’s up?”
“We’ve got the whole day,” Gabriel says. “My belly’s full with a great treat, and I’ve got my best buddy to chill with. Let’s go for a walk or something, scope and canvas the area. Get into trouble. Comprende mi amigo?”
When Gabriel can tell I’m not quite on board, as I’ve got other things on my mind, he laughs, slaps me on the back again, and then gives me a killer hug that makes my day.
“It’s up to you, Alex,” Gabriel says. “I just thought it would be fun.”
“Of course it would be fun,” I say, forcing myself to get into the groove. “Yeah, Gabriel. Let’s go.”
“Maybe we’ll run into Isaac,” Gabriel says. “That would be nice. But that little hooligan is probably getting into trouble, don’t you think?”
“I think knowing you, you’re probably going to get me into trouble first,” I say, and I say this with a straight face. But when Gabriel sees I’m kidding, he laughs, and shoves me affectionately, and then I say, “So did you sleep okay last night?”
“Yeah, I did, now that you mention it,” Gabriel says. “Una noche dulce. But what about you?” He pauses for a moment, then says, “Did you go visit Young?”
I have to fight off the blushing. I hate it when Gabriel pries into my private life. But we’re brothers, we tell each other everything, and so I say, even though I haven’t fully processed my feelings and emotions about the event yet, I say, “Yeah. I saw Young.”
Even though I say this very neutrally, Gabriel whistles.
“What?” I say, taken aback a little.
Gabriel just laughs at me, innocently mocking.
“What is it?” I say, losing a little bit of my patience, but only because Gabriel is making fun of me now in that great way he does.
“You like him, don’t you?” Gabriel says, and he says this seriously.
“Young?” I say. “Why would I like Young?”
I’m a little surprised at this statement, but after further consideration, not really. I’m not surprised because Gabriel is always good at picking up on the crushes of others. He tends to be a matchmaker in his own right, being the hustler he is, so I say, “I didn’t know you knew I was gay.”
“I don’t,” Gabriel says. “I just always suspected.”
“You won’t tell any of our other street friends, I hope,” I tell Gabriel. “This needs to stay a secret for now, until I feel ready to talk about it openly.”
“Mi amigo,” Gabriel says matter-of-factly, “I don’t know what you’re so afraid of. I’ve been hit on so many times by kids my age, male kids my age. And I find it charming, even though I’d rather be with a girl. You personally may want to keep it all a secret, but you can’t keep something like love bottled up inside. I guess in your case, maybe not love, but … you know what I mean.”
I do know what Gabriel means. It is impossible for me to get close to someone. I’ve always seen it as my duty to be respectful of boundaries, and make everything platonic. But I wonder if maybe Gabriel is right, that I’m suppressing my feelings too much.
“Just because you like him, doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and get married,” Gabriel points out.
“I just can’t believe you knew,” I say.
“Like I said, I don’t really know. I just pick up on stuff. I don’t know if I’m even right. I don’t decide what you do with your life. You’re twenty-six, you know what’s best for you. But I think that Young has some good he can offer you. I’m glad you went over there, even if only for a moment.”
I think about when I tried to masturbate in the lake, when my thoughts were clear like water, and I think about how I had no idea I was going to switch to such a confusing mindset when I met Young. Do I like him, do I just want to be friends? Does Young like me? Are we good for each other, or will we just drive each other nuts?
“Just don’t let it make you sick,” Gabriel says. “Don’t overthink it. And before you say you can’t believe I know, just … don’t. I don’t know anything. I just think you haven’t had enough honest conversations with yourself yet, Alex. I think you’re still gun shy. I think you’re still a little yellow when it comes to these matters.”
“Well, even if I do like him, it’s not like it means anything,” I say quickly. “It’s not like it could really mean anything, in all honesty. I’m a homeless dude. Cast out, unwanted, unneeded. Society would rather just throw me away. They have no use for me.” And that’s when I notice that Gabriel is barefoot, and I say, continuing my line of impatience, “And why are you barefoot? You have shoes.”
“Actually, I don’t have shoes,” Gabriel says matter-of-factly, but I can tell he’s lying. “No zapatos. Sin zapatos para mi. But that isn’t bad, sí? Of course not.” And Gabriel shoots me a mischievous smile.
I have a feeling that Isaac put Gabriel up to this, and I point this out.
“Estas loco,” Gabriel says, grinning even wilder.
I shove Gabriel gently, and say, “Cut it out, Gabriel. Isaac totally told you to go barefoot, didn’t he?”
“Maybe,” Gabriel says, playing with me gently. “Maybe not. It’s hard to say. I think in all honesty, I may have forgotten what Isaac told me to do. Something about you being envious of the barefoot boy club, or something.”
Even though this is told to me lightly and with that charm that makes anything Gabriel does excusable, I feel a pang at this. I’m not sure how Gabriel knows about my new obsession with Whittier’s poem and what that means, but it’s obviously a reality I have to confront. Though it isn’t that surprising. Isaac and Gabriel are both so incredibly perceptive about things. They get stuff about me that I don’t even get about myself, and they like and understand my faults. They in fact want my faults. I’ve never been able to figure out how those boys can read me so well, but they can, and it makes me both happy and sad that they have picked up on something that I’ve been thinking about heavily for the longest time now.
So I say, in response to all of this nonsense, “Gabriel … I may have gotten a little depressed lately.”
“About what?” Gabriel asks, but he’s serious now.
“I don’t know exactly,” I say. “It’s the usual nostalgia for my youth, except, that familiar pain is challenged by the fact that I’m trying to figure out … why, exactly, I care about what I care about, when it’s easier not to care, you know, and when I obsess and obsess about these things I love and care about over and over again, to the point to where it makes me both miserable and alive.”
“In other words, you can’t figure out why you’re a mentally ill, gay, homeless man?”
I laugh. “Something like that. And I’ve been remembering things. I used to go without shoes all the time when I was a homeless kid.”
“You still are a homeless kid,” Gabriel says.
I say, “But I’m not that kid anymore.”
“Why do you have to be that kid?” Gabriel asks me seriously, with a bit of innocent contempt. “Why can’t you just be yourself?”
“Be more authentic?” I say. “Yeah, I’ve thought about that too. I wish I was more real, but I don’t even know what that means. How can I know what it means? I don’t think I can know what anything means. It’s all hopeless, it’s all a blur. I’m secretly going crazy.”
“You’re overthinking the barefoot thing,” Gabriel says. “Too much Romantic poetry. Though I guess Don Quixote would be a fan. Still, I think you’re getting your head in the clouds too much, you need to mellow it out a little bit. Just become the kid you want to be.”
“Right, go back in time,” I snap, though lightly.
“No, not that at all,” Gabriel says. “Just be honest with yourself. Try to figure out what’s missing in your life.”
“You guys are what’s missing!” I say in a sudden passionate outburst.
Gabriel isn’t bothered by my outburst, but he looks confused. “What do you mean?”
And I realize that I’m crying a little bit.
Gabriel notices, and he tells me it’s going to be okay, and I hug my friend, as if remembering a thousand lifetimes with Gabriel, a thousand moments of thinking about him, my lost past, my past friend, and then I say, letting him go, “I mean … I don’t want you kids to be homeless anymore. We don’t have it half as bad as they do in war torn third world countries, but we still have to admit that sometimes it gets a little shitty over here.”
“I had mi naranja, I’m good. Like I said, you’re too much of a dreamer, a lost Romantic. You underestimate your own happiness because you get caught up in the happiness of others. You see a barefoot boy named Gabriel and assume that he’s out of your reach, and you get sad because he’s homeless and his mother abandoned him and nobody loves him and the shelter abuses him.” Gabriel pauses, looks at me. “But it’s nothing. It’s nothing to worry about. Nothing at all, mi amigo. I promise it’s all going to be okay. We’ve got you, and you’ve got us, and there’s nothing you need to fear.”
“But I worry I won’t be able to keep you safe all the time,” I say. “I’ve slept for years on the streets, but I can’t stand the thought of you sleeping on the streets for even a night.”
“The streets are my home,” Gabriel promises. “Just relax yourself a little bit. Quit letting pride clothe your walk. Just let yourself go. Let yourself be. I don’t know if you know how to do that, though, because you’re worried so much about lonely street kids in New York, when really … it’s you that is lonely.”
I think through this. Gabriel is, as always, so very perceptive, and it makes me feel a little better, but also still sad.
Because I don’t know what else to do, I hug Gabriel again, and he assures me, gently, “It’s going to be okay, mi amigo. I promise you that. You came to check on me, but it seems in the end, I had to check on you. But don’t worry. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be all right.”
And I believe him. I believe Gabriel. Part of me, there’s things I’m never going to let go, but for the moment at least, I believe that Gabriel is right. I have my friends, it’s going to be okay. And I find it charming that ultimately, Gabriel was the one who ended up checking on me, rather than the other way around. I can’t help but feel touched by that.
“Bueno?” Gabriel asks me.
I nod my head, and smile. “Yes. I’m good.”
“Great,” Gabriel says. “Now let’s go get into trouble! There’s so much we should be doing right now!”
And without warning, Gabriel begins to run.