‘Will that be all?’, the sales associate asks me.
‘‘Yea. Thanks’, I say, inserting my debit card into the machine.
She asks me what I’m up to today. Inwardly the panic sets in. I look, for the most part, normal, whatever that is. I wonder immediately if it’s evident on my face, if she noticed the flicker of dismay or sadness when she asked and the moment it took me to compose myself to deliver my standard response.
‘Just killing some time, between other things.’ I say. ‘You know, the usual…’ I add, offering a bigger smile than before, hoping she’ll giggle. She does.
She thanks me for my business and I wish her a good day. I leave the store, allowing that fraudulent smile to run away from my face, feeling so lost, so empty.
How did it come to this? Has it always been and I’ve only began to notice in the last ten years or so? Or is this some new development, perhaps a manifestation of the crushing loneliness I feel, moment to moment, day to day?
I tap Play on my Samsung and try to escape my thoughts. Unrelenting, they’re loud. I wander around. My gait suggests I have some place important to be, perhaps meeting up with some friends, or an appointment, or someplace I am expected to be. It’s a front. I have no place to be, nowhere to go. I find another store and enter it in hopes that the lights, people, and suggestions will ease my mind, even if only for a moment.
‘Hi!’ The associate greets me. What a terrific smile she has. ‘Are you finding everything ok?’ She asks, a standard question in retail. I want to tell her I’m not. That the friendship I seek is nowhere and that I seem to walk this path alone, a loneliness so crushing I want to vomit. That the Skytrain seems to move faster in some locations than others as it enters the station. But she seems sweet, so I won’t unload on her.
‘Yea. Just browsing.’ I respond with what I hope is a pleasant, engaging smile. ‘Actually..’ I change my mind. ‘I’m looking for Jimmy Hoffa…’ I inform her, a jaunty, mischievous smile following. As hoped, she laughs, says she likes me. I continue my browsing of items. Maybe she’d like to hang out sometime. No. I need to stop that line of thinking. Not every smile offered is an invitation to hang out, to go shopping. She’s doing her job. I know, I know. My sadness rushes back, like a sadistic tormenter who forgot to slap me once more before my reprieve. I increase my music’s volume, a vain attempt to stop the stinging in my eyes. I know I’m grasping. For friends, to know I’m alive, to know I exist, that I matter. My desperation and reading into smiles foolishly unnecessarily fuels the self-denigration. I need to leave. So I do.
I walk down the street more. It’s a busy Saturday and so many are out today, with friends, with family, with their significant other, enjoying their time. Despite my music being on I can still hear their laughs as I pass by. I offer as many smiles as I can to whoever is looking. If I don’t smile I’ll crumble. I can’t do that. At least, not in public. My smile, my humor, my jokes, ostensibly happy, betray in the biggest way how I actually feel.
As I wander these streets in the city I so love, a place I’ve long called home – even when I didn’t live here – I’m doing my best to keep composed. To keep smiling. To keep offering up a joke or funny anecdote where possible, lest the world figure out my well kept secret: I’m dying inside, by degrees. A loneliness so crippling I scarcely make it through any moment of any day without wanting to come completely apart.
I kneel down and greet a young gentleman I’ve spoken to so many times before. I ask how he’s been. He smiles so big when he says he found a place to live, at long last. Sitting before him is an upturned cap, one quarter and two dimes in it. He moves in sometime near the end of April. This would make it his first home in almost six years.
‘You know, if you need a place to stay, you know, once I move in, you’re welcome to.’ He offers me. The sincerity of his offer and the smile he gives me melts my already liquefied heart. ‘Aw.. thanks so much buddy.’ I say. He’s been homeless for about six years. I ask if he’s safe until then. He says he is. I give him the only change I have and he starts to thank me. But he knows me better. He stops himself. ‘I know.. Pay it forward’, he says, a knowing smile spreading across his face. I smile in return.
‘I saw you the other day’ he begins. ‘But it looked like you were talking to someone else, so I didn’t want to bother you…’
‘Bother me?’ I ask, hoping he’d elaborate.
‘Yea. I know lots of people but most don’t want me bothering them if they’re with friends or whatever. I guess embarrassed by me?’ He says, a flicker of sadness in his eyes.
‘Oh, no no. Gosh. Come say hi whenever. Truly.’ I’m filled immediately with such a profound sense of tremendous sadness that he’d ever feel like an encumbrance to me – given my own plight – that I tell him to give me a hug. He does, placing a cold, trembling hand around my neck.
I remind him to be kind to himself as I leave and go about my day. We’ll see each other again.
I make my way to the Burrard Skytrain station, music on high, the rain hiding the mist in my eyes. There’s just so much sadness, both in the world as well as in myself. Some girl stares at my jacket, and then follows that line of sight to my eyes, where she meets mine. I begin to smile, but she looks away before the smile can fully form.
I finally make it home, lock the door behind me, and let it go.
All of it.
This is my almost nightly ritual, my reset button to face the day tomorrow.
Another day, another smile.