By: J. Cassidy Hawthorne
I remember my first day. It was cold as Hell. It was the kind of cold where each thought you had was interrupted by another, single thought: it’s cold. I thought my nipples were going to pierce through my shirt. I think the interesting thing with the cold is that after a certain point it doesn’t really matter how low the degree is, it’s just fucking cold.
I started working at the shelter as a volunteer once I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I had just finalized my divorce and after stepping out of that life and coming back to the world I realized, for the first time, that everyone is busy. Everyone is married. Everyone has children. Everyone but me.
One weekend I went to the movies by myself. I couldn’t find one other person to go with. Everyone was busy. For the first time I realized what it was like to truly be alone. I thought I would like it. Who knew?
I started walking back home after the Sunday matinee and looked down an alley with someone curled next to a dumpster. It was something I had grown accustom to seeing as a New Yorker, but this time I thought about the sheer loneliness. I thought about what it would be like to be that person.
So the next morning I woke up and went to the shelter.
You can picture the shelter by envisioning a school gym and ripping out the bleachers and painting over every color with a sad, pale, gray. I always wondered why they had to pick gray.
There were large windows in the ceiling and in the winter the sky only drenched the room in more gray. It was just a giant brick box of gray.
There were long rows of mattresses. The Shelter couldn’t afford bed frames, not even bunk beds. It was just a sea of gray paint, gray people, gray mattresses, and a handful of volunteers. The shelter didn’t even have a real name, no saint or anything. It was just called ‘the Shelter.’ It was eerie, but it was sincere and all the management staff were congenial and equally sincere in their motives, only apprehended by the capability of their benefactors’ wallets. America, America.
I met him on that first day. He stood out to me. He was pissed off. It was different. Everyone else carried a blank expression- apathy mixed with amphetamines and prescription pills. How typical now? Most of them were mentally ill. Never violent, but they talked to themselves a lot.
But he was furious. He kept muttering over and over to himself and throwing his hands around. I was nervous to walk over to him. I thought about telling someone, but I was too awkward on my first day. I didn’t want to be the one that overreacts easily.
I kept him in the corner of my eyes as I talked to a homeless woman who had made friends with an alleyway dog. I think her name was Tiffany- the lady, not the dog. She had a sharp nose and was missing a lot of teeth. She reminded me of my ex-husband’s mother. Her eyes were hazel. I remember a little brown spot in the top right of her iris. Sores coated all over her completely chapped flesh. It was disgusting and she made me understand why such a gray place existed in the first place.
I felt someone standing beside me.
“Excuse me, miss?”
I jumped. Everyone turned and stared at me.
“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you! Jeeze!”
“Oh, no, no! It’s okay! I’m just- um- a little excited, you know? It’s my first day here and everything’s got me jumpy.”
“Yeah, I figured you was new or som’n ‘cause I never seen you before.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Grace.”
“My name’s Casper- Oh wow, you got a real pretty face, you know that? You’re so… pink!”
“Oh wow- thanks?” It was a strange compliment. I wasn’t sure that it even was one.
He stood out to me the more I looked at him. His face wasn’t worn out like with others. His face was clean-shaven and he had short hair. It was different. But there was still the quiet desperation in his green eyes. You could feel the helplessness. That was always there.
“Um, listen I was just wondering if you could help me out with som’n.”
“Sure, what do you need?”
“Oh well, I don’t wanna interrupt on whatever you and this lady were doing.”
I looked back over to the older woman. I had forgotten she was there. She looked at me and then to Casper.
“No, no it’s fine. You two go ahead. I’ll tell you about my friend later.” She smiled at me and showed off all 6 of her remaining grey teeth. I smiled back and walked with Casper over to where he was earlier. There was a black backpack in front of his mattress, half opened.
“Can you help me take care of this guy? I can’t help him- I don’t got nothin’.” He pulled out a piece of fur.
“Casper, what is that?” My eyes were bulging and I could feel my corneas drying out.
“It’s a kitten, you know. I found the guy when I was walkin’ over. He was just in some box- I don’t know.”
It was my first day and a homeless man was offering me an animal.
“Casper! I can’t take that!”
“Why not? You allergic or som’n?”
“No, I’m not allergic. I just can’t take that.”
“Well if you don’t then it’s gonna die, you know? I mean, I would keep it if I could but I ain’t got no money.”
I sighed. “Casper… God, this is so strange.” I sighed again.
“The guy’s gonna die! I ain’t got money to keep it alive, Grace. Please, come on Grace! I can tell you’s a good person.”
I paused for a moment, really drinking in what was going on. I looked him in the eyes and stared at how green they were. He was so sincere. I don’t know what it was, exactly, but I couldn’t say no. I didn’t even care about the cat. I just couldn’t say no to Casper. Something in his eyes, as cliché as that is.
“Oh, Jesus. Okay, fine. Give me the thing,” I said. He placed it in my hands and it was by far the smallest thing I had ever held. I couldn’t even tell if it was breathing. Casper told me I should probably go quickly and get it something to eat so I listened and left the shelter.
I had no idea what to do. I started searching on my phone what to feed a newborn kitten. It was frigid out and I wrapped the ball of fur in my coat.
It was about 4 weeks until I was able to go back to the shelter. I was so busy with the kitten and my job that I couldn’t find the time to go back and see Casper. God, that little ball of fur was the most time-consuming thing I had ever been with. It was at this point that I would have loved to see a movie completely by myself.
Finally, I was able to give the thing a little time to itself without me around and I scheduled a shift back at the shelter. The first person I went looking for was Casper. I didn’t see him. I ended up finding Tiffany again and asked her if she had seen him. She said he hadn’t been in for a week or so. She said he asked where I was all the time. I asked if she had seen him outside of the Shelter or knew anything about where he might be. She had no idea.
I started to worry. I suddenly became panic-ridden and I went outside. I walked around a few blocks blindly looking for him. I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t know what I was doing.
I couldn’t see him. I started calling his name. I don’t know why I was so worried. I don’t know why I cared so much. Why did I take the cat in the first place? Why did I get myself into this?
It was so cold, even in my coat and with all the layers I was still ice.
There was someone up in an alleyway. There was a black backpack. I called his name. He rolled over. He was gaunt in the face. He had a short beard now. He was frozen.
“Casper! Casper! Oh my god!”
“… Grace?” His ashy and shriveled voice was hard to make out.
“Are you okay?”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I helped him stand up and started walking toward the shelter. We were almost there and he stopped me.
“No. I need… food.”
“There’s food in the shelter.”
He imitated vomiting. I guess he didn’t have the energy to say anything. He was right, though, the food was… ‘humble’ to say the least. I thought about what I was going to do or where to take him and ultimately decided to go home.
It was an insane idea, but I took him to my home. I knew there were risks, but I didn’t care.
We were in my apartment now and I sat him at the dining room table.
We shared dinner together. The color came back to his face. We talked all night. I asked him why he left and he said he was on his way and couldn’t make it. I told him Tiffany said he wasn’t in all week. He said she was crazy and that he had been in the day before. He was right, she was crazy.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had such a pleasant time with somebody. It had been years. He made me laugh the way I did when I had first met my ex-husband. He took a shower and I gave him some clothes my ex had left behind. He shaved off his beard and I clipped his hair. We stayed up all night. I talked to him about the cat, which he decided to name Hope. It was nice. It was late at night and he said he should be going. I told him not to leave and said he could stay with me. He was argumentative at first but it didn’t take much to spend the night on the couch.
And then he spent another night.
And soon enough we shared the same bed.
And soon he started living with me.
And not too long after, he found a job.
And then he put some money away.
And then he bought a ring.
And today we still have Hope.