Two weeks ago, a man told me he loved me. His blue eyes glittered up at mine as we stood facing each other on the sidewalk, and for a moment he looked as though he might cry. I watched his Adam’s apple bob violently in his throat.
We met almost a year ago on the same stretch of street. I had been working at a table in the sun and my head reflexively bobbed up when I heard a cockney-accented voice ask if I had any change. I didn’t, and said so, but offered my best smile instead. He smiled back, his lone tooth gleaming at me from behind the bottom lip. The next time we saw each other, our faces stretched into simultaneous grins of recognition. He never asked me for money again.
We met on the street a few weeks ago, exclaiming about how long it had been. He mentioned a hospital visit. I asked if he was in pain. I mentioned I’d been in California. He asked if Brexit was making it harder for me to stay in London.
We started running into each other more often (“Hey, gorgeous!” “Hey, handsome!”) and would exchange niceties before he had to go. He always had somewhere to go.
Recently, we met and he asked for a favor. It was a small thing, really, but it meant he might be able to get off the street. His thick brow furrowed when he asked. Embarrassed, I think. When I said I’d be glad to help, his eyes widened and welled. He tilted his creased face up at mine. “I love you, Jess.”
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belonging and love are superseded only by safety. We need to feel loved almost as much as we need a secure place to sleep. I have a door to close every night, and yet, in my present state, sometimes loneliness feels like a boulder chained to my chest. I often feel desperate for a place to set it down— breath shallow and tight as I wonder if I’ll be crushed under its weight.
“I love you, Jess.”
He doesn’t know me enough to love me. This is just an expression of gratitude, really. An outpouring of relief. He might have a safe place to sleep now. He can give away his cardboard.
“I love you, Jess.”
I think about what love is. How connected it is to action. I’ve had my heart broken by love that doesn’t have anything to show for itself. “Look at this picture of the fire I built for you!” as I shudder in the cold.
He doesn’t know me enough to love me. But I feel something shift in my chest and I can see that somehow, in whatever way he can, he does. I don’t know him enough to love him. But I care, and I’m willing to help. I’m going to help. So I square my eyes on his and say it back.
“I love you too, Danny.”
And it feels scary and good and right.