One good thing.
As soon as I lay eyes on him, I know that he is up to no good. Repeatedly looking over his shoulder. The set of his jaw, clearly bracing himself for something. He stands out here, like a fox in a hen house or a steam roller weaving among Ferrari's. He is so obvious, well to me anyway. I’m here to sip delicious, expensive coffee. Coffee that I can’t afford. To people watch, see how the other half live. Escape for a while. Pretend I belong here. He is not. He has a plan.
I drop my gaze and put my cup back on the table. The spring sunshine has yet to arrive. It’s cold for April. I pull my coat around my neck and make sure the zip is up as far as it can go. Cheap coat so what did I expect? The coffee was actually keeping my hands warm. I pick it back up and my gaze automatically returns to the boy man. I watch as he tries to blend in, in full view. His shoulders are hunched. I know now what he is going to do. I’m unsure if it will be the brunette, fur coat, talking earnestly, cell phone to her ear. It could also be the blonde. Tall, leggy, tan coat, bright red Gucci tote swinging around her protruding wrist. Clearly oblivious to the world around her. What do I care? It’s none of my business.
It’s the blonde. My heart starts to beat a little faster. Shit head, go get a job and pay for your own damn stuff. He puts his hood up and begins to pick up his pace. I squeeze my coffee. It oozes up and some escapes the lid.
It burns my leg through my worn jeans. Dammit. I wipe furiously. It has no effect on the stains. She is about twenty yards from me now. I can see her face. I think about giving her a heads up. I close my mouth. Look at me, scruffy jeans, dirty trainers and hoodie protruding from the top of my fleece. What if she thinks I’m involved?
It’s show time. One last glance over his left shoulder. He sprints, grabbing the bag as if in a relay. She doesn’t make a sound, just stops, mouth hanging open in shock. Her hand is outstretched, still holding the other end of the strap. He tugs harder.
She screams, ‘stop’ and then ‘no’. It’s barely audible from where I’m sitting. A half-hearted attempt on her behalf.
He rams her with his shoulder. She bounces off him like she has been hit by a train, hitting the pavement with a thud. It’s a distinctive sound, a fall. People are standing still around them now. Frozen in their inaction. Afraid for themselves, assessing the situation. Self-preservation I suppose. I know about that.
He runs across the street. He is going to race right by me. I’m seething, shaking slightly in my anger. Little shit thinks he can just take what he wants. He won’t think about her again. He will riffle through her life. Take what is valuable. Sell the bag. Destroy the rest of her belongings. I know because I have seen how it works many times. He has no doubt done it countless times. I am not a person for spontaneous action. I am careful, measured, rational thinking. I have to be.
My reaction comes out of nowhere. I stick my left foot out, low and purposely. It happens so quickly. I see him stumble and register the shock on his face. It lasts a second before he is pitched forward out of view. You weren’t expecting that boy man. He is lying sprawled in the middle of the crashed tables and chairs. I am shaking again. It’s fear this time. I should run. Staff are coming out to see what happened.
‘Hey man, what the hell happened’? Coffee guy looks unsure whether he should be angry or concerned.
The boy man is off again having gotten his wind back. He is clawing and scrambling through the outdoor seating area. He clutches his left shoulder as he tears round the corner. I fill my lungs shakily, shrugging my shoulders at the coffee guy. I see the red bag among the carnage. I can put something right today.
‘This belongs to that lady over there’, realising that she is still sitting on the street.
Coffee guy barely spares me a glance as he tries to right his metal chairs and table. I pick it up and make my way back to her. Suddenly feeling awkward in my role as hero.
She is sitting there in a heap. I can’t see any blood. Why is she still sitting there?
‘Are you alright’?
Nothing. She just stares back at me. Tears and mascara raining paths down her cheeks. Her lips are quivering. Sad blue eyes survey me. I try again, more forceful this time.
‘You need to get up’, I grab her elbow and start to haul.
‘I don’t think I can stand’.
She is nearly up. I secure an arm around her waist. Her legs are shaking like a new born foal. ‘I have your bag here’ I smile, encouraging her.
She is still in shock, I think. She turns her palms up to inspect them. I can see that both are scratched. She looks down to see her legs. The left knee of her black pants is torn. A bloody graze can be seen seeping through it. She doesn’t seem to be taking this too well. I feel a little out of my depth.
‘Do you want me to call someone for you’? Why I’m talking slowly, I don’t know.
‘No’, she barks.
I eyeball her in confusion. Her expression is immediately apologetic. At least she has stopped crying.
‘If my brother finds out about this, she scrunches her eyes and shakes her head. He will have the whole police department down here’. She makes a strangled sound, half sob, half laugh. She wipes her face with her sleeve.
‘He can be over protective, he would over react’. She is standing more upright so I hand her the bag.
She takes it tentatively, ‘How did you get it’?
‘I saw what happened. He ran past me. I sort of tripped him. I mean I did. You should have seen his face’. I giggle now that I can reflect on it safely.
She is looking at me curiously, studying me, my face, frame, clothes. I can’t keep the smile off my face. She pulls her hair over her shoulder and blows out a breath.
‘Lord you’re a brave one’.
‘No, really, I’m not, at all, it just happened’. If I were fearless things would be different. ‘It was probably a dumb move. I’m lucky he didn’t thump me one’. An involuntary shiver runs through me. She sees it and offers a small smile.
‘I’m glad you were here’, she offers her hand, ‘June Williams’; which is unnecessary considering we had our arms around each other. It takes me a split second to catch up.
‘I’m Star’, I shake her hand and start to wonder how to extract myself. The conversation is running out. I note for the first time how pale she is. Translucent. Her pale blue eyes have deep, dark circles underneath. She has her own battles, I guess.
‘Well, I better get going’. I sound like somebody who has to be somewhere. I don’t. It’s my day off.
I take a couple of steps putting some distance between us. She has that anxious look again. I falter.
‘Do you think you could walk me home’?
I heard her. I am trying to buy some time. My eyebrows are half way to my hairline. I wasn’t expecting this. It’s a strange request. I don’t know what to think or say. I am still facing her but am staring hard at a paving block to her left. Fabulous shoes too. I always notice peoples’ shoes. I glance at her. She looks like she is in some sort of anguished terror again. I look up and down the street for the reason but see nothing. I feel sorry for her. Off course I will. Please god don’t let it be twenty blocks away.
‘Sure, is it far’?
Her smile is pure relief. I step up to her again and we fall into step. She is hobbling. She links her arm through mine. Okay then.
‘Thank you, Star. I’m more grateful than you will ever know. If you ever need anything you have a friend in me. I can start by offering you a cup of coffee and some lunch. You hungry’? I can’t help but smile back. For some reason I know that she genuinely means it. She seems like a good one. Strange but good.
Ten blocks, that’s how far her place is. I must admit I was starting to wonder. She takes the three steps up to the door of a large brownstone. Nice. She opens up and ushers me in. The first thing I notice is the smell. I should say the lack of smell. It makes a pleasant change from urine. The smell in the stairwell and elevator in my apartment block is overpowering. We are in a tiny hall. I wait while she closes the outside door. She moves us into an open plan living area. Huge T.V., large seating area, white sofas and an actual fireplace. The room is flooded with light from the large front windows. It’s pristine, as in reflective surfaces clean. I decide against commenting on any of it. But, wow. Money and obviously someone here, has a lot of it. I think of Dean briefly and become momentarily uncomfortable. I pull myself together and smile.
She fills the coffee machine with water as I make my way to the kitchen table. She is opening cupboards. Then the refrigerator.
‘Does a toasted bagel with cheese sound appealing’? she is smiling hopefully.
‘Sounds perfect, thank you, but honestly just a coffee will be good’. I realise she is still hobbling.
‘Here, I can make those, sit down and take care of your knee’. She does as I ask, rolling up the leg of her trouser. She dabs at it with some wet kitchen paper. She gives up when I put her bagel on the table.
The silence is deafening as we begin to eat. She seems unperturbed, preoccupied. She is hunched over her bagel. She looks up and blows a lock of hair that is falling over the right side of her face.
‘That was actually the first and probably the last time that I have taken that sucker out of the house’. I am momentarily lost. She flicks her head to indicate the red Gucci bag on the floor. I try to contain a giggle.
She has one leg of her trousers rolled up to her thigh. There is a large white square of kitchen paper swinging from her knee where it is partially stuck, bloody and wet. The rest of it is gently rising and falling. There is a Mr. Grumpy sock visible. It stops mid-calf. I could not cope with socks that long. They would drive me insane. It’s the look of pure loathing she is directing at the bag as she chews that sets me off. My shoulders start to shake. The giggling erupts. I am relieved when I look up to see that she is laughing too. That starts me off again. She is slapping the table top. I feel weak afterwards. My jaws are sore. I needed that. It felt good.
I clean my hands and finish my lunch. I pick up my cup and look around.
‘This place is nice. Do you live here with your brother?’
I’m nosy, I know, but I can’t help my curiosity. I’d say she is at least a couple of years younger than me. Twenty-five if I had to be specific. She has no wedding ring and this house is way too clean for children to live here. She looks around too.
‘No just me. I used to teach. But that was a few years ago now. How about you, what do you do’?
‘Waitress, I live out in Brooklyn’? I don’t elaborate any more. She is nodding and staring at me intently. She leans towards me.
‘Do you want to rent a room here’?
I snort out a laugh. She looks offended and I feel bad.
‘Look, Jane if I worked twenty-four hours a day it wouldn’t be enough to meet the rent on a place like this’. I offer a smile and bring my dishes to the sink to rinse. It’s time to go.
I turn my head to look at her. ‘Excuse me’?
‘Twenty dollars a month for as long as you want. I don’t need the money. You would have your own room. It’s a big room, I can show you if you like. You would have to use the main bathroom but I have my own ensuite, so technically it would be yours. Obviously, you would feed yourself but that would be it. No further expectations or expenses. I could do with a new face around here’.
I slip my arms through my coat, avoiding eye contact. Maybe she hit her head after all. I haven’t replied because I honestly don’t know what to say. This conversation is Mad Hatter stuff. Maybe she has concussion or is having some sort of delayed reaction to the mugging.
‘Jane thank you for lunch and for the offer but it seems a little too good to be true from where I’m standing. I hope your leg heals up for you. Take care of yourself’.
I move towards the door. She grabs a note pad and starts writing before following me.
‘Here take this in case you change your mind. Go home, think about it, please’. She trusts it into my hands. I look down at the paper. It’s a telephone number. I look her in the eye.
‘Why on earth would you do this? You don’t even know me’.
‘Because today was the first day I have left this house on my own in over a year’, she whispers.