He sat slumped against the short concrete retaining wall. He was surrounded by his entire life which consisted of little more than a sleeping bag and a knapsack filled with candles, a bottle of water, and his favourite book, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by David Eggers. The little more being the clothes he wore and the black toque on his head. December 17th, 2015 was his fortieth birthday, and this was not how anyone expected he would be celebrating.
He was homeless because his options ran out, and so he decided to choose to be homeless instead of having it be because of consequence. He decided to own his situation. He would stay at a shelter only under threat of freezing to death and while this was not one of those nights, it was getting colder.
It had been an unusually spring-like December so far. Some days even reached into the double digits on the plus side, but as the year tumbled towards a new one, the nights were becoming chilly. He would play a game on those nights. After the sun went down, every twenty minutes he would take stock of his body and see how far the cold had creeped its way to his core. Once he felt particularly chilled, he would find refuge for a few minutes, usually in the PATH system, to warm up before returning to one of his favourite spots around the city.
Where he sat now was one of those spots, as across the street he could spy on the lives of strangers and make up stories about them. Directly opposite him was the perfect combination of a café next door to a bar, both with large front windows.
On this night in the front window of the cafe, a couple of university-aged girls looked to be studying for a final exam before Christmas. They would stare at their text books and notes for a half hour or so at a time, before chatting and sharing a laugh in between sips of what he pictured was tea. About an hour after he nestled in, covered by his sleeping bag, a man and woman in their thirties sat in the front window of the bar and appeared to be having a good time over glasses of wine. Candle flames flitted on both tables with the slight movements of those seated at each.
He got a shiver just as one of the girls in the café looked up at her partner and appeared to begin to sing. Baby, it’s cold outside ran through his head as he squeezed his hands together trying to get his circulation going. While he pressed his fingertips into his palms, he noticed the other girl in the café echo the movements of her friend. He thought about his last exam of university, Anatomy, and willed his distal phalanges to heat up.
He thought about how perspective plays a role in our interpretation of the world. To some people passing him, he might appear to be “just some bum.” When he looked at some of the people that passed him, he thought the same thing of them. From his perspective, because anatomy was on his mind, he thought the girls must be studying it. Anatomy also played a role with the couple in the bar as they were now on their second litre of wine and, to him, would most likely be exploring the other’s anatomy in intimate detail and using more common names than the girls in the café while doing it.
He wondered what would happen if he approached both couples and explained what he was doing. From all four of their perspectives, he would probably appear as crazy as his four year-old beard. This was funny to him because what he would be doing was explaining to them the activity that had kept him mentally alert, and basically sane, for the last five years.
One of the café girls looked out in his direction, but as it was dark outside he thought there was no way she could see him. She was probably checking her hair or face. He looked at her eyes anyway as he moved one of his hands out from under the sleeping bag and flexed his chilled-to-the-bone fingers before waving at her in a way similar to Queen Elizabeth. She cocked her head a little to the right and to his surprise she waved back. Her friend looked up at what she was doing and then looked toward him. The first girl spoke something, and her friend started waving as well.
The interaction broke when he moved his hand back under the sleeping bag and the girls, in what appeared to be silence, went back to their books. He considered doing the same thing with the couple in the bar. When he looked before, their hands were interlocked across the table, however, now the man sat next the woman and their hands were exploring arms, and shoulders, and backs, and thighs, as their lips did the familiar foreplay, or even pre-foreplay give and take.
He squeezed his toes in his boots and made fists with his hands again as he watched the candles on the tables. It was almost time to wander to warmth somewhere. He moved the sleeping bag to his waist, reached into his knapsack, and pulled out one of the table candles he kept for emergencies. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a lighter and lit it. There was a slight breeze to the night but not enough to kill the flame. He looked at its subtle movements and pursed his lips to blow it out. Happy Birthday, he thought to himself, but instead of snuffing the flame with a quick waft, he kept it going while watching the studying and the foreplay across the way.
He wondered if either duo watched his make-shift birthday candle dance and what they would think if they did.