Home > Surprise Delivery(15)

Surprise Delivery(15)
Author: R.R. Banks

“As friends,” he quickly adds. “I mean, just go get some coffee and catch up or something.”

I've never been good at letting people down. Sometimes, I wish I could be that cold, heartless bitch who'd laugh in his face and walk away. But, that's just not me. I'm sometimes too nice for my own good – especially when they're standing there looking at me like a lost puppy dog like Brad is currently doing. It'd certainly make a lot of things in my life a lot easier. Or, at least, a lot more tolerable.

“Yeah,” I say, trying to be as non-committal as possible. “That'd be great.”

“Great,” he says excitedly, as if he really had expected me to laugh in his face and walk away. “I'd really like that.”

“Yeah, me too,” I tell him. “Listen, I should probably get going. I've got a lot to do –”

“Oh, sure, sure,” he says. “I get that. Can I just get your number?”

Damn. I was hoping that in his excitement, he'd overlook that. Apparently, luck is not on my side today. But then, is it ever really? Obviously never, since in a borough of a million and a half people, me and a guy I'd rather not see go to the same damn deli.

“Oh right, what was I thinking?” I say and laugh. “Sorry, a thousand things going on in my head today.”

Brad takes his phone out and keys in my name, then looks at me expectantly. The idea of giving him a fake number crosses my mind, but with my luck, I'd run into him again and things would be incredibly awkward. I'd probably have to stop going to Monty's altogether to avoid the off chance of him being there at the same time I am again. I almost feel like I have no choice but to give him my number just so I can keep eating at Monty's.

Maybe I'm being paranoid again. Or maybe I really am a cold-hearted bitch. It's possible that he really means it when he says he wants to get together and talk, just as friends. For all I know, he's involved with somebody. Hell, for all I know, he could be married right now.

Even though we didn't click on a romantic level, he and I used to have some pretty good conversations. He's odd and quirky, but we do both enjoy a few common things – books and movies, mostly. Things like that. So maybe I'm jumping the gun with my assumptions and should throttle it back a little. After all, you can never have too many friends, right?

“Awesome,” he says as he finishes with his phone, then looks up at me. “It was really nice to see you again, Lexi. I'm looking forward to getting together.”

Something about the way he says that sets me on edge and casts doubt on my hope that he's talking about getting together, ‘as friends’, like he claims he wants to. It's nothing quantifiable, but there's a tone in his voice and a gleam in his eye that makes me throw my guard up even higher than it usually is. A wan smile touches my lips.

“Anyway, it was good seeing you too, but I really need to get going,” I tell him.

“Oh, of course,” he says. “I'll call you.”

I nod and turn away, walking quickly away from Brad. I'm really hoping I don't come to regret giving him my number – though, something inside of me is telling me that I absolutely will.

“You look like you've got a lot on your mind, sweetheart,” Ida says.

I shrug and set the plates the guests have left on the table into the tubs on my cart. Ida is an older black woman. Her hair is shot through with gray and she has rich brown eyes – eyes that look so tired. They look like the eyes of a woman who's seen far too much and is exhausted because of it. But her face is smooth and unblemished. She has a quiet strength and conviction about her I find inspirational.

Even in her situation – homeless herself for a few years after fleeing her abusive ex-husband, and even now only barely scraping by on Social Security – Ida has remained a charming, sweet woman with a heart the size of her native Texas. The woman, no matter how hard her circumstances – and they are very hard – never bemoans that situation. She's never asked, ‘why me?’ or groused about her circumstances.

Despite the hardships she endures on a daily basis, Ida never has an unkind word about anybody and instead carries herself with an almost regal grace. I volunteer at the soup kitchen every week, but Ida is here almost every day. I serve hot meals to the homeless and engage people who need it most. Sometimes, I think they just need somebody to listen without judgment or critique. It makes them feel more – normal – for lack of a better word, rather than the social pariah many make them feel like.

Many of the people who come through the doors are there through no fault of their own. Take Ida for example – she was here and living on the street for years because she refused to put up with being abused any longer. To her, an uncertain life on the streets was still better than a life of certain abuse and mistreatment. A life spent suffering and in pain. And now that she has her own place, she gives back every day.

And sadly, it's those kinds of stories I hear all too often. So many people who come here looking for a hot meal and a bed are here due to factors well beyond their own control. Yeah, there are those with substance abuse problems and those with other issues. But judging by my own experience, most of the people I interact with every time I'm working in the kitchens are here because of things they had zero control over.

It breaks my heart for them. But it also terrifies me because I know I can be in their exact same position in a heartbeat. If I lost my job tomorrow, if they decided I was more trouble than I'm worth, my piddly savings account isn't going to save me. I wouldn't be able to cover a single month's rent with it. If I lost my job, I'd be screwed a thousand different ways.

And although I know Bri would try to help me, I can't be that kind of a burden on her. Nor can she afford to foot all the bills on her own. She would need to get another roommate simply because of the sky-high cost of living in the city.

Which means, I could very well be sitting here, across from Ida, looking for at least one hot meal a day if I lost my job. It's the reason I put up with everything I put up with – I don't feel like I have a choice. Deal with it or line up for the soup kitchens and hope they don't run out of food before I get a meal.

“Sit down here, hon,” she says. “Tell me all about it.”

“I feel so petty whining about what's going on in my life when –”

“Don't say it,” she interrupts and smiles. “How many times do I have to tell you that just because our situations are different, that doesn't make yours any less important?”

“I know,” I sigh. “I just feel bad unloading on you all the time.”

She laughs, her voice rich and melodic. “Lexi, there is nothing to feel bad about. I promise you that,” she says. “I rather enjoy our conversations and being able to give you a little advice now and again, to be perfectly honest. Makes me feel like I'm still useful.”

“You are useful, Ida,” I say. “I mean, you're still a young woman –”

She laughs again and puts her hand on mine, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Bless you for saying so, but young is hardly the word I'd use,” she says. “The Social Security Administration might disagree, anyway. But that’s why I’m here, trying to give back what I can. When it comes to a woman of my years, there aren’t many opportunities left.”

She tries to put a happy tone in her voice, but I can hear the sadness and resignation underlying her words. Ida is somebody who would like to work, would like to contribute, all she needs is an opportunity. And sadly, she's right – people her age aren't often afforded many opportunities.

“So, make me feel useful, hon,” she says. “Talk to me.”

“I'm going to have to start paying you if you continue being my counselor,” I laugh.

“How ‘bout this,” she says, her eyes fixed on mine. “You keep coming back here and helping me help these people. That’s all the payment I’ll ever need.”

I let out a long breath and look down at my hands. I've told Ida all about work and she knows what I endure every day – and knows exactly why I can't just up and quit, as much as I'd like to. She knows a lot about my life, actually. I feel safe talking to her. I feel safe sharing my secrets – things I don't even feel like I can share with Bri sometimes. Ida never judges me, always listens with an open mind and heart, and always gives me the best advice. She does that with the guests, too. She knows exactly what they’re going through.

In a lot of ways, she's more like a mother to me than my own mother was. I loved my mom, don't get me wrong. But she was definitely not the most patient or caring woman around. She wasn't the touchy-feely, let's talk about our feelings type. She was fact-based, ruthlessly efficient, and yeah, I guess sometimes pretty cold and aloof. I guess she had to be. Unfortunately, that trickled down into how she dealt with me too.

My mom had been a nurse back in the day. She was my first exposure to the field and seeing what she did – the parts I was allowed to see anyway – is what first inspired me to want to do that too. Over time, I realized I was so drawn to the field simply because I believe in a life of service. There's something in me that wants to help others any way I can. It's one reason I volunteer in the shelters and soup kitchens – I want to help others who need it the most.

I look up and into Ida's eyes and see that she's waiting patiently for me to tell her what's going on. I give her a smile, but feel my stomach churning wildly. Even talking about it somehow makes it more concrete and real in my mind – which allows my fear to rise up within me.

“I'm afraid I might be pregnant,” I say at last.

“Oh,” she says. “I wasn't aware you were seeing anybody.”

I give her a rueful smile. “I'm not.”

I tell her the story of the gala and meeting Duncan. Because I trust her so much, I tell her everything. I leave nothing out – well, except for the actual details of our time in the conference room, of course. And when I finish, I look up again and see a gentleness and compassion in her face that makes me want to cry.

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