Red Light: Part 2
If you missed Part 1, find it here.
“Congrats in advance. When are you popping the question?”
I peeked back across the street. The cars laid in wait and the traffic signal gave me the right of way. I could flee. I could jog and make up for lost time. I could get back on schedule. Yet I remained planted. My stomach sank as I ran out of justifications for delaying.
Petrified, I confessed, “In about five minutes.”
He guffawed loudly as he read my frigid form. “And you’re choosing to spend your time with boring, old me. I’m flattered. I’m sure she’s a lot nicer than me. Is it my looks? Am I prettier?”
I shook out of my stupor and firmly stated, “No. I’m going.”
As I began to take the first step toward my future, the red lit hand indicated for me to stop and the road became an impassable sea of zooming metal once again.
“You tell her traffic was bad and I’m sure she’ll understand why you’re late. Won’t be completely lying, either, which is a step up for you, as far as I can tell.”
“Quit commenting on my life,” I snapped. “My relationship is fine, I assure you.”
He nodded at the greenlight that I had inadvertently ignored. “I can tell. I’ve never seen a man so eager to see his girl.”
“Nerves are normal,” I muttered as I willed myself to move forward.
“Your nerves are probably trying to warn you,” he theorized. “I’ve tried the domestic life before too, and it didn't end well. My wife kicked me out, my kids don’t even know me, eventually my job screwed me over too. Someday you’ll end up here on the street like me, wishing the bouncer would let you inside so you can drown your cares away.”
“If they ever let you in, you now have plenty of money to buy yourself a drink,” I indicated at the thrown away bills with bitterness.
“You seem pessimistic for a man about to propose.”
“I think you have that effect on me. Besides, I don’t owe you explanations.”
“I didn’t ask you to explain anything.”
“Then why am I still talking to you?” I growled.
“Maybe because I can help.”
I whipped around so he received the full force of my doubtful glare. “I don’t think I want your kind of help.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“So far, all you’ve done is make rude remarks. That’s not really what I need right now.”
“Then go on,” he challenged. “Head across the street. I’m not stopping you.”
I glowered at him with wavering defiance. The woman of my dreams waited for me several blocks away and for some reason, I stood here listening to this loon with attentiveness. Reluctant, I asked, “What do you have to say to me, then? What is so groundbreaking that it’s worth being late?”
“You’re late already, aren’t you?” he posed, glancing down at an invisible watch on his wrist. With kindness, he patted the pavement next to him.
I stubbornly folded my arms and remained standing at the curb several feet away. “You can say whatever you need to say to me from here.”
“What do you think I’m gonna do to you?” he scoffed. “I might be about to change your life and you won’t even sit with me?”
“How about this,” I offered. “If you somehow manage to actually change my life in a few words, then I’ll sit.”
He smirked. “You’re only making that deal because you don’t think it’ll happen. You don’t plan to sit with me.”
“I’m a man of my word,” I promised. “I’ll follow through as long as you do.”
“Fine,” he conceded, begrudging.
He inhaled the last puffs of his cigarette and ground the ashes into the cement. Content, he reclined his head on the bricks of the bar and slid his eyes shut. After a minute I wondered if he had fallen asleep.
Impatient, I hollered, “Hey.”
Not the slightest lurch disturbed him. The only aspect that betrayed his consciousness was a subtle smile tugging at his lips. So quiet I barely understood, he asked, “What do you believe in?”
I scorned, “This is it? This is the big piece of advice that’s supposed to shake my world?”
“The question won’t. But I think your answer might.” He remained still as he spoke. His mouth parting was the only indication that the words came from him.
“I’m not even sure I understand the question,” I criticized. “Are we back to religious talk? Are you some undercover Jehovah’s witness? Is this a new strategy since the door to door hasn’t been working?”
“Belief doesn’t have to be religious,” he insisted. “Whether you’re religious or not, everyone believes in something.”
“And whatever I believe in is going to push me to cross this street and propose to my girlfriend,” I doubted.
“Take as much time as you need to think on it.”
“See, there’s the problem, because we’ve already established that time is something I’m lacking.”
He shrugged, not truly worried about my predicament. His apathetic attitude snapped my last thread of tolerance. My entire endeavor with this hobo was a waste and I smacked the pedestrian button several more times, done with the shenanigans. His eyes stayed closed during my tantrum.
Seconds before the streetlight turned, he mumbled, hardly audible over the traffic, “Thanks for the talk.”
The cars stopped, the crosswalk stretched clearly before me and the pedestrian light switched to green. Driven to leave him and his riddles, I bolted across the asphalt without answering, letting the headlights of waiting vehicles light my way.
My toes alighted on the opposite sidewalk and for a second I froze, stunned. The path to my future sprawled out before me with no more obstacles. I overcame the toughest part of my test without noticing. A guffaw burst from my throat in awe and relief.
I charged forward with an unrelenting grin, my fingers eagerly encompassing the tiny box in my pocket, anticipating the joy to come. The twinkling of the restaurant gleamed from only two blocks ahead. Despite being fashionably late, I would be there.
As my fingers fumbled excitedly around the ring box, the pack of cigarettes next to it chafed on my knuckles, reminding me of my transgression and the man that called me out on it. Guilt swam through the fog of happiness as his accusation of liar rang through my head. Even after I left him behind, he managed to ruin this moment of glee and triumph.
His supposed words of wisdom had done nothing to help me. I believed in nothing and that fact had no effect on my decision to propose. I won our bargain and had no obligation to sit with him or see him ever again. I headed to the restaurant to ask Gwen to marry me and he had no hand in it.
My pace slowed with an unwilling realization. He posed a question to me, and the result was that I darted off to meet my girl. Looking at it from that perspective, he accomplished exactly what we agreed upon. Whether this course to my resolution was his intention or not, he won. And I owed him a sit down.
I slacked my speed until my feet dragged in defeat. The restaurant called to me from only yards ahead. All exuberance that spurred me forward turned to stone inside me until I could no longer haul the weight. I braced against the closest building, breathless and fatigued. I journeyed this far, but hesitation reared its head once more.
Indebted to that vagrant, all I wanted was to uphold my end and take a seat next to him. This rationally had no bearing, yet some understanding prodded from the recesses of my consciousness. In an attempt to reboot my determination for Gwen, I finally accepted that one, cryptic question.
What did I believe in?
I believed in science. I believed in what I could see. I believed in many things, and thought shams of others, but the question had to be aimed at a specific belief, a notion that would urge me in the right direction.
This was about Gwen. Did I believe in her? Of course I did. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. The belief in myself was the feature that faltered. Perhaps the vagabond referred to my self confidence, though that seemed too simple.
Running through the circumstances of our encounter, one more belief finally screamed out at me. As this occurred, every piece of the puzzle shifted into place and the blood drained from my cheeks in dread. I missed every important point up until now. And I had to set it right.
With no more trepidation, I busted into the doors of the restaurant and sprinted to our table where Gwen sat waiting, looking ravishing as ever. An annoyed, precious smile teased her lips.
I gently pulled her from her seat and placed my hands on her shoulders, peering deep into her eyes with earnest. She appeared alarmed by my behavior.
I asked, “Do you trust me?”
Confusion and worry crossed her countenance. “Yes.”
“There’s something I have to do,” I implored her. “I know this was supposed to be our night but there is something so important that I have to do. You believe me?”
“Of course. Is everything okay?”
“I think it will be, but I have to go. I’m so sorry.” I planted a soft kiss on her forehead and squeezed her hand. “Thank you for believing in me.”
I left her dumbstruck at our dinner table and dashed outside into the biting air once more. No uncertainty gripped my steps this time. I flew faster than I thought possible back toward the pub.
When I arrived at the same stoplight, on the opposite side of the street this time, the red hand bullied me into stopping once again. The man rested in the same place, leaned against the bricks with his eyes closed. I wondered if he had moved the slightest since I departed. Cars whizzed between us, creating an impenetrable barrier.
My haste uncontainable, I weaved through the first lane of vehicles, an irritated taxi cab honking at my disruption. The rush of my adrenaline pulsed as the high speed traffic zipped by only inches away. I pressed onward nevertheless, my resolve stronger than my fear. I achieved another lane, and then another. The hand shaped red light flashed at me as if its order became more fervent the longer I disobeyed.
I dodged out of the way of the last sedan and rejoiced at the safety of the curb with a huff. I staggered to stand before the man with a renewed zeal.
“I know what I believe in.”
He wearily opened one eye to peek up at me. “And what is it?”
I straightened myself and cleared my throat before confessing, “I believe in fate. The only reason I took notice of you at all is because that traffic light stopped me. And it kept stopping me. I knew there was a reason, but I thought it had to do with my proposal to Gwen. It didn’t. It was about you.”
“What about me?”
“You’re outside of a bar, down on your luck, smoking your last cigarette, with no one left in the world.”
“Thanks for pointing that out,” he retorted glumly.
“Fate kept me here,” I insisted, “to make sure someone stopped you before you did something really stupid.”
I indicated to the bulging outline of the weapon concealed within his jacket.
He nodded in sorrowful chagrin. “You’re pretty observant yourself.”
“It passes the time,” I good heartedly mimicked his reply from earlier.
He humorlessly chuckled and shook his head. “Does this mean you chickened out on Miss Gwen?”
“No,” I assured him. “There was something more important I needed to do tonight and she understood.”
“Coming back here and letting me know that my life sucks was more important than getting engaged?”
“That’s not what I’m doing.” I lowered myself along the wall until I sank onto the concrete beside him. “I’m paying off a debt.”
His cheeks blushed, secretly pleased. “You don’t know much about me to be changing your plans on my account.”
“But now I have the time to get to know you. It’s probably easiest to start with a name.” I extended a hand to him. “I’m Simon.”
He reciprocated with a smirk. “Jesse.”
I rummaged in my pocket and presented the pack of cigarettes again. “Care for another?”
“I told you I’m trying to quit."
“Well, I need somebody to take these off my hands or Gwen will have my ass,” I entreated.
“I guess I can bear that burden for you.” He plucked the pack from my fingers, then slid one out and handed it to me. “Have one last smoke with me before you get hitched to Miss Overbearing?”
“Yeah, alright,” I conceded. As I lit both of us, I braved asking, “So how did you know I would come back? Or that I would answer your question right?
He shrugged. “I didn’t know for sure. But I already had my answer to that question, and it gave me hope.”
“What, did you think God would bring me back? Or Buddha?” I scoffed.
“Nope,” he replied with a grin. “I believed in you.”
© 2020 by Kelsey Garber