I was sitting in a seat that faced sideways. Scenes of the city flashed past as the train sped to the airport. I looked down and adjusted my bag so it wouldn’t slip off my lap.
When I looked up, he was seated across from me. He had a small smirk on his face.
“Hey,” he said. His eyes glanced at my bag, then returned to my face.
“Hey.” I knew his name, but did not say it.
“Where are you going?”
“To the airport.”
“Yeah.” It was mostly true.
“I’m going to the airport, too. Trying to get back home.”
The blue sleeping bag was sliding off his lap. He grabbed it as it unfurled onto his dirty white sneakers. His tee shirt was too large for his slender frame: When he leaned forward to stuff the sleeping bag back onto his lap, the neckline drooped. He ran a hand through his hair to push the long locks out of his face. The blue-purple bags underneath his eyes suggested he did not rest in the sleeping bag the previous night. Though red wisps surrounded his blue irises, he didn’t look intoxicated.
He was coming off of heroin when he first became my patient. Cranky and bellicose, he snarled, “Leave me the f-ck alone—you’re asking too many f-cking questions.” After eating a few meals, taking a shower, and getting some sleep at the crisis center, he spoke: His father, whether drunk or sober, beat him; his mother tried to kill herself three times in their home before he was ten years old. His uncle introduced him to marijuana when he was 11; he dropped out of school at age 16. He worked in construction when could get work; he sold drugs when he couldn’t. He eventually got his GED at age 19; he worked in welding, landscaping, and carpentry. He saved enough to buy a motor home when he was 25; his mother succeeded in killing herself in his motor home shortly thereafter. He fled the state and into the arms of drugs for comfort. He slept under bridges and dug through trashcans for food. He and I met about six months later.
“Can I use your phone?” he asked.
“I’ll help you when we get to the airport.”
He looked disappointed. Turning to a man sitting nearby who was using his thumbs to send a text message, he said, “Hey man. Can I use your phone? It’ll be a short call.”
“Oh, no, it’s not personal, I don’t let anyone use my phone, sorry, it’s not personal, it’s just my personal policy—”
“It’s okay. I get it.”
He looked up at the ceiling and sighed. It had been a few days since he had shaved.
The second and third time he came through the crisis center he asked the nurses if I could be his doctor.
“YO DOC!” he shouted at me the last time he was there.
I shot him a stern look and murmured, “Shh!”
He turned the baseball cap so it sat askew on his head. He winked at me. “I’m feeling better. It’s gonna be all right. I’m gonna try to pick up work in construction and save up money so I can go home. The city’s too big here. I can’t be using dope if I wanna buy a plane ticket.”
The doors of the train slid open. No one who entered captured his interest. Leaning forward over his sleeping bag, he said, “The sun’s coming out. You know what happened since I—”
“Have your tickets ready,” the fare police barked. Two of them had stepped into the car moments before the train doors closed.
His shoulders slumped. He looked down.
The fare police scanned my ticket without a word, then asked to see his ticket.
He dug around both pockets of his pants. His sleeping bag slid to the floor. He fished out a ticket stub and handed it to the fare police.
“This isn’t a current ticket.”
He looked down.
“Do you have another ticket? A current ticket?”
“You can’t ride the train for free. Everyone who rides the train needs to buy a ticket.”
“Sir, I’m sorry—”
“It doesn’t matter that you’re sorry. Hey, I think I’ve seen you before. We’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we?”
He said nothing. He began to stuff his sleeping bag back onto his lap.
“Do you have money to pay for a ticket?”
“—I’ll cover his fare,” I blurted.
He looked at me.
“Thank you, miss, that’s very nice of you,” the fare officer said. Turning to him, he said, “You’re lucky that this lady here is willing to pay your fare.” Without asking me for any money, the fare police then walked on.
He and I sat in silence for the rest of the train ride to the airport. I glanced at him a few times; he was looking out the window. It looked like he was gritting his teeth.
When the train arrived at the airport, he cradled the sleeping bag underneath his arm and squeezed through the mass of people to get out of the train first. He walked with haste to the descending escalator; he was stepping off of it as I was stepping on.
As he walked towards the terminal, he looked up and scanned the crowd. He saw me looking at him. He held my gaze, then turned away before disappearing into the airport.