Gwen studied the young man standing on the sidewalk. His cardboard sign read “Army vet just back from Iraq. Struggling. Any help appreciated.” A bicycle with a white frame lay on the sidewalk. When he saw her looking at him, she turned away but could feel the heat of his gaze on her face. If only the traffic light would change.
He was shirtless, pale. His head was shaved, and he had a fine blond, almost white, beard along his jawline. A ring pierced his lower lip.
She continued to look away, determined to focus her eyes on what was ahead, as if it were someplace she had to get to urgently. Her father said nothing, his eyes fixed on the traffic. He hung his arm out the Camry, his fingers lightly grasping the roof.
The young man’s gaze burned her cheek, caressed her face and hair. In her mind’s eye, she saw the lean, muscular torso, the military pants low on the hips. He didn’t look like the homeless people she usually saw on this corner. His skin was clean, his complexion clear; his muscles were round and full, not starved and stressed.
Her neck muscles were rigid from forcing herself to look away.
Finally the light changed, and the Camry moved west on School Street, toward the on ramp for the freeway. She closed her eyes and sighed deeply. She would never be with a man again, she thought to herself. Never. She would fill the empty space herself, with all the things she wanted to do and be. She would fight for her freedom.
Gwen watched the couple across from her at Goma Tei, the ramen shop at Ward Center. They were all sitting at the counter, a U-shaped structure that stretched about ten feet from the kitchen to the double glass doors at the shop entrance. The woman was slender, blonde, and fair skinned. Her unplucked eyebrows were also blonde, and she wore a black, high-necked dress and no makeup. She had put her shoulder-length hair in a ponytail that rested against her back.
The man was dark skinned, thinner than the woman, and wearing a light tan nylon jacket over a white shirt. His thick, wavy black hair was parted neatly on the side, and his eyeglasses had heavy, conservative frames.
The couple didn’t look at each other, but the woman was turned slightly toward the man and seemed to want to share his thoughts and feelings. He didn’t look at her, didn’t speak.
As Gwen sat quietly, trying to observe without being obvious, the woman pulled the light-blue band off her ponytail, took the man’s hand, and put the band around his wrist. He stared at it for several seconds, then he pulled on it a bit, thinking deeply about something. When their large, steaming bowls arrived, they ate their meal in silence as if enfolded in privacy while families and couples sat around them, talking and eating. It was curious, Gwen thought, unable to figure out their relationship. Obviously they were a couple, but happy, unhappy, married, not? She couldn’t tell. She did notice that when the man looked at the band and touched it, he seemed to soften, his mood to lose its somber, dark edge. Why was the woman so patient, willing to wait for his words, his thoughts, his attention? He had something of value, something he wasn’t free to give—his heart perhaps? Commitment to her?
They left, not even speaking when they paid their tab—returning to, Gwen thought, the life that had been interrupted by the meal, by their venture into a public place.