CAN YOU SPARE A QUARTER
4 - Harsh Reality
Sitting in the living area of the small apartment, Graham awaited Jamie's emergence with trepidation. Graham had heard the shower turn off and then while putting Jamie's clothes into the dryer he had also heard the bathroom door open and close. Graham knew that this would be Jamie retrieving the clothes that he had laid out for him just outside the door. It could not be more than a matter of a couple of minutes now before Jamie would be finished and would open the door.
Graham was uncertain what he was going to say when Jamie came out, but Graham knew that if he was going to help Jamie that it was crucial to establish a good rapport quickly. Graham's mind was a whirling mass of thoughts and emotions as he quickly debated how to do this. At a minimum, he knew that Jamie did not have a decent home and had run away, that much was obvious from the little that Jamie had said and the state of his clothes. The lingering question that needed to be answered was why Jamie was living on the street. As for how Jamie had managed to survive on his own, Graham had vague ideas that he preferred not to visualize in too much detail. Graham suspected that the things he had read about in newspapers and elsewhere only scratched the surface of what was involved. Jamie's demeanour combined with his appearance had only enhanced those fears.
Lost in thought Graham was startled by the sound of the bathroom door opening once again and as he looked up Graham saw Jamie walking slowly towards him. Jamie had his backpack clutched tightly against his chest and a look of anxious resignation on his face. The streaks of dirt that had been apparent previously were gone. The now clean and combed hair lightly reflected the light from the room. Jamie's blue eyes, though fearful, sparkled. All this, combined with his lightly bronzed complexion, added up to a rather remarkable total. Jamie would indeed capture anyone's attention in spite of the bruises and scrapes that were evident in a number of places.
"Why don't you come and sit down on the sofa?" Graham suggested to Jamie, as he motioned to the opposite end from where he was sitting himself.
Jamie slowly moved past Graham and sat down at the far end of the sofa. He continued to clutch his backpack in front of him tightly and regarded Graham warily.
When Jamie sat down, Graham noted that the clothes he had picked out for Jamie seemed to fit not too badly. Admittedly, the short-sleeved T-shirt hung a bit loosely, but this was simply due to the fact that the openings for the arms and neck were somewhat big for him. At first Graham noted this merely from the point of view of the shirt's fit, but then his face clouded slightly as he noticed something.
Once Jamie had sat down on the sofa, the neckline of the T-shirt had sagged and a portion of the upper area of Jamie's back had become visible. Graham could see a mark on Jamie's skin and it appeared to him that perhaps Jamie had not been quite as diligent with the soap as he ought to have been.
"It looks like you missed a small spot," Graham said jokingly, while smiling and motioning towards Jamie's neck area.
"What do you mean?" asked Jamie, not understanding the comment.
"I can see there's still a little smudge near your neck. You must have missed that spot with the soap," Graham chuckled.
"Oh," said Jamie slowly his eyes dropping suddenly. "That ... that's not dirt."
A cold weight suddenly grew within Graham's stomach. "May I?" he asked Jamie gently.
Jamie nodded and turned his back partially towards Graham. Moving a little closer to Jamie on the sofa Graham reached out and pulled the neck of the shirt slightly away from Jamie's back to get a better look. What he saw took his breath away - there seemed be lines in the flesh on Jamie's back. Unbelieving he closed his eyes for a moment and shook his head. Looking once again, the lines were still there. Jamie's back had on it what appeared to be whip marks and they were not recent. The deep angry red scars were still very visible despite being healed.
Graham let go of the shirt and tried to speak but while his lips moved his voice failed him. Pausing for a moment to take a breath he said croaked, "Who did this to you?"
"My father," said Jamie whispered faintly.
"Your father?" gasped Graham uncomprehendingly. "How could anyone do something like this to anyone ... and to their own son? It's unforgivable. Why?"
Jamie stammered, "Sometimes I didn't do what they wanted and ..."
"I don't want to embarrass you or make you feel uncomfortable," said Graham kindly. "But if you can tell me what happened, I might be able to help you."
"It's a long story," replied Jamie avoiding looking directly at Graham.
"For you, I have all the time in the world," said Graham warmly.
Jamie smiled shyly and began to tell Graham a little bit about what had happened to him when he had last been living at home. Graham's face went white as a sheet while he listened to Jamie's description of what passed for his home life. Jamie related a small portion of a particular occasion when his father had abused him, how his mother had helped, and how they both had let and encouraged others to do things to him as well.
"After a while I started to run away sometimes," continued Jamie. "It would just hurt so much from ... the things they did and sometimes I just couldn't take it anymore. I had a friend and sometimes I was able to hide out at his place. He would sneak me into his bedroom at night and let me sleep there with him. He'd also get me some food from the kitchen at his place when he could. He was the only one in the world that ever cared about me. Other times I'd hide out downtown but then something would always go wrong. The police or the Child Welfare people would find me and take me back home. I tried to tell them sometimes what was going on, but no one would believe me. Once they took me home, after my dad was finished with me, I wouldn't be in any shape to run again for a while."
Graham sat listening with his mouth hanging open as part of the story of Jamie's short life poured out of him. Running away from home, being taken back repeatedly by the police or Child Welfare caseworkers, only to be abused and beaten again. When this happened, Jamie would wait until he had healed and then try to run away again. Sometimes Jamie was lucky and was able to get something to eat from a friendly man with no strings attached, but those occasions were rare. When he was unable to get food any other way and he could not endure the hunger any longer, he had been forced to resort to letting men do the same things to him that he had run away from home to try and avoid.
One big lesson that Graham learnt, much to his surprise, was that the police and the Department of Child Welfare were often as much the enemy for children on the street as whomever they had initially run away from. Jaded from years of overwork, insufficient manpower, and with an uncaring public unwilling to provide more resources for the most part they simply went through the motions oblivious to the underlying details. When caught, children would invariably be sent back to wherever it was that they had been trying to escape from - back for another dose of whatever particular hell had driven them to the streets in the first place.
It did not seem possible that anyone could hold up under the weight of suffering and abuse that Jamie had endured, and yet there he was sitting next to Graham on the sofa. Not only had he survived where most others would have been driven to the point of insanity, Jamie had managed to hang onto his essential dignity and the hope that one day somehow he would finally be free.
Completely overwhelmed by the revelations, Graham had not been able to say a word, but was suddenly shaken out of his speechlessness as Jamie then continued, "But I'm better now and stronger. So I can take it now. Anything you want. You won't be disappointed with me. Honest! I can handle whatever you're into. Really!"
The full depth of what Jamie was now saying, what he was in fact offering, broke through Graham's shock. Graham moved over on the sofa and reached out to put his arms around Jamie to comfort him, but as he reached out he could see that Jamie was trembling in fear. Graham put his arms down and instead took one of Jamie's hands in his and held it comfortingly.
While holding Jamie's hand Graham said gently, "No one will ever hurt you like that again Jamie. You will never have to do that sort of thing to survive ever again. Those days are over and will never, ever return."
Jamie sat stiffly watching Graham fearfully, but slowly as he studied Graham's face and saw that there was no threat he began to relax slightly. Graham continued to hold his hand as he spoke and looked into Jamie's eyes with a gentle smile.
"You will never have to take anything like that from anyone ever again Jamie," continued Graham. "Never again will you have to endure that kind of life."
While Graham spoke he held Jamie's hand in between both of his gently and suddenly Jamie began to cry. Deep wrenching shudders ran through him as he sobbed while Graham tried to comfort him. Taking care not to scare Jamie by putting his arms around him, Graham pulled Jamie towards him and offered his shoulder for Jamie to lean on.
Jamie looked up from Graham's shoulder through watery bloodshot eyes and cried, "But if I don't then how will I get anything to eat? How will I be able to live?"
Graham looked into Jamie's tear-filled eyes and found himself promising, "No Jamie, you will never have to earn a meal or a place to sleep that way ever again. I won't let that happen to you anymore. That's a guarantee from me to you. Never again."
The dam burst and Jamie wept uncontrollably. Words tumbling out in between the sobs giving Graham glimpses into life on the street and other things better left unimagined. Jamie told Graham about how drugs and alcohol were used by the boys to deaden a miserable existence and to help forget things best not remembered. Graham heard about boys that Jamie had known who died on the streets from intentional overdoses when they could not endure the misery any longer or had been taken by a man and then never seen again. One learnt to spot the dangerous men, Jamie told Graham, and the boys would help and warn each other, but there was no way to ever be completely certain about a man. Life and death were intermingled on the streets Graham learnt. Quick action and a watchful eye were the only tools that a boy had to help him survive and sometimes tragically they were not enough.
Graham finally put an arm around Jamie, despite the youngster's earlier fears to help comfort him. At the same time in between Jamie's tears Graham received a rapid education into how abused children on the streets were actually handled by the agencies supposedly tasked with looking out for them. The reality, compared to the public perceptions, was significantly different. Every time that Jamie had been found on the street and his parents called, they had come down to the office and played the part of happily relieved parents who had been worried about their missing son. Counselling, when suggested, was agreed to and then Jamie was released into his parents' custody. Dragged out of the office screaming Jamie was sent back home to face the living hell that he had simply been trying to escape from. The last time he had been caught Jamie had tried once again to explain to the caseworker what had been happening, but it had all been dismissed as an over-active imagination on the part of a young troublemaker. Once his parents had him alone at home, he had then paid a terrible price for having attempted to expose the details of what had been happening to him.
"They used to tell me all the time that I was an accident, an 'oops baby', and that I needed to pay them back for the food and everything," said Jamie tearfully. "They said it was the only thing I was any good for. They always used to laugh about how they wished they'd not forgotten to use the pill or a condom so then they'd not have to put up with me."
"They were lying Jamie," said Graham strongly. "That's not true and that's not what you are. You can be or do anything you want and they had no right to force you into doing things like that. Anyone that would say things like that to you should never have been allowed to have a child in the first place."
"I got used to hearing it after a while," said Jamie. "I always wished that I'd never been born, but it was too late to change. So I just tried to put up with everything. As bad as the streets are, it was always better than when I was at home."
Gradually the tears lessened and then finally stopped. Jamie's declaration that the streets were always preferable to home shook Graham to his core even after everything else that Jamie had told him. For anyone to have been forced to lead a life that would drive them to that conclusion was just beyond Graham's ability to comprehend. Nevertheless, Graham did not doubt Jamie's sincerity for a moment. The details that had come out in between the tears were too detailed and too authentic to be anything other than the complete and terrible truth.
Once Jamie had calmed down he pulled back from having Graham's arm around him and Graham reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. He passed it to Jamie who proceeded to wipe his eyes and face and then blew his nose. After he was finished Jamie started to hand the handkerchief back to Graham.
"I think we should probably just put that into the laundry," said Graham with a grin.
"I guess you don't really want it now," said Jamie with a shy smile.
"I'll get another one out of the dresser I think," Graham agreed and chuckled.
This definitely was not turning out the way that Jamie had expected. Not only had Graham not made any advances towards him, he had not seemed put off by the tears either - quite the opposite actually. Jamie was also rather surprised with himself. He usually kept his emotions bottled up and on a very short leash and it was not like him to let anyone know how he was feeling inside himself. What was it about this man that made him feel this way? It was hard to pin down exactly what it was that he was feeling. Something he had not felt in untold months if not longer. It was like a faint almost forgotten memory but the feeling was growing stronger inside him.
Graham suddenly remembered that Jamie's clothes were still in the dryer and he excused himself to check on them. Graham opened the dryer and found the clothes were still semi-damp. He cleaned out the clogged lint trap on the dryer, adjusted the timer to a longer drying cycle, and restarted the machine. Looking at his watch Graham made a mental note to come back in twenty minutes when the clothes would hopefully be ready.
Returning to the living area, Graham found the bathroom door closed and the sounds of water running and nose blowing coming from within. Jamie emerged shortly thereafter looking much better than he had only a few minutes before.
"Sorry about all that, I'm OK now," Jamie announced to Graham obviously rather embarrassed with himself.
"Your clothes aren't completely dry yet so I added more time to the dryer so they'd get done properly," added Graham.
"I guess I should take this off now, right?" Jamie asked while reaching for the bottom of Graham's T-shirt that he was wearing.
"No, you just wait until your things are ready," replied Graham realizing that Jamie was testing him.
"It's OK really. I can handle it," pressed Jamie while looking into Graham's face carefully and starting to lift the shirt up.
"No," said Graham with finality, while sitting down on the sofa and indicating that Jamie should sit down as well.
Jamie relaxed and sat back down on the sofa. Things were definitely not happening the way they were supposed to. Jamie had no complaints about that, but it did mean he was unsure what was going to happen since none of the predictable patterns were evident. Jamie was not prepared yet to truly believe Graham's words from a short time ago, but at the same time he was starting to wonder if it was possible that Graham was different from the other men he had dealt with. Jamie knew that the likelihood of Graham being different than the others was marginal at best. Nevertheless, a slim chance was better than no chance and Jamie decided that he needed to test Graham further to find out if the image that Graham was presenting was a fa‡ade or not.
"I don't know about you," said Graham, "But I'm starving and it's long past dinnertime. How would you like to go out and eat dinner with me? We could talk and get to know each other a little better maybe. Also this sofa pulls out into a bed and you could sleep here tonight. The weather forecast says that there is snow on the way and it's not very warm outside."
Jamie considered this for a moment and decided that perhaps this was how it would happen. Still dinner had been mentioned, a warm place to stay, as well as a bed for the night all appeared to be on offer and that would make it worth it.
"Thanks, that'd be great," Jamie replied after assessing the ledger.
"You've had a chance to wash off but I haven't. So how about you watch some TV while I go and scrape off the barnacles? By then your clothes should be dry too and we can go and find something to eat," said Graham.
Graham looked around and found the TV remote and passed it to Jamie. For a moment he wondered if he should explain to Jamie how it worked, but within seconds the TV was on and Jamie was working the controls like a pro.
Graham went into the bathroom to clean up. Partly Graham wanted the opportunity to freshen up after the long work day, but also partly he needed a few quiet minutes to digest and contemplate what he had learnt about Jamie and the life he had been forced to lead. He was not totally sure of what he was getting himself into, but he did know that he had sincerely meant it when he had told Jamie that he would never allow him to be hurt again. Graham shook his head as he climbed into the shower. What could he do? He had no experience with youngsters, knew next to nothing about their needs, nor how to take care of one.
For a brief moment Graham considered whether he should call up the police or Child Welfare, but he dismissed that thought almost immediately. It was only a few minutes ago when Jamie had told him how when he escaped and was subsequently caught that they had simply handed him back to his parents without any attempt at an investigation whatsoever.
As he was thinking about what to do, Graham felt a cold draft of air pass over him in the shower. He reached across to the faucets to turn up the hot water when he heard a voice.
"Do you want me to help you?" Jamie asked from just outside the shower curtain.
Graham quickly spun and grabbed for the washcloth while water flew into his eyes and he spluttered, "No. No, I'm fine. You just go back and watch the TV."
The bathroom door closed and Graham sighed with relief and smiled. Jamie was definitely persistent, he thought, but at the same time he also knew that he was being tested once again. Graham did not know a lot about psychology, but he suspected that this was something that was rather to be expected given the circumstances and also due to what Jamie had been forced to do in order to survive on his own.
Graham hurriedly finished up in the shower without any further offers of assistance, climbed out, and dried off. While it was usually his habit to do this with the bathroom door open to let the humid air out and then wander about looking for something to put on, he realized that today his normal routine would have to be changed. He slipped on his pants and shirt again, went out and took a casual shirt and pair of pants out of the dresser, and then returned to the bathroom to finish dressing.
Exiting from the bathroom, Graham dropped his dirty clothes into a clothes basket that was sitting in the corner and went to check on Jamie's things. The dryer was just completing its cycle, so Graham stopped it and pulled out the now dried clothes. Graham looked at them and he realized that frankly they were not worth putting on again. They were threadbare in many places, torn, ragged, and while he had put in extra soap, they were still significantly short of what would normally be considered clean.
Graham knew that something would have to be done about the clothes but first he had to get them back to Jamie so he would have something to wear. Graham quickly folded them, went back into to the living area, and passed them to Jamie.
"Oh gee! Thanks a lot!" Jamie exclaimed as he took the clothes.
Graham smiled and plainly felt embarrassed by Jamie's gratitude for what was to him the simple convenience of being able to wash clothes. Graham motioned towards the bathroom and Jamie picked up his backpack and ran to it holding his things close to his chest which were still warm from the dryer. Emerging a couple of minutes later Jamie looked markedly better than he had when Graham first saw him, even if the clothes clearly needed something done about them. Despite this, however, Jamie seemed very pleased with the results and was beaming when he came out.
"Mmmm, that feels way better than before," he said, running his hands over himself still enjoying the warmth coming from his freshly laundered things.
"How does some dinner sound to you?" Graham asked Jamie.
"Sure, I'd like that a lot," replied Jamie. "But ... I don't have any money to pay."
"Don't you worry about that. It's going to be my treat. Let's get our coats on and see what we can find out there," Graham said, while rummaging in the hall closet for his overcoat.
After Graham had his coat Jamie reached in and pulled his jacket out of the closet and while putting it on Graham could not help noticing that it was very thin and obviously of little warmth. Knowing how cold it was outside, he paused for a moment and looked in the closet once again. With the apartment just being a place that Graham stayed during the week, it was not overly stocked with clothes. Nevertheless, he felt sure that he could find something that might do for Jamie. Finally in the back of the closet, Graham found what he was looking for. He pulled out a leather jacket that he had received several years earlier at a computer trade show. It was a bit old now, but it was heavy and warm.
"If you don't mind being an advertisement for a computer company, why don't you give this a try," he said while offering it to Jamie.
"A leather jacket? Are you sure? Can I?" asked Jamie with wonder in his voice.
"Of course. The temperature is way down out there and I don't want you to catch cold," replied Graham.
"Wow," said Jamie trying on the jacket, zipping it up, and then slipping his backpack on over top of it. "This is really warm!"
"Yes, it's pretty good that way," said Graham. "I've not used it in a while, but it's just the thing for a night like this."
Jamie admired himself in a nearby mirror. He had never worn a leather jacket before or, for that matter, had a new jacket of any type. Getting clothing for Jamie had always been a total afterthought for his parents and even then it was thrift shops because they did not think it worthwhile spending any money on him beyond the barest of minimums.
With each passing event Graham became more and more of a conundrum to Jamie because of his apparently generous and non-predatory nature. Jamie had offered himself to Graham several times and had been turned down firmly each time. Jamie reasoned it was best not to complain or ask too many questions. The time would come soon enough when he would have to pay up and Jamie knew that it was best to enjoy things for as long as he could before it came to that.
"That looks much better on you," Graham said happily.
"Oh yes, way better! Thanks a lot," replied Jamie gratefully. Then after a pause he continued, "You know you don't have to do stuff like this for me."
"I might not have to, but I definitely want to," Graham said, with a smile. "Shall we go?"
Jamie nodded and they went out the door of the apartment and Graham locked it securely. Both Jamie and Graham were unsure what lay ahead of them. Neither was finding this day turning out quite as either of them had initially expected, but at the same time neither of them regretted the day's events. Walking out towards Graham's car, they looked at each other and smiled. In that moment, Jamie suddenly knew what it was that he had felt inside himself earlier, the feeling that he had almost forgotten that he had. It was faint and fragile but it was still there burning inside him.
It was hope.