I hand the clipboard to the nurse behind the desk in the Emergency Room and set the ballpoint pen back on the counter. The girl behind me in line is holding a bloody bandage to her foot. I make eye contact and we share a weak smile.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
She nods. "It was a car accident."
"Us too," I respond, subconsciously putting a hand against my aching back. I notice that her face looks familiar. "I think we may have passed you on the highway. Were you in the accident on I-35?"
She nods again, surprised. There hadn't been much left of their car, only a silver hunk of metal that resembled an accordion, and as I look around at the faces of her family I realize how lucky they are to be standing here. My head ache and mild case of whiplash seem to pale in comparison to their experience.
"It must have been the rain," she comments as she steps up in line to fill out her own form. I give her a parting smile before making my way to the waiting room. As I round the corner I pause for a moment in surprise.
Slouched in a chair, only a few feet to my left, is a man I recognize.
He wears a navy jacket and corduroy pants and his feet are crossed over themselves in an awkward way that makes me cringe. One brown hand is held close to his chest, the other one rests on the wheelchair in front of him. His face is tense. I have never seen him quite this close before and something in my soul begins to hurt. I stand awkwardly in the doorway for another moment before crossing the room and taking a seat.
I have always been frightened of homeless people. At least I think I am, because I have never spoken to one. Or maybe I avoid them out of guilt because I have never known what it is like to have nothing. But either way, this man with the navy jacket has always been a source of confusion to me. Perched in a rickety wheelchair, he seems to patrol the sidewalks aimlessly, pushed by an old woman with short, dark hair and a stony face.
Glancing over my shoulder I notice that the woman is sitting a few chairs away from him, a cell phone pressed against her face and her voice low. Then...I accidentally meet the man's gaze. His old face shows no sign of recognition, which I am grateful for; I have passed him on the road countless times. But his eyes are fierce and lonely and I can't bear to look into them for more than a second. I turn in my chair and remember my headache.
I rub my neck and wonder why he is here, quietly sitting and staring in the the Emergency Room. A pang of worry prods my mind. He is old, never sheltered from the elements... I glance over my shoulder one more time. Something inside urges me to move, to sit across from him, to catch his name, to hear his story. I can feel his need from across the room, as if the loneliness was a heavy fog seeping towards me, reaching out with long, desperate tendrils. I can imagine the uncertainty in every raspy breath he takes, I can hear each cough shaking his shoulders. But. My body is frozen and my mind is full of excuses....
"Are you ready?"
A nurse appears in front of me, holding a blood-pressure cuff. I slide out of my seat and follow her.
But my soul hurts.