Late afternoon, late February in San Diego, the sky a gauze bandage
of blue light, the air
mild, springlike, and the young black man and I wait for the train
at Seaport Village, just the two of us,
no seaport, no village in sight, just a place for tourists on their way
to other tourist stops, Gaslamp Quarter
or Old Town, other faux streets of restaurants and galleries,
of T-shirt shops and ye olde lampposts contrived for our distraction
in the year of our Lord 2002.
He looks harmless enough in his clean, faded shirt and baggy jeans,
his body soft, doughy,
as though if I touched him my thumbprint would stay visible
on his flesh forever.
I have friends who know what it is to have a woman
cross to the other side of the street, to be pulled over by cops for no reason—
DWB, they call it, Driving While Black—
but I can’t help it, when he asks for a dollar for the train, something deep
in my body turns over,
flops like a hooked fish on a line. He’s all dimples and baby fat,
but still, when he opens
the brown paper sack, I imagine a gun in there, a gun black
and thick as his arm, but then I see what he has wrapped up
is a shiny red box.
He’s on his way to the mall in El Cajon where his girlfriend works
nights at Smoothie King, and tonight
he’s going to ask her to marry him, he’s finally going to do it.
He points to the Band-Aid
on his arm and tells me he sold his blood to pay for the ring
even though he’s terrified of needles. First thing next week he’s going
to enlist in the Army
if he can pass the test this time. He’ll have to lose weight, he says,
but he can do it, and if they get married
now, she can have his benefits. You can see the stars in his eyes,
gold flecks in the deep brown
which shine in the night sky of his face. In two minutes, I’ve gone from fear
for my life to fear for his life, and I’m relieved when the train arrives at last,
because I don’t know what to say
about his dreams, which I believe will come to nothing, because this is America,
where the poor stay poor and hope
is not, as Emily Dickinson said, the thing with feathers, but is, as someone
once said of the comb-over,
an acceptable convention that doesn’t really fool anybody.
Two stops later I’m off with a quick “Good luck”—it’s a pleasantry
that seems too little and not right.
He smiles and waves, holds up the ring box for me to see one last time,
and is gone down the tracks.
For months afterward I can’t stop wondering what happened to him,
if he got married, joined the Army.
Maybe he got sent to Iraq. Maybe he even died there.
I watch the news each night, thinking I might see him somewhere
among the soldiers in the burning streets.
Of course, I’ve forgotten exactly what he looked like, though I keep trying
to recall his face, his face like the dark side
of the moon pressed against the window of the swiftly moving train.