“The Meal” by Sarah Van Den Bosch

Categories: ISSUE 02: Billie

The Meal
It had started to snow and I tucked myself between two towering brownstones. I pulled my knees to my chest and rested my chin on my knobby kneecaps. My shoes had holes in them and my jeans were starting to thin and tear in places. I pulled the knit cap I found yesterday outside a convenience store over my eyes and tried to sleep.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and was startled by the touch. Pulling the cap up, I saw that it was a woman. She was wearing a red coat with matching hat and gloves. She was round in a way that made me think of a perfect ball of dough waiting to become a cookie. Chocolate chip or maybe peanut butter.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

I was. It had been days since I had tasted a real meal, something more substantial than a half eaten sandwich left sitting on the ledge of a warehouse window. The woman held out her mitted hand to me. It looked so soft that I couldn’t help but to take it, to feel its warmth.

We walked down the street to a small Mexican restaurant. It was a sparse place with only half a dozen tables and a clock shaped like a sombrero on the wall. There were only three other people including the cook and cashier, but I could sense their staring. I could only imagine how I looked to them; disheveled, dirty, homeless. I drew my coat closer to my body as if to shield myself from their curious glances.

“I’m Laura,” she said as we sat.

The cashier came by and placed down two paper menus. There were so many options; I was overwhelmed with the idea of having to choose. I peered over the menu and saw Laura looking at me, her eyes wide and her brow wrinkled in concern. I recognized the look. I had seen pity many times before. I wanted to leave then, but my stomach groaned in protest. The cashier appeared again, ready to take our orders.

“We’ll have an order of the chicken quesadillas, beans and the nacho platter.”

I could have ordered for myself but I didn’t want to ruin a free meal with an argument.

I ate ravenously, devouring a quesadilla and scooping beans into my mouth with barely a breath between. The woman, Laura, was looking at me, not eating. Her hands were folded on the table. I stopped, mid-chew and looked back at her.

“What’s your name?” she asked softly.

“Kate,” I murmured.

“That’s a lovely name.”

The corner of her mouth rose in a smile tinged with sadness. I wasn’t sure what to say to the plump woman with the pitying eyes.

“Come to my place. You can have a shower and a warm place to sleep for the night.”

Laura placed her hand on top of mine. Her face had the gentleness of a mother from black and white television shows.

“No, thank you,” I said and cast my eyes down at my plate.

I imagined Laura’s apartment as an inviting place with throws on the couch and an antique cuckoo clock perched on the wall. I wanted to go with her but I knew I could not. A night spent in Laura’s apartment would only be a painful reminder of everything I had lost and when I returned to the street the next morning, it would be with bitterness and yearning.

“I’m not out to…” I watched her struggling for the right words, “do anything.”

She grinned sheepishly and I couldn’t help but smile back at her. Go with her, something in the back of my mind called out. I almost said “yes” but instead I shook my head and gently pulled my hand out from under hers.

“At least take some food with you.”

Laura signaled the cashier over to our table and requested a Styrofoam container. She placed all of the leftovers inside and handed it over to me.

“Thanks,” I said and really meant it.

I moved quickly through the snow and headed for the train station glancing over my shoulder only once to see if Laura had come out to see me off. There was no one, just the flurries of oncoming snowfall. I jumped the turnstile without being noticed and jogged up to the platform.

Inside the train, I slid into a seat by the window. The heat coming from the vents cloaked itself around me and with the food settled heavily in my stomach and the extra helping on my lap, I began to fall into a contented sleep. As I started to doze, I imagined that I was tucked away, cozy in Laura’s apartment with the cuckoo clock ticking its methodical lullaby.

Story by Sarah Van Den Bosch
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Background photo by Thomas Pitre
Foreground photo by Eleanor Leonne Bennett