The rain stirred the dormant smell of bum piss as we stepped onto the sidewalk. Neither one of us had an umbrella, but she didn’t seem to care, and neither did I. The water mixed with the dust on the sidewalk, creating a fine grit beneath our feet as we turned down O’Farrell toward the pub where we had our first encounter. Condensation clung to the windows of McMillen’s from the chatter of many warm bodies inside. I stopped outside under the overhanging, pulled out a pack of Camel Blues, and offered her a smoke. She waved it away and pulled out her Marlboro Reds. I tried to light her cigarette, but my lighter was on the blink. She pulled out a Zippo and flicked out a flame before I could give it a third try. We both stared out at the traffic of people–mostly tourists but some walking from work or to meet friends at restaurants and bars. I felt lame and old, and still a tourist myself in this place.
She leaned back on the painted brick and took a long drag, blew smoke out of the side of her mouth in a steady gust, dropped it onto the cement, and then walked past me into the pub. I followed.
We were seated in the far end of the pub away from the bar behind two men in expensive suits with lanyards around their necks–probably a conference at the Moscone Convention Center. She slung her backpack onto the back of her chair and slid into her seat.
“So what’s good here?” she asked as she perused the menu.
I wondered when her last meal had been. Where was she living? Did she have friends to help her out? Did she have a job?
“The bangers and mash are the best in town,” I said.
She grimaced and turned to another page of the menu.
“The fish and chips are delicious if you don’t mind a little grease,” I said.
We sat in silence as we waited for the server to take our order. Her eyes scanned the room as she sipped ice water.
“So tell me about yourself. Do you have a place to stay? Do you have a job?” I asked.
Her eyes met mine with a stern look. “Why are you that way?” she asked.
“What way? What do you mean?” I asked.
She gestured at me, head to foot.
“This way. Look at yourself. You’re alone. You’re buying dinner for a teenage girl. You know nothing about me. You don’t even know who or what you are.”
This teenage girl had just reduced my life to this. Just then, the waiter approached to take our order. He wore a crisp white dress shirt and a white apron.
“Two fish and chips and two Stella’s. And could you bring some vinegar with that?” I said. He took our menus and sped off.
I didn’t know what to say to her. She reached into her pocket and pulled out an iPhone and made a few swipes with her index finger then put it back in her pocket. She swept her hair away from her face.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she said, her tone softening. “I’m sure you’re a nice guy. I just don’t know a lot of nice guys.”
“It’s ok. Maybe you’re right about me. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing half the time. This is what my life is like: I wake up, grab a cup of coffee and a scone from the same cafe every morning, walk to work, leave work, come to this pub to eat dinner and drink a pint, smoke a few cigarettes, walk up the street to my house, and drink myself to sleep with expensive single malt. This is the first real conversation I’ve had this week.”
She looked down at the table for a moment. She slumped in her chair. “I ran away from home,” she said, still looking down. “I don’t know what I’m doing either. I just know that I can’t go back.”
She looked up at me, and there were tears in her eyes. In that moment, she was just a lost, little girl who needed someone, anyone, to show her only a little tenderness. I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her that everything would be ok. I reached out to touched her hand, but she pulled it away. She wiped her eyes hastily with the palm of her hands and took another sip of her water.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
When our food arrived, her hunger took over. She ate without saying another word, never stopping to wipe the grease that dribbled on to her chin and over her fingers. She sipped the beer tentatively.
I studied her as she ate. Her face flushed, probably from the beer and the warmth of the pub, and for a moment, I didn’t feel quite as lost.
A band began to set up on the other side of the pub. They plugged in amps and microphones and tuned guitars with a nonchalance that comes from having played a thousand gigs. One guy, maybe the singer, brushed his long hair aside from his face as he took a moment to survey the crowd. Had they come to see him? Or did they just come for the beer.
We’d come here to get out of the rain and share a meal. But what else? What was I doing here with this girl? Was it concern? Was it loneliness? Or simply curiosity. She’d been treated poorly. That was evident. I wanted her to know that there were nice guys in the world, but I wasn’t even sure I was a nice guy. I was half a bum, half a drunk, and the other half lost soul.
I ordered two shots of whiskey. The waiter never questioned Amy’s age, and she seemed content to drink with me. Maybe it wasn’t right of me to buy alcohol for a minor, but she’d been living hard enough to deserve it.
When the waiter brought the whiskey, I raised my glass to Amy and said, “Cheers.”
She stared at me while I drank, smirking. She sipped gingerly. It was a strong drink for such a young girl.
“So, James. What now? Are you just going to get me drunk and make your move? Is this what you do?”
“Relax, I don’t even have any moves. Hey, how about a smoke? It’s about to get loud in here.” I nodded to the band, who was starting their mic check.
I paid up, and we wove our way out through the growing crowd. A few guys sitting at the bar cheered at the television, and the chatter around the place was becoming a little livelier. The night was just beginning for them. She got out before I did, and when I stepped onto the sidewalk, she was gone. I quickly turned to find her. She was crossing back down the street at a rapid pace. I called after her, running. And just as she turned to look at me, my world went upside down.