Did I do the right thing by offering Bianca a place to stay? Yes. She needed help; she was in a bad way. I thought maybe she was involved with drugs when I met her. She wasn’t. She was a temp in the mail room at my company. Each day she arrived by foot, scattered, erratic, unstable. Her job was to deliver and collect mail throughout the building, but even this seemed complicated for her at times.
“Where’s the Research department?” she asked, holding a stack of envelopes against her chest, her other hand pushing the empty mail cart.
“Uh…it’s on the third floor,” I said. It was a question I answered at least 3 times a week.
“That’s right…” she adjusted the envelopes to prevent a few from falling to the floor.
“You got it?” I laughed, pushing the corner of one envelop back into the pile so it didn’t slip out. “Is there a reason you don’t put the mail in the cart?”
“No reason.” She said and was on her way.
At first I found myself watching her throughout the day, going up and down the floors, always overwhelmed with stacks of mail. And though her way was unconventional, we did get our mail every day. Then I found myself waiting for her to arrive. I’d find a reason to be near the south entrance around 8 am. I lit up when she came into view, at the end of the block, a scraggly figure at first, then the outline of her, tall and lanky, not particularly feminine, but still appealing. Her hair was a bit disheveled from the walk, a four mile trek each morning—she lived in Redwood Park, in a one-bedroom trailer. She wore a dark green parka; it was worn in, ripped in places. Under the parka she wore one of two outfits, faded black slacks and a dingy white button-up or a pair of wrinkled Khakis and a yellow-knit blouse. I know because Martha Jenson, Senior director of Marketing, announced her guess every morning.
“Is it a black slacks white shirt day or a Khakis and yellow knit day?” she laughed. “I’m going with the latter since she wore the black slacks yesterday…at least she alternates.” She sipped her coffee and walked away, her black leather heels hitting the floor, a demanding rhythm I listened to until it disappeared.
It was a Khaki and yellow knit day. I didn’t care about that though. I cared that she started arriving later and later. I don’t know why. I could have brushed her off as another irresponsible hire, but I didn’t. She intrigued me.
“You care too much,” Martha warned when I excused Bianca’s lateness, and then her absences. “What are you going to deliver the mail for her?”
I did. I delivered the mail on the days she was out even though I had no idea why she was not at work.
“Bianca…I need to know what’s going on? You’ve missed an entire week of work…”
“I know Mr. Michaels,” she sat across from me in my office, slumping in her chair. “I have a lot going on right now,” she put her hand to her mouth and looked out the window.
“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked. I wanted her to say yes.
She laughed hard. Then came tears. She stood up and walked around the room. My office was huge. It was the corner office with the big window overlooking the city. I had the furniture shipped from Italy. That office meant something to me; it signified I had achieved the kind of success I had dreamed of, my father had dreamed of.
“What is this?” Bianca asked, looking around. “It’s exotic.”
I laughed, pride welling.
“Thank you.” I stood. “The furniture is from Italy…it’s reminiscent of the 1900’s…”
“Are you Italian?”
“No…I just like the way it looks, the way it…”
I cringed as she walked around the glass conference table, gliding her finger along its edge, leaving smudges. It was for meetings, but we had never had a meeting there. I made sure Eloise, the cleaning lady, cleaned it every week. I even checked it after she left to make sure all dust and fingertips had been removed.
“This table is a long as my trailer,” she said, looking up at me. “Or what used to be my trailer.”
“Did you move?” I pried.
I waited for her to continue. She moved to the bookcase, gliding her fingers across each book as she read its title.
“You read a lot?” she turned to look at me.
“No mysteries?” she laughed. I joined her.
“I’ll have to make time for a few mysteries I guess.”
“I’m late because I’ve been staying with a friend,” she started walking towards me. My body straightened.
“It’s six miles out…my place was only 4,” she explained. “It’s hard to walk 6 miles when…” she started.
Martha burst through the door. She looked at me and then at Bianca.
“Am I interrupting something?”
“Uh…” I looked at Bianca. She shrugged and plopped down on the couch behind my desk. “We were just…”
“I have those numbers you asked for,” she continued. “They look good.” She looked at Bianca who was biting her nails. “I’ll come back,” she said, heading for the door.
“Yes, we will talk a little later,” I said, my tone deep, professional.
“You know where to find me.”
I waited for her to leave and then joined Bianca on the couch, sitting at the opposite end.
“You were telling me about why you’ve been late…and absent, I’m guessing.”
“She’s interesting…I’m homeless,” she said, her tone changing from humorous to serious.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“That’s not so bad…I can sleep on couches. I’m used to that…but I’m pregnant now.” Her voice faltered.
“Pregnant?” I asked, feeling my temperature rise. “Oh, I didn’t know you were married…”
She shook her head no.
“It’s complicated,” she huffed. “Is there any way I can come in later? Say 9 or 9:30?”
“Um…that might work…it’s just that some mail needs to be delivered early.” I scratched my head. “Where are you staying?”
“For now I’m at the Red Oak Inn” she scratched her head in the same place I had scratched mine.
“With your friend?” I asked, confused.
“Yep…she lives there,” Bianca explained.
“I see,” I nodded, imagining a reality where living in an Inn was normal. “Maybe someone goes that way. I can check…”
She looked at me, disbelieving.
“I can find a way,” she said, determined.
I believed her and it made me want to help her even more. So I did.
I picked her up from the Red Oak Inn every morning. She chattered on and on about everything. We moved from topic to topic. By the time we arrived at work, my mind was reeling. She was a force.
“How are you doing?” I’d ask.
Her response was prefaced with a long sigh.
“We are okay,” she started, patting her growing belly. “I’m puking every five minutes, I’m hungry,” she laughed, putting her seatbelt on.
“Are you seeing a doctor, yet?”
“Mr. Michaels I could eat for days, I’m telling you.”
I wanted to ask if she had food at the Inn, but I didn’t.
“So you’ve seen a doctor?” I asked again.
“Mr. Michaels, you think we can stop and get something to eat?”
“Sure,” I said, gripping the steering wheel. “There’s a McDonald’s over there…”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” she pulled a change purse from her backpack and started counting it in her hands.
“I got ya,” I said. “This one’s one me…you can get it next time.” I clarified.
“No sir, Mr. Michaels. I got it.”
She ordered one sausage burrito and a complimentary cup of water. I listened as she scarfed it down and gulped the water, letting out a long belch.
“Excuse me,” she said, balling up the wrapper and stuffing it into the bag.
“You didn’t mind me eating in your car, did you?” she asked. “It’s fancy in here,” she looked around. “Mercedes.”
“It’s nothing,” I tried to be modest.
“When I was young, my mother used to put peppermint in my milk,” she smiled.
“Really? Why did she do that?”
“Just because…she wanted me to have it because she knew I liked it.” She turned to look out the window. “She’d buy peppermint for me even though she couldn’t afford it.”
“She’s dead now.”
I didn’t want to give the usual response, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ I changed the topic instead.
“When will you be going to the doctor?”
“I can’t right now,” she squirmed in her seat. “I don’t have a way there.”
“I’ll take you,” I insisted. “Let me take you.”
Soon I was not only picking her up for work, but I was taking her to her appointments, buying her lunch, groceries. I was working her into my life every chance I got. She became a regular at my house, eating dinner on occasion, spending the night when she was between homes, or just hanging out with me talking over peppermint milk. Before I knew it, I was preparing the back room for her and her new baby. I was only trying to help, yet there was a part of me that was glad she was there.
I drove to the Inn that morning, like I had been doing for the past six months. She was standing outside, all her belongings next to her.
“Hey, what’s all this,” I asked, putting my hand on her wrist to comfort her.
“She kicked me out,” she said. “I’m homeless again…time to find another couch,” she said, intending it to be a joke. She rubbed her belly and sighed. “How did I get here, Mr. Michaels?” she stared into my eyes. “Why does life have to be so hard?”
“Let’s get you in,” I guided her to the front seat. “I’ll put your things in the trunk.”
I loaded the car with her backpack, a duffel bag, a couple blankets and a pillow, and a suitcase that rattled when I lifted it. When I got into the car, that’s when I made the offer.
“Why don’t you stay at my place for a while?” I turned up the heater to calm her shivers. “It’s no big deal…until you get on your feet.”
She didn’t respond right away. We were pulling into the parking lot at work when she finally answered.
“Okay,” she said, her eyes averted, her voice signaling defeat.
I left work later that morning to go to the store. I bought bedding, towels, a television set, and baby stuff—a crib, a stroller, a baby monitor. I got gift cards to clothing stores for her, the baby. I got bags and bags of peppermint and wrapped them in a box with a big red bow. I left the box sitting on the bed.
She loved the room.
“I want to show you something,” I said as she got out of the car.
I led her to the back bedroom. “I hope you like it.” I opened the door. She stepped in, put her hands to her mouth and cried.
“For you…and the baby.” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. She hugged me tight, thanking me over and over. I didn’t pull away. I held her.
“Mr. Michaels,” she started, her face snug against my chest.
“Call me, John,” I said, rubbing her back. “We’re friends,” I laughed.
“Why do you want to be my friend?” she looked up at me.
“Are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to be your friend?”
“Lots of people.”
“Well, I think you are amazing.”
“Me, amazing?” She shook her head. “I’m a screw up. And now I’m having a baby and I don’t even know who the father is.”
“Look at me,” I said, cupping her chin. “We’ve all made mistakes, errors in judgment. I can give you a list of mine, if you’d like. You’ve done a lot of things right and you try every day to do the right thing.”
“What do I do right?” she asked, her voice soft, her body resting against mine.
“You work hard,” I kissed her forehead. “You care about your baby,” I kissed the bridge of her nose. “You’re strong,” I kissed her cheek. “Very strong,” I kissed the other cheek. “And…”
“What?” she looked up at me, wrapping herself around me tight.
“You’re determined, even when things aren’t easy.”
She smiled, and I, not intending to, leaned in let my lips meet hers. It wasn’t a kiss; it wasn’t supposed to be at least. I wanted to show her affection, kindness.
Did I do the right thing? No. I was 48. Bianca was 19. She was a kid, in a bad place, with no parents, no family. I wanted to help, but part of me wanted something in exchange: A purpose. For years I had lived alone, focusing on my career; sure I had mentored some high school kids, provided them with internships that ushered them into university, but I was content on my own. I was at peace. Bianca disturbed that peace, showed me there was more to living than solitude; there was caring, caring about someone else, their well-being, their happiness. She was an instant disruption: I saw her, I wanted her, I needed her.