paul

I met Paul at the Wilshire/Western Metro station late on a Friday night. I was not out shopping for a meaningful if brief encounter with a meth addict on my way home from work, but 2021 is full of surprises so far. 

Paul's first words to me were "Never seen that before, huh?" He was stepping through the sliding door that connects subway cars, something riders rarely do. I had glanced his way when I noticed, but mostly I was staring down the length of the train car, which for some reason was unlit. My expression was one of mild concern, not curiosity. 

"What, moving between cars?" I said neutrally. "Yeah, I've seen that. I'm just wondering why the lights are out." At that moment, the lights went back on. Neither of us commented on it. 

I sat down in one of the spots facing the aisle, one reserved for seniors and the disabled. But it was nearly midnight and save for Paul and I, empty. With no seats in front of me, I could kick my legs out and lean back.  

Paul moved past me, deciding on his own seat. I took him in guardedly, unbothered but prepared to bolt if necessary. He was somewhere between 25 and 35 years old, with deeply tanned skin, close cropped light brown hair, and greenish eyes the whites of which glowed against his darkened skin. His clothes were tattered and filthy, with pants sunk half past his hips and work boots halfway unlaced. There was no question he was homeless and either an alcoholic, an addict, or both - but there was an energy about him, an alertness that gave me the impression he had plenty of fight still left in him. Paul was clearly on the losing side of life's many battles, but as of yet he remained undefeated. 

In the entirely empty train car, Paul chose the seat directly facing me, putting us mere inches from one another in the otherwise wide open space. I didn't flinch or glare or get up and move. I allowed it. I waited.

He slumped in his seat for a moment's rest, then immediately yanked the gaiter that covered his mouth and nose down to speak. I jerked upright, scolding "Ep ep ep!", the universally recognized sound for No no no, don't do that. The sound mothers make to their children when they grab at something they shouldn't. 

Paul understood and with both hands, pulled the dirty cloth back up over his face, this time all the way up, covering his eyes and forehead ironically, like an impudent child sarcastically making a point. He took a few sharp breaths, sucking in the fabric that bound his face tightly. It was an absurd and darkly comic moment that I nevertheless couldn't find the laughter for. Pretty much like most of the past year. 

I was a week past my second vaccination and feeling somewhat invincible, so when over the course of the next few minutes the gaiter ended up down around his neck and Paul's mouth and nose stayed totally exposed, I didn't say anything. I did some quick calculations in my head, the variables being

1. How likely I was to get the virus from someone who clearly roamed the city all day

2. How likely I was to get the virus at all when case counts in LA had plummeted so sharply

3. How bad it could possibly be for me if I did get it, now that I was all vaxed up

4. How good it felt to just sit next to another person with our faces seen clearly by one another, with our expressions of hesitancy or amusement or curiosity or compassion plainly visible, like real human beings sharing a moment of normal human interaction

and I came to the scientific conclusion of: Fuck it. 

Paul fidgeted while we waited for the train to leave the station. He crossed and uncrossed his legs. He pulled at the sleeves of his shirt. He cocked his head left and right. The way he jerked around it was like there was another Paul inside of him, restless and captive. 

"Do you live around here?" he let his head hang back on his shoulders, only turning his eyes toward me to ask this. 

"I live downtown," I said.

"Do you like it?"

"Yeah, it's okay," I said. The space where normally I would return the question to anyone that wasn't obviously living on the streets widened and widened, until there was just a chasm of silence. 

"Do you think I could stay at your place tonight?" At this he turned his whole body toward me, an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the plea. I held his gaze in return, smiled sadly, and shook my head. He nodded. What he'd expected. No hard feelings.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Elizabeth. Yours?"

"Paul." He thrust his hand out, but not as an invitation to shake mine. Instead he flattened his palm and held it directly in front of my chest, inches from the zipper of my jacket. He held it there, suspended, as if feeling my life force. He held his palm out to so long I started to think he wanted me to touch it, to meet it with mine. 

"No touching," I admonished gently.

"I'm not," he protested, truly enough.

Suddenly, Paul sprang out of his seat and reached into his back pocket. I watched as he pulled out an assortment of objects, none of which I could identify other than as things I would immediately throw away if I found them on my floor, and place them carefully onto his subway seat. A crumpled up bit of paper. A broken glass pipe. What looked for all the world like rocks but which I knew were not.

He fumbled with these things, putting one or another to his mouth, tasting, testing. I braced myself for I wasn't sure what. I told myself that if he lit the pipe I would have to move to the other side of the train. I didn't want to inhale anything. But just as quickly as he'd started on whatever this mission was, he aborted it. He sat back down, angled towards me amiably. Still fidgeting. 

"What are you on?" I heard myself asking.

"Meth," he said simply. "I drink a lot too." I could tell. I could smell it. "When was the last time you got high?" he asked me. 

I didn't point out the assumption or qualify which drug I meant; I just answered honestly: "A few weeks ago."

"Molly?" Paul had me pegged. I laughed a little and nodded.

"Yeah. I had some molly once but then they gave me meth. It was at a party. They didn't tell me. They were like 'Hey, you should try this blue!' and I was like 'I don't know, I don't know what blue is'. It was at this girl's house, all these people. I didn't know. So then I was like 'Okay, sure' but it was meth and I was hooked."

This monologue went on for a minute, Paul animatedly acting out the scene, changing his body language and voice to reflect the different characters of his story. I couldn't really follow. I just watched Paul deeply inhabit a moment from his past. 

Abruptly, he changed tacks, looking at me intently. "What's the longest you've ever stayed awake?"

I took a moment to genuinely consider the question. I thought of the time in college when my boyfriend and I shot out to Disneyland for a day and then drove back that same night, both of us having to work in the morning. I momentarily got lost remembering the sleep we finally had a day later, when we woke up so disoriented and dream-drunk we didn't even know what day it was. I thought, there must have been a time when I stayed up a day straight at least to write a term paper...

"Hmmm. Maybe a day? A solid day?" I offered this to Paul with a smile, as if it were a small gift I was hoping would delight him. By now we were pulling into my station, and I patted my backpack to check for my phone and keys as I started to get up.

"That's how long you've been alive," Paul said seriously, watching my face to see if I understood. 

There is a phenomenon that occurs when you take enough LSD, that you learn/know/understand things during the trip that escape you once the trip ends. It's just a fact of acid. You can't bring everything back with you, and you have to accept that some of the mind-splitting bits of clarity you glimpsed when you were in the wonderland are going to have to stay back behind the curtain until you're brave enough to go find them again.

That is how Paul's proclamation struck me. Like a slice of universal truth I nevertheless would have to take his word for. He was in a place I wasn't. He could see things I couldn't. 

I reached into my bag and opened my wallet, pulled out the twenty, the five, and the handful of singles inside. "When was the last time you ate?" I asked him. He dropped his head. "Here," I said. He shook his head. "Please," I said. He took the money but didn't say thank you. Just looked past my shoulder at the empty car.

All at once, I felt my heart crumpling up inside me. I was going to lose it. We walked out of the train together and I picked up my pace to let him know I was leaving the station alone. I turned back and held my arm straight out. I made a peace sign with my fingers, walking backwards, looking him in the eye, smiling fiercely.

"Don't be sad," Paul called out softly. I was smiling determinedly. I had purposefully, carefully composed this smile out of view, wanting to leave him positively charged from our conversation. But he had seen right through me. I shook my head at him, a liar through and through.

I managed to get a quarter of the way up the escalator before the tears hit, well out of Paul's sight. I wouldn't have wanted him to see me breaking in two like that. He has much better things to see, that maybe I never will.