The call was certain and unwavering.
I felt pulled to volunteer at a local homeless shelter. My friends and family started to wonder what I was doing because it started so randomly. I was always honest as to my intentions - to various degrees.
First, there was the short answer. My father was briefly homeless, and knowing his story has made me more empathic to the plight of these people who have lost so much, often in a short amount of time. When I think about the clients I have worked with, I picture them housed and happy, sitting next to fireplaces with a book, with yards for their children to run in, and refrigerators for cool lemonade in plastic pitchers.
Then, there was the long answer. I have a genuine desire to help the homeless but there was a list of other reasons that were not so pretty. There was something voyeuristically pleasurable about helping those less fortunate to feel better about my life. When I started at the shelter, I was so lonely and angry at the world for not being as I demanded and serving at a homeless shelter reminded me that I still had it good. I would go home, sleep in my $1,200 mattress, and feel thankful that I’m not on a cot at a shelter, listening to echoes of coughing and cursing. I was better off than someone else. So, in a weird way, that meant I won a game that no one was playing.
That complex motivation, real and ungracious, was a thread of integrity that was bound to unwind.
Monday after Monday, I headed into the shelter, uneasy and unsure about what I was going to see that day. Men were gruff and the women felt standoffish. But my nervousness melted over the course of a year as I dived deeper and kept being myself.
What helped the most was that I befriended the supervising staff member who oversees me. Mike was in a gang and formerly homeless himself. I was pulled in by his wisdom, as every word out of his mouth was dripping with insight that I soaked up. His wisdom was put to the test one Monday when a man came to the front door of the shelter and wanted a bed. But we were full and had nothing for him. When he didn’t take that as an acceptable answer, a client screamed at him to get away. This escalated things – quickly. After handling the situation peacefully, Mike explained the depth of his frustration to me.
“See, the front door of a homeless shelter should be a ministry. People who come to that door – they might have just been robbed. They might have been just kicked out of their house. They might have no where else to go. To scream, to yell at them, when they might be at the end of their rope, seeking hope, is just wrong.”
A front door - an inanimate object - serving as a ministry. I mulled that over in my mind for a few days. Comments like that from Mike are common. He challenged me to think in a way that I am not normally asked to rise to. And once I became more comfortable with Mike, I ventured out more and more. To this day, when dinner is served, I sit with clients and talk to them about their lives.
I met a painter who blew me away with his art that brightens the world with vivid color. He remains one of the happiest men I know.
Then there was a mentally handicapped woman who asked me if I was related to Jesus because I was wearing woven sandals. She laughed hard at that and her laughter sweetened the air.
I brought a woman some perfume because she had root canal surgery and was in a lot of pain – she cried and now comes and gives me a hug when she sees me.
Over the course of months, these people stopped being my objects of my pity but transformed into my examples of resilience. The crushing weight of societal indifference could lead some of them to feel so rebuked that life can seem to hold no promise. And some homeless do blame other people for their situation. But the majority of them have such drive, because sleeping in a warehouse every night is not the life they imagine for themselves.
Volunteering became like hanging out with friends every Monday and my weekly dose of inspiration. I stopped using them as a tool to make myself feel strong but as a true service. And for a while, what brought a smile to my face on Mondays, was knowing Jacob was going to be there.
I heard the chatter about him in the mail line before I knew his name. The women at the shelter talked about how cute he was. The men wanted to know about the caliber of his gun. He was a mystery, something new to them that intrigued all their senses.
I noticed him during his first weeks on the job – he’s tall and tan, strong and silent. And God’s gift to every single woman in that shelter is the way his biceps filled out his police uniform.
I could see him frequently looking over at me in the mail room. But I could not tell if he was doing his cop thing and scanning the room or if he was – well, looking at me. Over a few months, we had an occasional wave or a smile, but we mostly kept to ourselves, both of us had our different priorities while there.
Months of silence and looking from a distance, and then one night, I couldn’t get him to shut up. He sat down behind me at the front desk and questions rapidly fired out of his mouth.
He wanted to know what I did in my free time.
He wanted to know where I lived.
He wanted to know what I did for a living and my goals.
He was surprised to find out that I was a volunteer and not staff. I had just finished graduate school and he wanted to know about my classes and my aspirations. We flowed easily, not having to search for conversation starters. And more than that, it felt good.
At the time of our first conversation, I was planning a National Police Appreciation Week present for another police friend of mine. I dorkily asked Jacob something to the effect of “How’s your National Police Week going?” He laughed – he didn’t know it was going on. That made me think that he did not have anyone in his life that had done something for him or had shown him appreciation.
So instead of making one police week appreciation gift over that weekend, I made two. The following Monday, I brought Jacob a small care package in a quart size Ziploc bag – granola bars, peanut butter crackers, individual bags of almonds, and 2 five-hour energy drinks. Simple and practical items for his job that conveyed a general note of appreciation, and not my true desire of, “I secretly wonder if you can fireman-carry me out of a burning building.” When I handed it to him, he immediately sat down, opened the bag and read the note I wrote him. I think he even read it twice, as his eyes moved over the words again and again. After he took it in, he thanked me with the most genuine eyes. That was the foundation of our friendship.
Over the next weeks, Jacob recounted his police stories to me during our quiet moments together when I wasn’t handing out aspirin or shaving cream at the front desk. He clearly loved his job and helping people. He was eager to impress me but continuously calm and collected, never full of bravado. His stories never featured him saving the day but demonstrated his charm, intelligence, and instinct for the job. He leaned in when he talked to me, and smelled like sweat and a cologne made with pine. That masculine scent lingered around me on my drive home.
When he got my jokes, dripping with sass and obscure references, a slow smile crept along his face. I loved trying to get him to smile like that because one of his dimples was deeper than the other. It made my heart glow. When he found out that I was a history major in undergrad, he asked what era of history I liked and why. We had highly-informed conversations about Lawrence of Arabia, Rommel and World War II. He seemed curious about me and remembered a lot, week after week.
I started to think about Jacob daily. He came out of nowhere, and it felt like a fortunate accident that a man like him would sit two feet away from me on Monday nights. I cared about him in a crevasse of my heart that I don’t let many men touch anymore. That part of my life felt futile, so unrewarding that I struggled to find the capacity to even try. But with Jacob, I didn’t have to try. I remember one Wednesday, I was out with friends and he made his way forward in my thoughts. I let him stay there while I slowly sipped cold whiskey and coke, so that my mind would always connect him with that smooth sensation languishing on my tongue.
I grew concerned for him on his patrols but I never let it show with him. After all, it was a crush, girlish and feminine. I can be awkward in conversations, but I knew there would no coming back from, “Hey I saw this story on the news about a police officer being injured, and I got kind of worried that it was you, I was worried for a few days but I’m really glad to see you’re all in one piece.” I wanted to keep our Monday nights about us.
But as our weeks progressed, what started as a crush started to feel real and transformed into deep respect. People hear stories about police officers in action, but they don’t always hear about the day to day, the grind that occurs on the job yet they still get up. I watched Jacob deescalate homeless men without raising his voice. Week after week, a woman would come up to talk to him. She has limited English proficiency but would talk to him at length about any subject that’s on her mind. Sometimes it was about the Roman Empire. Sometimes it was the latest conspiracy theory she absorbed. And he listened. With great attention and patience.
I started out uncertain about whether he saw me in the same way that I saw him but I grew more confident with our weeks together. He watched me walk from the mail room to the front desk. His stares made my skin burn. I had his attention. And it made me believe that he wanted more.
Tall, tan, green eyes, sweet as pie, smart, and with a body designed to be explored on Saturday mornings while laying in bed. And no ring. It felt so good for a while, and incandescently fitting. For these sweet weeks, I prayed for his safety and well-being. To this day, I remember what it felt like to stand in his proximity and feel the heat from his body as we talked.
But I was warned. Again and again, I was warned. Some police officers do not wear rings. I kept my boundaries in knowing this, never getting overly flirtatious, not wanting to make a fool out of myself in case this was true. While I kept my outer reaction in check, my feelings fled in all directions and I paid the price for it.
It came out after a few weeks of friendship. One Monday night, he talked about how his wife sometimes buys unneeded clothing and other things that are on sale, because it “saves them money”, as she would put it. He didn’t seem to appreciate it, but in a “She’s my wife and this is a thing I accept because with the bad comes the good” kind of way.
I kept it together for the rest of my shift. Jacob and I found out that went to the same high school, he told me what year he graduated. He asked what year I graduated but I cracked a joke – just because he owned up to his age, he shouldn’t expect me to. Inside though, my heart dropped every moment I was next to him. But I went back to the mailroom and kept my composure to hand out the mail to the men’s population.
In the night of things that seemed to repeatedly go wrong, I had been dealing with a client – Robert - who kept giving me a lot of attention. In the week before, Robert had asked me if I had played volleyball or ran track because my quad muscles were so toned. It was a little too specific towards one of my body parts for my liking. This night, Robert stood at the door of the mailroom, his eyes followed the curves of my body upward, and he licked his lips as he said, “Oh yesssss, I’m so glad you’re here.”
I had been doing this for a year, and never felt scared until that moment. I went up and talked to Mike about some of the attention I had been receiving from Robert and he was immediately responsive to my fear. Jacob overheard some of the things I was saying, and came closer to listen. He didn’t say anything, I think he wanted to know why I was on the brink of tears and if he had a situation to handle.
I knew it was his job. I knew he wanted to help. But I wanted him to get away. I felt repulsed. Angry. And rejected.
I am not yours to protect, I thought.
I got into my car and started crying while I drove to the closest brewery and cried quietly over a beer. Following that, I drove to the grocery store. After grabbing a six pack and drinking four of them, I cried myself to sleep. I’m so stupid, I kept thinking to myself. I woke up at 3 am, and cried myself back to sleep. I cried most of the morning, feeling grateful I was working from home that day so that no one would see my hollowness. I ached from him. And I was angry at myself, because this was the very feeling I strived so desperately to avoid.
I went out later than night, sullen, but by the time the credits to An American in Paris started rolling, I had regained myself. I almost fell out of my seat laughing at Gene Kelly’s pick-up line, “Well, with a binding like you’ve got, people are going to want to know what’s in the book.”
When life turns dark, I have always refreshed myself by driving around my city. The electric currents of skyscraper lights remind me how small my problems can be. As I drove around, playing the past weeks over in my head. I needed to know what I had gotten something wrong.
The grazes of arms touching as we reached for things at the same time.
The way he smiled at me, with one dimple deeper than the other.
I thought he cared about me.
I wish I could say I was stronger than I was, that the light switch turned to off immediately because he was married. I wanted to move on easily with grace. My mind isn’t poisoned with romantic comedies and I don’t believe in soulmates. But after sharing the dreadful words of, “Jacob’s married,” and seeing the cringe in my friends’ faces, a visceral reaction, people voiced two main opinions. I could maintain boundaries. Or I could act like nothing had changed because he was clearly looking for something I might be able to provide.
My parents would tell me that this particular sin would be called “coveting my neighbor’s husband”. I have to admit my mind wandered aimlessly into how far I could go. I have been well-behaved for all my life, my mind always turned to the common good. When I was in the 3rd grade, I wrote a 25 page biography synopsis on Nelson Mandela while others wrote five pages on Mia Hamm. That sense of purpose and helping others led me to work in the non-profit field. I was making far less money than my peers while having well over the standard amount of education. And I was alone and exhausted from boundless care of others. Striving to be a fundamentally good person seemed unrewarding and unfulfilling. Being a little wicked held the promise of not just danger, but being reborn in imperfection where people would stop considering me as an example to follow.
Leaning in when he was leaning in to talk to me? No big deal!
An “accidental” arm graze here or there? No sweat!
Wearing that dress from the day I got handed a pamphlet from a church preaching salvation? Harmless!
My thoughts were on him and the things I wanted to do to him. It was uncharted territory calling out to me.
I am an analytical researcher by nature. I don’t accept things at face value – I need to understand them from their very core, swim in them until my fingers get wrinkly. I needed to know what I had done wrong, what social cue I might have missed. I needed to comprehend why married men’s eyes wonder and if I should act. I started googling keywords, starting with flirty married men. I read a fascinating article on Men’s Health from a married writer who has a female best friend who is also a writer. He seemed faithful and honest, but explained to his jealous wife, that his best friend is successful in the same field that he’s in. While monogamous, he explained that at times, he wanted his best friend to desire him, because he wanted a successful woman in the same field to want him. Marriage didn’t absolve him of his wish to be attractive to other women.
I looked into the other side – being the other woman. I listened to a TED talk on infidelity and affairs, laughing with this Parisian woman who said, “Monogamy used to mean - one person for life. Now it means – one person at a time.” She spoke about how her psychiatry clients said that affairs made them feel alive. To me, that implied that there is something about some marriages that deaden the soul.
I wandered over to Cosmo and I read an article from a serial “other woman”. After admitting that her five past relationships began as affairs, the author explained that she doesn’t know the wives or girlfriends of these men, so she doesn’t really care about them. Ignorance is apparently emotional and, well, as she explained in graphic detail, physical bliss. It sounded like the forbidden fruit is the sweetest.
All these stories had different emotions involved. Apathy. Feeling alive. Desire. An image evolved in my mind on how affairs are violent collisions of polar feelings that leave smoldering embers for years past their crash.
My mind looped back to Jacob, again and again.
I wanted to trace his back under my palms and chart the lines of his muscles.
I wanted to make those uneven dimples smile with my stupid jokes.
I wanted intellectual Sunday morning brunches after restless Saturday nights.
I am just a woman, humble and generous yet sometimes unkind. My motivations for serving at a homeless shelter speak to both my sincere nature and the part of me that’s a little broken. I am no saint and I am capable of many things.
But I peeked my head over the edge of this cliff to see that succumbing to this temptation would mean cutting out a piece of my heart. I would never be the same person if I tried to pursue this.
And an affair would not be for us, for a clear future. It would be an attempt to find truth in an unrooted, unfounded, naïve thought that he might be happier with me. Furthermore, simply to flirt with him would be partly to punish him for my own thoughts and for a choice he made years before even knowing me. Leaning in a little when we talked, wearing that perfume he liked – it would be an exercise in power. I was a mystery that he wanted to unwrap, slowly, week after week, so that it would last. And I knew I could use that to make him feel whatever I wanted.
I don’t have any particular respect or high regard for marriage. I frankly think it’s a tad ludicrous to expect that level of monogamy from human beings who are now living until their nineties.
But I do have respect for people’s lives and the power of choice to define the course of life. It took too long to make me realize this, probably because my mind was clouded with anger and bitterness. His life, no matter what was going on in the background with his marriage, was not for me to insert myself into for my own gain or because I was bored or lonely. To paraphrase Einstein, any fool can make something more complicated – it takes a touch of genius to move something in the opposite direction.
The same friends who I shared the story of Jacob with, who cringed when I said, “He’s married”, tried to support me and make me laugh by making jokes about his wife. They tossed around theories about how she might be bad in bed and how having children has probably made her perpetually bitchy. I’ve been that friend, who tried to make jokes about another woman so that my friends would feel comfort. But this felt different. It was deeply unsatisfying to hear how she might be ugly or let herself go. It didn’t matter. When I refused to make jokes about Jacob’s wife, one of my sorority sisters who knows this situation laughed at me, and said, “You don’t have to be so classy with me, you can share any petty thoughts.”
I don’t think of myself as classy. And what other people think of me is none of my business. Rather, I try to act with dignity for myself. And dignity, to me, is loving the sound of my feet walking away from a life that is not meant for me. Over a two week span, trying to get over this, I drank with a glutton’s appetite and watched sad movies and ran until my feet ached. But no matter how many miles I logged, the truth I wanted to ignore remained embedded in the muscles of my heart.
He was simply not my future.
And I cannot allow myself to get down in the mud for a woman I don’t even know. She could be incredibly worthy – she could be horrible. Most likely, she’s somewhere in between. She’s me, neither a saint nor a sinner. No matter what, I’m worthy of a life where I’m not trying to bring someone down to make myself feel strong. Otherwise, that’s not strength at all.
I wrote this on a notecard that now hangs next to my bed - our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, and our actions are the choices we must live with.
I thought about not going back to the shelter.
After three weeks of missing each other because of vacation schedules and nights off, my anxiety built about seeing him again. Monday nights made my blood pressure boil as the hours on the work day ticked away. I feared not being strong, giving an inch of ground with him, only to give a foot. I was scared that I was nothing but words, and I was going to be that lonely woman who lost herself in a man who gave her attention. I reviled that woman.
I talked a good game. But it was time to prove it. Because like I told myself, words become actions.
I was floundering in the course I had committed myself to because it was rooted in high-minded principles and not in human feeling. Logically, an affair with a married man is hard no. But I thought about our connection, something I hadn’t felt in a while. So I did something that I avoided for our weeks together - I looked him up on Facebook.
His profile was mundane and overwhelmingly lacking in public entries. Many cops are similar in how they use social media – it tends to be quiet and private. So I searched his Facebook friends for his last name, and found his wife’s profile, and clicked on it.
And I saw exactly what I needed to see.
Her most recent post was video of a family bowling night. And I watched all five minutes of this piece of their life. I listened to her cheery, semi-shrill narration as she encouraged her children as they bowled. I watched their daughter struggle under the weight of the bowling ball, but eventually toss it down the bumper lane twice and wound up getting a strike. I listened to her two children cheer each other on, the 9-year-old son lifted the 5-year-old daughter off the ground when she got her strike. When his wife handed the video camera over to her son so she could bowl, the visual field dropped a few inches. And Jacob made a brief appearance.
They weren’t having the time of their lives. It wasn’t a trip to Disneyworld or snorkeling with dolphins. But it was like a normal, reoccurring family night. Like they had been doing this forever and would be doing this for years to come.
“And there it is”, I thought.
That video is seared into my mind now and it equipped me for battle. I felt like an interloper, not just because I was being creepy and watching this video from afar. But it became so vibrantly clear to me how I would have no place in that night. I would be a strange outlier. I couldn’t see a future where I was handing that little girl her bowling ball because it was so heavy. I couldn’t see a path forward in which I would be a welcome person to this family night.
It was hard to finally realize yet it was such an inevitable conclusion. My aching heart finally caught up to my head. No matter how much attention he might have given me, Jacob was never mine to play with. And he was never mine to lose.
Dignity - it really became quite as simple as that. It looks like treating the homeless as more than an outlet for a sense of superiority. It looks like maintaining boundaries and walking away when they falter. It’s recognizing when you belong and when you have no place.
Our interactions now are short and sweet. No more long talks. And he rarely lingers in my thoughts like he used to. Doors really are more than just doors, as Mike said. Because when I leave on Monday nights, the door I walk out of helps me leave Jacob where he belongs.