Two a.m. Christmas morning, Scott sat on a bench at the end of the Navy Pier and watched wind-driven waves pile ice floes against the banks of Lake Michigan. Street lights cast ominous shadows between the buildings. I wonder which would happen first. Would I freeze before I drown?
A deep masculine voice spoke from behind him, “You know if you do it, they win.”
Scott looked around, startled. “What do you mean?”
The man sat beside him. “I mean, if you jump, whoever drove you this far will win. The ones who lose will be you and those who love you.”
“What makes you think I’m going to jump?” Scott scoffed. He looked into sad brown eyes, for a moment he wondered if his blue eyes looked as despondent. “And besides, I don’t have anyone who loves me.”
“I’ve been where you are,” the man said. “Ten years ago tonight, I sat on this same bench. I finally realized the only people I’d hurt would be the ones who loved me. The ones who’d stood by me, like my sister and her family. The ones who’d hurt me wouldn’t care at all. I couldn’t let them win. I had to prove them wrong.”
“Wrong about what?”
“Wrong about me being worthless, an abomination, a sinner.” The man shrugged his shoulders. “Only God can judge. Not my parents, nor my ex-wife. I’ve proven them all wrong.”
Scott scuffed his foot on the concrete of the pier. “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t look like you’ve missed any meals. And I’ll bet you have a nice warm bed to go home to.”
“Well, you’re right there.” The man stood. “Speaking of missing meals, when did you eat last?”
“I had breakfast at the homeless shelter yesterday morning,” Scott replied. He suddenly had the fear that telling the man he was homeless might be worse than telling someone he was gay. Both held stigmas in society, and he wasn’t sure how to get over them. At that moment, he didn’t really care. The worst thing the man could do would be storm away from him in disgust, and he’d had a lot of people do that in his life. He’d grown used to it.
“Is that where you stayed last night? Why aren’t you there now?”
“They were full by the time I got there. I tried to find a job so I could eat. But even the daily job places aren’t hiring on Christmas Eve.” Scott shivered with cold and wiped his runny nose on the sleeve of his jacket. Remembering the family gatherings at the lodge on Christmas, he never thought he’d find himself cold and alone on any holiday.
“I, for one, could sure use a cup of coffee,” the man said. “Come on.”
“Where?” Scott asked. A hope he hadn’t had moments earlier surged up in his chest. Maybe his luck was turning.
“To get you something to eat. My name’s Dan.” He reached his hand down to Scott.
Scott looked at the hand and then back into the man’s eyes. He took Dan’s hand, stood, and picked up his backpack. “Scott.” There was something warm and comforting in Dan’s grasp. It fanned the hope in Scott’s chest.
Dan led the way to a silver BMW parked at the end of the street. Once in the car, Dan drove to an all-night diner a few blocks away.
Inside the café they sat in a booth opposite each other and removed their coats. Coffee cups, silverware, napkins, and paper placemats were on the table. Christmas decorations hung from the ceiling, and a decorated tree stood in front of a window.
Scott finally got a good look at the man. He was maybe an inch taller than Scott’s 5 feet, 11 inches and looked to be in his mid-thirties to early-forties. His dark hair had nearly white streaks at the temples. Some might consider him chubby, but not fat. He reminded Scott a little of his dad.
The waitress approached with two coffee pots. “Regular or Decaf?”
“Decaf for me,” Dan replied.
“I’ll take regular,” Scott said. “I may need to stay awake.”
“Bring me a stack of pancakes, two eggs over easy and bacon,” Dan told the waitress. “What do you want, Scott?”
Scott looked at the waitress. “I’ll have the same, but make my eggs scrambled.”
Dan took a drink of his coffee. “So, Scott, where are you from?”
“You’re a long way from home. What brings you to Chicago?”
Scott gave a sound like a half laugh. “It was as far as my money would take me last June. I had a job as a waiter until October.”
“The boss’s daughter hit on me, and I rejected her.”
Scott shook his head. “Not my type.”
“What is your type?” Dan’s eyes twinkled.
Scott ducked his head and grinned. “I’m not really sure yet. But I know it isn’t female.”
Bolstered by the chuckle, Scott continued his tale. “When I admitted to the boss I’m gay, he decided he didn’t want to take the chance I might give a customer AIDS.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Dan raised a bushy eyebrow.
“Nope. He thought I could spread it that way even if I’m not HIV positive.”
Dan shook his head sadly. “It’s unbelievable people still think like that. This is the twenty-first century. I thought we’d progressed past that.”
Their food came, and they dug in.