The summer after my freshman year of college, I spent six weeks in Bakersfield, California living with my cousin in my grandma’s house.
Every day I would walk downtown to the coffee shop, drink an iced coffee, eat a chicken salad sandwich, and write at a table by the window. One day, I needed some contact solution at the drugstore and thought I should pick it up before I walked back home. I knew the drugstore was somewhere by the train station, but when I got there, I couldn’t find it. I saw a young black man in a red teeshirt standing outside and asked him if he knew where CVS was.
“Yeah,” he started to explain but then cut himself off – “Oh you know, I’m not doing anything – I’ll just walk you there.” No, I said, that’s fine – but he insisted. All summer, I had been followed by men in broad daylight until they gave up or I found some place to duck into like an antique store. But I wanted to be nice to him because he was being nice to me, so I let him walk me to CVS where I bought contact solution, a little annoyed.
He wouldn’t leave. I said I was going home after this. He said he could walk me there. I started to get angry at his persistence until I really looked at his face and saw that he was much younger than I thought – maybe my age, nineteen at most. I hadn’t made any friends in California because I had spent the summer wandering around, alone, with the exception of a few afternoons with my family. I wasn’t scared. His eyes were kind and shining; they were the color of dark almonds. I looked around the train station and saw that it was dusty and covered in empty green beer bottles and thought, Oh he thinks it’d be safer to walk with him than to walk alone. He was probably right. Plus, he seemed bored.
“I’m James,” he said and extended his hand.
“I’m Savannah.” I shook it.
James was my favorite name, so I took it as a sign. We began to walk home. I told him that my grandma’s house was on Oleander Avenue and he said, “Isn’t that the street with all the pretty old houses?” Yes, I said, that’s the one. I planned to walk to the park across the street and part ways, to be safe. But I took some pleasure in fighting against my own hesitation. Strangers had been forcefully thrown into my space all summer, mostly unwanted – drunks yelling at me on the street, miscellaneous eccentrics knocking on my door asking for a job and wondering about the old woman who was there the last time. They were referring to my grandma. She passed away, I told them. When I told this story to my family at my grandma’s memorial a few weeks later, I described it as something meant-to-be: the day before the memorial, a woman came and knocked on the door. She said she grew up around here and was wondering if my grandma still lived in this house because she used to garden with her when she was a kid and she was so nice. I said no, unfortunately, she had passed away. She asked if she could hug me and I said, Yes. At the memorial, I told this story as a positive thing, but of course there was something off about that woman. I’m sure the part about my grandma was true but not sure that she wasn’t on something or that my door was the only door she had knocked on that day. I thought of all of these interactions as I walked with James. I had spent so much time spent with strangers who I didn’t want to spend time with; why couldn’t I say yes to someone who I did want to spend time with?
We walked in the heat and chitchatted about ourselves. He was nineteen; I was right. He was just in Bakersfield for the summer, like me. He was from San Francisco and staying with a friend here. He said it was just okay – there was an Xbox – but he had to sleep in the living room and Bakersfield was starting to bore him. He said he didn’t know anything about Massachusetts.
We walked to the park and I thought we’d split ways, but instead sat on a bench that was half shaded by a big tree. It became almost temperate outside, atypical. As we talked more, I noticed that the park was almost empty and a slight breeze rustled the branches above us. It was too nice to leave. I noticed that while we were walking over, men looked at me and didn’t say anything nasty. It really had been a safer walk with James versus without him. They don’t know that we’re strangers, I thought. We looked like we could have been friends.
I learned about his life – he was a chef on cruise ships, but was just in-between gigs this month. He and his siblings had all been separated by foster care. He didn’t see his little sister for ten years and didn’t have any way to contact her until one day they ran into each other on a city bus.
“How did you know it was her?” I asked, “I’d imagine she looked a lot different than she did when she was five.”
“No, I knew it was her immediately.”
He found it interesting that I wrote and asked me a ton of questions about how I do it and about the creative writing course I was taking for extra credit online, which was just okay but had some good material in it. He said he was never good at writing and wished he could express himself better in that way.
“I could help you,” I said, “You definitely have enough experience to write about.”
He said he would like that.
I could see my grandma’s house from where we were sitting and this little secret of mine – that he could see it too, but didn’t know it – gave me a small bit of pleasure in controlling the whole experience.
We exchanged numbers and parted ways. I waited a week to text him and he didn’t respond, and I never saw him again.