We were out on our before-bed pee walk. As usual, Stanley was trailing a half block behind Toby and me. I hate the dark and the cold so Toby and I were moving at a brisk pace. So, I was surprised when Stanley suddenly appeared at my shoulder. “Hey,” he said, “There’s someone sitting on the curb back there crying.”
I turned to look back at the corner, could make out a huddled black form and on the still chilly air, I could hear sobbing. Toby was pulling at his leash so we walked on, turning to look back every few feet, the sound of crying falling around us like rain. Finally I stopped and asked, “Do you think we should go back and check on them?”
“Yes. There are two of us,” he said, “So it should be okay.” I knew what he was thinking. We live in the city; you have to be cautious. We turned around. As we approached, I took off my hood so as to appear less threatening. We called out, “Hey, are you okay?"
Wrong question because there’s generally one answer, “Yes, I’m fine.” The person, a young girl, shook her head, continued crying.
I sat next to her. “I’m Larry and this is Stanley. Are you hurt? Did someone do something to hurt you? Are you in pain?”
She nodded pointed to her chest. Stress, I guessed. “What’s your name? Do you mind telling me your name?” She showed me her University ID.
“Angelica—can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“I-I’m afraid I may hurt myself.”
"Okay. We’re going to get you some help. We’ll stay here with you until help comes. I’m going to put my arm around you, ok?"
Stanley stepped behind us and I could hear him calling 911 and explaining what little we knew of the situation.
While we waited for help to arrive, I kept talking to her and was able to piece together her story. She was a freshman. Studying engineering. Her roommate had already gone home for Christmas break but she had upcoming finals still, was afraid she was going to fail, that her parents would be upset with her.
Listening to her cry, to her choke out her story, her fear of failure, of disappointing her parents, I sat in the cold, my arm around this frightened crying girl, and wondered if we were doing a disservice to our youth, if we put them under too much pressure by not teaching them that sometimes it was okay to fail, that sometimes it is in an ending that we find our beginning, that dreams and goals change, replaced by new ones, that life isn’t an end game but an evolution.
“I’ll tell you a secret, “ I said, leaning in closer. “I failed calculus my freshman year. My parents were upset but you know what? I took it over the next semester and I got a ‘B.’ My roommate tutored me every night for an entire semester.”
I told her of my senior year when the pressure finally became too much and I, like a handful of tissues accidentally dropped into a puddle, came apart; I swallowed a handful of pills. I panicked, called my boyfriend, “Help me,” I said.
Too weak to stand on my own, I stood on the shoulders of others who held me, who walked for me until I could walk for myself.
“We’re strangers,” I said. “We heard you crying and we stopped to help. I’m sitting here in the cold and I hate being cold. Do you know why I’m here?”
She shook her head, no.
“Because we care. Other people care about you, too. Because you matter. You are more important than the fact that I am cold and tired. You are more important than any test score.”
Just then, a car pulled around the corner and stopped where we sat. Two women, a young girl and an older woman hoped out. “Anj?” the younger one said.
Angelica looked up at the sound of her name. The young girl was a classmate who lived off campus. Angelica had texted her before we arrived. We quickly filled them in on what we knew and that the police were on their way. They gathered close and we continued talking to Angelica. She quieted and stopped shaking. “You know the girl’s mother said, “You just have to hang in there. It gets better. It really does.”
By the time the cops arrived, two more of her friends, having heard news of her distress, had joined us on that corner.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?” one of the officers asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m afraid. I need help.”
It was decided she would ride with her friends and her friend’s mother and they would follow the cops to the nearest hospital. Before she got in the car, I hugged her, kissed the top of her head, and whispered, “You’re going to be okay Angelica. You did the right thing.”
And I believed that. I also believed she was a survivor and like all true survivors, she knew that true strength lay in the ability to ask for and accept help. She had asked for and accepted help. She would, I knew, eventually be fine.
As we walked home, I realized we’d stopped to help a stranger and I'd learned a few things in the process. I learned that despite our surface differences, I, a middle-aged, black gay man, had more in common with a frightened eighteen year old white girl than I would have imagined, that beneath our clothes, beneath our differences, beneath our skin, we are the same.
And I remembered why I loved Stanley, this man I have been with for nearly seventeen years: because he cares, because a stranger’s tears could awaken compassion, could make him act.