“You’re such a good girl.”
He used to think that it was funny, in a bitter-sweet kind of way. I was sixteen, or it was my birthday, and I had never been kissed. Never had a boyfriend. I didn’t wear makeup, and my usual outfit consisted of a baggy sweatshirt and torn blue jeans.
I was sixteen, and I had a newspaper route.
That was how I met him.
He would come out of his garage to see me, the old man, or from the side door of his brick bungalow. I would pull up to the house on my bike, open the painted door to the old milk box, painted pale yellow to match the trim around the doors and window, and inevitably, he would come out. Sometimes, I saw him watching for me from the kitchen window.
“If you ever have a fight with your parents and you need a place to stay…”
I had decided on the newspaper route two years earlier. It seemed like an easy way to make some spending money, while getting exercise. The only downside was meeting the deadline every day, and delivering admail every second Friday. Otherwise, it was an easy gig. Aside from the odd grumpy dog, or the embarrassment of seeing someone my age who clearly wondered what the hell I was doing delivering newspapers when I should be shoveling burgers or peddling clothing like others in their teens, I liked it.
It was my half hour, or more, of peace after school each day. Time to daydream, as I walked down the four block route. I had a residential road with many retirees, like him, who had beautiful gardens and well-kept homes. The better ones were on the east side, facing the lake. They often had docks, and maybe one or two had beaches. I would imagine owning one of them, but I could never decide whether it would be better to back onto water, or onto the bike trail that ran along the old railway to the west. The bushes were high enough that those backyards had privacy, but I knew there were pools back there.
“Why don’t you bring your friends over for a pool party? I’m not going to try anything, you know. You probably think I’m some kind of dirty old man. But I’m not.”
He was lonely. I could see it in his eyes. The stoop of his shoulders under the brown cardigan, or the grey. He had a sense of the dramatic, too, which I enjoyed, in a way. The way he would stand in his garage, perfectly still, as the wide metal door slowly levered open in one big piece. Or, how he would slowly open the door as I popped the newspaper in the mailbox. His back would straighten as he smiled at me. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable, but neither did I feel threatened. We’d chat. His eyes would light up as he asked about my day. And I would move on after an appropriate interval. I had made a lonely old man feel better.
“What are you doing biking in the rain? Put your bike in here, I’ll drive you.”
I knew my boundaries. The first few times he offered to drive me down the block, I politely declined. But there came a day, one early spring, when the clear sky turned to sleet, and with freezing hands and damp hair I accepted the ride. After that, when the weather was bad, allowing the old man to chauffeur me became a relief. Not often, but enough. My parents thought it was sweet.
“I really like talking to you. You make me feel young again.”
I no longer remember our exact conversations, but I remember his house. There was a billiard table in the basement. The kitchen had yellow cupboards, and the living room was tastefully decorated, very clean, and there were doilies. He was married. His wife, he’d told me, had not been affectionate toward him in years. I knew, somehow, that this was not something an old man should be sharing with a young girl.
But, being polite, I said nothing.
“I’m going to miss you, you know.”
Tall, gangly, my body often felt more boyish than feminine. I’m not sure when I allowed him to give me a hug. It might have been as simple as a squeeze on my shoulder when he gave me my bi-weekly newspaper money. Certainly, when I got my driver’s license. But when I made my last delivery before a week’s break, while I went on a field trip to the States, he hugged me tightly. I knew I had a place in his lonely world and that I made him happy.
I shouldn’t have accepted his next offer.
I knew I shouldn’t have, that my parents would not have approved and would still be shocked that I did.
Sixteen years old, never been kissed. I was greedy for the world.
One of my customers on that route had been an Olympic boxer; he’d shown me his gold medal, in pride of place on a glass shelf in his professionally appointed basement exercise room.
One of my customers caught me talking to myself as I daydreamed aloud, but aside from a raised eyebrow, never bothered me about this curious habit.
One of my customers offered me five hundred dollars to take on my field trip.
Five hundred dollars.
The old man drove me to his bank, my bicycle left safely in his garage, and as I stood by his side, withdrew the money in the form of traveller’s cheques. So I could have a comfortable, enjoyable trip. I didn’t need it. It was a gift.
“I can’t keep this.”
Wary of neighbours, not wanting anyone to think the wrong thing, the old man had never closed the door while we were inside. How could I take this money? I knew it was not the right thing to do, but still, I kept it.
In truth, having the extra money, which I had not earned and did not deserve, made my trip much easier. I didn’t have to worry about keeping enough aside for each meal. I was able to buy souvenirs. I bought him a small hanging ornament made of painted clay, and a hook to display it. It was a little thank you to him.
He laughed when I gave it to him.
He had tears in his eyes when he gave it back, some time later.
Was it weeks?
“I can’t keep this,” he told me, softly. His hands trembled as he gently placed the ornament I had bought for him, using the money he’d given me, into my palm and closed my fingers over it. “I look at it, and it makes me…want you.”
I didn’t know what to say. So I let him talk.