Laura noticed him as she approached the ducks. He didn’t belong here in the fashion-conscious business district. His pink polyester shirt and worn pants would have clashed anywhere. His pants were at least one size too large, while his large arms stretched the fabric of his shirt sleeves. But he wasn’t homeless, or at least she didn’t think so: he was clean. Although he could use a hair cut and beard trim.
The other picnic tables were all crowded. He was sitting alone; she sat across from him. She considered going elsewhere, but it was rare that she got to eat outside the office. For once, her clients weren’t demanding her attention, so she’d grabbed a falafel sandwich at the Greek deli and headed to the ducks. No, not a duck pond, but statues near a set of picnic tables in a tiny park. None of the mess of actual ducks, but a pleasant retreat from her normal bustle.
It was even warm enough to eat outside. That was unusual for December, although perhaps not as unusual as when she was growing up. Snow was not likely this far south, but she remembered waking up to frosty Christmas mornings as a child. At least, she was warm enough in her sweater. The man must be uncomfortable in just his shirt.
Laura approached the table and asked “Mind if I join?” He shook his head. She sat and began eating.
She felt awkward sitting there without talking and said, “Hi. I’m Laura. We’re being awfully quiet.”
“Who are you?”
“I am so glad to have escaped from the office. It’s rare that I make it out into the fresh air. Isn’t it nice here?”
He frowned as if he might disagree, paused with his brow creased, then said, “Yes! You’re right. It is nice to be out here in the fresh air.”
She grinned and with her voice slightly lowered said, “So, you can tell me. Where are you escaping from?”
He stiffened and glared. “I didn’t escape. They released me!” He stood to leave.
Laura was confused. “Wait! I just meant what would you be doing if you weren’t out in the fresh air? I’d be at a desk helping people manage their money.”
Ralph continued to glare. “This morning I was in a medium security prison. I was released today.”
Laura spluttered, “Oh God! I’m so sorry. My friends say I have a gift for sticking my foot in my mouth. I had no idea; please don’t leave.”
“I thought you guessed from the clothes.”
“I noticed them, but no. And here I’ve pried into what isn’t my business. Is that what you wore inside?”
Ralph sat down, although he was wound tight as if he might spring up at any moment. “No. They give you whatever they have on-hand when you are released. They must get donations from a thrift store or something.”
“So what are your plans? Where are you going to live? To work?”
“Damn, lady, you’re good with that foot. I guess that was an accidental barb too?”
“Oh! I’m sorry. I just thought you would have some plans. Is there something safer to talk about?”
He laughed bitterly. “Ah, hell, might as well tell someone. It’s not like I’ll ever see you again. I thought I had it all worked out. My friend was going to give me a place to stay. He’d give me a reference, and we had even lined up a few places I could apply for work.”
“Well, what he didn’t tell me is that he hadn’t asked his girlfriend,” Ralph said. “The first I heard of that was a couple of months ago when he said that he was running into trouble convincing her I’d be a good house guest.”
“Did he win her over?”
“Not as you’d notice. He wrote me a week ago to let me know that she insisted he drop all contact with me. She didn’t want to worry about someone unsafe in his life. He was sure I could work something out because he knew I was resourceful and dedicated.”
Laura gulped. What do you say to something like that? she thought. She had no idea how she should feel, but wanted to show concern and interest. “That’s horrible. How do you feel?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“That’s big. I have no idea how I’d feel if that was dropped on me. I mean I know I wouldn’t be happy, but...”
“Yeah, I don’t know either. It’s just another thing. Just another way I don’t matter.”
“Of course you matter!” she said.
“To who? You?”
“Yeah! You didn’t know I even existed before you sat down. An hour from now you’ll have forgotten me.”
Laura didn’t have anything to say to that. He was right that she just met him. She had heard that life after prison was challenging, but hadn’t thought about why before now. “Would it help to talk over options and see if you can find something? Perhaps you can show your friend that yes, you are resourceful.”
Ralph laughed again. “No, it won’t help, but we can try.”
“So, can you live at a halfway house?”
“They all have months-long waiting lists. Not like they are safe or clean either.”
“I know it isn’t great, but what about looking into the homeless shelters until you find a job?”
“I’ll do what I have to do. It won’t look good for my parole officer to find out I’m homeless.”
Laura continued to propose options. She was pleased he genuinely wanted to find a solution. She was disappointed that they didn’t find anything particularly useful before she needed to return to work.
As she collected her trash to leave, Ralph looked at her with curiosity. “You didn’t even ask if I did it!”
“Did what?” Laura asked in confusion.
“If I was guilty.”
Laura turned back from the trash can to face him. “It never crossed my mind. It’s not supposed to matter once you’re done, is it?”
Ralph shook his head in bewilderment.
Laura spent the afternoon thinking about her encounter over lunch. She wanted to tell someone. Her opportunity came when she wondered past the break room and spotted Paul from her department. As she entered, her friend Linda came into sight by the coffee pot.
Laura had just finished her description of the events at the ducks. “The thing that frustrates me most,” Laura said, “is how powerless I was.”
“What do you mean?” Paul asked.
“There was nothing I could do to help him. You’re supposed to do your time and get a second chance. It’s like he’s come out and all they will sell him is bad debt. Even though both of us knew what was going on, we couldn’t fix it!”
“Yeah, the prison system is broken,” Linda said. “There’s nothing one person can do against something that big.”
“But I couldn’t even help him. Ignore the bigger problem. I can’t even help one man!”
“You talked with him like he mattered,” Linda said. “That probably helped.”
“There should be more.”
“Laura, it’s not like you could just take him home,” Paul said.
Laura blinked. “You know ... I didn’t even think of that.”
“Because that would be crazy!”
“It could end badly.”
Laura raised her hands against the onslaught. “Relax. I’m not saying I would. I just didn’t even think—” She took a deep breath. “Although, seriously. It’s risky. But if I took up sky diving, you’d think I was brave and eccentric.”
“I don’t know about eccentric. I think that would be kind of cool,” Paul said.
“OK, fine. You wouldn’t think I was crazy. Why would bringing Ralph to my house for a few days be so unthinkable?”
“Your reputation matters,” Linda said. “People would think you were impulsive and emotional. You need to appear steady and rational. It would undermine your credibility.”
“What Linda said. You might get killed and raped,” Paul said.
“I’m not sure I like having my life decided by what other people think of me,” Laura said.
“It’s the world we live in,” Linda responded.
Laura wasn’t so sure she’d accept such a world, although it wasn’t as if she’d actually done anything to fight it.
Beyond the incident itself, she couldn’t get Ralph out of her mind. He was so strong, but closed off in a defensive shell. Most of his words had been barbs designed to drive people away. She didn’t think he rejected people so much as feared their judgments. She wondered what he’d be like if she could crack his shell—what he’d be like if his inner strength could break through that defensive perimeter.
Morbidly, she researched his chances that evening. She realized that if she wanted to see him again, she knew where to look: around 80% of convicts ended up in prison again within six months. Though, there were probably a lot of Ralphs in the state system, if that was his real name. The only good news, if it could be called that, is that she doubted his parole officer would care much if he ended up in a shelter. If anything, the officer would probably be surprised if he didn’t.
The conversation in the break room continued to disturb her. Yes, taking in someone like Ralph was risky. Most former inmates turned to drugs or alcohol. She suspected the risks related to being close to an addict were much greater than the actual chance of being murdered. Theft was another concern. Still, as she knew well from her clients, people are dreadful at evaluating risk. The risks were real, but she was convinced that the danger of social condemnation was what drove people’s decisions. People didn’t help because it was “wrong” to help. By acting, she’d be pulling the problem out of the carefully contained boxes of the homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and volunteer organizations. She’d be taking someone into her life, which was far too close to the lives of her friends and associates. If it were reasonable for her to help, it might be reasonable for others to help too—their decisions would no longer be so easy.
Laura decided she would have none of that last. If she faced a similar situation in the future, she’d make her decision based on the real risk not the social consequences. There was no shame in choosing to be safe. However, for herself, Laura realized she did feel sharp disappointment in not even considering acting.
Laura saw him again two days later walking along the Route 1 access road near Western. She almost missed him and committed to the on-ramp, but with cars honking behind her, she changed lanes at the last instant to stay on the access road. Fate had given her another chance; she would not waste it. She pulled up next to him and rolled down the passenger window. “Ralph! It is good to see you.”
The two days had not been kind: he was grubby and haggard. The same mismatched clothes were now greasy and wrinkled.
“Who...” he said, a puzzled expression crossing his face. “You, the nosy lawyer lady from the ducks?”
“Financial planner, but close enough. Have you got yourself settled?”
“What does it look like? Of course not.”
Laura’s subconscious had taken full advantage of the intervening time. Yes, there were risks. Murder didn’t seem all that realistic, but if he chose to overpower her, he probably would. She’d taken some self defense classes, but size and strength matter a lot. He had a good seven inches on her, and his arms weren’t straining the shirt with excess fat. Even so, she didn’t think people—not even most felons—went around raping and killing people who were helping them. No matter how much she tried to focus on the risks and convince herself there was nothing she could do, she wished she had offered help. Now she was given that chance.
As these thoughts raced through Laura’s head, Ralph turned to leave. “Wait!” Laura said. He paused, not quite turning back, but his weight no longer balanced on his front foot.
“Please, get in. I’d like to help. You could stay at my house for a few days and—”
He turned back and laughed. “You’re crazy! For all you know I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
“But will you?”
“No. But look, you don’t want me around. I did it—I’m guilty. I could hurt you too.”
A chill ran through Laura. If his temper was uncontrollable the risks were too high. “Are you saying not to trust you? Do you get violent?”
“No! I’m saying people like you don’t want to mix with people like me.”
“I’ll thank you to let me judge that!” She took a deep breath. “Would I be safe around you?”
“Yes! But that’s not the point.”
“Yes it is. I can offer help where I want, and I choose to offer it here.”
Another car honked as it passed her. She continued, “If you don’t need or want help, that’s your choice.”
“Of course I need help,” he growled.
“Is there someone you’d rather take it from than me?”
He blinked, started to speak, and frowned. He began again. “I guess not. Probably better get in before one of those drivers gets angry and I get blamed.” He reached to open her passenger door, but it was still locked.
“Oops. Try now.” This time, the door opened, and Ralph hesitantly got in her car. “This is a bad idea,” he said.
She pulled out and headed for the next on-ramp.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I guess for giving me another chance to help you ... and for accepting the help.”
“You’re thanking me for helping me?”
“I’ve been really frustrated since we met at the ducks. I didn’t even consider giving you a place to stay.”
“You’ve been frustrated?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes. I’m sure you’ve been much more frustrated. I’m not denying your feelings, but yes, I feel frustrated when I’d like to help someone and fail.”
He nodded grudgingly.
“When I thought about it I realized that shame stopped me from offering you a place. My fear of others’ reactions stopped me, not concerns about safety.”
“They’d be right.”
“So, there’s risk in everything we do. I’ve thought about this a lot. What’s ahead of you will not be easy, but when you really connect with people, not that many will be true jerks. I’ve heard stories of pimps helping people find their hotels and hardened gangsters helping out little kids.”
By this point she’d left the highway and was stuck at a red light. She caught Ralph’s eye and continued, “So are you going to be one of the few who is a jerk to those who reach out to you? I’ll take your word if you say yes. Hurting me isn’t necessary to establish your jerk cred.”
“No!” He considered. “Wait, you want a real answer?”
“Yes. Should I trust you?”
He thought. By this point they were moving again. “I get angry, not as bad as some of the others, but probably more than I did before. Never hurt anyone out of anger though. It’s going to be hard. But no, I don’t see myself as that kind of jerk.”
“That’s settled then.”
“But look. You can’t believe someone about whether to trust them. That makes no sense.”
“Then who can you believe? At least you know you. Sure, if you’re a sociopath, I’ll regret this. But tell me this, if nobody trusts you, then how do things ever get better?”
“They don’t. That’s obvious.”
“See, that’s no good. I want a world where there is a better answer, and so I’m starting right here.”
“You can’t just change the world because you want to.”
He threw up his hands in exasperation. “OK, you win. You’re crazy.”
She smiled as she turned onto 39th Street. “My condo is just a block away.”
She pulled into her parking spot and grabbed her briefcase. She walked to the condominium and opened the door for Ralph, motioning him ahead of her.
“This is the kitchen. That,” she said pointing, “is the dining nook.”
She motioned Ralph ahead of her. “In here is the sofa and TV. Through there is the bedroom and bathroom. Would you like to shower?” As she described her condo, Laura realized that she should have stopped on the way to get a sleeping bag or air mattress. She had focused on the grand ideal of what she might have been able to do without thinking through how it would work in practice. She only had the one bedroom.
“The bedroom? Does that sofa fold out?”
“No. I should have stopped on the way to get something.”
Ralph shook his head in astonishment. “You invited a strange man to your place and you don’t even have a plan for the sleeping arrangements?”
“Yes,” she said laughing.
Ralph’s lips quirked up into a grin. “Wow. OK, just to make one thing very clear. From the look on your face I doubt this was your plan, but I am not trading sex for a place to stay. I haven’t stooped that far yet.”
Laura shook her head vigorously. She thought she might find Ralph attractive if he managed to be less prickly. However she was absolutely not going to take advantage of someone in his position. “No! Please believe me, it all happened so suddenly, and I failed to think it through.”
“Oh, I do,” he said chuckling. “I will take you up on that shower. Have anything I could put on after?”
“Let me see,” Laura said as she stepped past him to examine her closet. Her shirts and pants were hopeless. That stretchy skirt might work, but she wasn’t about to suggest that. The bath robe was the best she was going to find.
“I have this. I doubt pink is really your color, but is it really worse than your shirt?”
He laughed. “Well it is kind of bright. But I’m not complaining, and it feels soft.”
“I do have in-unit laundry, so we can wash what you have.”
“That’s nice,” he said. He entered the bathroom and closed the door. Soon she heard running water.
Laura’s heart pounded. There was a strange felon in her bathroom. She knew nothing about him except that he told her he wouldn’t be a jerk. Yet while her heart was pounding now, the thought of not helping had been worse. Rage and anger had filled her. She would not—could not—be part of the world that condemned helping people.
The only thing worse than that rage was facing the fear and shame of what everyone would think when she told them. That was a punch to the gut—constricted breathing and full-on panic. All through her life, Laura had been guided by social expectations. Fear of doing poorly in school had helped her do well. She’d chosen her job in part because her family and friends would be proud. Now it felt like she was throwing that away.
She had tried to convince herself that it was too risky so she could conform with an easy conscience. Her best bet for that had been considering the possibility of rape. She’d never faced rape or sexual abuse, but you couldn’t be sexually active without running into misunderstandings about consent once or twice. Even small things hurt a lot. Even now, she faced pain from some of those incidents.
What would it be like to face something truly horrible? She did know a number of rape survivors. They had, after a number of years, managed to put their lives back together. The scars were deep and ever-present, but she knew it was possible to face abuse and to rebuild the ability to face intimacy.
Am I really willing to face all that in order to live in a world where one more person offers help? Her answer, having pondered the problem over the past two days was yes. Now with him actually in her condo, she hoped her resolve was sufficient to the reality of the situation.
Crap! I really ought to tell someone what’s going on before he gets out of the shower. She wanted to manage the risks as much as possible. If her friends knew what was going on, and if Ralph knew her friends knew, she’d be safer. If she could, she might as well get it all out of the way at once. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and composed a post to her social media sites. She stood, gripped by her fear, her words dancing before her eyes, until the sounds of running water stopped. In the last instant before the door opened, she tapped ‘post.’
“You OK?” Ralph asked as he emerged from the bathroom, covered by her pink robe.
“I will be. I just sent out a post to my socials saying I was helping the guy I met at the ducks and that he was at my place.”
“What for? You’ll never live that down.”
“I know. Two things. First, I wouldn’t keep it in; I might as well get it out of the way. Second, and I hope you won’t take this the wrong way. I don’t think the risk is too high, but there is risk. I’m safer if people know what’s up. There’s almost certainly security camera footage of us at the ducks or on the road today.”
“That’s actually a little bit smart,” he said.
“You’re not angry I’m hedging my bet a little?”
He shook his head.
Laura offered to cut Ralph’s hair while his clothes were washing. She sat him in one of her kitchen chairs. The experience was sensuous. Running her fingers through his wet hair seemed to calm them both. She was startled he smelled like her until she realized he’d used her shampoo. By the time she was done, his shoulders had relaxed.
“When your clothes dry, we should go shopping,” she said. “You need more than one outfit, and I’m sure we can find something that fits better. You probably have a lot of other things you need like toiletries. I should pick up an air mattress and some bedding.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“I figured that. Do you even have an ID?”
“Yes, but it’s expired.”
“Right, so you’ll be dealing with that before you can even apply for a job.”
“Oh, hell. I hadn’t even thought of that.”
“I’ll give you the support you need to have a chance.”
“Why? Why are you doing all this?”
“Because everyone has dignity. Everyone should be treated with respect; our basic humanity is valuable.”
He laughed bitterly. “I doubt dignity like that would last a day inside. Certainly not a week.”
“Yeah, I’d probably break fairly fast. Just because you’ve forgotten your dignity (or had it beaten out of you) doesn’t make you less deserving. When that happens you need someone else to step up and remind you that you matter. You have value.”
“And who gave you that job?” His calm tone and faint smile softened what could have been a sharp remark.
She chuckled. “Did you see anyone else stepping up?”
“The world would be a better place with more people like you. At least until you all got ground up and spat out.”
“Let’s try and avoid that part.”
The next morning, Linda cornered Laura at work.
“What were you thinking?” she asked.
Laura responded, “I want to live in a world where it’s OK to just go out and help someone. I want to live in a world where it’s OK to trust strangers.”
“But it’s not!”
“Most people are good. They try their best.”
“Sure. But it only takes a few to make it not worth it.”
“Shouldn’t I get to decide that for me?”
Linda asked, “What are you going to do if you get hurt?”
Laura inhaled deeply. “I have thought about that. I guess I put myself back together as best I can. I try to be safe, watch for danger signs, but yes there’s risk.”
“You wouldn’t say that if it had ever happened to you. It hasn’t been easy.”
Her too? It seems like everyone has been hurt and scarred by somebody. “Linda, you might be right. I do know others who have gone through that. I’ve listened and paid attention. I know it’s really hard. I even tried to convince myself the risk was too high. I just don’t believe that. From where I am now I’d rather get hurt in a world where people open up to each other. I’d like to try to create that. But yes, I might feel differently if I personally had been ... hurt.”
Linda sighed. “I care about you. I’m worried.”
“I understand. Look, if you want to be there for me, there is something you could do.”
“If I do ... if something happens, can you listen and not say ‘I told you so?’ Can you be there for me?”
Linda opened her arms. “Yes! I’d never ... I have your back. I think we all have your back here, but I know I do.”
“And ... if it works out well, I won’t gloat or anything, but will you share my happiness?”
Linda smiled. “I’d love to be wrong. I’d love to hear about how you helped someone and gave them a second chance.”
“Thanks! That means so much.”
Linda was far from the only friend who thought Laura was making a big mistake. The gossip on the social sites and at work suggested she had entirely taken leave of her senses. Her manager even called Laura in to discuss the situation. He said he wanted to make it clear that the company had no opinion on who she helped, but he wanted to take a few minutes of her time to review her duty in protecting confidential information and the security of her clients.
Laura thought the advice could have been good. She had taken similar steps herself: moving all but one credit card to the office and installing extra security on her computer. But her manager was too sanctimonious about the whole thing.
Over the next few days, Ralph and Laura began dealing with the things standing in the way of his reintegration back into society.
Absolutely every bureaucracy showed a complete disregard for the realities facing those recently released from prison. His parole officer was across town in an area not served by any bus line. Of course Ralph couldn’t drive: he had neither valid license nor car. Getting a bank account, phone, and health insurance all proved difficult.
Still, together, they worked through the system. They developed an easy familiarity and comfort.
“Oh, let’s see what we have here. Mail from the insurance company,” she said.
“They’re probably complaining that they got the wrong paperwork,” he said.
Once Laura would have thought this was part of his defensive shell. Once it might have been. Now it was just the humor they shared. “What? The paperwork the state sends out for every new policy is the wrong kind?”
“Because they’d drown in complaints.” She quickly tore opened the envelope and began to read its contents. She frowned. “This is ridiculous! They didn’t accept your residency claim because you didn’t include a driver’s license number. But that’s not actually required information if you ... No, looks like you’re right, they don’t accept the state paperwork. How did you know?”
He laughed. “I didn’t know. Figured on betting something would go wrong.”
She sighed. “I think I’m past betting against you on that.”
“Soon you’ll admit it. There is no dignity.”
She put down the mail she was sorting and turned to look at him earnestly. “No. Your dignity is something you’re always entitled to. That’s true no matter how many people try to crush you. It’s true no matter how many times you forget and lose sight of your value. You are always entitled to reclaim it.”
Sadness crossed her face. “Although I never imagined it could be this bad. I will not judge you when you forget ... when you let them get to you. I admire you for getting this far.”
“Thanks. I really mean that.”
Laura smiled. She had finally gotten him to believe she meant what she was saying about intrinsic worth. She didn’t know if he’d ever come to see things the same way, but at least he now understood she was sharing something important to her, hoping he would grow stronger.
He said, “I may be reminding you of that before we’re done with the driver’s license.”
“That damned driver’s license! I can’t recall when I’ve been so humiliated in my entire life.”
Everything came back to the damned driver’s license. He couldn’t work without some sort of state ID. He couldn’t get a bank account without one. Even things like phone and insurance that seemed vaguely possible without an ID were greatly simplified if he had an ID.
Getting an ID—even a driver’s license—was simple if you had a job, a bank account or a residence. None of the accepted proofs of address were things that Ralph could provide. She’d even offered to change her gas into his name so he could provide a utility bill with his address on it. Things were looking good until the gas company demanded his state ID number.
In desperation, Laura had searched for advice for homeless people obtaining IDs. All you needed to do, according to the “simple” instruction on the state website, was get a letter from the case manager at the homeless shelter where you lived. The website helpfully noted there wasn’t even a specific form you had to use. Although, the letter needed to demonstrate that the case manager knew the applicant long enough, be on official letterhead, and meet several other legal requirements. The website cheerfully pointed out that failure to meet any of these requirements would be grounds for rejection.
Of course Ralph didn’t have a case manager or a shelter. Laura wondered whether all shelters even had case managers. She wrote a letter as his landlord and roommate. She’d gone in with him and the letter, taking time off from work. It had not gone well. She’d been told in no uncertain terms that she did not have the standing of a case manager. She hadn’t quite been accused of fraud directly. However the strong implication had been that tramps who abuse the system to gain advantage for their looser boyfriends risk trouble for themselves. The word tramp had actually been used, although it had been left as an open question whether that applied to her.
Ralph had held her while she cried. She felt guilty because he was the one being denied an ID, but she was not used to being treated with such disrespect. He thought it was par for the course.
She got the idea one Friday after dinner. It started innocently enough discussing plans for the next day.
“I need to go Christmas shopping,” she said. “Do you need to buy anything for anyone?”
“I don’t think so. I’d like to get you something, but not with your money.”
“What are you going to do for the actual holiday? I’ll be away with my family. Who will you spend it with?”
By this point, they knew each other well enough that all he had to do was look at her expectantly. “I’ve done it again?” she asked. He nodded.
She said, “One of these days, I’ll manage to not stick my foot in my mouth.”
He grinned. “Perhaps if your mouth is taped shut.”
He spluttered. “Do you have to turn everything into innuendo?”
“If you’re that easy to tease and embarrass, you can hardly blame me. But seriously, is there someone you’d like to see in another part of the country? I think I have enough airline miles saved up.”
“Damn, lady, two in a row! But no, even if I had the ID, there isn’t anyone.”
“Well then, you’ll just have to come with me and visit my family.”
“Would I be welcome?”
“I ... think so? I don’t see why not, but I’d rather not disappoint you like your friend. Let me call.”
She called from her room. As it turned out, her mother was not comfortable with Ralph. “Honey, he’s a felon. You’ve known him for less than two weeks. No, you can’t bring him.”
The idea itself hit then: she would give Ralph a Christmas. “Then I cannot come either.”
She heard her mom draw in a breath.
“Mom, hold on a sec before you yell. I’m not angry; this is not spite. I think he should have a Christmas, and if it can’t be there, I’ll give him one here.”
By the end of the conversation, her mother’s feathers were somewhat smoothed. Laura and Ralph were on their own for the holiday.
She went out into the kitchen to find Ralph. “New plan,” she said, “we’re having Christmas here.”
“Mom was uncomfortable with us coming and so I decided that I can give you Christmas here.”
“You mean she was uncomfortable with me. Look, Laura, family is important. You can’t go off in a snit just because they’re uncomfortable.”
“I’m not. I think my mom even understands that. I just decided that I want you to feel welcome and to have a real holiday.”
“You’re crazy. Don’t disrupt your plans for me.”
A smile played across her face. “Did that work last time when you told me not to give you a place to stay?”
“No! But look ... what will I do for you? This can’t be one-sided.”
“You can be gracious! It is rewarding doing something nice for someone else. Yes I know it will be harder to just accept this with grace than to buy or make something. I also know you’ll need to contribute. It’s clear you’re the better cook, so you handle dinner.”
“See here ... I ... I’ll make a really nice dinner. Thank you.”
Ralph was surprised when a smiling Laura reached out and hugged him. He stood stiffly for a moment and then relaxed into her embrace. “I’m sure that wasn’t what you started to say,” she said. “I know accepting this is hard. Thank you.”
That night, Laura began to plan. I’m giving him a life, or as much of one as I can, she thought. Much of the bureaucratic work they were already doing could be included in his Christmas, although now she had a deadline.
Of course she would also get him some nice clothes and some music. He liked football and baseball. It was too late in the football season to afford tickets on short notice, but she could at least get a good sports subscription for the TV.
Over the next week, everything started to come together. Her brother, Oscar, provided the breakthrough for the damned driver’s license. In a fit of frustration, Laura told him about the visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Oscar glared. “That’s complete crap. Look, I’m not the right kind of lawyer for this, and I couldn’t take you as a client anyway, but I can bash some heads together and get something moving. I can write very good lawyerly letters for my sister.”
“You bash heads together by writing letters?”
“Yes. I learned that in law school.”
Eventually Ralph’s parole officer agreed to sign the letter Oscar had written. “I’m not required to do this as part of my job,” he said grumbling.
“No, of course not. But you are permitted to do so and it will help Ralph a lot,” Oscar responded. The parole officer seemed unconvinced that helping someone was adequate justification. Laura thought he’d signed simply to get them out of his office.
The letter did the trick and the DMV assured Ralph that his license would eventually arrive, but they were able to provide the all-important driver’s license number immediately.
Christmas was only two days away and Laura was nervous. Almost everything was ready. The driver’s license and phone had arrived. Ralph knew they were on their way, although she didn’t think he knew they were wrapped and ready for him Christmas morning. He didn’t know about the clothes, the new wallet, the resume writing service, or any of the other presents.
She looked forward to Christmas dinner. They had finished shopping and Ralph was excited about his plan.
She struggled with one last item. The night she decided to give Ralph a life for Christmas, she spent some time brainstorming what the elements of a good life were. Some things like a steady job were outside her control. She could help him look but not guarantee an offer. Toward the bottom of that first page of notes, she had written ‘physical intimacy.’ She’d almost crossed it out right then. But she hadn’t crossed out ‘job’ even though she couldn’t give him that. So she’d left it, assuming that like the job, these things were simply not hers to give.
Yet she kept coming back to intimacy. With horror she realized it was years since Ralph had last been with anyone. Touch and connection mattered to her. She couldn’t imagine spending years without the company of a lover. For him it was worse: no one to hold him and tell him it would all be OK, no one to cuddle with, and not even anyone to give him hugs. She’d been working on the hugs at least.
There was interest between them. The less he tried to drive her away, the hotter he became. He was well muscled and rough in the way she liked. He was endearingly modest compared to her recent lovers.
She knew the interest was mutual. She had caught him looking a few times. She responded by posing for him; she was all for flirting. He was acutely embarrassed when she noticed.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” he said when she caught him just this morning.
She grinned at him. “You didn’t mean to? Really?”
“Well ... I shouldn’t have. I’ll be more careful in the future.”
“Careful to look only when you’re sure I won’t notice?” By this point the smile covered her entire face. “Am I going to have to buy extra mirrors to make it easier for you? It’s OK Ralph. I’m flattered, and I trust you to ask before you touch.” And she realized that by now, she did trust him. Her fears of the first few days had faded over time.
She struggled to admit to herself that she was going to seduce Ralph. She didn’t know how he would take it. She didn’t want him to think that she was helping him just so she could jump him. He had nowhere to go if things worked out badly between them. So she would need to be careful to avoid putting him in an awkward position.
She was worried about what he would think of her—about whether they were compatible sexually. She’d worked hard getting comfortable with her body and sex. Her recent lovers were fairly liberal. They were past a lot of the shame around enjoying sex. She suspected that Ralph was more traditional. He might view it as his job to be doing the seducing. She wondered how he would react to a sexually open woman. And his modesty, while endearing, might clash with her openness and comfort.