First Steps

The next morning Cara and I shared a silent breakfast of oatmeal with dried fruit and cinnamon before taking an even more silent walk to meet up with her friends on the way to school. Normally the girls would greet us boisterously, with yelled greetings from half a block away, but they must have sensed our tension as they settled for shy waves and curious eyes.

I arrived at Doug and Gary’s without stopping for my usual hot chocolate and went right to work on the stationary bike. My knuckles were feeling less beat up so I hit the free weights afterward for the first time in nearly two weeks. It felt good to curl, pull and push the iron around, like I was regaining lost masculinity.

By the end of my workout I could tell I had pushed myself too hard, that I would pay for it the next morning, so I took an excessively long, extremely hot shower. The heat turned my muscles to rubber, made me forget that my daughter wanted me to die a bachelor, and caused me to feel more than a little lightheaded.

I stumbled from the shower stall, wrapped a towel around my body and rested my forehead against the sweating ceramic tiled wall. I breathed deeply, waited for the mist to clear from my head and wondered if I was getting too old for this nonsense.

“Are you okay?” I didn’t recognize the voice but the words were thickly coated with an unfamiliar accent so I wasn’t surprised when I turned my head to find Alex Denis standing a few feet away. The white towel wrapped around his waist contrasted starkly against his black skin; I almost felt like I was staring at a living, breathing piano key.

“Yeah, just got a bit too hot in there,” I said as I slowly pushed myself off the wall. “Thanks for asking.”

“No problem man,” he said with a shy smile and disappeared into the shower stall to his left. I moved gingerly to my locker and pulled out a clean change of clothes. I had just shrugged on my jacket when Denis came dripping into the room.

“My name is Alexandre Denis,” he said with an outstretched hand. “But everybody calls me Alex.”

“Nathaniel McDaniel,” I replied as I took his hand. I was glad to see his grip was gentle – only insecure boys try to crush your fingers. A confident man who knows he can handle himself has nothing to prove to anyone, so he doesn’t play that juvenile game. “But most everybody calls me Nate. How long have you been in Vancouver?”

“Almost three weeks now – I like it very much. So clean and peaceful, not like Port-au-Prince, where I come from… but it is good to be in another harbor city.”

“Planning on staying for a while?” I asked and took a long drink from my water bottle.

“I can never go back to Haiti.” A mix of anger and sadness flashed across his features before he turned to face his locker. “Once I have made enough money I will pay for my mother and sister to join me here.”

“But not your father?” I don’t know why I asked; I was aware of the conditions in his home country, a place in which the United Nations considered the human rights situation to be “catastrophic.” The answer was unlikely to be a happy one.

“He died last year… he survived Papa Doc’s reign only to be shot dead in the street for a few dollars and the shoes on his feet.” His hands clenched into fists, the muscles across his shoulders tensed, and I took a half step back. “I will get my mother and sister out of that hellhole before the same can happen to them.”

I stared at the floor and remained silent. It’s sad that the moments in which you appreciate how lucky you’ve really been are the ones which bring you face to face with the worst this world has to offer.

“How old are you?” Too young to carry such memories, I knew that much.

“Twenty-two.”

“When I was your age,” I said quietly, “I lost my mother. She was crossing the street when she was struck by a drunk driver. My father was not made to live this life without her… he followed after her within a year.” I paused, looked up. “It’s not easy being on your own so young, is it?”

“No, it is not,” Alex said as he turned to face me, his eyes like two smoldering bonfires, “but we do what we must to survive and we cannot be stopped. Failure is not an option, so we keep moving forward. So I will fight and fight and fight until the day comes that I can buy my family a safe future.”

We stared into each other’s eyes for three short breaths, the bond of shared tragedy solidifying between us, and suddenly the words were out of my mouth before I knew what was happening.

“When’s your first fight?”

“I don’t have anything lined up yet,” he replied, his face falling slightly. Fallen, but not defeated.

“A good friend of mine in Victoria is putting on an event in two weeks – I could make a call and see if he has any spots still open. If you want.”

“I would appreciate that. Very much.”

“I’ll let you know tomorrow morning,” I said with a nod and turned away. I needed fresh air; my head was starting to spin again but this time it had nothing to do with an overheated shower.

I felt like I had taken a blind step down a path I wasn’t sure I wanted to be travelling on.

The End

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