On the guilt I can’t escape when I stop at red lights in Houston

Katarzyna Suchodolska (3rd place. Creative Nonfiction. Fall 2012 Writing Contest)
First, I look at the hands. Tanned and wrinkled, they often carry a sign:
On the road, Single mother, Veteran, God bless you.
I study their hands to avoid looking up, into their eyes. I’m sure they are used to that, to all those drivers carefully avoiding their eyes, drivers suddenly drawn to checking out their radios, inspecting the control lights on the dashboards, polishing their shiny cellphones. Not looking at their purses or bags though: don’t even pretend to organize it. It might be easily mistaken for searching for your wallet or loose change, and what if someone notices that move and you are left, securely locked up in your car but still, left with a pair of eyes so close that you can’t stand the guilt?
I should be used to them, too, the homeless men and women guarding the curbs around the city. You cannot get used to them, not in Houston, not driving through Midtown every day, each red light with at least one person sitting, walking, observing, ignoring, begging.

I should be used to them all: gypsies who would invade the early morning buses in Warsaw, accordions in one hand and sleepy babies in the other; half-intoxicated men with eyes so absent yet so piercing blue they make you shiver; tiny, hunchbacked women, their begging hands filled with rosaries.
I should be used to them, but I wasn’t. I am not. My first summer in Houston: me in a car, coming home from grocery shopping, waiting for the green light. The essence of my middle class life: clean car, public radio, organic produce. A man sits on the edge of the road; he looks young and healthy, just really sweaty under the Texas sun, unshaven and a little dirty. A big dog waits patiently next to him. They both wait. On the road, says the sign. On the road to where?
I roll down the window and the wave of humidity and heat hits me in the face. For a brief moment I think about closing the window and sinking further into the ice cold air inside my car. Maybe it’s the dog’s gentle black eyes that stopped me. Maybe it’s the memory of my own dog, put down few months earlier, his black eyes clouded with painkillers. I get my wallet and scan it for cash. I have only one bill—$20—and hesitate again. But it’s too late—the window is already open and the man is waiting right next to me. I hand him the bill. “For the dog,” I say. “For the dog,” he repeats. I drive away.

Anna Quintanna, A Transition Frequency

Anna Quintanna, A Transition Frequency

Unease stays with me for a while. I unpack my groceries: coconut milk yogurt I will throw away the next week; celery sticks I will try to convince myself to snack on while watching “Sister Wives”; candy bars I bought just because of the really pretty packaging. For a moment I convince myself I should fix the man some sandwiches and I do so; I eat them later.
Guilt that goes away eventually but always comes back. Not strongly enough to actually do something about it—to really make someone a sandwich or volunteer at a food bank. But just enough guilt to write a really bad poem about a man and his dog and how the man will spend my money on cheap vodka and the dog will die hungry anyway. Enough to feel bad about driving home with a trunk full of groceries. Enough to never look them in the eyes.
A day before I wrote this down, I stopped at the red light. I saw the hands. I locked the door. I read the sign: Single mom, anything helps, God bless you. I looked her in the eyes, smiled politely and nodded. And then I drove away, acknowledging her presence and my guilt.
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