I’ve always had the habit of answering “I’ve been worse,” when people ask me how I’m doing. But this situation made it hard to realize just when I’d actually been worse.

In a brief period of time:

My girlfriend left me, and the very next day, before I could get a chance to make a case for reconciliation, she died in a car accident; my parents were killed in a car accident; the apartment building I lived in caught fire and was almost completely destroyed; and I lost my job, just after an expensive illness that drained my bank account.

Needless to say, that was a VERY difficult stretch. For weeks afterwards, I’d walk around in a daze, only barely aware of what was going on around me. I’d see couples together and their happiness would almost seem to mock me and my sadness. I’d see families together and THEIR happiness would mock my sadness over my mom and dad. Without a permanent address, I found it very hard to get a job, and without a job, I couldn’t pay rent. The “social service” agencies (the private ones; government is a joke) were all one big runaround, but by playing one off the other I did manage to eke out some kind of living after a while.

I was still feeling generally left out, though, as I watched people going about their daily lives. I began to notice that every day, at about the same time in the early evening, a particularly striking young woman would make her way down the street. A couple of times she saw me watching her and politely smiled at me but for the most part I didn’t make much of an impression.

One day, though, at the usual time that I saw her, she passed by me going in the opposite direction from her usual destination, moving much more slowly than usual. I glanced her face in passing and saw that her usual radiant smile was replaced by a profoundly sad expression. I felt bad for her, that something had given her reason to become acquainted with my old friend Sadness.

And then it happened.

I had been standing with my arms at my sides. As I watched the sad young woman walking slowly away, a soft hand gently slid into my right hand. It had been so long since I’d held any hand in mine that I just stood there basking in the sensation of someone’s touch, anyone’s touch, until it occurred to me an embarrassingly long time later (probably no more than a couple of minutes) to look next to me to see who had taken it upon herself to brighten up my day.

I knew it was correct to refer to this person as “herself” because the hand was smaller and softer than mine, and as far as I could tell the fingernails were long, or at least longer than mine. But when I looked next to me, I saw…

Nothing. Not a thing.

Surely I must have gone mad. I must have slipped around that bend and into insanity, so strongly wanting to experience the touch of a woman’s hand that my mind would just manufacture a hand out of thin air.

But despite what my eyes told me, or didn’t tell me, that there was no one there, I felt this hand in mine.

I didn’t scream. I was too scared.

I didn’t run. I was too scared.

In fact, I was too scared to do anything but follow a pure, unthinking reflex. The one thing that most people do when holding the hand of a loved one. Why this reflex overtook me when I didn’t know what I was holding, or what was holding me, or even if I had taken leave of my senses, I didn’t know, except that this was the only way I could think of to verify that it was really happening.

I squeezed.

Not an “I love you” squeeze, of course, because that would raise the question, “I love… who? Or what?”

It was more of an “are you really there?” squeeze. A “reassure me please” squeeze.
While I tried to fathom what manner of madness had taken hold of my mind, the hand squeezed back.

It squeezed back. “She” squeezed back!

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