It is the mornings I love most, when I can feel hopeful. My best days start when I slip out of the shelter early, walking to one of the many ethnic parts of the city, waiting for the shop owners to start their day. It is a practice I started while I was stationed in Europe. Loving the moment the shops would spring to life; owners turning on light after light, and the sound of the broom on the concrete as the doorways were spruced up for the advent of customers.
Today I watch the German bakery start to stir, but I am careful before I approach. When it is the woman who manages in the morning, I know I will be greeted. She may not say anything to me, but she won’t shoo me away like the man does. Perhaps they are married, but I hope not. I can’t imagine her happy spirit being met every day by the anger of that man.
She is moving trays now, making room for the fresh items baked this morning. As I cross the quiet street, she sees me approaching and starts selecting some baked goods. Today, as always, she hands me the bag, a muttered thank you from me, and her body turns back into the store. The ring of the small bell and the turn of the lock are all I hear.
She never gives me eye contact or speaks. Never! I wish I could look into her eyes, woman to woman, and have her feel how much I appreciate her gesture. How do you explain how an early-morning treat brings such deep gratitude?
I walk the block over to the park, scanning the area before I choose my seat, wanting to make sure it is clear of the night people who prey on someone like me. This is a special time to me, early in the morning, when the park is abandoned by all, leaving me in peace.
Dropping my small pack by the side of the bench, I try to contain my excitement while looking into the bag. There it is! My favorite: an éclair, with thick chocolate across the top and the richest cream within the middle. I force myself to eat slowly, if nothing more than to relish each bite, each taste.
It reminds me of my Germany days, days when the Army gave my life structure and purpose. Times before I was sent to Afghanistan, the dark days of my spirit. What now is my purpose? I struggle to find it, not knowing anymore what is best for me.
I grow angry with myself for allowing dark thoughts to interrupt my morning. Standing, I start pacing back and forth. Not wanting to eat while my aggravation lasts, I put the éclair down. I take deep breaths, trying to slow myself down, just like they taught me at the VA.
I stop pacing, coming face to face with my angel of the morning, the giver of my beloved bakery treat. On her face I see fear; she’s not sure if I’m safe to approach. She extends her hand, holding a small bottle of milk.
“I forgot this,” she says, placing the milk on the bench.
No words come from me. After months of hoping, of wanting her to speak, I say nothing. I nod at her, my eyes drifting downward towards the bottle. She turns, quickly walking out of the park.
I listen to her steps until the distance quiets them. Picking up the bottle, a smile spreads across my face. And in the light of the early morning, I sit, pick up my éclair and eat peacefully, knowing that today, I mattered.