While driving down SE Powell, I glanced to the right before coming to the stop light at SE 82nd. It’s a familiar corner after volunteering with a ministry there many Friday nights for a year. We offered hot dogs and conversation for anyone passing by. Regulars would come out from nearby apartments or others who lived outside. With several fast food options, a mini-mart, and two near-by bus stops, the intersection was always busy. I must have witnessed a hundred jay-walkers and red lights run during my year at that corner.
Now as I drive through I think back to those nights, and to the individuals I often see standing on the corner with a homemade sign asking for help. I live only a mile from this corner and often at the end of my street this month has been a woman self-identifying as a transgendered, veteran widow in need of help. This drive is no different as an older woman slowly walking past our row of parked cars, sign in hand. I’m one row into traffic so a truck blocks the words on her sign. With no explicit words to tell me who she is and what she needs (money, work, shelter, prayer), I spent the remaining 15 minutes of my drive creating her unknown story, starting with a name: Juliet.
Juliet has lived in portland for over ten years. The exact number is unsure these days because she’s been living outside for at least two winters. She moved here from Oklahoma with her husband, William. William,only Juliet was allowed to call him Bill, had been her high school sweetheart. They met sophomore year. It was a small school in a small town, but different addresses and interests meant somehow their paths didn’t really cost until the Shakespeare unit in English class. Because of her name, Juliet had known her namesake’s story for years, but this was the first time William had heard about the star-crossed lovers. The teacher called on Juliet early in the unit to get her feedback on the story, assuming correctly that she would have some thoughts (which were basically a sarcastic question, why would you kill yourself over some guy). After class that day, William went up to here in the hallway to introduce himself and express what Juliet would later call the most romantic statement of their relationship: the right woman was worth dying for.
Although they wouldn’t officially start dating until a month later, in their wedding vows, each one said that conversation in the hall was love. They married shortly after high school graduation, with plans for jobs, family, and getting out of Oklahoma. William started working at a local gas station, and eventually was a lead mechanic at the town auto shop. Juliet worked as a cashier at a diner for a while, but once Baby Arthur was on the way, she became a stay-at-home mom for the next 18 years. Her sons Arthur and Max kept her busy running around the house, and later the town, to keep up with all the activities and needs of rambunctious boys just a year apart in age.
William loved his wife and boys dearly, but when you use up your most romantic impulse as a 16-year-old, it’s hard to find more to share years later. Juliet knew he loved them all by how he provided food for the table, sheets for the beds, and tomato seeds for the garden. But the boys felts more and more distant as they ventured out into the world and never saw their dad beyond the garage doors. Mom could talk all she wanted, but if dad doesn’t come to the baseball game because of a muffler situation, it’s easy to figure out where his heart is. At least according to a teenager.
So when it came time for their high school graduation and next steps, Arthur and Max completed the intentions of their parents from 18 years before: get out of Oklahoma. They moved west , with a forwarding address and hug to their mom, and backward wave to dad. When they left, it was sad for Juliet but a natural circle of life as she wished them the best. William went back to the shop, and wept behind a corvette from the mayor’s collection.
20 years passed with letters, phone calls, and occasional Christmas visits from the boys. Then four more years went by with no contact as their own families took up their time and hearts, pushing out the parents who had loved them in different ways. When it was finally time for William to retire (his back and knees couldn’t handle even an oil change any more), there was no question where Juliet wanted to go. She knew they lived in portland, Oregon but didn’t know the exact addresses. So William and Juliet packed up the van with all it could fit and sold everything else to help with the costs of the move. The first few years were spent learning how to survive the larger city. And then three years were spent in and out of hospitals as the pains in William’s back became too great to walk or even stand. When she wasn’t at William’s bedside, Juliet continued to search the city and try to find her boys. Boys who thought she was still back home.
On William’s final day, Juliet lied to him. She told him she had found the boys and was going to stay with them. She told him that she was going to be fine. She told him that she was going to be happy. And she told him one truth: she told him she loved him.
Now Juliet lives outside. The hospital bills took everything she had, and everything she could ever make at another diner job. She carries a backpack of clothes, blankets, and photographs of her three lost boys. On her head is a cap from William. The one she made him wear on snowy days back in Oklahoma. And on a chain around her neck are two wedding rings and one locket with baby pictures hidden inside.