I had been Christmas shopping in the city and was heading back home, tired, hungry and loaded down with bags and packages. They were both on the subway when I got on the train at Hötorget, two junkies; a man and a woman. She may have been pretty at one time; you could see that in the facial structure. But now her face was pallid and porous. She had a pasty complexion that showed all the bruises of time, even though she was much younger than she looked. She had the blank stare and jerky body language of someone who had been on the stuff for too long, surrendered herself to way too many men and spent much too long on the streets. She wore a dirty pink hat, old jeans, a man’s oversized sweater and a ragged coat that couldn’t possibly have kept out the cold of a Stockholm winter. Her companion looked to be in worse shape; a large, rough looking, unshaven man devoid of life, one of the walking dead. She was talking to the man; loudly and incoherently, gesticulating with her jerky movements, and like the scared, hunted animals you see on those television nature programs, her dark eyes never focused or rested on any one object too long. They flitted back and forth all the time like she was constantly on the lookout for an attacker, for danger, trying to avoid the beatings, robberies and rapes she’d probably suffered during her years on the street.
At the next station a group of high-school kids got on and sat in the seats across from her and her junkie boyfriend. The girls in this group were the polar opposites of this woman; young, happy, well-off and pretty. From the equipment they were carrying you could tell they had been ice-skating in Kungsträdgården. Some of the girls still carried their skates in their hands.
“How much does a pair of skates cost? asked the junkie girl to no one in particular.
There was no answer. The other girls just kept talking and laughing.
“How much does a pair of skates cost today? the junkie girl asked again.
She must have thrown this question out there 4 or 5 times before she got an answer from one of the girls.
“A good pair will cost about 600 crowns.”
The junkie girl’s facial expression did not change at all. She just looked back at the girl, shook her head and repeated “600 crowns.” She stared at the girl and said in a jagged, fragile voice, “I used to skate when I was a girl in Bulgaria. I was very good.”
By that time the train was at the next stop and the high-school kids bounced off, the girls still laughing and talking about whatever it is that high-school girls talk about. But just before the subway doors closed, one of the girls turned around, looked at the junkie girl, held out her skates and said “take these, they look like they’ll fit you”. Then she smiled and ran off the train.
The junkie girl sat there, holding the pair of skates, not really registering the gift, when suddenly her lifeless eyes sparkled as tears started running down her face. She clutched those skates like they were the most precious things in the world, and maybe those skates were her “ruby slippers”. Maybe they transported her far away to a place called home because then a glow came back to that waxen complexion. And in her tears I saw a world of hurt and bad decisions get washed away and I felt like I could look inside her mind and see a little girl in Bulgaria, floating and gliding over the ice: free, warm, safe and loved. And for the first time in what I imagine was a very long time, she smiled. Not that fake, forced junkie smile to try to entice someone into giving her the next fix, but the smile of a child, content and filled with wonder, hope and amazement.
I got off at the next stop but the junkie girl and her boyfriend stayed on. And as I walked down the platform I felt uplifted, like I’d witnessed a Christmas miracle, and I prayed and hoped with all my heart that another angel would come along and take that girl skating so that she could experience the joy that I imagined I saw in her mind.
The following week I was at a Christmas party in town and it was filled with the usual cross-section of Stockholmers; people from Östermalm, Södermalm, Saltsjöbaden, Lidingö and Kungsholmen all talking about finances, the prices of apartments and houses, art and music, their kids, television shows and movies. I was standing in a group and one of the men started talking about how he had taken his kids to the skating rink and seen a young homeless woman standing outside carrying around a pair of what looked to be very expensive ice skates.
“What an odd thing for a homeless person to be carrying around,” someone said.
“They wouldn’t let her in because of the way she was dressed, the way she looked. I intervened since it was Christmas, I wanted to be an example to my girls, so I shamed the rink attendant into letting her get in. It was like I had given her a winning lottery ticket. I’ve never gotten so many ‘thank yous’ in my life. I watched her skate and she was actually quite good at it.”
He and everyone else were surprised when I started to laugh and cry at the same time. He was especially surprised when I gave him a hug. This flood of emotion came over me and in my mind I could see the junkie girl I’d seen on the subway flying across the ice, graceful and swanlike, doing spins and figure eights, smiling. And I knew that at least for those few moments, she was free, she was happy and she was young again, overtaken by the innocence she’d lost so long ago.
People were asking me what was wrong and I wiped my eyes and said, “I know people talk a lot about angels at Christmastime, and I have to be honest and say I never really believed in them…until now. In the last week I’ve seen two with my own eyes.”
If you liked my story, please consider donating to my GOFUNDME account to cover medical expenses. Blessings! Brian