The candles flicker against the night. More than a hundred people have gathered to celebrate a man who has changed their lives. ‘RIP Anthony Herrera’, one of the banners says. In the crowd, I see familiar faces. His mother, Diana, is wrapped in a shawl, with a stern face. She is the strongest woman I have ever known. I don’t think she’s shed a tear since Anthony died. I also recognize Ryan. He introduced himself at the funeral as Anthony’s best friend, offering me condolences. The poor guy looks like he hasn’t slept in days. Among the crowd are men and women in denim, the homeless population of San Diego, who came together tonight to celebrate the life of a man who influenced their lives. All he did was give them clothes made of old jeans. They had never met him. But as soon as they heard about the vigil, they grouped together, holding candles, sobbing. The entire street was shut down for the vigil.
On a corner is a bench, covered in flowers, pictures, notes, and other strange items, like a broken flute. ‘IN LOVING MEMORY OF ANTHONY HERRERA – HERO. 1982-2016’, the bench says. This man has dedicated his life to clothing the homeless and helping children in poverty across the world with medical aid, and all he got was a bench for people to sit on, ignore, and worst of all, deface.
“Excuse me miss”, a voice behind me asks, “can you light my candle? It died.”
“Sure.” I say, reigniting his wick.
“Thank you.” He says. He is around 40, tall, lanky, and in need of a shave. I notice that he is wearing denim.
“Did you get those from Anthony?” I ask.
“Yes. Gave it to me himself.” He replies. He is almost embarrassed to talk to me, covering his mouth as he spoke. I thought it was because he is shy, but I realize that he is trying to save me from his breath. I gently put my hand over his to push it down. This takes him by surprise.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I haven’t brushed my teeth in weeks.” He explains.
“That’s nothing to be ashamed about. What’s your name?”
“Ian.” He replies.
“My name is Sam. I am… was Anthony’s fiancé.”
Ian looks perplexed. His jaw drops, as if he was dumbfounded to be speaking to his friend’s would-have-been wife. I saw the remorse on his eyes. It was the same I saw in everyone else’s when they talk to me about how I feel. Everyone expects me to be broken. I was the stranger fiancé that no one knew before Anthony told them we were to be married. None of his family or friends knew how to approach me.
Everyone is right.
“Would you like a mint, Ian? I don’t personally care, but I can give you some to take with you if you want.” I say, offering him a box of TicTacs from my purse.
“No, can’t do that ma’am.” He says. I place the TicTacs gently on his hand. He bows to show me gratitude, then tries to leave. Before he can walk away, I ask him another question.
“Where are you from?”
“San Francisco” he replies, turning around.
Ian tells me about his journey from San Francisco to San Diego. At the age of 18, he left home to live at his friend’s. But his friend forced him to labor in exchange for his stay, expecting him to deliver drugs around San Francisco and even giving sexual favors to customers, both men and women. After a few years, Ian had enough, and left his friend’s place to take his luck on the street. He met a young girl named Nicole, who introduced him to heroin. For awhile, he lived with her in a shabby studio in the Tenderloin. But when Nicole got pregnant, she left him on the street, ashamed that her first child’s father would be a homeless junkie. It was around Pier 39 where he met Anthony, who, at that time, was passing out free denim to the homeless men and women of San Francisco. He told him his story, and Anthony offered him some money if he helped him pass clothes around for a few days. Anthony let him stay and shower in his hotel room, even giving Ian the bed as he slept on the floor. A few days later, Anthony paid Ian for his help, then offered to help him find Nicole, but her apartment was empty when they arrived. It was Anthony who drove Ian to San Diego, where he offered to let him stay at his mom’s house. Although Anthony’s mom approved, Ian was too ashamed, only sleeping there when it was raining. Although he had a key, he preferred entering through Anthony’s window, sleeping on his bed. Anthony’s mom never knows when Ian is coming over, instead realizing he was home by seeing the entire house cleaned when she came from work.
For years, Ian stayed in San Diego, waiting for Anthony to come home. He did not know that Anthony was in town just a few weeks ago. By the time he wanted to see him, a friend had told him that the ‘Denim Dude’ had passed away. Anthony wanted to see for himself, so he broke into Anthony’s room and slept there for the night, crying.
“Are you sure Diana doesn’t know?” I ask.
“I think she does. She doesn’t mind. She always offered me food and told me to stop breaking in when she found me on Anthony’s bed.” He replies.
“Have you offered your condolences?”
Ian shakes his head. “I don’t know. It’s too much. What do I even say to her?”
Ian says that he does not think it’s appropriate for him to stay in Anthony’s room, and his last visit was meant to be a goodbye to his home. I ask him where he’s staying tonight, and he says he doesn’t know. I instinctively ask him if he would like to stay in my living room tonight. After some convincing, Ian agrees.
I also managed to bring Ian to Diana. He offered his condolences, and told her how grateful he is to have met Anthony and his family. Although she offers Ian to stay in Anthony’s room whenever he wants, he admits that it was too painful for him. He tells Diana that it was Anthony who changed his life, and the idea of staying in his room after his death is inappropriate to him. Diana says she understands, but says her offer is no contract and is open whenever, telling him to use the front door ‘instead of breaking in and playing Anthony’s instruments’ while he’s away.
Once we bid farewell to Diana, Ian and I drive to my apartment. Once we are inside, he notices the boxes labeled with an ‘A’. Because of our wedding, Anthony never unpacked his boxes. We were supposed to move in together and start a new life as husband and wife.
I can’t find it in myself to open these boxes.
Ian takes a shower while I make dinner. Over dinner, I ask him about where he thinks Nicole is. He admits that he’s managed to track her in San Diego, but does not have the gut to face his child.
“You should do it.” I say
“I don’t know. She doesn’t want me around.”
“If there’s one thing I learned from the last few weeks, it’s that life is short. You’ve heard that before, but it’s true. We don’t have a lot of time to worry about what other people think. Spend time with people who are important to you.” I say. Without realizing it, I was crying. Ian hands me a tissue.
“I’m so sorry” I say, still sobbing.
What a fucked few years it has been. I fall in love with the man of my dreams while working in Africa, then move back to San Diego to get married and start a family, only for him to be taken away from me so quickly. I wonder what life would be like if we never moved. Anthony never listened to me when I told him how much I wanted to move back. It was his best friend, Ryan, who convinced him to finally return. On our way here, we had the spontaneous idea to get married. Plans were set. Invites were sent. I even picked out my dress.
Now it sits in my closet, never to be worn. Tonight would have been our first rehearsal dinner, but instead, I am spending dinner with a homeless man I met a few hours ago.
Ian offers to wash the dishes. I tell him I will do them in the morning, but he insists on doing them as a sign of gratitude. Before I head to bed, Ian asks me what I am doing with my life next. I tell him that my first job is to help him find his son. He tells me that he can do it on his own, but I knew in my heart that I had to help.
It’s what Anthony would have done.
I bid him goodnight, then head to my room. I notice that a white fabric is sticking out of the closet door. I open it, and my wedding dress falls on me. Something tells me to put it on.
Once I have it on, I look in the mirror. This dress will never walk the aisle. It will never have grains of grass stuck on the tail. It will never be ripped off of my body in our honeymoon.
I crawl to bed, still in my dress, thinking about what I want to do next. In all honestly, I don’t know. I’ve cried too many times to break down. San Diego was a home for me and Anthony. Staying here will make me remember what could have been. I want to move to where I belong. I want to continue his legacy. I want his soul to live in my body.
I want him to live through me.
Ian must have heard me sobbing. He knocks on the door, but I ignore him.
My life’s work will be dedicated to doing what Anthony would have done in his life. I drift into slumber, thinking about Africa. The vast deserts. The golden sun. The smiles on my patients’ faces when I’ve helped them.
He gives up and opens the door.
"Are you okay?" He asks.
My life will never be the same.