When they met, he was an 18-year-old freshman at Boston College, the son of a network engineer and a fashion designer who had been raised in a comfortably middle-class home in Southern California.
She was a 56-year-old widow from Haiti, who had raised two daughters on her own and worked two or three jobs at a time to put them through Catholic school, then college.
Achilles Aiken and Marie Saint Louis found each other at Rosie’s Place, a shelter for poor and homeless women in the South End, where Saint Louis was taking classes to help get her GED. Aiken was homesick, missing his mother, aunt and grandmother back West, and hoping that tutoring women at the shelter might fill that void.
Saint Louis desperately needed help figuring out math word problems.
An unlikely friendship was born.
“She’s an absolute beauty,” Aiken gushed, staring at her adoringly as they sat together recently in one of the classrooms where he had tutored.
“He’s so good to me,” Saint Louis said.
It is not unusual for the Boston College students who volunteer at the shelter through a community service program called 4Boston to grow close to the women they tutor. But even longtime staffers at Rosie’s Place have been surprised by the depths of this friendship. For the last four years, Aiken has come to the shelter twice a week, two hours each day, to tutor Saint Louis. He has rearranged his schedule to accommodate hers so they could remain paired up, taking a train, then a bus from Boston College to get to their appointments on time.
“Most students in the 4Boston program come to Rosie’s Place for a full year,” said Marty Wengert, director of volunteers at the shelter. “Occasionally, a student will go for two years. I’ve been at Rosie’s Place for 13 years and I’ve never seen a student stay for four years.”
Now, as graduation approaches and Aiken prepares to return to California for medical school, he is trying to find another tutor for Saint Louis, who has decided to take a break from studies so she can baby-sit her grandson while her 26-year-old daughter and her husband are working.
Aiken initially began helping Saint Louis with multiplication and long division. But it was not long before the two of them started talking about their personal lives. Aiken became fascinated with Saint Louis’s story. Twenty years ago, she was living in Florida, raising her two daughters, a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old. Her 38-year-old husband was still in Haiti, planning to reunite with his family. But she would never see him again. He was killed in a car accident in Port-au-Prince, leaving her to raise her daughters alone.
Saint Louis, who now lives in Mattapan, decided quickly she would not remarry. Another man could not love her daughters like their father did. Even worse, he might hurt them. “He touches them. I kill him,” she explained to Aiken. “I would go to jail. He would go to the cemetery.”
Aiken was awed by her fierce independence and her determination that her girls go to college.
For Saint Louis, Aiken was a patient tutor and a sympathetic listener. When the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Aiken comforted Saint Louis, who lost her 20-year-old nephew in the catastrophe. When her brother died a year later, he grieved with her again.
Only recently were they able to spend time together outside the classroom. The shelter asks that tutors and students not exchange personal information with each other and that all their interactions occur in the classroom.
“It’s about boundaries,” Wengert said. “So that neither side feels there are unrealistic expectations.”
Earlier this month, Aiken went to a party for Saint Louis’s grandson, who just turned 1. Saint Louis piled his plate high with fried pork chops, plantains and rice and mushrooms. She and her relatives doted on him, making sure he was comfortable and well fed.
“It felt like I was at home on spring break,” he said.
On May 19, when he graduates, Saint Louis plans to sit with Aiken’s family to watch him get his diploma.
Neither of them is worried they will lose touch when he starts medical school at UCLA. They already plan on chatting by phone and he is determined to return to Boston to visit her.
“He’s like my son,” she said matter-of-factly.
Aiken leaned toward her and grabbed her hand. Their friendship is one of the most important in his life, he told her.
“I’m so thankful for it,” he said.