I Drove Away and Left Her There Sobbing

Maybe it was the article I read. The one about how mensuration is a nightmare for homeless women. It recommended keeping an old purse filled with pads and tampons in your car to give to a homeless woman should you see one. Or maybe it was the fact that someone I love and respect very much had recently mentioned a myth so many people believe. She told me she doesn’t give money to beggars because some of them make 60K a year. I gently told her that was impossible, an urban legend.

Either way, something got to me.

I’d ignored countless homeless people on that corner. The overweight woman with the spacey eyes, old men with gray stubble, some holding signs declaring their veteran status. There was the old lady I accidentally made eye contact with and had to scramble to find some money as she approached my car when she mistook my gaze as an invitation. I even ignored the family with the little girl, all while drinking my Starbucks and staring straight ahead at the red-light.

But last week as I drove to pick my son up from school, I saw her. She was standing on that corner.

I passed her and stopped at the red-light. I thought about the purse idea. I thought about how street life would be particularly difficult for women. It occurred to me that it would be damn near impossible to live on the street, begging for money, and not end up prostituting yourself. I thought about her standing there. I felt certain there was a slim chance she’d made it to this point in her life without experiencing the horror of sexual violence. Statistically, it’s nearly impossible. I wondered if she’d have to sacrifice her body today. Would she have to use the only thing she has left as a form of currency? Would she have to spend a few minutes allowing her mind to travel elsewhere, pretending what was happening wasn’t really happening?

I wondered.

There was no one in the right-hand turn lane. When the light turned green I took a sharp right instead of going straight. I drove back around, searching for my wallet as I did. Inside I had a one, a five, and a twenty. I pulled up to the stop sign and looked in the review mirror to make sure I wasn’t blocking traffic. No one was behind me.

I rolled the window down and stretched my arm out, holding the money towards her. I kind of wiggled it around a bit, immediately regretting the gesture, like I was offering food to a dog. She approached tentatively and started to reach out her hand.

Then she looked down and saw that it was a twenty-dollar bill. She pursed her mouth in distrust, her face crumpled and she asked, “Are you serious?”

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Then her eyes met mine, and she could see I wasn’t playing some cruel joke on her. The dam broke wide open. Her head shaking back and forth as if to say, “No no no.” The quickness with which she started sobbing pulled hard at my heart. She choked out, “Are you sure? Really?” with tears streaming down her cheeks. The desperation in her voice is something that cannot be captured in writing.

My eyes burned. “Yep” was all I could manage while nodding my head emphatically.

She snatched the money quickly and thanked me, then hurried back to the curb.

I drove off and saw her in my rearview mirror, still sobbing.

I was wishing it had been $100.

I was wishing I had said more to her. I wish I had told her, “The world still needs you. You’re not worthless.”

After I picked up Oz I told him what I did. Then I had to explain to him why some people are homeless, because this is an impossible concept to a four-year-old.

“But Mom,” he said, “we have to go back and get that lady. We have to bring her home so she can take a bath and sleep in a bed.”

“Buddy, I know. I wish we could do that but she’s still a stranger. You can’t just bring a stranger into your home.”

“But she won’t be dangerous Mom. She’s not dangerous, she just needs our help.”

So then I explained to him what mental illness is and why it is that some people just can’t function normally.

“Well, I know how we fix that too,” he said, “We go get the homeless people and we feed them and let them take a bath and then we bring them to the doctor. And the doctor can give them medicine to fix their brain.”

“I know buddy. I’d love to do that, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.”

“Yes it is Mom.” he replied annoyed, as if I just didn’t get it.

We drove on home. The barren branches of the trees stood out against the winter sky. I was high on the kind of joy that only comes from helping others.

Then I felt dirty in my privilege.

I felt like the rich lady patting herself on the back for attending a charity ball. My kids chatting away, strapped into their expensive car seats, being driven to their big warm house to watch cable TV and eat balanced meals. Headed to a home where they are loved and wanted.

I thought about that woman. I thought about her mother. I thought about the day she was born. I have always done this when I see someone who has hit rock bottom. I picture them as a newborn. I imagine that someone felt joy about their existence.

Then I thought about my own daughter. I thought about how sometimes life can spin so utterly out of control. I imagined my daughter homeless and then I shook my head to remove this image thinking, “No, never never never. That could never happen.”

I know so many people will read this and say the usual refrain, “But she’s probably just going to spend it on drugs or alcohol.”

I bet she is, and I don’t care.

I don’t want to play moral police when it comes to helping beggars. A person, literally begging, stripped of all dignity and pride.

In that moment when I saw her I just wanted to give her one day.

If she’s an alcoholic or a junkie, I bought her one day without the shakes. A day where maybe she could afford to get right and get a full belly.

That’s enough for me.

I saw her and my heart hurt. I refuse to harden my heart towards someone else’s baby girl.

Maybe my boy was right. It really is that simple.

To My Husband the Phoenix, I Could Never Forget

Remember that Christmas when we were really poor?

We lived in that tiny crappy apartment on the second floor. There was a tree out the balcony with a newspaper caught in its branches. It was there the day we moved in, Valentines Day.

One time Shauna and I threw shoes at it, trying to knock it out of the tree. We really wanted to know the date, how long it had been up there. We never did get it down.

Sometimes I wonder if the person living there now gazes off the balcony at a tree containing a newspaper and a shoe.

That Christmas we agreed not to buy each other anything. There was no money. On the night of the twenty-third I got stupid drunk with a couple friends. I distinctly remember because it was one of the few times that you didn’t drink. I also remember pouring the last bit of Sailor Jerry into a shot glass while sitting in the living room. Jon and I both looked down at the shot sitting on the rotted old coffee table and then back up at each other like a couple of addicts. I pulled two dollars out of my back pocket, slammed it down and slurred out, “You can have that shot or you can have two dollars.”

He took the two dollars like I knew he would.

He was poor as shit too.

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A week earlier we’d gone by his apartment to discover a fridge that contained nothing but a giant tub of margarine, two loaves of white bread and three packages of American cheese, all generic store brand.

“I like grilled cheese” he said.

And frankly when you’re twenty and practically homeless this makes total sense. His girlfriend at the time was currently between jobs and didn’t have a driver’s license. She lamented to me that her days were spent sitting in the living room, trying to get reception on an old TV while smoking cigarettes and drinking tap water.

That night after the rum was gone I made us all two boxes of macaroni and cheese. They thanked us profusely and kept apologizing saying, “Are you guys sure this is ok? We don’t want to eat all of your food.”

I don’t remember how the night ended, but I do remember that I woke up the next morning with the most severe stomach pain I had ever experienced. I tried to wake you and told you it felt like I needed medical attention, or at the very least could you go to the store and get me some Pepto and Gatorade.

You refused.

You slept another three hours.

I was sure I was dying. Eventually you went to the store. But I never ventured out of that apartment until Christmas Day.

Christmas morning, over coffee and raspberry Toaster Pastries (a splurge) you gave me a silver bracelet with tiny little chip diamonds and a heart on it. It had a locking clasp and was totally not my style. But it was so very sweet, so unlike you to be romantic. I felt horrible that I hadn’t gotten you anything.

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Later we drove downtown to the little apartment my father and brother lived in at the time. If I remember correctly, he had cooked a nice roast. I could only stomach a few bites. I was still in quite of bit of pain.

I gave my brother a Beavis & Butthead DVD set I’d ordered off an infomercial. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. I thought he’d see it and be nostalgic, remembering all the times we watched it together. But in the moment of him unwrapping it I realized what a shitty gift it really was. No one in that room had much at the time. I sat there wishing I had given him something nice, something that would have brought him actual joy, something useful. I was left with a deep sadness that permeated everything about that particular Christmas. He gave us a set of kitchen knives and some floor mats for your ’92 Chevy Blazer, the one with the broken driver’s side door.

We were married ten months later.

That was a lifetime ago.

Yesterday our son found the bracelet and brought it to me saying, “Look Mama, it has a heart on it because I love you!” Later I made him a sandwich using those same kitchen knives.

The memories are vivid to me, tangible. There have been times when I couldn’t move past them. For you the past just vanishes. We have discussed this, your lack of long-term memory.

Everyday you awake like the Phoenix.

You rise from the ashes and look upon me with new eyes, upon yourself. How I wish I had that power, but this photographic memory is a curse.

My past always feels present.

The children have helped because I’m too busy to dwell. But in the tiny flickers of stillness it’s there. I am there, the old me. The old you. And then the babies are there too. Their cherub faces and suckling mouths, their balled up fists and breathy first sounds. It’s cruel how well I can still see them, smell them, hear them. The memories all blend together, the booze, the fights, then the calm, the joy, the babies. Those beautiful babies, how they’ve destroyed me.

kids

They killed me.

I died and was born again, left with my heart beating outside of my chest.

It’s ok that you forget. It keeps you moving forward, always forward. That’s how this works. I remember for the both of us. Someone will ask you a question and you’ll turn to me and say, “When was that?” When I answer you don’t argue. You take it as the truth because you know it is. On the rare occasion that you say, “Wait, are you sure? Because I thought…” I’ll reply, “Do you really want to do this with me?”

You stop, you concede.

It’s a joke I often tell people. The way our marriage works is that you remember nothing, and I forgive everything. It’s a joke, but it’s true.

You awake everyday and see me anew. You give me a fresh start. I awake and I see every incarnation of you.

You asleep in my arms at sixteen with your perfect lips and long eyelashes.

You at twenty with the ponytail, combat boots and whiskey breath.

You at twenty-three headed off to work, early in the morning wearing a tie and khakis.

You at twenty-five making cold calls out of a phone book in the garage of our first house.

You at twenty-nine crying (finally) while you look upon the face of your newborn son.

You at thirty, on your knees for days installing the hardwood floors in our big new house.

You at thirty-three with those tired eyes, and the way you still look at me.

 

I remember them all. I love them all.

Resting B!tch Face, You Have Served Me Well

Before resting bitch face was a thing invented by the internet, I was rockin’ it. I was in sixth grade when a boy informed me that I looked pissed off all the time. When I was fourteen one of the most delinquent boys in my high school casually informed me, “Oh, you scare me. I wouldn’t fuck with you.” Throughout my childhood old men felt the need to tell me “Smile! You look so sad.” Women would never tell a girl to smile. Women know it’s not a girl’s job to smile continuously like they’re in a beauty pageant at all times, but I digress.

Imagine my delight the day an old man came into our family’s restaurant and asked me “Who died?” and I was able to reply “Genevieve.” One of the waitresses had just been killed in a car accident. Damn, it was satisfying to watch the man-smug vanish from his stupid face.

Anyhow, my point is that I’m what some may call unapproachable, and delightfully so.

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Having a super good time here, seriously.

This quality has never served me so well as it has during motherhood. Why? Because I have never (and I mean NEVER) had a stranger make a snarky comment to me about my parenting.

Let me tell you a few stories from the lives of some of my smiley and approachable mom friends.

My childhood best friend is a gorgeous woman, tall, thin and blonde. [Yeah, it was super fun growing up with her] As a teenager she was repeatedly approached by modeling agencies. She could’ve done runway. She also became a mother at twenty. So, yeah, super approachable and young, as a new Mom. Just about every damn time she left the house people felt entitled to criticize her parenting or lend advice. Like a lady at Target who saw her daughter standing a whole six inches off the ground on the bottom shelf of a display and came whipping around the corner from a different aisle to scream, “You’re a terrible mother! It’s people like you that end up with injured kids!”

This kind of crazy happened to her All. The. Time. Lord help her if she failed to strap her kid into a grocery cart, or if her toddler refused to wear a coat. Even recently, a man at Chipotle felt the need to question whether it was “appropriate for a boy that age to still be held by his mother” while she was holding her seven-year-old. Sadly, for that man he didn’t realize that my girl might be pretty but she’s a stone cold bitch when she needs to be. She looked him right in the eyes and replied, “A child is never too old to be held, and I will hold my boy until I’m physically incapable of doing so.”

She lifts weights, so he might be fifteen by the time that happens.

Recently another friend of mine had an unpleasant interaction with another mother while shopping. Her two-year-old started fussing to get out of the stroller. Yeah, like you’re going to get any shopping done with a two-year-old running buck wild through Old Navy. So she was handing her snacks, trying to calm her and hurrying to finish up and get out of the store. This is when some ‘well meaning’ mother approached her and pointed to the stroller saying, “I think she wants to get out.” My friend was thinking to herself, “No shit, I can hear her. She can talk. I know why my own kid is whining.” The lady’s comment caught her off guard though, so she responded by pretending not to hear her. At this point the lady continues, “Excuse me? Excuse me? I think she wants to get out.”

So my friend turns to her with a blank look on her face and says, “Yeah, I know” and kept shopping.

Disgusted, the lady turns to her own kids (about ages seven and nine) and says loudly, “I NEVER did that to you guys!”

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Congratulations super-helpful-parenting-advice lady! You get the mother of the year award for never using a stroller for its intended purpose, containment. You’re a better mother than anyone who’s ever done anything differently than you, with different kids than yours. And way to go using another mother as an example to explain to your children what a better mother you are. Aren’t they lucky to have you as their mom, and not the evil lady with the stroller? You’re the best!

But you’re also a stupid asshole.

My friend was enraged, obviously. She was annoyed even days later. Clearly, that’s why she told me the story. Frankly, I was enraged just hearing it. That’s probably why I’m writing about it. But my friend, she had the best response to this lady ever.

Of course, she didn’t get to use it.

You never think of the perfect thing to say when you’re in the moment. But I’m going to tell it to you now in case you ever find yourself in the same situation.

You turn to the lady and say, “Listen, it sounds like you’re probably a much better mother than I am.” Then you lean in and whisper into her ear, “but your kids are really fucking ugly.”

And that my friends, is how we stay classy.

But seriously, no matter how approachable a woman is, unless she’s beating her kid don’t ever talk to her about her parenting, because I’d bet a lot of money you sure as hell wouldn’t approach a man.