She looked twelve, but her countenance screamed older. I saw her sitting on the pavement outside the door as I went into the Quick-Stop for diet cokes, but couldn’t make eye contact. When I came out of the store and got back into the car, she finally looked up with what I suspect was her best effort at a smile. Her stringy brown hair, which would have been beautiful if clean, framed a thin face with big, brown eyes. I was powerless to start the car and leave so I got out of the car and walked over to her, squatted down, and asked her if she needed help. Looking into her eyes was like looking into a window on the house of despair, but she said nothing.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?” was all I could think to ask in what I hoped was a noncommital tone. There was a tattered backpack next to her that told me she had every possession she owned with her. I’m not very good at this. I am sensitive to people’s pride and as much as I wanted to help, I didn’t wish to come off condescending. She asked me if I had a cigarette or a beer. I had neither, but couldn’t just walk away. I told her I would buy some beer and a pack of cigarettes if she would go with me to a nearby park, using the excuse that there was a sign that said “Consumption of alcohol on these premises is prohibited by law”. She agreed. In the blink of a purchase of a twelve-pack of Coors Light and a pack of Marlborogh’s later, we were at the park.
I was ridden with moral conflict. I couldn’t find a way to help without giving credence to her needs. We walked to a picnic table that had seen better days and she plopped her backpack on its slatted top. I pushed the package of Marlborough’s toward her, and she hungrily opened them and lit up. We both popped a Coors Light. No one spoke for several minutes while my mind whirred at fifty miles an hour. Finally, as she opened her second beer, she spoke. Why are you being nice to me?
I said simply “You looked like you needed help”, and as she pulled hard on her cigarette and gulped her beer, she started telling me about herself. She was sixteen, and her mother had thrown her out after a series of school mishaps, late night sneak-outs, and vitriolic arguments. Her boyfriend was twenty-three and smoked crack. He constantly tried to get her to join in and attempted to persuade her that they could get all they want if she was willing to put out in exchange for it. It is why she was sitting at the Quick-Stop…she wasn’t yet willing to do that. I admit to being somewhat naive, but I got it.
Thinking to myself that this lovely young woman should be going to football games, looking at colleges, and baby-sitting to make extra money, I realized that our worlds were so different, but an accident of birth and nothing more. She asked me about my life at sixteen, and I couldn’t even go there. I was embarrassed that my biggest problem was that my family couldn’t afford a designer dress for homecoming. I wanted to scream, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell her that. Instead, I told her about some of the problems I had faced since that time. I told her what my dreams were for myself and my sisters, and hopefully, for a daughter I would someday have.
I tried to convey to her how very valuable she was, that there would never be another person that could contribute what she could. I tried to tell her that we each have gift or talent that we cannot waste or afford to throw away. I did the best I could.
After half the beer was gone, she agreed to go to a shelter for the night. She agreed to many things which were likely for my benefit. I took her to a friend who runs a shelter with the hopes that whatever my failings were in persuading her would be taken up by the professionals. It was all I could do.
Children ill-equipped to live in an ugly world, with no fallback position. The worst possible scenario. God bless the child.