Art: Girl, Interrupted
Coral Luce entered the Organization’s residential treatment program for teenage mothers three days before we had the lice outbreak. This fact was the second and cementing problem for her. It also indirectly drove me to spend time with her.
Her first problem, though, was her name.
When her program-assigned social worker helped her move into her new room on Wednesday morning, Coral was going by Ann, as we were told she had been. Since the meeting a week before, we had been expecting Coral “Ann” Luce, 14 years old, two months pregnant, borderline intelligence runner. Not athlete, runaway. With a history of thirteen runs, no one was particularly interested in taking her on as a primary client. Not that it reflected poorly on us as individual counselors if she ran; it just meant extra paperwork. We didn’t need more paperwork.
The current floor staff was an old one. There were a few on-call counselors, but everyone else had been there between a year and a half and five years. The usual turnover rate for staff was approximately three months. Three months and you’re burnt out. Time to go. Need an office job. If you can get past the first three months, and the next three maybe, then you find that you don’t really care too much anymore. You start not caring if you work like a burnt out person. You start not wondering too often if you are being mean or selfish. Then, in another three months, you find yourself disheartened with the whole concept of helping people. You can’t help people after all. They do it all themselves. If you can’t take blame for the frequent failures, how can you take credit for the successes?
In that second or third three months, I learned to stop letting them see that they were affecting me. In that second or third three months, I’d get frustrated with one of the girls—I’d break up a fight or catch one of the toddlers with his mouth around an open bottle of nail polish remover—and take care of the situation the best way, the most reasonable way I could. Then I’d walk away and do one of several things. In some cases, it was enough to go into the office and shut the Dutch door all the way and, in a whisper, scream something to the effect of: Fuck this place. Fuck these girls. Why do we even give them any fucking chance? Why don’t we just take the babies away at birth? Other times, I’d have to go into the bathroom and lock the door and cry for five or ten minutes, until someone needed to get the van keys out of the lockbox on the wall in there. Or, occasionally, I’d pull another staff member outside into the yard and bitch about the horror of the place, make jokes about the girls that the world outside would find distasteful and cruel, and plot my escape. Plot my run.
After all that, though, I’d have to go back onto the floor. The best thing to do at that time is to try to hold a conversation with one of the grape juice-stained kids who is standing in front of his mother, crying or tugging at her sleeve while she is on the hall phone (no cell phones here!) or watching TV. Can I take Alex outside to play? I’ll ask. Pleeeze, the mother will say in return. Then we can sit outside in the grass and breathe and have Alex help spot falling stars and watch the woods for deer and raccoon foraging in the dark.
* * *
When you leave home to go to work at a treatment center, you might accidentally tell your boyfriend (or girlfriend), “I’m late. I’ve got to get home.” You won’t even realize if you do, so you won’t understand the fallen look on his face. “What?” You’ll shrug, half in/half out the door. “What is it?”
“You are home.” His face will be red. “You’re going to work. You’re going to a fucking treatment center. That is not home.”
“Sorry,” might be all you can get out because you can see the bus rumbling down the street and if you don’t leave then, you’ll be an hour late in traffic for sure. But as you climb the steps into the bus, an emptiness will overwhelm you for a moment. You should have said something more.
This will likely happen more than once. I can attest.
* * *
There are several reasons a person might have for becoming a residential treatment counselor, or “a staff,” as we were called. Some of the other women studied social work, some had been in treatment themselves. I came in wanting to be an advocate for the girls. I thought these were people who had been underrated and undersupported; I was an activitst! After a few months, though, this seemed like inexperienced idealism to me. I couldn’t remember where I got this passion for the lives of teenaged moms. I suspected it was from listening to NPR too much, from retail jobs with no higher purpose. After a few months, I cringed when some new staff member came in with the same naïveté I’d had.
* * *
The turnover rate for clients was about ten months. Some girls hated the place or feared the other girls and disappeared after a week. Some lasted for a couple months before they relinquished their babies to adoptive parents. Some stayed for a half a year, then got lost in anger and frustration, or hate, or their boyfriend, or their desire to shoot up or do a line, or whatever else I couldn’t understand blowing it all for, and they took off with their kids. Some girls found themselves there for two or three years. They’d go and get pregnant again so they could stay. Or they’d run or abandon their kid or get in a fight so they could return to the center and lose a level—lose their independent living status, push their date of graduation from the program back further.
It was not all that pleasant inside, but independent living was scary when the center didn’t prepare the girls for it. They’d get excited about moving into their own apartment—at first. Then they’d find that daycare costs more than their entire welfare check. Plus the rent. Plus school tuition. They would have to work thirty hours a week just to pay the bills. But then they’d lose the welfare, so they’d have to work more. The rest of the time they’d be trying to get through their classes, take care of the kid.
The treatment center supplied free daycare, there was always someone around if they needed help with the kid, and welfare paid for everything. If they got a part-time job, the money from it was theirs to spend. They could buy clothes or toys or food. All they had to do was leave without permission for a couple hours, then they could stay for another couple weeks. If they left for a couple hours, leaving their kid alone in the room during that time, then it was another couple months. Get pregnant and it was around a year. It happened.
Graduation was rare.
* * *
After Coral’s profile was given and the social worker asked who could fit her in as a primary client, the room fell silent. I already had two difficult primaries and was waiting for an easy one come in. I tried not to breathe or move. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself and have someone notice that I felt vaguely guilty. I didn’t want anyone trying to take advantage of that.
Sue volunteered to take Coral on. “So she runs,” she said. “Running’s no big deal. She won’t be around often.” Paperwork wasn’t all bad. Sometimes it could be an escape. We sometimes used paperwork as an excuse to have the girls find another counselor to mediate their arguments. We used paperwork to avoid any particularly annoying or difficult client. I’m sorry, Beth. I can’t talk right now. I’ve got a deadline for this incident report.
Coral was excited to be meeting her primary staff member, though. It was daytime, and the other girls were in school. She sat outside the office door while Heidi and I sat inside, sifting through the stacks of log sheets. When the girls were gone we had mundane organizational and housekeeping tasks to complete. That Wednesday we were reassembling the tattered logbooks and cleaning the office.
Coral hummed outside the door, watching her shoes as she kicked her feet into the air over and over. She was small for a fourteen-year-old and not yet visibly pregnant.
“You know, Sue won’t be here until shift change,” I said to her. “At three.”
“That’s okay. I can wait.” She popped up off the orange vinyl bench and leaned against the countertop of the open Dutch door. It wasn’t lunchtime yet. “I like the butterfly sheets on my bed. Where’d you get them? They’re pretty.”
“They came from the linen closet.” Heidi sounded bored by Coral and I silently concurred with that feeling.
“Oh,” she said. She pressed her fat lips into each other for a second. “Can I get more? I like the butterflies. And the other set you gave me are just blue.”
“Out of butterflies,” Heidi said without looking up. “They’re the nicest ones, Ann.” We didn’t know we would only be calling her Ann for a few hours. “We made sure to get you the nicest we had.”
“Oh.” She pulled the door back with the weight of her dense rectangular body, rectangular head. She was made of rectangles. Even her oversized red lips formed a rough rectangle laying on its side. “What about the second nicest?”
“Blue’s the second nicest,” I thumbed through the papers, making sure the dates were in order. “The only other ones are white with stains. Blue’s the least institutional.”
“Insta-what?” she laughed.
Heidi and I both looked up.
“Insta-what?” she repeated.
* * *
Coral’s first problem arose when her roommate got home from school that Wednesday. Ann Reid was a big blonde girl with a knack for intimidation. She leaned through the office door to pick up her mail when she saw, on the staff board, the additional Ann assigned to her room.
“What is that? Ann Luce?” Ann Reid let her mouth hang open as she eyed us. “Who does she think she is?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Ann. That’s my name. What makes her think she can use it?”
“You can’t own a name,” I said. “You’re just gonna to have to share.”
“I don’t do a single thing I don’t want to do,” Ann Reid said, raised her eyebrows, and then turned away. She was sometimes irrational on purpose. She liked to see how far she could push things.
“That’s why you live here,” I called after her.
She didn’t stop her exit, only hollered as she progressed down the hall, “You don’t know what my goals are! I could very well be right where I want to be!”
Within a half hour of Ann Reid’s return from school, Coral was at our door. She leaned into it and fiddled with the doorknob.
Ann Reid marched swiftly down the shining white hallway, looking straight ahead with the non-expression of a Marine in dress uniform. She passed Coral at the office door without acknowledging her, and headed towards daycare. Her new fuchsia sandals clicked along the linoleum with an echo.
Coral watched sideways through an oily tangle of dark hair.
“Don’t be looking at me, girl,” Ann Reid bellowed just before she swung the daycare door open.
Coral turned quickly to concentrate on the doorknob of the office door as the hall door slammed.
“What the hell is up?” Heidi’s head emerged from the med closet, where she had been trying to make order of the misplaced bottles and tubes. She turned to Coral, who kept her concentration on the doorknob, and then Heidi turned to me.
“Ann Reid,” I identified the voice for Heidi. “I’ll talk to her about her VA when she gets back from daycare.” I grabbed the Verbal Abuse chart off the wall. A VA doesn’t need to be verbal, though it usually is. Raising a middle finger is considered verbal abuse on this chart. Often times, girls try to get away with VA’s without swearing; other girls just can’t comprehend that they can be verbally abusing someone if they aren’t swearing.
Invariably, the day before a girl planned to go out on a weekend pass, she would slouch over the Dutch door and ask: How many VA’s do I have this week? The staff member present would tell her she had one, or however many, and the response was usually this: What for? I didn’t do anything. The staff would then look it up and explain that, apparently, on Tuesday at 4pm, she called Korey a “big, fat Nerf ball in a smelly dress.” The girl would sigh, But I didn’t call her a cunt, like I wanted to. Each VA is two hours off a pass. Every minute counts for these girls.
“Not a restriction?” Heidi asked.
“Verbal abuse,” I said, filling the chart in.
“Verbal abuse,” Heidi snorted. “I’ll talk to her, if you don’t mind.” She often complained in meetings that several of the counselors were too easy on the girls.
“I think I can handle it,” I said.
Coral squeaked the door forward and back.
“You want to show me what you’ve done with your room so far, Ann?” I asked Coral.
“I haven’t really done nothing to it.”
“You want to look through the linen closet for some different sheets?” Heidi asked.
“It’d be easier,” Coral’s voice shook, “if you guys just called me Coral, you know.” She spoke to the doorknob.
We waited for an explanation. None. “Why?”
“I just don’t want to get my roommate riled up, right? It’s easier anyway. It won’t be confusing.”
Heidi closed the med closet and stepped in front of the door. “Ann, your roommate’s a bitch,” she said. The administration and program social workers often did not approve of the way some of the line counselors interacted with the girls. They had previously tried to talk to Heidi about her language and harshness and the appearance of playing favorites. She insisted her approach was simply different and she would not change it. I decided to leave the topic to those who complained. “You’re gonna change your name because you’re roommate’s a bitch?”
Coral’s mouth dropped. “She’s not.” She looked over her shoulder, down the hall. “She’s not a bitch,” she said low. “She’s… pretty. She’s okay. It’s just less confusing to call me Coral. Just don’t call me Ann no more.”
“So you’re really gonna change your name because of some bitch.” Heidi dropped into a wheeled office chair and spun around.
Coral’s mouth hung open as she stared at Heidi.
“Fine.” Heidi tossed her hands into the air. “Your choice. Not mine.”
* * *
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to condense your forty hour week into a three day period, on the days that are difficult to staff. Not everyone is up for this because you have to do two sixteen hours shifts in two days, but you get a four day weekend to recover. Because you often won’t get home until one or two in the morning, you’ll wait until those four day weekends to tell your boyfriend about work. Even if you get a Thursday through Sunday weekend, like I did, if your boyfriend works an odd schedule, you might only have one common day off, so there is a lot to get in on that one day.
You’ll talk around him as he makes dinner. You’ll vent about the girls and about other staff. He’ll stare into his sauté pan and concentrate on the onions. You’ll complain about administration and Organization politics. We all do this.
“Can you just stop?” he’ll eventually blurt out. “I hate hearing about it. It’s too stressful for me.”
You’ll watch him throw a cup of risotto rice into the pan—with a little more aggression than usual—and shuffle it around with the onions, while you try to calm the waves rushing through your gut and up your throat. “Well, how do you suppose it is for me when I’m actually working in the place?”
“Why don’t you quit?” He’ll angrily glugs wine over the risotto, before it’s toasted. Don’t say anything about this if you value your relationship at all. “You spend more time there than you do with me.”
You might have to keep yourself from rolling your eyes. “What would I do if I quit?”
“Fine,” he’ll say, but he probably won’t look at you. “Then just don’t talk to me about your job anymore.”
“I work sixteen hour days. I have to talk to someone.”
He’ll turn to face you then. “I don’t think you understand how hard it is on me.”
Boyfriends (and girlfriends) are notorious for this shit. Pick up the novel you’ve been reading and get out of there. Go to the living room. You might have the illusion that, if he loves you, he’ll listen when you need to get work out of you. He probably has a similar illusion about your love. After that, you won’t talk about work for any longer than a sentence, and you’ll resent his selfishness when he talks about his work or his friends and complains that you don’t give any input to conversations with his work friends. You’ll resent his selfishness when Sue comes over and he removes himself from your company.
* * *
The girls were talking about Coral. Can you believe she’d try going by “Ann” while living with Ann? Ann was unfair, yes. But Coral was foolish, according to the other girls. Never mind that they knew Coral had no choice as to whom she’d room with. Never mind what their own opinions were. Ann dictated how people acted. If Ann had an opinion, everyone agreed with her and talked about how they agreed with her. If Ann found a reason to shove another girl, everyone clearly stated that Ann was in the right and that the other person deserved to be shoved. For a few days or a week, they agreed, until Ann’s concern with the situation waned. Then they whispered to staff in their rooms, or at the door, or on a walk: Remember that thing with Ann and Korey last week? I think Ann was a little out of control. She wasn’t very fair with Korey.
Their own opinions on Coral would have changed back on Friday afternoon anyway, when their kids returned from daycare with lice. There’s no way of knowing who brings lice into a place like that. There is only the logic that is brought to the situation: Coral had been there for three days and, to avoid interacting with any peers, she had been hanging out in daycare. In the minds of the girls—and most of the staff—she was the culprit.
* * *
Coral ran twice in the first two weeks. Once because of the lice accusations; we weren’t sure if there was an actual incident the other time, or if it was just the general circumstances under which she was living. She didn’t feel like sharing when Sue asked. She came back on her own both times. Her “boyfriend” lived seven blocks away, down the hill and just over the bridge that separated his apartment from the curving tree-lined streets of the upper class neighborhood that the treatment center was in. He would only have her one night, though, because he had another girlfriend. She walked back the first time. She called for a ride the second.
“It’s only seven blocks away.” Heidi told her on the phone. “You walked there and you want us to waste the gas on starting up the van? Do you know how much gas that thing takes?” She sighed. “How about if we both walk halfway and I’ll meet you in the middle. Then we can walk home the rest of the way together.”
I watched her hang up. “If you drove you’d spend less time with her.”
“You’re the shift supervisor.” Heidi was putting her shoes on. “Why aren’t you picking her up?”
“You answered the phone.”
* * *
“You’ve done your service,” your mother will tell you on the phone. “You need to take care of your own needs now. You’ve done your share.”
You probably don’t like explaining yourself to her. “Mom,” you’ll say impatiently, “you don’t just do service work for while and then decide it’s done, that you don’t have to do it anymore.”
“Why not?” She’ll sound impatient, too. “Isn’t it part of your duty to make some money so you can take care of me when I’m old and incapacitated?” Because parents worry about things like that.
Take a deep breath. Admit it. “No matter what I do, Mom, I won’t be making much money.”
“You’ve worked there too long, honey. It’s time you take care of yourself.”
This will probably come out in a monotone: “I am taking fine care of myself, Mom.” I mean, are you?
Moms always worry about this, too, so she’s bound to say it sometime: “I didn’t want to point it out, but you don’t sound happy.”
* * *
Coral had no friends and talked constantly. Go away, the other girls would tell her. I can’t believe how stupid you are. How stupid do you think your baby’s gonna be? Don’t touch my daughter. You’ll give her lice.
She followed staff around, though we were all nearly as intolerant. “She’s so needy,” we’d all complain. We’d roll our eyes when we saw her approaching. We’d tune her out when we played games on the sagging brown velour couches in the TV lounge or watched kids in the stale sourness of the air contained in that place or went on walks or to the pool. I was guilty. I was annoyed.
But as she sat outside the staff door one day, looking in, while all the other girls were in the TV lounge, laughing, Coral asked: “So what’re you doing?” to no one specific. No one answered. “Do you need any help?” Silence again. A curling hollowness started shifting in my chest for a moment, then—as I imagined a series of pictures of myself with two long braids and a little blue flowered dress, and holding the hand of my grade school’s receptionist outside a tiger cage, in front of several monkeys, laughing at huge parrots, and recalled my second grade teacher’s voice saying, Why can’t you just play with the other kids. Let Mrs. Ross alone. She doesn’t want to spend all her time with you—the hollowness twisted and expanded and throbbed, tickling my throat. Coral frowned. “Do you have anything for me to do?” she asked.
I almost choked when I said, “We’re trying to get our logging done, Coral.” I could hear the shake in my voice. “What we need is a little quiet so we can finish up and come out to talk to you.”
“Oh,” she said. “Okay. I’ll just stay quiet out here until you get done.”
And when I finished, I sat down on the bench beside Coral and asked her if she’d like to help me forage through the kitchen for baking ingredients. “Let’s see what we can make with what we have.”
“Alright!” She popped to standing position. “This so exciting! Cookies!”
All the reasons why I had applied for the job at the treatment center in the first place were there, condensed into a single blink. I’d been one of the friendless many times in my life. I had changed schools frequently. Where would I be if no one had reached out to me? It was a way for me to pay Mrs. Ross and others back, to keep up the cycle of acceptance. It was fear, too. I was still moving frequently. Every time I did, the feeling that this was the move that would be the big flop returned to me. This was the one where I wasn’t ever going to fit in, where no one would ever get around to liking me. So it felt like insurance against myself falling into that position for an extended period. If I kept trying, then I could be sure someone else would try for me. Everyone deserves some attention. And there was Coral. I knew why I was there.
Coral and I went on walks in the woods with the other friendless girls. Even they didn’t like her. I set her up with simple crafts to concentrate on: bead stringing or painting picture frames. She had trouble sticking with them. When she came in, and clients and other staff disappeared from the room, I sat on the damp couch pretending to listen. I was really just staring at the TV or wiping the snot off the faces of dirty kids who ran by. Sometimes Sue and I sat in the sun with her and asked her questions. How’s the roommate situation, Coral? Did you write some poetry for the anthology at school? And we’d listen.
It was tiring for us. We’d go out for beers after work, at midnight or one, and talk about Coral, ideas on exercising her social skills so other people might find her more acceptable. Against our advice, she’d been trying to buy friends. She’d give the girls new shirts from K-mart, her own jewelry. They would accept the gifts and then ignore her. We felt sorry for her. We felt sorry for ourselves for spending time with her.
Pitying her only seemed to prove my failure at fulfilling my purpose there. I felt useless whenever I watched someone unsuccessfully try to make friends over and over. I felt inhuman if I did nothing to help, to open up, to befriend the friendless. Yet I felt nothing but sorry for Coral.
* * *
On the three days off that you spend alone, sleep late so you can recover from your dreams of work: a bitter dream of sharing your house with Ann Reid and her daughter, Kylie; a dream of adopting Alex with your boyfriend; a dream wherein you no longer work at the treatment center and Coral is still following you around at your new job. On the first day off, Thursday, you might wander downtown sidewalks, trying to feel alive, trying to fit in with the city. You could stop in bookstores and read in corners. Buy magazines and books and fruit smoothies and sit on a blanket in your back yard, looking up through a huge evergreen at the blue sky, which might remind you of Alex at first, but if you keep it up, his juice-stained face will fade.
On Friday, drive to the mountains just outside of town and hike all morning until you find a lunch spot you like. Then eat and head back to the city. Maybe you can stop along the way to splash water from a creek on the back of your neck.
On Saturday, plan an elaborate meal to be ready when your boyfriend gets home. It’s the last day of his week. After dinner, the two of you can meet friends at a pub, or go out to hear some music. Then spend Sunday together. It’s your one day.
By Sunday night your dreams of work will cease and Monday morning you will be well rested but unsure of what will be waiting for you as the bus strains to get to the top of the hill that the treatment center rests on. A lot can happen in four days. You simply can’t prepare for Monday mornings. You’re too relaxed.
* * *
Coral went into labor in the fourth month of her pregnancy. Problems arise frequently in girls bearing children at such a young age. Their bodies don’t seem to be stable enough yet, to carry a child and to give birth. Coral’s child was brain damaged, immediately placed in an incubator, and attached to life-support. She was given less than a ten percent chance to live. It seemed impossible that a child born that prematurely could be given any chance at life.
I stopped by the maternity unit during my morning shift, when the rest of the girls were in school. Coral’s eyes were bright and clear when she saw me. “Wait’ll you meet her,” she grinned. “She’s so cool.”
Coral and her baby were tiny amid the other mothers who tended to their babies and talked to them. Most of the women were fifteen years older than Coral—hell, they were older than me. Their kids were in bassinets with monitors hooked up to their legs, arms, or heads, which looked ominous enough. They’d done the same to some of the other girls’ babies who had been born healthy.
But Coral wasn’t allowed to touch her baby.
We had to view her through the clear plastic of the incubator. She reminded me of a baby bird. Shiny with mucus. Bony. Skin clinging to stringy tendons. She could have fit in the palm of my hand.
“She’s beautiful.” Coral leaned her damp face into my shoulder.
I was lost. I tried to see her as beautiful, but she even moved without grace, twitchingly and sporadically. I stared into the incubator thinking over and over she’s beautiful, she’s beautiful, but I could not convince myself. I concentrated hard, but only saw a bulge behind a closed eyelid. What was I to do? “She is beautiful,” I said. I sounded insincere; I wanted to take it back, to have not said anything at all.
Coral didn’t seem to notice. “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she cooed.
I draped my arm across her shoulders and kept quiet. I didn’t want to ruin her limited time with her daughter. I wanted to share her awe for this child, but as I looked between her broad smile and the child enclosed in plastic, I wanted to shrink away. This might be worse, I thought, than the child being stillborn.
“Omigod!” She jerked her head up with a surprised look. “I’m a mother!”
She wasn’t going to be for long. I understood this, but Coral seemed to think that “life support” meant that her child’s life would be supported. Her doctor and social worker both tried to clarify the situation for her.
“Your child,” Myra, her Organization-assigned social worker, began.
“Her name’s Beautiful. Because she’s beautiful.” Coral could barely contain herself. She was about to jump out of her bed.
I stood against the wall, head lowered, waiting to see how she would take the news.
Coral’s mother, a grey version of her daughter’s rectangular head and body and huge lips, sat slumped in a chair by the bed. She had not said a word and had barely moved since I arrived an hour before.
Myra sighed. “Your child has nearly no chance to live. If she does live, she will not be functional. She is that brain damaged. She will be a vegetable.” She rubbed her forehead. “Your child’s quality of life will be poor, to put it nicely. You must tell the doctor if you want to take her off life support.”
“And kill my baby?” Her eyes teared up. “No way. Why are you so—” Coral’s eyes searched the room for the right word. “—negative?” She sobbed. It was a weak word for her situation, as far as I was concerned. “I love my baby. I don’t want her to hate me.”
“Love,” Myra said. “Your baby doesn’t have the capacity to love or hate you.” She watched Coral’s unmoving mother for a moment. “Oh, I have to go. I’ll talk to you later, Coral.” She stopped in the doorway. “Coral, I love you.”
Such a mechanical use of such an important word tensed my jaw. I wished she would stop there, but Myra, I believed from the first day I met her, had already reached a level of uncaring that I was unable to fathom.
“The staff loves you,” Myra said. “The girls love you.” Then she disappeared. She couldn’t possibly believe she was doing anyone any good. I would never say I love you to someone just because I felt sorry for her. That would be insulting. I can barely mention love to people I do love.
Coral threw a pillow at the door. “She’s so fake!” Even a borderline intelligence runner can see a lie like that.
* * *
Every now and then you’ll find yourself scanning Indeed for another job. Who knows what. It seemed like the only things that you’ll be qualified for at this point are retail and counseling. You can’t go back to retail. You’d feel truly useless there. At least at the treatment center there is some possibility you could slowly watch some progress.
“I swear,” your boyfriend says as you pull up the job listings on Idealist for something purposeful, “if you just register with a temp agency it’ll be lower stress and you’ll get paid more.”
You will feel like you have an Are you crazy? look on your face. “I don’t want an office job. At least I can go outside at the treatment center. I can interact with people.”
He sighs hard. “But you hate it there.”
“At least I feel something there.”
He looks at you slowly. “You’re saying you don’t feel anything here?”
It’s hard to know what you’re saying.
* * *
Coral was back at the treatment center the next day. Beautiful remained on life-support. The program director informed the line staff that Coral was to take the bus to the hospital, if she wanted to go. She could bring an upper level girl with her for company. Even though Coral had run four times since she arrived two months before, the program director said, she wasn’t concerned about Coral running under these circumstances, and the center couldn’t spare the staff to go with her.
We had a full house: eighteen girls and fourteen kids. On a good night we’d have four staff members. The larger Organization didn’t seem to pay much attention to what was going on at this one center, though there was a rumor that it would be closing if a profit wasn’t made. That was the reason for the poor staff-to-client ratio. The more girls and kids there are in the place, the more money it gets. Girls who were too violent to fit the profile were being accepted into the program. Firestarters and meth addicts and a girl who shot her boyfriend in the foot arrived. It didn’t matter who they were, as long as they were under eighteen and pregnant.
We were trying to get more staff members. Administration said that wasn’t a priority. Life at the treatment center was chaotic. We had no time to spend with the girls. Because of the various situations that lead a teenage girl to pregnancy, “treatment” had never been all that effective in this program. Somehow we were trying to treat all sorts of histories with behavior modification. When the violent ones came in, and the population became too large, we didn’t even have time for the usual half-assed treatment. Activities, group, and anger management classes were canceled because we needed the staff on the floor. We ran from room to room catching falling babies, mediating arguments, intercepting hazards. We’d find Alex in the TV lounge, alone with a fork and an open bottle of rubber cement. We’d rip the materials away, toss a stuffed animal or a Ficsher-Price learning toy into his hands, carry him to his mother and say, Restriction. Alone. Rubber cement and fork in hands. Argue with me later. And then we’d rush down the hall toward voices that sounded like they could be escalating into a fight.
Coral had been taking the bus to the hospital for five days. On a Wednesday, the hospital called with news that Beautiful Luce had died. They needed Coral there immediately.
Sue and Heidi and I stood silently in the office. We closed the door and looked at each other without speaking for a while. Coral and Korey, who was on an upper level, had left on the bus an hour before. We did not know where they were. Sue decided to wait at the hospital.
Coral met Sue a half hour later. The hospital staff were appalled that we would send a fourteen-year-old girl on the bus when her child was on life-support. They called the administrative head at the Organization. The administrative head called the program director. The program director called Sue while she was still at the hospital, and reprimanded her for letting Coral take the bus on such a crucial day.
When they returned from the hospital, Coral was limp and quiet. Sue was feeling guilty for letting her take the bus, even though she had no way of knowing that Beautiful had died. “Why do I even listen to administration?” she said. “I should have just defied them. What was I thinking?”
Coral stretched out on the sticky floor outside the office door. Ann’s kid sidled up and stood over her head. “Hey, Kylie,” Coral said to the toddler. “Hold my hand.”
* * *
Coral spent the next four days before the funeral in her room. She’d come out with Ann occasionally, both of them laughing, Coral sucking a pacifier she had bought for Beautiful.
“She’s sick.” Ann’s face straightened out when Coral went back to her room. “I feel sorry for her, but she’s sick. In the head.”
“What would you do if Kylie died?”
“I’d probably be sick too.” She leaned forward. “But not that sick.”
* * *
It was an Organization funeral.
The staff and a few girls from the center clung to the edges of the wide green cemetery. The social workers and administration seemed somewhat more comfortable, milling around in the sunshine near the pulpit and flowers before services began.
Heidi and Myra leaned against a low stone wall. Sue and I branched away from them, facing the distant mountains. We all let our eyes follow the men in Organization uniforms as they talked to the program director and set up chairs.
“I have a lunch date.” Myra sucked on her cigarette.
“Shit,” Heidi said, drawing her hands up to her right breast. “I think I just lost my nipple ring.”
“Oh, loosen up, Myra. You fucking saint.” Heidi squatted down and ran her fingers through the grass.
Coral skipped up to us in her pink and black floral dress. “Smile!” she called and took our picture. Then she ran off.
None of us had smiled.
Myra sighed. “I suppose it’s my responsibility to go talk to her.” She stood for a second, looking up at the clear sky, breathing the smoke out of her lungs. I didn’t make a noise. No one did. What could we have said to Coral? “I suppose,” Myra mumbled, and then followed her. I didn’t envy her position.
Sue and I squatted to help Heidi, still rifling through the grass. As I ran my hands over the cool lawn, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to find Heidi’s nipple ring. I didn’t want to touch it. It was a mechanical thing, getting down on the ground and weaving my fingers into the grass. It was something to do at a place I did not want to be. Heidi found it before I had to face the actuality of it, and I was relieved.
I separated from Sue and Heidi then, and headed up toward the chairs.
It was a lovely day by anyone’s standards, which seemed all wrong. Not just that Coral was romping around, laughing and taking pictures, but the saturated blue of the sky, the clean smell of the grass wafting past me—everything. It seemed wrong that we were having a big funeral for a premature baby that hadn’t made it a week. What was she going to be buried in? She was too small for a shoebox. Cut tulips and daffodils covered every surface, spread out over the chairs before they were put in their place. Tulips in tall vases on the grass. Daffodils on tables, on the pulpit. But no sign of the former Beautiful Luce. No tiny casket, no urn, no grave I could see, just a pulpit standing in front of the chairs and flowers. It seemed wrong that some of the girls and staff who detested Coral’s presence were there, people who had caused Coral to run. It seemed wrong that it was an Organization funeral. Nothing about the Organization seemed right to me.
When I got up to the pulpit, I saw that there were only four chairs. Where was I supposed to stand? What were those guys in their grey uniforms over there saying to Coral?
“What the hell am I supposed to do?” Ann stood in front of me, one hand on her hip, the other with a holding a tablet like it was a sour diaper. Her forehead was scrunched. “She wants me to take pictures. You’re not supposed to take pictures of a funeral.”
* * *
After the Organization captain read from the bible for a half hour and bowed his head, Coral started crying but still managed to tap the play button on the tablet to turn on the music.
In the receiving line, I felt foolish. There I was, standing in the sun, listening to Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” and waiting. What was I doing? Waiting for what? Sue twirled a twig between her fingers and mouthed the words to the song absently. Heidi’s arms were folded as she stared across the graves.
When I reached Coral, I gave her a hug. An empty move, I thought. But I surprised myself. I told her that I loved her so much.
That’s what I said: I love you so much.
The blood rushed to my face. I hadn’t meant to say that. I hadn’t meant to say anything. It came out unexpectedly. Why would I say I loved Coral? I didn’t think I did until that moment, or just after, when a breeze moved the warmth of the sunlight around my face and I could feel it in my chest—that absolute presence. I simply knew.
“I love you, too,” she whispered back.
I didn’t feel sorry for her one bit at that moment. I sucked in some of that warm summer air and I thought, It’s such a beautiful day for her to take pictures.
Robin Israel is a co-founder of Writers’ Buffet in Tucson and Writing Without Workshops in Phoenix. She has worked as a shoeshine girl, a banker, a builder of mud brick structures, a horticulturist, a counselor, an editor, an educational program developer, a book buyer, and has taught writing in Arizona, Louisiana, and Poland. Robin earned her MFA from the University of Arizona and has stories published in Watershed Review and Extract(s). Find her at robinisrael.com and on Twitter at @robiniwrites.