The month starts off on a disappointing note: Gemini misses her big tooth-implant appointment with the dentist. Days later, she lists to me the many reasons why she had forgotten the date.
For starters, the father of her younger son has returned, but he and Gemini have not gotten back together, as was hoped. He’s taken back the phone on which the dentist and I were calling her. Worse, he’s taken back their younger son. Her 5-year-old misses his baby brother. Gemini misses them both.
Then there’s her housing. Her living conditions worsened and, once again, she’s had to move. Gemini and her older son now live with her aunt. Thankfully, the new home appears more stable. Fewer people share the house and her aunt has brought Gemini into a weekly Bible study where she can find support. And she doesn’t have to pay rent, which is a good thing because she is broke.
For Elaya, the news is brighter.
It’s a sunny afternoon in mid-May when she calls to fill me in. She’s finished her second quarter in solid standing. She’s working. She’s signed a lease and found a roommate to help cover the costs. She has a cell phone, and it even has voicemail this time, so we can stay in touch.
We make a plan to meet the next Sunday. Elaya asks if her guardian angel, the one who gave her the computer, can join us. I have to tell her he’s not been in touch. She then asks if I ever talk with Charles or Matthew and, again, I say no. Matthew didn’t return a single call, and Charles was never lucid enough for conversation the times I spoke with him. There’s a long silence, in which I hear the sirens and cars behind her.
She chuckles. “Well, it was us in the beginning. I guess it’ll be just us again.”
Little D is available the same day and, finally, we have the perfect opportunity for Elaya and Little D to talk at length. We make a plan to meet up in Columbia Heights near Little D’s home. I’m sure they’ll get along, though Elaya wants Starbucks and Little D tends to prefer the ice-cream store near her house. They’ll sort it out, though, when we meet outside the neighborhood’s new Target at 4 o’clock.
At 10 minutes before the hour, Elaya calls. She’s running just 10 minutes or so late, and is bringing her “sister” and her "sister"’s 3-month-old baby. “We’ll wait,” I tell her. Ten minutes is no big deal after all these months.
At a quarter past the hour, I am still standing alone outside the Target. On this Memorial Day weekend, the store’s entrance and the sidewalk are crowded with families, workers on cigarette breaks, and a security guard who comes up to me with a big smile.
“You’re still here?” he asks. I shake my head, confused. Still? Fifteen minutes is nothing in the lives of the dispatch kids. Then he realizes he’s mistaken me for another woman, who, earlier, had waited a whopping hour before giving up and going home. I shake my head again. No, that’d never be me.
At 4:40, three things happen. I develop a distinct longing for sunscreen. Elaya answers her cell phone and tells me she’s on the metro, just six stops away. Little D finally picks up her phone, too. I’ve awoken her from a very late Sunday sleep-in. She’d crashed at 2 a.m. and isn’t even in Columbia Heights, but offers to come over immediately. I tell her not to worry. I’ve just spoken with Elaya and she’s only 10 minutes away. I’ll catch Little D later.
But Elaya never comes. In the swarm of teenagers walking by, I look for her upbeat step and house of a purse. In the stance of the boys smoking beside me, I sense the curiosity about a woman, out of place, refusing to look away when they stare. And, in the shocked expression of the security guard, who comes up to me a second time, I realize how naively optimistic I must seem to still be there, waiting. At that point, I give up.
Elaya has not returned any subsequent calls. Little D makes me retell the details of this no-show over and over again, as we try to sort it out. We can’t.
But, if Elaya’s nonappearance has brought us down, the turnaround of Little D and Gemini lifts us back up. When we meet after their work, they’re wearing huge smiles and mud-covered pants. D.C.’s summer has arrived that week and their day cleaning by the river has left them tired, but happy. We decide Five Guys cheeseburgers are in order and head toward the intersection.
The light’s red, so I stop. They laugh, start to cross, and tell me to come on.
“They give tickets here for jaywalking,” I tell them. “All the time. I’ve seen it.”
With loud sighs, they back up and wait with me for the green light. The moment we’re across M Street, they peek into a parked police car at a slouched-over cop. “See,” they tell me, laughing. “He’s asleep. How’s he going to wake up and give us a ticket?”
Still laughing, Gemini then launches into an update on her life. She’s passed her first-quarter classes. She’s found a way to make ends meet and get additional loans for a second quarter. The final hurdle, needing a computer for online classes, has been cleared, thanks to a generous relative.
Little D jumps in and begins talking over her. I hear nothing she says, though. I am too preoccupied by a silver bar, piercing the skin above her lip.
“It didn’t hurt,” she assures me.
“I got one, too,” Gemini adds. “But it closed right back up. I’m not the piercing kind.”
“I am,” Little D says.
“Were you drunk? Or tripped out on something?” I have to ask.
This cracks them up. I’ve used wrong, old-school phrases again, despite the months they’ve invested in schooling me in street talk. When they can talk again, they assure me they were sober. The piercings weren’t undertaken in honor of any special event. Gemini and Little D just felt like piercing themselves.
Inside Five Guys, Gemini can’t stop shivering. She wore the ECC-provided waders at work, but they didn’t keep her pants dry when she fell in the creek. Still hours away from a change of clothes, she assures me she’s fine. Better than fine, as it turns out. She’s about to get some money in the mail.
“The Kiva people paid me back,” she says. “I got an e-mail.”
“Did I keep the same e-mail address?” Little D asks, more to herself than to us.
“Which one did you invest in?” I ask Gemini. “The man or the woman?”
“The woman.” The 54-year-old maker of fried chicken and sausages, we all then remember.
“Did I get the money back?” Little D now asks.
“Did you change your e-mail address?” I ask, by way of replying.
“Nope.” She cracks up, knowing the auto-repair-shop owner to whom she had loaned money has not yet paid her back.
They go on to tell me about the new wannabe ECC members who are now in “sink-or-swim” training, hoping to be admitted into the program Gemini and Little D are finishing. They are the only remaining girls in their corps class, and they’ve only seen two girls in the SOS training group, which consists of some 40 young people.
“Well, the new corps isn’t starting for a while,” I say. “So you can’t go anywhere. You are the dispatch column for now.”
“Where would we go?” Gemini asks. “And what’s wrong with us?”
“Why start with someone new?” Little D adds.
I assure them I’ll show up as long as they want to share their stories. I remember the August day, nine months earlier, when I met Elaya in this very Five Guys. I recall the earnestness I heard in her voice days before when she said she was only a few metro stops away. Gemini is encouraging Little D to try the vinegar-ketchup mix with her fries because it’s the best thing ever. Little D’s new piercing catches the light every time she nods in time to the music playing overhead. “So don’t go anywhere,” I tell them again.
As we walk out of Five Guys, Gemini’s bus pulls up on the other side of M Street. She breaks into a sprint, takes a second to check for traffic, and darts across. Not one of the policemen standing nearby even tries to give her a ticket for jaywalking. Maybe she’s too fast for them. Or maybe it’s just her lucky day.