Little D is considering cooking school. When she sees an ad for the Art Institute’s culinary program, she signs up for a Saturday-morning open house. I’m the “plus one” she invites. Though it’s the rare day I could sleep in, I go. This is Little D. She’s worth a 9 a.m. start.

She arrives at 10 o’clock.

From her home, it’s a straight shot on the metro to this Arlington campus. But Little D’s never ridden the line this far. She didn’t know how long it would take.

In the institute’s lobby, an alarmingly chipper woman thrusts a clipboard and pen at Little D. After staring for a long time at what’s being offered, Little D takes them. Once she provides the needed information, she’s given several handouts. She passes them to me without a word.

Little D quit school after the eighth grade over four years ago. She’s not yet taken the GED. Each time I ask, she’s waiting for the practice-test results she needs to take the actual GED. People at the ECC tell her who to call for results. She tells me she’s waiting for someone to call her. In my hands, I’m holding as many schedules, welcome letters, and maps as the number of months the elusive practice-test scores have bounced from person to person.

The orientation talk has already started and we stand behind a roomful of people. Admissions officers blessed with loud voices swear to us that this program is the best, most fun and affordable, of its kind. They fire off numbers of credits needed, when students get to make soufflés, and how to apply for housing. “Do you want to move up where you can hear them more easily?” I whisper. Little D shakes her head.

In the student kitchen, an apprentice chef shows off shiny ovens and an even shinier freezer, large enough for 30 sheet cakes. Around us, parents and their teenage children talk about studying here, high above Arlington and the Potomac River. When everyone heads toward the classrooms, Little D tells me we can skip the rest of the tour.

We stop at the admissions center. An officer sits down with us and asks about Little D’s favorite cooking programs and recipes. The line’s long, though, and he quickly cuts to the important questions.

Transcript? We have none. GED test certificate? Little D says she’ll take it soon. Would we like to go ahead and complete the application? Little D nods. He asks for the $50 application fee. We shake our heads.

He hands us a financial-aid brochure, an application, and an Art Institute cup. He calls out for the next potential applicant. Our open-house experience has ended.

Outside, Little D tries to hand me the pile of papers and brochures.

“D, they’re yours,” I tell her. We both stare at her small purse. “You need a bag for your books if you’re going back to school. Like the one Gemini uses for her work shoes.”

Little D manages to stuff the cup into her purse. She lines up the edges of the sheets and brochures against her leg and, when pleased they’re organized, cradles the stack in one arm. “I’d have to buy a bag. I don’t own one now.”

“Why’d you leave school after the eighth grade?” I ask. I’ve asked many times.

She shakes her head. “I don’t even remember. But I sure wish I hadn’t.”

- - -

Three weeks later, we’re back by the Anacostia River. Little D is no closer to the GED test. Gemini hasn’t yet completed a full week of outpatient therapy. Kevin hasn’t made it past page 5 of Crime and Punishment. No one’s talking about any of that tonight, since we’re together for the ECC’s annual Thanksgiving dinner. But while books, tests, and therapy can be set aside, the reality of the streets outside can’t.

“There’s been a lot of violence around here,” Kevin tells me. “Nobody’s got killed, but a lot of people have been shooting. A lot of beefing’s going on.” He shakes his head. “This time of year, when it’s starting to get cold and people don’t have no source of income, all they know is the streets. If everybody had the dollars in their pocket they want, they wouldn’t be into the stuff they’re in.”

Kevin’s still spending little of his income. He’s just had a birthday and lists saving among his birthday goals. The other goals: moving out of his mother’s house and getting married. “I want to get me a wife. A wife and kids.”

“You just turned 21.”

“Yeah, but I’ve got a couple of [lady] friends. I don’t talk to 10 or 20 girls at a time like most do.”

There’s no current girlfriend and I can’t pry out of him the reasons behind this birthday goal. We both look toward the window, and the now dark sky reminds me of a more immediate concern: his walking home in the dark.

“I know a lot of people in the area, so I don’t really be afraid for my life.” He glances toward the window again. “But bullets don’t have no name on them.”

“What if I tried to walk to the Navy Yard metro station from here?” I ask.

“They’ll think you’re buying drugs. People come from Virginia and Maryland to buy drugs. That stuff amazes me. How people come so far just to buy drugs.”

People visit his neighborhood to buy lots of things, but crack cocaine’s the best-selling drug. No one comes in for PCP. That, he tells me, is smoked by local kids.

“People get to the point where they’ve smoked so much weed they can’t get high on it anymore, so they go to PCP. Nine times out of ten, they’ll start smoking coke.”

Kevin, though, hasn’t advanced beyond weed. Now that he’s being drug-tested so frequently, he doesn’t even smoke much of that. Getting caught drinking outside seems to be the worst of his vices, and setting birthday goals one of his many virtues.

A boy and a girl, both under the age of 5, wander our way. The girl tugs at my arm. The boy can’t take his eyes off Kevin. When ignoring him fails to send the boy away, Kevin tries appealing to his sense of sibling duty.

“Your little sister’s right there, boy,” Kevin tells him. “Go on now.”

“I want some turkey,” the boy replies. He doesn’t look away from Kevin.

“You’ve got a little brother, right?” I ask Kevin.

“Yeah, but he’s 19,” he answers, rolling his eyes.

“You’re sure you want a wife and kid this early?” The little girl climbs onto my lap while her brother reaches for Kevin’s baseball cap.

“Not yet. But it’s one of my goals.”

“So, not in the next year?” It’s been, at most, 15 minutes since he named this as a 21st-birthday goal.

“Noooooo. I’ve got to live my life first.”

- - -

Gemini’s life, since well before even reaching her 20th birthday, has included kids, and this month she’s most easily able to talk late at night when they’re asleep. We catch up over the phone one Sunday evening. She’ll begin her second full week of outpatient therapy the next day. The first week was hard.

“Crazy” is how she describes the days. “I’m so used to [the drugs]. Now I’m bored and I don’t know what to do, so I try to make sure I’ve got some extracurricular activities. I like going to therapy so that when I come home I’m tired.”

The outpatient treatment plan demands that she spend over three hours at the clinic Monday through Thursday and attend a shorter session on Fridays. But this past Friday she slipped for the first time in three weeks.

“I’m really disappointed with myself,” she confesses. “It just makes me want to cry—smoking. It was about to be a whole month [since she last did PCP]. One of my friends doesn’t really like [buying] on the strip, so he asked me to go. I said no, that you know I’m trying to stop and all that, but, I don’t know, I’m really cool with him, so I went.”

She’s steered clear of all her drug-using friends except for this one and identifies him and the situation by a word she’s learned in group therapy: “trigger.” The list of triggers to drug use is long. She’s ready to talk about this one in therapy, and how she’ll avoid it next time. She’s sure she will, because there’s too much ahead to allow this addiction to hold her back.

Her internship has led to a full-time-job offer, including college-scholarship dollars. If all goes well in the coming weeks, she’ll begin earning real money for the first time, and in a job that affords time for classes and studying while at work. She will not, she promises me, need the 28-day program.

For now, she needs to sleep. It’s late and this 20-year-old has to wake up early to get her older son to school and herself to work.

“I’m not having any more kids out of wedlock. My mother better hope I even have another baby. For real. If I’m not married by the age of 25, I’m not having no more kids. If I start working now, I’ll be retired by the time I’m 42, and I’m not going to be raising no kids at that age. I’m already calculating things. I’m going to the Caribbean myself [then] if I’m not married, and I’m not going to be like one of those How Stella Got Her Groove Back women like in that movie. If I don’t have a man by the time I’m 25, I won’t need one. Getting the groove back,” Gemini repeats. She laughs as she says the word “groove.”

As she hangs up, Gemini’s planning her next steps for this week: school paperwork, what to wear to work, how to stay busy when not at the outpatient clinic. Terry McMillan’s Stella may have needed to leave the country to find her groove. Gemini’s racing toward her own right here in D.C.