In January, Elaya is back to carrying her house in her purse. It’s heavier than before, though. Now she’s toting the laptop computer her guardian angel provided and school books as well.
When we meet, the “house” takes up much of the table and Elaya can barely muster a smile for the guardian angel and me. She’s a few days out of her family’s home with no plans to move back. This time, the breaking point was college. Overhearing Elaya talk with her college counselor about her aspirations and doubts, one of her relatives laughed at her. With college being so important, the sting of family picking at her dream will take much longer to fade than past upsets have.
“It takes a lot to get me mad. I want to make [them] happy, but it’s like I’m the worst person in the world … If I was a boy, they wouldn’t even give me a place to stay.” But, as she prepares to begin college, Elaya has chosen to leave anyway.
Instead, she is looking for work while sleeping in her “sister” / best friend’s very full house. She can’t afford a cell phone until she finds work, and now has no permanent number at which potential employers can return her calls. In many ways, she is more vulnerable than ever, even as the college dream is becoming a reality. So her guardian angel and I worry when she shows off a watch a friend gave her for Christmas. It’s the only present anyone gave her.
“He’s just a friend. I’ve known him since elementary school. I was 14 or 15 when I started seeing him around, but I never really stood outside [like he did] …” Now he’s 22 to her 18, has done time, and holds no job. “He’s been locked up. So what?”
Her guardian angel grew up in a world much like Elaya’s, has children of his own, and wants very much for Elaya to break out as he was able to all those years ago. He worries this man could become the deadbeat who holds her back. “You’re at a point in your life where you’re changing,” he says. “I’ve seen this story so many times.”
Elaya just rolls her eyes and laughs.
Back by the river, Gemini and Little D play out their own stories as the new year begins.
January has brought Gemini’s 5-year-old home from his grandmother’s, new rings under Gemini’s eyes, and added responsibility. Gemini can’t look for a nighttime job now, but absolutely needs more income to cover costs.
“I have to find a place to live,” she tells me. “Don’t get me wrong—everyone wants to find a place—but I can’t stay in my brother’s house anymore. There’s no room for my son. I can sleep anywhere, but my son—no.”
Little D’s got her hands full with work and the guys who keep trying to chat her up. One has just told her he loves her after only two days talking.
“Why do they do that?” Gemini asks her.
“Could they really do that [fall in love so fast], though?” Little D asks me.
“He’s in love with your attractiveness,” Gemini explains.
“Well, I like being single,” Little D says.
“I like being single when they’re acting dumb.”
“If I don’t have no boyfriend for Valentine’s Day, I’m buying you something,” Little D tells her.
“You can buy me something anyway,” Gemini says.
I promise to give them both Valentine’s Day gifts, even if they’re dating new guys.
“Sometimes it’s good [dating a new guy],” Little D opines.
“That process seems too long. It’s just too damned long.” Gemini looks away.
It’s a cold dreary night and they’ve been working outside all day. But before anyone can drown their sorrows in mega-size sodas, we log on to my computer so they can activate the Kiva gift certificates they got for Christmas. Kiva is a nonprofit that enables people to help individual entrepreneurs in developing countries, track their progress toward their business goals, and make a difference with as little as $25. By the time Little D decides how to invest her money, we’ll be the loudest-laughing group in Five Guys.
They first check out a married female entrepreneur and mother in Africa.
“Her husband ain’t got no job?” Gemini asks. “He ain’t doing much.”
They deem her unworthy, and move on.
Next, we research a married woman selling animals. Again, Gemini asks where her husband is. They can find no details on him in the profile. Little D cracks up. They move on.
Finally, Little D decides a married Middle Eastern man fixing cars needs her money more than anyone else. “He’s got zero raised so far. I want to give to the dude that ain’t got nothing. I’ll give him $25.”
“Where’s his wife at?” Gemini asks, sticking to this very central concern.
“I’ll give it to him,” Little D says, ignoring the question. “He can have it. He’s got two kids. He ain’t got no money.”
And so, as we part, Little D has opted to invest in the auto repairman instead of the entrepreneurial mothers. And we’re all wondering just where the husbands and wives are in the lives of these startup-business owners.
When I next see Elaya and her house of a purse, she’s two weeks into school, a week into living on an older man’s couch, and noticeably more serious.
“I don’t know why I was doubting myself. When you go into something new, you wonder, ‘Am I cut out for this?’ Then I started anyway. The best advice I could have taken was to pay attention … The last couple of discussion classes and topic papers, I’ve done pretty good. I do my homework anywhere I can. This laptop comes in handy.”
She glances down at the laptop threatening to burst her purse’s seams. We tell her how proud we are. Then she says the words that make her Christmas-watch-giving, on-probation friend seem like a prince. “The house I’m in now, his phone got cut off so I can’t [log in] there anymore.”
What house? What man? Her guardian angel and I can’t ask the questions fast enough. Elaya laughs off our concerns, assuring us this is no big deal. A divorced artist in his late 50s lives down the street from her “sister” / best friend’s house. They all know him. Elaya sleeps on his sofa so as to not wear out her welcome in an overly crowded house.
“He was just a guy who, every time he walked past, said hi. Then we gradually started progressing, like we give each other hugs … and that’s how we became friends.”
“We’re not liking this,” I say, trying to look less shocked than her guardian angel.
“Has he ever made a pass at you?” he asks.
Elaya nods. “Even if I’m walking down the street, he’s flirtatious … Now that I’m there, he’s actually asked me to sleep with him. But he should know … I’m not mean, but I’m not going to let nobody do anything, either.”
She sits back and shrugs. She believes this is no huge deal, and, for her, not realizing how huge a deal it is makes the situation easier to endure. Elaya’s options, given her unemployed state, family situation, and age, are limited. The spirit we love in her carries her through moments and days many would not suffer without drugs or alcohol. But spirit alone shouldn’t have to be enough for an 18-year-old, and we tell her so.
“It’s not fair, but when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” she says. Then, with a laugh, she adds, “But I ain’t got no sugar.”
We pull on our coats before parting. Elaya is still wondering if her situation is as precarious as we worry it is. As if to reassure herself that she can still handle things, she brushes my hands away and tries to button my coat for me. As if I were the teenager. As if she were the grownup, cautioning a much younger woman to be careful how much she trades on cuteness at the expense of her own spirit.
Back by the Anacostia, Gemini and Little D take over two Subway-sandwich-shop tables, spreading out their work packs, purses, and coats with an ease that makes me wish, again, that Elaya could have found a way into the ECC. True, the rings under Gemini’s eyes have deepened. Little D still has no mentor. But their days hold structure and camaraderie, at least.
Gemini still needs housing for herself and her son, extra work, and a way to Miami for her 20th birthday. I tell her 20 was a long time ago for me. She shakes her head.
“I wish it was a long time for me, too. Until I get there [age 20], I’d like being 5 years old [again] so I don’t have to pay for nothing. I don’t like the part of someone telling me what to do, and I’ve got to go everywhere someone else goes. I like going on my own. But I don’t [wouldn’t] have to pay no bills.”
Little D tells me again she needs a mentor. “You can get me one? An altogether mentor, a life mentor? Someone who’s going to help me out with my career?”
But even without a mentor, Little D has been thinking through what she’ll do after the ECC. “Construction. I’ve already got my plans laid out … Stuff like nailing things together and painting. Something small, but still construction. I know how to paint.”
Little D speaks with confidence now. She knows she’ll complete the program. She knows what work she wants afterward. And she knows that her Kiva entrepreneur, the auto-repair-shop owner, has had his loan fully funded. He’s on his way, too.
Gemini gets a chance to use her Kiva gift certificate this time. She picks a 54-year-old woman making fried chicken and spicy sausages. “I want to give her her dream before she passes away.”
“And I bet she makes good deep-fried chicken,” Little D adds.
“Well, I bet she’s not going to pass away all that soon,” I offer up.
Gemini’s hand hovers above the computer. She hasn’t yet clicked the “Lend” button. I ask if she wants to check out any more entrepreneurs first.
“I’m too tired.” Then, after she hits “Lend,” Gemini stares at the screen an extra instant. “Too bad we can’t give her the whole $300 [she needs].”
Little D asks me again to confirm that the entrepreneurs don’t repay the loans with interest. We’re helping people who can’t afford to pay interest on top of the loan, I explain. No interest.
“But if they wanted to, could they give us back more? Like, by accident?” she asks.
I roll my eyes. Little D laughs. Gemini jumps to the Craig’s List housing section without acknowledging this exchange. She’s helped someone else fund a dream. Now she has to focus on her own—an affordable home for herself and her son.