At the end of February, I ask Little D to describe this past month in a few words. “Oblivion shot,” she says, and then giggles. “I heard that on TV. I don’t even know what it means.”
While Gemini curses her phone for dying on the day her younger son’s father is scheduled to call, Little D and I talk about what a shot of oblivion might do to a person, how it might feel, and what “oblivion” means. She stares at the Washington Post classifieds she picked up earlier while I use the word in various sentences. She shakes her head. “I don’t want that word. How about ‘not good enough’? Just ‘not good enough.’”
In February, temperatures remained low, making outdoor work hard. The ECC group dwindled further, to seven from an original 18-strong corps. It became clear that no corps members will have worked enough hours, by term end, to earn the scholarship dollars available. But in the middle of this comes a heart-shaped box of chocolates for each of them, a dentist, and Little D’s long-awaited introduction to a possible mentor.
A dispatch reader who emigrated from Peru years ago has taken an interest in their story and is willing to share what she knows of college scholarships and grants. She arrives prepared to help them map their way. But nothing goes as imagined, starting with their not believing anyone can take on both work and college.
“You guys have energy,” she tells them, while we sit around a table at Subway. “A government employer will give you flexibility. You don’t have to work full time.”
“I need money. And a longtime babysitter,” Gemini says.
The dispatch reader goes on to explain how she juggled learning English, attending college, and supporting herself. Gemini’s and Little D’s eyes bulge when she tells them she even cleaned houses. Her story holds their attention, until she points out that they can go to college, too. They change the subject.
The would-be mentor and I return to the question of education. This time, Gemini and Little D answer with a story of their last visit to Subway, when Gemini put her head on that very table and slept for two hours. They finish laughing their way through this story of Subway employees watching her sleep, and the subject of college has been skirted again. Before we can return to it, Gemini pushes aside her Valentine’s chocolates. She’s clearing room to write a letter and turn one of her dreams into a reality.
Gemini lost one of her front teeth at the age of 12 while running from the police. She fell onto the concrete. The tooth was knocked loose. Gemini wishes for a tooth as much as a home. My dentist may help, but first Gemini must write him.
While Gemini drafts, Little D talks with this would-be mentor. She takes her e-mail address and promises to contact her with any questions. Little D can’t articulate many questions around college and planning a future yet. But now she has someone to help her answer them when she’s ready.
The next day, I gladly suffer a tooth-cleaning and fluoride treatment to present Gemini’s letter. The dentist is a soft-spoken man with a downtown office and a primarily downtown-working, professional clientele. After pronouncing me free of cavities, he skims over her letter. “When I was 12 years old, I was wrongfully hanging out with the wrong crowd. Although I have learned from my consequences, my missing tooth has interfered with my self-esteem and my physical appearance.” I describe her potential. The dental hygienist murmurs sympathetically. My dentist agrees to meet her and see what he can do.
A week later, Little D and I bide our time in the reception area while the dentist examines Gemini’s teeth. We are the quietest, most respectful friends of a would-be patient this doctor’s office has ever seen. Our cell phones do not even vibrate in this place where we hope a replacement tooth waits for Gemini. Little D speaks only when she finishes reading, on my BlackBerry screen, the January dispatch, just posted the day before. “This other girl, Elaya, is she OK?”
Every young person I’ve interviewed since August has raced through these dispatches, searching for mention of themselves, skipping over everyone else’s stories. Most want to believe they’re the only ones schooling me about Anacostia life. A few have desperately needed to believe theirs is the only voice I hear, because no one else is listening to them. But, in these few minutes of quiet, Little D makes the jump no one else has made in seven long months.
She scrolls back over the dispatch sections describing Elaya’s unstable living situation and the man’s couch she sleeps on. “Doesn’t she have family? Is she OK?”
I can’t easily answer. Elaya has not met with me since the January day she joked about making lemonade when life handed her lemons. I can only chart the downward spiral of events based on the e-mails, a single call, and reports from others in her life.
Elaya e-mailed days after our last meeting. “I need to hurry up and find some place to go now. I’m becoming very uncomfortable with my current situation.” I leave messages at all her numbers, saying that we can help her, that we will meet with her whenever she’s free. No reply comes.
She calls the following week, sick and upset. “I have to have a place to stay. A warm, clean place for a few days.” She’s been moving from shelters to the man’s couch to various friends’ homes and back to shelters. I ask if she’s called the aunt who was so proud of her for getting into college. Elaya can only stay there a few days, though. Despite saying she must get to a place for a few days, when one’s actually offered, she rejects it. What she really wants is a permanent home.
She’s calling from her college counselor’s office. The chatter around her and the stress in her voice rise in lockstep. “You want me to go back to my great-aunt’s, don’t you? And we’ll be all happy, with a dog and a picket fence and everything? Fine. Then that’s what I’ll tell you is happening.” Someone behind her demands the phone. I ask her to name a meeting time, or tell me where I can reach her. She says she’ll call back in a few minutes, and never does.
I reach her college counselor the next day and ask him to pass on housing information the ECC supervisor had given me. He reports that Elaya’s getting good scores. He hasn’t seen her recently, but she’s posting her work online, regularly.
“What do you think is going on when a student works and lives with family, more or less, for the last six months, only to have everything go so wrong the moment she realizes her college dream?” I ask. He has no answer. Neither do I.
Another week passes and I call her best friend / sister’s mother. She’s not seen Elaya in over two weeks. She says the older man with the couch down the street hasn’t seen her, either. Elaya is welcome back anytime, she assures me, as long as she’s willing to follow the house rules. When she was Elaya’s age and putting herself through school, this friend’s mother sometimes had to sleep under trees and in shelters. She understands Elaya’s predicament and offers rules and open arms—the stuff of family. She signs off with one request. “You tell Elaya to call her mama.”
Finally, Elaya calls. She leaves two messages that she’s OK, is studying, and will call again soon. But when 18-year-old Little D asks if this other 18-year-old girl she’s never met is OK, I can’t say she is, no matter how many voicemails to that effect I get.
“She’s moving around,” I tell Little D. “She needs a job to get a place, and hates following the rules at other people’s places until she can make that happen, but doesn’t want to stay in a shelter, either.”
Little D squints at the dispatch. “I guess there are rules no matter where you go.”
After the dentist sends us away with an “I’ll call you” promise, Gemini, Little D, and I hit the Farragut North Starbucks, a far cry from our usual Navy Yard hangout.
“Are you happy about getting a new tooth?” Little D asks. “‘Cause you don’t look all that happy.”
Gemini shrugs. “I know it’s going to be different.”
“I like her just the way she is,” Little D tells me.
Since the dentist hasn’t yet confirmed he’ll replace the tooth, no one wants to hope too much, and Gemini focuses instead on her phone. It’s dying the very day her baby’s father is to call. She hasn’t yet read the latest dispatch, but when Little D describes it she puts aside her dead phone.
“And that girl, Elaya, her situation sounds hard,” Little D informs her.
“She doesn’t have a baby, does she?” Gemini replies.
“No, but she also doesn’t have much family support,” I answer.
“She has a baby?” Little D asks, and we could be speculating on the marital status of Kiva entrepreneurs all over again.
“No,” I repeat. “But she had all those dreams, and once she got into school …”
I’ve already lost them, though. The lengthening bathroom line offers too much more comic relief. And while they speculate over whether the already-made-up woman is changing in the bathroom for a date and Gemini jiggles her dead phone for the umpteenth time, I realize what may be working against Elaya. Fear.
The great-aunt who mocks her success, the relatives who expect her to fall short, and her own doubts about making it. As much as her surrogate mother wants her to know she’s loved, she’ll have to talk more loudly to override the negative voices Elaya has internalized and is struggling to quiet so she can make her way.
“Oblivion shots,” Little D keeps saying as we leave Starbucks, tickled to no end by the words. We part, with Gemini hoping for the new tooth, Little D tucking the Post classifieds into her bag, and neither of them whatsoever oblivious to the world in which they’re finding their way.
Elaya e-mails me the last day of the month. “Please don’t be worried about me, I’m fine. I just don’t have access to a phone at will right now … But I’m staying on top of my class work regardless of what’s going on. Always. Don’t give up on me, you guys! Please. I don’t have many people left who believe in me the way you do.”
As Little D’s “not good enough” month winds down, the dentist is still reviewing Gemini’s file, Little D and Gemini are preparing for life after the ECC, and Elaya is completing school assignments somewhere nearby, but is utterly unreachable right now. And no one is giving up on anyone anytime soon.