I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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Makendra trailed loss and mess and catastrophe the way Halley’s comet trails a cloudy veil of ice and gas. She was dark-skinned and lovely, with finely arched eyebrows and sharp cheekbones. She could have been a fashion model if not for the birthmark that covered one side of her face like a pale pink shadow.
I had known Makendra since she was nine years old. She was one of a group of girls from the nearby public housing project who used to play at my house. I’d make them macaroni and cheese and tuna casserole, and they’d dress up in my clothes and necklaces and swagger around pretending to be ladies. I’d read to them and answer their questions: “How come you don’t have no TV?” “Why that man friend of yours dress like a woman and paint his nails?” When I was tired, I’d chase them home.
They never wanted to leave. The apartment where they lived was designed to house six people, but four times that number were sleeping on couches and floors. Aunties, cousins, foster kids, children who had been kicked out by their own families — Makendra’s aunt Grace, the matriarch, took them all in.
I thought I knew poverty when I saw it. I’d worked with Haitian refugees in offices that reeked of roach spray and sweat. I’d stepped over bodies in the Tenderloin on my way to work at Glide Memorial Church. Still it didn’t occur to me that, if not for Grace, Makendra and her sisters would have been homeless. Homeless people were scraggly-haired and scary and sad. These were just children like any others: inquisitive, affectionate, and funny. They wanted someone to buy them a soda, to show them the constellations, to watch them do handstands. Any adult with a little extra time and attention to go around was fair game, and I was divorced and childless.
Then I moved across town. It was too far out of my way to stop by and see Makendra and the other kids. My life filled up with other things. During the school year I worked as a visiting poet in public-school classrooms, and in my free time I concentrated on my writing. I let the connections with Grace’s sprawling extended family go.
Last fall, Makendra called me. She was seventeen now.
“Where’ve you been?” I asked. “I’ll take you to lunch.”
When I picked her up, she looked bad. Her eyes were sunken. Her speech sounded slurred and tired. She wore a fashionable denim skirt and high-heeled boots, but had no umbrella in the driving rain. I gave her mine. The next week, when we met for lunch again, she had lost it.
I took her to a Chinese restaurant, and we talked. Makendra’s answer to my question was lengthy. She’d been in homeless shelters, in a group home, in subsidized housing, in welfare hotels, in court, in juvenile hall (for shoplifting food). She’d been working part time. She’d been everywhere but in school.
Despite her hardships, Makendra had an inner flame that was rekindled as soon as we sat down to eat. She had always loved food and reveled in new tastes and flavors and textures. She wanted to be a chef when she grew up, she said.
She was staying in a shelter. She and her youngest sister, both large girls, were sharing an upper bunk while their mother slept below. The bed was old, and their mother was afraid they would come crashing down on top of her. Makendra was working at a nonprofit agency but not making enough money. Her mother hadn’t been able to find a job in years, and her disability benefits had been cut off. One of Makendra’s sisters was in foster care. She didn’t know where one of her brothers was.
But Makendra had a vision. She dreamed of opening a shelter for homeless teenagers called Golden Wings. She had it all planned out: A room where they could pick out clothes — nice, fashionable clothes, not moldy castoffs. A room with makeup and lotions and soaps, where they could make themselves look pretty and smell good. A room with games and books and toys. A peer counseling room. Clean places to sleep and, more important, to hang out during the day, because the shelters kicked you out in the morning, and you had to go sit in other people’s houses, watching TV shows that they wanted to watch, or else you loitered in coffee shops or video arcades or stores until you got chased off by the proprietors. Having a place just to be, that was the ultimate luxury.
She also wanted to become a child psychologist, she said.
“You’d be great at that,” I told her enthusiastically. “You have a gift for helping people.”
Sitting across from me, sipping hot-and-sour soup, Makendra told me that God had put all these obstacles in her path as part of a plan, so that one day she would be able to help others.
I cheered her on. “Yes, Makendra, you’re coal becoming a diamond. God has put all this pressure on you so that you can become that jewel.”
She nodded, her face alight. “I know.”
She drew the floor plan of Golden Wings for me on a napkin, sketched out where the bedrooms would be, the dance hall.
“Do you still have dreams, Ali?” she asked.
Her question brought me up short. “Of course I do!” I told her. Of course I still had dreams. But did I still have the courage to speak them, to believe they could come true?
I own my home, having bought it at the last possible moment that someone with a poet’s income could purchase property in Oakland. My house is too big for me, so I live with a revolving cast of roommates/tenants, making me a landlady, albeit an itinerant-artist one. (When the sinks are overflowing, I still have the urge to shout, “Call the landlord!”) There is a fig tree out front, and a persimmon tree in back that my friend Michael gave me for my fortieth birthday. Right next to the persimmon, about fifteen feet from my bedroom door, is a little outbuilding that we call the casita. I keep a desk and some overflow office files there, and a spare bed for guests.
So when Makendra called me in tears one rainy January morning and asked, “Ali, can I live with you?” I took a deep breath and said yes.
Did I still have dreams? Yes, there was the play I was writing, and the children’s stories, the poems, the improvisational theater troupe. But my real dream was to have love at the center of my life. At forty-four I had no family of my own, and my efforts to cobble one together out of ex-lovers, best friends, and neighborhood kids were gallant, but somewhat threadbare. When Makendra called, I had not been responsible to, much less for, another human being in years.
I picked Makendra up at her job. She had only the clothes on her back. The rest, she told me, had been lost in the latest move from shelter to shelter. I drove her home and then left to go to my class or rehearsal or whatever it was that night. When I came back, she had fallen asleep on my bed, on top of the covers, with all the lights blazing and the radio on. I tried to wake her, but she was out. I tucked a blanket in around her as if she were a baby and went to sleep in the casita.
That first week Makendra and I had a lot of fun. She made pronouncements on my wardrobe — too eighties — and critiqued my unruly hair, threatening to press it straight. We went to Ross Dress for Less, and I splurged on clothes for her. The girl could shop for bargains. Give her sixty dollars, and she’d come back with eight complete outfits. Then we went to a discount store and bought knickknacks for her room. Makendra complained about the small black-and-white TV I’d given her, so I said I’d buy her a better one. She said she needed a cellphone, and I promised that too.
I sat at the kitchen table with her and listened to stories about her life. I heard about the happy times, before her father died, when the kitchen was always stocked with food and nobody messed with “Mike’s kids.” I also heard about the difficult years after his death, when her mother could not get up from the couch and the family fell apart. Her brothers drifted off into prison or the military, her sisters into foster care, group homes, and Job Corps. She and her baby sister were the only ones left.
My own mother had died two years before, after a protracted illness, and the pain was still raw. I tried to imagine what my childhood would have been like if my father had not been there, protecting and providing for us. In losing her father, Makendra had lived my worst nightmare.
For the first couple of weeks after Makendra came to live with me, I alternated between elation and terror. One minute I was living inside a fantasy, the next I was waking up in the middle of the night, thinking, What have I gotten myself into?
It didn’t take long for us to have our first run-in. Makendra had told me how much she wanted to go back to school, and I’d promised to help tutor her. But when I asked her to sit down and read with me, she balked. The bright, poised young woman I’d invited into my home had vanished. In her place was an inarticulate, obstinate teenager who wouldn’t look at me.
“Come on,” I urged. “I’m a teacher. I can help you get your GED.”
She shook her head. “I just feel more comfortable reading with my sister.”
“The whole point of you living here,” I reminded her, “is so that you can finish school and achieve your dreams.” Tears rose in my eyes as I said it, and I let her see them. She’d told me she’d reached the eleventh grade. I’d envisioned her going on to a junior college, and then to a four-year university. I could see myself in the audience, applauding and crying as she crossed the stage in cap and gown. All we needed to do, I thought, was fill in some gaps.
She folded her arms and hid her face behind a curtain of carefully pressed hair. Months of friendship and fortune cookies went out the window. I felt rage rising like a hot tide in my chest. All my power struggles and standoffs with my own mother came back to me. I, the least controlling and judgmental person on the planet — all my friends said so — was ready to throttle this seventeen-year-old because she wouldn’t do as I said.
“Makendra,” I began, choosing my words carefully, “if you don’t read with me, you can’t live here.” There. She’d been at my house a week, and I had already played my ace. I felt ashamed, but it galvanized her.
“Just give me fifteen minutes,” she promised, drifting toward the casita.
I doubted that she’d ever come back. I’d blown it. I’d forced her hand. I was a jerk.
Fifteen minutes later she knocked on my door.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “I asked the Lord to put me someplace where I could get my education. He brought me to you, but I was stubborn. I wanted to do it my way.” On her face was an expression of complete surrender. “The Lord knows what I need better than I do.”
It had taken me more than forty years to learn to yield my will, and I still couldn’t do it gracefully. Not for the first time, I was impressed and moved.
Makendra and I nestled into my big armchair and began to read a teen romance novel — her choice. She stumbled over the first words. She was not reading at anywhere near an eleventh-grade level — more like second grade. She had been passed on and passed over at school and had been faking it ever since. Her supervisors at her job didn’t know she couldn’t read. She had memorized the basic forms and time sheets, and when necessary she asked co-workers and friends to read things for her, claiming her eyes were bothering her.
We stumbled along in the book for half an hour, and then I went to my friend Tyrone’s house. I told him how happy I was to have Makendra living with me. I had always wanted to be a parent but had never been able to figure out how to fit it in, with my classes and rehearsals and irregular workdays. I had even looked into becoming a foster parent, but when it came down to it, my schedule wasn’t fixed enough for me to have a dog, much less a young child. A teenager, though, who had her own job and could take the bus and cook her own meals — that I could do. It was perfect.
I’d picked the right person to go to that evening. Tyrone was a spiritual counselor who worked with foster families. He had grown up in the home of his aunt, after his mother had died. He had an intuitive grasp of Makendra’s needs, which I hadn’t even begun to understand. I still believed she was the thoughtful young woman with whom I’d had lunch, the future founder of Golden Wings.
“First thing you do is make a contract,” he said. “In fact, you should have done that already. What is the nature of your relationship exactly? What are your expectations?”
“She calls me her godmother,” I said.
“That’s very sweet,” he responded, “but what does it mean? Does it mean you’re going to support her? Buy her every little thing she asks for? I would advise you not to do that.”
“I can’t afford to anyway,” I said. And then, in the next breath, I told him how I was getting her a new TV. “Her aunt has one of those big-screen ones. My old black-and-white is no good.”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Tyrone said. “She’s not at her aunt’s house now. She’s with you. The most important thing you can do,” he said, leaning forward for emphasis, “is come up with that contract. Get her input on it as well. Give her some chores to do. Build in some consequences. What’s going to happen if she doesn’t do her dishes? And offer some rewards. Don’t just give her something. Make her earn it.”
I knew he was right, but I couldn’t imagine how I was going to muster the authority to make Makendra obey a contract. I was radiant and raw with love, but also terrified and clueless. I was overwhelmed just thinking about creating a structure for someone else. I could barely create a routine for myself. Plus, our brief confrontation over reading had brought up every unresolved issue I had with my own mother — and I had plenty.
My mother and I did not even look alike. She was dark and fine-boned, with a profile straight from a Roman coin. Her eyes could pierce concrete at twenty paces. She remained a striking, tough woman well into her fifties, despite the ravages of multiple sclerosis. I was fair-skinned, soft, and rounded, with a big cloud of hair. A sensitive, intense girl, I couldn’t get with the program, and my mother was a program kind of woman. We battled over whether or not my room was clean, how I was dressed, where the knives and forks went when setting the table. At every turn I bucked and defied and evaded her authority. I lied even when it wasn’t necessary. Every time I could get away, I was gone, and even when I was home I mostly hid in my room and read. Engraved on my young heart was the vow that, when I became a mother, I would be her opposite in every way.
That evening, Tyrone told me, “Makendra’s biggest issue is going to be trust. Her mother has probably told her time after time that things are going to get better, and they haven’t. So she can’t trust anybody — especially not an adult.”
I opened my mouth to protest, to tell him what beautiful communication Makendra and I had, how we were really friends. Thankfully I didn’t say anything.
“The best you can do for her at this stage is to be a woman of your word, even if she doesn’t believe it, to love her unconditionally, but stick to the rules. You won’t be able to fix the past, but hopefully you can give her a model so that later on she’ll have an example of what real love looks like. Don’t expect her to recognize it now.”
This was way more than I could manage.
“The next question,” Tyrone continued, “is why are you doing this? What’s in it for Ali? And why did you attract this girl to you at this time?”
“Even though our lives are outwardly so different,” I said, “I feel this . . . bond with her.” I stopped, too embarrassed to tell him that, despite the relative privilege of my upbringing, I had been lost in depression at seventeen, unable to imagine a future for myself. Being middle-class, though, I had gone on to college and somehow stumbled into adulthood. But the despairing girl I was then had never left me. Perhaps she had recognized the grief — and the light — inside Makendra and responded to it.
“This young lady wouldn’t be in your life if you hadn’t called her into it,” Tyrone said. “This is God working through both of you to bring about a healing. Do you accept it?”
It was as if all the raging streams of my life had come together. “Yes,” I said.
We went into Tyrone’s altar room, and I prayed for the wisdom and strength to do this right.
The parable of the prodigal son is my favorite New Testament story: A wealthy man has two sons. The good, loyal son remains with the father and helps him manage his lands. The other son squanders his inheritance and ends up destitute. Ashamed, he returns home, having wasted his youth and his wealth. His father greets him with open arms and prepares a feast.
“Kill the fatted calf,” he orders. “For my son, whom I thought was lost, has returned to me!”
The other son says what any normal sibling would: “Hey, wait a minute. I’ve done everything right, and you’re having a party for him?”
The father in the story represents God, and the bad son is all of us who have traveled far from God, chasing worldly goals. Yet we are loved and forgiven, no matter what, and God is always overjoyed to have us home.
The first time I heard this story, a couple of years ago, I couldn’t stop crying. I felt I had squandered all the gifts that had been given me. Here I was with no husband, no children, no professional career. Nevertheless, my parents’ faces still lit up when I walked into the room. I could not understand how they continued to love me, despite all my failures. I did not understand a thing about unconditional love.
I took Tyrone’s advice to heart and drafted a list of expectations. Makendra would do her own dishes. She would pay me a nominal sum for utilities. She would bring in her share of the food. She would go to school and study every day. No drugs, no smoking, and no getting pregnant. I would take her out for pizza to reward her for doing her homework.
I went to Grace’s house and talked with Makendra’s mother, who was Grace’s sister-in-law. We sat tensely around a kitchen table crowded with homework papers, diapers, and toys.
“This is a very manipulative girl,” Makendra’s mother said flatly. “Very manipulative.” She looked beaten down and angry. She was a fundamentalist Christian who had seven children. She had gone to community college but suffered from depression and a host of physical problems and couldn’t hold a job. According to Makendra, her mother’s life was ruled by the pastor of their church: she moved wherever he moved and did whatever he said. She believed that God was in charge; everything in life was preordained according to His will.
Now we sat across the table, two women from different worlds. She told me Makendra had been truant so often that the authorities had put her, the mother, in jail. She’d served three months and lost her housing.
“Nobody knows what this woman has suffered on account of those children,” Grace said, enraged on behalf of her sister-in-law. “And then them young ones come around telling you all kinds of stories. Don’t believe everything you hear, Ali.” She thumped her fist on the tablecloth.
The door opened, and Makendra tiptoed through the kitchen, accompanied by her cousin Lynnell, who at seventeen was pregnant with her second child. Makendra looked uneasy when she saw me talking with her mother and her aunt.
I told her mother earnestly that I believed Makendra could succeed in life if she could just get her education, and that living in the shelter was keeping her from doing that. I also told her that one of my roommates was lesbian; I didn’t want the information to surface later and cause trouble.
She ducked her head grimly. “I already knew that.”
At the end of our conversation, Grace hugged me.
“Thank you, Ali. What you’re doing is needful.”
That night, Makendra sidled into my room looking abashed. She sat down in my armchair and told me everything. She had used drugs and dealt them. She had run around with the wrong kind of guys. She had done some time for shoplifting.
© Steve Donoso
Her confession left me reeling. My mental picture of her was changing.
I took Makendra down to the Oakland school district offices and got her registered in a GED program for students who didn’t know how to read. She would go to classes two days a week, and to her job the other three. She seemed pleased to be back in school. When I drove her places, she would read road signs, or spell out “Miller” from the back of a beer truck, alive with curiosity. She was continuing the childhood that had been interrupted. It was impossible to be near her and not feel glad.
I read books with her from a stack a third-grade teacher had lent me. Breath by breath, syllable by syllable, we read biographies of Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver and Rosa Parks. When we read the story about Sadako, the little Japanese girl who dies of leukemia after the bombing of Hiroshima, I cried so hard I could not read the last page.
Makendra observed me dispassionately. “You soft, Ali.” To cry over a book — words printed on a page — when there were so many real things to cry about seemed strange to her.
Our little domestic rituals were almost exotic to me. It was fun to wake her up with a plateful of French toast in the mornings, to drive her to work or to school. She fiddled with the radio knob, and I began listening to hip-hop. I even liked some of it. Before going out with friends, Makendra would ask me if she looked all right, and I’d tell her she was beautiful. Watching her make cookies with the little girl across the street, I felt wide open and full of awe. She was not the only one getting a second chance. For me, it was an opportunity to relive my difficult adolescence from the other side. Every time I had a loving interaction with Makendra, a small part of my relationship with my mother was redeemed.
Makendra was great with young children, especially troubled ones. Her own suffering had made her keenly aware of what they were going through. The girls from across the street were at my house all the time, begging to play, the way Makendra and her sisters had years earlier. But these girls were rougher and louder, and their sex talk was disturbingly vivid. Their mother drank every day, and they had been exposed to too much, too early: violence, prostitution. I felt uneasy around them, but Makendra fit right in. A girl named Crystal became her little shadow. I’d come home from work, and Makendra would be sitting in the living room, braiding Crystal’s hair, while racks of cookies cooled in the kitchen. My heart felt so full it hurt.
Makendra carefully decorated her room with candles and family photos. It was the first time she’d had a room to herself, and she would stay in there all day, rearranging her belongings. Unfortunately, her neatness did not extend to the rest of the house. Sometimes I’d get on her about the dishes, but often I’d find myself cleaning up after her, afraid my tenants would complain. I fussed and fumed at Makendra about it, but I also took it as karmic payback: I had been a slob in my own youth. My mother was probably laughing at me from the afterlife.
I took Makendra to black-history presentations; I took her to a one-woman play a friend of mine wrote and performed; I took her to a poetry reading I gave. Later that evening, she shyly presented me with a poem she had written, about her life and her long quest for comfort and security. I typed it up for her, and we made copies. Living with me, Makendra said she was starting to have second thoughts about the church she’d grown up in: “They say God will take care of everything and you shouldn’t worry about getting an education, but then when you’re homeless and you smell bad because you’ve been sleeping under the bridge, they don’t want you to come to their church.”
What I’d neglected to factor in when I’d said yes to Makendra was the undertow. The undertow is an insidious force that, just when you are at the brink of making real progress, drags you back under. Addicts and depressives of every class and culture are intimate with its power. It is always lying in wait.
Makendra had spent her childhood watching her mother get bounced around and lose her children, her housing, and part of her sanity. Every time the family appeared to be doing better, some catastrophe came along to set them back. Three of Makendra’s young male cousins had been shot, casualties of Oakland’s gang wars. She had lost friends and relatives to drugs, prison, and AIDS. The weight of grief and trauma she carried was incalculable. Reading children’s books and having stimulating conversations with me while eating fried chicken in the kitchen were fine, but they weren’t enough to help her escape the undertow.
She tried. Looking back, I can see that she was trying the whole time, even in those moments when her behavior was most bewildering. It was often an effort for her to keep responding to me, with my requests for information and my attempts to make her honor our contract. She hadn’t paid me a penny since she’d moved in. Her every paycheck was spent before she got it. She still owed her aunt for phone bills. She lost seventy-five dollars somehow, or someone stole it. In that first heady week, I’d made the colossal mistake of getting a family-plan cellphone with her. She’d sworn she would pay for her half of it and keep to the allotted seven hundred minutes. I’d pulled out my credit card and signed on the dotted line. She’d chosen the stylish silver phone, even though it was more expensive.
The cellphone turned her into the social nerve center of Oakland. The first bill was more than seven hundred dollars — on her number alone.
“I’ma pay it back,” she said.
“How?” I demanded. “You haven’t even paid me for utilities! And I bought all the food this month, and loaned you money for your bus pass — which you lost.”
“I’ma pay it,” she repeated, her head down.
While we were undergoing our personal financial struggles, California’s economy fell apart. Teachers in whose rooms I had taught poetry for years received pink slips. The arts council budget was slashed. Makendra’s nonprofit employer trimmed her part-time hours down to four a week. She fell into a depression and spent her days curled up on the couch with her thumb in her mouth, watching cartoons. I suggested she go to Job Corps and learn a skill, become a chef. She didn’t want to go, she said. She was scared. Or maybe she didn’t believe she could get in.
Boys were coming around, too, and they stayed all day, since nobody had a job. One named Jamal had a baby blue Cadillac and a handsome shaved head. I started stuffing condoms into Makendra’s pockets and lecturing her about safer sex. I thought of her cousin Lynnell, six months pregnant with her second child, with no means of support except her mother’s welfare check. Makendra’s position on sex had gone from “I’m not interested in doing any of that stuff, not till I’m married” to “I can’t help it. It’s my hormones. I want him night and day.”
I’d had sex and lied to my parents about it when I was her age, so I’d thought I would be more . . . well, cool about the whole thing. In reality, her sexuality made me feel threatened and anxious. It wasn’t just the see-through blouses and the low-cut pants and the lacy thong underwear. It was the way she became a stranger before my eyes. I had taken in a hurt but open child, and now she was a secretive young woman, streetwise and slippery as water. The harder I grasped, the faster she slid out of my hands, gliding away under cover of night, wearing my stiletto boots. Instead of living in the house, she was using it as her base of operations, coming and going in shadowy cars, venturing “deep east,” into the ghetto, where the real action was.
One night, she was at a street party where a fight broke out. A crowd surrounded a truck and attacked the driver, beating him over the head. As he tried to drive off, a boy Makendra knew slipped under the truck tires, and his legs were crushed. She heard him screaming for his mother, saw the blood gushing out of his mangled thighs. He died the next day, as did the driver of the truck, whom the mob had clubbed to death. We saw it on the news.
Another time, there was a fight on our street corner: about twenty girls and women with broken bottles. Crystal and her mother were in the middle of it. Makendra saw Crystal, her little shadow, her “play sister,” get hit over the head with a bottle. The blood ran down her face. Crystal’s mother, drunk, urged her daughter to stay and keep fighting.
“Why I always got to be the one that got to see things?” Makendra asked me.
“Because you’re there. Because you put yourself there. If you go into the woods, you’ll see trees and squirrels. If you go into the ghetto at midnight, you’ll see fights.”
“I’m not going to do that no more,” she promised. “This time I really mean it.”
It was one more promise she wouldn’t keep. Hip-hop blared continuously from her room, and I began to find excuses to leave the house, which no longer felt as if it belonged to me. I forbade boyfriends, but they came around anyway, sneaking in and out. She always borrowed my tampons when she had her period. One month I noticed she was late.
“Are you pregnant?” I demanded.
“No.” She shook her head. “No way could I be pregnant.”
One hot summer day, while Makendra and the kids across the street were having a water fight with the hose in back, one of my tenants came to me, upset to the point of tears. Five hundred dollars cash was missing from her room.
I sent the children home and confronted Makendra. She swore she knew nothing about it, but promised to help repay my tenant, since the theft had occurred while all those kids were running in and out. I paid for a new lock on my tenant’s bedroom door. My homeowner’s insurance didn’t cover theft, so I told my tenant I would repay the loss myself.
A short time later, I lost my wallet, with more than a hundred dollars in it. I canceled my credit card and hauled out my spare driver’s license. Then Makendra disappeared.
She was gone for about two weeks. It was the most peaceful two weeks I’d had in months. Instead of calling around to find out where she was, I unearthed my neglected play and began a second draft. I reworked my poetry manuscript and sent my children’s stories to a new agent. I even went on a few dates — and didn’t spend all evening talking about her.
One afternoon, she appeared on my doorstep, looking weary and disheveled and smelling like a month of bad luck. I almost blocked her from entering, but she started to cry, and I gave in. She sat at the kitchen table while I made French toast.
“You can’t stay here,” I said.
She started crying again. “I’ve got nowhere else to go!”
“What about the shelters?”
“The shelters is all full.”
“What about Juanita’s house?” I asked, naming a friend whose couch she had slept on.
“I can’t stay there. She’s getting kicked out. Ali, I’ll clean your house from top to bottom. I’ll jump when you say jump. I have learned my lesson —”
“That’s what you always say. It will last two days, and then you’ll be back to your old tricks. I’m sick of providing for you, driving you all over town, and then getting treated like shit.”
Makendra’s sobs grew louder. “No, I swear to God, it’s different this time. Before I was just playing. But this time I seen things. My own mother turned me away. I realized I can’t depend on nobody but myself. I realized nobody is going to take care of me, and it’s an awful feeling. So many things happened, I can’t even tell you. I was pregnant, and I had to get an abortion. And then Jamal got shot. I been through so much in these last two weeks. I been sleeping in these same clothes I have on.”
During the two weeks she’d been on the street, she had turned eighteen. She still couldn’t read. I thought of our conversations the previous winter, when I had spoken so naively of all the pressures in her life turning her into a diamond. At the time I had no idea what it actually felt like to live with those pressures. Even being in close proximity to them now was overwhelming to me.
I thought of how my own sense of security as a teen relied on having a home and a stable family life. I knew that, if all else failed, I had a place where, in poet Robert Frost’s words, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Makendra had no such place.
But I didn’t trust her now. On the advice of the tenant whose cash had been stolen, I had changed the locks on the doors. I reluctantly told Makendra she could stay for a week, just till she found somewhere else to go. Absolutely no guests, except her sister. I didn’t offer her a key, and she didn’t ask for one.
I went to see Tyrone again.
“Let me tell you a story from my own life,” he said. “After I got busted for drugs, I went to stay with my aunt and uncle again. My uncle came up with a list of things I had to do in order to stay there. It was a hell of a list! I took one look and said, ‘No way.’ I slept on friends’ couches, but I eventually got my life together. When I went to see them again years later, my uncle said he’d known I would never consent to the conditions he had laid down. It was his way of kicking me out. I thanked him. It was what I needed.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not going to hold my breath and wait for her to thank me. And God knows what she needs right now.”
He laughed. “She has a lot of growing up to do. It will be all right.”
The day before Makendra moved out, my wallet disappeared again. I tore my car apart looking for it. I searched my closet, behind the bed — nothing. Meanwhile, Makendra carried out armloads of clothes I’d bought her, plus other items I’d never seen. She put them in her friend’s car, and they drove off.
After she was gone, I tried to figure up my gains and losses, but there was no way to quantify them. My heart had expanded wider than it ever had before, and then contracted to a sliver of ice. I knew more about the immense power of love, and about my own limitations. As much as I loved Makendra, the situation had called for discipline and structure — my mother’s strengths, my own weaknesses. I couldn’t give Makendra what she needed. I was humbled.
I have surrendered to the not-knowing. I don’t know where Makendra is or what she’s doing. I don’t know for sure if she took the money or not. Most of all, I don’t know whether she will grow to be the woman she wants to be, the founder of Golden Wings. Others have escaped the undertow, but can she?
A week after she left, I was sitting on a hard plastic chair at the Department of Motor Vehicles, getting a new driver’s license to replace the one that had been stolen, when I picked up the Oakland Tribune. There, in an article on gang violence, was the story about Jamal, shot down in front of his mother’s house. So she had been telling the truth. I read about the makeshift altar his friends had created, festooning his baby blue Cadillac with flowers and teddy bears.
The same month, Makendra’s cousin Lynnell gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Diamond. All the other names in this story have been changed, but that baby’s name is real.