I am standing in the doorway, watching over her as she rummages through 1 of 9 black garbage bags filled with her stuff. We are in a storage room on the fifth floor of the shelter where I work. The room where client's belongings are stored after they've been barred or left and not announced they're leaving, or left and asked to have their stuff held until a specific date.
The nine bags represent all her worldly possessions. They were filled and placed in the storage room when she was barred for thirty days for rudeness and disrespectful behaviour (this time her rudeness didn't even come close to last time and the time before, but bars are cumulative and no matter the relative 'mildness' of her transgressions she has stretched the rules too far) -- in this case she swore at an outside volunteer. Do not curse or swear at outside volunteers. They are the lifeblood of the shelter.
She was barred and had to find another place to stay. A staff member and a client volunteer (female) packed up her locker and placed the bags in storage.
"Who packed up my bags?" she asks. "I saw my headphones on someone on the second floor. They're not supposed to give my stuff away. Yet. They're at least supposed to wait until my bar is up and I can reclaim my stuff. Why'd they do that?"
I have asked staff for permission for her to come and retrieve a few items, or all of them if she so wishes. She's got a special event Saturday night and needs a few clothes.
"Perhaps you were mistaken," I suggest. "Maybe someone else has earphones just like yours."
"No way," she insists. "Nobody else has a headset like that." She describes them in detail. "I know they were mine. Why'd they give them away?"
I don't have an answer. I wait and watch her rummage some more, praying she finds them soon.
She finds her headphones in bag 3 of 9. She takes them out and like a child opening her favourite present at Christmas, she exclaims. "Look. They're here!" She holds them up proudly to show me her prize.
"This is a good lesson," I say, never wanting to miss an opportunity for learning.
She ignores me. Starts rummaging through another bag. "My camera's missing. Two more bags to go. It better be here."
I stand back and wait. I wonder how many other agency workers have stood back and waited as she rummaged through whatever bag she had. Her whole world in a black garbage bag.
She's 19 years old.
She rummages and I look for conversation starters. "How long have you been at the shelter", I ask.
She stops rummaging. Thinks for a moment. "Well, let me see. My kid was born in March 08. They took her from me seven months later. So, since Thanksgiving 08."
"What do you want?" I ask.
She snorts through her nose. Flips her long blonde hair over one shoulder. "Obviously to get out of here." Pause. "Though I guess that's kinda stupid right now. I'm not even staying here."
She pulls up her sweatshirt and shows me her belly where it pushes out above the top of her jeans. "I can't even do up my top button," she says, her hands demonstrating the distance between the button and the button hole. "What's with that?"
"Are you pregnant?
"Maybe. Only problem is, it'd be Joe's. I don't want his kid." She scrunches up her face. "Yuck. No way do I want his kid."
"I'd think you wouldn't want any kid right now," I suggest.
"Not really," she says. "It'd be easier to get help if I had a kid. There's all sorts of programs that would help me with my jail stuff and court and school. I'd probably even get some government assistance and could finish high school." Pause.
I don't know what to say. I stay silent. Listening. Open. Attentive.
"I dropped out," she tells me. "When they took my kid from me." She rummages through another bag. Six of nine. "I gotta find my camera. It's got pictures of my kid on it."
I stand mute. I watch her rummaging. Remember back to a time when my world centered on a few plastic garbage bags. A backpack. A suitcase. My world on the run.
I stand mute and watch and feel the sadness wash over me.
Forgive her Father. She is but a child. She knows not what she does.
Forgive me Father for I have sinned.
We are connected.
Nine black garbage bags. Fear of losing what little remains. Fear of what is happening to her life. Fear it will always be like this. That this, this craziness, uncertainty, shifting sands, unsettling times will never stop.
Will anyone ever love me? Know me? See me?
She shakes another bag. "I gotta downsize," she says.
And there, in the bottom of a bag, tucked between a pair of light grey sweats and one dirty sock she finds it.
She looks up at me. Holds up her prize.
"I didn't really think they took it," she says.
She tries to turn it on but the battery is dead. She starts to rummage again.
"I gotta find the charger. I want to show you the pictures of my kid."
I look at her bowed head. She is just a kid herself. I stand in the doorway and prop it open. She is just a kid. I have no answers for her.
I wait to see the pictures of her kid.
The charger is missing. "Why would they just take my charger and not the camera?" she asks.
I have no answers for her. I want to say, look again.
But I know it would be futile.
The pictures will have to wait.
For now, I know she's safe. Staying at another agency. She's got a plan. I hope it works out so that she can quit rummaging through plastic bags and find a place to stay put.
Maybe it will.
She quits rummaging. Gathers up the meagre belongings she's retrieved from some of the nine bags left in storage. "I gotta go for a blood test this week," she says. "I don't want it to be his kid."
I wonder if she really knows what she really wants. I wonder if she's ever had a chance to find out.