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The girl next to me on the Portland city bus is bone thin and has mouse-brown hair. Her crooked horn-rimmed glasses — the temple on my side held together with oily Scotch tape — hang at the end of her nose. The coat she’s wearing is two sizes too big, three sizes, so she’s rolled the sleeves halfway up her arms and she’s using ragged fingernails to pick at an exposed knob of wrist. I’m guessing she’s sixteen years old, give or take a year, and I know she’s coming off a drunk. Either that or a bad high. She’s got sallow skin, half-shut eyes, hunched shoulders — but mostly it’s her smell. When I lowered myself onto the vinyl seat next to her, I got the first whiff, the air around her so pungent it tasted of drugs and booze and smokes and daze. The dried-urine, stale-ashtray stench of a binge.
I turn away and glance around the crowded bus. Is anyone else troubled, disgusted even, by this girl, this child, and her obvious downfall? It’s twilight outside, and the others squeezed in the seats and aisles are only pointed home, lost in themselves, not noticing the girl next to me huddled in her soiled parka tent. But I notice. I take in every detail; I fume over my bad luck at getting stuck next to her. I slide to the far edge of my seat and try not to glance in her direction.
And there, staring out the window across the aisle, I start to wonder about myself. About my suddenly prickled skin and hands knotted in my lap. Why am I revolted by everything about this girl: her puffs of shallow breath, the scab she’s opened on her arm that’s now steak red and glistening, the white crust that formed on her lips while she slept in a train station chair or a building’s frigid alcove? Of course I know why. Of course this stranger has stirred memories of my daughters when they were no more than sixteen and fourteen years old. My own girls, who’d show up at home looking and smelling something like this on the days they bothered to show up at all. The child I’m sitting by has also reminded me of something else I don’t like to think about: the mother I was back then who couldn’t manage the trouble that had landed on my family. It’s been ten years since Amanda and Stephanie stopped going to school, stopped coming home; a whole decade since they joined those on the street who gave them access to beer, dope, tattoo ink, every circus shade of Manic Panic hair dye, metal spikes, and the best corners for getting money from strangers — spanging, they called it. I’ve let myself believe the passage of time and my daughters’ turns for the good have washed me clean of most old aches and pains, but then I get ambushed: by the girl next to me and others like her at bus stops and on street corners and sleeping on benches in the hallways of the university where I work. When I see such kids, when I get up close, I’m inevitably shoved back into my daughters’ old life and into mine, and right up against the question that can’t seem to leave me alone: why?
When my daughters got tired of having their mother search for them on the streets of Eugene, Oregon, and then drag them home again, where we’d scrap and yell and accuse and blame, they jumped a freight train to Portland, two hours straight north up the West Coast. I found out they were in that bigger city a few days after they’d left — friends had spotted them panhandling in the downtown Pioneer Courthouse Square. I drove a hundred miles north to look for Amanda and Stephanie in the nooks and crannies of a strange town; the lack of a single sign of them sent me back home. Years later, the girls told me they’d heard I’d been asking for them, heard I’d stopped at youth shelters and the police station with their photographs. So they’d hopped another train to get farther away, this one to the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, where the drugs were meaner and the cold wind off the bay drove them to accept about any comfort. My daughters had disappeared.
Amanda was gone for three months; I didn’t see Stephanie for a year. For nearly a decade, I thought I wanted to forget everything about that empty expanse of time. But those kinds of memories don’t just get wiped out, they don’t get swept away. Instead, now I find I must wander through the worst of it again — where my daughters went, what they did. How I, every day, handled or failed to handle their absence. I have to face it, although until recently our past has felt too thick, too dense, and, somewhere at its heart, too implicating of me.
I’ve been wary of getting on a bus in Portland, or in any town, and sitting next to a girl like this, with her familiar odor, someone who can yank me backward and who can fill my throat with sour heat before I have a chance to steel myself against memory’s rush. The girl who’s now made me take a look at myself: Where is even the smallest surge of concern for her? Why do I feel more like slapping than hugging her? What’s wrong with me, still, after all this time?
I’d like to be one of those women who can confront the past’s reminders — like this young seatmate — with nothing but compassion. But apparently, I’m not there yet. Something tangled and sore remains unsolved in me. After years of trying to decode and dissect our history, of picking over episodes with my daughters (a fight over a concert, a note found under one of their beds, the nights and nights and nights they didn’t come home), and crawling through the muck again to discover the origins and escalations of our troubles, I want to move on. I want to forgive — Amanda, Stephanie, myself, the times we lived in — so we can stop looking backward.
Now the girl on the bus sits up straighter, pulls a wrinkled plastic bag from between her feet. I’m relieved by these getting-ready-to-disembark moves. She’ll go away and I’ll calm down. I’ll get off near my cozy home with its stocked fridge and good music. Except it’s not going to be that simple; when I stand to let her by, grabbing a silver pole to stay steady, she looks straight at me. "Could you spare a couple dollars?" she asks, pushing the glasses closer to her face. "For something to eat?"
I’m about to say no
into her cloud of bitter breath, but my right hand has another idea — it begins reaching for the wallet buried in my purse. And why not? Maybe giving this girl money is a flinch, a gesture in the direction of peace. A reconciliation with the turmoil still inside me. Then I remember how I’ve long railed against those who gave my daughters everything they needed to stay on the streets — blankets, pizza, sandwiches, drugs, alcohol, tampons, medicine, a bed for the night, and money. My daughters stuck their hands out, coins and bills landed in their palms, and that was one more day they didn’t have to come home.
Murky as I am about the giving or not giving, I shake my head in refusal, a nearly invisible movement. With her own small shrug, she clambers off. The bus rumbles ahead again. That’s the end of it, I think, though I can’t help looking out the window, straining to see her one more time. She’s gone. Disappeared that fast. I turn back to press my fingers against a rib that tends to devil ache at moments like this. It’s a pain that reminds me of memory’s snarl and its potency. The pain reminds me, again, how sometimes the past simply refuses to be finished.