Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Phoenix

The girl with the turquoise hair and face jewelry squeezes into the seat beside me. She’s wearing black steel-toed boots and an over-sized camouflage raincoat.

“Sorry about the coat,” she says. She sniffs and wrinkles her nose.“I just got it and it smells funny. It’s a really good one though. Got a beak on the hood and everything.” It's pouring outside. I assure her that there's only a faint rubbery smell.

She has fine, perfect features and astonishing green eyes fringed with dark lashes.

The whole ride home, in a voice so soft and even I’m straining to hear, she talks to me.

Native father, white mother. The father gone, the mother a suicide only a year after she, the girl with green eyes, survived a fire that burned her out of her home. Life on the street, abuse, beatings, tragedy running back generations, “youth jail,” and finally, her love, her daughter, Amber. Baby’s daddy didn’t want her – didn’t want a kid with a part-white, part-native girl. The grandmother has her now but the girl goes to see her every chance she gets.

She’s in a program and going to school in September to become a counselor. And maybe after a while, she thinks, she’ll go for a degree in psychology. She wants to help people. “These,” she gestures at her lip and nose rings, come out.”

“Do you know about the Ark?” she asks next. I do.

“I want to start a place like that, only where kids can stay over. They don’t have money for that, the Ark.”

“The smell…” She’s sniffing the sleeve of her raincoat and rubbing her arm. “I’ll have to wash as soon as I get home. You’d think they’d make sure this stuff is clean. And it’s not my boots, either. I wash all the time. I take care of my skin – and I don’t drink or do drugs. I don’t know why I have these dark circles under my eyes.”

She asks how old I think she is.
I study her, glad for the chance to look directly at that stunning face and those lovely eyes.

“Twenty-three, twenty-four.”

“Thank you,” she says, “I’m twenty-seven and somebody guessed thirty-five. Thirty-five!

I smile. Oh. The tragedy. Thirty-five.

“You won’t look much different when you’re thirty-five.”

"I feel so old sometimes. Real old."

"You've had a tough life."

She switches topics and tells me about her mother. We jump from there to possible new colors for her hair. She comes back to the course she'll be taking at school and then tells me about the babies she couldn’t save from the fire and the little boy she did save. Her eyebrows burned off and her eyelashes and her lungs were burned for months. At first, she couldn’t remember much, but it’s coming back in bits and pieces now. “It was in Truro, six years ago. It was in all the papers. You might have seen it.”

She rubs at her wrist and arm. “See these?” She pulls up her sleeve. There are burn scars the size of dimes and quarters splattered along her wrist. “They go right up my arm…from the fire.”
The rest of the scars, the ones hiding behind the perfectly clear green eyes, go right into her bones, I figure. The tics and apologies are a song of sorrow and self-loathing.

I tell her, “You heal well. You have good skin. I’d never have noticed them if you hadn’t told me they were there.” She smiles a little.

“I don’t mean to sound….you know…all poor me.”

“Like I said, you've had a tough life, a lot of sadness.”

She sits up straight and smiles. “I’m strong for it, though,” she says.

She seems to know that I am genuinely listening and although I don’t know if some or all or none of it is true, I am not a stranger and it doesn’t matter.

When I get home I recall the quiet flow of her voice, how it’s a lullaby in which the wind always blows and down baby comes, cradle and all. A lullaby... and a litany that tells her she survived. She is some kind of wonder, by God, right there on the number twenty bus. A lovely, green-eyed Phoenix still not quite out of the fire, but trying. Trying.