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After four months, I continue to be astonished by what Emily can do with a dented, often label-less, can. She says it’s all the Julia Child reruns on PBS, but I don’t care who’s to credit. Dinner is on the table every night with mismatched plates and silverware, and our economy paper towels are always folded into decorative shapes. It hasn’t escaped my notice at how much I enjoy seeing our laundry mingled together, either. The bottom line for me is that she makes even this place seem like home.
After Emily agreed to move in with me – which was no small feat – it took a month until she stopped knocking, then cracking the door and yelling, “Ethan?” before she would enter through the front door. It was as if she thought I would get mad if she didn’t practice her self- imposed ritual. While her discomfort with calling this her home still lingers, it’s just the tip of the iceberg concerning our… issues.
Initially, she’d been particularly insistent about getting a job and wanting to help financially. I hadn’t argued, thinking she was nearly done, if not completely finished, with school. I hadn’t bother to ask what her status was, figuring she was old enough to make that decision herself. So, it was with eagerness that I helped her look for a job.
One roadblock was her lack of identification. Employers want an ID, but of course, Emily didn’t have any. We spent an entire day at City Hall getting the required documentation and social security card, so we could then go to the DMV. That was the day I found out she was barely old enough for a driver’s permit – let alone a driver’s license. Emily insisted she was nearly eighteen when we met, but I found out she wasn’t even close. Shock didn’t even begin to explain what I felt at the revelation of her real age. She hadn’t lied about when her birthday was; it was a month after she moved in, as she’d first said. However, she was turning sixteen, not eighteen. While I was monumentally upset by her deception, I got it. She was living with the fear of being herded into a state system that could feel like you were being fed to the wolves. I couldn’t really blame her.
After I got over my initial anger about her lie and the additional guilt of some of the inappropriate things I may have fantasized about her, I realized Emily missed the milestone of sweet sixteen. I remembered a co-worker talking about her sister’s sixteenth birthday and the excitement that went along with the momentous occasion. Emily insisted she didn’t want anything special and maintained that by finding me, she’d already received more than she ever hoped for after her mother’s passing. The celebratory sad-assed cookie I had on my twenty-first birthday came to mind. I instantly knew it wasn’t good enough for Emily, so I went into work and ordered the most extravagant and girly cake our bakery had – regardless of the fact it was almost forty bucks, my usual weekly food budget. Her reaction to the cake was like a kick to the stomach. When I brought it home, Emily cried, explaining that even her mother had never gotten her a cake since cake wasn’t something you buy on a strict budget.
That was the moment I decided Emily would never go without again. Knowing that cake was so special made it all the more enjoyable when I ate it every meal the week that followed.
“Ethan, go wash your hands please. Dinner is ready.”
It never fails. The girl can literally watch me walk from the bathroom, knowing I’ve just scrubbed up, but she will still tell me to wash again, and I will. I know that she’s tied to the routine, not really the cleanliness factor. Many who have been in a homeless situation will cling to routines for the comfort and solace they bring.
We sit and eat in silence for the first few minutes of the meal. It’s always balanced, particularly since she’s taking a health class this semester and preaches the benefits of healthy eating habits and exercise. Sometimes it makes me laugh because she sounds just like one of those infomercials she occasionally watches in the middle of the night after she’s had a bad dream. There are times I think it’s more than just nightmares, though, when she wakes at night. She carries a lot of guilt around with her given our situation. Emily feels like she should contribute to the household with money. I feel like she needs to be in school, getting an education. Even though legally she could drop out, I’m constantly reiterating that school is her job, and there will be plenty of time for her to contribute in the future when she’s a full-fledged taxpayer.
“Hey, Ethan?” Emily asks cautiously, while pushing her cube steak around on the plate. I’m a bit nervous since she says it with hesitance. She hardly asks for anything, and when she does, she makes it seem like she’s about to ask for a million dollars, but it’s usually something small and relatively insignificant. This time, though, the accompanying look on her face indicates this isn’t simple. I put my fork down and look up, giving her my full attention.
“So, Christmas is coming.”
I inwardly groan, not because she’s brought it up, but because I participate in as little of the Holiday Cheer as possible. It’s been awhile since I’ve celebrated the birth of Christ, mainly because I don’t believe in God. Realistically, I see the holiday as an opportunity to earn extra money as I work all the shifts so everyone else can spend time with their families. I try to dislodge my anxiety about the topic but it doesn’t work. The holidays are about commercialism and consumerism. Plus, I can’t afford to buy gifts.
“Yeah, I usually work Christmas. I get double time.” My dinner still sits heavy in the pit of my stomach. I know I should give her a special day.
Now I feel like a jerk who’s robbed her of the magic of Christmas. “Like all day or just part?”
“The store is open from seven until two, then closing early.” I know why she’s asking, but it doesn’t keep me from playing stupid. “Why? What’s up?”
Emily finally stops pushing her battered piece of meat around on the plate and looks up. “I was thinking…and you don’t have to…it’s just something that…I mean, you can, but if it makes you uncomfortable…” I finally stop her rambling by touching her hand. My hope is that she will refocus her thoughts with my unexpected gesture.
I’m successful. Emily sits up a little straighter, squares her shoulders, and wipes her mouth with her paper towel-slash-napkin.
“I want to spend Christmas at the shelter. You know…it’s the last place I was with my mom.”
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