Crisis Girl

Augie Gold

Belinda comes to us with blood under her nails. “I think I hurt myself.”

We, the counselors, look up from our activities planning session in the TV lounge. Belinda’s legs are streaked red; ragged scratches slide down her arms, her chest. She wears only shorts and her giant greying bra, which has stayed miraculously clear of blood. When she wipes the tears from her face, she leaves a pink smudge behind.

“Will you help me?” She says this directly to me.

She always comes to me for help. I don’t know why. Everyone knows of her crush on Heidi. She constantly talks of how cool Alice is and tries to emulate her. She tells Sue, almost daily, what a good friend she is. But when trouble arises she doesn’t go to them; she comes to me. I don't play any more prominent a role in her daily life than anyone else does. She is the original and most dedicated member of my in-house reading group and I tend to nod for long periods of time whenever she speaks at dinner or in the lounge or on walks, but I don't ask encouraging questions or validate her views. I say whatever comes to mind, which may be completely inappropriate or might even upset her. It’s the same thing I do with the other clients. It’s the only thing I can do.

But Belinda comes to me anyway. She isn’t my client. Belinda drains me of my energy and monopolizes my time. I try to get away. I bluntly reject her. I repeatedly tell her I’m busy. I tell her I have other clients who need attention, too, but there she is—asking for help again. Today she is bloody, though, so I automatically stand when she approaches.

This is my job: I wrap an arm around her bare shoulders and lead her out of the public space, back to her room. I help her pick out a shirt to wear. I make sure her daughter is asleep, otherwise I'll have to find a babysitter.

“Of course she’s asleep,” Belinda says. “You don’t think I’d do this to myself with her watching, do you?” She smiles. I have my doubts. “I guess you do,” she sighs. If another counselor does not knock on her closed door in a few minutes and enter with supplies to disinfect her wounds with, I will excuse myself to remind Sue or Alice or Heidi to start preparing medical treatment and to call a social worker. I will be gone less than thirty seconds, but I will be afraid of what I could find when I come back.

She is on the bed, waiting for some attention.

I ask why she would scratch at her legs so violently and repeatedly.

“I don’t know.”

“I thought you were talking to Myra, your social worker. I didn’t know you were alone.” It’s not good to leave Belinda alone, but since she's already been in the program for over two years it's inevitable that she'll be alone at times. The counselors, the social workers, even the administrative staff have grown tired of her. She is eighteen and will be sent off to live at the YWCA sometime within the next year—she only managed to learn some level of anger management early on in her first pregnancy. Then she stopped improving.

“I was with Myra.” She digs one stubby fingernail under another, trying to get the blood out. “Now I’m not.”

While I dampen a washcloth in her bathroom, I keep an eye on her from the open doorway. She sits on her bare bed, sheets hidden somewhere, in the closet or under a dresser, and twists her ring around and around her finger. I hand the cloth to her and motion to the smear of blood on her forehead.

She giggles. “Oops,” she says and slaps the warm cloth to her face. “This feels good!” She hoots as if there isn’t any blood seeping from the slices in her skin, as if she is having a grand, sunny day. Then she stops. “Myra had to go.” She scrubs at her hands with the cloth.

I grunt. I’m not well-trained for this job. I took one basic psychology class eight years ago and proceeded with my fine arts degree. So I sit in this room with this bloody girl and her child, sleeping in a playpen, and I don’t know what to say. Why come to me with every crisis? I can hardly be considered compassionate. I want out of this room that smells of old diapers and rotting bottles—bottles leftover from the infant son that she already voluntarily gave up parental rights to so she can still have visitation privileges. I want the social worker to come, or someone with iodine and bandages to keep me company in here. I've got nothing but a grunt.

Then: “Why did Myra have to leave?”

Belinda puffs a mouthful of her bad breath out. “She didn’t have to go. She said she was busy. Our appointment would be short today.”

“Oh.” I must sound like I’m not listening, like I don’t care. I’m stupid in situations like this. I nod. “Well. Maybe she was busy.”

“Thank you so much.” She is only half-snide. The other half is joking.

I don’t smile at her. “It’s likely, though. You might try giving her a little credit.”

“Why?” This is wholly snide.

I sigh. “I don’t know.” If she hadn’t given up the parental rights for her son, the CSD worker had told Belinda, Myra, and Belinda’s primary counselor, the child would simply have been taken away and she would never see him again. What’s the deal with that? her primary counselor said in the weekly staff meeting. Why don’t they take away her daughter, too? Isn’t she at more risk, being older? The way it works, however, is that Belinda’s son and daughter have different CSD workers and one was more willing to advocate for removal of the child. No one wants to see her daughter being raised the way she’s being raised. Why can’t they just put an end to all this and get Belinda out of our hair, man. She’s such a pain in the ass. Several of the counselors snickered, as did Myra. Did Myra really deserve any credit? She'd been working with Belinda for two and a half years. “She puts up with you, doesn’t she? She might need a break. She might give you too much slack.” I don’t know if I could have handled hour-long meetings, twice weekly, with Belinda for two and a half years.

Belinda gets up and stands over her daughter, asleep in the playpen, fully clothed, including her shoes. She watches her for a second, then she turns to me. “What do you know? You don’t know what Myra and I do when we meet.”

“I’m just faking it, Belinda. I’m doing whatever gets me by. Why don’t you enlighten me.”

Her mouth curls up. “Enlighten you! You want me to tell what we talk about?”

“No. Just tell me something about anything—something I don’t know. Help me out here.” I pray she doesn’t go into the story about her mother telling her how to make her body look better with undergarments. I pray she doesn’t pull out her girdle (who knew that girdles even existed anymore!) or take off her shirt again and show me how exactly to place one’s boobs in a bra for maximum volume. There’s no stopping her when she starts on that one. You can physically turn your back, walk away and close the door. She yells it through the door; she waits outside until you come out; she follows you down the hall. The two-year-olds stand around her and stare while she pulls up her shirt and leans forward.

What she tells me instead is that she and Myra talked about her stepfather. What everyone understands is that Belinda’s stepfather is the father of her daughter. A product of rape. Everyone sees that she believes this. There is no question of it in her eyes. In my twenty-two months as a counselor here, I’ve never heard anyone speculate otherwise. I’ve heard no one joke about Belinda’s life outside this treatment center, as they would if any doubt had crossed their minds. In fact, as bored or annoyed anyone is with her, they still have the ability to express anger over her home life at any given moment—usually when she isn’t there, since she seems to not concern herself with her distant life. She will never be going back.

What she and Myra talked about then, she tells me, was whether the abuse by her stepfather was real or a fantasy that she conjured up and believed so as to delude herself and keep from admitting to her promiscuity—a promiscuity no one else working there had imagined.

Belinda is crying again. “She kept asking me over and over, in that calm little voice: Belinda, is this abuse fantasy or reality? Reality or fantasy?” She sucks her breath in, puffing her face up, her giant chest out.

Great way to de-escalate a client. The girls love to watch the counselors fail.

Ivy, the other social worker, arrives with a knock on the door and I half don’t want to let her in. I'm embarrassed by my incompetency and I don’t want any higher-ups to have more evidence on what dumb-shits the counselors can be. More than anything, though, I want out of the room. I want to get away from Belinda, from myself.

 

In the office, I stare at the incident report that I have half-completed. I try to remember the dialogue, but this is difficult since I was so busy thinking about how much I wanted to leave. I try not to write the words with bitterness. I write the words: Fantasy or reality? Reality or fantasy? and I can imagine Myra's voice slowing into low condescension as she says this. Belinda gets so little credit. She’s a mess, but she’s no idiot. When I begin writing again, my bitterness is directed towards Myra rather than Belinda.

“Lucky you,” Alice says. “You get all the tortured conversation.”

I look up. “Belinda’s pains are drawn to me.”

Alice smiles. “Oh, not that.” She grins. “There's another show for you. Naomi.”

“It’s convenient to have a social worker here then.”

Alice gets the van keys out of the lockbox. “Ivy’s with Belinda.” She jangles the keys. “Some of the girls want to go down to the store. I told them I’d take them since we need to get Korey down there anyway for her formula.” Alice is Activities Girl. Not officially. She's just the fun one. I don’t argue with her place here. I don’t like going to the store or girl chatting. I don’t like to have the girls running all over the place. I like order. I like to know what’s going on. “I’ll leave you to Naomi,” Alice says. “She insists that you’re the only one she’ll talk to.” Just after she walks out the door, she sticks her head back in. “By the way, Naomi thinks she’s possessed by Satan.”

 

I try not to write the incident report on Naomi with sarcasm. I appreciate Naomi’s guts for trying to pull something like this. I suspect that she does this just to keep me entertained, because she knows that, if she asks for me, I'll come. I suspect she knows there’s some secret desire in me that thrives on drama, no matter what the quality is.

I stare at the words on the page: afraid that the devil has entered her body and refuses to leave. My response was, “Should I listen to you then? You’re Satan, right? If you’re Satan, you’re trying to fool me. I thought you’d be more clever than that.” I was actually shaking a little as I said it. I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t true.

“I’m not joking,” Naomi yelled.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, because I thought it was probably the best way to deal with the devil. Stand up to him; don’t take him too seriously.

I didn’t include that in my incident report. I also didn’t include my walk down the hall in which I questioned whether I should be dealing with Satan and Naomi in the same way.

I make my actions seem confident when I write them down, but I can’t know for sure why I am the one called on to deal with everyone’s problems tonight. Maybe the only attention they get from me is in emergency situations. Maybe I sit in the office filling out paperwork too much. Maybe I wouldn’t interact with any of the girls at all if crises didn’t occur.

Ivy closes the office door behind her. “I hear there’s a problem with Naomi?”

I tell her no, it’s over. Satan has left the building. Then, on second thought, I tell her that it might be good to at least check on her.

“I’m sure it’s alright,” Ivy says. “You cracked Belinda right open for me. She wants to talk to you.”

“Great,” I moan as I say it, but I’m relieved that I am still needed. Sometimes I believe my act. Other times I think it’s an acquired counselor attitude that moves across my face out my throat like a habit, that it means nothing.

When I knock and Belinda’s voice guides me into her dark dirty room, I sit down on her bed where she is twisting her ring around her finger again. “So what’s up?” I ask.

“Not much.” She takes a deep breath. “I just do stupid things. I get depressed.”

“Everybody does that,” I say. I’m up and spreading her curtains to let in the daylight before I know what I’m doing. I unlatch her window and slide it open, hoping some the bad air in her room will get sucked out into the yard and fly off above the city. “It’s a good time to clean, don’t you think?”

“It’s never a good time to clean.” Her mouth is curling up again. “But I suppose I should do it sometime.”

We take an inventory of the cleaning supplies she has and I get her what she needs from the supply closet. As I clear a space on a shelf to put the bathroom cleaner and disinfectant, I find the half-finished copy of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics that we had been reading together earlier in the week. “Why don’t I read to you while you clean?”

She stands up straight and her face brightens. “Okay.” She pulls a paper plate with a moldy substance from under her bed and tosses it into a white plastic garbage bag. “Let’s hear some crazy stories from the moon—before all our boring lives began.”

Author Portrait

Augie Gold lives in the desert. He is a former teacher, a former counselor, and an avid homebrewer. When he gets the chance to take off for months or years, he's hard to track down. You might find him living in Accra, in what he has begun to suspect is a brothel. Or maybe he is somewhere along the Appalachian Trail, dodging false prophets. He is at work on a novel and holds an MFA from the University of Arizona.