For weeks, I mistook Bea for a teenager. Her eyes were so big, and she kept her hair cropped close and never wore makeup. She was spindly, and her gait was clumsy. Her face was a thin oval, as though two crescent moons were looped together. Bea was dark-skinned, and when she wasn’t pregnant she hardly had breasts.
I was 23 and had just started working at a drop-in center for low-income women in a tidy California neighborhood. The center was a small house on a quiet street. Our services were voluntary and open to anyone, but most clients were homeless and in crisis. Several caseworkers shared just three offices. We served breakfast and lunch in a little dining room that opened to a living room where support groups were held. Every cushion on every seat was worn, and the house always smelled like the white vinegar we used to mop the floors. Kitchen knives were locked in the staff closet, but babies were passed around, bounced on every knee.
Not long after I started working at the center, Bea grew breasts. She was so skinny that her new belly was obvious within weeks. She dawdled in the hallway and didn’t make eye contact with anyone, but she came by every day. I said hello, but she never responded. She wore tight, low-cut shirts, and her belly was increasingly there, a taut lump.
My coworker asked Bea if she was pregnant, but Bea said no, she’d never had sex.
In a staff meeting, my coworkers were exasperated, sighing, shaking their heads. I was told that Bea was 28 and had been coming to the center for years, and she had three children already, all of them living with her mother by court order. But if Bea wasn’t even admitting to being pregnant, there wasn’t anything we could do but keep an eye on her, Laura, the director, decided.
Bea defied categorization. “Developmentally disabled” was as precise a term as anyone used, but her IQ was three points too high to diagnose her as such and qualify her for appropriate benefits and programs. Some kind of autism, maybe, her psychologist sometimes wagered, but that wasn’t right either, and Bea didn’t suffer from any of the hallucinations or true delusions that afflicted many of the other women. The only mental illness she presented was depression, and in our little house that was hardly a rarity.
She was capricious. She’d be silent, stand stiff near the door with arms clamped at her side and eyes downcast. Or she’d come skipping in, wave hello, and giggle and chat with whoever was in the living room. I never saw her wear the same outfit twice, and within a week she’d change from a pastel sundress to a pantsuit to baggy jeans and a do-rag. She paired velvet skirts with a boy’s undershirt.
One day I was in the front office talking with a volunteer when Bea overheard.
“What did you say?” She asked. It was the first time she’d ever addressed me.
“I said that I don’t like shopping.”
Bea gasped and jumped backwards. “Are you a witch?”
I laughed, but Bea wasn’t kidding.
“Oh, no. Oh, no. That’s not right! Your mom is not liking that! You must be a witch.” She was flushed, incredulous.
After that, when I said hello, Bea said hello back.
A few weeks later, she told me that she was pregnant. To me, she looked five months along. She hadn’t yet been to a doctor, and we made an appointment at the clinic.
“Don’t tell them,” she said.
“The other staff.”
“Bea, you know I have to. We work together.”
She shook her head, her eyes huge with urgency.
“I don’t need them knowin’ my business.”
Bea was right to assume that Laura had called Child Protective Services five years earlier, prompting the agency to remove her first daughter. Laura had gone to Bea’s apartment and found her without food, formula or diapers. She was cleaning the open folds of her daughter’s body with Comet. The next two babies were taken before Bea left the hospital, as is routine with mothers who have already lost custody of a child.
Bea’s confidences fed into a pattern. My coworkers called me Magnet. Clients who’d been evading staff for years wanted to talk with me, and all the really bizarre and traumatized new clients asked for me. In my generous moods, I thought it was because I was gentle, empathetic. In realistic moods, I knew it was because I was young and easy, weak enough to collude with delusions and bend rules. I once listened to a woman read aloud from her smudged journals, while wailing for over an hour, during an intake that should have taken twenty minutes. I was too meek to interrupt, but I also loved being so close to the outpouring, the drama. I was a voyeur, and I wanted to know what each diary said.
When Bea told me that she was pregnant, I felt light; a satisfaction that she’d told me first. I especially relished that she’d asked me not to tell the others, but I quickly pretended that I hadn’t immediately thought of the situation in terms of myself and I was only concerned for Bea, who was surely going to lose this baby, her fourth child.
The next week, Bea invited me to her apartment, a single, narrow room in a public housing complex a block away from the center. Bea had a white wardrobe, a bed made up with a pink comforter, and a big cage for her bunny. The room smelled like wet fur and talcum powder.
Still, Bea never mentioned her three kids and hardly acknowledged her pregnancy. Instead, she began carrying two paperback volumes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, and she wanted them typed and printed, two or three at a time. Bea had a vision of how each poem ought to be laid out, and I indulged her. She asked me to print several copies, and she doled them out.
When a fellow client miscarried, Bea chose a poem for her. She wanted the whole poem typed out, but she wanted the lines, Yet who complains? My heart and I? In this abundant earth no doubt is little room for things worn out and We once were loved, used—well enough, I think, we’ve fared, my heart and I., to be largest and emboldened across the page.
She left the center while the pages were printing.
“Your poems!” I said when I saw her return that afternoon.
“Do you get lonesome?” she asked. Her voice was accusatory.
“Yeah. Sure. Of course, I get lonely.”
“Don’t worry, everyone gets lonesome.” She walked away.
For weeks at a time, I ignored Bea. Dozens of other clients came in and out, in need of shelter, medicine, counseling, applications for Head Start or The Food Pantry. I played Barbie with toddlers, served roasted pork. There were black eyes, suicide attempts, and psychotic breaks. Bea sat with her poems in her lap, and I rarely had a moment for her.
One afternoon, she was thrown out of the women’s health group for repeatedly telling the HIV-positive women they were dirty. Moments later, a mother complained she’d taken a toy from her child. I wanted to scream at Bea. I didn’t bother protecting myself from my grandiose self-image. I was angry and knew it. Bea stormed away from the center before I could speak with her.
The next day she approached me when I was cleaning the kitchen.
“Do you know what it means to be grown?” she asked.
“What does it mean?”
“It means you take care of you self and nobody’s in your business.”
I was quiet.
“It’s not like I’m somebody’s child, you know. I take care of myself. I know what it means to be grown. I wanna be grown. I wanna be the mom. My mom is taking care of my kids, and she’s thinking that she’s the mom, but I am. I am grown.”
Again, Bea walked away.
When Bea was eight months pregnant, a psychologist told me about a group home where developmentally disabled mothers lived with their babies. Bea and I called on speakerphone. The director called us both honey and invited us to come visit and start the application process.
“Bea!” I said after hanging up. “This could be great! This could be an option for you!”
“Oh, Meaghan.” She said, blushing and laughing. “You look so cute and happy.”
We planned to go together. We looked at the bus maps and schedules, and Bea wondered aloud what she should wear. I pointed to the address on the map, and she took the map and clutched it to her belly, smiling.
But she never came to meet me, and she missed her appointment at the group home. The director kept calling, and then stopped calling. I didn’t know where Bea was.
After several weeks, she returned, wearing a long dark coat and pushing an empty pink stroller.