“THEY ALWAYS WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH ME!” she is shouting. She is sitting all of 3 feet away from me and although I have told her 4 times during this conversation that these are not walls but a cubicle with a door, she does not lower her voice.
“Who? Who are you talking about?” my voice is conversational.
“ALL OF THEM!” she screams.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Elaine knocks on the cubicle wall. I give her my best ‘I told you look.’ Her voice modulates from shout to merely loud, “Every man I’ve ever met. Every man I’ve ever met since I was 7 years old has wanted to have sex with me.”
It doesn’t shock me that men have been wanting to have sex with her since she was 7 years old. It doesn’t shock me and because it doesn’t shock me she feels comfortable telling me that she was molested the first time that she can remember when she was 5. When my jaw doesn’t drop with that news, she goes on to tell me that when her mother found out her uncle had taught her how to give him blow jobs, her mother started grooming her as a sex worker. She started having sex with strangers for money 1 year later. It is only after telling me all this and watches my face remain unchanged that she allows me to reach for her son.
“I NAMED HIM SOLOMON SO HE WOULD BE STRONG!” She is screaming again. I don’t correct her. I lift Solomon out of her grasp. The heft of him is astonishing. At 20 months he weighs much more than 30 pounds. He does not babble. He does not walk or cruise. He makes eye contact briefly. I sit on the floor only inches from her and place him in front of me.
“DON’T PUT MY BABY ON THAT NASTY FLOOR!”
Immediately I lift Solomon up and grab the blanket I keep folded up on the back of my chair. I spread the blanket out, look up and receiving her approval I place him on the floor in front of me. He is able to sit alone. Lily, his sister, who has been standing quietly at their mother’s side slowly inches over to join us.
She is scowling down. “I DON’T LET PEOPLE ROUND MY CHILDREN!” She reminds me.
I nod. “It’s your job to keep them safe.”
“THAT’S RIGHT! I KEEP MY BABIES SAFE! I DON’T LET NOBODY TOUCH MY BABIES!”
I pull the wooden blocks out of the tub I keep under my desk and dump them on the floor. Solomon and Lily both smell. Lily at 3 years old is still in diapers and Solomon at 20 months still takes formula as his primary meal. She has kept them ‘safe’ by locking them in her apartment with her. Her plan to keep her babies safe nearly smothered them all to death after a gas leak next door filled their apartment with fumes. She refused to leave the apartment. The fire department had to break down the door and force her out with her children. She fought them all the way down the stairs.
Lily is a pretty girl. Her brown hair is curly and she has placed a single green barrette to make a bang. The back of her hair is matted and her mother admits to not knowing how to wash it. Lily’s face has acne from poor diet and her teeth are rotten from being on the bottle too long. But her big brown eyes and long lavish lashes are something most women would kill for and when she smiles they light up like Christmas trees. I hand her a plain soft girl doll. She sits besides me and pretends to give it a bottle.
“SHE DON’T GOT NO DOLL BABY! HE TOOK ALL HER DOLLS! JUST LIKE HE TAKE EVERYTHING!”
I look up and nod. Her children have the same father. She is very proud of the fact that she only has one ‘baby daddy’ but as she says ‘he ain’t no good.’ He pad locks the bedroom doors and makes her keep Solomon in his crib all day. She won’t say that he hits her but the bruises on her arms and face tell the story. I ask her if she has the diaper bag, Solomon needs a diaper change.
“I DON’T CHANGE HIM EVERY TIME HE WET!” She explains. “THAT WAY HE WON’T GET SPOILED!”
I ask for the diaper bag again. She concedes and hands it to me. The bag is filthy. The milk in each of the bottles she has smells foul. I pull one of the bottles from its holder and a roach crawls out of the bottom. She is embarrassed. I hand the bag back to her and stand up.
“Let’s just go clean it out.” I grab sanitary wipes from my desk and reach down for Lily’s hand. Holding on to the doll, Lily takes my hand and we lead her mother out of the cubicle.
She follows us into the restroom. Balancing Solomon on her hip she empties the bag of its contents. Both bottles are sour. We pour the milk into the sink. There is one foul dirty cloth. She smells it and hands it to me to toss in the trash. She pulls out a can of formula, three diapers, two socks, and a teething ring with hair on it. I look in the bag, there is caked food in the bottom. She turns it over and dumps the mess into the sink. I hand her the wipes and one of the diapers. Placing Solomon on the baby changer, she begins taking off his clothes.
She pulls off his shoes first and I believe I hear him exhale. She removes his pants which are soaked though and that’s when we notice the state of his diaper. It is yellowed and thick with waste. When she pulls it off, she is genuinely surprised at how wet and heavy it is and how red and irritated his skin is on his bottom. She carries the diaper to the trash.
“I wouldn’t want to sit in that, would you?” I ask her.
Quietly, she answers, “No.”
“You do so well at keeping your babies safe. It’s important to you that they be safe all the time, right?”
She nods slowly.
“Safety is about more than other people hurting them. Safety is also about making sure they stay healthy. Now I know you want your babies to be healthy babies, right?”
“So let’s keep their bottoms clean, OK?”
Free of the heavy diaper and too little shoes, Solomon begins to wiggle on the baby changer. I instruct her to clean him gently rinsing the wipes in warm water and handing them to her. Once he is clean, I ask if she has any ointment in her bag to put on his diaper rash. She does not. She puts the clean diaper on him. Then I suggest that she check Lily. Lily is dry. After wiping the inside of her diaper bag clean with paper towels and wipes we return to my cubicle. After I assure her we can give her clean clothes for him to wear home, she does not put the wet pants back on Solomon.
On the floor again, free of the heavy diaper, wet pants and too tight shoes, Solomon is more active. He reaches for the blocks on the floor and bounces on his bottom. She worries that he will hurt himself and grabs him up off the floor. “I CAN’T LET HIM FALL!” She shouts.
“You’re right here.” I coax. “You won’t let anything happen to him. You’re right here.” I look her in her eyes and nod.
Slowly she loosens her grip. She hands him back to me. I stand Solomon up. His legs are strong. He bounces in my arms. Slowly I help him ‘walk’ the three paces between me and his mother’s lap. He likes the feel of the wool blanket on his toes and giggles. He grips his mother knees and looks up at her face. She reaches to pick him up but I steady her hand. Solomon bounces. He raises his left hand and takes one step out from his mother. Lily, his mother and I hold our breath. Slowly Solomon raises his right hand. Once his hand is free of this mother’s lap, he wobbles in a near fall he grabs hold to her. She is nervous, “SEE HE AIN’T READY!”
“Just wait,” I say.
Without touching him, her hands surround him. Solomon again lets go, first his left hand, then his right. He balances himself. One bounce. Two. Left foot step. Right foot step. He looks at his mother and gives her the biggest toothiest grin he can muster. He stumbles but before his bottom reaches the floor she sweeps him up in her arms.
“HE WALKED! HE WALKED!”
“Yes.” I confirm.
She is crying and laughing. “I DIDN’T THINK HE COULD! I DIDN’T THINK HE COULD!”
Lily is clapping and bouncing up and down.
“What did you do?” I ask her.
“I LET HIM GO!”
“What did he do?” I ask her.
“HE WALKED! I LET HIM GO AND HE WALKED!”
“And everything was okay?” I asked.
She nods, “AND EVERYTHING WAS OKAY! I LET HIM GO HE WALKED AND EVERYTHING WAS OKAY!”
“Now it’s your turn,” I said.
She nods, “NOW IT’S MY TURN!”