Leena’s fingernails are thick as scallop shells, her case worker Victoria observes. Her clinical afterthought is shoe tying and sewing must be near impossible. They are driving to a campground outside of Anacortes where Leena will stay with friends. Borne from desperation and desolation the transitional housing definition has expanded to include camping. To pass the time as they drive Leena recounts traumas with her parents, ex-husband, kids – especially her youngest daughter who kicked her out.
“Why’d she make me leave? I played with her kids. Hell, I shared a room with them, my grandbabies. I slept on a damn yoga mat on their floor and would’ve done it forever, forever!”
Victoria looks away from Leena’s nails, striated brown and yellow, “Let’s get past that and focus on getting you to the campground, Leena. I am sorry you’re upset your daughter made you leave. But you have friends who said you could stay in their tent. We need to get there before the campground closes.”
“Aw hell, I don’t really know how to get there. I always got a lift!” she cries, wiping away tears that disappear into the crook of her nails.
Leena looks at her damp, red-streaked face in the rearview mirror, “Look at me,” she lets out a hoarse laugh, slapping her lap with her palms, “Come on now, Vicky, admit it. Your client looks like shit!”
Victoria laughs with Leena, “You’ll never get me to agree with you.”
“Sometime I will. Sometime when you’re not all stiff and professional I’ll get you to say how god awful I am!”
Leena turns on the radio and bounces in her seat to ‘Uptown Funk’ yelling, “Oh, how I love this song! Don’t you love this song, Vicky?”
She turns the radio down to answer a call on her pink cell phone, mumbling low in an attempt to prevent Victoria hearing her, “You sure? But I don’t have anywhere else to go,” she cries, ending the call, tears dropping onto her phone, “I’m sorry, Vicky, they say I can’t stay with them yet.”
For the next twenty miles Leena dozes, yelling in her sleep and scratching at pale brown scars on her arms layered like a folded cheesecloth. Victoria has no plan now other than arriving in Anacortes where Leena still wants to go. Shelters are rarely drop-in. At best there’s a waitlist and on top of that an in-depth screening to protect other residents from admitting ill people like Leena. Victoria pictures Leena’s history like a crescent moon-shaped slope on a graph, its highest point her birth, always moving down and down: before the campground her daughter’s home. Before that jail. Before that a stretch of abuse beginning with her dad and ending with her ex-husband, Don. Victoria lets judgement creep in. The worst abusers always have plain names like Don, rarely burly ones like Damien or Malcolm.
She holds her breath and maintains a tight smile, thinking if she remains calm and focused on the terrain ahead then one of Leena’s contacts will call back changing their mind. She’s never seen this rural area before with dark trees covered with transparent yellow leaves and waving grasses in vibrant teal lining the highway, distracting her from the familiar growl in her stomach that signals an impending failure to help her client. How can it be, teal shaded grass? In the distance there is an orange light on the horizon over the blue-black water near Anacortes.
Leena awakens as they pass the campground turnoff. She looks ahead hard, countering Victoria’s beatific smile with a scowl, “Vicky, I could never count on those jackasses you call my friends. Damn them to hell! If it makes any difference we could’ve drove up to their tent and they would’ve changed their mind right there.”
The highway curves wide, climbs then drops into sharp and stunning Anacortes. The dark water separates wobbling boats in the marina. The orange light on the horizon is gone, with the ultramarine sky now almost matching the colorless water. Its low buildings do not obscure the view of the distant cluster of San Juan islands Victoria only knows about from reading they are a hip celebrity getaway. She pulls up to the bus stop, parks beside the curb and piles Leena’s bundle of belongings on a white bench under the streetlight.
Leena exits the company car squinting at the streetlight and turns stiffly towards Victoria, “Welp, we gave it a shot, Vicky! We’ll try and find something again next week,” holding out her hand, the backside of her nails topping her fingers like a weathered fence.
She clutches bus tickets Victoria drops into her palm, mustering buoyancy, “I can ride buses most all the night long.”
Victoria pulls away from the bus stop looking toward the sky and water, so dark now there is nothing delineating them.
Image – Looking west near sunset in the San Juan Islands, Washington, U.S., from a Washington State Ferry somewhere on the way from Friday Harbor to Anacortes.Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons