Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Note on Tina and Liz

They're cousins. I'd had no idea, but I probably should have guessed there was some family relationship. They have the same small builds, light brown hair, and regular, even features. They have the same intense love/hate relationship with their sisters, with whom they both live and by whom they both claim to be abused on a regular basis. One day they come in distraught, telling us that they have no clothes, no medicine, no place to live because their sister put them out on the street after collecting the rent money. The next day they are borrowing a cell phone to check in with their sisters and say they love them. They have much of the same illness and the same sweetness.

Tina and Liz are two of our sickest clients, the ones we watch striding the brink of death, strangely undaunted, grasping at small victories and slender attachments. They are both still ready to throw their little, semi-invalid bodies into the mix, Liz still prostituting, Tina still up for a street fight. (Liz has occasional flashes of self awareness, though. She once told the room that cars slow down for her, get a good look, and then speed off. "They're thinking, oh no, grandma's out tricking!" Liz told us. Then she roared with laughter. Tina, on the other hand, narrates a fight with another woman at the homeless shelter with no sense at all that there's anything futile and strange in a brawl between two sickly women exhausted by their own diseases. "We had to stop," she tells me. I assume she meant someone broke up the fight. "No," she says. "We couldn't breath.")

They were probably both once beauties. They are needy, and mannerly, and small. They are mentally ill. They make me think of two little old men -- leathery old cowboys, maybe -- who never retired. They keep riding the bucking bull, getting thrown until their bones are crushed almost to dust, imagining that the few sad blocks of South West Baltimore are the glorious, wide, open plains. Never guessing a world could exist beyond their horizon.

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