From my seat at the table, I could see Marla walking across the courtyard with a young woman, probably her foster care case manager. They were walking fast, in step, almost like they were a couple that might be holding hands except Marla was holding a notebook and some papers in her arms. The wind blew her unbuttoned shirt open, her black t-shirt, ripped with iridescent hand drawn hearts and arrows matched the black fingernail polish I knew she was wearing. It would be cracked and old, her nails rough and chewed. So many times I saw her teenage hands and they never once had new nail polish, always just the remnants as if they had been painted that way to match her shirt. If it wasn’t ripped or damaged, raw, unfinished, cold and concerning, it wasn’t Marla.
I thought about going outside to speak to her. The only door had an emergency bar across it so unless I wanted alarms to go off in the mental health facility where I was waiting for a meeting to begin, I would have to backtrack down a long hall to reach an open door. By then, I knew Marla would be in her case manager’s car being driven to wherever she was living now. I couldn’t very well run after them. And if I did, what would I say?
Would I say “I’m sorry?” “I miss you?” Would I tell her that she looked well, introduce myself to her case manager, explain that I used to be someone important to Marla, her advocate? Would I tell her case manager that I had meant to never quit on Marla but I did? That one day I would run out of ideas, use up every plan for a good placement for her, have nothing to offer? Would I admit that I had loved this willful, ripped, damaged girl until one day I didn’t, that one day my heart for her had just turned to stone?
When it happened, when my heart for her turned to stone, it was as if a small hand had reached inside me and flipped a switch. After two years, dozens of meetings, phone calls with school social workers and therapists, fighting with the authorities, speaking on her behalf at court, and trying to keep the child welfare system from swallowing her whole, I sat across from her in our county’s juvenile detention facility, a place with the same metal and durable plastic furniture that graced the adult facility where her mother was currently living and it was in that moment, probably when she needed a tireless advocate the most, that I felt the switch flip and the lights go out.
Several months later I got a text from a strange new number.
“Why did you leave me?”
I don’t know, I wanted to tell her. I didn’t have a reason. I just became empty for you, Marla. That’s what I wanted to say. But it would have been a cruel and indecipherable thing to say.
I couldn’t even say I was sorry. I just stared at the text for a long while and then closed it.