Abandoned

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The five-year old girl sat waiting in her wheelchair. When she tried to speak, all she could say was a mournful “aaah.” She was scrubbed clean. Her pink leggings matched a pink t-shirt matched her pink sneakers and pink socks. Her tight black curls were cut close for easy care. Her head swished back and forth as if she was scanning the room with her deep brown eyes.

Abandoned by her birth mother. Abandoned by her foster parents. She was denied placement in kindergarten, because her constant crying disturbed the other children. No one knew if she had ever received any therapy.

She and her caregivers met with several doctors and therapists at the clinic. The physical therapist said her legs were stiff and contracted, and her spine was curved and would continue to twist as she grew.

The communications specialist at the clinic saw she had something to say. “See how she raises her eyebrows, when she likes something,” the specialist told the caregivers. “See how she frowns when she doesn’t.” The girl’s head swished left and right.

The specialist showed the girl a computer with an eye-gaze communication system. Cartoon pictures lined up on the screen with a preview of three videos. The girl’s head stopped swishing long enough to gaze at each one. She found a video she didn’t like. The specialist showed her the comments page. The girl found the button she wanted. “It’s boring,” she said with a digitized voice. Then, with her eyes, she found a video she liked and smiled.

It was time for the clinic’s dietician to speak with the caregivers. The girl was crying. She had been listening to people talk about her for over three hours. She was bored and tired of being poked and stretched. I rolled her wheelchair outside to the sunlit courtyard. Her head swished, and her arms flailed. I started to sing to her, just like I used to sing to Ariela when she was a little girl. I sang all the songs I could remember, the songs that made Ariela laugh.

“I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” When the spider wriggles and jiggles inside her, I tickled the girl’s tummy like I tickled Ariela, The little girl didn’t laugh. “Aaaah, aaah” she moaned. Maybe she didn’t like my voice.

“Yellow Submarine.” The girl continued to cry. I wondered if she knew what a submarine was, or if she didn’t like yellow, or pink.

“I Love You a Bushel and a Peck.” Ariela loved the silliness of that song. But I didn’t hug the girl like I hugged Ariela or give her a peck on the cheek with a loud smacking noise.

I looked at the girl and wondered if she had ever heard, “I love you”? How do you know you’re lovable unless someone tells you? Or hugs you? Or gives you a peck? Or says you are the best, most wonderful child in the whole wide world?

As I sang, the girl’s crying lessened. She looked up at my face, her eyes burrowing into me. Then she stopped crying, and my off-key singing wafted into the courtyard.

Salsa San Francisco

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Twenty guys, or maybe thirty, in less than one hour. That’s how it goes with 100 people learning to salsa. We form two large circles. The followers (“usually ladies”) are the inner circle facing out, and the leaders (“usually men”) create the outer circle facing in. I can tell the teacher is unsure about these gender specific words. From this point on we are “leaders” and “followers,” which requires a different self-assessment. We pair-off. The music is turned up, and we practice the basic step for about a minute. Then the teacher says, “Change partners.” Followers stay in place. Leaders shift left to the next partner, like a reversed carousel. The next guy holds out his left hand to me, and we dance another minute or so until the next “change partners.”

The teacher has instructed us to smile. Some people don’t know how. Are they trying to look tough, or do they just have bad teeth? A few words may be said. “How’s your day goin’?” More often, we just move our feet and count out loud, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” just like Sesame Street.

There’s not a lot of space on the dance floor. Ordinarily, I avoid close contact with strangers, but here, I’m an anthropologist. (Think Margaret Mead in heels and a short skirt.) I marvel at the diversity, not just differences in color and size, but attitude, from self-assured to smart-ass to shy to awkward, attitudes reflected in the way they dance. Self-assured has done this before. Smart-ass corrects my position. Shy can’t make eye contact. Awkward can’t do the simple basic step. He is sweating, really sweating. Sixty seconds become sixty minutes. When will the teacher say “change”? Please save me from this guy who’s never heard of deodorant.

Then comes Garlic Breath, and I stop inhaling. Next is Sweaty Palms, and I dry my hands on my skirt. There’s the guy in the Cal t-shirt. “I went to Cal,” I volunteer. Why did I say that? He might ask me what year? I could lie. Who would know? Finally, Hot Latin Ballroom, with requisite gold chain, whose torso twists like he’s made of rubber, and I am Dancing With the Stars.

Two of my 20+ partners had a few grey hairs. The rest, I figure I am old enough to be their mother. I tell this to Gary. “Try grandmother,” he points out. I look around the room. Maybe. But I can dance with the best of them.