My niece Theresa posted a new selfie yesterday. She’s swept her thick caramel hair to one side, and it waves over one shoulder almost to her waist. The T-shirt dress she’s wearing is ruched in all the right places, accentuating her ample breasts, her wasp waist, her arched spine, her perky butt. She presents herself? A biologist might describe her posture as “presenting” or “mammalian lordosis.” Fifteen people like her photo. Not very impressive.

One of her friends comments, “ur face is a skeleton, i’m ur friend so quit the shit. for u are beautiful to the core, so quit the shit, ur wasting away.” It’s true, but it’s shady. The selfie, I mean. A blur of tattoo rides the back of her neck, a ring sparkles in her nose, shadows hollow out her eye sockets. You can’t really see the sores or their scars. Her lips are closed over her teeth. She’s dark, and she’s pitiless.

She turned thirty last year, and she’s beautiful to the core. She attributes her high cheekbones to our Cherokee ancestors, and her luscious lips to our Jewish ones.

The lens aims at a mirror, her phone held between her thumb and fingers like a tiny dance partner. Behind her, two electric hand dryers hang out on the wall, their steel disks watching the mirror, too. Square, industrial tile. It might be the public restroom on Tybee Island. A few weeks ago, she called. She was living in a homeless camp near the bridge to Savannah.

She doesn’t get around online much, at least from what I see. Geographically, she gets around quite a bit. She calls occasionally from the road: Ocala, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Statesboro, Miami. She’s doing good. She has a new man. Or, she’s out of this fucking place. Anywhere but here. She could use some help. Fifty bucks.

The shit is the shit. Formication is an abnormal sensation of insects running on your skin. Then the habit of scratching at them. Then staph, scabs, staph. Or, then fearing someone is watching her. When she was only as tall as my waist, she picked a mosquito bite above her right cheekbone compulsively, and it morphed from mosquito bite to permanent feature. She’d been homeless and passed around to family and friends. Is anyone watching? Bleed, scab over, bleed. She marked herself.

The mark resembled a teardrop tattoo, the ink inmates get after killing a person, or when they need to present themselves as having killed. Squirrely girl, too jumpy to be cuddled. If I think about this too much, I see an axe coming for my breastbone and cleaving a bloody, gaping slit.

So I try not to think, to just pay attention. Under the “quit the shit” comment, I type, “I love you, Theresa. Be good to yourself.” And I check back, compulsively, to see if she has liked my comment, if she shows herself again, if she notices I’m watching.

First published in Grist, Issue 10

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