Her black eye was a few days old, and neither of us caught the other’s name. She knocked on my door at 4 a.m. She was tired. She asked for socks.
An hour later she returned. Two officers stood on the street, their shadows carrying long down the cracked pavement of my block. “They told me I had to go somewhere,” she said. She came back to my house. I do not know why.
She was small and had a round face. I thought she might be a child. The police officer assured me that she was an adult. He laughed a fatigued laugh to let me know there were parts of this story I didn’t know.
She smelled of alcohol; poor people alcohol that comes in plastic bottles, cheap strawberry-flavored wine that has a handle. She had clearly just gotten kicked out of wherever she had been, it was nearly dawn for Christ’s sake, and her lip was starting to swell.
The officer said, “Yeah, we definitely know her.” Same laugh, not hateful, just stale.
“Is there no place for her to go?” I asked.
She stood on my porch, holding her coat tight though it was not cold. She was watching us as we talked. Her eyes were dark like history, dissonant against bright, young skin.
“No,” they said.
Somewhere else, in a place not here, in a neighborhood across town, she might be understood to be in danger as a young woman alone in the middle of the night, bare heels building blisters in shoes without socks. But here she is so dispensable that when she and I both asked if she could be brought to jail for a nuisance charge — two hots and a cot seeming like the best bet — she wasn’t even worth that.
‘Is there no place for her to go?’ I asked.
So she slept, my old sleeping bag pulled up to her face, on my porch, with its peeling paint, a rocking chair, and a dead geranium.
I thought about my son inside, sound asleep wrapped in familiar faded Star Wars sheets, a dull nightlight glowing in the corner of his room. I thought about Tamir Rice sitting on a swing with a BB gun. I thought about the little girl in the back seat of Philando Castile’s car.
In America, childhood is parceled out by race and class and gender, like peanuts from the bottom of the can, as if it were in short supply. When we say children are our future, we don’t mean the children standing in the heat of the border with their parents. When we evoke the sanctity of childhood, we don’t mean the children doing shift work and making our cellphones.
When we laugh off youthful indiscretion, we don’t mean the black boys on the block, or the small town white boys chasing hell dust, or the children aging out of foster care. We mean “our children,” we mean the children who are blameless by birthright, we mean Brett Kavanaugh and Brock Turner. For the rest, we just plan our prisons based off their third-grade reading scores.
We will not ask the woman on my porch her story. We will not open floodgates of what we have damned: dirty gray water rushing through, picking up six-pack rings, pop tops, used condoms, and Pringles cans. With her story, filthy water could rush across our lawns, leaving debris on our careful edging, and disrupt the way things have always been.
Her story could make Emmett Till look like a boy again; it could make Anita Hill’s quiet, measured voice loud again; it could make us wonder if Georgetown Prep and pedigree should really ordain you to the highest court in the land. Why bring it up now? Why ruin lives?
We will not ask the woman on my porch her story. We will not open floodgates of what we have damned.
The only time she will be asked her story is when she is in court. She will be there for public intoxication, for indecency, for loitering, for prostitution, or for trespassing. She will mutter some abbreviation, something she thinks the judge might want to hear.
But the story of being black, of being a girl, of being poor, can never be articulated through rules of evidence. We need law, we need order, we need lines to be drawn, even when they cut right down the middle of us. We cannot ask her what happened to her, why she smells like cheap wine, who was on the other end of her black eye. That would deny us our birthright. That can put lives in shambles. Beautiful, beautiful due process.
I went back to bed — this time not in my own bed but on the floor of my son’s room — nervous and uncertain, pained that she was outside, but aware that, as a mother alone, I must not let down my guard. I lay down with my cellphone and a knife — two things I learned to sleep with years ago — under my pillow, unsure of what I feared.
I thought about the woman on my porch. I thought about her toughness, her game face, and how she was curled up like a child on a stranger’s porch, knees to chin, finally getting some sleep. People who sleep like this, they sleep so hard they don’t have the luxury of dreaming.
I woke her in the morning and asked her to move on before my son left for school. She said okay and asked how old he was. “Nine,” I said. “That’s a good age,” she said. I agreed, and I told her to keep the sleeping bag. She asked for some rope to tie it up with.
I didn’t watch her leave. I made breakfast for my son inside, metal spoons clicking on ceramic bowls, orange juice poured in Mason jars. I cut his sandwich and packed up his lunch… Maybe we are all just here to protect our own. But I am not sure she is not mine.
Two years later I leave the porch light on every night. We do not have to know everything to know what is true; we can bequeath her story, regardless of her patrimony.