Take A Number

By Sara Pippus

Laney rips a number off the sleek red dispenser on the wall next to a long row of chairs. It has been a long day. Actually make that a long week…well a long life…she is only 24 and has lived and lived. Sometimes that is her only claim. She lived. The red number on the screen above the desk mocks us both a little as she settles into one of the chairs. Serving #263. The ticket in Laney’s small hands says #142. Maybe we feel more than mocked. More like defeated. Just like her life, this waiting, seems to say from the start – you are just going to fail. I sit down leaving a seat between us. It gives us both a little space. But it also keeps me from committing. If it all goes wrong today I can act like I don’t know her or at the very least feel her disappointment less with some distance. The chair becomes the buffer. My chair feels hard and cold. Laney doesn’t seem to notice.

I’ve been trailing along behind my ‘friend’ Laney for a little over a month now. Watching I guess. Seeing too much. Processing so slowly. Watching as she gets turned down for jobs I know she can do. No one wants to hire the addict. Seeing her keep choosing to stay down. All the while I am processing like an idiot who really knows nothing about a world like Laney’s. She had no one but Junior, well and her dealer. She needed a friend. I needed to rescue someone. I felt like a hero. Man was I dumb. I listened to her story. I asked questions. I heard it all. I do mean it all. I tried to let it sink in. Then tried to get it to stop sinking in. In the end I hoped it would sink in deep enough that I would know what to do. To do something ‘right’ about this life. I walked around in a haze for a few days after digging around in her past. I couldn’t focus; my stomach in knots trying to get rid of the terrifying images of her life and tears running down her face as she told for the first time.

Laney’s stomach growls loud enough that I can hear. I look up just as she looks at me. Embarrassed? No. Angry? Yes. Angry because I made her wait. Now I am embarrassed and I can’t look her full in the eye. While she starved and drank water all weekend to keep ‘feeling full’ – I ate. I tried to forget about Laney. I picked out a recipe that looked tasty and drove to the store. I picked out a good cut of meat. I drank a glass of wine and listened to classical music while I made dinner for my family. We ate together around the table. I tried to forget.

NumberI hear them call #153. This is getting harder to think about. I made her wait. I told her on Friday, ‘if you can do a few things to show you are trying this time then I can help you out’. As if I was in control of this circus. Like she needed to prove anything to me. Who was I to make her wait? This experiment of really being in Laney’s life was getting under my skin. It was starting to bug my dreams at night and I would wake up feeling cold and terrified. What was I thinking? But here in this cold chair not far from her hunger pains and my pangs of guilt I can hear it. I can hear the hope. Laney doesn’t seem to notice.

They call #174. We are getting closer. I hope Laney will wait this time. I know our worlds are not the same. They are not going to be. I can’t know what it feels like to be born into what Laney called a ‘hell hole’. Her dad’s drug den. Can’t get my heart to understand how a dad can give his ‘little girl’ to strangers instead of teaching her to not talk to them. I was born into different choices. I was born to my folks. Not to hers. Do you feel like you have choices when you are a mule on a drug drop for your mom when you are only eight? When you fight for food and warmth and love every day and get little of any of it. Choices seem pretty luxurious right now. Laney just got out from under one ugly life only to fall into the arms of another. I have followed Laney around enough in the last few months to know the look from shop keepers and ‘support’ workers. The look that says you have no choices. It makes me angry and defensive and Laney doesn’t seem to notice.

They call #197. Laney looks up. I lean closer to her and try to keep things light and hopeful by saying – ‘let’s get a coffee in the cafeteria when you are done signing in’. Keeping it light hasn’t been easy. She frowns a little and I remember she is very hungry and my suggestion just reminds her how selfish I am once again. Coffee is not going to help. I notice the frown. #208 flashes across the screen and my nerves are starting to fray just a little. Laney swears and starts to fidget. I wince at the swear, still not used to the lingo of this stray cat. But now I feel like swearing too. The waiting is getting to be too much. No wonder Laney has given up so many times. I should have at least taken her for some breakfast. It’s not just her we have to worry about. Junior is playing with his Hot Wheels car at our feet. He is wearing his new clothes today. Laney is too but she seems uncomfortable like she is wearing a disguise. I should have known the wait would be too long. What is wrong with me that I still act like I have learned nothing from being with her? It’s like we speak a different language.

Maybe this was a bad idea. What am I going to do with Junior for six weeks? I blurted out to the support worker that I would take him if they would just give Laney another chance. What did I know about raising an addict’s baby?               #222 flashes in red hot brightness on the screen and I can feel hope sitting on the fence still. I cautiously slide into the chair which has been the buffer, the safety zone. I want to tell her it is going to be OK. That she can do this. I want to fix it all and give her courage. I want to hear her laugh. I want to give her my life. Trade spots. Let her feel real love. I reach out to touch her hand. Laney tenses like an over tightened guitar string about to snap and shifts away from me a little. Too close. So scared. I want to say the right thing to keep her here until she is better. Rehab and getting clean feels like the only lifeline left. She can be safe here. This is her chance. Again.

#243 the light flashes with what seems to be a bit more brightness. The line is getting shorter all the time. 20 people ahead of her. #257 and I tell her I will be here to pick her up when rehab is over. I tell her I will take care of Junior for her and that she shouldn’t worry. It’s all been arranged. I guess I don’t know what to say, do I? #260 flashes and Laney doesn’t notice now. She is staring at Junior. The next generation. Reaching down she swishes the soft tuft of hair on his head. Oh please hold on Laney. #263 finally burns on the screen. I give her a nudge and she stands up to head over to sign herself away for 6 weeks. She glances toward the long hall that leads to the outside doors. I notice. I remind her it will go by quickly – what do I know? Laney hands over her belonging – they all fit in a Walmart bag — and checks in. I watch as she seems to have forgotten we are here. Her eyes have that glassy sheen. I wave in her direction a little feebly. I lean down to scoop up Junior and his little car. Everything about him is little. We head out into the sunshine beyond the outside doors. Laney doesn’t seem to notice. To be continued…

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