Through my office window slipped a warm breeze, adding a gift of more oxygen to the light. But the young woman sat before me with hands clenched, deep-set hazel eyes averted and brimming with unshed tears.
I had asked her a simple enough question: “What are your dreams?”
I knew the answer already but waited for her to speak.
“I don’t know! I don’t have dreams. What are those? Fantasies! All I ever had was a crazy need to survive.” She looked at me, eyes empty of tears as suddenly as they had filled, the hurt pushed back to the tender places she guarded so well. “I guess I’ve done that so far, anyway. Gotten by, day by day.”
It was an assignment: come up with three things you want, such as wishes you had as a child that were put aside, hopes you let yourself dare to long for, situation imagined that would make you happy. But Marta wasn’t accustomed to thinking in terms of what she would love for herself. For her daughter, yes: a better life, which currently meant shelter in a safe place, enough healthy food, health and friends. But for herself? Just getting by in the most basic sense was enough; she had eaten from dumpsters outside of restaurants and slept under highway overpasses and shot meth. None of it had killed her so far.
Marta’s mental health and addiction treatment had spanned three months so far. It had begun with a DUII, her first, and developed into something more far-reaching than she had expected. She had presented herself as amenable, even friendly, but it had been a veneer, a shield, as behind that was a tough woman who was paying attention, keeping tally. Deep beyond that was a soft core that floated in pain. I saw flashes of her soul when she thought I wasn’t looking. There was a radiance but it felt to her like a weakness. She drank to keep it in one spot, in the dark, under wraps. It was better, she informed me, than the methamphetamine she had used for eight years and finally quit at twenty-three after too much, too fast. As far as she had been concerned, she had to “do the time” in treatment. It was easier than what her spouse was doing: time in prison for violent crimes. Some against her.
For the first month or so she thought little of me and my tools for life and yet she had come to every individual session and two groups. I had reserved any judgment. I knew for a fact that a counselor–or anyone else–cannot predict who will make real headway and who will give up. Marta caught my attention, though, with her strong will and quick mind. She just couldn’t see the potential she had. Yet.
Years living the gang life and finally out, at least as much as she could be then. Multi-generational domestic violence. A child born right after she had gotten clean whom she adored and worried about every minute.
“Maybe Trina will have a good life, maybe she will be kept enough from harm, find a way to something good. I’m working on it. I changed jobs like you suggested.”
The corners of her mouth dipped, then changed into the barest crescent of a smile. She had left a fast food job for a factory worker job, working swing shift as her erratic mother kept her child. But it was better pay and she had done well enough that she was shift leader already. It didn’t surprise me. Marta knew how to problem solve on her feet, learned quickly and wasn’t afraid of hard physical work. She had inner endurance and stamina. I’d want her on my team as long–as she stayed sober and crime-free.
“So maybe you could look into moving in a few months, you think?”
“Maybe. Have to finish this first. This costs me! But, yeah, maybe by Christmas I can look around.” She shifted, put one foot underneath her. “That would be good for Trina. Some present!”
“So, one dream–one wish–is having better housing for yourself and Trina.”
“I guess.” She paused as if checking to make sure. “Really want to know? A small place outside the city, maybe. But I’d start with an apartment just outside of my block.”
“Outside the city…?”
Marta blinked at me, shook her head. “You’ll think this is weird, but I’ve always wanted to be in the country. My grandfather was poor but he lived on an acre of land in Texas and sometimes we’d visit him a couple of weeks. One year–I was eight–we lived with him. He was hard to get along with–you had to dodge dishes and worse–when he drank tequila. But he cared about us kids. He had three dogs. A huge cat, great mouse killer. I always thought it something that I’d wake up and see the horizon. The air was different, you know? Like there was more of it, smelled good, sorta shone in the daylight.” She gazed out the window.
Her jaw relaxed, her lips softened as they slackened. The vision in her head pierced thick inner walls, roused a gentleness I had sensed but rarely glimpsed.
“A garden, maybe, tomatoes and pumpkins and crap all like that.”
She flushed, wriggled in embarrassment despite the effort to stay in that other zone, the one where she lived only to survive, worked to keep her daughter safe, alive, first and last. Marta knew about guns. She knew about running through deep of night from feet right behind her, sometimes many, who pursued her for no good end. She knew about weapons and trades. She knew what it was to have her husband tape her mouth and beat her because she was too pretty and smart. Because her nature was to be dauntless. Or he just felt like it.
Marta knew sacrifice, fear, exhaustion, numbness. But not much more.
“Who all would live there?”
“Trina and me.”
She looked up at me suddenly, shock widening her eyes.
“I heard that, Cynthia….not him…not Tito…”
Silence filled the room, a divided presence, half-doomsday and half-epiphany. My heart thudded a bit. I had waited a long time for her wants to change, for her world view to separate itself from his. He stayed alive for her so he could dominate and brainwash, put her to work dealing drugs with him, give her whatever he thought she had coming. The last time he made a mistake he had no way out. And he was up for parole again in four months.
“Marta, you do have a dream. More than one. Close your eyes a minute, will you?”
She hesitated, closed then opened them, sat back and let her eyelids fall over tired eyes.
“Do you see it? ”
“No.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, okay, I’m getting there. It’s…a nice, safe place in the country, with my daughter. Small and…bgray? Somewhere to breathe and have a dog and a cat. My daughter running barefoot, real clover everywhere. Tito? His chair has a pit bull in it. He’s a good dog, maybe.” Her laughter rattled the room. “The house is nothing much but it’s mine, it’s good.”
Marta opened her eyes and squinted at me. “But the problem is, Cynthia, having a dream is dangerous. It can make you crazier. It takes a piece of you–because, dreams? Come on! They don’t come true.”
There it was, the slip back into the habitual self-talk of loathing and bitterness, the fall into a stream of fast current that wouldn’t let go. She would need to climb out of this, shut down thoughts that took her to dangerous places. She had to keep her mind open to something finer, healthier. Prepare for a battle but plan for victory.
That is, that was what I wanted for her.
“Can’t dreams make you powerful, too? Can’t they inspire you, teach you, help you hope?”
“In your world, maybe. In mine…” Her hands grabbed the chair arms and she leaned forward. “Big difference. But, hey, I’m in this treatment and the insurance is paying good money so why not? Why not think about things? You’ll tell me the truth, I know that. I can tell you things I haven’t said to anyone before. really bad things. Some good things. I’m not stupid. I can learn. So I’m willing.”
“Willing. That’s a concept to love.”
“So you say. Well, I’ll make you a deal, Cynthia, that’s how I do things. One, I’ll stay and complete this. It’s not so bad as I thought. Two, I’ll start a list of one thing a week I wish for. One small thing. Maybe I’ll get it better that way. Like today. I didn’t see Tito in that picture. That was…well, it scared me. I don’t even know what to think. But it makes sense, too. It might be right even though I barely can imagine.”
She sat back, released the arms of the chair, smiled just a little.
“But you got to stay my counselor. Got it? You can’t pull out when I’m going in for the long haul. I won’t do this with anybody else.”
Her words created a lurch in my stomach. I knew I was leaving the agency in less than 6 weeks. I wasn’t certain she would be completed by then.
“Marta, I appreciate your appreciation….but I can’t promise I will always be here. The good thing is, you’ve already changed your path by staying sober and envisioning something better for you and Trina. You’re so persistent. You’ll go forward if that’s what you desire.”
While she considered this, I restrained myself from throwing my arms around her, giving her an award, celebrating triumph with her. Still, I knew better. Changes would be stormy well as illuminating.
And I had my own secret. I knew it wasn’t me she counted as an ally as much as God. That the deep beauty within her was revealed to me by my soul’s ever-seeking eyes. Every session was preceded by a prayer, that I would see the true person struggling to get free. That I would be a conduit for God’s mercy.
The session presented a small beginning. Potent. But tentative nonetheless. I was always calm, knew to sit just enough, contained. I leaned back, too. To say less, not more. To not overwhelm this person with great joy when she was only learning what joy could be. And barely believed in it. Still…
“Marta, you’ve made my day, no, at least my week! Now time’s up.”
“Really?” She stood, her height commanding, shoulders squared and readied for the world. “I mean, the first thing?”
She spontaneous her smile filled the room.
Out the door she strode, down the stairs. I could see her from my office window. Her long dark hair gleamed in the light, her fancy tennis shoes made a fast path to her car. She turned around as she opened the door, put a flattened hand to her forehead so she could see up to my window. I think I expected her to salute in mock respect or to give a perfunctory wave or maybe do nothing at all. Marta was not an easy one to predict even though she had such potential. But she lay her hand to heart, then raised it up to me, a testimony, a promise, the sealing of the deal.
(Note: Identifying details and name have been changed.)