Her greeting was my first welcome when I moved to San Francisco in the late summer of 2001. It was a strangely bright hello, with a brittle quality to it. But that didn’t register with me because I was too caught up in the excitement of being my latest version of me.
The observation about her would come a few weeks later as people gathered outside apartment buildings after 9/11. We sat on steps and leaned against brick walls with candles, glasses of wine and cigarettes in hand. We talked quietly or not at all. Mostly, we were there to connect with each other in any way we could, the way we all did in those days and weeks after. She was among us, bumming smokes, but not really with us. And she prattled on about her cat as if she hadn’t heard the news. Nobody spoke to her. As I watched her finally walk away I thought, odd how we process trauma differently. Nobody spoke of her after she left and it was if she had never been there.
By the end of that year I had walked away from my job, a love, my old life. I was home a lot and ran into her regularly. I had become fascinated with her because she appeared as adrift as I felt. I asked around a bit and had heard words about her thrown casually: Sick. Abandoned by family. Drugs. Crazy. It seemed like there had to be more to it and so I asked more until I heard the words that spoke a truth I didn’t understand: Schizophrenia .
One time she walked with me and my dog, something she had never done before.
“I’m so scared,” she said in a tiny, little girl’s voice. “I’m so scared.”
I felt helpless, but asked anyway what I could do. For the first time, I noticed the unnatural brightness of her blue eyes, the grime etched around each finger nail, and a body odor that couldn’t be passed off as summer sweat. I realized it had been a part of her each time our paths had crossed. A small, cold ball of guilt and panic formed in my gut and pushed itself out into a single line of freezing perspiration that ran down the center of my back.
Her eyes pierced me. “I’m so scared.”
She moved on down the street.
Later that winter, I sat on my window sill and watched as she swayed on the sidewalk, her arms both laden and tensed at the crook of her elbows. She shifted from one bare foot to the other, oblivious to the rain and cold. Her rocking fell in synch with the drops hitting my window and soon enough the sound of water hitting glass tapped out words written just for me: Help, her. Help, her. Help…her. Helpher. Help,her.
I jerked from my fixation as I realized that she had broken from our dance and was standing, frozen, in the middle of the street. I pushed open the bay window and pleaded with her to move, unsure if she could hear me through the rain and the screech of oncoming cars.
She spun around and in what seemed like a flash of clarity, shrieked back: “FUCK YOU!”
With that, she shuffled back to the sidewalk and withdrew into herself. It stuck, and from then on she looked through me into darkness each time we passed on the street. I watched from afar as she paced our block, rocked on corners, cycled through her meds and woke the neighbors when the EMT’s took her, screaming, in the middle of the night. Each time she was hospitalized, I held my breath until she came home.
On a spring day three years later, the sun was streaming through fat clouds rimmed with grey when I turned a corner and came face-to-face with her. This time, she smiled a little too brightly.