You used to love to take pictures of me when I was asleep
That’s what my sister texted me.
“So, I guess you do love me,” she continued.
I do love her.
A few days later, she texted me to say she was “having a slight financial problem again.”
If she could have a short-term loan of $100, that would do it.
I told her I would bring her the money, but to please take this opportunity to examine her life.
I said, “Your life is very marginal. You might ask yourself why.”
“That’s your opinion. I’m perfectly content.”
“Karen, you’ve admitted yourself you’re on the edge of homelessness. If you started going back to AA, you’d see more clearly.”
“In the Bay Area, a lot of people are on the verge of homelessness, thanks to the highest rental rates in the country, and it’s not ’cause there’s anything wrong with them.”
“But, Karen, you’re smart.”
“So are they. Also, I’m smart enough to realize that money isn’t everything. There are plenty of people with lots of money that are far less content with their lives than I am.”
“Why on Earth are you defending?”
“Why are you attacking? Everyone needs a little help sometimes. That’s all I’m asking, and you always try to make me feel like shit just for asking for a little short-term help, which came about because of someone else’s bureaucratic mistake.”
“This isn’t about the $100.”
“It is to me. So, what’s your schedule like? I could take the bus to you, but that would be another $4, and I just found out I have to work tomorrow, so I have to save it for that.”
I was at a meeting in Napa.
Later that day,
“Wow, a bowl of oatmeal doesn’t go that far in staving off hunger, does it?”
“Uh… ok… I guess I didn’t make it clear I need the money today to get to work tomorrow. Were you already in Napa? I’ll have to text my boss and tell her I can’t come in…
“Ok, so I just texted my principal and told her I can’t come in tomorrow. Can you give me an idea of when you can lend me the money? My cat is nearly out of food.”
My friend Erica said, “Don’t give her money.”
I said, “I know. But, Erica, she doesn’t ask that often, actually, and if I give her money now and that allows her to get to work, she can keep paying rent. Otherwise, she’ll be homeless, and then I’ll have to deal with that.”
Karen was standing on the street in front of the house behind which she rents a little above-garage unit.
I pulled over and lowered the passenger door window.
“Karen, you look awful.”
“Well, of course! It’s my day off! I don’t get dressed and put on makeup for my day off!”
“No. That’s not what I mean. Your stomach. It’s bloated.”
“Everyone gets fat when they get old!”
“I don’t think that’s fat. Have you seen a doctor lately?”
“Yes!” Her eyes blazed. “My blood pressure’s perfect!”
“Really? If that’s true, that’s amazing.” I pointed to the sky. “It means someone’s giving you a second chance. Please stop smoking and drinking now.”
I handed her five 20s rolled up.
I said, “Karen, I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to help you in five years. What will you do then? We’re getting older. You have to be smarter.”
“I told you this isn’t my fault! Everything would have been fine if someone at unemployment hadn’t made a mistake!”
The skin along her jawline shone white where scars from scabs she’d picked at incessantly over the years had healed over.
As I drove away, I thought of the little girl she had been, the prettiest of the three sisters, the most fragile, the most slight. She was the slimmest, the blondest, and the most sensitive. She was born with a milk allergy — or a formula allergy as the case was — since mother’s milk wasn’t available to her. In early pictures, she’s all stick-like limbs and distended belly, hollows beneath her lake blue eyes.
She wet her pants well into elementary school, sucked her thumb, picked all manner of scabs up and down her legs and arms and all over her face. She was sickly, couldn’t sleep, had a speech impediment, was seized by violent tantrums. She was aggressive. Crazy, my mom said.
She was also the sweetest, the only child, nay, the only person in the house, to demonstrate affection physically. We all knew the rules, but somehow, Karen didn’t. She insisted on slipping her thin, cool hand into mine at the slightest opportunity. She would even sidle close to our mother, something we all knew better than to attempt. Needless to say, she was rebuffed.
She was probably a fetal alcohol syndrome baby. She had many of the symptoms.
Karen, with the shiniest eyes and the most fearless love. She never gave up. She begged for a therapist for years. My parents ignored her.
She never had a friend. She’s been beaten up in more than one bar fight, more than two. She lost the entire right side of the upper deck in her mouth in one of them and now has a bad bridge, the black edge of which you can see when she smiles big.
Karen. Terrifying of temper and big of heart. I love her, yet I treat her like a leper, handing money out the window with the engine still running.