When I first glimpse Dawn, I see a young woman in thick black eyeliner, plucking her brows using a pocket mirror, coin cup beside her. She looks healthy and strong, with nice coloring and lots of wavy blonde hair. She tells me later that she feels ugly without makeup.
Dawn is a former landscaper and political activist. A body piercing artist with 28 holes. A poet and bass guitar player. The future owner of a shop selling natural herbs and oils. An advocate for awareness of the abuses of women’s human rights, especially in Africa. She knows how to walk away from a cruel man. She knows how to gauge who she can trust by whether, if you give someone a little, he or she just wants more. She also knows how to solve her depression.
I lean in for this one, seeking wisdom that has eluded me so far in life. The answer: “To go to my doctor and lie and say I’ve got mental issues.” Hmm…I guess that’s not advice I can personally use. But it makes sense. She has applied for public housing, and being classified as a “cutter” could secure her something earlier. On her outer left bicep, I see a phrase decrying money carved in knife slices, with more criss-cross slices over it. On the right one, the same sentiment towards men. I shyly examine the cuts, wanting to acknowledge her pain without being too disgusted. I imagine doing something like that to myself, the regret I would feel later that would likely be worse than the physical pain. The wish to return to smooth skin, erased clean of any record of desperation.
“I’m ashamed of it,” she says. “But my shirt is drying.”
A partial explanation of her right bicep is this: Dawn was molested by a family member as a kid. She’s had three boyfriends in the past seven months. And during this time, she’s been raped. More than once. I want to rage against what she has experienced. Could it have been prevented? Does that really matter? What’s done is done, and she is not responsible for any other person’s actions. Still, Dawn carries herself with the hopefulness of youth. She’s 20 years old, aware of the choices she’s making. “I kind of enjoy a freer lifestyle,” she says of why shelters are not for her. As someone who recently turned 40 and took it hard, I envy her. And I feel bad for envying someone who’s been through what she has.
I want this part of Dawn’s life to be a story she will tell that heals others in the future. I want her to say something like this: I was abused. I was homeless. I learned how to tell who is kind, who I wouldn’t want to be like, from watching the people who passed me by, my eyes at the level of their calves. I was there; now I’m here. And I don’t regret where I was.