We were riding the bus to St. Paul on a Sunday afternoon, Tracy and I, headed to some festival on Harriet Island. We were fresh out of college, fresh into Americorps, and embarking upon an adventure. We unfolded a map and held it in the sunlight to figure out our stop.
This is when the girl noticed us. She was sitting up front, just behind the driver, holding tightly to a handrail. Her eyes were wide but tired, and rimmed with smudged mascara. She wore a black-and-white dress with ruffles, an unsuccessful attempt to appear sophisticated. She slipped from her seat into the half-seat open beside us.
“Can, can you help me?” she asked.
We were startled but amenable. “Yeah, sure, what is it?”
“I’m trying to get home,” she said. “Can I look at your map?”
We stretched the map over all three laps, and asked where she lived. Unfamiliar with the address, we asked for a nearby intersection, and puzzled for a few minutes, looking at several, equally complicated series of routes, transfers, and layovers she might try.
“It’s pretty early in the day to have come so far,” one of us commented. “How did you end up here, anyway?” And that’s when, in bits and pieces that she told us in a throaty whisper, it came out.
She had gone to a party last night, driven by friends, she didn’t know where. An older boy had had sex with her. He had told her not to tell her parents or the police. That if she did, she would get in trouble for violating curfew. Because she was fourteen. Her friends had left and she had no way to go. She’d stayed the night, then crept out in the daylight, caught the first bus she saw, and had been riding around lost ever since.
Thinking back, I am surprised that she told us. Who was she to trust anyone after the night before? Perhaps she was too young to fabricate or withhold. In any case, we persuaded her to get off the bus at Harriet Island with us, and to let us call a ride for her. We told her it would be a police officer, but that she would not be in trouble with the law. I sat with her under a tree while Tracy called 911 on her cell phone. In my best kind grown-up voice, I told the girl that nobody had the right to do things to her without her consent. That what the older boy had done was a far greater offense than any curfew violation. That there were people she could talk to. That if she ever wanted to bring this to court and help stop this boy, she would have to go to the hospital and have some tests done, and then she could get cleaned up.
She wanted to go to the bathroom. I watched while she went into the park restrooms for an endless five minutes, making sure she didn’t flee, wondering what she was doing to restore herself in the solitude of a dirty stall. Tracy joined us and, like me, tried to embody care, the potential for rightness in the world. Our cobbled-together support and wisdom felt like thin, unsatisfying blankets against the cold wind that blew around the girl’s life. A female police officer arrived to take her home, or to the hospital; we did not know. Tracy and I walked around Harriet Island, only half seeing the displays and cheery acts, numb from the secondary chill. When we got home, we dropped the pretense of maturity, and cried.
I tried to remember the address the girl had given when she was trying to find her way home. Later I wrote to her, first name only, as that was all I knew, to ask how she was doing and send some toll-free hotline numbers. The envelope was returned with a stamp of invalid number, a cuffed hand pointing a finger back to me. I kept the letter, still sealed, and it dwells in a closet in my family home in Minnesota, among other relics of girlhood.