Every day as I walked to school I saw them through the window: eating lunch, playing games, laughing. After a semester of passing by that window, I stopped one day and walked through the door.
“What can I do for you?” asked the woman at the front desk.
“I’m wondering if you’re hiring,” I said.
“We are! Fill out this application.”
The next day I was called in for an interview and after a short talk I had the job: Therapy Technician for developmentally disabled people.
While I was training for the job, I met Danielle, who cussed compulsively; Chelsea, a teenage girl with a cleft pallet and a ton of attitude; Peter, a seven-year-old with autism who could figure out any tune on the piano.
Then there was Zoe. She had clown lips, spreading wide over a gap-toothed smile. Her brown skin was dotted with acne, her nose was wide, and her small hands were gnarled like old tree branches.
I’d only been working at the center a few days when I was scheduled to work with Zoe in the community. I pushed her wheelchair to the bookstore and tried to read her a story, but she kicked her feet and screamed. Rubbing her back, I whispered to her, asking her to be quiet, to calm down. She kept shrieking, throwing her body back and forth in short, choppy movements. We left the store.
Zoe had the look of a lake when a storm is approaching. I thought of my favorite lake back in my home state of Florida, of the Christmas morning when I sat on an abandoned dock and watched the clouds gather in the sky until lightning hit the lake near me and thunder shook pieces of the rotten dock into the water.
Zoe continued to kick and scream, as if the storm was inside her. I wondered if that’s how it felt being in her body. Like thunder and lightning are shaking inside you?
After that day, I worked with Zoe almost every afternoon. One of the hardest things about taking care of her was getting her to walk. Although her feet twisted inward and her legs were weak, she could take short steps. I’d hold her hands and help her move forward, slow, unsteady, like a foal’s first steps.
She didn’t want to do it. Two steps and she’d throw her body on the floor and stick her feet in the air. And she’d clap—and laugh. She’d laugh at me with those clown lips wide over her four teeth, mocking me. A scream would rise in my throat like bile, but I’d swallow it back and grab her contorted hands and we’d try again. And again. For days. Weeks.
That’s when I began to hate her.
After picking Zoe up from school each day, I’d take her to the center and tie an apron around her neck. Then I’d stand behind her, one hand under her chin, the other trying to spoon pureed food between her closed lips.
The food looked awful and maybe it tasted awful, too, because she would scream and spit it all over my arms, grabbing my hand and digging her fingernails into my flesh.
I so wanted to love her. I was trying to love her.
So I’d pick up the spoon and try again, while she clawed at my skin, until finally I’d wash her up and we’d go outside. Even then she shrieked and wrenched her body against her wheelchair straps and pulled my hair.
I just couldn’t love her.
One day I was tired and she was angry and I just wanted to go home. After picking her up from school, I took her into the bathroom to change her. She hit me as I unfastened her diaper, and screamed, and twined her skeletal fingers in my curls and slapped my back and she scratched me—hard.
The bathroom smelled like urine, the blue linoleum stained with a smell that can never quite be scrubbed away. Gloves tight on my fingers, I pulled off her diaper and it was heavy with urine and with blood and the metal stench of the blood mixed with the yellow of her urine was thick in the room and I thought how unfair it was that she had to bleed like other women.
And then she smacked me across the face. I cried, standing in that bathroom. Cried as I wiped the blood from between her legs and wrapped her in a clean diaper, wept as I held her body against mine and washed our hands.
One afternoon, weeks later, I sat on a bench, talking to Zoe, listening to her shout as if she was speaking words. Sunlight was casting a red glow over my face and arms, and drawing people out of their houses, drawing us all together.
A boy with a long ponytail and rubber sandals and a saxophone came and sat on the edge of the fountain. His friend, pimply and gangly, hunched over a guitar next to him. They tried not to stare, but Zoe was loud now; she kicked her legs and clutched at my arm.
Suddenly, somehow, I knew what she wanted—she wanted to walk, because of the music. Unbuckling her seatbelt, I held her hands in mine and helped her from the wheelchair. The boys started playing some swing music.
That’s when I realized she didn’t want to walk. She wanted to dance.
Holding hands, shuffling feet, twirling slowly, faltering, almost falling, we danced together in the music of the saxophone and guitar. The sun had drawn a crowd into the square; they didn’t even try not to stare. They watched us closely: small brown hands held by white ones, a broad-faced smile, unable to talk but full of song, shuffling and faltering and never quite falling, in the music of the saxophone and the sun.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Tali Treece
Tali Rose Treece grew up in a large family in Florida, until she moved to Moscow, Idaho to attend New St. Andrews College. While there she fell in love with and married Garrett Treece and now lives in a tiny apartment with him and an ever-increasing number of books and house plants.
The above royalty free image is attributed to Nadja Varga on Flickr.