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Carla thought she was a murderer.
That’s a hard starting position for anyone to start with, even someone like me with access to all kinds of cosmic secrets.
Carla was eighteen when she went to a party in Harlem, New York. There, she met a guy who called himself “Bigs,” though he wasn’t particularly big. He was, however, moderately charming, and after a few drinks, a joint, and some well-rehearsed language, 22-year-old Bigs convinced Carla to let him wriggle on top of her for about three minutes. She hoped it was the beginning of a relationship, though she was jaded enough to know better than to expect much from him. When her texts remained unanswered after a few days, she filed the memory under “Asshole” and moved on her with life.
It wasn’t long before she started having morning sickness. With two older sisters, one of whom was married, and a mother who herself had started her family with an unplanned pregnancy, Carla was well aware of what had happened. Bigs was nowhere to be found; later, she learned through a friend that he was a well-known party drug dealer from Philadelphia.
Shortly after Carla’s mother’s second pregnancy – this one was planned – she’d started going back to her Baptist church. There she met a guy, decent in most ways, who married her. The price, however, was complete subsumation into the church. That became their lives; every Sunday, without fail, they were in their pews, praising, singing, and listening. Carla knew very well what the church was all about.
Carla was also the first woman in her family to get into college. On scholarship to New York University, she was already struggling to keep her head above water. The disruptions of a pregnancy would have ended her student career. Since she’d gotten at least two scholarships from religious organizations, she also knew that if she dropped out to have a child outside of marriage it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get her bills covered by those same people.
God was, for Carla, extremely clear on the matter. Thou Shalt Not Consider What You’re Considering, she believed. She told her mom, Stella. They cried together for several hours. They sat up late, talking. By the end, Stella had only one thing to say: “God always forgives.”
Her older sister drove her to the clinic a few days later. The whole procedure took an afternoon. She was back home and resting by dinner. She didn’t eat.
She passed her classes that fall. None of her friends, professors, or fellow church goers knew. Stella’s husband and Carla’s stepfather was kept in the dark; he had extremely vocal opinions on the matter that did not favor Carla. Nobody said a word. The whole affair went deep into the closet of family secrets.
Carla started having nightmares. Most of them were wretched things, full of blood, babies crying, fire, the Devil, and always someone accusing her of murder. She didn’t sleep well and heard her pastor’s voice in her head even during her waking hours. “A life is a life!” it echoed. “Hell awaits those who take one!”
I arrived in March just as her NE peaked at 87%. She was at NYU study hall, by herself, scratching her arm with a sharper-than-necessary pencil. Drips of blood formed along the length of her self-inflicted wounds – she kept wondering if the fetus had felt the same kind of pain. Believe you me, I tried to make her think of anything else but that. But the guilt was lodged so deep into her that nothing short of a car crashing through the wall would break her concentration on it.
What Carla needed, more than anything, was distraction. I had arrived in the middle of a raging firestorm; I had to react quickly to prevent more damage. Unlike so many of my other jobs, I couldn’t just throw water on this one and walk away. I had to deprive it of fuel. But first I had to keep the damned thing from burning down my house.
When a nice-enough-looking guy named Dan from Boise, Idaho, knocked on the glass, Carla shot up, embarrassed, and tried to cover up her arm by shoving it under the table. “Are you finished?”
“Um, no, sorry, I’m here ‘till six.”
“Oh. Can I sit in here and study for econ? I just need a quiet place and you’re all alone.”
Line in: She thinks you’re a creep. Well, better than thinking of the Devil eating her soul in a soup of blood.
With much hesitation, she nodded. She kept that left arm hidden from me as I pretended to read an econ book. Forty minutes later, she got up and left. Her NE stayed at around 60% – dangerous but not immediately so. Wasn’t much reason for me to continue studying econ after that. Though nobody would ever notice, both the chairs and the table got a few grams heavier.
If your house burns down, what do you do? Sit around and cry? I suppose some of us do. But those of us who are determined to get life the way it was have to start small. We have to build things a step at a time, brick by brick, stone by stone, until one day we wake up in a house. It’s a long, slow, expensive process, and a lot of the time we’d prefer just to give up and find a whole new house. But I had no such option with Carla. She was the only house I was allowed.
The most important thing in Carla’s daily life was being denied the opportunity to kill herself. She wasn’t going to throw herself in front of a bus or subway; wasn’t really her style. If she was going to end it all, it would be some classic MoD, like hanging herself, slashing her wrists, taking pills, or jumping from a building. Nothing fancy for her, just a swift ticket to what she believed would be Hell.