A few months ago, I signed up for state medical assistance. I was feeling like a loser.
In the waiting room, waiting for my number to be called, I thumbed through the book I brought in lieu of my iPad. I didn’t want anyone there to judge me for having one. I had my number memorized: G104. I almost missed it when I heard someone calling my name. “Bassey! Bassey Ikpi!” I looked up and there she was: Maria! My old college roommate and friend.
I hadn’t seen Maria (not her name) in almost four years. She’d sent me a few texts since, but I'd been lazy about responding. Maria had a reputation for being a talker. You could be on the phone with her for hours and maybe get in a few words.
So I walked over with a big smile and a hug, preparing the “I can’t talk long, hon, I have to listen out for my number” conversation ender. When I got closer, I realized that Maria worked there.
After we hugged and exchanged “You look greats!”, Maria asked what I was doing there. Immediately, I felt a bit of shame. I was the one that left school behind and trailblazed, looking for the life I wanted in New York City. It was her tales of wanting to leave Maryland behind and live in Brooklyn that had actually ignited my interest in the city. Well, her stories and Mos Def songs.
She knew I was a single mom, like she had become, and that I’d come back home to live with my folks, but that was it. I felt my cheeks flush with heat. I thought about lying, but shook off the momentary shame spiral. I told her the truth about my financial situation but also that things were looking up and I was excited about my future. I told her about my upcoming trip to Nigeria and some of the projects I was working on there.
“Wow,” she breathed.
“So what’s going on with you? I didn’t know you worked here.”
Maria nodded that she’d been at the department for about 6 years.
“Are you still living with your sister?”
I watched as Maria’s eyes flashed and clouded over. I immediately felt sorry I asked but wasn’t sure why.
“Come on back. I’ll take your case and pull you out of the line.”
I followed her back into the meeting rooms but was a little surprised as we walked past all of them and into the back stairwell.
“I don’t want anyone to hear us talk,” she told my puzzled face.
Maria inhaled and said, “You know my sister got married a few years ago, right? Well, her husband didn’t really like that she was supporting me and my son and our mom by letting us live with them. They wanted their own family unit.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“So my mom moved into a retirement village and they gave me and Chris 3 weeks to find a new place.”
I hesitated before I asked again. “So where are you staying now?” I held my breath, dreading the answer.
“We’re in a homeless shelter in Baltimore.”
Maria told me that despite working a full-time job, due to past poor credit choices and evictions, she’s unable to secure a home for her and her son. She makes too much for Section 8 housing options and not enough for the deposit and first and last necessary for a good space. Even working in the department of social services doesn’t lend much help. Mostly because she doesn't want her co-workers to know her situation.
“If I could just make about $400 more a month...” she said.
Immediately, the tears I didn’t know I was holding back rolled onto my cheeks. "I’m so sorry," I told her over and over. I reached to hug her and found her comforting me, which was not what I intended, but I’ve always been the crier and she’s always been the consoler.
I met Maria first semester, freshman year of college. We were inseparable. At 21, she was three years older than me. She had a style and sophistication that I envied. Maria had spent three years at a community college before transferring to UMBC. Unlike other transfer students, Maria wanted the full college experience. She wanted to live in the dorms, she wanted the meal plan, she wanted everything that she had missed out on when she chose to work to help out her family after high school.
From our first conversations, Maria told me about her family. She had a sister she adored and a mother whom she never really got along with. Her father had left when she was young and they had a sporadic and inconsistent relationship. I was the definition of wide-eyed and innocent. Stories of the hardships she faced growing up, juxtaposed with my weekly weekend family visits and assistance endeared her to me even more.
Maria was the first person I told about my bouts of depression. She watched as I dug a hole for myself and was often the one to come and pick me up when I fell too hard and too far to do so for myself.
I was indebted to Maria in a way my parents couldn't understand and they unfairly blamed her for my spiral. We decided to live together sophomore year and had an amazing time. I learned so much about life and relationships and how to really work a pair of heels. She was studying to be a graphic designer, a profession I'd never even heard about it. It sounded like a glamorous and grown-up job. I was majoring in changing my major. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life and Maria seemed like she had it all figured out.
After my second year of school, I was put on academic probation. My growing issues with depression made it difficult for me to get to class or complete assignments. I took a semester off. My parents, devoid of any answers, blamed our friendship. When I returned to school the following semester, I was different, quieter. Maria was in graduation mode, so we never really connected like we did before. We never regained our footing.
Standing in front of her after almost 15 years, I could see hints of the girl she once was. Her eyes were duller, but the smile was still there. I listened as she told me about all the things that had happened to her over the years.
I tried to offer encouragement, but the words fell hollow before they even made it out of my mouth. I think I may have even mentioned Oprah’s lifeclass and "The Secret." I told her that things would get better because the universe doesn’t bring people this far to drop them off. We stood in that back stairwell for about an hour talking and trying to laugh, and then she led me to her cubicle where she helped me process my application.
When I made it back to my car, I sat in the parking lot and cried for a good 10 minutes, then I pulled out my phone, called my sister and thanked her for all the love and the support she’s given me over the years. It’s terrible to think about how lucky you are when faced with someone else’s tragedy, but all I could think about was how grateful I was to have a family and a support group.
I texted Maria several times over the next few weeks. I got her appointments with people who said they’d be willing to help. She told me that the shelter she was staying in was also helping and she would get back to me soon.
It’s been about 5 weeks, and I still haven’t heard. I called Maria a few times and the number went straight to a full voicemail. I know that I could and maybe should go check on her at work, but I’m honestly a little afraid. She was always the girl who landed on her feet. I want to believe, like when we were younger, that she's doing just that.