The Man and Jerico the dog had gone down to the river while I worked on my blog at a coffee shop. I’d nearly finished scheduling a second post when The Man appeared next to my right shoulder.
As he often does, he began in the middle.
She was down by the river, he said. She said she wanted to come to town, but I think she wants to go back.
I looked past him and saw a very tall woman with very short hair. The hair she did have was entirely grey. She was wearing a bright pink t-shirt and long pants. She said her name was Heather, and I introduced myself.
I told The Man I needed about ten minutes to finish what I was working on, and then I’d be ready to go. All the while I was talking to The Man, I could see Heather was looking over my shoulder at my computer screen. Uncool, lady. Uncool.
The Man asked me to open up some business stuff he needed to take a look at, so I went to the webpage he needed. While I was navigating the internet, Heather came around to my left side. I was sitting alone at a counter. There were several tall stools at the counter, and they were jammed close together. When I’d sat down, I’d only moved the one next to me slightly, so it was still close to me. Instead of moving all the stools over just a little, Heather left the one next to me too close so when she sat down, we were practically touching. As soon as she sat down, I could tell she was again trying to see what was on my computer screen.
In less than five minutes after meeting Heather, I knew she had some problems with boundaries. Not only was she physically closer to me than I found comfortable, but trying to read my computer screen was really over the line. Most people in our society know to keep a physical distance from strangers and not to read over anybody’s shoulder unless invited to do so. Either she didn’t recognize these boundaries at all or she simply chose to ignore them.
I wondered why this person was with The Man. I suspected he’s picked her up hitchhiking. She probably needed a ride to the other side of town, where we were going anyway. No biggie. Hitchhiking is a time-honored tradition in Northern New Mexico, and The Man and I both pick up hitchhikers whenever we can.
The Man and I finished looking at the business stuff, and he went off to get another cup of coffee.
I sure could use a beer, Heather said, and that was another red flag, as it was only eleven o’clock in the morning.
I know I shouldn’t judge, but drinking alcohol so early in the day always seems like a bad idea to me. I suppose maybe Heather hadn’t had a beer in days and was ready for one despite the early hour. I suppose she could have been awake since 4am and was ready for a beer after seven hours of consciousness. I suppose a lot of things are possible, but what I’ve witnessed has shown having a beer so early in the day often leads to trouble.
When The Man came back with his coffee, Heather immediately asked him for a drink, which I thought was a bold move. The paper cup from my earlier coffee was still sitting next to my laptop, so he put about a quarter of his fresh coffee into it and handed it to her.
I was still trying to finish my blog post.
I like your Crystal Bible, Heather said to me.
It took me a moment to realize she was talking about the reference book by Judy Hall I’d left in the truck.
Oh yeah! It’s a good one! I said with a smile, then turned back to my work.
Heather said she needed tobacco and asked if there was a smoke shop nearby. I said I didn’t know, then remembered there was a vape store just down from the coffee shop. I mentioned the vape shop, but said I didn’t know if there was tobacco for sale there.
Heather must have gotten bored because she said she was going to wait in the truck. I didn’t know if that was going to work out for her. The Man had probably locked the truck and Jerico was probably going to bark at her if she approached the truck, but I was confident she would figure something out.
Once Heather went outside, The Man filled me in on how he’d met her.
He was down by the river. Heather started following him from a distance and watching him through the trees. When she got closer, he asked her how she was doing. She said she wasn’t doing very good. She said she’s had bad dreams. She told him she was camping nearby, but she didn’t feel safe there. She said she wanted to go into town. She asked The Man to give her a ride. He agreed. She grabbed her meager belongings, and they got into the truck.
They hadn’t gone far down the road when Heather asked The Man if he had seen the woman with the dreadlocks. He said he hadn’t seen her. Heather wondered if the woman with the dreadlocks had come to help her, and if she (Heather) should go back to the river. The Man said he’d bring her back to the river if that’s where she wanted to go. Heather said she wanted to go into town.
They’d gone a little ways further down the road when Heather said, Pull over! Pull over! She said she was having a panic attack. The Man maneuvered the truck into the next pullout on the mountain road they were traveling on. He told Heather again that he would take her back to the river, but she pulled herself together and said she wanted to go into town.
The Man started driving again. He heard the distinctive sound of his water bottle being opened. He looked over and saw Heather taking a large gulp of water from his bottle. She hadn’t asked permission; she’d just helped herself. Of course, The Man didn’t begrudge her the water, but he didn’t care to have a stranger drink straight from his bottle. I wouldn’t either.
At this point, The Man didn’t know how to help Heather, but he didn’t know how to get away from her either. He told her he had to pick up his girlfriend (me).
She asked me if I had a place where she could camp, The Man told me. I shook my head. She’d already crossed my personal-space boundary, my privacy boundary, and The Man’s drinking-from –his-water-bottle-without-permission boundary. What would she be like if we took her to our home? Would she lie down in our bed and wear our clothes? Would she demand we drive her back to town as soon as we pulled into our driveway? Taking her to our place seemed like a very bad idea.
I finished up my blog post and started packing my things. In less than an hour, I was supposed to show up at my new place of employment to do my new-hire paperwork.
We can give her a ride wherever she needs to go in town, I told The Man. Getting ourselves any more entangle with her seemed like a very bad idea.
By the time I finished packing everything and went outside, Heather and The Man were both milling around near our truck.
I walked up to Heather. She towered over me.
Is there somewhere in town you need to go? I asked her. I can give you a ride somewhere in town.
She said she thought she’d go back to her campsite near the river. I explained we weren’t going that way for a while. I told her I had to do a thing for work and didn’t know how long it was going to take. She said she didn’t want to go any further into town but was hoping to get some toilet paper and tobacco. I told her I had some toilet paper she could have. I walked around to the other side of the truck, grabbed the roll of TP I had stashed in the truck’s door storage pocket, and gave it to her.
Her things—a rolled up sleeping bad, a tent bag (presumably with a tent in it), and a poorly folded tarp—were in the back of our truck. The Man and I unloaded the items and set them next to a concrete barricade separating the parking lot form the street. Heather was heading to the liquor store next door.
She said something about wanting a water bottle, The Man said to me softly.
I don’t have an extra water bottle with me, I told him. I’ve got some water bottles at home…I trailed off. I don’t really want to give away my $30 water bottle (an Eco Vessel bottle I’d splurged on a couple years back while I was working and had some spending money.)
The Man admitted he didn’t want to give away his water bottle either. Instead, he took his now empty paper coffee cup, rinsed it, and filled it from the big drinking water tank in the back of the truck. He added the cup of water to the small pile of Heather’s belongings.
Heather was almost to the door of the liquor store. I was torn. Part of me wanted to let her go upon her way uninterrupted, but part of me knew I needed to let her know her things were no longer in our truck. What if someone stole her things after we left and before she made it back to the parking lot to retrieve them? What if something was left in the truck and she thought we’d stolen it? I wanted to officially relinquish responsibility of her belongings before I drove away.
Heather, I called out, and she came over. I pointed out her things and told her we had to go. Just as I’d feared, when I walked toward the truck, she followed me.
I sure do like that Crystal Bible, she started in again.
It is a good one, I told her again. I use it when I’m selling my jewelry and shiny rocks.
Oh, she said, sounding disappointed. Do you have another one? she asked hopefully. I really like it.
I don’t have another one, I answered truthfully, and I use that one, I continued, also truthfully.
Before I could get away, Heather asked me about a place where she could camp. I told her about the rest area where I stayed when I was homeless but let her know she would have to dodge the attendant who worked there during the day. She didn’t seem to like the idea of having to dodge a worker but then said she’d go to the rest area with us.
I told her we weren’t going to the rest area. I explained again that we were going into town. Then I hurried over to the truck, got in, and started the engine. Of course, other vehicles were leaving the crowded parking lot, and I couldn’t back out and make my hoped for quick getaway. I was stuck.
Heather went over to the passenger side of the truck where The Man was sitting. Mark! Mark! she called out, although The Man’s name sounds nothing remotely like the name Mark. His window was open, and she stood there and asked him for something. I’d stopped paying attention to her in my focus to back out. When The Man didn’t have what she wanted, she came around to my side. She stood so close to the vehicle, I couldn’t move when my time came.
Do you have a couple of bucks I can have? she asked me.
I fished my wallet out of my bag, but found only a single. I handed it to her and told her it was all I had.
Ok! We’ve got to go now, I said, trying not to sound unkind. Heather moved, and we left.
The Man and I spent the next few days wondering what we could have done to help Heather and feeling guilty for not having done more. Should I have handed over my water bottle? Would Mother Theresa have handed over her water bottle? Should we have dropped everything and driven her back to her campsite or the rest area? Should we have let her come out to our place? Is there anything we could have done to really help her? How do I help others (especially those who may be difficult to help) without jeopardizing my own mental health?
I think too often people tell themselves there was nothing I could have done to make themselves feel better for not having done more. I don’t want to be the person who doesn’t do all she can. Also, I don’t want to be cranky with Heather because she wanted and needed and asked for things. All that said, I still strongly suspect letting her stay at our place would have only led to grief.
I did put another roll of toilet paper in the truck, along with a Nalgene bottle filled with drinking water so I can help the next person who has those needs. I’ve also thought again about how grateful I am to be able to function pretty well in the society I live in. I may suffer from depression and anxiety, but I can typically move through the world without too many problems. Heather reminded me that many people don’t have that privilege.
wow, beautiful, fascinating post. I think about these questions too. helping others is a big part of my life and helps me stay well, but we do have to draw the line.
I had some shoes I really liked, and someone at the soupline didn’t have any shoes. I wanted to give my shoes to her, but I was torn because I loved those shoes. if this lady lost hers, maybe she’d lose these too. maybe she’s a habitual shoe-loser. but I could get more shoes somewhat easily, and this person probably couldn’t… I debated and didn’t give her my shoes but felt bad about it.
than again, my friend R, I’ve seen him give his shoes and the shirt off his back. different people need different things, and I know he did what he thought he needed to and felt ok about it.
boundaries are really important for everyone to feel and be safe. yes, we need to help others without sacrificing ourselves. I used to think I was supposed to sacrifice myself, and it took 40 years or so to learn that wasn’t true.
well, thank you for the food for thought. good luck navigating love’s rough waters!
Thank you for your sharing! I always appreciate it.
One time in the big city I saw a young women without shoes and I wanted to give her mine. I was in a car and almost asked the driver to turn around and pull over, but then I wondered if I would embarrass the woman without shoes. Maybe she wanted to be barefoot. Would asking the driver to pull over be a huge burden? Would the driver think me too weird? What if my shoes didn’t fit the barefoot woman anyway?
Could you have maybe asked the woman you saw without shoes if she needed some? Maybe you could have gotten her some shoes without giving her the ones you really liked? Is she someone you see often? Could you have brought shoes for her next time or gone home and gotten shoes you maybe didn’t like so much?
Of course, now that I have been traveling with a Nalgene bottle in the vehicle, I haven’t met anyone who’s needed it.
You really made think! Heather reminds of of a combination of several people that I ran into. Some I helped and some I dodged. There was guilt in some cases, and a feel-good in others, but I think you got it when you said that you have to think about your own mental health in a situation such as this. As I get older, i am more assertive in situations such as this one, and it sounds like you are too. I can totally see Heather getting into your bed and wearing your cloths if you left even the smaller opening for her…
Thanks for sharing your experience, Margie. I do appreciate hearing how others navigate such tough situations. I have certainly done my share of letting people walk all over me, which is probably what made me super cautions with Heather.
I haven’t seen her around town again. I do hope she is ok.