I told Maya* that she should dress conservatively for court. Instead, she’s wearing skin-tight jeans that hang low and a sweater that barely qualifies. The skin between jeans and sweater is soft in the way children’s bodies are, the way it protrudes forward and is smooth, unmarred by stretch marks, marked only by soft, downy hairs filing toward the button on her jeans. The horizontal stripes of her sweater stretch across her chest, which, along with her bottom, is that of a teenager, full and suggestive of all the things people say women do.
Across the waiting room are her parents, the ones that Maya accuses of abuse and negligence. We are all here for a hearing on where Maya will live, since she is only fourteen. They are speaking loudly to each other in a language that I do not understand. The Farsi translator has yet to arrive—there is only one, and she is very busy, I am told. Maya’s father speaks loudly and punctuates his harsh-sounding words with chopping hand motions. Her father operates a falafel truck in the shadow of Ground Zero, and his clothes are stained with sweat and grease, but the odor is not unpleasant. He is angry, and other people edge away from him. The young black men who are waiting for their juvie court appearances look nervous. He looks like the stereotype of the angry Muslim man, and I, Maya’s lawyer, think that he will not play well in court.
Maya’s mother wears a long dress and a dark headscarf. One dirty baby is in her arms, and another, an older baby—a toddler, really—crawls on the floor. The toddler puts his hands on the dirty linoleum, where many shoes have left mud impressions and heels have left scuff marks and gum has been left to harden. He lifts his hands to show his mother, but she is ignoring him, so he puts them in his mouth. The mother bounces the baby on her hip in an absent-minded way while the baby plays with the edges of her headscarf. She looks sad and tired, but maybe it’s just the way the headscarf creates a shadow on her face.
Maya sits quietly the distance of three bodies away from me on the wooden benches that fill the waiting room. She ignores her parents. The toddler, her brother, crawls over to her, stands, and reaches his arms up to be held. She bends over as if to pick him up, then looks at me. I shake my head. I had told her before that she should not interact with her siblings; it will be one of the things she is giving up. Her younger siblings are not at issue in this case; there have been no real allegations of abuse. There was a report from child services last year, which I have in my folder and will introduce in the hearing. The social worker wrote that the home was dirty and that the little children were covered in sores and fleabites. I look at her brother as he reaches his arms upward in a wide Y-shape, and I don’t see any visible sores. He’s dirty, but babies his age are hard to keep clean.
As she gently pushes her brother away, she bends forward, and I see the flesh of her lower back descending to the low waist of her jeans. I worry my look—up and down, like a pervert—is full of reproach or too familiar to her, given what she implies is her history, and I look away, out the window. The waiting room for Queens County family court looks out on a small park, full of sidewalks, trashcans, and benches, but few trees. The lack of trees draws attention to the people sitting on the benches, their heads bent over newspapers or in sleep. I reach out to pat Maya’s hand on the bench, stretching my arm long to avoid scooting toward her, but she draws her hand away and crosses her arms over her chest. She sits sullenly, refusing to talk. I have never seen her talk much, and when she does, I have trouble understanding her. For a time I assumed this was because her English was poor, and I thought that maybe she was intimidated by me, the lawyer. But later I saw her talking to a social worker, arms crossed in her habitual gesture. Later she would call me with other complaints, about how a girl in foster care stole her favorite jeans. “You know how those girls are,” she would complain, and I would wonder if I did know.
Ahead of Maya is another case. It’s a boy who started a fight and pulled out a pocketknife. He was unlucky and got arrested. He has been arrested before for truancy, so the judge is less likely to be lenient.
Maya is also a truant. She tells her parents that she is going to school, but she really goes to hang out with boyfriends. This I know, even though she didn’t tell me so directly. Her father caught her once with a boyfriend. They were both partially undressed, and he either yelled at Maya, or beat her with a belt, or locked her in a room for days, or did nothing, or did something worse. Right now, the father is still yelling, now at the Farsi translator, a tired woman in a threadbare suit. She listens silently. I ask Maya questions about skipping school and suggest it’s probably a bad idea, but she refuses to answer, staring at her nails or picking at her jeans.
Her parents, in the past, tried to surrender her to the state, asking the state to force her to go to school. They didn’t want to be held responsible for her any more. Before blaming them, consider that they face jail if Maya doesn’t go to school. The father needs to work; everyday he sets up his falafel cart before the sun comes up to catch Wall Street bankers on their way to work. The mother has two babies who rely on her. Neither of them wants to go to jail. They might get deported; I never ask about immigration status. Now, it’s Maya who wants to live somewhere else, and her parents are reluctant to let her go. Her mother is now weeping openly.
In this case, I formally represent the interests of the woman who wants to become Maya’s new guardian, at least temporarily. She is the mother of Maya’s sometimes steady boyfriend, a fact I would later discern from things left unsaid. I can’t actually understand my client very well; Maya translates my client’s Spanish for me. Maya whispers so softly, I am unsure what language she is speaking and whether her words are even meant for me.
Maya says that she doesn’t want to live with her parents any more; this is the story I will tell the judge. Her father, she says, is strict and cruel. She refuses to, or can’t, elaborate. The father, the Farsi translator will inform me, thinks that his daughter needs to stop skipping school. She’s always been difficult. She runs away. She steals money. There’s a slim, dark sliver between a justifiably angry father and an unjustifiably enraged father. It is in this dark sliver that Maya’s silence rests.
Maya’s parents are from Afghanistan. I would later emphasize this when I spoke in front of the judge. Everyone knows all about Afghanistan; I hardly need to say anything at all. We know how they treat women—they don’t respect women’s rights. Look at the father now; he appears ready to hit the (female) Farsi translator. I don’t know what he’s saying, but he’s speaking so close to her face that she must be uncomfortable. So when a girl says that she was abused, or might have been abused, or refuses to say either way, when she says that her father is “strict” and hit her “hard,” we—the social workers, the lawyers, and judges—tend to believe her.
According to her file, Maya came to America and stayed with an “uncle” until her parents reunited with her later. I ask her about the uncle: “What was he like?”
“Did he, you know, hurt you?”
She shrugs. “He lived in a basement,” she says.
I hear Afghanistan, uncle. I picture a young girl brought to this country, living in an “uncle’s” basement. Her silence speaks volumes to me, and I want so badly to believe that this girl has good reasons to act out. The story sounds suspicious, I decide. It’s something I can tell the judge to reveal a pattern of potential abuse.
But it’s possible the uncle was just an uncle. It’s possible my version of the story is an invention. I cannot verify it anywhere. Maya’s file says that abuse was “probably unlikely,” but that leaves a sliver of doubt. We do not even have a name for this phantom uncle, no address to locate him, no photo to ascertain that he ever existed. We don’t even know for certain what year Maya came to the US.
Many times, I try to get Maya’s side of the story. I tell her repeatedly, “I am on your side.” Maya’s actual lawyer juggles more cases and gets paid much less than I do, so I spend more time trying to sort out fact from fiction. Later, I will talk to overworked social workers, and they will shrug, not out of unkindness, but simply because Maya is difficult. She is so frequently silent and sullen. She is hard to like. She will pick fights in foster care and lie to her foster parents. She is tough to feel sympathy for.
As we are sitting on the bench waiting to see the judge, I suspect Maya is lying. I cannot say why, but the facts she gives don’t quite add up. I have queried her so many times, filling in details for affidavits, preparing what I will say to the judge. Perhaps she simply doesn’t want my help; she may think that I am helping her against her will. Perhaps she has it all figured out for herself, but no one gives her enough credit.
I watch Maya on the bench and wish that she had worn more appropriate clothes. She stares vacantly into space. I ask her if she wants a snack, and she makes the smallest head movement I interpret as a nod. There are vending machines down the hall, and I buy Maya some potato chips.
The waiting room in family court is raucous; most have no choice but to bring their young children. A modern sign, like the sign that announces Amtrak arrivals in Penn Station, lists the judges and their courtrooms. Compared to most of the people here, I am small and quiet, mousy. I hand Maya the potato chips and sit a little closer to her this time, placing my bag between us, just to emphasize that I respect her choice to stay away.
The father finally pushes the translator. A court officer steps forward. The father is enraged. He is yelling and gesticulating so wildly it looks as though he is intending to hit someone. Later, I will use this information as potential evidence that the father is a bad man. I will say, Look at how angry he got at the translator, a woman. A court officer had to subdue him. Although evidence of specific abuse might be shaky, we can see that this man is the kind of man who would do those kinds of things. Everyone knows what those kinds of things are. I will let my voice trail off into that dark space.
During the hearing, the judge asks Maya questions. “Speak up!” she demands. She’s a magistrate judge with a lot on her plate. People are already complaining about the delays, about how they will miss work and not get paid. The judge wants to take care of this quickly. She barely looks at my client, who seems like a nice lady, I think. She is less interested in what I have to say and than in streamlining the process.
I take the subway home from the courthouse that evening, and there is a poem where the advertisements usually are. It’s called “The Girls Do Cute Things.” The poem makes me think of sweaters with pompoms and charm bracelets and flowers pinned to hair. Near me sits a teen mom, her hair carefully oiled and pulled back in a tight ponytail that ends in an explosion of curls. Her baby sits in a stroller, asleep, his hands clutching a stuffed toy. He has dark shadows under his eyes, like his mother.
The subway is full of teenage girls who laugh and talk. I am forced to stand even though I am tired. My mind is on Maya, although it probably should be on my job. In a few months, I will be laid off, like many attorneys, and I will wonder what happened to my pro bono clients, like Maya. I will constantly calculate how much money I owe: my student loans, my rent, my therapist, my parents. I will think about the things that I took for granted.
One of the girls on the subway elbows me as if on purpose, and I turn to look at her—honestly, I glare—which I instantly know is a mistake.
“Who the fuck are you looking at?” she says. The girl’s voice is loud, waking up the sleeping baby, who doesn’t cry but looks to his mother. The girl’s sweatshirt exposes a brown shoulder, her earrings are big shiny hoops.
“No one,” I say, but I am annoyed. My knuckles are white on the subway bar. I clutch my belongings closer.
The girl jostles me again, this time undeniably on purpose. “You think that I’m in your way?”
“No,” I say.
“Maybe you should move over.” She looks around, and it’s clear that she is surrounded by friends. Other girls seem to take a step closer, even though the train slows and starts back up again, causing other commuters to lurch and clutch the nearest pole. We reach a station, and more people get on. I am alone, I realize.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Bitch,” she says to me. She bumps into me again, hard. Her face is set tough.
The girls on the subway take up much more space than I do. They protest with their bodies. They use this to their advantage, pressing me between them, moving me farther away from the doors toward the center of the car.
“White bitch,” she says. “Bitch. Bitch. Bitch.”
I want to cry. I look around, and people avoid my eyes. They don’t want to get involved.
Normally, my suit bestows upon me a certain amount of respect. When I come to court in the morning, a line winds out the door of people waiting to pass through the metal detectors. Women push strollers. Men are forced to remove their wallets and their watches before passing. Everyone steps aside for me—those who might otherwise try to avoid me, or worse, hold open the door. But here, I stand out, and I feel unsafe.
Now all of her friends chime in. They whisper words under their breath, but what bothers me more is their physical intimidation. The girls press at me until I wedge myself between people blocking the door and exit the subway car. I can feel myself sweating underneath my suit. When I was in middle school, a girl in gym class slapped me in the face, leaving a red welt. We were all in the locker room where we kept our uniforms—blue shorts and a white shirt—in metal baskets with a lock. I involuntarily cried; I had never been hit before. I went home and told my mother. “Some people are hit like that every day,” she said.
Things won’t end quite the way Maya hopes. She will be sent to a foster home. Before I take her upstairs for the bus, which will take her to a temporary shelter, Maya hugs her siblings. She will lift her little brother and swing him expertly to her hip while he plays with her hair. She will smile, and I will finally see a girl’s face full of love. Waiting for the bus, she will cry.
“I want to go home,” she will say.
“You can’t,” I will tell her. How can I explain the way the process works? Once certain things are set in motion, there isn’t a way to take them back. I will urge her to go to school. It’s the only concrete suggestion I have.
But she won’t go to school, and she will go home, repeatedly over the next couple of weeks. She returns, she will say, to visit her siblings. “What about your father?” I will ask, and she will say that he isn’t so bad, not anymore. I won’t ask what she means, although I’ll wonder if I understood her exact words.