When I met Crystal, she was 19 and I was 15. It was at practices for the school play, a noble but ultimately pathetic attempt by a young drama teacher to get inner city kids to do Chekhov. I don’t think even many of the students in the play understood what it was about, let alone the audience, and certainly not Crystal, who had been given a bit part out of sympathy.
Crystal was a nice girl. I can say that much for her. She was dumb, and nice. I wouldn’t be surprised if she qualified as mentally retarded. She was fairly ugly— pudgy and pale and droopy-looking, her huge breasts hanging down like the saggy pendulums of a much older woman. She wore purple plastic glasses that looked like they belonged to a second-grader, and awkward, ill-fitting clothes. She had an aura of trashiness about her—that particular brand of twang that tells you so much about a person’s background around here, that patched-together appearance that said quite simply, “I’m poor, dull, and unloved.”
Crystal became attached to me largely because I was nice to her. Not many people were. She wasn’t exactly openly scorned, but she was certainly ignored. She was always giving people big, awkward smiles, and they were always pretending not to see her. She was that sort of person. And I wish I could say that, through my virtuousness, my guidance, I kept Crystal from falling through the cracks. But I can’t say that. I was hardly much of a role model myself at the time, a few months away from flunking out, debilitatingly depressed, attention-hungry and foolish. Over the course of our friendship I failed Crystal by letting her continue to be what she was, thinking that I was doing my part just by deigning to offer her a nice word here and there.
One day during rehearsal, Crystal pulled out a stack of photographs held together with a rubber band. They were an assorted bunch, all different sizes and qualities, the record of Crystal’s life, such that it was. There were a couple pictures of her brother, but none of her parents, and I didn’t ask. I still don’t know exactly what Crystal’s home life consisted of, and I doubt that she had much of a home life to speak of. The pictures started when Crystal was eight or nine, with some grubby, pocket-sized school pictures. There were some washed-out Polaroids of an eleven-year-old Crystal with some of her old friends, on a couch; a picture of her and her older brother and her older brother’s wife; a red-eyed twelve-year-old Crystal, now with those familiar, huge boobs, sitting with a skinny guy she identified as a boyfriend.
And eventually came the pictures of the kids. Her kids. She had the first when she was fourteen, the second when she was sixteen. A boy and a girl, I don’t remember which came first. They had been adopted by some other families, and there weren’t too many pictures of them, but it was the simple fact of their existence that amazed me. She’d never mentioned it before, and she addressed it very nonchalantly. “And here’s me pregnant with my daughter, and here’s me when she a month old.”
I never asked a lot of questions. Partially, because I didn’t want to get too involved with Crystal. She was a train wreck— a disaster already in motion, that I knew I couldn’t stop. And I had no desire to get caught up in it. Being friendly wasn’t too much of a strain on my resources, and I could handle it. I couldn’t handle truly being Crystal’s friend.
It was in this spirit that I never really found out about the baby’s fathers. I think it’s fairly safe to assume, though, that they were trashy assholes, who saw in Crystal an easy fuck and not much more. Crystal was not beautiful, not even pleasant-looking; she certainly didn’t dress or act with provocation, either. She was no slut, but just looking at her you could tell she would not or could not say no to anything you asked of her, in a gentle enough voice, or anything you demanded of her with enough authority. And the people who enjoy exploiting the Crystals of the world are the people who are especially keen at seeing those things. I never blamed Crystal for having illegitimate children she could not care for. I found it hard to imagine it was her fault. She was so fucking nice and so fucking stupid, that for a person of normal intelligence to have sex with her was pretty much criminal. And she was unloved enough that it was pretty much inevitable. I never knew if Crystal had even wanted the children she had, whether she had considered or been able to consider abortion. I guess you could say I knew too much about Crystal to know as little as I did. And I still feel bad for that.
It was around February, I think, that Crystal came up behind me in the cafeteria and said, excitedly, “Guess what?” I was playing a game of cards with some much cooler friends, and responded, “’Sup, Crystal?” with distraction. “I'm pregnant!” I set down my hand and turned around, just staring at her. She was grinning. I’m not sure if she was actually happy that she was going to have another kid, or if she was simply excited that something important was happening, that she had news to deliver. Crystal was that much of a child herself. Her innocence was unnerving, and sometimes infuriating.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a horrible thing, but I had the good sense not to reward her for it, at least. I just sorta said ‘Wow,’ and shook my head. She said she wanted me to be its godmother, and I assented. Looking back, I wonder if I should have grabbed her and shook her and told her not to ever let this happen again, but I doubt it would have done much good. At the time, I felt it was important to be nonchalant and unjudgemental, to be cool. I felt it wasn’t my place to tell her what to do with her life, and even if I’d wanted to do something, I don’t think I would have known how.
Crystal ended up having a miscarriage that spring. A month later she failed to graduate because she had not passed the GQE exam, but nonetheless left high school, and I never saw her again. I myself retreated deep inside my own head around that time, and I doubt I could have been much of a friend even if Crystal’d still been around. Sometimes I still think about her, and wonder where she is and what she’s doing, if she’s okay. If she’s got more children, if she’s got anybody watching out for her.
I think about all the people who fall through the cracks; it never fails to bum me out.