She has no job and no aptitude for even the easiest, no-skills-needed positions. She has a place to sleep, the clothes on her back plus some piled in the corner, and a few favorite possessions including a small, blue, stuffed hippo she calls Bo. The hippo is dirty from so much love.
A doctor once pronounced Iris healthy but that was a while back, before she came to Portland. She qualifies for free health care in Oregon but navigating that system – getting signed up, answering questions, finding a clinic — is beyond Iris. She rarely smiles but when she does her teeth show neglect or a poor diet. Probably both.
She spends her days lying or sitting on an unmade bed, a grimy sofa, or a cluttered, filthy floor, always a TV lighting the room. She wanders through the apartment or house, wherever home is at the time, but almost never goes outdoors. To the neighbors she is invisible.
All ages and stages of roommates and friends and relatives come and go. Right now there are seven bodies living in this two-bedroom apartment: Iris; Blake, who works part time; Natalie, who takes three buses to her job in Gresham; Blake’s Aunt Peg; Foggy, Aunt Peg’s German shepherd service dog; Chet, Aunt Peg’s teenage son; and Gary, who lost his job and girlfriend and apartment and now lives here.
Iris is frightened by strangers but no one seeks her opinion when a Gary or a Debby or a Mychal crash with them for “just a week or two.” Sometimes they stay longer and after a while Iris relaxes. Then they’re gone and someone else takes their place. The change is constant.
To the roommates, Iris is a taker, a whiner, and a burden. Tempers flare over this “extra mouth to feed” and it’s not surprising that Iris is irritable, sensitive, and quick to burst out in tears, or that she goes mute and responds to nothing. She eats a meager share and uses none of the drugs, booze, or nicotine, all readily available, but the resentment is there and it eats a hole in her spirit.
Last week Iris cut herself with a paring knife. She bled on Blake’s Cubs t-shirt and Natalie’s work smock. The accusations and yelling escalated and then it got physical. Iris screamed, tried to get away, and finally went quiet. The punishment continued … no attention for you! … for days. She knew better than to beg for a hug or a smile. The first night Foggy crept onto the sofa with her and she was comforted by the dog’s soft snores, but Aunt Peg got angry over that and now Iris is sleeping in a torn, rank sleeping bag in a bedroom closet.
Iris is 20 months. She is powerless.
It has been posited that gay marriage became acceptable to the majority of the American electorate because we have come to see that gay men and women are our neighbors, our children, our parents, our friends. We see, know, and care about them.
But Iris is in a closet. Where is her Stonewall? Where is her parade?
Julie Young, MSW
Julie Young lives in Portland, Oregon. She is a children’s advocate, a retired clinical social worker, and a board member of nonprofit children’s organizations. The opinion expressed is her own.