The fires in So. Cal. this week reminded me of this . . .

I was probably in some kind of mild shock for a day or two after I heard that Cheyenne’s house burned down. It didn’t burn down to the ground like you see on Lifetime TV, but it was deemed unlivable.

Smoke and soot damage is an intense thing. I never would have believed just how bad it can be until that time my little orange acrylic Buddha candleholder—the one I splurged on from Fred Segal—caught on fire during a party a few years ago. Such a tiny deity set ablaze offering flames up the kitchen wall. We put it out as soon as we realized what on earth was setting off the alarms. And yet I found specs of soot for months. In wine glasses in closed cabinets on the other side of the room. Even in the linen closet on the other side of the apartment. Soot doesn’t just rise and fall, it glides and maneuvers, sneaking in to forgotten corners and staying until you do something about it.

Cheyenne and her family got out okay. Safely. The first few times we talked, I had the presence of mind not to ask about our scrapbook. I waited until she offered the information. And she did. The scrapbook survived too. Thank God.

We’d been keeping that scrapbook since we met, six years prior, at Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Here this family lost their home, nearly all of their possessions with it, and my mind jumped to the one item I kept there—the scrapbook. I realize how awful that is—how selfish and self-centered and self-serving. I am all of those things at times, I am, but it doesn’t take away the fact that I’m so glad the scrapbook survived.

That first year Chey and I were matched, I took a camera nearly everywhere we went. She was so little then, just seven. I collected page after page of her beautiful young face. At the Pier, glaring at me because I wouldn’t let her go into the ocean, not even just her feet. At her beginners’ ice skating class lined up next to half a dozen unbelievably gorgeous short people gliding arm in arm like a vintage United Colors of Benetton ad. At the aquarium reaching her hand into that cold pool where the manta rays swim along your fingers again and again. At the movie theater sitting in her seat before the show started with her slurpee and popcorn pretending to be frightened by whatever was on the screen. At Knott’s Berry Farm, the ever-so-sacred (or boring, depending on whether you’re me or Chey) L.A. Central Library, the forever-dormant Planet Hollywood, the city zoo, the California Science Center, week after county fair after week, on boats, skates and donkeys with smiles and frowns and laughter. She didn’t just rise and fall into my life, she glided and maneuvered in to forgotten corners and stayed.

Before I knew it, she became a 13 year old who said things to me like, “You look like you peed on yourself.”

Around that time, she described one of her classmates by telling me, “She’s my ho, I’m her pimp.” I reacted by stopping myself from reacting. My mouth opened, pulling in enough air to say, “Prostitution is nothing to joke about.” But instead I thought a minute. I silently surveyed my memory for any life experience that would help me either lighten up or laugh about the pimp-ho scenario. Nope. Drew a big blank on that one. I don’t remember whether or not I resisted saying, “Oh, you kids today!”

She doesn’t always stump me. Even when she tries. One time she told me that some of her friends claimed it’s possible to get pregnant by swallowing semen. Did that ever occur to you? It never occurred to me. I mean, by the time I conceptualized the notion of swallowing semen, I was perfectly aware that there is no path from the digestive track to the reproductive system. Surely, she didn’t think our torsos were mere tubes. Not to mention the fact that she had blowjobs on her mind.

I heard the words come out of her mouth, this 13-year-old girl’s mouth, and I thought, I am not going to give her the shocked reaction she’s expecting. Did she think I’d be aghast? Because if anything is going to make me use the word “aghast” it probably does have something to do with the words “swallowing semen” being uttered by a 13 year old. But I remained completely nonchalant. I told her, in my very coolest and kind voice, “There’s no way you can get pregnant that way, but it’s a surefire way to get AIDS.” Her eyebrows raised, “Really?” “Oh yeah,” I said, “You can tell your friends that if they want to get AIDS that’s a great way to go about it.” Half of me was instantly thrilled for thinking on spot, the other half was shocked to hear myself spontaneously delivering the old Sex Equals Death line. I am a card-carrying member of Planned Parenthood. How on earth did the age-old Sex Equals Death shtick get programmed into my mentoring repertoire? Perhaps it was when sex actually did start leading to death.

Just when I thought it was impossible for her to really alarm me with words, she succeeded. Less than a week after the fire, we sat at a café where I treated her to something rare—a frozen coffee drink. I had made a discovery the summer before about caffeine. It seems that for the 2003 Orlando Bloom fan club (i.e., kids raised on nothing stronger than pink lemonade, Sprite and apparently semen) caffeine retains the amazing powers of truth serum. Try it. Start with one otherwise monosyllabic, non-disclosing, training-bra wearing being. Add however much caffeine comes in one of those frozen, sugary, whip cream topped monstrosities. And wait. Three ounces in, the chatter starts and another two ounces later you’ll hear all about how Jonathan Carver succumbed to the double dare of drinking his own urine at the bus stop. (Incidentally: not an AIDS risk, as he chose to drink his own.) Under the hunch that we only get two or three chances to reap the benefits of full-on caffeine induced truth telling before Orlando’s fans build up a tolerance, I used this tool sparingly.

There we sat at the café, Chey gulping fast enough to turn her frontal lobe into the tundra while I waited, silently reminding myself to let her set the tone for the conversation. That’s what they say about being supportive to people during crises—follow their lead. The serum worked right on schedule. Three ounces in, the chatter: she’s saving up to buy a guitar, her ho is having a pool party this weekend, she really wants a copy of that Gwen Stefani song and can we stop off at Hot Topic for leg warmers on the way home? Two ounces later, she told me that she’s been going to the library computer lab every day on her lunch break. She’s been surfing online. Going to craigslist and doing searches. Searches? I didn’t need to ask what for because now her straw was making that noise you only hear from near empty cups and bongs.

She was in ramble mode and she told me she’s been searching for three bedroom apartments in the 500 to 800 dollar a month range. It had to be three bedrooms: one for her mother and the baby, one for her younger brother and one for her. Three bedrooms, no less, and in the 500 to 800 dollar range and she just knew if she kept searching on craigslist everyday she would find it. Preferably in Santa Monica or Culver City. Four bedrooms would be okay, too.

My heart broke. I knew that the hotel voucher from the fire department was running out but it never occurred to me that Cheyenne would feel it was her responsibility to find an apartment for her family. Before I could fathom a response, she added the real kicker. She said, “I’m not psychologically damaged by this.”

What was I supposed to say to that? I could order another Goliath sized drip Americano but caffeine was not going to conjure any words in me. Lemonade didn’t even come in pink back when I switched to coffee. I wished I could say, “Let’s talk about safe sex. I’ve got that one down.” Maybe I should have said, “It’s going to be okay.” But I couldn’t bring myself say that because what if I was wrong?

“Ruth?” she asked. Oh God. There it was. I had to find a way to handle this. “Ruth, did you wear leg warmers back in the eighties? Because I heard that everyone wore them.”

Later that afternoon, we went to the mall. I amused myself by trying on every tiara in Claire’s Boutique. It’s a ritual Cheyenne used to take part in, but now inspires her to say, “I don’t know you” with the lockjaw precision of an experienced ventriloquist. After sharing a two-entrée combo at Panda Express, I left her waiting for me in the food court while I went to the restroom to rinse soy sauce off my jacket. If I hadn’t spent so much time scrubbing, I would have been able to avoid what came next all together.

As I left the restroom, walking towards the open threshold that served as both entrance and exit, a very little girl, practically a baby, wandered in alone. I expected to see an adult following shortly after but no one did. Continuing on my way, I ended up nearly running into a man in mid-yell, “Lucia, come back here!” He was about 60 years old, and stopped at the entrance as if he’d missed an elevator. I gave him my sheepishly sympathetic, “I bet you’re hating life right about now” look and stepped around him to leave. I expected him to go in after her, but he didn’t. “Lucia!” he hollered in, not too loudly, as if he didn’t want to make a scene.

I realized then, I could not just walk away. I went back into the restroom and peeked around the corner. Lucia headed towards the row of stalls. Not more than 30 inches high, in pink corduroy pants and a white t-shirt, she walked without the slightest bit of hesitation. “Sweetie!” I called, “You’re Gran–” I paused.

Turning towards the exit, I asked, “Are you her Grandpa?”

“Yes. Thank you. Thank you.”

Inward again, “Lucia, wait.” I tried to sound nice, but firm. “Your Grandpa says to come back.” It was as if she didn’t hear me. She entered a stall. She pushed the door closed but did not latch it.

A woman washing her hands laughed and said to me, “I guess she really needs to go.”

I peeked around the stall door, silently begging, ohGodplease don’t let her need help. She did not need help. She stood facing the toilet and took care to pull one of the seat covers out of the dispenser and lay it precisely in place. Amazing! The problem was the toilet came all the way up to her waist. I couldn’t imagine how she’d manage to go alone.

Damn. I considered going in there after her and wondered what my chances of getting arrested would be. The headlines would say, “Area woman stalks toddlers in shopping mall bathroom.” Aren’t citizens tagged all the time for ending up in compromising positions with other people’s children? Not to mention the fact that I had no idea what to do once I entered the stall. Potty training is about as familiar to me as the whole pimp-ho thing. And every bit as nauseating.

Yet, I didn’t want Lucia to feel helpless if she needed assistance. Wishing her mother would walk in to rescue us I asked, “Lucia, do you need help?”

By this time, she had her pink corduroys undone and down around her knees, “I go by myself.” How could she get up there?

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I go by myself,” she answered in the same calm tone as the first time.

Great, I thought, holding the door closed for no real reason. I waited a moment and peeked in again. She was sort of propped against the edge of the seat and held a generous bundle of toilet paper in her hand. I held the door closed again and waited. I half expected to see a puddle meander out from her direction, but none did. Part of me wanted to yell out to Lucia’s grandfather, “We’re okay in here.” But that seemed absurd. I relaxed my hold on the door so that she could tug it open when she was ready. And she did.

Coming out of the stall, Lucia had managed to dress herself without any apparent mistakes. She walked over to the counter, which came exactly level to her forehead, and lifted her hands up in the direction of the sink. Words had become unnecessary. Now I had no choice but to touch her.

I put my hands on her waist and raised her high enough so that her palms reached the faucet. As I felt her ribcage through her cotton shirt, I remembered being her size, and being lifted towards countless sinks. I remembered the sensation of feeling those countless counter tops pressing into my belly. I remembered being that small and pressed and still having to stretch my arms as far as I could just to reach the water. And so it was with Lucia. She had her arms fully extended when the water came on automatically, and I felt grateful that the temperature happened to be safe because checking it had slipped my mind.

When I reached Cheyenne again, she stood pretending to play a video game that she had no quarters for. “Chey,” I told her, “You will never guess what just happened to me.”

“Um,” she said, “You got raped in the bathroom.” My mouth opened, pulling in enough air to say, “Rape is nothing to joke about.” But instead I thought a minute.

This was the child who said to me during her first time on ice skates, “Ruth, relax. Glide.” This was the girl who rescued our scrapbook from a house covered in soot moments after the flames were extinguished.

“Cheyenne,” I started, “Listen to me, I’m only going to say this once: nobody in their right mind actually wore leg warmers back in the eighties.”

Ruth, 38, Los Angeles, USA