My Body is a Book People Pass Around for Research
A DANGEROUS WOMAN: Exposing the Dark Underbelly of the Nonprofit World and How Cancel Culture Came for Me, Chapter 5
“Everybody has a story to tell. They don’t even have to talk about it, it’s written all over them if you really look—on their faces and their bodies and then underneath. The story my body tells it’s about love and death. These black marks, they’re mostly put there by my love, the man who took my heart. Okay so, I’m gonna tell you about my body.
“The first one he didn’t do , another guy did. He was twenty-six and I lived with him for a while when I was fourteen. So, first I got this little one on my hand. On my arms I got the names Irene and Cesar. That’s personal. Nobody asked me to do it, I did it for my mom and my li’ brother cuz I love them. By then, I figured out that my mom, she was slow, she couldn’t hardly read or write. Cesar, I think he’s like a special soul. One day he got hit by a car and then some kids pushed him down the stairs at his school. I always felt a lotta pain for him. It was so bad, a dark cloud over my family.
“On my neck it says Silvia. If you ask me why I did that, I can’t say. Most of the time I was so fucked up I didn’t know what I was doing. These tatts, they’re like, whatever, let’s do it, you know? Everyone thinks tatts are like something important, like you’re trying to say something. Maybe it’s like that for guys but for girls, it’s just something guys do to you.
“Now, the most important ones, here on my back it says Gerardo, and right above my left breast it says, Silvia loves Gerardo. That’s cuz he’s my one true love. The man who destroy my life.
“Then, on the three middle fingers of my right hand, 213. That’s my area code, my barrio. I got it that night, the night of the murder.
“Now I look at that 213 and I wish it wasn’t there. When I pick up my pencil to write, those numbers just stare at me and then it’s hard to forget that night. My other tatts, the ones about Gerardo and my mom and brother, I like. But this one…
“I love Gerardo. And I hate him. He won’t never leave me in peace. I didn’t see the murder happen. I never wanted it to happen. Martin died and I pray for him. I’m still alive but the knife’s in my back now and he’s turning it. The pain makes me fucking crazy like I wanna die. But God doesn’t let me.”
Gone was the wild street life. Silvia had four minutes to shower, used the toilet in full view of the staff and had to ask permission for everything, following lines along the floor as she walked with her hands behind her back. She ate food that tasted like watery play dough and smelled like cat food.
Twice a day she and the other girls wee strip-searched. Naked, they stood in a row while the staff inspected them for contraband, which could be anything from pens to drugs.
“My body is like a book that people pass around to make their research,” Silvia wrote one day.
Even though she’d had so many men, she’d always been shy about showing them her body. Now, she exposed herself to strangers who looked her up and down and inspected every inch and orifice, asking her to bend over and cough so they could “see what we need to see.”
Silvia dreaded the nights. Entombed in silence, she lay on her bed and could not sleep. There were no open windows, no relief from the stale air recycled through the lungs of forty prone girls. Closing her eyes, the blackness frightened her. Opening them, she couldn’t bear what she saw. Forty steel bunk beds standing in the dark with bodies lying on each one, some stretched out and still as death, others curled up in tight balls of pain, others sleepless like Silvia and staring wide-eyed at nothing, some occasionally moaning or crying out.
Silvia knew what it was like to feel alone, but never had it been as bad as this. She was surrounded by girls her own age but trusted no one. That was the rule, you didn’t let anyone in. Afraid to sleep, she feared she would never wake up, and then again, she wished to sleep forever. Buried alive in a great big box, it was just a matter of time before the oxygen ran out and her last breath escaped her chest.
“You see, Karen,” she told me one day in class. “You see how my bed is in the corner, way over there? That’s the best spot in the room—cuz I have so much juice.”
“Juice?” I asked.
She smiled. “Damn, you just don’t know nothing, do you? That means I got a lotta respect cuz I been here along time and cuz of the crime they say I did.”
“Well, I guess you’re educating me,” I said.
“Oh, yeah, uh huh. Anyway, I can lie with my back against the wall, I can imagine that I go right through it. On the other side, that’s my freedom, just waiting for me. But still, I’m here no matter how hard I wish. My back’s still against the wall.”
“You see, Karen, you see the staff, how they sit at the desk in the front of the room? Well, at night, sometimes they fall asleep, for real! They snore and make a whole lotta noise. That’s when I come alive. I try to remember everything in the night, when the light isn’t there to burn it all away.”
Lying in the bunk above was her best friend, Leonore, her crime partner.
“Gonzales!” Silvia whispered, night after night, for she no more remembered Leonore’s first name than she did her own. Rising up, she tried to get as close to her friend as she dared. Leonore peeked over the side, her pale moon face floating in the darkness.
“You remember my house?” Silvia asked. “You remember the loca vida?”
Leonore frowned. “Ooh, Sanchez, that house!”
Silvia hated being at home and never stayed for long. When she got into fights with her family, she escaped down the back stairs and into the streets. By the time she was fifteen she had a reputation in the neighborhood as a hard-faced chola, kicking it with her homies, fighting with the best of them. She had been beaten and raped too many times to count. She was hooked on drugs and alcohol.
But mostly, she was proud to be the girlfriend of a cute-ass gangster named Gerardo “Jerry” Fuentes. From Jerry she learned the art of love and brutality.
“You know about love, Karen?” she asked me one day. “You’re married, so you must know. You love your husband? Or do you hate him? Does he take care of you? Does he give you pain?” Silvia arched her brows and looked at me quizzically, waiting for my answer.
“Silvia,” I answered uncomfortably. “Okay, yes, I love and him and, yes, sometimes he causes me pain.”
“Uh, huh,” she nodded, as if she understood everything. “You tell me something but not much. Don’t worry, cuz I can read between the lines.”
I had no doubt she could.
Sleepless and obsessed, Silvia continually dredged up her past and tried to draw Leonore in.
“Gonzales,” she whispered again and again. “You remember the outs? You remember, Gonzales?”
“Eih…” it wasn’t a word, but a sigh rising up from a well of pain. A stone dropped into Leonore’s heart would never reach the bottom of that well.
“Gonzales! Those days, damn those days. Fuck Jerry. You remember? Gonzales!”
Leonore’s face contorted in agony. “Shh! Stop,” she moaned.
But Silvia was relentless. “Come on, Gonzales, we’ll be back there soon, come on!”
But Leonore face had melted away into the darkness, back onto her pillow, and she answered no more.
A few weeks after the first writing class, way past midnight, Silvia did something she had never done before. Cut off from Leonore, she took out a hidden pencil and paper and began to write. It wasn’t easy when the pencil felt so alien in her hand. Thoughts spun at a dizzy rate, trapped inside her head and trying to get out. How to take all those mixed-up emotions, all those half-lost memories and guide them through her fingers onto paper? Never before would she have considered doing such a thing. But since being ordered by Pincham to join the writing group, a miraculous change had occurred. Even if it was difficult and she often struggled to find the right words, couldn’t spell and was lousy at grammar, she needed to write. She couldn’t stop herself.
Snatching at one of the thoughts flying through her head, she separated it from the rest and gave it life.
“Before I got hooked-up on drugs we used to sell them and Loenore had nice pretty long hair and she used to braid her hair and put the drugs in her braid so when the cops checked us and put us down they would never suspect she had something in her hair.
“Me and Leonore, we had our good times and bad times. Well, like around the ‘94 December was when I got hooked-up on drugs and I was in need of them so we went with some guys who bought us the stuff and Leonore was kissing and being all over one of them. He was so ugly. But she was doing it cuz I needed the stuff. That night was a long one.
“In the morning, me and Leonore, we were sitting on the sidewalk and my dad pass by and he acted like as if he didn’t even know me. “
Silvia hugged the paper to her chest and lay on her side, rolled up in a ball. She’d been so fucked up that night, smoking crack and feeling no pain. But then she’d come down. Hard. That was the problem, she always came down hard.
Early in the morning, maybe four o’clock, they’d driven to the beach with the men and Silvia had gone off by herself and sat on the sand, watching the sun destroy the night. She had felt like a vampire. Under cover of darkness she was da bomb, pumped up with drugs, wild, tough, invincible, she could do anything. But the bright daylight stripped away her strength, made her weak and vulnerable and left her dying. She had already died a thousand deaths and would die a thousand more before her final rest. Every time she came down it was like that. Which was why she kept going back up again.
Sunlight hit her face. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she hurt all over. Sitting on the sand, she had cried and sang, “foolin’ around, came to this conclusion…”
Quietly, Silvia folded the precious paper and hid it along with the pencil behind her locker.
Silence at last in Omega. No more tears left to cry for two lost lives, just the echo of voices in the dark, one trying desperately to remember the past, the other trying to forget. Both searching for a way to believe they still existed in a place where all that they once were had been stripped away.
Silence, but still no sleep for Silvia. No dreams for the future, only nightmares of the past.
And words. For the first time, words etched on paper. Words that I took home week after week and copied into my computer and into my brain. They always looked forward eagerly to seeing their worked typed when I brought it back. Sometimes, I would put it in poetry form. Sometimes I drew artwork, inspired by their stories. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to publish their work one day.
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