Monday, April 16, 2012
Title: Strong Women Grow Here
In my first life, in Mexico, I traveled on bright colored buses,
decorated with sunflowers and vines. In my second life, my daughter
Katrina and I rode the graffiti spotted buses in Los Angeles, to and
from the baby doctor. Now I am seventeen years old and my journey is
inside a small brown van with two girls and two State Officers,
driving into my third life.
My friend in Center Juvenile Hall said the girls in San Bueno are
older, like nineteen, twenty but not as old as in the women prisons.
You better watch yourself, you’re too small to fight, she told me. I
have never been in a fight and don’t want to be, so I need to stay out
of the way.
The van swerves out of the fast lane and throws me sideways until the
handcuff on my wrist yanks me back making my belly bounce up to my
chest. My hand flies up to cover my mouth, a movement that alarms the
girl next to me. The one with the neck tattoo.
“Hey, she’s gonna barf.”
The oatmeal I ate for breakfast rushes into my throat where the taste
of iron floods my mouth until a retch escapes. I want to spit, but
press my hand tighter against my dry lips. The floor space between the
seat and the screen in front of me is tiny. I keep my head down. Just
in case. The officer in the front passenger seat pushes a paper towel
through the square opening in the screen.
“Ivanov, stop looking out the window, it’s making you sick.”
I try to nod my head but the effort makes me dizzy.
“No vomito,” the girl with the neck tattoos says. She crowds against
the other side of the seat.I close my eyes and pray that I don’t make
a mess on the girl who looks like a boy with her short brown hair
combed back, shiny with pomade. The blue-black letters on her neck
spell WF 13. I don’t understand what that means but I have seen these
letters on the walls of buildings from my seat on the LA city buses.
The driver has unblinking yellow brown eyes like the iguanas near the
river in my hometown. I see those eyes watch me in his rear view
mirror before they dart to the girl with the neck tattoo. She says
something to him and mentions my name. I don’t understand because my
English is not too good, but she sounds angry. My free hand begins to
shake and I put it under my thigh.
“You okay?” A soft voice floats from behind. I turn to see the girl
who we picked up from the last juvenile hall. Her eyes and skin are
the color of piloncillo, the raw sugar cones my mother used to make
Mexican chocolate. There are no tattoos on her face, arms, or neck.
She wears a small smile, crooked with fright. “She said don’t mess up
her clothes or you have to wash them when we get to San Bueno. Feel
okay?” she says in Spanish. “Me llamo Belinda.”
“Sí, gracias. Me llamo Juana.”
She nods her head and closes her eyes. She doesn’t want to talk. I understand.
“Hunh,” the girl with the tattoos makes a sound like disgust. I don’t
need enemies. I speak to her in the English I learned in the past
“No worry, I no get sick. What is you name?” She looks at me up and
down, with a squint in her eyes that I have seen many times in Center
She shakes her head and crosses her arms against her chest. I try to
sleep but before my head touches the window, the van jerks and throws
me forward. My wrist pulls against the handcuff while my other hand
slams up against the screen divider in front of me. I barely keep my
face from smashing into it.
“What the hell?” Jester says. I turn to see her slide back into her
seat with a thump.
Through the screen on the window I can see a gray concrete wall with
several brick buildings rise out of the ground. Tall chain link fences
surround the backyards. This place is so much bigger than Center
Juvenile Hall. There must be hundreds of girls there. My stomach
squeezes tight under my ribs. I need to breathe.
The van turns onto another road. Soon the smell of dirt surrounds me
when the tires dip and bump over the path. It’s stuffy, I don’t have
enough air to breathe and my head throbs with the worst headache I’ve
ever had. My breakfast bubbles up in my throat again. I can’t hold it
in anymore. Spoiled milk and oatmeal splash onto the floor.
“Fuck,” Jester yells and yanks her legs up on the seat.
“Shut up,” Iguana Eyes says.
I wipe my mouth with the paper towel, now damp and torn from my
clenched hand. The bitter smell rises. Jester pinches her nose and
gives me the squinty look. Ay Dios, I hope I didn’t make an enemy. The
van stops in front of a tall steel gate. Silver coils like thin ropes
of a lariata curl across the top. Their sharp edges flash through the
gloomy sky. I feel dizzy looking up and shut my eyes tight while I beg
God to take me back to my first life.
The driver, Iguana Eyes, jumps out of the van and slams the door,
while the nicer officer remains in the front seat. I can hear voices
laughing but the screens over the windows don’t let me see who is
outside. The door slides open and Iguana Eyes stands with his hands
crossed in front of his thick chest.
“Montes, guess who’s back? Gonzales thought it was time for another
state paid vacation at beautiful San Bueno Youth Correctional
Facility,” he says.
A lady with a purple headband holding back her wild frizzy hair
laughs. She has on a thick belt, like his, around a long blouse that
drapes over her black pants. Several keys dangle from a black strap
attached to it.
Jester tells the lady something and makes a loud smacking sound with
her mouth. This girl acts very familiar with the staff lady and
officer. Why isn’t she afraid of them? Maybe the girls at Center
Juvenile Hall exaggerated about San Bueno. Iguana Eyes reaches in with
his big hands and unlocks her handcuffs then pulls her off the van, by
her arm. “Watch it,” Jester yells, then walks across the driveway the
way the gangbangers at the park walk, slow and unafraid. “What’s up
Ms. Montes?” Ms. Montes jerks her thumb to a hallway behind her.
The officer gets out of the front seat and unlocks my handcuffs and
then Belinda’s. My wrist has marks around it like a red splotchy
bracelet. When I step out of the van the scent from the fields
surround me. It’s apio, celery, sending me it’s cool waves of moist
green. I close my eyes and for one brief moment, I feel like I’m in my
mother’s garden, back in Santa Isabel. The familiar smell brings me
Iguana Eyes says something, points at me and then the van. My stomach
starts to twist. Ms. Montes looks back and forth at Belinda and then
“Which one of you is Ivanov?”
"Me?” I say.
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