Author: Mona AlvaradoFrazier
Title: Strong Women Grow Here
The van swerves out of the fast lane and throws me sideways until the handcuff on my wrist jerks 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 tattoos.
“Hey, she’s gonna barf.”
The oatmeal I ate for breakfast rushes into my throat where the taste of iron floods over my tongue until a retch escapes. I want to spit, but press my hand tighter against my dry lips. There is not much floor space between the seat and the screen in front of me, so I keep my head down.Just in case.
“Ivanov, stop looking out the window, it’s making you sick.”
The officer in the front passenger seat pushes a paper towel through the square opening in the screen.
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.
“Gonzales, pipe down,” the driver says. He has those unblinking yellow brown eyes like the iguanas near the river in my hometown. I see those eyes
watching me in his rear view mirror before they dart to the girl with the neck tattoo.
“She’s gonna be washing my clothes in San Bueno if she gets sick on me. And where’d a Mexican get a name like Ivanov?”
Why did she say my name? She talks so fast and my English is not too good.
“Are 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. Are you feeling 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 glance at her. I don’t need enemies. I speak to her in the English I learned in the past three years.
“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 Juvenile Hall. “Jester.”
“Jest-ER, like a payasa.”
Why would a girl call herself a clown? She shakes her head and leans against the window.
I close my eyes too and try to think of somewhere else. My memories return to my first life, in Mexico, when I traveled on bright colored buses, decorated with sunflowers and vines, from Santa Isabel, our village.
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 other 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 woman prisons. You had 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.
I try to sleep but before my head touches the window, another jerk of the van throws me forward and my wrist pulls against the handcuff. 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 yells and I turn to see her slide back into her seat with a thump.
“A jackrabbit,” the driver yells out.
“Qué paso?” I ask Jester.
“A rabbit, un conejo.” She wiggles her two fingers and points to the road.
Through the screen on the window, I can’t see a rabbit only gray concrete walls and several brick buildings that rise out of the ground. Tall chain link fences surround the backyards of a few of them. The place is so much bigger than Center Juvenile Hall. There must be hundreds of girls there. My stomach squeezes tight under my ribs.
The van turns onto another road and I smell the dry dirt the tires kick up when it dips and bumps through the dust cloud that surrounds us. It’s stuffy. I don’t have enough air to breathe and my head throbs with the worst headache I’ve ever had. My insides stir until my breakfast bubbles up in my throat again. I can’t hold it in anymore. Spoiled milk and oatmeal splash onto the van floor.
“Fuck,” Jester shouts and yanks her legs up on the seat.
“Shut up, we’re here,” Iguana Eyes says.
I wipe my mouth with the paper towel, now damp and torn from my clenched hand and drop it on top of the mess, but the bitter smell rises. Jester pinches her nose and gives me the squinty look. Ay Dios, I hope she’s not angry at me.
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. What is in store for me here? My eyes close 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.
“Unlock these cuffs. I’m keeping you in a job, ain’t I,” Jester says and makes a loud smacking sound with her mouth.
This girl Jester acts very familiar with the officer. Why isn’t she afraid of him? 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.
“Hey, 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?”