I’d wondered if it would happen, if Glisa would come to class with marks clearly human in origin, like a swollen face or belt stripes that couldn’t be hidden by her sleeveless top on Color Day. But I’d doubted it. While the younger kids confide, follow their teachers like ducklings, openly crush with star-pooled eyes, the older ones stay aloof, confiding in each other or no one.
I wasn’t prepared. Can you be prepared for confession? When sitting alone on a bench, lost in space, while your students listen to music or play on tablets during an earned play afternoon? Can you prepare yourself for a tall, lovely girl who is quick to laugh, rather careless, and rarely concerned to suddenly be in tears? And what were we talking about, nothing, I don’t remember, I was in the middle of some joking comment.
“My [step]dad says if I’m not good, he’ll hurt my mom.”
Probably not. I couldn’t prepare for this secret warrior to remove her armor.
The night before, the stepfather came into her room and hit her. She doesn’t know why. He was looking for something in her room; she doesn’t know what. When her stepsister cries or whines or cries—she’s always crying—Glisa gets hit. The stepfather has threatened her with a knife. Glisa is afraid to go home. She stays at her grandmother’s as long as she can during the day. Probably everyone on that street knows what happens in that house, but her mom talks to only her sister. Her mother wants to leave, but doesn’t know to where. Glisa’s aunt is trying to get her and her brother to the States, to Houston. Her mom can’t afford to care for all three kids.
Glisa sat above me on the table, I rubbed her leg, squeezed her foot, maybe took her hand as she talked. I wondered what to say, knowing that listening was the right step, but wanting to hand her a solution, feeling helpless in this pain, trying to not let my own tears show. It’s not my place to cry here. I asked if there was someone who could help. Only the aunt. Thank goodness for the headphones, most students were too absorbed to notice our island at the crowded table, Gilsa’s tears.
“You know you don’t deserve this, right?” Glisa nodded. I murmured words about that asshole, her intelligence and wonderful personness. My hopes of her escape.
Then, she was done and went to play with her iPod. Football was played that last hour. At home, I fell on the bed, drained, teary, and am still somewhat lost.
The days after September 11 were emotional and paranoid below 14th Street, including where I worked in the West Village. Cars weren’t allowed. A stranger sold cleaning fluid in unlabeled bottles and we suspected anthrax. Spontaneous memorials grew on fences and street corners. Pictures of the missing, Have You Seen Me?s, were hung; of course they were never seen again. I knew, and they did too, the hangers of those pictures, they had to have, but they hoped, I guess, that their friend, lover, father, mother, child was out for coffee during the fall and just got…confused. Or lay unidentified in some hospital. I passed them and looked, the candles always burning. The faces gradually familiar, and I looked for them each morning.
My story of that day and the weeks that followed is inconsequential amidst so much loss and real pain. I lost no one and was not even close to being lost. I worked in the Village, a lower part of the island, but still streets and streets away. I was close enough to see the flaming maw in the first building before it collapsed. I was close enough to see the ash-filled sky as I looked south, those days that followed. The ash rained on the cars outside my arts school.
I attempted to join a blood donation queue outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. I arrived just as the crowd was disbursed: there were no bodies. Someone recently pointed out that obviously there wouldn’t be any bodies, but he wasn’t there that day, walking north up 6th Avenue, away from the cloud that obscured the lower island, huddling around someone’s open car door to listen to the report that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and feeling desperate and alone, so alone, and shuffling slowly to some where, to find someone to shake and ask what the hell is happening? I worked in a shop on Greenwich Avenue. The store was dark but I punched the access code, lifted the gate, and waited. The phones weren’t really working. They wouldn’t start working well for awhile. I found out the next day that I missed my coworker Laura by just a few minutes.
I had more luck finding warmth at a nearby church where a friend worked. He and his partner hugged me. The video footage repeated, the buildings kept collapsing. And then I wanted to be alone again, because I felt so alone and it’s better to feel alone away from people. But when I got home—190th Avenue, the trains must have restarted quickly, or did I walk? I know some did—I was alone, and that was the worst place I could be. The phones didn’t work. That night I screamed into my pillow. Why had I come here?
My luxury is that I get to forget most of that day and those that followed. I hold flashes and emotions, one of the strongest being helplessness, uselessness. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t donate blood. I had no skills. All I could do was stand behind the counter and wait for customers. My coworker Laura had a task, something to do with the search and rescue dogs sniffing the rubble. I answered a call from someone connected with our store (a trainer? supplier?) and I found my task. The rubble was hot, the pads on the dogs’ feet were burning, we sold special booties for the winter, our store could donate. But in the end this fell through. People around me rushed around, and I stood static behind a counter, completely useless, without ideas or skills. What a waste.
The Volunteer Coordinator suggested that Glisa’s mother could be killed if she told the police about the abuse. That night she emailed me a list of shelters to give to Glisa, and I did the next morning. That I could do. But not much else. I can’t take Glisa away from here. I can’t stop the abuse. I can’t stop her fear. There were days as a child I didn’t want to go home, because of my own (first) stepfather, of whom I was also afraid, but not physically. I didn’t fear that I might not leave the house alive. I can only guess what she’s feeling. I can only hug her when she asks, listen to her chatter, and laugh, these last few weeks. I can’t rescue her.
So I feel pretty useless.
I suppose that feeling has never gone away.