1. Most days I teach creative writing and photojournalism to Chinese-American, Latina and Black kids. On Thursdays, when the incarcerated teenage girls participate in our class, they receive an English and art credit towards their G.E.D. Many of them have kids. We make wish lists. Many of them wish that their families would speak to them again or that they didn’t watch their brother die in front of them. Some wish for cigarettes. When we construct “Who I Am” poems, they stand and rap their poems to each other all bold and flirty. Some girls cross their elbows on the desk and rest their forehead on them like they are tired. I suppose it’s too much to crack open on command, vibrating with currents of trauma, but I know they are listening to us recite our “What I Know” poems and when we leave, they’ll have a pen and paper and our words. Unlike many of my students, I wasn’t raised in a gang and was never a pregnant teenager. But, my big brother was on and off drugs. Mostly on. He was always in and out of jail or prison; implicated in robberies and one death. When the girls rap their “Wish Lists,” they flaunt their brittle exterior, aching for power in a powerless place. They settle into hostile, predictable routine and wear their baggy beige sweatshirts and loose black pants. Our pens and journals disappear inside their shirts. When the girls read about seeing their dead brothers, I think of my own. I think of my dad’s guns and I hope they are locked up tight.
The day those children were murdered, I crossed my arms around my knees that were pressed into my chest on the couch. It was raining so softly outside— a tentative spring drizzle in December. I cupped my mouth and yelled “Oh my god,” and drooled and sobbed into my palm. The number of murdered children kept increasing. A mother. A son. Twenty first graders. Six adults. Oh my God.
2. “Where is this?” I ask Luis during a walking field trip. The day’s lesson is an exploration of their neighborhood and identity. They were asked to consider their personal story. “East LA,” Luis said. “Where in East LA?” I asked. Luis shrugged. He pointed his camera at a tree near the freeway. He took to my photography class like a fledgling rock god to ACDC and immediately shot directly into the sinking sun, throwing an eerie glow onto a fence, an angelic halo to the tip of a palm tree. Those magic sun shots are now his signature. “Just East LA,” my student, Kennia stressed. They called their art show “In Other Words” because they wanted to tell their story with their photos. I hung their photos on flimsy white ribbon during their lunchtime on the roof in the cold wind the day those children were murdered. Students had to duck underneath the photos to get to the benches with their lunches. The art they made, unavoidable. Kennia and Luis smiled shyly as their peers complimented their work. None of the pictures fell down and it didn’t rain. They dangled from the delicate ribbon and fluttered.
3. My 7th and 8th grade leadership students in the Garvey district share a campus with the elementary school next door. They are not allowed to wander off and disappear, so when they sneak off to the ice cream truck or to the store I have to write them up. If they disappear or get hurt while under my care, I will be the one to blame. “What will I tell your father, Selena?” I ask. The elementary school kids wear a uniform. They walk in two rows past us out into the green field where they play monkey tag. If you don’t know what monkey tag is, it’s like freeze tag but when you are “it” you throw a stuffed monkey at people and they are frozen and when they are frozen, they have to kneel on one knee until their friend sets them free. I smile and wave at them while searching for Selena. “Where are you going?” I ask them as they walk past in crooked rows like they don’t know they are small, off kilter and vulnerable. “We don’t know,” a boy with glasses says. They trust it will be fun and there will be graham crackers and chocolate milk.
I watch them shrink into tiny dots skipping on wet grass.
4. The locals call this place Cat City— short for Cathedral City. They’re not exactly locals. They’re stationed in 29 Palms, about forty minutes away and they’re Marine Corps from Kalamazoo Michigan and Arizona. It’s the holidays and they are getting shitfaced at 3 p.m. at Desert Showgirls. Around the corner are an adult video store and a 7-11. In the parking lot, Mexican construction workers whistle at me when I bend over for my stripper bag. I feel at home here, but I feel at home in remote and dangerous places, like the Motel Six off East Canyon Road. Like the luggage compartment on the train from Calcutta to Bombay. Like Bourbon Street at 4.a.m. Like the jail for incarcerated teenagers, the campuses where I teach and my dad’s house with all of his guns.
On the ten, the snow gathered on the tips of the mountains makes them appear closer. The bright sun is thin and crisp. It melts the knot in my shoulder from holding myself so tightly before on the couch, unable to peel myself from the news.
I waited until the twenty children were accounted for and when they were, I drove to work.
Just past the windmills near Desert Hot Springs, where the sky opens up and the city is a toxic cloud in my rear view mirror, the air is alive again. By Date Palm Drive, the highway ends and shoots off into classy movie star names like Bob Hope. And the hotels and casinos all flaunt water features and golf courses. I speed past the pristine hot springs and the resort with flamingos. I’m here to support myself between teaching gigs. Inside the musty doorway of Desert Showgirls, a fat DJ I’ve never seen barks “Who hired you?” I walk past him to the dark yellow dressing room where the regular girls have lockers. “Why?” I ask him. I’m feeling real skinny — not a good skinny— strep throat skinny. The DJ walks in and out of the dressing room. I am the only girl there and figure he wants to catch me naked, so I fiddle with my curling iron and eye shadow until he leaves. He grabs an extension cord. “I can’t remember his name, but the manager, Cassandra hired me over a year ago, ” I said. Like it matters. Like I wondered in off the street to panhandle in my underwear and break into the supply cabinet to steal scratchy paper towels. I hold myself in the dressing room. It’s dark. I feel safe there. Alone.
The DJ plays Nickleback. Aerosmith. Old Van Halen. Green Day.
I walk towards two men sitting at the bar talking about gun control and national security. The one with the jacket said when he was in DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone), he wasn’t allowed to carry a weapon and he had to go to the middle of a field between South Korea and North Korea. He would stand there and yell the meeting’s agenda on a bullhorn. He wasn’t allowed to make funny faces or any gestures he said because it would threaten national security. He would just yell on his crazy bullhorn and wait, sometimes for 18 hours and if North Korea didn’t want to talk about what was on the agenda, then they just didn’t send anyone to talk to him. Imagine the disappointment. I ask him if he liked his job. “I want to be an actor,” he said. I nodded.
The friend sitting next to him hunched over laughs loud into his pint glass, full of amber beer. “Actor,” he snorts. Some of the Marines say they’ll go home and go back to school when they’re finished. All of them have loaded gun eyes. I lead the one who wants to be an actor into the lap dancing area where there are big soft chairs with armrest against mirrors. “Do you have kids?” he asks. I dance and wonder why that question. “No.”
“Kids are fun,” he said. And then he told me he bought his 4-year old twins bicycles and how he wished they would just “stay four.” I thought of the kids who were slaughtered and how they wouldn’t ride bicycles. The boxes in tacky paper would sit under the tree and I was devastated for every parent, dancing to Guns and Roses. At least he already bought his kids bicycles.
5. The dancers arrive with their babysitters in place. In the dark dressing room, an Asian dancer with hair so glorious it nearly reached the backs of her knees says “Take my purse,” to a butch dyke stripper who dances to nothing but disco. She is so drunk she was throwing up in the bathroom. The floor manager storms into the dressing room. “Is Suki in there?” Every single one of us lies. Suki was not in there. We didn’t know where she was. Suki was fine. Jeri drove her home and texted me later that I could stay with her. There was room for me there. This is how we hold one another.