Image by José Bittencourt Neto c/o Nappy.co
Saturdays started out pretty fleeting at Carmita’s house. The mornings typically included a collaborative cleaning session to some Jerry Rivera, followed by a gigantic lunch (the glucosic goodness that is white rice always on the menu), and maybe someone taking a nap. Everyone always went their separate ways in the evenings.
Carmita’s oldest sibling, her brother Josemaria, or Junior, was especially fond of a good nightlife activity. Every once in a while, Josemaria would host small gatherings of friends in their basement. There were always snacks, alcohol, weed, and a few other unrecognizable substances. Carmita would try to hang around whenever Josemaria’s friends showed up, because it was her one opportunity to shed her ever-present goody-two-shoes vibe – she could be adult enough to enjoy wine coolers, and bud really mellowed her out.
Josemaria’s newest friend, Beto, came around every chance he got, and Carmita was certainly not opposed. Just under six feet, Beto had the prettiest, most perpetually sun-kissed skin she’d ever seen, and hair so long and thick, it made Fabio look like Gollum. Beto was also surprisingly single. During one particularly frigid Saturday night gathering, Carmita thought she might heat things up.
“Junior, who’s your friend? Introduce me,” Carmita whispered sharply.
“Cari, get out. You’re not even supposed to be down here.” Josemaria lit the end of a spliff and inhaled deeply. Carmita loved to watch him exhale O’s of smoke. She got lost in the ephemerality, then quickly snapped out of it.
“Well, what the hell else am I supposed to do? It’s Saturday, and ya’ll got the good stuff. It’s only so many telenovelas on at this hour.”
“Ay, Dios. You’re such a square.”
“Soooo...who is he? Que chulo,” Carmita said with a mischievous smile in Beto’s direction.
“If I introduce you, will you leave? Take your little crush elsewhere – he’s too old for you. That’s illegal shit.”
“Mm – no promises. Besides, I’ve been told I’m...ma-toor, if you will, for my age.” She executed her most practiced hair-flip to dismiss Josemaria, and decided then that she’d do the job herself. She began sashaying over to Beto, who was languidly rocking in a ratty armchair and drinking a Corona.
Josemaria grabbed the back of her shirt, and rushed out ahead of her, his long stride putting him in front of Beto in two-point-five.
“Hermano mio, what’s crackin? Listen, I gotta apologize – my lil’ sister’s pretty snitch-adjacent, and my ma has no idea that we chill here every now and then so, uh, I figured I’d let her get to know the fellas so she know ya’ll cool. Beto, Cari; Cari, Beto. Now Cari, let’s g—”
“Carmita,” the young sweetheart said, sticking her hand out. “My name is Carmita. And it’s a pleasure.”
“Pero, papi,” Beto said to Josemaria, putting his drink down, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve, and standing up to greet Carmita with outstretched hand. “You never told me your little sister was Selena Quintanilla. My God.”
Beto brought Carmita’s hand to his mouth slowly. “Alberto,” he said sensually. “And the pleasure’s all mine.”
While maintaining eye contact with her, Beto kissed Carmita’s outstretched hand as if attempting to stop time. Or dissolve her like that biblical pillar of salt Mami was always talking about.
Carmita blushed, and was suddenly at a loss for words. She felt disarmed, but also admired, powerful.
The six seconds of silence that passed between the two of them was thick.
Josemaria shifted his weight between his sister and his friend, grossly uncomfortable. He cleared his throat.
“Yeah, so...Carmita, don’t you have homework to do?” He gritted his teeth, and Carmita noted the tension in his temple. She sighed.
“Beto, I certainly hope this isn’t our last encounter. Toodles.” She hoped her haughty teenage exit conveyed the sex appeal of a woman twice her age.
The man raised his eyebrow, as well as his beer, and continued drinking. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind.
Three months after Carmita and Beto met, they exchanged phone numbers and started seeing each other outside of those Saturday nights with Josemaria. Their phone calls were hours long and would consist of sweet nothings, and plans to be in each other’s presence as often and as discreetly as possible.
Carmita’s first sexual experience ever was with Beto. It was a Thursday. As an adult, she’d grow to reflect on her first time with considerable heartbreak: as a virgin, her fantasy of what that day should have been was romantic and serene, and though she knew Beto had an active sex life before her, she certainly never thought he’d resign what he knew was her first time to the backseat of his car, where they’d be interrupted by some neighborhood pranksters trying to break in. The pain and mess of having just broken her hymen, coupled with the urgency to sober up after being exposed to ill-intentioned strangers, was still nothing in comparison to the shame she felt every time she remembered her fail of a first-time fantasy. In Beto’s recollection, that day – “A Monday, right?” – was nothing more than a hiccup to giggle at, and certainly nothing to regret. Carmita numbly accepted Beto’s perspective as her own, as she would eventually learn to do more often.
One Sunday afternoon, Carmita took the 45-minute bus ride to meet Beto where he lived on the southernmost side of town. He’d promised Carmita that once he finished work for the day, they’d watch a movie, order some food, and chill out. They both knew Carmita had school the next day, but she was an all-star student – losing a little sleep wouldn’t take her out of the game.
The bus dropped Carmita off in an isolated pocket of suffering community members. By all accounts, Beto’s own residence was a certified trap house; as this was Carmita’s first time visiting Beto at home, and he’d never spoken about it until inviting her over, she had no way of anticipating the scene. She felt a tinge of guilt, because though she, too, was poor, addiction was another beast entirely, one whose consequences she’d never been exposed to. Standing a few feet away from Beto’s building was an emaciated woman, begging passersby for change in a hoarse, exhausted voice. She was scratching at several irritated and seemingly infected injection sites on her arms.
Stalling outside, Carmita took in the five-story building – it had no porches, and couldn’t accommodate a closed front door due to the congested hallway traffic. She finally made her way up two poorly-lit flights of stairs, and rapped on Beto’s door, already ajar. She heard startled voices coming from inside.
“Nigga, who is that?” The sound of rustling plastic weaved through the opening.
“Look, man, trust me. I told you, you’ll thank me later.” Footsteps approached.
“It better not be no bitch, Beto! You out here fucking all these hoes dique ‘for the checks,’ and then wanna come crawling back to my bed, like I’m one of these nasty bitches. Don’t play with me, motherfucker. Ya dick ain’t that good.” Chewing gum popped then snapped. The door was yanked open.
“Mi bella baby, look at you all dressed up. Guess it’s a party now,” Beto said, leaning back to take in Carmita’s outfit, and then in to kiss her. Sweat matted strands of his long hair to his face.
Carmita pulled back, partially because he stunk, but also to attempt to get a view of the other people inside the apartment before entering. Beto was too quick, though. He grabbed her elbow, guiding her into the apartment and closing the door behind them.
“Beto,” Carmita whispered, refusing to walk any further without answers. “Wait a minute, wait! Who are these people? And what are you doing in here?”
The gum popping and snapping continued, but nobody said anything.
“Ya’ll excuse me for one second while I show our gorgeous guest around.” Beto’s cordial smile in the strangers’ direction quickly faded as he pushed Carmita into a bedroom nearby, and closed the door.
“What the fuck, Beto! Are you selling out of here?” Carmita thought of the woman tweaking outside, and she felt sick. “And who’s that in the living room? Are you fucking her? Look, I won’t say anything, but this is not –”
“Baby, shh.” Beto held a finger up to Carmita’s lips, and then kissed her neck, pushing her back against the door. “You’re stressed. And doing too much. Aight? Work went a little late tonight, but we good. And guess what? I’m gonna cut you in.”
“Cut me in what, dammit?! Beto, what the hell is going on?” Carmita started to panic at not getting any answers. Beto was still kissing her neck, but she tried to use her hands to feel for the doorknob of the bedroom behind her.
“You gotta relax, baby. My friends here, they don’t like none of that snitch-shit.” Beto spoke between kisses, as if to quell her anxiety. With a threat.
After what felt like hours of frantic searching, Carmita got her fingers around the doorknob and turned it. She felt the door open and was just about to push Beto away with all of her might and run out of that apartment when she felt a piercing in her arm, followed by a sudden rush of warmth.
“We could have done this the easy way, mamita. I feel like you don’t trust me. If you don’t trust me, this ain’t gonna work.” Beto closed the door again, stared deeply into Carmita’s eyes, and his voice became low and cryptic. Carmita didn’t know if Beto was on anything in that moment, but she certainly was.
“Beto, I don’t feel good...” The warmth was spreading into her limbs.
“Shhh, calmate, calmate. You’ll be fine in a little bit.” Beto stroked Carmita’s hair, and led her to the bare mattress on the floor.
Carmita could feel her legs give out beneath her, but still tried her best to remain upright. She felt the sensation of vomiting, but couldn’t be sure if anything was coming out.
“FUCK, Carmita!” Beto confirmed with a bellow and his eyes scanned down in ire to his puke-covered shoes. He then took a swift back hand to Carmita’s temple; his pinky ring connected with her consciousness, and took it away.
Leland Ponzi was Carmita’s psychiatrist. A black woman in her sixties, Leland was a pleasant surprise. At first glance, she exuded what some people call respectability – her cat-eye glasses came attached to a pearly lanyard, she wouldn’t be seen in clothing with wrinkles in them, she enunciated even the most common of words, and for her multiple degrees, Carmita was under the impression they may never have met. However, unbeknownst to Dr. Ponzi, Carmita once got a glimpse of her very tattooed midsection when she reached for a book nestled atop a high shelf. Carmita couldn’t readily identify the bigger picture, but saw lots of vines, leaves, and a huge, rooted tree trunk hiding behind the shirt in the center of Dr. Ponzi’s back. That alone shocked Carmita, but she could barely pick her jaw up off the floor (so much so that when asked, Carmita had to lie about her expression) when she spotted rolling papers in an open drawer in Dr. Ponzi’s desk.
“Carmita, it’s not often that victims of sexual violence have visible proof of the trauma inflicted on them, at least beyond what their bodies may fleetingly show. It sounds like you did. Are you comfortable sharing more about that?”
Carmita cleared her throat, which was still dry from the nutrient drip she’d been on for most of the 6 weeks she’d been hospitalized (she was released just five days prior to this session). Carmita shifted carefully in her wheelchair, but still couldn’t stave off the sharp pain in her lower belly.
“I...I don’t remember much.” She looked around Dr. Ponzi’s office, sparsely decorated, but warm.
“I understand. Do you remember the video?” Dr. Ponzi sat with her legs crossed, a sign that Reyna – in all of her pseudo-psychological wisdom – would insist meant the doctor wasn’t interested in what Carmita had to say. Dr. Ponzi’s voice was sincere, though, so that couldn’t be right.
“Are you comfortable telling me what you remember about it?”
Carmita sighed. “Dr. Ponzi, have you ever tried heroin?”
“No, Carmita – I haven’t. Why?”
“Neither had I before that day.” She half-smiled at the doctor, her eyes not playing along. “I think about that often.”
“What makes this thought so salient to you right now?” Dr. Ponzi began to write on her notepad.
“Do you know that heroin blocks pain receptors in your body?”
“I do. Would you say this was your experience with heroin, Carmita?”
“I would. In fact, not only did I experience it, I’m thankful for it. The girl on that tape would have asked God to kill her in that moment without heroin. Hell, the girl on that tape might have actually died in that moment without heroin. The brain is so funny...” Carmita trailed off.
“What specifically is funny about the brain?” Dr. Ponzi continued to write.
“Well, I think Beto – in all his fucked-up-ness – knew that I might have died if he didn’t drug me. In his own way, I think that was him showing his love for me, you know? It’s funny that the brain protects the body like that, but like, it’s also funny that the chemicals that make the brain feel love also make you do really stupid shit because of that.”
Dr. Ponzi put her pen and notepad down, removed her glasses, and let them drop to her chest.
“Carmita, please listen carefully to me. You are sixteen. You were drugged, raped, and maimed by an adult who decided this should all be filmed. I can promise you that love wasn’t responsible for what happened to you. I just really want you to hold that for a second. Each of those things was the result of choice, none of which were yours, and none of which were motivated by love.”
Carmita sat silently. For the first time since that horrid Sunday, she thought about the two rapidly-growing uterine fibroids in her belly. She had no idea what a fibroid even was until her doctor spotted the two masses in what was supposed to be a pre-release ultrasound - that was in her second week in the hospital. Carmita had begun bleeding outside of her menstrual cycle, and heavily. The next four weeks were a re-examination of Carmita’s initial rape kit, an extensive interrogation of her sexual history, and the ultimate realization that she would likely never be able to carry a pregnancy to full term.
“Here,” Dr. Ponzi said softly. She was leaning toward Carmita with pain in her eyes and a tissue in her hand.
Carmita was caught off guard; she touched her face and realized there were tears on it, though at first, she didn’t feel herself crying. The memories she trained her mind so intently to trap were coming back to attack her. She sobbed in surrender.
“Dr. Ponzi, I wanna have kids someday,” Carmita cried. Though shaky, Carmita committed to rolling her wheelchair closer to Leland, which alarmed the doctor to the extent of rising from her own chair, but Carmita gestured for her to sit.
When Carmita made it to Leland’s side, she looked her directly in the eyes.
“I always believed I could not live in this world without being positive that I would meet goodness in it - even if I had to raise it myself. I can’t explain it, but I have always felt that. Then this happened to me. And proved that if I wanted better for myself, I had to make better. Now the good I could have created is gone, so why aren’t I?” Carmita believed with all her heart that Dr. Ponzi knew the answer.
“Listen to me, Carmita. You are loved. You matter. I am so thankful that you are alive. Your resilience alone is greater than that of the damndest man I know. At sixteen, you have been forced to face the possibility that you have been robbed of motherhood, and for that I am so, so sorry. You should be reading, singing, playing, meeting people who make you happy to be you. And yet, this is where you are. But it is through no fault of your own. You will be a mother someday, Carmita, and guess what? That still won’t be the greatest thing you’ve ever done, and you know why? Because you are already doing it, here, with me, right now. I am so glad that you live.”
Leland wasn’t a particularly religious person, but she felt God call her to wrap her arms around the child as tightly as she could, and beg Him to comfort her. She really didn’t know how Carmita survived that horrific night, but she had to believe there was a celestial reason.
The doctor and her patient spent the next three hours in a rebirth of sorts, until Josemaria arrived to pick up his baby sister and bring her home.
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