Fireflies

By Judith C. Dumont


 

Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals who are not the author.

Tuesday afternoons usually find me huddled down in meetings and this Tuesday was no different. In the suite of my workspace, I was processing a program launch when the door suddenly opened.

“Ms. Dumo—“ she stammered. “Oh, I will come back. I didn’t know…”

It was P, a former student. She had just graduated the previous term and was now working part-time at the college while taking her last few pre-requisites for nursing school. It wasn’t like her to barge in—her nature was always respectful and humble, especially when it came to my time. She was rare that way.

“Hey! I’m in the middle of…”

“Yeah, I can go. I can…” Her eyes darted to the floor. She pulled at her long braid, wrapping it around her neck like a scarf.

“P, you okay?”

“I’ll come back…” Her eyes darted as she backed out of the room.

My co-worker made eye contact with me. “It’s okay,” she said. “We can stop for a bit.”

“Thanks.” I stood up. “P. Come in. Come in.”

We walked into my office, and I motioned her to sit down. Hugging her backpack, she sunk into the seat and stared down at the carpet.

“What’s up with you?”

She sat quiet.

“Did you get bad news about nursing school?”

She shook her head.

“No pressure.” I turned on some music and scanned my inbox. “I don’t mind being quiet for a minute. It’s been one of those…”

“Days,” we finished in unison.

Sitting together in an office was nothing new to our dynamic. We originally met when she was assigned to my caseload—I was her academic coach in a grant program that helped at-risk youth earn college credit while completing a high school diploma. Based on first impressions, I remember thinking there was absolutely nothing at-risk about her. She was studious, punctual, bashful, and naïve; she had above average TAKS scores with a 4.0 and perfect attendance. I was used to kids with discipline records thick as bricks and probation officers who cared more about their performance than their parents. Once I scanned her paperwork, I realized how she qualified: she had no social security number, her parents couldn’t speak a word of English, and they also could barely read or write in their native language.

I remember our first conversation. She whispered “yes” or “no” answers to all of my generic, open-ended questions. After thirty minutes of unadulterated effort, the only binding commonality between the two of us was that we were both Leos—born in August—which always wins points with me. My near-distant Pentecostal childhood might also be common ground as her make-up free face was framed by hair that hung all the way down the small of her back, cascading beyond her waistline in wisps. It was boiling hot outside, yet she wore long sleeves and a long skirt with knee-high tube socks, exposing only the skin of her hands and face. She sat with her shoulder blades turned inward like a bow, gracefully peering up through her innocent, almond eyes. She looked all of 12.

Connecting with her was a stretch. To put it in context, I was three months into this job after having worked three years at the LGBT Youth Center in downtown Dallas. Drag queens on probation with a slight meth addiction? No problem. A fundamental Pentecostal who never questioned authority? All of the sudden, I had 99.

I was the counter to her culture. She had a penchant for tradition, religion, authority, and science. She never cursed or broke rules—she asked my permission to skip on senior skip day. Me? I have never operated in such a way. Surly and abrupt, I often speak too loud and out of turn. My natural tendency is to challenge any system that presents itself, so respecting authority has been a lifelong lesson for me. Have I mentioned I hate science? Preferring the abstract world of ideas, commitment and restrictions are tough for a girl like me, so being faithful to one version of God—an absolute answer—never made sense to me.

Her innocence brought with it a certain charm. Despite her religious dress code, she hipped it up with Converse and hoodies and knew all the lyrics to the latest Kid Cudi album. She defied the expectations of her assumed gender norms as she was a first generation high school graduate and college student, outwitting her older brothers in the academic system. She was also a minority woman majoring in a STEM field, wanting to become a medical professional. If you think about it, she was feisty in her own right. This is where our souls collided.

I never understood why P stuck around me, but I also never questioned it. The keeper of her secrets, we had girl-power lunches on a monthly basis. Over brown-bagged sandwiches and homemade M&M cookies, she confessed her first kiss with the boy she crushed on for months. She snuck out to watch the lunar eclipse, under the shaded moonlight, beneath the Cedar tree in her backyard. Nicholas Sparks couldn’t have written a better scene. She debated my intentions when I recommended she go to Planned Parenthood for her first women’s exam at the age of 19. She eventually went and survived, gasping in terror when she saw the infamous stirrups. She couldn’t get over how cold it was in the room—it was just so rude, she said over and over, in bursts of laughter. Even though I had to beg her, she finally let me pay the application fees to out-of-state schools as she was scoping out where she would transfer—her parents forbid her to leave home, but I wanted her to know she could get in with the best-of-the-best. We were rejected more than we weren’t, but the confidence she gained was worth every penny. We also talked about the nature of God and the power of Goddesses and the intersections of religious philosophy. I was the only one who knew she questioned the constraints of her fundamental upbringing besides never having the intention of abandoning it.

Together, we applied and won her more than $10,000 in scholarships towards her college education, offsetting any debt she might incur at the out-of-state tuition she had to pay for not having a social. A dreamer, she needed me to endorse her character by writing her a letter to support her as she pursued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals[1] paperwork. This would allow her to gain residency and finally get a legit job and go on the path of U.S. citizenship, not to mention it gave her the right to submit a FAFSA to qualify for federal aid for college.

To be frank, she was—and is—one of my greatest student success stories, four years in the making.

After a few minutes of sitting together in silence, I heard her sniffling.

“What’s going on? This isn’t like you.”

She whispered, “Something bad happened.”

“What do you mean?” I leaned in. Turned off my music. Wheeled the chair from behind my desk and shimmied around to face her.

“I…”

“P. What happened?”

“Um…” Silence. Her eyes glued to the floor.

“Hey, it’s just me. Just me here. No one else.”

“I was at the park with a boy.”

I nodded.

“He did bad things to me.”

The beat of my heart quickened.

She shook her head, wrapping her neck in her braid.

“P. What do you mean by bad?”

“He. Well, he…” she was shaking, her teeth chattering inside her locked jaw.

I sat down in front of her on my knees. I put my hands on her feet and nodded my head.

“We were taking a walk. We have been talking. We went on a trip this summer with school, and we started talking there. He knows about me. My morals. We were taking it slow.”

I nodded.

“We were in the park, holding hands and walking. He pointed to a place off the trail. I followed him. We started making out…”

“Then what happened?”

“He forced me down. I thought he was playing for a minute, but then he started taking off my skirt. I tried to get up, but he pinned me down. I told him no. I’m not like that.” She collapsed into tears.

I saw red.

She shook her head.

“I’ll fucking kill him.”

“He held me down and made me put my hand on him. There. He told me see what you do to me?”

I stood up, then took my place back in my chair. I didn’t want to know more, but the far off gaze in her eyes told me this was just the beginning.

“He pulled himself out of his jeans and made me put my mouth on him. I have never done that.”

She paused. I took a very deep breath.

“He made me.” She released her braid from her neck, “I…”

Welts were present. I caught my breath.

“I don’t want to tell you what else.”

“You don’t have to.”

We sat together for a moment. Her crying. Me seething. My mind spinning.

“After, he took me for ice cream.”

“Who did this?”

“I can’t.”

I blinked.

“It will ruin him. He’s going to graduate. He’s the first, like me.”

“Fuck him.”

She shot me a look.

“I won’t apologize for saying that.” I looked down. “It’s you. I’m just…”

I took her hand in mine. I looked back up into her broken eyes. She had never looked so tired.

“When did this happen?”

“Right before. I came straight to you.”

_________

We came up with a game plan. I would text her every 8 hours. We would go to the nurse. We would explore some counseling options. We would let her boss and her professors know she had a family emergency. We made a promise that she would agree to report or not to report within 72 hours.

I consulted with peers. She told her two very best girlfriends.

__________

Three days later, she texted me to meet.

“Hey.” I hugged her.

“Hi.” She smiled.

We sat down.

“I am ready.”

“You’re ready?”

“Yes.”

“Now?”

“Yes. As long as you stay with me.”

I called the police.

____________

Four hours later, we sat in the third room we had to be placed in, lost in the vortex of time it required for her to repeat her story. She had to answer awkward questions: did he digitally insert himself into your vagina? Did he penetrate your vagina with his penis? Was the oral reciprocated? At what point did you actually say no? Did you actually say no? Why did you let him take you out for ice cream if you were in danger?

Instant by instant, she recounted the rape. She whispered through it with a warrior spirit—it was the bravest thing I ever witnessed.

She said what he said throughout: “Baby, you know your pussy wants me. Don’t act like it doesn’t.”

____________

The sergeant brought in some peanut butter crackers.

“Thank you for the VIP service,” I winked.

“You’re welcome.” She nodded and left.

P and I sat in the office chairs next to one another and stared straight ahead.

“My family cannot know. I am the only daughter. It will bring great shame.”

“You’re 20. Your file is yours. They will never know unless you tell them. Besides, you did nothing wrong.”

“But to them, I will be damaged.”

“You are not damaged.”

She looked down.

“What’s his name?”

She shook her head.

An hour passed. I stood up to stretch.

“My tia is married to a man. None of us like him. He drinks a lot. He hits her. He calls them all names. He purposely got her pregnant when she told him she didn’t want to have any more children. When the women are alone, she said he forces her to do things—have sex. And if she doesn’t, he makes it worse. She would ask us if she should leave.”

I nodded.

“She’s never had a job, barely went to school. She has no money that he doesn’t give her. And the women, they would shrug it off. They would tell her that’s the need of a husband.”

We sat still for another 10 minutes.

She finally whispered, “She didn’t deserve that.”

“No.” I looked at her, “She didn’t. And neither did you.”

“I should’ve told her to leave.”

More silence.

_____________

“It happened to me when I was 16.”

Her almond eyes moved from the stagnant white wall to lock with mine.

“I never told anyone.”

“Not anyone?”

I shook my head, “You’re really brave. I mean that.”

“What happened?”

“You want to know?”

“I do.”

The truth is I had never told the story from beginning to end. Not even to myself. But the eerie consistency of what I heard that day and what I experienced at 16 shattered the illusion of a woman—any person—being in full control of her body. I owed her validation.

“My mom had just gotten remarried. Her and her new husband went somewhere for the weekend. Of course they said no parties, but my little sister and I both knew we were going to have one. There was only two weeks left in school, so it was perfect timing.

We were poor. Where I grew up, the rich kids lived on the west side. I was nervous to have people come over to the east side to see where I lived—I always went to them. Our house was nothing to be proud of. Even my best friends rarely came over. My way of dealing was drinking a couple of hours before anyone showed up. What can I say? I was a lame byproduct of peer pressure.”

She laughed a little.

“By the time everyone showed up, I was feeling good. We danced. Played drinking games. Sampled new music. This is when things got a little foggy. Dizzy and spinning, I told everyone I would be right back. Blotchy strobes of memory tell me I heavily stomped to my bedroom.”

I paused.

“Next thing I know, I wake up and someone is there, half laying on me. I focused to make sense of the shapes; it was one of the guys in my friend circle since 7th grade. We dated in 8th grade, so we had some history.

I told him to get off of me, thinking he was playing a joke, maybe taking pictures of me passed out in the middle of the party. But he shushed me and told me to be quiet. I tried to move my body, but I was swimming in my skin. My saturated cells caused my mind to misfire the movements I was trying to express in my body. Breathing down my neck, still shushing me, he took his forearm and laid it across my clavicle, from shoulder to shoulder, and told me to be still. I kicked and told him to get off of me. The music in the front room muted my protest. As I tried to crawl away, he dug his knee into the inside of my thigh and covered my mouth. Like you, I was pinned. He pulled off my clothes from the waist down and had sex with me.”

She blinked.

“When it was over, I just laid there, pretending to be asleep. He got up, used the restroom, and left my house within minutes. I could hear music swirling and my friends laughing as I lay still and silent for I don’t know how long. I felt like I was floating around my body when my eyes caught a flurry of fireflies outside of my window, dancing in flashes, existing then not, existing then not. I remember thinking how much easier it would be if only I were one of them.

When I settled back into my casing, I put on my pajamas, and in true Dumont form, stormed the front room, turned off the music, and told everyone to get the fuck out of my house. I was usually the last one to leave these things, so everyone was confused. It was the talk of the hallways on Monday. People chalked it up to whisky.”

“And you never told anyone?”

It was my turn to look at the floor. “His dad was a lawyer. He was rich. My dad was a roofer. He didn’t even pay child support. My mom had two jobs and had just married a giant asshole. No one was really paying attention to what I was doing.”

She nodded.

“I really didn’t think anyone would believe me. I didn’t even know if I believed me. It was so hard to make sense of it. Honestly, it wasn’t until years later—actually sitting in a gender studies course—that I realized I was raped. It was during a lecture about a woman’s right to be in control of who makes choices for her body that it dawned on me what happened. Until then, I kept telling myself if I hadn’t had been so drunk, none of this would have happened. I blamed myself.”

“I was kissing him, leading him on.”

I turned to face her. “I don’t care if you let a man get within a centimeter of your body. I don’t care if you are already doing it and change your mind once it’s happening. When you say no, when you say I am uncomfortable, it means stop.”

She nodded.

“Real men honor that. Trust me, I know the difference.”

Slumped in our seats, we sat still in understanding.

“Look, sex is a beautiful thing. I want you to know that. It can be the most sacred of experiences and feels so amazing when it’s with the right person. I will not deny that. But it can also be traumatic, like what happened to us. The difference between the two is having the free will to choose when and how and if we do it.”

She blinked at me.

“Do you understand what I am saying to you?”

We held eye contact for a moment.

More silence.

“I didn’t want to do it.”

“You didn’t. And he didn’t listen.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“If that happened to your friend, what would you tell her that was?”

“Rape.”

___________________

The sergeant made her way into the room.

“The detective said there’s not much that can be done since there isn’t enough physical evidence. If he would have punched her or if her bruises were worse, we might’ve had more to go with.”

“Great.” I deadpanned. “So you have to rape and punch a woman to be held accountable.”

“That’s not what I mean. I just mean too much time has passed—the bruises have faded.”

P looked up at the sergeant. “There’s nothing you can do?”

“There is something we can do since you are both college students on the same college campus. We can launch an internal investigation. He will be escorted off campus and will have to go through our judicial process here.”

“She works here. She needs to feel safe coming to work.” I couldn’t stand the thought of her passing him in the hallway.

The sergeant sat down on the desk, squaring her posture towards P, zeroing in on the answer we needed to prevail. “We have to know his name.”

P looked at the sergeant then at me. She put her face in her hands.

A moment passed.

“His name is Ivan. Ivan Ramirez.”

_______________

Within the next hour, he was escorted off campus. The police found him in the student commons hanging out after class, playing dominos with the science club and members of the student government association. They took him to the police station on campus, and he was told what the accusations were. It was explained to him that he could not return to campus until he underwent an investigation.

Within minutes of leaving campus, he began texting P. He asked her why she was doing this. He wanted to know why she was accusing him of something she so clearly wanted.

She doubted herself. She doubted her truth.

I told her to block his number and never speak to him again.

_______________

Two weeks later, he was back on campus, continuing his classes as normal.

As for P, she quit her job at the school within the month and decided to find work elsewhere so that she could “move on.” While the administration did the best we could, there simply wasn’t enough information or evidence to pin anything legitimate against him.

For one glimmering moment, I thought I could protect her.

We knew his name. We knew what he did. It wasn’t enough.

It was the second time in my life I felt utterly defeated.

_____________

It is eight months later at graduation. The convention center is flooded with people in black robes topped with squared hats of accomplishment. Families are beaming with pride and excitement. I sit between two of my friends at work, dolled up in our regalia, caught up in the electric energy of the event.

Name after name is announced, followed by a pocket of cheers swelling in the audience for every person as they pass.

“Eileen Patterson.” Applause. “Chastity Pope.” Applause. “Jose Quintero.” Applause. “Alejandra Ramirez.” Applause. “Ivan Ramirez.”

I feel like I was punched in the stomach.

“That’s him,” I whisper to my friend on my left.

“That’s who?” She seems surprised at my sudden attention to the stage.

“Him. The one who hurt P.”

I never knew what he looked like. I only knew his name.

We turned to see him saunter across the stage to receive his diploma. He was taller than I imagined. He collected the piece of paper. He stood for a few seconds with a plastered smile on his face, taking a picture with our President, as cameras flashed from the audience. In the near distance over my right shoulder, I heard his family cheering, proud he was the first of his bloodline to accomplish such a goal.

I could not breathe.

______________

I talk to P a few times a month via text. While we communicate in this way, she has never come to campus again—the same campus that issued her high school diploma; the same campus that awarded her thousands of dollars in scholarships; the same campus that facilitated a free DACA workshop and offered her pro-bono work as a dreamer to earn her residency and a pathway to citizenship; the same campus that hired her in her first legal job to help her parents pay the bills and pay her college tuition; the same campus that granted her an associate’s degree, the first in her family to do so.

When I ask her how she’s doing, she tells me she’s fine.

She never discusses the past. On every level, I understand why.

Before, I was overtly social in school, popular and free-spirited, rebellious but never with angst. After, I withdrew from the system, both socially and academically. I skipped class as often as I could, my grades dropped from As and Bs to Cs and Ds, an occasional F even surfaced. I quit playing softball after 13 years of playing competitively. I was on track to play in college, being varsity freshman year and traveling across the country for national tournaments.

For the rest of the summer and my senior year, I resigned myself to an isolated existence, eating one tortilla a day—broken into three pieces for each of my meals—for months on end. I only dated boys I knew I could control. I slipped into further extra-curricular habits that polluted my state of mind and well-being, and I moved away from my family one month after graduating high school at the age of 17. I never lived in my hometown again; in fact, it took me nearly 10 years to pay a visit.

To this day, I am selective about people—trust is a convoluted puzzle despite my confident demeanor.

Like P, the sequence of events the night my life changed forever lays locked away inside the confines of my memory, tucked inside the darkest corner of my mind labeled better to forget than to remember. Like fireflies in the blacked-out sky of the night, flashes of trauma flicker when I least expect—walking alone to my car in a dark parking lot, escaping the fixed gaze of an unfamiliar man at the gym, telling a modified story about my first time to a group of friends at happy hour, and being told I look beautiful without thinking he wants something in exchange.

I know she will never be the same.

What happened to P and what happened to me happens every day in every neighborhood and in every corner of the free world. The difference for me, right now in this moment, is that I get to have a voice even if justice failed to serve me and, worse, failed to serve P.

Sitting with her that day, I realized we are not alone in our anguish. Like her, I lied frozen in a stupor at the mercy of a monster, blaming myself for getting into such a predicament. Like her, I had to pick up the pieces of a broken promise that the world we lived in would always be good to us.

People like us know life doesn’t always work out that way.

What I have learned is that like my bellowing voice, my body belongs to me. Both are instruments of expression, of history, of her story, of my story. My muse, the surrendering of our silence. Even if it is 22 years later, it matters that I speak my experience. I want to shout it so loud that it echoes through to somewhere so that someplace another young woman finds rhythm in my pain, in my overcoming, and speaks back until somewhere and someplace it happens again and the world can’t help but listen.

But like fireflies, if our senses aren’t tuned to the shadows of the landscape, the truth disappears as fast as it appeared, vanishing into the secrets of the night.

[1] Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an American immigration policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.

 

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