Officer Irube sat down one day, but his belt had turned sideways, and he ended up pepper spraying the cop shop. It was hilarious, but I kept my face straight when I cleaned up. The pepper spray residue made it easier to stifle the giggles, since I could barely keep my eyes open or breathe. When something is pepper sprayed, most effects dissipate within the hour, but it clings to items like clothing. It clings to skin.
A cop shop is a small enclosed office space where the correctional officers sit, usually in the center of a prison dorm. There are windows on all sides, so they can monitor the unit.
The girl who would usually help me clean was from Los Angeles, so she had served over two years in one of the country’s worst lock ups. LA county gets so full that they set up pop-up cages right in the center. The women live like zoo animals, in particularly degrading situations.
When other inmates found out where she served, they’d look away, but it’s a particular type of look-away.
I’ve known it my whole life.
When your family is immigrant, refugee, survivor, there are words that trigger this reaction.
It is the look-away of people who have seen you dehumanized, and did nothing, and could not do anything, so they taught themselves to look away.
Now the habit comes faster to them than air, so they breathe over the discomfort. Now, they think the discomfort is air, and they build a story about why it needed to happen.
Her birthday was changed after the Partition. He lived in Ho chi Minh when it was still Saigon. Her uncles were killed by the communist regime in China. He lost his hand to the cartel as a child. His grandpa had camp numbers tattooed to his arm. Her cousin was brutally slaughtered at her unsanctioned marriage. She was raped in the city streets. He was kicked out a restaurant for the color of his skin. She was not allowed to attend that university. Her people were left behind after a glamorized political rescue that saved the important ones. He is descended from slaves. A law made her an orphan overnight. His body has known starvation. They took her children away. They took their marriage away. They took their homes away. They lived in cages,
literal cages, cages out in the open.
Cages we walk by.
Do you even see the zoo animals when you visit them? Do you press your hand against the plexiglass and give them prayer?
How many animals are in your zoo? How did they suffer to get there? How do they suffer now?
Is it better to feel forgotten than ignored?
Have we buried our discomfort under hot air? Have we made an ocean of air, too deep to see the bottom? Are we are lost in a water forest we cannot see for the tears of the trees?
The girl who helped me clean showed me how to sleep against the wall, for the times when there isn’t enough space.
She taught me how to read with a book pressed to your chest at an angle, for the times when there isn’t enough space.
The girl who helped me clean had all charges dropped, after four years of time served. She is home now.
Does that help?
Can you see her now?
Every child who grew up with the look-away becomes an adult who knows how to softly turn your head back. An adult who can move themselves into your line of sight, or grip your face gently and firmly move your breath.
Part of that trick is in knowing how to ease the discomfort. How to make it okay, in the end, or how to justify it from the beginning. How to soften it. How to give you something to breathe when your mind thinks suffering is too contagious to inhale in any measure.
It’s a precious skill but, sometimes, a discomforting thing deserves to be left untouched in its retelling. Sometimes people will look away and that’s okay, and you don’t need to soften it for them. You don’t need to wait for the effect to dissipate. You don’t need to wipe the residue off of every little word.
This is something I am learning.
The day of the pepper spray, the full grown officers coughed and choked, and cried. At least it wasn’t tear gas.
Four days ago, tear gas was used on children– an aggressive and violent version of the same look-away. An attempt to hide from suffering, to pretend it only exists where we are not looking, where we are not breathing. A continuation of the myth that suffering is contagious, a myth that has become the story of Cruelty and how she came to be.
I hope that if we keep covering suffering with an ocean of look-aways, that we don’t bury everything. That the life within it grows gills and rises to the top, like a seafoam child. I hope it takes its cloudmist-hands and puts them on our faces, and turns us until we are looking into the water, into our reflections.
Until we are looking suffering straight in the face.
Until we are breathing in the right direction, and the wind of our existence sends Cruelty spiraling far far away.
Far. Far. Away.
Today, the girl who helped me clean died by suicide.
Her mom says to me, on the phone, defeated:
This world wasn’t for her anymore, after all of that. She is home now and maybe, finalmente, she has the space she needs.
We sit on the phone in silence for a few minutes. The suffering on the other line feels like suffocation, but I know that you can breathe through it. That breathing through it turns it into something else, something lighter. That the more people who breathe with you, the less difficult this process is.
I feel my hand raise to my own face, keeping me present on the phone, shifting so I do not look away.
Our tears fall in silence and then, after ten minutes of silence or fifteen, we take a deep breath together.
It feels like a bubble of clean air, like we still have an ocean to swim through but that maybe, finalmente,
we are growing gills.