What's wrong with you, Girl?

(This exercise began with “I don’t remember . . .”)

After the divorce of my parents, when I was 12, I would stay with my Great Aunt Carmen or my Great Grandfather Manuel after school. They lived next door to each other in a duplex apartment in Jefferson, part of the New Orleans metropolitan area. My now single mother worked extremely hard to support us and to pay for my Catholic education. Staying with my extended family members, not complaining, and being on my best behavior was the least I could do to help my mother.

The drug store next to my aunt's house was a constant source of intrigue for me. I’d often find loose change underneath the drink machine that I’d use to buy gum or candy, which were mostly forbidden at home. Even candy collected on Halloween was used to fill piñatas on my birthday (which happened to fall on November 1st), or worse, tossed out while I was at school. On this particular day, I found a curious treasure: a tattered magazine full of naked women with large breasts and curious privates. Unlike my mother’s favorite magazine, Vanidades, these women seemed to beg for my attention and in some strange way reminded me of myself.

I walked back to Aunt Carmen’s house, slowly, so engrossed by the images that I didn’t notice she was standing outside on her porch, watching me. By the time I looked up, it was too late. I quickly hid the magazine behind my back, but she demanded I hand it over. I was confused by her scornful questions:

“Donde encontrastes esta suciedad?/Where did you find this trash? Que te pasa, niña?/What’s wrong with you, girl?”

At the time, I lacked the courage to ask a few questions of my own:

“How could you let a twelve-year-old roam the streets of Jefferson alone? Don’t you know about the man in his garage-turned-‘work’-station, who preys on children, exchanging candy for a few uncomfortable minutes on his lap? Or the man who drives his car alongside children on bikes so they can see him playing with himself? What’s so questionable about women unveiling themselves for others to see?”

My poor mother got an earful when she picked me up after work that day. As if she didn’t have enough on her mind, running from racists and perverts who loved to prey on pretty young women trying to make a living in this foreign land.