Shoes: An Excerpt
Writing is therapy for me. It’s how I process, accept and understand what I cannot change. I should have written another chapter in the book tonight. But I didn’t. I tried to edit it but ended up just reading it instead. And ended up reading this chapter twice. It is a heartbreaking chapter, and difficult to read, but I wanted to post it because… because writing is always a positive thing for me, and so I needed to post a part of the story that means a lot to me tonight. As per my usual disclaimer, it contains graphic scenes that may make survivors of any type of abuse feel uncomfortable: please make sure you are in an emotionally safe place before reading. The excerpt is from the upcoming novel that deals with child sex trafficking, particularly in Cambodia (although it happens here in the U.S. as well). I’d really love to know what you think!
There is wet garbage on the cold cement floors. When the white man finished, the woman walked me back to the dark room and I stepped in some of it. I didn’t have shoes on, because the woman took mine, and I stepped in it. Whatever it was oozed through my toes. I’m in the dark room again and I can’t see the floors. I wonder if there is wet garbage in this room too. I am afraid of walking around.
I have to think about the wet garbage because, when I don’t, I think about the basement. That’s where they used needles to stitch my insides up. I screamed. It felt like a knife was slicing me. My blood was everywhere. By the time it was over, I was so tired of crying. My head hurt so bad and I could not breathe because my nose was so stuffy. It was like I had cried all the tears in me and I just couldn’t cry anymore.
I’m not stupid.
I know that there will be another white man. I know what my job is now. I should hate the white man. But I hate the Killer and the beatings more. I really am not brave. I touch the spot on my arm where the Killer shocked me. It is an angry red circle. It is very tender, but I keep touching it anyway and praying to the gods it will go away.
I’m not stupid.
I’m eleven years old. I know I am trapped now. I am a prisoner. That bothers me but not as much as the fact that there isn’t anyone to talk to. I think about my little sister. I wish she were here. She is so little but she is my sister, and I could talk to her. I wish Mae were here. She would know what to do. She always knows what to do. Even without looking to see how much is left, she knows whether it is okay to eat or not. She knows when it is okay to have seconds. And, sometimes, if I ever had a bad dream, Mae would get up and give me a hug without me ever telling her I needed one. One time, I got very, very sick. Sick like Srey. And Mae took care of me, she made me get better. She would know what to do here too.
Is Srey still sick?
I can’t remember when I left home. I can’t remember how many days it has been anymore. I try to count. We left home, got here. The white man came, I fought back. The Killer. Was that all in the same day? I can’t remember anymore. I think maybe it’s been two days since I left home. Has that been enough time for the doctor to cure Srey? I picture her in my head, but she’s not lying on a mat with a fever. She is watching me, laughing as I dance around the hut. She chases me outside through the grass. She steals a bit of rice off my plate when I am not looking.
Srey loves me.
My chin starts quivering again, my eyes close against the flood of water filling their brown depths. I try to pull my knees up to my chin but moving my legs hurts. I am still very sore, in my girl parts, from where they stitched me.
The door creaks.
I sit up, my breathing catches high in my throat.
A girl I have never seen before comes in. She is very skinny. And her face is painted. Her lips are bright red, her eyes colored blue. Her hair is brushed and put up in a bun on the side of her head. She isn’t smiling.
I’m not scared of the girl.
She looks fightened and that reminds me of me.
She doesn’t speak but walks closer to me and sits on the floor in front of me. She opens the little black bag she has and pulls out a small container. She opens it and then grips my chin in her hand. Her fingers are cold but not hard. She holds my head still as she rubs the red-colored paint on my mouth. It feels strange. I stare at her mouth and wonder if I look like her now.
When she puts the red paint away, I watch her pull out blue powder. She rubs some on a brush, tells me to close my eyes.
“What is this stuff?” I ask.
“Makeup.” Her voice is thin and wispy, like mine.
“Why do I need makeup?”
“It makes you prettier.”
So the white man will want you.
I’m not stupid. I know the real reason for the makeup.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
I don’t speak for a minute. She puts the blue makeup on my eyes, then pulls out a pink colored one and starts dusting my cheeks. “I don’t want to see another white man.”
Sopheap says nothing.
“Can you get me out of here? I need to go home. My baby sister, she was sick. I need to see my baby sister.”
“You cannot leave this place. If you do, they will kill you. That,” she nods at my arm where the Killer touched me. “That is not the worst that they can do. The Master will kill you if you try to leave.”
My chin quivers again, but I don’t have any more tears.
“Can you leave?” I ask.
Sopheap sighs. She stops putting the makeup on me, looks off to the side. After a minute, she puts the makeup away, shakes her head. “No,” she says quietly. “Me and you, we’re the same. There are others of us here too.” She swallows—I see her throat muscles move—then looks down at me. “If you do exactly what they tell you to, and you don’t cause any trouble, they will let you into the room with other girls. You won’t be in the cellar by yourself. But first…. First, you have to prove to the Master that you won’t cause trouble.”
“I won’t cause trouble.”
Sopheap sighs. “I’m supposed to teach you…. Madam says the man told her you didn’t know how to do it. So I’m supposed to teach you.”
Sopheap frowns, looks away. She stands up, walks to the other end of the room. I see that she has shoes. Shoes must be a reward for being good. I wish I had shoes.
“Your job, you’re working for the man. And the man wants you to kiss him…. All of them. The nice ones and the mean ones, all of them. They want you to kiss them.”
My face squishes but I don’t speak.
“Not on their face. They want you to kiss them, down there,” she gestures toward her girl parts.
“The… you mean, the long thing?”
“I’m supposed to kiss it?”
Sopheap goes to the bag and pulls out a small, colorful blue round thing on a white paper stick.
“This is from America. It’s candy, it’s called a lollipop. Some of the men bring them.” She takes off the colorful, blue and white striped paper that covers the round thing. Underneath the paper is a bright red ball. She hands it to me. I hold the paper stick and put the small red ball in my mouth. It is very sweet. My tongue seems to come alive. I have never tasted anything as sweet as a lollipop, I didn’t even know things so sweet existed! Srey would love this, I think.. I take it out of my mouth, then pop back in for another taste.
Sopheap nods. “That’s how you eat a lollipop. It is very sweet, isn’t it? That’s how you kiss a man. Pretend it is a lollipop.”
***** ***** *****
Sopheap stays for a little while. When I listen to her, I think I can do what they want me to. She makes it sound easy. It is better than being shocked by the Killer again. And it is better than the beatings. Sopheap said that the better I am, the faster it is over. If I fight, it just makes things worse on me. I remember how I fought off the first white man. I hit him and kept jerking away from him. That’s when the man beat me. Then the Killer came. When the next man came, I didn’t fight, and it was over when he was done. Sopheap is right.
I don’t want her to leave me.
I don’t want to be alone again.
She just pats my hand and walks away.
She hasn’t been gone long when Madam, the woman, comes. She tells me to follow her, it has been long enough. She looks at my face, nods and starts walking. It is still hard to walk. I have not really healed yet from the stitching. But I follow her.
When I walk up the stairs and into the hallway where the men wait, I tell myself that this is what brave girls do. They take care of their families. They obey. They do not cry. I tell myself over and over again, the whole time I am walking, that I can do this. I think of Sopheap. She is doing the same thing I am tonight. And she isn’t crying about it.
When Madam opens the door, I expect to see a Westerner, another white man. But I don’t. Instead, he has caramel colored skin, like me. And he is short. He isn’t big at all. But I cannot get over his skin he isn’t white. For some reason, this hurts more, knowing he is from Cambodia, he is like me, and he is still doing this.
He doesn’t take off all his clothes, just his pants. “Quick, come on,” he says. He is in a hurry. Sopheap explained things. She said that most of them pay for one hour. I never knew one hour was such a long time.
He pushes me down. I still have my clothes on but his pants are gone. He wants me to kiss him. I can’t, I start to crawl away, but then I hear Sopheap’s voice in my head. I remember how sweet the candy was. I’m supposed to pretend it is a lollipop.
So I do.
He grunts, then grabs my hair, pulls me up. I cry out, because it hurts being pulled by the hair. He pushes me back onto the bed and then it’s in me. I feel the stitches rip. I thought all my tears were gone but the pain makes me cry again. I feel so little beneath him. I feel like I’m being squashed. It is hard to breathe because he is so heavy. They all are. First, fear snakes down my throat and chokes me. Then it settles like a rock in my stomach: this is when the panic goes away and I stop fighting. I know now I will not die. At least, not really.
Finally, he is done.
But he doesn’t let me up. He lays down and pulls me beside him. “Shh, little doll. Shh.” He is hugging me. I have not been hugged in days. I am so tired. And I am afraid to get up, afraid to see the blood. He is hugging me. The thought makes my shoulders shake and then a wail finally erupts from me. I squish my hand between his body and mine to cover my mouth. He doesn’t get angry, though. He stays still until I am quiet. Then he lets me go, stands up: this is when I realize I have let him hug me. I did not try to push away. I stare blankly at the dirty wall while he dresses. He puts his pants on, then walks out without looking back at me.
When he is gone, I stand up, start to put on my clothes. Madam comes in. “Hurry up, child, there are a lot of customers tonight and we need you.” She takes my hand, pulls me to the basement.
“Quick! Stitch her.”
I hear the words, and I start to shake, but I don’t cry anymore.
It is the longest night of my life.
Once, when I was little, I tried to help Eu build a shelter for the animals. A really thick piece of bamboo fell on my foot. It broke it, and it hurt terribly. At least, it did at first. But by the time Mae twisted the bones, to set them, I didn’t feel as much pain anymore. I didn’t feel anything. I cried, but mainly because I was afraid it was going to hurt something awful. Mae said our bodies are like magic: our bodies keep us from feeling too much pain. I lie on the wooden table, with my legs held down, screaming while a woman uses a needle to stitch my girl parts. I don’t know if it really hurts so badly that stars flash in front of my eyes again and again or if it’s just that I’m screaming so loudly the headache makes the stars. All I know is I am exhausted by the time it is done. It hurts more when I fight, but when a needle pokes your body, it is impossible to lie still. Your body jumps and fights all by itself. But the mind…it is too hard to think about what is happening so it doesn’t think about anything: it just screams.
After I am stitched again, Madam used a dirty rag to wash my face. Tears spoiled Sopheap’s work. I am told to walk to the waiting room. This is where the men are. There are a few men. Girls are lined up. Sopheap is one of them. I am pushed into line and stand still.
A few minutes pass.
The Master points to me and a man nods. He is not white and so a piece of my heart breaks. I wish he were white. He isn’t in a hurry, he thinks I am a lollipop. He stays a long time, then leaves. I am bloodied again. Madam washes me up, then sticks me in the line. I don’t scream anymore when they squeeze my arms. I don’t cry anymore. All I can think about is how happy I am that I will not be stitched again.
I lose count after the fifth man.
I am not sure I can stand anymore; my knees are wobbly. The sounds around me do not make sense. Everything sounds like water sloshing around my brain. I am very dizzy. I am standing, waiting to be picked, like Eu might pick a sheep. My eyes are bloodshot, there is still roaring in my head, but I don’t think about anything. I just look at whatever man stands there, then I lay on the bed, like a doll, and pretend they are lollipops. I think about being hugged. But I am not hugged anymore. It just keeps going on and on until Madam tells me to follow her. She takes me to the basement again. I step on wet garbage as we walk down the hallway. My heart sinks—not because I am going back to the basement, but because I did not earn shoes.