1. Gringita. Cloudy 5pm, Friday. City bus, Valparaíso, Chile. Medium: dirt, blood, tissues from the handbags of elderly Chilean ladies. Spanish.
They all look so concerned that I try to explain why I am crying, though they already know, of course.
“A man—he had a knife—he came out of a house and he took my phone.” I am not sure if I’m using the right word for knife, or if I’m confusing it with fork, or spoon, or one of the other words we learned in seventh grade Spanish.
“He had a knife,” I repeat. Tenedor. The word sounds right.
There is a collective sigh of pity, and the women scoot forward from their seats to pat my arm or offer me wrinkled white tissues. There must have been other people on the bus as well, but I remember it as nearly empty, only a small gaggle of aging Chilean women, all looking like variations on my grandmother, with carefully curled crops of hair and bursting leather handbags and long, carefully polished nails.
“Pobrecita,” one of them says. Someone shouts out new directions to the bus driver.
“You are alone?” asks another.
I nod, and they cluck their tongues in disapproval.
“Nunca sola, chica, nunca sola,” says the woman sitting across from me. She squeezes my wrist gently in her hand, and shakes it pleadingly.
“This is a bad neighborhood,” the woman behind me says grimly, and everyone nods in agreement.
“The gringita isn’t accustomed to places like this,” counters a stout woman a few rows back. “It isn’t her fault.”
“No,” I say, “it was very stupid. I shouldn’t have been alone. I know. I know.” Hysteria somehow makes my Spanish better, and the part of me that isn’t consumed with the chaos listens to the words roll out easily, impressed.
“Where are you from?” someone asks. “Alemán?”
“Los Estados Unidos,” I say. I get some quiet nods. Another American once told me that once people find out where you’re from, you have a 5 minute window to make a Trump joke before they decide you are entitled and/or crazy, but my brain is made of cotton and styrofoam, and it seems I have already passed the point of being seen as normal. There is a little bit of blood on my hands and arms. I know I am bleeding, but I do not know from where.
The woman across from me gestures to my lap. “He took only your phone?”
I am still cradling the remnants of my backpack against my knees. When he tried to pull my backpack off of me, the fabric ripped along the seam, each stitch popping open and its contents exploded onto the ground, the final crescendo of the struggle before he ran off. My journal, my wallet (which he must have forgot to take with him when he ran away), my sunglasses, a nectarine, headphones sit in scattered composition on my knees. I brought my backpack with me too, now just a tattered mess of green and grey fabric, because the top pocket is still intact and holds a barely-working pen and a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer and it would be too hard to carry those things in my hands.
I cannot look at my backpack for long, at the big ugly rip through its fabric without crying. I carried it all through Chile and Argentina, worn with twisted straps. Faded from the sunny Santiago sidewalks, stained red from the clay in the trunk of farmer who gave me a ride in Patagonia. Sand and dirt in every pocket. What a life it has had, I think, how sad for a bag like this to meet its end so violently. It no longer looks familiar, all ripped and covered with dirt like everything else, a product of this. I wonder when this stupid little backpack became so important to me and why. I wonder if I have gone crazy, and decide that isn’t especially important right now.
“Only my phone,” I tell her. He took my Kindle too, but it seems pretentious and embarrassing to mention it now. “I still have my wallet, and my passport is at my hostel, so…”
“That is lucky, then,” says the stout one, and I nod in amazed agreement. I cannot wrap my head around it just yet, how lucky I am.
“Never alone, chiquita,” someone repeats.
“Especially in this neighborhood…”
“This neighborhood,” someone says, “is terrible. The people are bad. You can’t trust the people here.”
They all nod earnestly at this and stare at me pityingly. Someone hands me a plastic bag to hold my sad collection of objects. As I pack them, I notice my hands are scratched in glowing red lines. I don’t know if the scratches came from his knife or his fingernails.
“I’m okay,” I say. “I was very lucky,” and hearing those words from my own mouth sets me off weeping again. “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.” I repeat it like a mantra.
I cry for the stupidest reasons. I cry because he took my phone and I will lose all the pictures from my trip. I cry because I was supposed to be Unmuggable, I was supposed to be Lucky. I cry because I won’t be able to finish the trip in triumph. I cry because my backpack is broken, and now I will have to buy another bag tomorrow. I am on a tight budget.
I cry for my stupidity. I never wanted to be the wide-eyed airhead from the United States that stumbled into a seedy neighborhood and became the Poor Gringa Victim but here I am. I cry because these women should not have to call their own neighborhood a terrible place, and they are wrong, when they say the people here are bad. I cry because whoever told me that The World Is Your Oyster clearly didn’t fucking know what they were talking about.
The world outside the bus grows darker, the shadows spreading their thin dark legs like spiders. I will never be okay again, I decide.
2. Estación. 20:00, 23/Marzo/2018. Regional Police Station of Valparaíso. Medium: cold metal chairs, olive green bullet vests. Spanish, transcribed on the Notes Section of an officer’s Samsung Galaxy.
“Where are you from?” they ask for the millionth time. In a Wilderness First Aid class I took once, they told us to keep asking the patient the same basic questions, to monitor their level of consciousness. Or maybe they are trying (successfully) to remind me of what a familiar story I am playing out, the American who got herself into trouble. Or maybe it is a different officer each time; they all look the same. Short black haircuts, green khakis and walk-talkies buzzing with incomprehensible static. Black leather boots that squeak on the floors.
The room looks like the interrogation rooms they have in police stations on TV, with the scratched wooden table the officer could pound his fist on in frustration, or the desk lamp he could shine in my eyes if I lie. The chair is metal and cold under my bare legs; I am still wearing the shorts from earlier today, and my sweater, with little pieces of grass and dirt worked into the wool. My bloody knee has been bandaged in a fat white gauze pad by a sweating round-faced doctor a few hours ago. The plastic bag full of my things has been in my hands since the bus, even when the doctor saw me, even when the police officer offered to hold it for me.
“We still need your passport number for the record,” they say. I try to tell them that I don’t have it memorized, that we don’t use our numbers for everything in the US like they do in Chile, that it was on my phone but he took my phone, if they take me back the hostel, I could show them. I want to go back to the hostel more than anything.
They frown and shift their weight back and forth, their hands on their belts. The police have none of the sympathetic horror of the grandmotherly ladies on the bus. I am not the first gringita they have found, and I will not be the last.
One officer pulls out his phone and types into his phone before handing it to me.
“Number passport,” says Google Translate.
“Lo no tengo,” I say, frustrated, more than anything, that my Spanish is somehow not good enough after two whole months here. He shrugs and moves on.
“What wear the man?” asks Google translate again.
I am surprised at how little I remember about his clothes. A baseball cap hiding black hair, a sweatshirt. Gray and black clothes. A little taller than me. The officer doesn’t write any of this down, and I can’t blame him. I am not even sure I would recognize him if I saw him on the street.
I remember his shape, his broad stance, the lumbering way he approached me. I remember the way he put his hand on my shoulder, familiar, an old friend, and the warning in his eyes, when he showed me his knife. “Silencio, silencio,” he had said, not unkindly. It would be a shame to hurt you, so do me a favor and help me out with this. The sound of his voice has seemed to lock itself inside my chest, and if I don’t pay attention, his words will echo in my head again, sending a burning cold down my core. But none of this helps the officers, and I could never translate it to Spanish anyway, so I say nothing.
The young officer who is asking me questions with Google Translate leans back in his chair and sighs in frustration. “It is always worse from the pretty ones,” he says accusingly, not bothering to plug it into his phone. He smirks at me. I don’t answer, and he tries again with a new round of half translated preguntas.
“Where are you from?” Google asks again.
“The United States.”
“Your boyfriend from the United States as well?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
He feigns a look of shock. I smile tiredly.
“If I didn’t work,” Google says smoothly, “I would ask you for a dinner.” The man shows me the phone and winks from across the scratched wooden desk. His supervisor, an older man writing down notes from the other side of the desk, howls hysterically.
I laugh half-awkwardly, my slow styrofoam brain trying to sort out a way not to hurt this man’s ego, because after all the events of the night, that is what I owe him, but I don’t even know how anymore, because I am just so tired, because all I want is to go back to the hostel and shower off the dirt and blood that the doctors tried to clean off, but is still caked between my fingernails and is in my hair. I feel the weight and pressure of a silent primal scream, bearing down on the mask of my face. I try to smile at him anyway.
When they finally do let me go, the officers give me a little white receipt that has the case number scribbled across it in pencil. I half expect them to say, “Thanks for shopping with us, come back soon.” I tear the receipt into little pieces in the cab ride home, and fold it into my jeans pocket, where it will become a conglomerated white glob in the next load of laundry.
3. Tres y Media En la Mañana. Later on, empty curb outside the hostel. Medium: pisco sour mix and cheap wine from the botilleria, cars that scream music and drive too close to the curb, fear of sleep. English.
“The crazy thing is, is that everyone gets mugged, all the time. You always hear these stories about people who get their wallets stolen or their backpacks snatched or whatever, but you never think its going to happen to you, and when it does, it’s just…” and what I mean to say is how come everyone is so angry or irritated when they get mugged, and why do they not feel like something is broken inside, like why are they not afraid that they will be fucked up forever? What I say instead is, “It’s just crazy.”
The American guy next to me pretends to listen, not very well. This is fine by me; I don’t really need anyone to listen, just to talk. It is almost a way to gage myself, to see how loose-cannonesque I sound when I say it. My mind has moved from empty styrofoam to hyperactivity, dilated, almost, like after the eye doctor when your eyeballs swell and lose all feeling, and you can’t see anything for hours.
“Shit,” says the American (there is a distinctly fantastic American way of saying shit; it might just be what we are actually the best at). And after a pause: “How long did you say you were traveling for?”
He is from the University of Utah, studying mines in the North over spring break. Mercifully not an ultra-Mormon. Mercifully leaving early tomorrow so I don’t have to go through any of the traditional motions of pretending I want to be his friend. His name is Tim, which seems disconcerting and wrong on someone his age, but probably only because it is my father’s name. Through all the cervezas and piscos, I would be surprised if he remembered anything at all about me.
“Two months,” I say again. I don’t particularly like him, but sitting here with him beats the alternative of lying in my creaky upper bunk staring aggressively into the darkness, hearing the whispered silencio, silencio underneath the snores of strangers.
“Most of it.”
“How much more do you have?”
“Only a few days, at this point.”
“Where have you been?”
I tiredly start listing off the places I have visited. Another Utahan mining student, who has the same blandly well-intentioned quality as his friend, is crying with laughter a few feet over, spewing out tipsy dick jokes to a sunburned Australian.
“You have to be careful,” Tim says, as if he has been traveling for years instead of two weeks. “This isn’t America. It’s a dangerous country, Chile.” He pronounces it like the pepper.
“I mean not really,” I say, “I was just in a bad neighborhood. There are bad neighborhoods everywhere.”
“But guys like that, like the one who took your phone. I mean stuff like that wouldn’t happen in America. In broad daylight. Right in the street, for Christ’s sake.”
I look at his earnest, broad face, the shape and complexion of a raw potato, and suddenly am afraid to find out anything more about his politics. I want to defend the mugger, to tell this guy that maybe he needed the money badly, maybe he has a dying relative somewhere who needs medicine quick, or he can’t afford to buy diapers for his little kid. Maybe he had never planned on mugging anyone but then he saw me, this rich little American strutting aimlessly through his neighborhood, and it was too easy. Maybe he was crying as he ran away, or shaking. Maybe he is awake right now, sweating in his bed, wishing he could go back in time, slip the knife back into his pocket and walk away.
Maybe it’s more complicated than you think, I want to tell the Utahan.
But I am too used up right now to consider the mugger’s humanity, his possible goodness. It is three in the morning and my knee is still bleeding, and I have no room for grey areas.
“Buenas Noches,” I say.
4. Gab. The Greater Boston Area, the following weeks. Copied and distributed to friends and acquaintances of the artist. Medium: overpriced lattes, crossed legs, mercifully loud cafes and restaurants. Performance Art.
“So basically what happened was I was being an idiot. It was almost nighttime, and I was walking home alone in this neighborhood, and it was kind of sketchy—like, I thought my hostel was a lot closer and then I ended up in this sketchy neighborhood—but I didn’t really notice. And then this guy comes out of this house or store or something and he’s walking toward me, and I’m listening to music, and he’s coming up to me like he wants to ask me a question, so I take one earbud out, and he says something that I can’t hear, but I sort of smile, and say “que?” and then I see the knife, and he is telling me very softly to be quiet, and he puts his hand on my shoulder, and that is the first time I realize what’s going on.
“And basically I freak out. And believe me, I know that I should have just given him my stuff and run, right? Like that’s what you’re supposed to do. And he knows it too. I’m just like screaming and trying to hit him and run away and he’s looking at me, like what the hell are you doing. Like I would guess this was only his first or second time ever mugging someone, because he totally doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do with me, and I can tell he doesn’t want to use his knife. He looked just as scared as I felt, actually.
“Anyway, I was screaming and trying to push him away, and he was trying to keep his grip and eventually, he kind of tugs at my backpack, while I’m holding it on the straps and the fabric rips open and all my stuff comes falling out and the force pushes me over and he grabs my phone and runs away. I don’t know why he didn’t take my wallet but he didn’t.”
**pause for audience interjection**
“Of course I was scared. I was a complete mess after he left, but I mean, it all worked out. No one got hurt, and I got to keep my wallet and my passport and everything, I was going home in a few days after anyhow It all worked out, truly.”
**pause for audience interjection**
“I know, I never thought I would be the type to fight back in that kind of situation either, but when it came about—I don’t know, I didn’t think, it was just pure instinct, fight or flight, you know? It just happened.”
**pause for audience interjection**
“Actually, I don’t really blame him. I feel like I can’t. I should never have gone into that area in the first place … it was just an unnecessary temptation, really, inserting myself, this rich American, into an area of poverty and not expecting anything to happen. Anyway. I was really lucky with the whole thing. If I did it over again, I wouldn’t fight him or anything, but it all kind of worked out. Like obviously I didn’t make out too great, but—” a pause for effect “he didn’t either. We can call it a draw.”
By the way, the best person I ever told this story to was my grandmother. Her mouth never became the lipsticked O that everyone else resorts to in their pity and shock, and instead listened the whole way through with a half smile on her face, as if watching a movie. And when I finish, when I laugh and say I guess I made out all right, didn’t I, she lets out a cackling laugh and claps her hands together in victory.
Just the same, I send a silent apology to the girl with the bloody knee who cried on a bus full of strangers, for pretending she wasn’t there. I wait for her to fade into oblivion. I wait for her heart to stop pounding every time we pass a man with a baseball hat on an empty street. I wait for the story I tell to stop being a lie. I am still waiting.