Lorena Vázquez Olivera
One is not born a woman, but becomes one.
-Simone de Beauvoir
I know I’m going to get expelled. I’ve waited outside Principal Rivera’s office for an hour and thirty-three minutes. I’m in the small settee outside her door, an old thing designed to make its occupants as uncomfortable as possible. I sit with my legs open like one of those lords in Narcos, arms crossed against my chest. Girls from all grades of St. Margaret’s pass me by, eager to get a glimpse of my last minutes at school. Elementary girls walk arm in arm, heads lowered, covering their mouths to muffle their giggles. I see one or two middle schoolers, merely peeking their heads from the far end of the corridor, afraid I will notice. I make sure to dig my eyes into them, smiling only so slightly as to scare them off. They turn and run the second they see me staring. High schoolers are a different story. They prance before me like expensive dogs in beauty pageants, long manes dancing in the wind. Occasionally, someone stops at the water fountain to fill her bottle, a malicious smirk in her mouth, cheeks caked in foundation. María Belén fills her bottle once, then pours the contents down the fountain’s drain and starts filling it again.
“You know,” she says. “It’s like, so sad you’re leaving us.”
I roll my eyes and turn away from her.
“Father Humberto spoke to us about what you did,” she continues. “My mother was like, so close to pulling me out of school. She said she doesn’t want me interacting with-
“Me vale madres, María. I really couldn’t care less what your mother said.”
María Belén leaves the water fountain and walks to me. She sneers and I see something dark flash through her pupils. Something evil. She sends her blond hair cascading down her back, then takes her phone out of her skirt’s pocket and begins writing something in it. For a second, I see myself slapping it off her perfectly manicured hands, but right then, Ms. Rivera swings the door open. Judging from how long it’s taken her to receive me, I’d assumed she had someone in her office with her. But when I glance inside I see she is alone. They keep surprising me.
“Alma?” She smiles at María Belén instead of looking at me. “You may come in, señorita.”
Ladies. That’s what they always called us. Not ‘students.’ Not ‘girls.’ Not even ‘guys.’ Ladies. Teachers and staff said the word with heavy tongues like it was a living thing, a weight they threw upon us to crawl into our every corner and dictate our every action and thought. Ladies. Ladies. Ladies. As if we were nothing more than that. Maybe that’s why Ms. Villalba killed herself. “Act like a lady,” they always told us. Perhaps she got sick of it. Suicide is one of the least ladylike actions I can think of. It draws too much attention on oneself. After she died, I saw Ms. Villalba three times. Bathroom, copy-room, window.
I was a junior when she died. We had mass that morning. The staff was always looking for excuses to drag us out of class and force us to sit through a Eucharist, so her death seemed to put them in a good mood. Of course, we were not told how she died. I knew she killed herself because I overheard Carmen’s mother speaking on the phone the night before. “They say they found her in the bathtub.” She had a divan next to the phone. The apartment was tiny, like every house in Interlomas bought with new money. It was tiny, but she needed her divan next to the phone. She could sit there for hours gossiping about other people’s lives- or deaths. “Ay Dios Mío… What will we tell the girls? Yes, I’ll ask Father Humberto after confession…” Carmen’s mother was unable to do anything without asking a priest’s opinion. I had rolled my eyes and gone to Carmen’s room after that. I leaned on her window and looked down, my breath condensing on the cold glass. From above, Mexico City at night looks like thousands of fireflies. My nanny used to say that fireflies carry the souls of the departed. It took me a while to breathe after I remembered the story.
Father Humberto was our designated school priest. He was a tall man with a very red face and a huge, forever-sweaty forehead. His breath smelled like canned soup. I knew this because he liked to hover over us and ask us strange questions every time we encountered him in the hallways. He also liked to check us out when we lined up for communion.
On the morning of Ms. Villalba’s mass, I could feel Father Humberto’s bulgy eyes scanning my body from top to bottom, his gaze burning through my clothes. The closer I got to the end of the line, the longer his eyes lingered on me. I looked down and crossed my arms around my waist. Take me in with all the misery inside me. The song resonated through the walls in everyone’s voice. The smell of incense and the sounds of prayer made me want to puke. I tried to ignore the priest and think about Ms. Villalba. I tried to say goodbye the way you’re supposed to do in requiem masses, but my thoughts kept returning to how much I wanted to run. When I got to the end of the line, Father Humberto stood before me, a crooked smile on his lips. He brought his eyes down from mine and stopped at my breasts before giving me the wafer. My chin dropped, and he simply proceeded to insert the white bread into my mouth, pushing it in with the tip of his index finger. His thumb brushed my lips for a second as he drew away. His smile grew wider. “The Body of Christ,” he said. I pictured biting his finger off like a sausage and spitting his salty blood on the floor. No. I turned abruptly and left the line, forcing my way through the aisles of people, my face burning. I scurried out of the chapel and ran to the bathrooms, my footsteps joining the echoes of the hallways like screams. I swung the bathroom’s door open.
“Hijo de puta!” I cried.
I ran to one of the stalls and kicked the plastic door, shaking. I knew he was a pervert, there was no denying that. But he was also a man of God. The representative of freaking Christ on Earth. I knew I couldn’t say anything. Even with my scholarship, school was expensive. I thought about my mother working extra shifts at the hospital to afford my tuition. A school in Las Lomas, the most expensive neighborhood in the city. It had to be good. Celebrities and politicians sent their daughters there. I had never told her about what happened; as awful as it was, St. Margaret’s was my best chance. We had never been religious, but we knew it was as good as it got in terms of education. She cursed the Church but encouraged me to pursue a diploma. My stomach contracted; I braced myself as I felt panic crawling up my throat. I ran to the sink and twisted the cold water handle.
It was then that I first saw her. As the icy water ran down my face, I lifted my eyes and saw Ms. Villalba in the mirror before me. Pale, almost ethereal, her black curls bouncing slightly around her face, as if in slow motion. She stared at me, her green eyes injected with red, lost and glassy with tears, lush lashes wet. She wore a white blouse with bare shoulders, translucent in the bathroom’s green light. I went silent, but I was not afraid. She didn’t look dead, she just looked sad. I looked down at her wrists searching for the slashes, but her arms were clasped around her waist. I returned her gaze as her lips trembled. My eyes burned, but I was no longer shaking. She released one of her hands, as if she were about to reach out to me, then left it hanging in midair. Out of instinct, I pressed my hand against the cold glass. I curled my fingers on the mirror’s surface, trying to touch her. My throat closed in an asphyxiating knot. We stared at each other. Perdóname.
“Shit, you gotta go back.”
I jolted and saw Carmen at the door. She was panting; even short runs did that to her.
“Ms. Rivera saw you leave and sent me after you. What happened?”
“I- I…” I glanced at the mirror, but she was gone.
“Dude, we gotta go. Seems like they’re bringing people to give eulogies and shit- Why are you crying?”
“Yeah, I get it. She was cool.”
Carmen knew when I didn’t want to talk. She half smiled and I followed her out of the bathroom.
“Father Perverto just fucking checked me out,” I whispered on our way back.
“Amen,” Carmen chuckled. “You should say something.”
“I heard María Belén’s mom never leaves his office. Confesses like three times a week,” she said.
“Must be desperate, he’s gross. Hey, Carmen, do you think Ms. Rivera saw what happened?”
“Nah. She was just pissed ‘cause you didn’t say ‘amen.’”
Carmen was my best friend from the first grade all the way until I left. She used to be chubby, with bushy hair and a big chin like Drew Barrymore’s. Her eyes were always kind, small in comparison to the rest of her features. She used to smile all the time; she didn’t even mind the braces. Her face is nothing like that now. Girls started making fun of her in high school. María Belén always tagged her in Instagram posts about weight-loss. Once someone memed her next to a beluga whale, asking to “find the differences.” She got plastic surgery junior year. Her chin is now thin and pointy, just like the rest of her face. Her eyes are sharp now, her curls just a memory. I wonder if she’s happier that way. When I think of Carmen, I see the chubby girl in blue uniform I met in elementary school. I see her kind eyes and her broad chin and her lively smile. I hate to think they took that from her.
Ms. Villalba taught us English. The first day of freshman year she walked into the classroom with the girls chatting as usual, their backs to her. She stood before the class without saying a word, a hand on her hip as she waited for us to shut up. Slowly, each girl began to notice. There was something in her glare that made them all walk to their desks and sit. At the beginning, the girls were afraid of her, but I liked her. I liked how she never let a student start an argument with “Jesus said.” I liked how she laughed when she left the classroom and thought nobody could see her, as if she hadn’t been serious about her scoldings. I liked how she brought me a new book every Monday, placing it casually on my desk with a conspiratorial smile. But most of all, I liked how she never called us “ladies.” The girls slowly began liking her as well. She listened to us. She let us bring our favorite songs to analyze in class. She added Netflix shows to the curriculum. She chatted and smiled and cared. I guess that’s why everyone was so surprised when she died. “She seemed so resolute,” they all said. That statement always got me wondering, because, regardless of how dearly I held her, I didn’t feel like she was resolute at all.
She made us read The Woman Destroyed. Simone de Beauvoir was a big no-no at St. Margaret’s. The girls were mad, not because she’d given us a frowned-upon book, but because she was making us read on weekends. Weekends were for the family. Weekends were for God. Weekends were for chilling at vacation houses in Valle de Bravo and fishing for rich boyfriends at Sunday mass. Weekends were for sex and alcohol masked by religious retreats and ‘reflection time.’ Weekends had no room for Simone and all of her ‘extreme feminism.’
Ms. Villalba used to sit on her desk, legs crossed and heels dangling in the air as she read out loud to us. She had a nice reading voice; she could’ve done an audiobook. Every now and then, she would stop and pop a question.
“What do you think she means by ‘broken’?” She asked us once.
Immediately, multiple hands shot straight into the air. Ms. Villalba waited a few seconds, surveying the classroom.
“Priscilla?” She said.
Priscilla was part of María Belén’s group. She was a small thing that reminded me of Xoloitzcuintli dogs, with sharp teeth and a Louis Vuitton schoolbag. She looked at María Belén before answering the question.
“Well, like, the women in the stories are like, broken because their lives are over, right?”
“What do you mean by ‘over’?” Ms. Villalba raised an eyebrow.
“Like, they don’t really have anything left?”
“These women built their lives around their husbands and children,” Ms. Villalba nodded. “Now they’ve lost them; they’re nothing.”
“I mean, I would like, die if I didn’t have a husband,” María Belén sighed.
She sat at her desk, braiding her long hair and looking bored. She reminded me of every telenovela protagonist; all syrupy voiced with a victimized demeanor.
“María Belén, I’m sure you wouldn’t die,” Ms. Villalba laughed. “You’re smart and talented. You’d be just fine.”
María Belén looked puzzled. “Father Humberto says Simone was like, an extremist,” was all she answered.
“Father Humberto’s probably never read Simone,” Carmen bursted.
Ms. Villalba shot her a warning look.
“She like, wanted women to not get married and have babies?” Priscilla’s comments always sounded like questions.
I started laughing, and, through the corner of my eye, saw Ms. Villalba fight a smile as she called for order.
“She didn’t mean that, Priscilla. You would know that if you’d read it,” she said. “She’s saying we can be anything we want. Anything as long as it’s our choice.”
“I’d die if I didn’t have a husband and kids, too. I’d have like, no purpose,” Priscilla said.
“Shit,” I sighed.
Ms. Villalba threw me an angry look. She had once lectured me about tolerance, but it was hard at times. I didn’t know how she did it. “Anything you want to be, girls,” she concluded. “Anything but destroyed women.”
A few weeks later, Simone’s book was banned from St. Margaret’s. Parents complained it was “too feminist,” for apparently it distorted the idea of womanhood.
I enter Principal Rivera’s office and sit before her mahogany desk. The place gives me anxiety. There is a massive crucifix on the main wall; one of those extremely graphic ones where you can see Jesus’s every scratch and bruise. The scarlet blood running down his face reminds me of the 70’s version of Carrie. There is a portrait of Pope Francis on her desk, where family pictures tend to go. She sits before me with faked elegance; I know she’s pre-thinking her every move.
“Picafresas?” She offers me a little jar of candy. The things look ancient. I pass with my head and cross my arms again. She shrugs. “I think we both know why you’re here,” she says.
“You know, Alma? You have so much potential in you. But you’re using it for the wrong things.” She talks like she’s trying not to wake someone.
“Now, I wanted you to talk to Father Humberto before coming here, but he tells me you refused to speak with him.”
“I’ve been praying so much for you, Alma,” she does a lame job at looking sorry. “I just don’t think we can carry on after this. Now, we’ve called your mother and she’ll be here soon.”
She makes a dramatic pause and I just stare.
“I need you to be completely honest about what happened. There is no need to hide-
“I’m not hiding anything, Ms. Rivera. It was me. It was me and I’d do it again.”
Saint Margaret was one of the first female martyrs. She lived in the Middle Ages and was the daughter of a devil-worshipper. One day she went out on the fields and was captured by a group of soldiers because their leader wanted to sleep with her. She refused to give him her virginity, so he had her beaten and skinned alive, but she stood her ground. They ended up chopping off her head, which she gladly accepted over losing her purity. During the colony, the Spaniards used her to illustrate how women should behave. She was our patron. St. Margaret’s used to be a nunnery during the Porfiriato, in the 1920s. I assume that’s where the ghosts come from. Fantasmas, my nanny used to say. It became a school after a rich family bought it. There is a massive copper statue of Saint Margaret at the center of the building’s courtyard. Once, a group of girls were expelled for taking a picture next to it, sticking their tongues out as if they were about to lick her breasts. Ever since, we had yearly lectures about Saint Margaret’s importance.
It was after one of those lectures that I saw Ms. Villalba for the second time. I was a junior, crammed with the rest of my grade in the gym, the staff’s favorite place for dramatic conferences. They had pulled us out of Math to listen to a guest lecturer. It was a middle-aged woman with no qualifications except for thirty years of marriage and a lot of money donated to the school. She stood before us with a microphone that made her voice sound static. She wore a massive crucifix around her neck, which looked like a dog tag from a distance. Her face made me think of the word “prune.”
“So, ladies,” she was saying, “when you lose your virginity to a man, you’re promising you will belong to him forever.”
They loved bringing these people to school. The ‘sinfulness’ of the world was their favorite lecture topic. Once we had a guest speaker with a PhD in theology. He stood before us for an hour yelling about how gay people were conspiring to end the world. He used “gay” as a term to encapsulate the entire queer community; learning all their different identities was probably beyond his abilities. I glared at him the whole lecture, wondering how easy it must be to forge a PhD diploma.
“Hence God asks us to preserve ourselves as a gift to our husbands…”
I lost my virginity my sophomore year. Saint Margaret wouldn’t have been proud. My head was fuzzy with alcohol. I remember stumbling to the bed. Everything gets harder from there. Ceiling lights. Bright, then dark. The smell of sweat and weed. Something made a screeching noise. He had Superman sheets. I remember thinking of that scene from Justice League when he comes back from the dead looking all hateful and weird. Then he sees Amy Adams and suddenly he’s back again. They look into each other’s eyes and, for a second, the rest of the world doesn’t matter. Then she runs to him and they fly away from the destruction he left behind. The pain is something I for sure remember. Piercing, shattering pain. I don’t remember if I said ‘no’ at some point. I think I did, but he says I didn’t. He fell asleep when he was done. I cried when I saw the blood.
“Your virginity is therefore the most important thing you have; it’s what makes you worthy of others’ love and respect…”
The next morning, I woke up with my arms and legs looking purple. I took out my phone and googled what to do next. My sex-ed classes at St. Margaret’s consisted of a ‘consecrated woman,’ as they called themselves, bawling at us about chastity, sin, and stoned adulterous females. Sure, Jesus is the answer to many things, but he’s kind of useless when it comes to putting on condoms and learning consent, to be honest.
“Feminism,” the woman continued, “is but a way to eradicate our role as women in the world…”
She could go on forever. Had she pulled out a bottle of holy water and splashed us with it, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Suddenly, Julia raised her hand. “But, what if I don’t wanna have kids? Or get married?”
I felt bad for Julia. She was new, her parents had just moved to Mexico from the U.S. and she was having a hard time learning to shut up. She got hundreds of citations and bad behavior tickets during her time at St. Margaret’s, but she was my friend. I didn’t understand her anger, but I sure had a wonderful time listening to her furious rants about the Church. They reminded me of my mother’s. Once, she sent me a picture of her bathroom wall, where she’d proudly hung her every misconduct in a collage above her toilet.
“Well, that’s up to you, but the truth is, God asks us to procreate-
“What if I wanna be an astronaut?”
A few girls laughed at the question. I don’t know what was funny about it, but they laughed. I guess sometimes they treated us as if we were stupid.
“I guess you should just have more realistic expectations,” was all the guest speaker answered.
I was still purple that morning of my sophomore year. We had a 7:30 with Ms. Villalba and I checked my phone before going in. I have no idea how María Belén found out. In fact, I don’t even know if she was ever certain, but she made it look like she was in that room with us.
It was in María Belén’s group Snapchat story; a private account they used to document their glorious high school experience. In a blurry picture from a party, him and I were kissing. I wore a black mini-skirt and a grey tank top Carmen and I bought together. I remember feeling pretty when I saw myself in the mirror that night. Pretty and almost powerful. In the picture, there was a red circle around my mini-skirt and another one around my cleavage. The caption read “when you’re begging for it.”
“Perra!” I spat.
When I entered the classroom, María Belén sat at her usual place at the center of the room. She smiled and waved at me when I crossed the door. I swallowed, but the knot in my throat would not go away. Ms. Villalba was talking about Miranda’s role in The Tempest, but I could not understand a single word of her speech. The girl behind me passed me a note. I opened it. It read “Puta!” in bubbly handwriting. I immediately raised my hand.
“May I please go to the bathroom?”
Ms. Villalba assessed me for a second. She nodded. I ran to the restrooms and locked myself in a bathroom stall, weeping. I thought about my mother if she found out. I thought about the infernal weeks to come at school. I thought about him, had he told about it? But most of all, I thought about the bedroom’s ceiling. I thought about the pain and the blood and the sweat and the ‘no.’ I knew it was my fault. The skirt. The alcohol. The cleavage. Wasn’t that what they always told us? I lifted the toilet’s lid and puked, my body convulsing from the effort. I could still feel the acid in my throat as I left my stall and washed my face multiple times, trying to make the red and blotchy go away but only making it worse. It is horrible to try muffling your cries. It makes you breathe weird and look deranged.
When I made my way back to the classroom, I bumped into Ms. Villalba in the corridors. Her eyes filled with tears when she saw me. I could tell she was on her way to get me. We said nothing, but she looked at me like I was made of glass and she could see exactly through me. I walked to her and threw myself in her arms. She didn’t look surprised, instead she held me, her grasp stronger than I could imagine. She let me cry, saying nothing. For the first time in a while, I felt like I was not alone. I breathed in her smell of lavender and cigarettes. “It’ll be okay, niña,” she said. “It’ll be alright.”
Ms. Rivera sighs dramatically and pats her hair down with both hands.
“You used to be such a quiet lady, Alma. I don’t know what happened.”
I don’t say anything.
Ms. Rivera’s neck turns an ugly shade of red.
Last night, I sat at the kitchen table and waited for my mother to come back from work. When she got home, I called her to the kitchen and told her everything. I omitted the parts where I saw Ms. Villalba, but apart from that, I numbered every single reason I’d done what I did. I was ready for her to yell at me for hours; I had even mentally prepared for a low-key beating. However, all she did was listen calmly to what I had to say. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me? And why did you do that? Out of everything you could’ve done… Estás pendeja? Are you an idiot?” Then she pressed her temples with her index and middle fingers and sighed. After a while, she looked up. “Alright, I get it. It’s gonna be fucking hell to get you into a better school. Fucking hell… but I get it.” It was almost as if she was speaking to herself. Then she stood up and went to bed.
“Alma, I think you need to reevaluate your values and-
“Ms. Rivera, can you please just expel me now?”
After the guest lecturer was done with her rant about marriage and chastity, all juniors left the gym and headed out for lunch. I met Julia in the hallways. She looked furious.
“Pendejos,” she spat. “All of them. Twenty-fucking-first century and they still act like misogynistic, small-minded fucktards.”
I laughed. Julia grabbed me by the elbow, pulling me towards her.
“Hey,” she said. “I know they’re still giving you shit.”
I thought about the DM’s with dick pics from strangers in my Instagram, courtesy of María Belén and her friends.
“Whatever. If I ignore them they’ll get tired.”
“These bitches are bored, Alma. They won’t stop unless you give them a reason. Shit’s been going on too long.”
“You know there’s nothing we can do to them. We’ll be the ones getting fucked in the end.”
María Belén had always been untouchable. Her dad was a politician, a member of the PRI, a party known for getting their enemies magically involved in lethal, tragic accidents. Her parents donated money to the school and held dinner at their house for Ms. Rivera and Father Humberto at the end of each semester. Back in elementary school, we performed a Nativity scene every Christmas Pageant. Teachers assigned ‘random’ roles to each of us. Providentially, blond-haired-blue-eyed María Belén was always Virgin Mary. She stood at the center of the stage with her hands together in holy prayer and looked at the heavens like a Francis in Ecstasy as the rest of the cast defeatedly knelt before her. She said her lines in a fake, cartoonish voice, always pausing longer than needed so we’d spend more time in adoration of her glory. Bushy-haired Carmen always was a shepherd. She would scratch her fake beard the whole time; no one cared when she said it was itchy. Brown-skinned Alma was always the donkey. I stood behind María Belén with huge donkey ears made of sponge-foam paper, and poorly-done animalistic makeup. I felt dumb and looked down the whole time. At least I didn’t have to kneel.
“I know, but trust me, I got something this time. We can give them shit. A lot of shit.”
“What do you mean?”
“I left you something in the copy-room. It’s up to you, Alma.”
Then she smiled like a demon, turned, and left. There was something in her eyes that scared me. She laughed as she walked away, her long braids bouncing in the wind, the beads in them clinking every time they found each other. Her dark figure was lost in a second, and I knew whatever she’d done, it had been bad.
Once, a few weeks after Ms. Villalba died, I walked by the counselor’s office and heard María Belén weeping inside. She had a synthetic way of crying, with little puppy gasps and a voice even higher than usual.
“You know,” she was saying. “Ms. Villalba used to say I’m smart, which is why I was so excited to do pre-med… but my parents are like, so happy I’m dating Santi because his dad owns like this company…”
“María Belén,” the counselor said. “You must remember God’s plan and trust Him.”
“But I don’t know his plan!” for the first time in my life, I heard genuine frustration in her voice.
“I think God is calling you to have a family. I’m not sure you’d be able to look after them as a doctor.”
“Yes, I know. Like, that’s what Santi says, and I know he’s right,” she didn’t sound that convinced.
“Home Sciences would be a way better path for you!” the counselor reminded me of one of those women selling detergent in TV adds.
“Yeah, that’s what Father Humberto says, too. I withdrew my pre-med applications, anyway. Like, I know I’ll be happier…”
I left with burning blood and a certainty that, if sin was real, what that woman had just done was earning her Hell.
The copy-room was empty. I was tired of everything, but curiosity made me walk to the copy machine, wondering what ‘something’ was. My heart raced as I lifted the scanner’s lid. Everything seemed normal except for a single sheet of paper inside. I held my breath and turned it over.
The laughter made it hard to breathe. It was a picture of a car. Inside, a guy sat at the driver’s seat, a skinny girl on top of him wearing only a pink bra. María Belén’s blond mane and surgically-pointy nose were impossible to miss. Below the picture, there was a word in bold red letters:
Damn Julia. I stood in the copy room, dumbfounded, the paper in my hands and my head buzzing with possibilities. I thought about the smell of freshly printed paper drowning St. Margaret’s hallways. I thought about hundreds of Instagram stories. I thought about Ms. Rivera’s face when she saw her Virgin Mary’s tits. I threw the paper back in the scanner, shut the lid, and configured the touch-screen to make 200 copies. Just to start with. I inhaled deeply and placed my finger on the ‘start’ button.
She came out of nowhere. A flash of black curls in my rear vision. I turned to her immediately, hands behind my back, shaking. She stood at the door, leaning on the frame, her gaze lost. She wore the same sleeveless blouse, but this time I could see her wrists. They were immaculate. She wasn’t looking at me; she stared at something I couldn’t see. I sought her eyes with mine. When I found them she looked up and gave me a faint smile, like she used to do when someone asked her a good question in class.
“Ms. Villalba?” I whispered, afraid my voice would break the spell.
She stayed silent.
“I- I’m sorry. I should’ve seen something” I said.
She wasn’t blinking. Her eyes were dug onto mine, her mouth shut. I noticed the same glassy expression.
“I remember. I remember everything you told me,” I said. My voice came out broken, wet with tears.
Then she raised an eyebrow. She always did that when someone said something that wasn’t quite right.
“What? Look, I- I-
My cellphone pinged in my pocket, breaking the silence. I looked down for less than a second, but when I returned to the door, she was gone.
“I miss you,” I whispered.
I stared at the ‘start’ button again, thinking of Ms. Villalba’s raised eyebrow. With a sigh, I looked at my phone. “So?” read a message from Julia. I looked at the smiling purple devil emoji after the question. “Changed my mind, better idea” I replied. Then I opened the scanner and grabbed the paper, walked to the paper shredder, and let the metal teeth consume it.
“Know where I can get spray-paint?” I texted Julia.
The last time I saw her alive she taught us a Friday class. We’ve talked about it a lot: whether or not anybody noticed what she was about to do that weekend. I can’t say I did. I could tell something was off, but I guess I’ve always underestimated people’s ability to self-destruct. There was talk about her being severely depressed after her boyfriend died in an accident, though I doubt she would ever be like that. Someone even mentioned her losing a child to SIDS a few years before. I don’t believe these are the only possible tragedies in a woman’s life. Had Ms. Villalba been a man, maybe they would’ve offered more options. At the end of the class, she called me to her desk while the girls packed their stuff, ready to wrap up the week.
“I’ve something for you,” she said.
I got closer and she opened her bag and pulled a pink book out of it. The Woman Destroyed, I read.
“This is my copy,” she said. “It has a couple notes in it; they’ll be useful.”
The copy felt old and heavy in my hands; there were hundreds of post-its peeking from almost every page.
“Thanks,” I smiled.
I turned, ready to leave. Then a thought crossed my mind. “Ms. Villalba,” I said. “If you don’t mind asking, I know they annoy you as well. The girls. And the staff. Like, sometimes.”
Ms. Villalba laughed.
“Wouldn’t you prefer teaching college or something?”
“I went here, Alma,” she sighed. “I know what it’s like.”
“Then why would you stay?” I couldn’t hide my horror.
“I- I just couldn’t leave,” she looked down at her hands. “This… what they’re doing. It’s wrong.”
“Exactly,” I started. “They’re awful people. They only care about money and looks and husbands and gossip and-
“You don’t know, Alma,” she said. She looked tired. “Their lives. Their stories. What made them like that.”
“How can their lives be hard? María Belén? Priscilla? Ms. Rivera? All they do is pretend and hurt-
“Never, Alma, can you know,” she snapped. “And acting like they’re less? It makes you just like them.”
“Kindness, Alma,” she said. “That’s what makes you different.”
I pressed Simone against my chest. Ms. Villalba’s eyes no longer saw me. For some reason, my heart stung.
“Alright… I’ll return it when I’m done,” I looked down at the book.
“You can keep it,” she said. “It’s a gift.”
“But, Ms. Villalba-
“I have more copies at home.”
“Thank you,” I said. “For everything.”
Ms. Villalba smiled a sad smile. “Anything but a destroyed woman, Alma.”
My mother enters the office with messy hair and the smell of hospital clinging to her clothes. She takes the seat next to mine. Ms. Rivera doesn’t get up to receive her.
“Sorry I’m late,” she looks anything but apologetic. “Traffic.”
“I assume Alma here has informed you about the situation,” Ms. Rivera says as a greeting.
My mother nods. “We talked about it last night.”
“I am very sorry, Mrs. Castillo, but this type of behavior cannot be tolerated at St. Margaret’s. I’ve had around fifty parent complaints in the last two days, not to talk about the pictures circulating social media. There’s even mention of legal scandal…” her voice keeps getting higher. “On top of that, your daughter seems unrepentant, unable to accept the gravity of her actions and unwilling to apologize for-
“Oh, she’s not apologizing.” My mother’s cheekbones turn a rosy shade of pink.
Ms. Rivera blinks three times. “Well, I’ve spoken with Father Humberto about this, and we need to protect our students from-
“Are you expelling her?”
“I’m afraid so, yes,” she says, her jaw clenched.
“Alright. Is that it?” My mother starts gathering her things.
“Mrs. Castillo! Don’t you know the magnitude-
“I’ll tell you what I know,” she slams her hand on the chair’s armrest, Ms. Rivera flinches. “I know that fucking pervert you call a priest checked out my then-fifteen-year-old child during communion. She kept her mouth shut to stay out of trouble, so talk about fucking protection! I can only imagine-
“Mrs. Castillo, please!” Ms. Rivera almost crosses herself.
“What he’s done to other children. I know that little bitch María Santísima -or whatever her pinche nombre is- has been bullying my daughter for two years, but of course she’s not the one getting expelled! Her parents donated a fucking library and now she can do whatever the fuck she wants to other girls!”
“María Belén is an exemplary child, she-
“I know you’re teaching these girls their entire potential starts and ends in their goddamned vaginas-
Ms. Rivera cringes at the word. “Mrs. Castillo, there’s no need to-
“And you call my daughter a sinner? See what you’ve done to these girls! So, to be honest, Principal Rivera, I’m glad you’re saving me the trouble of pulling her out of here myself.”
I laugh at Ms. Rivera’s purple face. My mother smiles politely and waits for the principal to answer. When she doesn’t, my mother shrugs and rises from her chair. I get up and follow her out of the office. I throw Ms. Rivera a last glance. “I’m sorry you’re unhappy,” I say before closing the door behind me.
“Que chingue a su madre,” my mother barks. Let her go to Hell.
“Mamá! I don’t even think it’s her fault at this point…”
She doesn’t say anything. We walk down the stairs to the main door.
I turn and see Carmen at the top of the staircase, red eyes and heavy breathing. I run to her, but she still has the bandages from her latest nose job on, so she can’t be hugged.
“Carmen, you know I’m still here. You know it, right?”
She nods. I’m so, so sorry. I grab her by the shoulders and look into her eyes. I notice they’re still kind; perhaps the sharpness was mine.
When my mother and I get to the courtyard, there’s still yellow tape around Saint Margaret’s statue. She’s no longer holding a copy of A Woman Destroyed in her copper hands; they took that down already. I don’t really mind; the picture went viral. It even made it to the news. The graffiti, however, is still there. In big, red letters, there are three sentences on the stone floor at the statue’s feet, each below the other:
The priest stared at my boobs.
I CAN be an astronaut.
We’re women destroyed here.
My mother stops before the ‘vandalism,’ as they called it in the many school emails they sent apologizing about me.
“Chingao’, Alma,” she says.
Her eyes then stop at the silver plaque. It used to read ‘Saint Margaret,’ followed by a small description of the saint. New words in neon pink now occupy the entire surface:
I smile. We walk out together. When I look back, I see the huge old building, with all its ghosts of destroyed women. In a way, I feel like Carmen and Julia and even María Belén and Ms. Rivera all died a little in there. I know for sure I did. I wait for Ms. Villalba. I wait, but she doesn’t come. I narrow my eyes, trying to find her peeking from one of the many windows. I think I see her face for a second, but I know it’s just my mind. I turn and walk away with my mother. “It’ll be okay,” I whisper. “It’ll be alright.”
Lorena Vázquez Olivera is a rising writer from Mexico City, currently attending Stanford University. She plans to major in English Literature and focus on filmmaking in the future.