Violet in Red
My nails are painted red over a deeper shade of red; the island shapes of older nail color raised below this bright red, that matches Violet’s dress she wore the second time we spent an afternoon together, that matches my period, which I’ve had going on 12 days now, and my red heart, an overused emoji that attempted to rejoin Valentine’s Day this year for the first time since Brandon drew me a bassoon romantically serenading an anthropormorphic cello in ’94 — I didn’t believe that one could like both Rebekah and me in the span of one month — formative years indeed. The man poking out of his apartment to water the matas out front scratches his belly under a red t-shirt. The two chairs I’m sitting on, legs spread across the second, are faded red with paint speckles on them from someone’s attempt at painting the house when a new year rolled around. Everything feels red, though on the way to Montes de Maria where red spilled in excess hace 10 años it is only ever green, and dust, and crystal light, sun beams focused and sharp, shooting down like hot icicles in their persistence and aim. On those dusty ‘sidewalks’ I wait for the girls in school uniforms to pass so I can sneak their photo — they are forever lovely, young girl friends you know have a world of secrets between them, that came after the fighting, that came in the wake of their parents’ and grandparents’ somber movements, that walk slowly like they were trying out new legs and new attitudes, that have no idea how beautiful they are before they care how beautiful they are.
Violet lives in a store front but sells nothing. I take Bosque buseta or Olaya down my favorite street of any barrio ’til I reach the Olympica supermarket and then make a left heading into Villa Estrella. As soon as you hop off the moto taxistas honk and court and wave you over and I just make the two-fingered legs-of-a-doll-walking-on-a-street move to let ’em know oh hoh, this largess in short shorts is walking here; I gots friends around these parts and that is where I am headed, hoh-HOH! with my fake-ass mochila filled with water and bread and fruit I don’t know if Violet can eat but who turns anything like maracuya down?! Not I. Where the fuck is the maracuya?! is something I never said in Brooklyn.
Violet uses a wood slat as a door and sort of folds it up underneath a sheet of metal and uses a big candao to shut it all in. Even so, she has been robbed. Robbed of everything though she has close to ‘nothing,’ and yet here, Violet still has more than someone else, has something that somebody else needs more than she does. Her apartment is a front space, with a glass display shelf ‘displaying’ sheets of paper, an old toothbrush, an old doll, a faded photo of someone who is not that close to her. When I arrived I offered her some of the water I had been carrying around; she got two metal cups, and placed the plastic chairs across from each other so we could sit and chat. In the back she had a camping stove and an arrangement of personal belongings surrounding the bed, gathered under the glow of a dim yellow bulb. We did not dwell in that back room, nothing to do there but sleep.
While we talked the sun streamed in through the 3-foot opening over the counter top where you would order candies, water, or two-liter sodas were Violet to be running a store. The atardecer did its thing from across the street and I cringed at what was lost in images while we talked. I struggled, as ever, to concentrate on what she was telling me in Spanish. While I took jumbled notes in Spanglish I thought about what I would ask her next while incessant and indescent thoughts crept into my mind about Baby Boy and his hairy ass and mouth wide open inhaling my entire breast and they distracted me from asking (which armed men?) (how did he die?) (were you raped, too?) and I grumbled to myself at all the never taken images I was amassing in that very moment while I tried to get the facts straight and kick Baby Boy out of my mind and bed and be there in the present, for Violet, since no one was there for her in the past.
Focus, you. Focus.
I arrive in early December, around pay day. It is a month before she asks me for money, greatly pained, and I have to turn her down, greatly pained, as I am busy waiting out the days for January 1st, not traveling, house sitting a mansion filled with things paid and collected and inherited and organized and shiny but waiting for my pay day nonetheless. Incomparable as always, but I was strapped. There, I am supposed to feed and change the water and shitty newspaper of a bored rabbit, eating everything in its sight hacia la pintura de los paredes. Poor beast. So bored, so white, such neon light in that bathroom, such a small brain. The machine needs grass but they gave it marble. I gave it used lettuce cores from salads I was making and when I was cleaning my room next door I would let it sniff around the room, staring blankly ahead before hopping on to the next patch of space in which to do nothing, again. Baby Boy, the rabbit, and I spent Christmas and New Years Day together. Whether or not there were cameras we don’t know but we didn’t rob the place we just used the mattress and one tall, woodstained chair. On the sofa he would recline into me like a softer chair and I would kiss the back of his neck thinking that we had already done the thing so I could get away with what I wanted to do here but this made him double up and come back for more, furiously. I wished it was our space, I wished us a space. But we slept together and he would go home to mom, who would feed him, and I would grab plantain chips out of the bag and make a white bread mayo and shitty ham sandwich and think about ERB and that she was right, food was the constant faithful companion, somehow, somehow still. I don’t feel comfortable here, he said of the place. Me neither, I replied. The space was too big for our blood, decorated with souveneirs from all the places the couple had worked and lived over the years, doing good work for the U.N. and other similar entities. I thought about the boy who was growing up there — he might as well have been living in a hotel room somewhere in Milan for how much he interacted with the rest of Cartagena.
The idea of housesitting was exciting at first. Then, having this coffee with a view of the water changed into a collagey image of couples jogging down below on the man made path in matching Nike gear, skuttling past the women who boat over from Tierra Bomba every morning at 5 am to cook the same egg-filled arepas for the same hungry doormen, tourists, and hungover teens. Women apply SPF and wear gauzy bikini covers while the men haul nets onto the beach from way out in the ocean. Women in tennis shoes with big hats get in their morning exercise. Families from the interior splash around in the water then buy shrimp and fish maybe a whole coconut and later, their girls will get braids and possibily massages by the women who carry little buckets of lotion around in long-sleeved shirts giving sample massages to every woman who doesn’t yet know that samples cost, too. Every now and again a bodacious set of tits asks her older boyfriend to take a picture of her posed by the water. You look great, baby. Skin color is directly proportional to the type of relationship one has with the sea, here. These Costeños, who were brought over on boats, now work the boats, work the sea, practially live on the waves, but don’t really get to ride them, or ‘enjoy’ the idea of the Caribbean any more than not having a roof means you can sun tan more.
Where are you living now? asked the women in El Refugio La Carolina, the pop-up viviendas across the street from Villa Estrella, where Violet lives. I’m watching a friend’s house! I say enthusiastically. But in truth Marta was still cleaning up after me and the rabbit both. Whatever I spilled on the counters, though I tried not to spill, I attempted to wipe up so that Marta wouldn’t think I was spoiled or suspect that I was hosting frequent two-person parties. One afternoon, after sex but before he had to go home, the Baby Boy handed me an empty glass from which he had finished drinking his drink. We were equidistant from the sink. Oh yeah, this isn’t going to work, I thought, put your goddamn sippy cup in the sink, baby. But in the spirit of nachkussen, I happily took the cup, playing into some antiquated role I believe people still play when it comes to gender, just to see what it felt like, as a spent woman, hyper aware of the age and culture between us in serving this young man. It was just a cup, I know, but these acts that young men pawn off as normal as scratching an itch are easy to see 40 years on down the line, and say everything about just what kind of ‘breast man’ one is. I took my silent notes and kissed him goodbye. Mom was waiting for him at home with dinner and everything else he still needed.
I’m a tasmanian devil, I told Marta. I’m so sorry. It’s like — what do you call those things of disaster — that spin? and leave everything ruined in its tracks? That’s me. Yo soy asi.
So where are you staying these days? The women always asked me twice. Again, I’m watching a friend’s house. In truth it was a mansion with an upstairs and a downstairs, a radio in the showers shaped like ascension tubes to space with detachable foot-spa-water-massages, a deck, a vista, a beach front. I tried to enjoy it and I could not. But when I rushed home from visiting the women I ended up cooking elaborate salads just to cut vegetables and engage in the act of cooking, of being domestic, of finding nourishment when the work hadn’t been, in engaging with a notion of womanhood I had not known before. I bought ’em all just to slice, to press my lower stomach against a marble counter and to do the act of life, of late afternoons, of pretending like I wasn’t lost in this country or this work and like this is where I needed to be — chopping veggies like every other woman who needs to provide for self or family.
She’s an American lady I know, I said, she lives in Castillo Grande. I’m feeding their rabbit, what a kooky character that sad beast is! In the hopes that maybe they’d forget about the zipcode if I mentioned the rabbit and its pellets of shit I was cleaning up. It is only obvious in this exchange that it is likely a non-native will live ‘better’ than someone from here — it is a pay to play situation. Shit is more accessible and easier for ‘a guest’ and money buys views and bathrooms with sturdy toilets, etc. These women are guests too, but the unwelcome kind, the kind that conservatives consider vermin, the kind that idiots consider job suckers or competition. For these women, Cartagena has no ‘nice’ views and life feels rented, this is not their life for theirs was taken from them. Around here it is never quiet in the morning, when kittens are born they are thrown out with the trash, and joggers never make it past what they read about in The New York Times travel section.
After our visit, after I see Violet’s abode, after I hear about her daughter being raped and then moving to Cali, after watching and wondering about Violet’s hair and if she brushes it out or if it is always kept in a low, fuzzy bun — what does she look like out of the shower? Where are her towels? Can she ever recline? — we make a trip back to La Olympica where we buy her groceries. This was an error and a gift.
While we talk I watch Violet’s eyes scan slightly absently around the room. She says hi to a friend named Ana who passes by the open window. We discuss her Mother and her husband who was a violent man and that is as far as that conversation goes. I do not know what happened to him just that he is dead. Love is never mentioned. Violet shows me the cloth she is sewing together to make window wipers to sell; a project she is doing with an acquaintance from the area. Piles of cloth and one small cat are the softest things in the dusty store front, next to the hair on Violet’s calves and her low-slung bun. The next time I returned I didn’t see the cat but I met the son. In others’ presence Violet’s nature and their dynamic comes out more clearly. She is the eternal wanderer, always lost, always in the lurch. An awkward mother on the verge of tears, sort of absent because she has to be because there was nowhere to turn but out after everything went down. Processing the past remains a privilege, though numerous organizations and NGOs are making this kind of social work possible around town, far from where Violet has been living all these years. She is tired of asking people to pay attention to her; she is powerless. In a group, I encourage her, she would have a better chance of being heard — collectively — but she is La Flaca, shy, who suddenly talks loudly to parrots for too long in a crowded room and whose mode of talking and rehashing of stories puts her in-laws on edge. The room stays silent and in their own thoughts while in my presence; Violet’s voice is finally heard.
Before sunset and before I have to get on the bus we both get baskets at La Olympica and fill it with necessary items. I tell her to pick what she wants while I fill mine with tuna and other heavy bullshit I shouldn’t have bought from a supermarket tan lejos. She can eat the rice and platanos and tamarindo and graham crackers and eggs for a few days I think. Shit, where the fuck is her family? Ah, her son already has a baby. Does she have a pot, to cook in? Where the fuck is her government check? Big promises from a big government for a big country — too many numbers too many people, though the people are the numbers, waiting on a big fucking line with no air-conditioning and sometimes this same system fails at 3 o’clock in the afternoon in the small office in El Carmen de Bolivar, where 94% of the population is displaced, and one of the two women in official vests gets up from her desk and says to the room of 100+ campesinos fanning themselves with folded documents and babies nursing sideways on mothers very young and very old We’re sorry all, but the system has failed. Please come back tomorrow, you won’t lose your place in line. Some have gathered up the money for transportation from donations from family and friends from their corregimiento to get to the Oficina de Victimas in El Carmen and now must come back again tomorrow or cuando sea, when they get the funds together, and somehow they manage to do it.
Somehow they manage to do it is the coda when I am told what has happened in Los Montes, in Sucre, in Macayepo, in El Carmen, in San Onofre, and my reaction when they tell me who came here and how and after what and how they raised 8 kids alone or together and all the stories I am told are smashed together with a general somehow they managed to survive wrapped around the history and it blankets them or is their tag line or the general theme — the theme is land, the theme is somehow, the theme is chaos, the theme is when shoved, the theme is somehow…
I left that empresa after working for them for fifty years but I had not been amassing retirement benefits that whole time; somehow we manage.
My husband left me for my sister but she was always troublesome. I have my little business of making empanadas in the morning and somehow I manage.
My husband was the only survivor of the massacre. In 2008 he committed suicide. I remarried but am no longer with that man either because he is a brute, a drunk, violent. My youngest son is like him, brute with women, a sharp and disrespectful tongue. I sell perfume and somehow we manage.
In November, on a stretch of beach in Marbella, I stared at the choppy waves and teens cavorting in shorts and tight, see-through tanks with their lanky boyfriends and inhaled the wind swirling around the sandy air and the girls losing their footing under waves to be caught in their boyfriends arms a lá damsel in dis guy, wondering if this is what the beaches in Japan were like, feeling that the way a nation is and how its people are and how the lines form at the supermarket and how the taxis pull up at the corners is all determined from the top down, from the inside out. Your baby feels your anxiety and your people respond to your corruption. This place has been defined by que sera será, si dios quiere, solo dios sabe, because no one’s word is as good as that of a possible god, of a spirit thatcould be as concrete as rules, but is instead hot and cold and white or black or life or death like everything extending from the sea to the mountaintops of this country. Anything is possible can go both ways.Si dios quiere is another way of saying the system does what it wants.
Violet does not like to take up much space. She has a trembling embrace that I eat up and give back harder, longer, and more pronounced. After she called me fat three times in the new year I gave her an even bigger hug — here mama, feel all of that. Squeeze that, love that, call me that again, get in there, up close and personal. Flesh is love, flesh is here, and here, alive, is good. She says she doesn’t eat when she’s stressed; this means she’s been sad for a decade.
I figured the trip to La Olympica supermarket for groceries was an early Christmas present that goes against anything resembling journalism so I guess this is not that. She thought it meant I came replete with cash money (proyecto meaning fully funded endeavor with gifts doled out at the end, not an academic research project on a stipend) and when I got excited about going to Cali with her to meet her daughter and see my Aunts I was underestimating how much tickets would be and that I couldn’t go, either. It was an almost promise that brought me down a notch in her book because I was like ‘every other’ person here who talks but does not cumple — including the government, the impenetrable but inaccessible government, especially for those without much means. Today we stood outside of the head architect’s office next door to Villa Estrella, asking for his whereabouts and what was he going to do with the 20 vacant casitas in Villa Daranguez, where Violet had salio favorecida to receive housing but it never came through month after month after year because the other women in charge had stacked the deck with names of familiars and the boyfriends or children of familiars and she had been left out in the cold, again. At night she unrolls the colchón Ana has given her and sleeps on the floor next to her son and his girlfriend and their 9-month old baby.
The day I introduced Violet to the ladies of El Refugio La Carolina was like any other time my world has collided except in this case, in another language, it was somehow easier to see they would not get along; the only thing they had in common was perhaps their nationality and that they were now living in the outskirts of Cartagena. I had thought, simply, Violet is alone in Villa Estrella, in a store front, seeking resources and project money and at times traveling to El Centro on her own for a taller or to touch base with government heads and organizational arms but never once a social worker and when she comes home at night she opens up the store front and sits there, I imagine, reading pamphlets or praying, cooking or lying in bed. What does she do? Her son does not cook for her, she has no friends, and she might only read the bible. There is no phone to talk on, no tv to watch, no food to cook. There is no phone on which to text, there are no friendly neighbors. There is no patio to sit on, no sisters to embrace, no mother to expect the best of her. It seems as though there is nothing. What do we make of nothing, how do we turn it around with not one tool. Ironing day in and day out — if or when called — that’s the fucking edge. The only answer to a life on the edge is si dios quiere, because what I want does not matter.
Omayra welcomed Violet while making her necklaces and earrings out back where she sits most afternoons. She had emerged as confident, collected, and direct — she became my contact there since she always answered and gave it to me straight. Within 10 minutes of introducing her to Violet I could tell they had little in common — this was my assumption and prejudiced, totalizing read: since they are both in the situation of displacement, they must have enough in common to endear one to the other. Of course I knew they were different but thought that an alliance would almost naturally be in place, having been told many of the same things, having seen similar scenes, having experienced a similar beaureaucracy. I thought they might get along but in fact these two women in the situation of displacement had nothing in common — that was my outsider assumption, one that shows I was still seeing these women, my friends, as part of a project. And they are not. They exist and have survived their own history and that of their country, they go on without my photos that some international organization has deemed me fit to take. What I thought, however, is not what my heart knew during the preliminary photo taking of the previous months — it’s hard to take photos of friends and show them as victims. They are making me lunch, they are sitting and chatting, they are changing their grandson’s diapers, they are napping, they are on a bus. The fabric of the situation has brought them here — and I am glad I am not shooting anything else ‘more interesting.’
When Violet left, Omayra’s read of the situation was of a woman who asked for hand-outs. Violet’s read was that she was being perceived as such and took off down the road when Omayra did not empathize strongly in any way with her case. Omayra received a vivienda early on after arriving in Cartagena. She lives with a son and a partner and has an extra room in the back, which she seems to use for items that need to be ironed or bikes that need to be put back together, generally for linens, and other things. Because Omayra decided one day to get out of her chair and entertain me with a portrait by a huge tree in the field next to their viviendas, the rest followed suit.
Photo of Omayra walking towards the tree with the salmon colored trapo wrapped around her like a cape. Photo of her sitting on the furthest tree, next to the condos they are building nearby.
Photo of the notion of solidarity slipping out of Violet’s reach.
Photo of me watching Omayra bead her necklaces while listening quietly to Violet’s stories, unfazed.
When I described Violet later to friends I said that she carried a look in her eyes akin to that of an abused being. Her eyes darted. They were bloodshot. I mean this respectfully, Violet, I said, but you look fucking exhausted. This has got to stop, it has to change this year, Violet. Who was I to talk sternly to her? Did I think she wasn’t doing everything she could? What of the immovable government? Who was left to call, besides God? The crumbs of empanada are left in the corners of her mouth and on her upper cheek from when her hands wiped the flyaways from her face. She is looking out over my right shoulder into the blindingly white daylight, past me or through me in conversation, everything is on motor drive — to be present here would be to commit oneself to day in and day out disappointment. She lives between an unresolved and unfair past and a difficult and solo future. I wanted to say she wanders through these afternoons as if in a partial dream state but that would be to imply there was an air of the wonderful in her days, and there is not.
She can’t catch a fucking break. La Flaca, they say, sigue flaca.
I used to see Violet at talleres in various city centers, at the Cooperación Española, where women and organizations from Bogota would come and speak over name tags and into microphones asking for input from each of the women who had come to share their experiences and hear about progress or just hear the words Ley 1448, Restitución de Tierras, etc., being spoken again. I would see Yuris there, and I met Marina from La infamous Liga at one of those talleres. At 10 sharp everyone breaks and coffee, juice, and snacks are served by at least 3 attentive waiters wearing respectable white head to toe. Break is about an hour, we mingle, I register faces, I enjoy the sugar. We gather up again to listen to what this particular organization has in mind to do with/for the women in the situation of forced displacement and when prompted women share their stories, for the 10th or 20th or 100th time, I imagine. Workshop after workshop — one could say that the women are at this point well-versed in team building activities and some very familiar with the process of registering as victims and seeking further resources. Art therapy and obras are a given. At FUNSAREP, where I met Gabelis, I had also seen Violet wandering around. She was always tall and thin, a reed dressed in colorful handmade sheaths indicative of coming from a proper family who knew how to dress, sew, and present oneself; formal female-wear of her mother’s generation.
At the Cooperación Española she had arrived late and snuck in quietly, landing to our left. I was there with Yuris and was concentrating on entertaining her 6 year old daughter Mar Yuris, who seemed to be bored with the black ball point pen she had for drawing bobbleheads in Mom’s notebook. I gave her my blue pen to see if that would make her feel better. She didn’t speak to me in all of 2014, but once in 2015 she did. Mostly she listens and smiles and lets me kiss her forehead when I say goodbye.
A month later I spoke to Violet at FUNSAREP and we made plans to meet.
Photo of Violet digging around for a religious pamphlet she wants to give me in her glasses; two lenses one handle. She peers over the frames while I stare at her sinewy arms.
Photo of Violet’s body language, photo of her shifty, bloodshot eyes, before I asked her to cover them, in direct sunlight in a red dress on a red chair in front of a tree, painted red.