You sit there caressing her bony fingers, wondering when she would arise from the dead. You can’t stop looking into her glistening eyes and imagining that you are seeing straight to her soul—seeing the life she has lived being cast onto the screen of her mind. They are not pleasant, these images that meet your gaze, and you can understand why she refused to tell you about her past when you so desperately inquired three weeks ago on that first meeting.
“You can talk to me, talk to me,” you reassured her over and over again like the words that would proceed from her mouth were the oxygen you needed to live. “I am here to help you. Can’t you see? I want to save you. Please, talk to me.”
She didn’t talk, and for some reason you began to cry, bang on the desk and pull at your hair like a child throwing a tantrum, though you were twenty-five years old and six years her senior. She came around the desk and put an arm around your shoulder, saying in a small voice, “Counselor, it’s going to be all right.” You looked in her eyes then and saw with horror that it was happening all over again: this nightmare—it was unfolding within the confines of her brown irises. How was that possible?
In there, you saw yourself running away from an abusive father into the waiting arms of a lover whose only interest that silent night was to occupy the space between your legs, so that you were barely inside his apartment when his fingers, hooked like the claws of a bird of prey, began ripping your clothes apart. You told him: “No, Jona, please no. I do not come to you for this.”
He stopped, blinked like a fool that had suddenly discovered wisdom, and stepped away from you. You said, while hurriedly buttoning up your blouse and moving to the edge of the bed, that you were sorry, truly, deeply sorry, but you were born again and couldn’t sleep with him. He dismissed your apologies with a wave of one thin hand, and then he promised to give you the future that your father, whose brain was constantly afloat in a sea of alcohol, was too shallow-minded to even contemplate. Tears flowed freely down your face as he spoke: his willingness to do whatever it took to ensure that you became the medical doctor who would do nothing but save lives all the rest of her life, which was a quality your own father had decided to lack, broke your heart. You showed your gratitude by letting him kiss you, but you were too blind to see the ugly smirk that spread across his hollow face.
Three months later you were in the house of the large woman they called Madam B, somewhere on the outskirts of Milan. You told the Madam that you were here to work and take night classes towards securing a university degree. You explained how your mother had died five years before in an accident and how your father had tolled the path of self-destruction soon after that and how you needed to be sheltered until such a time when you would be able to stand on your two feet in this foreign country. You were still speaking when she said abruptly: “Yes, yes, you want to work, I know, and that is good. You would go out with the girls tonight; if you work very hard, you would be able to pay your debt in no time.”
“Debt? What debt?”
“The one you owe me for bringing you here.”
“But Jona said…”
“Fool! What did you think you were coming here for? Didn’t you see other girls like you on the highway?”
You fell on your knees then and began to cry: “I don’t want to be a prostitute, please mummy, I don’t want to live that life…”
“Sharrap!” She arose from her chair and stomped towards you with a scowl on her face that, you were certain, sent the devil flying out the window. “You think you have a choice?” she barked, saliva flying out of her mouth in thirteen different directions. “You must pay me my money, you hear? You cannot run away. If you fail to cooperate, I would destroy you!”
You knelt speechless, small in the centre of the room, as skimpy skirts and lace panties were hurled at you like a curse. Like a lamb being led to the slaughter, you followed the other six girls out that night. None acknowledged your presence. When you tried to talk to them, they glowered at you like you were an agent of the antichrist trespassing on divine territory. It was something you could never understand.
Your first customer was a burly Caucasian with skin almost as white as the snow on which he threw you down and thrust further, deeper into you with so much violence, so much hatred smeared across his reddened face you feared he was going to split you in two. What a way to lose your virginity. You cried when he left, and cried when the next one left and the one after that. Each one cared little about your tears, or your mood, or your feelings.
With every release they left some aspect of their vile personalities inside you; and with every withdrawal they took some fundamental part of you away; so that the more they worked you, the less you knew who you were. The farther away your doctor dreams drifted. The less you cared about life beyond the highways of Milan. The more hopeless, purposeless your existence became. That was when you died and the tears stopped coming.
The girl blinked and the nightmare was cut short.
“Counselor, I know a way,” she was saying, wiping the tears off your face with the back of her palm. “I know how to make it all right.”
You felt stupid that you were falling apart before your very first patient. You, who had lied, begged, threatened for employment at the Centre so that you could save the girls returning home, you were the one helpless above all. The thought made you want to throw up. You wanted, also, to pluck out your eyes and flush them down the toilet alongside your vomit so that you wouldn’t see the bloody images everywhere you look.
You took her hand from around your shoulders and pulled her this way so that she was in that small space between the desk and your chair.
“Listen, you have to let me help you,” you said softly. “I know what you’ve been through. I’ve been through the same.” The girl folded her arms across her small breasts and turned her face to the ground. “It’s been three years since I was deported and all I have to show for it is an empty life. My family and friends have rejected me. They won’t listen, let alone understand. They say I got what I deserved. They call me names. All I have are these nightmares that have vowed to drive me to an early grave.” She was still, unmoved by your words. You rushed on, your voice tethering on the edge of panic: “I am here because I want a new life, because this is the only thing I can do that would give my life some meaning. If I fail here, my life remains without purpose. I cannot allow that, you see, because I’m too young to be in the grave. I am depending on you. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Your voice was quavering. “Do you? Please?”
The girl remained silent for some time and then she looked up and said simply: “I want to go home.”
“Home didn’t work out, did it?” you say as the tears that were making her eyes glisten finally trickle down the corners of her eyes. You stop caressing her fingers and begin to wipe away her sorrows.
“Mama said I was better off dead,” she said, trying to explain.
“That’s why you poisoned yourself.”
“And would have died for nothing!”
“I’m sorry. I want to leave this hospital.”
“It’s all right, you will.”
She takes your hand and squeezes like a child afraid of the dark. “I want to live,” she says, the same way those many sick and twisted people in the old days would have kneeled at Jesus’ feet begging, “Rabbi, save me.” She squeezes harder and says again: “Counselor, I want to live.” This time her voice trembles.
You don’t want to cry, but you can’t help it. “So do I, baby,” you say, covering your face with your hands, “so do I.”
She sits up and embraces you. You think maybe you should have been her mother. Holding her close, you tell her not to worry, she’ll live. Live long enough, you hope but don’t say, to arise from the dead.