They wanted us to scrape peeling paint off the ceiling. We stood on antique ladders, their tiny metal legs screaming beneath us. Our hair was tied in faded red bandanas, crispy flakes lying on our heads like snow. Tina was with me, had been with me, and would be with me until the walls were stripped clean, until the house burned with the fire we held between our legs. We kept silent; brittle coughs escaping our lungs when the air got heavy, weighing on our shoulders like bags of cement. Our arms were tired, muscles burning. Our eyes tainted with red veins from the constant fumes of smoke and paint thinner coming from the bathroom. I threw up in a bucket next to the stove around four, got hell for it too. Ramón came back and saw it. He made me stand in it, chips of broken nail polish swimming in a sea of glowing bile.
Midnight came and we had a cigarette in the kitchen. I watched Ramón and his friends play poker at the table, colored chips standing in for their souls. Rims of white bordered their nostrils, their lucid faces burning against the bitter autumn air. They knew we were hungry, threw us the crusts of their pizza like we were dogs. Funny thing was that we ate it off the floor, our hands masked, tied to the refrigerator door. Two hours later they unchained us, took us upstairs, made us strip until our bodies gleamed. I could hear the shower running down the hall, steam crowding the room, heavy like fog. I knew Tina was in there, and I knew I was next.
Ramón banged us around like we were Barbie dolls. Solid plastic without a beating heart. He picked me up by the bay when I was fourteen. I was in my bathing suit, the wet fabric stuck to me like glue. I remember lying naked and cold, stretched out on his dirty sheets. He snaked his grubby fingers up the side of my leg and traced me like a paper doll. Gave me a cigarette after, the fumes burnt my lungs, turned them to ash. They’re still ash. I wore rags, slept on rags, wiped with rags. I became a rag.
I miss my mother, the creases in her eyes when she smiled, her stubborn hair, fading, turning gray. She rarely laughed and it was something I appreciated about her. Ramón doesn’t laugh either. He purses his fat wet lips and snickers with his eyes. Last Halloween he made me dress up like a tiger. Tied black and orange cloths around my waist that scratched my skin and painted a rim of coke around my mouth. I stood topless in the living room, with the paint chips from the ceiling falling on my breasts. He made me spin around in circles, roar like an animal, so loud my stomach ached. I wanted to throw up. Outside children walked the streets, hidden behind masks and sheets, the shadows of their parents. I could hear them screaming, laughing at being scared while my body crumbled. I wanted to see my mother smile again, I wanted to be excited about wearing a costume, about being someone else for a night. I wanted to hear the words “you’re beautiful” just once before I took my clothes off.