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Jim Goldberg
Open See/ Volume 4

Like Uprooted Trees

1. Beauty

I remember the first night well. I was by myself on a dark road.
It was very cold and the rain was pouring down. I was so afraid.
I cried and I prayed under my breath. No cars stopped.
Time was standing still.
But, no, it wasn’t some horrible nightmare that I’d be free from when I woke up:
it was the start of my new life,
of my sad induction into the oldest profession in the world.

I was born in Benin City, in southern Nigeria.
When I was little, I was so pretty that they called me “Beauty.”
My hardships began on the day my father left us to live with his third wife.
My mother couldn’t support five kids by herself,
not on what she earned as a seamstress, and I was the first born daughter;
I had to dream up some way to help my family.
My cousin in Europe gave me some advice when I was sixteen,
and I decided to follow it. I still remember her cursed words:
“Beauty, you’re a gorgeous girl.
With your body, you could earn piles of money in no time.
A girl like you can’t live poor!”
You don’t need to be super intelligent to understand what she meant:
she was inviting me to become a prostitute.
I accepted the invitation, telling myself
that selling my body was an awful way to make a living,
sure, but in the end lots of other jobs involve selling something,
and many of them are no better.
My priority was to save my little siblings from their misery.
Nothing else was important.

My cousin’s husband, Victor,
organized the whole thing and paid for the trip.
He told me everything would be all right
and not to worry there’d be all the time in the world
to pay back the money. The day before my departure,
he took me to the witchdoctor, who performed a voodoo ritual.
I walked on my knees for half an hour,
and then killed a hen with my bare hands,
gutting it with a knife. I had to eat its heart raw,
but I couldn’t do it and vomited a lot.
Then I swore I’d obey my cousin.
I had no idea that she would soon become my madame and my exploiter.
If I didn’t obey the punishment would be awful:
my mother would be burned alive and a handicap would befall my brother,
one that he would have his whole life.
I believe wholeheartedly in voodoo and so I never rebelled
or went to tell the police the whole story.

The journey to Italy lasted forty days:
there were four girls and our escort, our warden, Victor.
First we went to Dakar, then to Casablanca.
Once there, we took a plane to Athens.
We waited two weeks in Greece for a van that took us to Valona,
in southern Albania.

To get us to the coast of Italy, they put us in a rubber dinghy.
We risked drowning because the kid who was driving
wasn’t experienced enough. We finally arrived in Italy
in one piece on May 5th 2002.
There are some dates that you cannot forget.

We took a train to Milan. And there she was, this cousin of mine!
That very day she told me I owed her forty thousand Euros.
An out and out trap! A noose around my neck.
The next day she taught me a few words of Italian,
those I needed for my new trade: twenty Euros with a rubber,
forty without, fifty for ass, ten for a blowjob.

I could never have imagined myself having sex in a car.
I thought Italians were rich,
that they could afford a room in a little hotel.
I thought I’d be whoring in a nightclub or a discotheque,
some place warm and safe, surrounded by rich, elegant,
refined and good looking men who would give me precious gifts.
Instead, I ended up out on a godforsaken street.
My clients are always the same: fathers of poor families,
young men out of work, immigrant crooks,
and perverts of every kind. Bad people, desperate people.
That’s all.

Anyway, you can get used to anything after a while.
But the fear doesn’t go away. I’m terrified of getting sick.
I mean really sick, like my two friends Rose and Katy, who both died of AIDS.
Luckily, I’m still healthy because I work with rubbers most of the time.
But there are times when I do it without,
especially on nights when nothing seems to go right
and there aren’t enough cars. I mean, clients.
When things are like that, I take whatever I can get.
I can’t go home with my pockets empty, that’s for sure.
I’ve only gotten pregnant once. I didn’t have many options:
I turned to a Chinese guy in Rome to get an illegal abortion,
which cost me five thousand Euros. It was a real disaster.

After seven years of this fucking life,
the only thing left of my beauty is the name.
I’m a wreck, in all possible ways, a complete wreck.
Beauty is a flower that needs constant care.
But I don’t have time to think about how I look,
not like other women. I have other things to think about.
I’m like the woman in that song by Loredana Berte:
I am no signora/But a woman for whom the battle is never over/
I am no signora/But one whom life has scarred forever/
Oh no, Oh no/I am no signora

My only consolation is that my brothers are all studying
and not starving to death. Maybe one day they’ll be doctors,
lawyers, or architects. In the end, I sacrificed myself for them,
to make sure they have a better life.
And I’m proud of it I don’t care if people despise me because I’m a whore.

I hope I can quit this shitty job soon.
Fortunately, I paid off my debt
and so I’m free of my damned cousin.
I’d like to save a little bit of money
and go back home to live with my family in Benin City.
Homesickness is a terrible affliction.
I’ve never forgotten my dream: to open a little dressmaker’s
with my mother, to get married and have some children.

We have a saying where I’m from: “Even the tastiest fish has bones.”
The Europe I’ve seen with my own eyes is all bones!
She’s an evil stepmother like those you read about in children’s fables.
No, she’s like this damned job: it sure doesn’t give you much,
and in exchange it takes away your health,
your dignity, beauty, youth, innocence, and above all your dreams.

Jim Goldberg
Open See/ Volume 4