The corpse woman’s eyes were gaping black sockets. She was propped on a wooden chair with her slack arms and fingers stretching toward the floor. Her abdomen was charred and gutted like a bomb had exploded inside of her.
My father had clipped the photograph from the front page of one of his leftist newspapers and glued it to some poster board to serve as a visual aid in the presentation I was to give to my first-grade class about the war in El Salvador. The death squads did this. Reagan paid them. My father coached me on what to say. He seemed angry with me. I guess I wasn’t enthusiastic about the project. I looked at the grainy photograph carefully. I believed what he told me, but it seemed like a long way from where I lived and what could I do about it and who would care? It was a mature way of looking at the world for a six-year-old.
Trepidation filled my guts the day he dropped me off at school with the dead woman’s picture. When life got that way, I disappeared inside myself and walked through it disembodied as if in a dream where whatever happened didn’t matter and I could awake from it unknowing and someone else. The other children were curious to me, especially the girls. I felt apart from them. Not better, just different. At recess, I watched them with my back leaned up against the brick. I was not unhappy. I took it all in, absorbed the scene. The balance beam, hopscotch pads and tether-ball courts were all animated by the frenzied movement of the children in coats of different color as they ran shrieking like sea gulls. The playground was like a painting to me, a foggy painting, and I knew there was magic in the fog. One day the teacher called my parents and told them that I stood alone at recess and never spoke to anyone. My mother told me I had to play with the other kids. Is there something wrong, she asked? Nothing, I answered defensively. I realized then, for the first time, that life was a social racket. It was not enough to do the work they gave you. You had to pretend to feel a certain way and count the number of friends you had and lie about it to get more if you did not have enough. The thought of it made me so sick and twisted up that I could barely piss.
Finally, the end of class came and it was time. The teacher–an older woman with bright red lipstick and her gray hair in curls–told me I could share what I had brought with the class. I could tell by the tone of her voice and the coldness of her stare that she did not like me. But this did not concern me much because I understood she would be dead or in a nursing home soon. What frightened me were the other kids who were going to realize what I had already realized about myself. That I was a freak. And I knew this freak-label wasn’t something I was going to wear for a day and take off like a sticker. It was something far more indelible than that, a tattoo. A tattoo I was going to have to wear on my forehead. Shamefully, I went to the coat closet and retrieved the poster board. Standing at the front of the classroom, I waited for the teacher to introduce me. My classmates chattered away at their seats as they waited for the bell to set them free.
I cleared my throat and began to speak: “This is a photograph of a pregnant woman who was murdered in her kitchen by the El Salvadoran government.”
As I continued I could see, to my inestimable relief, that hardly anyone in the class could hear me or was even bothering to look at me. What a miracle! I felt as if I had been spared at the last minute from the gallows. Soon the bell rang and I rushed outside thundering with the rest of them. My mother took me home. I brought the poster board inside and hesitantly returned it to my father who was drinking a beer as he watched television from the couch. He seemed dejected and avoided eye contact.
“You didn’t show it to them, did you?” He said it accusatorily and it angered me that I should humiliate myself like that and not even get credit for it.
“I did, Dad. I showed it to the whole class.”
A smile passed over his face. “That’s great, son. You did a good job.”
He gave me a quick hug and returned to his depression.