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My Mother’s Daughter by Alex Poppe

My Mother’s Daughter by Alex Poppe

Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013

Help Wanted

In the truck we were mostly virgins. We had long slender torsos and still longer legs and manicured nails. Some of us were on the cusp of adulthood, having just graduated high school, and some of us still needed looking after. Some of us came from the Great City of Schevchenko but grew up looking westward, longing for Levis. Many more of us came from the heartland and didn’t look past that year’s harvest, which had stopped growing. Some of us came from the coastline, having birthday shasliks along the Black Sea. Some of us came from the mountains that separated sister satellite states during the Cold War. We had watched our fathers and uncles and brothers cross and crisscross those mountains and fade into the horizon. Now it was time for us to be on our way.

In the truck, the first thing we did—before we shared our names or silently judged who was wearing too much makeup or decided which one was the prettiest—was compare our upcoming jobs. Some of us were to be au pairs living in mansions and some of us were to be waitresses in five-star restaurants. My aunt’s husband arranged it. He has a color TV and his own stereo system! More of us were to be maids in fancy resorts. Some of us clutched dog-eared pamphlets showing smiling young women in smart maids’ uniforms, smiling young women serving platters of food we couldn’t have consumed in a week, smiling young women pushing prams in parks. You won’t even think of it as work. These were jobs our mothers and sisters and aunts had back at home, but no one smiled with all her teeth when she did them.  Others held business cards with addresses and names printed in fancy lettering. We imagined our modern new apartments with color TVs and built-in shower stall bathrooms and ice cube-making refrigerators. We saw ourselves drinking Coca Cola whenever we wanted it.

In the truck we wondered about our futures. Would the jobs be hard? Would we make friends? Would we fall in love and stay together forever?

In the truck, some of us thought fondly of our mother’s cheeks, which we had kissed goodbye before embarking on our big adventure. I promise to write just as soon as I can. Some of us felt guilty about sneaking off in the middle of the night, leaving only a hastily written note of explanation. I had to. She wouldn’t have let me go otherwise. Some of us looked back through tears of second thoughts and some of us looked forward to promises of better times. One of us held hands with a lifelong best friend we had convinced to come with us instead of taking a job making Xerox copies after high school. This is the best decision you have ever made! We dreamt of being on our own for the first time. We dreamt of McDonald’s French fries for dinner and Snickers bars for breakfast. We dreamt of buying clothes in shops with dressing rooms instead buying them from babushkas standing behind tables outside the metro station. We dreamt of selection. We dreamt of real Nike tennis shoes. We dreamt of flats not owned by the government but by ourselves and our husbands, who would worship us. We dreamt of daughters whose favorite bedtime story would be “When Mama First Left Home.”

What Was Taken

We each took one suitcase. Some of us packed swimsuits that would have made our grandmothers blush. Some of us packed rosaries that used to be hidden under heavy sweaters in the top right bureau drawer. Some of us packed single tins of homemade honey cookies and ate them when we thought no one was looking. All of us packed high heels, and one petite girl packed pale peach toe shoes too. In our bags were hair ribbons and nail polish and colored pencils. Some of us brought sketch books and some of us brought diaries. No one brought an English phrase book. Everyone took exactly one good dress. I wore this to my sister’s wedding. Everyone packed makeup. Everyone packed dime-store rhinestone jewelry. Everyone packed synthetic polyester undergarments. Not all of us yet needed bras. One of us forgot her toothbrush but remembered her stuffed teddy bear with the missing left ear. All of us took for granted the driver holding our identity papers.

As night fell, we took turns guessing why the drivers changed along the roads and which direction we were headed. Some of us insisted all was well. Some of us voiced doubts. All of us wanted to use a bathroom. None of us were brave enough to ask. We took turns guessing how much further. We took turns singing our village songs. When the driver shouted at us to be quiet, we took turns staring at each other in silence. Some of us twirled our hair around our fingers. Some of us patted another’s arm. One of us folded her hands and prayed silently. All of us took shallow breaths. When the truck rolled to a stop, we took turns thanking God and cursing the driver. At that point we had no idea where we had been taken to. At that point, we had no idea that we had been taken, too.

Out of the truck, some of us wished we had taken warmer clothes. Out of the truck, some of us stretched our legs and pretended not to notice a large roll of bills being handed to the driver by a man no one had seen before. Out of the truck, some of us wondered why we and our suitcases were being left in the middle of nowhere. Out of the truck, all of us suddenly wanted the cursed driver not to drive away. Out of the truck, all of us drew into a tight huddle surrounded by more men we had never seen before. Out of the truck, some of us noticed their guns tucked into waistbands. Out of the truck, no one moved when they ordered us to strip. Out of the truck, all of us saw them remove their guns from their waistbands. Out of the truck, one of us removed her dress. Then another one removed her shirt. Then a man tore off another’s skirt. Another man pulled a girl by her hair and ripped down her trousers. Another man slapped a statue-still, red haired girl hard across her face, making a red welt. He slapped her again and again and still she did not move. He put his gun to her temple. She did not move. Then he pulled the trigger. Some of us wiped splattered blood from our shoulders and cheeks. Some of us tasted acrid iron in our mouths. Some of us silently shed tears. The rest of us shed our remaining clothes.

Breaking Ground

They bought us and then they broke us. They broke us nonchalantly. They broke us cruelly. They broke us robotically but thoroughly, while making jokes. They laughed at us who were virgins when they broke through. I’m her first. They broke us hesitantly. Aw, he’s shy. It must be his first! They broke us quickly. They broke us slowly to build up fear. They broke us singularly. They broke us in groups. They took turns. If they liked us, they broke us again. And again. And again. My girlfriend. They broke us face-down in a dirt courtyard with moist mud in our mouths. The broke us face-up, blinded by the sun in our eyes. They broke us where the other girls could see. They broke us from behind so we couldn’t see. They broke us against a chain link fence that broke our freedom. They broke our nails so we couldn’t scratch. They broke our skin with their cigarettes. A fourteen year old girl, they broke her neck. Let this be a lesson if you try to run. They broke us pulled half-asleep from makeshift beds. They had contests to see who could break more. They broke us till we bled. They broke us so we could never be put back together again. They broke us held down on crumb-strewn table tops with bottles. They broke us bent over wooden benches with bottles. They broke us on hands and bended knees with fists and bottles. They broke us by the heel of their combat boots, blue UN baseball caps firmly planted on their heads. They broke us until there was nothing that could be said. I hope my mother believes me dead. They broke us to the sound of birds singing. They broke us as a mid-morning coffee break when there was no coffee. They broke us for sport. They broke us to pass the time. They broke us between card games. They broke us silhouetted in moonlight. They broke us in the blackest of night. When dawn broke, they broke us anew. They broke us and then they sold us.

Home Life

We were sold to the brothels that proliferated along the Bosnian hillside after the war had ended. Home was a bare mattress behind a locked-from-the-outside-door of a hidden pantry at the Nightclub Florida. Home was a shared bunk in an overcrowded room adjacent to Mississippi Madness. Home was a rotating cot above Texas Dance. Home was a spot on the floor in a storage shed behind Big Ben’s Social Club. For those who tried to run away, home was the river bed of the River Bosna.

At home, they watched us from sunup to sundown. They watched us from a peephole while we slept. They watched us in the shower to make sure we did not slit our wrists. They watched us at mealtime to make sure we ate, but not too much. One of us they made into one of them. She watched us for signs of trouble. For a reduced freedom price, she made sure we put on makeup and high heels and bright smiles before we entered the club. Then she put on her own makeup and high heels and bright smile and silently followed.

In the clubs we donned our costumes and danced on bar tops for UN peacekeepers, on tabletops for Bosnian policemen, on the laps of Dyncorp security personnel. We drank champagne with the peacekeepers. We drank Russian vodka with the police. Security liked their whisky and rye. And when the bottles were empty, we danced naked on our backs in rooms rented by the hour to pay off our ever-compounding debts. We owed for our buying price. I can’t believe I am worth that much. We owed for our travel, so far from our homelands. We owed for food, when we got some, for water and shelter. We owed for the dance costumes that neither we nor the customers wanted us to wear. If one of us ran off, we owed for her debts too.

Some of us would dance five or six times a night. I get as drunk as I can so I don’t feel a thing. Some of us refused to dance and would be locked in a closet for days at a time without food. At least I get a break from the sex. Some of us preferred the UN peacekeepers. Dennis said he would buy me out when he leaves the country. None of us believed that would happen. Some of us preferred the Bosnians. At least I can understand some of what they are saying. None of us preferred the Dyncorp security personnel. They’re rough pigs! Some of us forgot every face as soon as he rolled off. Some of us had every face forever etched into our minds. We would spend a lifetime unable to forget. Some of us had regulars. If our regulars were high-ranking, we gained a bit of protection. Careful with this one. She’s General Klein’s girl. Some of us received small gifts. Thank you for the Milky Way bars, Deputy Commissioner. Some of us received small indispositions. God, these fever blisters burn. Some of us received big indispositions, which, if not taken care of in the first trimester, whether we wanted to or not, were eventually revealed. When some of us undeniably showed, the problem would disappear, and so would we.

When there were private parties, all of us in the brothel worked. When there were private parties, all of us in the brothel were well-fed. When there were private parties, there weren’t enough beds. Customers would take two or more of us at a time. He thinks he’s a sultan. When there were private parties, everybody drank too much. When there were private parties, everybody fought too much. When there were private parties, everybody cocked his pistol. Some of us became protective shields. Some of us became bargaining chips. A few of us became peace offerings.  We’d silently curse or pray until the guns were put away.

When there were private parties, the “nightclubs” opened late the next day. When there were private parties, all of us spent the next day on hands and knees. We cleaned puke from pub floors, puke from urinals, puke from under our fingernails. We tended to soreness and swelling and bruises.  We’d gently wash each other’s cuts. And as we sang half-remembered lullabies, we’d hold our mattresses up from the floor and tally another day’s work onto the concrete core below. Seven hundred eighty-one more tricks and I’m free!

The Authorities

We were told that if we went to the police, we would be arrested for prostitution. Some of us didn’t believe it and ran to the police the first chance we got, only to be driven right back to the club we had just run away from. Some of the police were traffickers on a brothel’s payroll. They would nab us at border crossings and recycle us back into the system. Some of the police warned club owners about upcoming raids.Most of the police turned a blind eye. He earns more than I do just for keeping quiet. All of the police had free access to us. A few of the police bought us and kept us in their apartments for their own prostitution rings. One of the police helped us; that police was a she.

Those of us who managed to get out were taken to safe houses. For the first time in months we went to bed in the evenings instead of in the mornings. In our dreams we were always running. Sometimes we were running among the camouflaging reeds along the River Bosna. Sometimes we were playing hide-and-seek with younger cousins along the Danube. Sometimes we were jogging along the Dneiper River with our best friend gossiping. And every once in a while we’d hear the river remind us. The babbling laughter of our baby sister as we blew kisses on her belly. The gurgling sputter of our boyfriend’s motorcycle engine as we put our arms around him for ballast. Our mother singing as she made rose jelly paczki for Easter lunch. Everything was as we had left it. But when we woke up, we found ourselves in another windowless room surrounded by sleepy whimpers and whispered conversations. We’d wipe the sweat-matted hair from our foreheads and wonder. How did I end up here?

Those of us who managed to get out were pressured to testify. We’d think about the glamorous girl who had helped “recruit” us as au pairs or waitresses or maids. Do you want this to happen to someone else? For a moment we thought we did. So we wouldn’t be the only ones. Those of us who managed to get out were escorted to the authorities. With a translator in front of us and a case worker behind us, we entered office buildings peopled by our brothel’s customers. We hoped no one noticed our perspiration when we walked by a former client. Does he even recognize me? Those of us who managed to get out felt our cheeks growing hot as we recounted our stories into plastic recording devices. Some of us choked our words. Some of us could not stop our words. A few of us lost all our words, so our eyes did the talking.

Those of us who managed to get out had nowhere to go. None of us had identity papers so some agencies would not repatriate us. None of us had any money. None of us felt ready to face our families except for that uncle who had sold us. We had a few things to say to him. None of us wanted to look our mothers in the eye after what we had done. None of us were sure of what we had become.

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