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Someone Else
by Cris Mazza

It was the year my favorite Beatle died, just a few months after the WTC terrorist attacks, early in my second decade at the nursery. Everyone needed diversion from the news. In the evenings I watched videos of Jane Austen novels, daytimes left my desk and went often to the nursery's growing fields, the farthest ones out, started collecting snake skins, tortoise shells, looking for the rare mule deer antler, which I never found.

    December in the back country. Native canyons and hillsides trapped, hemmed in, by housing developments and military air fields. The rutted dirt two-track road unwinds for miles. To your left is five acres of eight varieties of juniper, maple and sycamore saplings, two-foot, then three-foot, then four-foot spruce, irrigated in rows, but you could stand there on the two-track, just outside the growing fields, on the edge of a dry arroyo or hedgerow, under the high and wild wind, where you can hear a bee buzz and mouse rustle under the matted layer of last year's wild oats, and you could think you're in unqualified, uncharted vistas of desert pampas wilderness. Not always alone out there, often a single worker moving the water-tank with a small tractor, or a crew trimming double-crowns, weeding, mulching, digging trees tagged to come into the retail lot. The two-track dotted with scat and owl pellets. The louder rustlings are rabbits, and ravens call constantly, sounding angry, downright impatient.

    I may have heard the voices, and ignored them, at ease with the melodious sound of Latino workers chatting and laughing among themselves in the background. A local buzzing was louder, directing me to a patch of grey fur just off the dirt road. There was no smell. The arid December air, a tinge of salt in the sandstone soil, so the carcass was dry and would've been nearly mummified if the tissues hadn't been so quickly devoured by beetles and maggots. And still whole, as though the primary carrion consumer — other coyotes — felt some sacred trust to not ravage and swallow one of their own. Dehydration alone had distorted the body: the splayed legs contorted, the neck twisted and head thrown over one shoulder, ears and nose leather withered, unrecognizable. Barely showing in the recoiled muzzle's gristle, a canine tooth, whitened by ants.

    "Oh, what happened to you?"

    How long had I studied it, bent at the waist, my face hovering above the coyote's body? In the ambiance of the nursery's backlot and surrounding back country, the backdrop of Spanish conversation in the distance, my own voice speaking aloud, alone, was not an odd supplement.

    When I moved, reached to touch it, I already had a leather glove on one hand and my pruner out of my belt sheath, lifted the head and worked the pruner around the spine. The only resistance was from shriveled creases of hide, but the blade was made for two-inch woody limbs, and the head came free.

    As I stood, sheathing the pruner, holding the head, a louder voice, more urgent, rose out of a momentary silence — a silence that had only been marred by my own voiced question, intended to be muttered, but probably a conversational volume. The other voice was not shouting, but still signified some exigency, some alarm. A wooden clatter, an airy whump, then the rustle of escape was neither mouse or rabbit, the fleeing footsteps almost palpable as my own heartbeat. Running from the edge of a spruce field and into tall chaparral, a girl, as young as 13 years old, no older than 16. Difficult to tell her age, although not difficult to see her black hair streaming behind as she ran, and that she clutched a bundle of fabric to her chest, and her back was bare.

    Over a low sweep of hill, a male voice made one more call, then she was gone into the shallow ravine. I walked the seventy or eighty yards up the slightly uphill two-track to where they had crossed it, running from a spruce lot into the undeveloped field. Our workers were in that lot, trimming roots, tagging trees for removal. I could hear the buzz of a string trimmer, and when it stopped, the snip of pruning sheers, larger than those I carried on my belt, but mine had made no clean click while gnashing through the coyote's gristle. Suddenly, at my feet, a large sheet of plywood, flat on the ground, about 5x5 feet. I tipped it up with one hand. The ground beneath the plywood just as dry as the surrounding dirt, and no bugs or lizards were there to flee the sudden burst of light. Underneath, two 2x4s, long enough to prop the plywood upright if set at an angle up against the two blocks nailed to two corners of the plywood.

    My gloved hand clutched the coyote head like a talon all the way back to the nursery's out-buildings. Behind a tool shed, I set up an old burn-barrel and put the head inside where beetles could continue to cure it, down to the skull. It would take five more months. Meanwhile, I brought binoculars when I went out on the backlot two-tracks, and I watched, and I learned.

Sometime before I started any research, but after I'd become aware of girls out there in the fields, a couple of landscape interns were in my office at the nursery while I was finishing the newsletter. They were talking about one of the designers, a man in his 60's, who, they said, was a "major sexual harasser." They laughed and shared stories about his flirtations and come-ons. He'd told one of them they could be married because they already almost had the same last name. The other he'd asked if he could look at the contents of her purse, and he did, extracting each item separately, handling it reverently. Both reported his questions about their boyfriends' shoe sizes, his hammy hand on the small of their backs, his offers of rides in his pickup to show them root-trimming in the spruce fields. Meanwhile I found myself thinking, Hey, he's never sexually harassed me — what's wrong with me?

    Considering my age, the answer may have been obvious. And enough to make me look back, perhaps hopefully, to the time I would have been more eligible. Courts hadn't yet defined the variations of sexual harassment — quid pro quo and sexually hostile environment — when I was with Daniel Wood in 1979. I know because I researched it that same day. And that's also when I found the startling information about Dan Wood, when — because I'd abruptly remembered him — I Googled him.

    It hadn't been quid pro quo for me in 1979. Nothing offered in return for anything. And least nothing that could be reasonably assessed. Nor would I have called it hostile. Just as the girls — young women — laughing in my office at the nursery obviously didn't think the environment was hostile. But, now, how can anyone even entertain the word hostile for any of this, after knowing about Lena, and the function she performed daily, 30, 40 maybe 50 times.

    A diverse, flexible word, Hostile: from antagonistic and harsh to merely unfriendly and unreceptive. If it was ever hostile for me, it was only after Dan Wood drew back — after the dancing, the circling, the teasing abruptly, one day, stopped.

    He was called my master-teacher. I'd been assigned to him to do my practice teaching in his classes, under his supervision, before I was granted the secondary teaching credential I never used — put away the day it arrived in the mail, with only wry thoughts of Dan Wood and what I had hoped to learn but, ultimately, hadn't.

Dear Dan,        June 2002

Even your former students probably wouldn't call you Mr. Wood after 25 years, and yet this familiar salutation seems unnatural for me. In the event my name is difficult to place: a student-teacher you supervised in the late 70's. Much as I'd like to, it will be difficult to begin this letter with the ordinary how-are-you-I-am-fine hollow gesture. Decades have gone by since you last saw me, and I have no way of knowing if you even remember. And then there's the issue of writing a letter, which nobody does anymore. No Google search has brought me anywhere near an e-mail address for you, but, in the archived news items about you, I've found your attorney's name, and was then able to locate his business address. It is up to him whether or not this letter will find you, but he has my permission to read it first. I'll say up front (for your attorney's information as well as yours) that while I would eagerly provide any kind of testimony — from character witness to eye-witness — I am intelligent enough to know that my services in those areas would be anywhere from worthless to downright detrimental. And as eye-witness, I didn't see much. Once I was alone in the office with a girl who was crying. The rest of the time all the girls, and I assume she was one of them, preened and flaunted themselves without inhibition. Many looked at me with inhospitality and resentment, the way members of a wolf pack eye an interloper. The other things I observed — from magazines in your briefcase to five-minute movies in booths at the back of the adult bookstore in Oceanside where you took me — would, I realize, not portray you in a useful or comprehensive way.

    I know you knew that I was a horrible teacher for more reasons than just that it wasn't one of my capabilities. Although 23 years old, my brain was still unfinished and simply could not concentrate on any task outside my personal / emotional needs and angst. If assigned to an accomplished model-teacher-robot as apprentice, the same conclusions would've been determined: this was not something this girl could or should do. But I was given to someone who was more than a Teacher with a capital T. I was assigned to a more complete person — by virtue of his human flaws — with enough empathetic perception to not only see more in my difficulties than just an untalented teacher, but to address me on that other, deeper and more bothersome level. And, of course, this is why I've book-marked that time and you, probably mythologizing both, hopefully in a meaningful way.

    I was deeply dismayed to hear of the recent terrible circumstances you've been dealt. A simple internet search provided me a fuller picture ... the charges appropriately dropped, followed by the predictable self-pitying lawsuit brought by the "victim." My response is apt to make me sound a hypocrite to the feminist, liberal views I value, but that's where people are wrong about both feminists and liberals. A true feminist knows that women can have significant weaknesses and can easily cause or exacerbate their own problems; and that men, likewise, are human beings who feel things, fear things, and might make poor choices influenced by or based on their confusion and/or emotional needs and/or even on misconstrued best intentions. I do feel my visceral first response to learning the more complete details of your situation is somewhat significant, though, because I quickly realized my four months of student teaching with you in 1979 lie in the middle of the span of time "in question" in your dilemma. So, yes, this recognition sent me back to excavate my memory, and my journals, and even those student-teaching notes you kept for me during your observations ... for what have I been I looking? I'm not sure.

    I had already been very aware, on a few different levels, of your marital difficulties at the time. In fact, this was the field on which we connected in ways beyond mentor-and-student, and the fact that you were experiencing your own anxiety has made your willingness to address mine far more significant to me. I've realized it still more in the years afterward; and, in fact, your attention then means even more now that I am aware of the complicated situation you were struggling with. On April 26, 1979, my journal records this short dialogue:

    Me: when does life begin? Maybe 23?

    You: maybe 31?

    Part of my mind has us frozen there, at 23 and 31, neither of us knowing the full extent of our own despair and yet tacitly sharing it with each other.

    Admittedly selfishly, most of my response to learning about your problem has been from a perspective of trying to remember who I was at the time. And what I remember is how, at 23, I felt intimidated by the way the 16-year-olds at that school seemed so comfortable in their obvious (sometimes flaunted) sexuality. I felt unequal to it. I felt inferior to it. I felt retarded compared to it. My perspective then would have never conceived that these were girls (women) who did not know what they were doing.

I saw them several more times, but it was many months later — the coyote skull already cleaned, bleached and displayed — when I began background research for what I thought would be a feature article. After doing some cursory research and even fleshing out my article's opening with some background treatment, I realized I wasn't going to break this story. It had already been broken, while I, like most of the rest of the hundreds of thousands of suburban middle-class populace of Southern California, was completely and blissfully oblivious to what was happening while my strawberries and tomatoes, palm trees, poinsettias and chrysanthemums were being weeded, watered and harvested. I had to actually see it to begin to be troubled by it, and even then had let it float in the background of my consciousness too long. By that time, nothing I wrote based on chance observation, and by summarizing the other exposés that had already been written, was going to change or add anything. Everyone could continue to blithely live in their neighborhoods, even buy enormous strawberries from roadside farm stands, without knowing about the service industry at the edges of the fields. If I was going to do something it had to be more than just write a report about what I saw and explain it based on someone else's in-the-trenches research. The only way I could finish what I'd started was to break new ground, go on from where I was. So I decided that before I could produce a consciousness-raising story about the girls in the growing fields, I had to rescue one first. When I eventually failed, or gave up, or had actually done the opposite of rescuing Lena, the feature story died. She's probably dead too.

    But before abandoning it, I wrote the beginning of it, and here it is, the way I thought a feature story would sound:

In the midst of a dense white coastal mist, they shift like fading shadows at dawn. Single file through dew-drenched chaparral of buckwheat, wild oats, sage, and the descendants of mustard left by Father Junipero Serra, they step carefully so as to not catch their sandals or heels in rocks, to not snag their hose on briers. Some wear long men's shirts over their miniskirts and tubetops, to protect their stomachs and backs from being scratched by the thorns on green tumbleweeds. When they arrive at the fields where they work, they will have to remove any protective layers. As the fog shifts and stirs, we can see now that they are not women but girls, 14, 15, 16, some perhaps as young as 11 or 12. Even through binoculars, it's difficult to tell because they are so quiet, because their movements so lost in the stratum of vapor which still blends with the reeds and grasses, down to the roots. And because their lips are painted red, their eyes outlined with black, their dark hair not braided nor tied back, but long and loose. While we are clad, safari style, in hiking boots, long pants and light shirts, they don't seem dressed or prepared to work in the produce fields at the edges of San Diego County's suburban neighborhoods, but that is what they are here to do. To work. For 8, 10, even 12 hours a day.

    Despite the fog, the Southern California day will be warm, will become hot. The strawberries, the tomatoes and peppers grow sweet, plump and juicy. But the smell rising from the uncultivated fields beyond will be rank with every sort of foul human stench. Surrounding the produce fields, either in the brush of chaparral or in meadows of native reeds tall as a man's head, the enterprise has made a honeycomb of "rooms" by flattening 6-foot-square areas. These are the "Reed Beds," the "Fields of Love," the "Love Nests" where girls are sent daily to work. Each one will service 30, 40, 50 men a day, $20 for ten minutes with a condom, $30 for ten minutes without. The briefest of moments between clients to throw the condom into a plastic bag tied to the reeds, to wipe herself with toilet paper. The ground grows dark with spilled semen, with sweat, with beer, with urine — there are no bathroom breaks. Each girl in her cave of reeds can hear the grunts and moans of men all around her, but unless another girl is struck and cries out, she hears nothing from her co-workers, the girls she lives with, 8 or 10 in a one-room apartment in nearby Oceanside or Vista, only there long enough to eat, to sleep, to cry into a dirty bedroll for a baby that's been taken away, who she's been told will be killed if she tries to leave.

    This is a billion-dollar cartel, as clandestine, complex and networked as a major drug smuggling operation. But instead of foreign-grown drugs, the traffickers are supplying girls. It's a highly organized system consisting of three basic groups of male personnel: the procurers, the smugglers, and the pimps. At one end of the structure, hundreds of young women, mostly from Mexico, are either kidnapped, handed over by their parents, or duped into believing they're being taken north for jobs in hotels and restaurants. There are reports that some methods of manipulation include seducing or raping the girls while still in Mexico, until they become pregnant, then taking their babies and threatening death to the infant unless the girl complies with what is asked of her.

    After hired coyotes smuggle the girls across the border, they are handed over to the third group: the pimps or "big daddies." They oversee maintaining groups of girls in apartments spread around the region, transporting them to the migrant camps and produce fields, collecting the money for services, and transporting the girls back again, sometimes long after dark. The pimps are also responsible for special orders; for example, if certain clients — usually not the farm workers, but anyone else, from military personnel to local businessmen — request a "cherry girl." The pimps are also responsible for discipline and punishment. One girl was reportedly beaten with a metal hook until flesh was gouged from her arms, legs and back. Others frequently arrive at or return from their work with swollen eyes and lips.

    The farm laborers themselves, the bulk of the clientele, are the ones who create the caves or rooms within reeds or chaparral. If certain produce fields or large wholesale nurseries are not close enough to hillsides or ravines of dense coverage, they use a single sheet of plywood propped upright to block the girl and her client from being spotted from a road; otherwise there is no thought of privacy, for either the girl nor her clients. One after another they step forward and she lifts her skirt.

Dan,           March 2003

    I haven't sent this letter yet. Not that I won't. But I'm not starting over. I'll just go on.

    When you knew me, I was, to put it abstractedly, troubled by my virginity. It seemed I was becoming freakish. And yet simultaneously distressed because whatever it would take to lose the aberration (i.e. having sex) provoked a fair amount of apprehension. It's possibly true that my dread caused an impenetrable shield and silent warning system, like an invisible fence for dogs. Except this one kept other people out. If anyone thought to make an attempt, they were alerted away from me before I knew they were there. So given that, besides my lack of any particular beauty, except not being fat, it's actually no wonder virginity stayed with me for so long, and the longer it stayed, the more disconcerted by it I was.

    But not distressed in the same way as most American teenagers, either in the 60s, 70s, 80s or now, who would only be bothered by virginity because it meant they were missing out on something everyone else is reveling in, and the sooner someone would take virginity away from them, indoctrinate them, invite them into the party, the better. Just look at the stories of sixteen year old girls begging their parents for breast enhancement surgery. The stories of parents who yield, or even of parents who initiate the sexualizing of their children, are something else again. How different is putting your 6-year-old in a beauty pageant from giving your 12-year-old away to a pimp's procurer?

    With you, for a short time in 1979, I thought I'd found someone who might be willing, and certainly able, to alleviate my debilitating panic. With the combination of frankness, tenderness, passion and compassion I could tell were your chemistry, you, I thought, were my answer. For all the quixotic notions of that assumption, the questions didn't, to my credit, include the possibility of a you-and-me in some idyllic future. You were married, and I knew that, and while it would someday become a non-issue with someone else, with you I never imagined, nor discussed with myself in fading-to-purple ink, a she's-out-I'm-in scenario.

    But, needless to say, and for reasons I won't digress into here, it didn't happen. I did finally lose my virginity, to the man I then married, and it seemed okay for a while, but it wasn't.

    After marriage, the fear, no longer trepidation, mutated into painful physical resistance.

    I met my ex-husband not too long after I left you and teaching behind. It was, typically, giddy joy at first. A man who wanted to touch me. The first man to touch me ... there. How could all the anxiety, fear, trepidation not have been completely and finally eliminated, if not by the time we married, then soon afterwards? But it was like when chemotherapy can only shrink a malignancy down to pea-size, but can't eradicate it entirely, so the thing metastasizes and re-forms itself elsewhere. And if apprehension creates the fever-swirl of confusion in a brain, it only creates rigidity and pain when it settles in more visceral, less cognitive tissue.

    I didn't, until about a year ago, stop and think what might have happened, what I would have been doing, if things had gone differently, with you, while I was student-teaching.

    It cannot be adequately expressed how sad the news of your legal problems made me. And, easier to convey but more difficult to confess, also made me feel so strange. The part of me that will always remain unfinished was immediately mortified, even humiliated to realize there was "someone else" all the while during your attentions on me. And of course had to ask myself: is she part of the reason it was so easy for you to discontinue those attentions? Or was it something I did? More likely, something I didn't do?

    Equally strange, the other thing I've pondered is how I might be qualified to assist you in your defense in the outrageous lawsuit. You were appallingly troubled back then. People tend to be unable or unwilling to notice it in a man. I admit, I couldn't see it myself, then, lost in the mire of my own anxieties, confusion and unformed identity. I suppose, if a different person, I would've "sought therapy" to make myself feel like a still-chaste victim who'd been defiled (in my case a "victim" by virtue of being abandoned just before a kiss). But, instead, I find myself wondering if a decade of sexual dysfunction would've been avoided if I'd encouraged you more to not just dance around my periphery. If, in order words, you'd turned all the way toward the tense 23-year-old virgin instead of the more poised 16-year-old. Would this assist your defense, that I find myself disappointed, two decades later, that you turned away from any temptation regarding me?

    The absurd notion of my testifying in your defense aside, as lame as this sounds, I felt an urge to offer some form of support. I just wanted you to know, if there was some way I could've helped, even back then, I would've. I seem to be composed of good intentions.

    For example: my objective to write a chronicle involving my observation of, subsequent contact with, and the future rescue of one of the sex slaves living and working (put to work) right here in San Diego County.

    But my work on this project often leads me to stop and consider those who might one day read it and feel proud, even superior, that they spent their time reading something important, that they feel a rock in their gut or chill on their neck, but then go back to planning meals for their families, shopping at the supermarket and drugstore, doing research on brands of digital cameras, driving their children in more-economical or even hybrid SUVs to private colleges in more liberal states, laying flagstones in spots where their lawns won't grow, adding more spam filters to e-mail software, and hurrying off to their Pilates classes, or planning a lawsuit against a man who succumbed to the seductive proficiency of a heady 16-year-old.

Continue to read 'Someone Else'

About the author:
Cris Mazza is the author of over a dozen books. Her fiction titles include
Waterbaby and Homeland, plus the critically celebrated story collection Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, and the PEN Nelson Algren Award winning novel How to Leave a Country. She also has a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. A native of San Diego, Mazza currently she lives 50 miles west of Chicago and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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