El Candy

By Florencia Abbate

Dedicated to Marita Verón

In the city council records it appeared under the heading of commercial establishments as a ‘night club’, operating under the phony name ‘El Candy’. It was a dive whose interior remained invariably dark; or at least dark enough that the glowing sign for beer in the entrance shone with a pale nocturnal gleam at all hours of the day. In my first minutes in El Candy, I remember that the old woman told me I had to call her ‘Mama Lily’; she took me to the kitchen, sat me on a broken plastic seat and, while she complained about how much she busted her ass while her son didn’t do a thing, I applied the hair dye that would transform me into a platinum blonde. Afterwards she gave me some turquoise blue contact lenses, and took from me the little money I carried, telling me it would go towards paying for the ‘sexy’ clothing I would be given so I could begin work. ‘Do what they tell you. Look what they did to me for rebelling,’ you whispered to me, seeing that I resisted, and lowered the strap of your dress to show me a scar that went from one side of your back to the other, like a cross-out carved with a knife. Early that morning you told me that they had kidnapped you in the Chaco, a week before your fifteenth birthday party, and that you yourself had gone to the place where your captors awaited, fooled by a neighbour who had asked you to travel with her to visit a relative about to die. I remember the confidence that your expression inspired in me when you said that you still didn’t understand why she had handed you over, how a ‘normal’ person could be capable of something like that… Later you said that it my impression of a girl from good family that enchanted you, my form of speaking which was distinct from the rest, my white skin and perfume you described as ‘baby powder’. It seemed incomprehensible that I had also ended up in a place like that. As for me, I liked your transparency. You were like a waterlilly, strong yet flexible, stemming out of a pile of shit.

I know… somebody had to be fucked over, and it just happened to be us. We had to withstand summers in those little rooms without ventilation, the sweaty guys entering one after another; our fatigue and our faces wasted away a bit more each day, our pupils were enlarged by the amount of cheap cocaine they made us take, our desperate hope rested in the effect of the cut of sedatives they gave us to end each day, something to switch us off a little, to keep us nice and calm the rest of the day until we worked again from midnight until three in the afternoon. In that hell each remained isolated in her own pain. Some seemed to grow slowly anesthetised. Others had already crossed that threshold beyond which nothing seems horrifying. In their eyes I found only an absent expression, an emptiness. I saw that absence in everyone at some point, except you.

Shortly after arriving, I came across a young child in the hallway, and you noticed my surprise. You explained to me that she was the daughter of one of the girls, that they had taken her with her mother ‘La Paraguaya’; she was seven years old and had grown up shut in. And you told me with a broken voice that the girl had once said to you in a low voice: ‘I want them to give me something to kill me.’ I remember when you came to tell me that you had just seen another girl, Yanina, with her legs tied to the back rest of a bed; and I remember how our eyes met when La Brasilera mentioned that she had seen a ‘kind of fetus’ in the garbage can. And I remember how we looked at each other a second and decided to risk it, climbing together to the attic where they had moved the girl after her hemorrhage, her body sprawled out on a hole-ridden and dirty blanket on the ground, her legs long, thin and bruised, the shadows of her bones seeming to float beneath her skin like underwater things. I saw you turn and move away to go cry in a corner. It ashamed you that we didn’t even know her name. They had given her Yanina as an ‘artistic name’, you said. Nobody in El Candy knew what she was really called.

Nearly a year later I learned that the owner of El Candy was a well known mafioso in the province. President of a local football club, of which he had been a violent fan in his youth, he had also dabbled in the business of the bingo rooms. The brothel was in charge of the mother of that model son nicknamed ‘El Tigre’ –Liliana, that endearing lady who made us call her Mama Lily– and so everything stayed in the family. I also knew that her associate was someone even more ‘important’, an old man who served as director of the oil syndicate and was personal friend of the governor, and who intended to promote the candidacy of ‘El Tigre’ as city mayor. Some nights the two guys went by El Candy to eat. The old woman made us cook, and the three of them sat to watch television while they waited for us to serve them. One night they dropped by to dine, and in the morning you weren’t there. When I went to ask what they had done with you, the old woman replied that you had gone voluntarily to work in a ‘plaza’ in Río Gallegos. A while later her son appeared and hit me until I fainted. I didn’t manage to open my eyes before he gave another blow. I remember the taste of my blood and the urgent pressure of his legs, the tattoos of his muscular arms and his fingers like stakes between mine. And later I remember walking through that dark hallway, entering the bathroom with the wobble of a rag doll, and I see myself falling on my knees on the frozen floor, head leaning over the toilet, skin blue, with a lost look and a body trembling like porcelain on the point of breaking… I never did find out what happened to you. In the trial they could only prove that you had been bought for 3500 pesos.

Upon waking I realised that I was on a stretcher. When I evoke that moment now I see faces that are a little blurry: that of a policeman asking me the same question over and over, that of a young doctor with freckles. I hear the voice of the public prosecutor arguing with somebody, and suddenly, the low-pitched tones of the La Brasilera by my side repeating that she couldn’t believe it, that a miracle had occurred. Nine of us girls were rescued in the raid. As soon as we left I noted that it was raining, and the contact with the drops and other sensations were something I thought I had forgotten; it even seemed to me that the ambulance looked beautiful in the darkness… ‘Nearly’ beautiful, because all of us were there, except you, my only support and the closest to a sister that I had… Of the reunion with my parents I remember only a lump in my throat, an anguish that prevented me from crying; and that though I was very tired, the idea of sleeping made me panic. Even after more than a year, I still kept on the light at night. The fear didn’t go away: it was always there, and the suspicion too. Sometimes I had to repeat myself out loud: My body is mine… I felt barren inside. It was as if the fountain of love within me had dried out. At the beginning I consoled myself a little thinking of the trial, of making them pay for what they did to us. But time has confirmed that some things can’t be set right. Even now, after nearly ten years, I sometimes wake up agitated in the middle of the night, gasping like someone emerging from water. When I bring my fingertips to my nose it seems as if the smell of El Candy’s filth lingers. Sometimes I dream of those assassins, of the secrets they hide. They never speak. They just watch television, until the screen shrinks down to a fiery spot the size of their eyes.