© Chelsea Kapela – Excerpt from Upcoming Memoir
When I arrived, instead of my typical private session, my parents were both there. The social worker shut the door. Everyone was crying. I knew what was happening, what was next. They wanted me to talk about my rape. I refused. The counselor pulled out a brochure — one that I had never noticed in her pamphlets before — and told my parents that I needed a change. I was using drugs and skipping school and out of control. I needed behavior modification before things got worse.
When we got home, I snuck the brochure from my parent’s room. I slipped into the office and dialed the 1-800 number printed on the front. I asked what it was like in Jamaica. I said I was a parent. They told me it would be tough but that I would get my child back without the attitude. I asked how long it would take and they said most likely around 10 months to a year, but some kids take longer. When I started crying, they started asking for my name. They knew then that I wasn’t a parent, but rather someone soon to be sent who now knew more than they were supposed to. I hung up immediately.
It would be my last night at home. The next morning we would be flying to Jamaica. I couldn’t believe it was happening. My dad had unplugged the phone in my room. My bags were already packed. I could hardly go to the bathroom without someone watching me. They expected me to run, they knew I wouldn’t go without a fight. They were right.
It was barely dark when Dina showed up. I had snuck a call to her from the kitchen phone while my dad was in the bathroom. I told her what was happening. She said she’d be there in fifteen minutes and to be ready. I prepared myself, trying to look nonchalant. I sat on the couch, turned on the TV. My dad sat in his chair, eyes still fixed on me. I heard the crunching of the gravel driveway as she pulled up and started bolting for the garage.
I burst through the door, my father only a stride behind me. Dina was outside. She grabbed my hand, screaming at my father to leave me alone as we tried to run to the car. He grabbed me by the waist and dragged me back in, slamming the door in Dina’s face. I was kicking and punching but couldn’t make contact. I sobbed and begged for him to let me go. He just stood there, one hand on the door, the other on my chest pushing me back. For almost half an hour Dina knocked and screamed, desperately trying to convince them to release me.
I hardly slept that night. I had to sleep on the couch, so they could monitor me. I didn’t have anyone else to call, no other plans of escape. I felt numb, resigned to my fate. I remember just staring at the ceiling, wishing that something would happen to change their mind, yet knowing nothing would.
The next morning the minister arrived from my parent’s church. He sat at the table with my father while they drank coffee. My mom and brother said their good-byes. My father told me how everything was going to be alright. He had had a vision in church, he told me. He had seen a banner float across the stage that said “She’s going to be fine now.” I felt like I was living in another universe.
My father and the minister escorted me to the van. They would both be accompanying me to the airport. I was encouraged not to run. The child safety locks were on. I tried once at a stoplight and everyone lunged for me. I didn’t try again. I screamed obscenities about God, about religion, about how much I hated my father. I thought maybe if I made it hard enough to be around me at least one of them would leave. They didn’t. Instead, my father took out a video camera and started filming me. It was to show me later, he said, after I had changed.
“Margaritaville” was playing non-stop in the Montego Bay airport. My father was a bit more relaxed. He knew I wouldn’t run now, not here. I was too far from home. I’d never been to Jamaica. The only foreign country I had visited was Canada. I remember how hot it was. Everything was different – the trees, the people, the landscape. Our cab didn’t look like a cab, just a regular car. The driver told us we’d have about a five hour drive to reach Tranquility Bay. We had to cross the Blue Mountains.
The drive seemed so short. Sometimes, I would cry but mostly I just stared blankly out the window as the driver and my father discussed the native culture and the history of every landmark we passed. The driver told me he had heard of Tranquility Bay, that it was tough, but that I would be okay. Just try to be good, he said, and not get into trouble.
It was dark when we arrived. My father let me smoke one last cigarette with him before we went inside. I was sobbing. The white hotel looked like every other plantation we had passed along the way, only this one was surrounded by barbed wire fencing and patrol guards.
We were escorted into the main office and quickly separated. A pretty girl, hair in a ponytail, wearing regular clothes immediately escorted my father on a ten minute tour of the facility. I was told to hand over my luggage so they could search it. In exchange, I was given a uniform to change into. It was a white button up shirt, a pair of blue shorts, and flip flops. We weren’t allowed to wear any regular shoes. It was harder to run away. The staff took everything I owned away and put it in storage for when I reached the “upper levels.”
My dad returned with his upper level escort. She was smiling and telling him how much the program had helped her, and how great it was. She said it was so much fun here and that I was going to be okay. He was crying a little as he hugged me. “It’s going to be okay, honey.” He comforted. “Everything looks so nice here. You’re going to be fine.”
As he was walking out the door, the upper level turned to me and quietly whispered, “I’m so sorry…”
It was dark and muggy as we strolled through the long hall. I was escorted by two female Jamaican staff, one on either side of me. I was crying quietly, silently cursing the the sound of the ocean that echoed just out of reach beyond the barbed wire fencing. There was no breeze, just hot stagnant air. They talked to each other in thick accents that I couldn’t understand, laughing occasionally like I wasn’t even there. No one told me where I was going.
We reached a doorway and they led me inside. At first I thought it was my room – there was a large double bed and nightstand in front of me. Then I recognized other possessions – someone’s slippers, a mug of tea, an alarm clock. Strangest of all were the medical supplies along the back wall.
A large Jamaican woman stepped out from the shadows. She was tall and thick with wide-set eyes, a floral dress, and a scowl that silenced me before I even asked any questions. She gestured to the medical supplies, mumbling something about being the nurse. It seemed incomprehensible that this bedroom was her office. There was dust on the floor and it smelled like moth balls, more like a grandmother’s bedroom than anything resembling a hospital room.
“Undress.” She said blankly, “We’re going to do a cavity search now.”
I undressed and was led to the bed where she poked and prodded me, searching for any contraband I may have stashed before arrival. I stayed as still as possible, my heart racing, staring uncomfortably at the floral bedspread. The door was still open, my staff escorts occasionally peering in to ensure I wasn’t fighting or trying to escape. I was too humiliated to even consider it. The nurse was humming a song as she searched me, something I didn’t recognize. I closed my eyes and let my mind go blank until it was over.
I dressed in silence, a dead sadness creeping through my body. The nurse was laughing with my escorts now, their voices echoing through the hallway. I wanted to take a hot shower, curl into a ball and cry but there was no time for that. As soon as my clothes were on their hands were on my arms again, leading me away from the nurse’s room. This time, they weren’t talking. There was nothing but the sound of my flip flops echoing alongside the soft thud of their sneakers.
“This way,” one of the staff commanded. “This is Integrity – your family now.” We walked through an open doorway into a small room. On every wall, plywood platforms had been unfolded. On each platform was a small mattress, topped with a sleeping girl. I looked around. Inside the tiny space there were at least thirteen girls. I could barely see through the darkness but could tell there were even more around the corner. The air was stale, smelling faintly of sweat and sewage.
There wasn’t enough time to find me a platform. Instead, they pulled a twin mattress out onto the floor near the open doorway. A tiny fan hummed along in front of it, blowing directly on my bed. They handed me the pajamas and blankets my parents had sent me and told me to change. I couldn’t believe what they had sent. It was a set of Mickey Mouse pajamas that I hadn’t worn in years. As I put them on, I felt an overwhelming sense of being a young girl again, desperately wanting to be held by someone who loved me. I climbed onto the bare mattress. My parents hadn’t sent a comforter – just two sheets and a pillow. I shivered underneath them, freezing from the ever blowing fan.
“Go to sleep.” The staff whispered. “Don’t try to run. Don’t get out of bed. If you have to go to the bathroom, wait until the night watch comes and raise your hand for an escort. Don’t make any noise.” I closed my eyes and waited for them to leave. They joined the other staff out on the veranda. Their voices were so loud and fast that I couldn’t even make out what they were saying. Occasionally, one would walk through the room, shining a bright flash light onto every bed. I wanted to scream at them to be quiet, that none of us could possibly sleep. Instead, I laid there silently, staring at the blank white ceiling, my mind churning with images of safety and home. I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore, just the sound. They flooded from my eyes, soaking my pillow. I kept as quiet as I could, my body shaking from the sobs.
Across the facility, I heard the recognizable sound of someone screaming in deep pain. I wiped my eyes and sat up suddenly expecting someone to rush towards the sound, to do something. Instead, I was met by the beam of the flashlight as a staff ran inside. “Lay down.” She barked. “There’s nothing to see. Lay down.” I didn’t even ask for an explanation, just did as I was told. I could tell from the tone of her voice that this was nothing new. I didn’t want to find out where it was coming from. Exhausted from the weight of the day, I finally drifted off into an uneasy, dreamless slumber.
“WAKE UP TIME LADIES,” A loud voice commanded, knocking on each of the wooden platforms as she walked by. “HURRY HURRY.”
I could barely peel my eyes open. It was still dark out, the sun just barely beginning to rise along the horizon. Around me, girls were quickly and mechanically rising from their beds and assembling near the doorway. I slowly joined them, looking around at their blank faces and wondering what was next.
“No talking,” a staff commanded, looking at me, the newest of the group. “Time for head count.”
We shuffled down the stairs into the courtyard. There were at least seventy five of us girls, all in pajamas and flip flops. We were lined up by family. A woman stood at the front of the gathering with a megaphone, occasionally yelling for us to straighten up, to keep our hands at our sides, to keep our eyes down. I followed every order, remembering the screaming from the night before.
Alongside our neat lines, a small group of girls were brought up from another part of the facility. They looked tired, faces more deadened than the rest of ours. One girl started wildly yelling. It was just excited gibberish. She jerked around like an animal. I couldn’t tell if she was faking it, acting out of rebellion, or had a true mental problem. She seemed autistic, though I couldn’t tell for sure. Immediately, two staff grabbed her by her arms, threw her to the ground, and dragged her back off to the room from which she came. I tried not to watch, not to move, as she screamed in pain. Everyone just kept still, their eyes cast down at the pavement.
As though trying to block the sound, the woman with the megaphone started commanding us to do jumping jacks. We all jumped wildly for what seemed like forever. My feet ached from the hard pavement and cheap flip flops. When we were finished, she started yelling out names. As each name was called, the person raised their hand, shouting “Here, Maam.” When I heard my own, I did the same. Everyone then began chanting our “purpose.” I didn’t know the words, but I tried to keep up.
Once we had finished with head count, we were quickly shuffled back upstairs to our room. As we passed through the door, I heard each girl meekly ask staff if they had permission to cross. Following suit, I did the same. I was the last in line.
The staff who had been standing by the door pulled me aside and introduced herself. She was one of our family mothers, Ms.B. She explained that I was assigned a buddy for the first week of my stay, to help get me acclimated to the environment. My buddy was to stay with me through all activities and would help teach me the rules of Tranquility Bay and explain how everything worked.
A girl around my age walked over, already in uniform. Her reddish brown hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. She was wearing a thin silver necklace and glasses. She looked me up and down, still in my pajamas, with a blank stare. “Hi.” She said coldly, “I’m Martha. I’m going to be your buddy until you learn the rules.” She handed me a piece of paper, ignoring the tears that were building up in my eyes.
“First things first,” She continued, “You need to change into your uniform. Don’t speak to anyone but me. Don’t leave this room until I tell you to. Once you’re changed, you can read over the rule sheet while the rest of us complete our morning jobs. Tomorrow, we’ll have one assigned for you.” At that she turned and walked into the other room, grabbed a broom, and began sweeping the floor.
I quickly changed into my assigned uniform, pulling my hair back into a ponytail as was required. Around me, the other girls were all busy doing various tasks – folding the thin plywood beds back up into the wall, sweeping, mopping, dusting shelves. No one looked at me. I saw that most girls were in the same uniform that I wore, devoid of any jewelry or accessories. A few wore rings and necklaces. No one spoke to each other.
I slumped against the wall and pulled out the paper Martha had provided me. It was a list of rules and consequences, copied so many times it was almost illegible. I started to cry again as I realized how hard this program truly was. Everything was against the rules, and everything had a consequence. Speaking without permission, moving without permission, crossing without permission, rude facial gestures, rude manners, inappropriate lunch room manners — it seemed impossible to exist without somehow getting into trouble.
I sat sobbing, looking longingly at the faces that surrounded me, desperately wishing someone would come and tell me everything would be okay. Instead of comfort, I was met with Martha’s cold stare. “Get up.” She said, her voice lacking any sympathy or warmth. “The faster you stop feeling sorry for yourself and start working the program, the faster you go home.”
Ms. B started calling for us to get ready for shower time. Girls scrambled around, returning cleaning supplies and forming a straight line by the door. Martha whispered a few brief instructions. “Keep your eyes down while we walk.” She commanded, “If we pass the boys, you don’t want them to think you’re looking at them – it’s an automatic romantic encouragement.” She handed me a plastic water bottle. “Always have this with you. Consider it a part of you. If you leave it behind, you’ll get a neglect consequence.”
We walked single file through the hallway and down the long white stairwell. I didn’t look up, just focused on the ground and keeping pace with the moving feet in front of me. I couldn’t wait to take a shower. I could feel the grime on my skin from the previous day’s travel. I was starving and dirty and exhausted, looking forward to a few brief moments of comfort.
We passed through the courtyard until we reached a wire gate. Ms. B held it open, each of us asking again for permission to cross before we entered. Martha walked me to the outdoor storage cubbies. Mine was already filled with the supplies my parents had sent for me. I had a large beach towel, basic shower items, and a toothbrush and toothpaste. “We’ll brush our teeth first,” Martha said, “Then we’ll shower. There are always two groups because there aren’t enough showers for us all to use at once. You get 10 minutes to shower – not a minute more and not a minute less.”
We walked back towards a large tree. There was a pipe jutting out of the ground. Martha turned the handle and a slow stream of rust tinted water began to trickle out. “This is where we brush our teeth.” She stated calmly. “Just spit on the ground. Drink from your water bottle.” We brushed our teeth in silence. In the background, I could hear Ms. B yelling out to the girls in the shower.
“One more minute, ladies!” She screamed. “Terese – that means you too. Hurry up, ladies! Hurry up!”
Martha nudged me and we headed back to the cubbies to trade our toothbrushes for our shower baskets. The shower area consisted of a long open building with separate stalls, each one blocked with a thick swinging half-door. I stared at the bare feet and sopping wet hair of the girls inside as they tried to dry off and quickly change before their time ran out. The floor was nothing but concrete. As they filed out and we began to take their places, Martha started to whisper something to me.
“Martha!” Ms. B screamed. “No talking in the shower area.”. Martha looked down quickly, her face defeated. “Self Correct.” She quickly replied. Ms. B nodded approval and we each walked into a stall.
My bare feet stepped onto the cold, wet concrete. Cold soapy water flowed around me feet from the other stalls, swirling down into the open drain beneath me. There was only one knob. I turned it slowly and ice cold water came pouring down. I jumped back from the shock, waiting for it to warm up. It never happened. There was no hot water. I shoved my body underneath for as long as I could stand, shivering from the icy water and brisk morning air. The water was so rusty my shampoo and soap wouldn’t lather. No matter how hard I scrubbed, I couldn’t get the film off my skin.
“One more minute, Ladies!” Ms. B yelled. I turned the water off and scrambled to dry and dress myself. As I looked down, I saw a worm slither past my toe and down into the drain. I felt more filthy than I had before the shower.
We headed back to the cubbies. I was freezing. I tried to brush through my hair but it was so tangled and wet I could hardly get the brush through. We weren’t allowed to use hairdryers. Martha stood next to me, painfully trying to get her thick curly hair back into a ponytail. “Smell this.” She said, looking at me for the first time with anything that resembled honesty. “My hair has mold in it. Give it a few weeks and yours will too. We shower twice a day. Your hair will never dry.” A couple other girls nodded in agreement. I didn’t even have to get close to notice the smell of mildew and rot.
We lined up again outside the metal gate, this time heading to the field. I had noticed it the night before as we had pulled up outside the complex, a barren expanse of scrub brush and cracked concrete. There were two basketball hoops and a soccer net. As we got closer, I noticed a worn path circling the area, hundreds of footprints etched into the sand. On the far edge, two goats stood quietly munching on the grass, barely aware of our existence.