I stepped differently into bed that night. Because though the sheets were just as crisp and inviting as always, I couldn’t shake the image of that seventeen-year-old, skirt splayed wide on a corner post, waiting for a customer to pass her territory on the abandoned industrial highway that curves north to Mexico.
I remember her lazer blue eye shadow, bulging black leggings, and the way her manicured hands turned the condoms over and over again, like curses, or Christmas presents.
And I remember the moment we said goodbye. Pasen buenas noches, she whispered. Have a good night. Igual, I ventured. Same to you. But as we left her alone in the dark to the trade that feeds her family, I wondered whether she ever could.
We visited more than twenty prostitutes that Thursday between 9 and 10pm. They all recognized the Casa Samaritana truck and left their benches or potential clients to come over to our window. Sometimes they inquired about our health or the next workshop the Casa would be offering. Self-esteem, good parenting and meditation are all common at Casa Samaritana, the Jesuit-founded prostitution support center down the alley from our Managua home. Other times, they took their weekly condom ration and retreated, eyes down, with a quick gracias.
The first two were in their 50s and emaciated with missing front teeth and makeup that caked decidedly lesioned skin. But they greeted us caras nuevas (new faces) like old friends. I could sense no shame. They joked with Nacho the driver and Fr. Arnoldo, the project’s founder, about family scandals and the price of frijoles, looking at us cheles (gringos) for laughs every once in a while. I felt quite powerfully that the universe between us shrank and we were equal under heaven, a truth I’ve always heard sung on the wind, but never fully understood.
But it was a struggle to feel this truth cut into my heart, because my naivete and their oppression continued to surface. We couldn’t even leave the truck, due to the dangers of the highway. My guilt asked me why. Why are these women cold and exposed and alone, even when in bed with paying strangers, while I observe them under the microscope of privilege? Why must I sit stupidly in front of a computer screen, feeling as mute as powerless as they must? Aren’t we all entitled to pasar buenas noches?
I cannot answer these questions; they will rightfully continue to break my heart. But with the help of my community I had answered one question by the end of the night, perhaps the most important question of all. What was I doing there?
I was there to do no more or less than be with them. I was there to feel that we are the same, that beneath my clean sweats and their old sequins we are all beautiful, loved, dignified, remembered. The Managua Jvs have resolved to join Casa Samaritana at least one night a month, but I hope I find it in me to go more often. Because a piece of my heart won’t have a good night until that fleeting moment when they wish me one again.