When she asked me for a lighter without so much as an excuse me, much less wishing me a good afternoon, I looked her over trying to decipher her age, without even daring to think that this girl might be seventeen years old, if even that. I attempted to connect with her while making a smile that looked more like a grimace of pain and asking her – where do you go to school? And it was at that moment when she eventually looked at me with a firm and rebellious look in her eyes disguised with some cheap Maybelline. I was surprised again by her childish voice when she answered sharply – I don’t study, I work – while lighting her last cigarette.
I offered her the rest of a pack I had that was already open since I was already intending to quit anyway. In return, I received the best of smiles and a single educated act in the midst of a quite sincere ‘thank you’. From that moment I knew she was coming and going from the Hotel Telegraph with her clients: she paid a fee of 10CUC to the doorman and another 10CUC to the girl at the reception desk and they let her stay all night in a room where there could be, hopefully, an Italian, a German or an American, who were according to her the ones who pay the best. If by mistake she reeled in a Spaniard, well, then she would have to settle for only 30 or 40 of the expected 100CUC – but money is money – she said. She proceeded to show me her new dress and explained that she was not wearing a new dress to simply show off, but that it was an investment, since the prettiest and best dressed girls are the ones that get the guys who pay the best.
I also came to know that she was only 14 years old and that she hadn’t been able to enjoy having lunch for more than a week, since according to her, “she didn’t have time for that.” I could see her anxiety when a man in his fifties with a German face passed by. I only managed to write my phone number and tell her in a shout – Call me! – before I saw her running away in some shoes that seemed to be large, with her hair falling on the back of her tiny body. Behind her, a thick voice was calling to her – run you whore, you’re letting the Yuma get away! This to a girl who was only 14 years old, who should be studying and sketching out her future dreams.
I got up slowly and looked up and down the high street. I saw the silhouette of this girl everywhere, her figure replicated and faces like hers smeared with so much makeup, I looked at my watch and realized it was almost time for my daughters to return from school, so I ran home.
Her name was Janet. She called me a week later with a desire to talk and we met again at the calle Obispo. Since that day, she has become the youngest friend I have. Although she graduated from the “university of hard knocks,” today she doesn’t only talk about the Yumas or the prices. Now we talk about art, music, events, politics, everything. I still haven’t been able to get her out of the world of the “greenbacks,” as she calls dollars, but our organization has been there for her, and although her stories keep crushing our hearts, we also know that shared pain, hurts less.