Isabela’s Red Dress Flutters Away

For Lauren

The other teachers warned you: She will curse you out. She said: I thought 
you would be just another white bitch, but you’re not. You heard Isabela
improvise a bilingual trumpet solo of obscenities to blast the faces of the boys
circling Jorge in the hallway, the giant who would never hit back, who told
everyone in your classroom to pick up their trash on the way out. Isabela sat 
on her desk, knees tucked under her chin, hair she snipped and dyed blond
brittle as straw, bangs dangling in her eyes, mesmerized by every word from
you about the play they saw on DVD, where the white boy spat in his Black
servant’s face. When your cell buzzed with news from your old teacher, 
ready to die in the surgeon’s white room, she squeezed you hard on tiptoe.
You were her teacher now. She was a year behind. She was about to graduate
from here, the school that used to be an envelope factory until the layoffs.

Isabela flinched when she heard the door lock behind her, the smoke alarm 
of her mother’s voice evicting a girl of smoke. She left, tattooed her mother’s
name on her forearm, slept on any couch she could. The school uniform that
made everyone a citizen of the republic betrayed her, khakis frayed at the cuffs 
and dragging, the gray polo stained at the armpits. She smuggled clothes from
her mother’s empty house, her teacher the accomplice in the getaway car.

Her shirts and jeans swam in your washing machine, knocking on the walls
of your dryer. You pulled the card from your wallet for more shirts and jeans.
There was a pilgrimage to the salon in a college town where the stylist dyed
Isabela’s hair from yellow back to the brown of her roots, dipping her head
into the sink so she could scissor away the tangles, darkened strands dropping
wet in clumps onto the white floor. There was dinner at the college town
Chinese restaurant. She spoke of cosmetology, her own salon one day. 
She was good with eyeliner and lipstick. She would text you with the word
gracias, then the word love, and a multitude of moon-faced teardrop emojis.

Yet, a new boyfriend meant a bed where she could sleep. He paid for a red sateen dress to wear at graduation, the dress she wore on picture day at 
school, a red flower pinned to her hair. He would wait for her in his wheelchair
as he always waited, legs withered away since the day the doctors picked 
the bullet from the split trunk of his spine. One morning, as they cursed each
other, he raised a hand from his wheelchair to grab her by the hair, pulled 
her close enough to kiss and crushed her face with his fist, again, then again,
till they toppled together, crashing to the floor. His head smacked the bedpost. 
She left a footprint in his blood as she staggered off. Your cell began to buzz.

You were her teacher, so you drove her to the ER. She told the nurse at intake
she slipped and fell. Your eyes met the eyes of the nurse. You tell her or I will, 
you said. They left Isabela on a gurney in a white room and you without a chair,
so you sat on the floor, solitary witness to the slit crusting in a scab below 
her eye, the purple lump of cheekbone that might be cracked, a patch of scalp. 
She would comb her fingers through her hair till clumps by the handful littered
the white floor. She would sleep. The police rapped on the door to wake her,
ordered you out so they could take snapshots of the wounds under her johnny,
for the arrest that would never happen, for the charges she would never bring.

You called the principal from the hallway. I’m fine, you said. You’re not fine,
she said. You just think you’re fine. This will hit you later. There were no more
nurses, no doctor, no social worker, as if Isabela slept on a slab in the morgue
and you sat on the white floor of the underworld. Someone from the principal’s
office dropped off a sack of Burger King. After school hours, when the history
teacher tapped on the door, you left. There was no bed open at the hospital.
She slept on Flaca’s couch, ID tag still on her wrist, ice bag pressed to her face.

Later that night, on the college campus, poets and professors so close you
could not breathe, you would start to shake and could not stop, chilled as if
someone yanked open your collar to pour a bag of ice down the groove 
in your back, an unseen fist squeezing the muscle in your chest as if to milk
the blood, your face red like the milk of the muscle palpitating in your chest,
possessed by the spirit of a dead girl not yet dead, leaking from your eyes.
I would hold you, but could not slow the tremors, her spirit rumbling through 
the tunnel of your body, the visions of hair on the floor in the white room.
Even the word love in your ear was useless medicine against the vertigo.

Afterward, she saw you in the hallway and said Drive me to the nail salon.
You shook your head no. Isabela said You’re like the rest. She would fade 
from the hallway, a name unspoken by the principal on graduation day,
the red dress fluttering in the sky like a parade balloon escaping the parade.
At the end of the school year, somebody warned you: She’s waiting for you
at the office. You were her teacher. Isabela wore a jean jacket, belly swollen,
pregnant by a new man. She handed you a card inviting you to the baby
shower. She handed you a single gas station rose, wrapped in cellophane.

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Published: September 11, 2023