"Pedophiles. Sure. They're the nicest inmates."
"Sure. Nice, polite, don't cause any trouble. Always call you miss, always say no ma'am, yes ma'am."
Something in her calmness compelled me to talk. "I was reading that pedophiles rationalize what they do by thinking of it as consensual even if they use coercion." That particular fact, something I'd seen in my abnormal- psychology textbook, shocked me by how perfectly it fit Peter's thinking. My next insight, though, wasn't gleaned from a book, but I pretended it was: "I also read that spending time with a pedophile can be like a drug high. There was this girl who said it's as if the pedophile lives in a fantastic kind of reality, and that fantasticness infects everything. Kind of like they're children themselves, only full of the knowledge that children don't have. Their imaginations are stronger than kids' and they can build realities that small kids would never be able to dream up. They can make the child's world... ecstatic somehow. And when it's over, for people who've been through this, it's like coming off of heroin and, for years, they can't stop chasing the ghost of how it felt. One girl said that it's like the earth is scorched and the grass won't grow back. And the ground looks black and barren but inside it's still burning."
"How sad," said Olivia, and she looked like she meant it. After an awkward pause, the conversation shifted to other types of inmates and the general experience of working in a prison. During our talk, I began to feel nauseated, as though my surroundings, the warm kitchen that had felt so inviting at first, had become menacing. My perceptions were always devastatingly acute, a side effect of years of very little social contact with the world outside of the one I'd shared with Peter.
In Olivia's kitchen that day, I felt as though something in me was at a high pitch, as if the world were turned up, and roaring at me. Union City, New Jersey, where I grew up, is said to be the most densely populated city in the United States. You can't get a real feel for it just from descriptions of the stale-stiff buttered breakfast rolls and paper espresso containers the size of doll teacups, or the long doughy-sweet churros, just as you can't get a feel for Manhattan by simply mentioning the shish kebab stand by the Port Authority Bus Terminal or the Strand Bookstore with its eighteen miles of books or the skateboarders at Washington Square Park.
You might try to envision the pigeons and bars and night (spelled "nite") clubs, the young "hoods" in baggy pants displaying their boxer shorts, the cars parked bumper-to-bumper and the bizarre narrowness of some of the streets, where it's not unusual to get your side mirror cracked by a passing truck. There are the hissing sounds men of all ages make at any girl over twelve, the fruit stands selling cheap papaya, mango, and avocado (my father, an avocado lover, insisted they could make us live forever), the blackened pieces of gum packed tightly into cracked cement sidewalks. It's not unusual to hear the kids chant, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back!" and, I, superstitious like my father, would dutifully avoid them, which was difficult since they zigzag the concrete like the rivulets on a crumpled map when you open it. Just as carefully, I would avoid stepping on my shadow for fear I'd be trampling on my own soul.
If you visit, don't forget to hold your nose as defense against the foul smell while passing the Polleria Jorge live poultry market on Fortysecond Street between New York Avenue and Bergenline. Crossing the street to where Panda Shoes has been as long as I can remember brings you to El Pollo Supremo. There, the kind smells of roasting chicken, simmering yucca, rice with black beans, and frying tostones greet you like the elixirs of the Atlantic Ocean. We used to go there to eat, Peter and I, and one wet Halloween during the two years my parents kept us apart, Peter sat in a lone booth and stared out the rain-splashed window for eight hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of me trick-or-treating with my mother.
Excerpted from Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso. To be published in March 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Margaux Fragoso. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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