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The first time I ever questioned my flawless report card or the several gleaming trophies that perched above my bed, I was sitting in the dingy room of the dean’s office. I stared at the squalid walls of its waiting room that resembled the canvasses of an abstract painter. Our walls, however, displayed nothing to be proud of; they were covered in gang graffiti, and I’d spent many useless hours trying to decipher their code. The school officials had fruitlessly painted over the scribbles, but like trick candles, the graffiti would magically appear again. I let my eyes drop as I shifted in my chair, and I asked myself, “So why am I, a perfectly divine student, sitting in the dean’s office?” Too bad I didn’t know, because just then the dean called me to explain the same answer to him.
Mr. Wurman is an obese man. He once told me that he used to play football; as I followed him into his office, I couldn’t help but wonder how long ago that must have been. I sat down in front of a cluttered desk while he shuffled around behind it.
“I heard you got into trouble,” he peered at me from behind thick grandpa glasses. “Why?”
“Because my essay on the Ku Klux Klan caused a riot in the classroom. My English teacher dismissed my essay as inappropriate. I reasoned that she failed to see the connection between my essay and the problems we face here with the Crips and ….”
“Janine,” he cut me off, “you should know when to stop.” Then he huffed, reached into his pocket and retrieved a folded pink flyer.
I peered at him lamely; it was a good thing we got along. We shared a love for knowledge, and both agreed that our school was in the dumps, but that’s where our similarities ended. “What’s the paper for?”
Unfolding it, he exalted, “I found this flyer tacked to the bulletin board. I figured your classmates wouldn’t need it.” He handed it to me.
“What Makes Your School Unique? National Contest for High School Students” had been squeezed in a bubbly font across the top of the flyer that asked for essays expressing an issue faced in the submitter’s school. The winner would receive a thousand-dollar bond. Not bad if you really gave a damn about your school.
Too bad I didn’t.
There hadn’t been a day I didn’t wish I was someplace else. I slipped the flyer into my backpack. “I’ll think about it.”
A complete lie. I’m sure Mr. Wurman knew it, too, because I saw him cringe. I rose from my seat and left his room, leaving him standing with a pained look on his face.
There are times in life when one petty mistake can create all the problems in the world, and yet, it can also change your life into the most intricate metamorphic experience. Throughout the past seventeen years, I admit to innumerable mistakes; granted, most of them were insignificant- a silly mistake on a math test, or an unfortunate slip of tongue. Still, the mistake I made as I sauntered home after another tedious day of junior year failed to leave my monotonous life the way it was before.
It’d only been a couple hours since I’d left Mr. Wurman’s office. The road was empty as I trudged back home. I was mulling over my conversation with Mr. Wurman when a voice calling my name made me stop in my tracks. Turning around, I smiled when I saw the boy running towards me. He stopped a few feet away. Jay.
Jay had been at our school for a year. I lucidly remember how shocked I’d been the first time I met him. He’s my age, dark-skinned, and a head taller than I, but it’d been his clothes that had stunned me. There was something about the ironed shirt and the pleated pants that had taken me aback. How long had it been since I’d seen someone my age wear anything other than their insidious gang colors and the absurd jeans that were perched precariously below their a**es?
I’d frowned, having not met many preppy teenagers. It’s hard to trust anyone in the city. After living in the Bay Area for several years, Jay had managed to convince his hard-boiled parents that moving might give him the constructive experience he’d need after graduation.
“I guess I’m just trying to understand the world and explore different areas of my life other than education,” he’d construed. If I’d had any idea what he was really getting at, I would have slapped some sense into him right then. However, I didn’t know, and after spending a month discussing our humdrum lives together, I’d kissed him. Knowing that he was someone who shared my values made me feel safer in a place where fights between Latin Kings and Crips erupted almost every day during lunch.
I thought I knew everything I needed to know about gangs. My parents taught me that if I looked hard enough, I could tell if a person’s future resided in gangbanging. So I’d always believed in judging a book by its cover. But it wasn’t the same for Jay. Not even after knowing him so well did I think he’d choose the path that he did. And what was worse? He took me down with him.
Jay was gazing intently at me when he caught up. “I was going to walk by the creek. Wanna come?”
I shrugged. It was Friday afternoon. My dad might not even come home, and I had nothing better to do. “Sure, why?”
“Something important.” His expression was unreadable.
We strolled silently. Jay wasn’t a talker; neither was I. I shivered as we approached the creek; there was a slight November breeze. Taking my hand, Jay led me down the steep rocks. The water was cool as it slowly ebbed through the curves and over jagged rocks. I smiled, reminiscent of the many special times we’d spent together here. Glancing at Jay, I was abashed when I realized he wasn’t smiling.
“What do you see when you look at yourself in the water?” Jay’s eyes, dark and fierce, intently scrutinized his own reflection.
I frowned, never having considered that. So I took a moment to stare at myself but found nothing atypical. “I see the same girl I stick my tongue out at every morning in the mirror. The same person, unmoved, uninspired, unsure.” I scrunched my eyebrows. “My mind’s clouded. What do you see?”
Hollow laughter escaped his mouth; he smiled bitterly, ignoring my question. “So in your reflection, you see someone who’ll never change.”
“No one’s impacted me enough to change my life. Except you. I’d change my life several times for you.”
Something flickered across his face as he turned to the water again. Fear? I couldn’t tell, but I was worried about his behavior. My answer seemed to have aroused several unnamed emotions in him. “You know what I see in my reflection?” His voice was calculated, almost robot-like.
“Someone who hasn’t been completely truthful.” Jay peered at me uncertainly. “Remember you told me that your mom was killed because of gang violence?”
I felt panicked. This irascible train of thought could easily turn ugly. Memories of my mom’s death often provoked anger, but there was a part of me that wanted to be indifferent to her death and continue life like everyone else.
“Ever since you’d told me, I was filled with fear. I never felt safe. But now I’ve found a solution.”
I stuttered, “A solution, wait… what?”
“Janine, I know you’ll be upset when you realize the truth, but you’re the only one in this city I care about. You need to consider my decision and realize that it’s the only way we can be safe.” As he said this, I watched him slowly pull his sleeve above his shoulders, and then I saw the tattoo. A golden five-point crown with the initials â€˜LK’ inscribed in the middle. I recognized the unmistakable identification immediately. The Latin Kings. Jay had joined the Latin Kings.
I felt like I was sinking, breaking away from the last thread that held me to any shred of reason. Yet, there he was, rising like mountain, watching me drown. I gasped, words frozen in my numbed mouth. “You’re a King now?”
He adjusted the sleeve. “Janine, I’ve thought more about this decision than any other in my life. I need you to hear me out before you say anything. Do you know why people join gangs?”
“Because they’ve lost their minds!”
“No, it’s because they’re insecure! Gang involvement gives them security and belonging. Membership. We need that, Janine. My parents don’t live with me. Your dad hardly comes home at night.”
A tear trickled down my face. He’d hit a sore bruise in my life. “What about my mom?”
“Gang violence affects the most innocent people, like your mom. I decided I couldn’t be one of them, and neither should you. Think about it, Janine, we need the support of others. You told me yourself that I was the only significant person left in your life.”
Does a tattoo on your bicep solve the crisis? Was he really going to ridicule my integrity? Growing up in the city meant knowing your friends and your foes; I remembered my dead mother and sighed. Jay was letting fear control his actions, but I realized he was right. He was the only one I could turn to. With him in the Latin Kings, I was alone and helpless in this dangerous city. I felt like a victim of the Black Plague being barricaded without a choice. My soul tore at every miserable thought as my lips parted to murmur, “Fine.” Fine: the simple word that send my life in an endless tumultuous downward tumble. A word that I feared would be the last bit of control I had over my life.
The air in the basement was musty, and the stench of vomit and liquor made my stomach turn. I squinted in the dimly lighted room and made out several silhouetted figures crouched against far corners of the room. Dogs. I was in the Latin Kings’ crib. It was more like a dungeon, but in one month it’d morphed into my home. I was becoming quite accustomed to gang life. Although I admit, there were times when my conscience questioned the ability of a potential valedictorian to act so erroneously, that part of me was slowly dwindling away. I could feel myself living the life, flying high, and feeling invincible. It wasn’t like I was committing any crimes. The older guys were in charge of that; I was a messenger.
Right now, however, there was work to be done. Kanger, our leader, had given me the task of bringing back to him a cardboard box that someone would secretly slip in through the cranked window of the crib. It was about 11:00 in the night, and I had no idea who the stranger would be, but Kanger had promised no one would hurt me; I trusted him. It was an eerie ambience, but my heart was calm; my mind, after several years, was relaxed. I waited several long moments before I heard a slight screech from the behind me and an unexpected thud. Startled I turned around to find a fairly-sized brown package on the floor, next to the window. I wanted to see who the stranger had been, but Kanger had advised against it, so I waited several minutes before claiming the parcel. Turning it around in my hands, I realized it was heavier than I had expected. I shook it, and it created the swooshing sound of sand in a bottle. Human nature prevented me from being sensible and delivering it immediately to Kanger. I’d heard the Kings talking about this day for quite a while, and wanted to take advantage of being chosen chief messenger. My fingers were numb from the biting chill of the basement, but they excitedly fumbled through the plastic binding and let the cardboard box fall open.
I wasn’t surprised to see what was inside. Drugs. Drugs of all kinds. Still, I felt very excited. I picked up one of the small packets and looked at it with true curiosity. I wanted to know what it was about this substance that made people forget; there were several things that I, too, wanted to forget. How much power could this single packet have? Or maybe all of them? Impulsively, my fingers pried open the packet and dumped some of the white powder onto my left palm. I was frenzied and delirious as my crazed eyes took in the powerful powder. Would Jay ever try this stuff? Would my mother turn in her grave if she saw me right now? I couldn’t stop the endless stream of questions that attacked my mind, and of course, there was my conscience. I glanced suspiciously at the drug and realized there was nothing keeping me from just one moment of perfect euphoria; without another thought, I buried my nose into my palm and breathed.
It was the most elated experience of my life. There were flashes of pride and esteem, but most of all, there was power. I felt like I was flying ten feet above everyone else. I laughed like the Wicked Witch of the East and reveled at every moment of perfect bliss, not believing that there had been a time when I would’ve rather died than chosen this life. How naÃ¯ve I was. Who would ever turn down a life where they felt like they were walking on Cloud 9? I laid down on a torn couch, forgetting my job, and closed my eyes for the most peaceful sleep.
Long moments later, I was woken up by the sharp throbbing in several parts of my head. I flinched and rolled off the couch, landing with a painful thud on the cool floor. Pressing my fiery forehead against the cement flooring, I took a moment to assess myself. Suddenly, there was nothing left of that euphoria that, just a moment ago, had left me so ecstatic. There was no pride, and definitely no self-esteem.
There was only pain and memories. Memories of that damned day a month ago when I sat in Mr. Wurman’s office worried about my English grade. Memories of how life had been when my mom was alive, and memories of the several gleaming trophies that perched above my bed. At least those memories lasted. I barely remembered anything before I’d fallen asleep other than that I’d taken a drug I couldn’t even identify. The pain increased, and my heart beat erratically. I was about to pull myself up when I noticed a small mirror within my reach. I picked it up and was shocked at what I saw. I was no longer that ordinary girl who just wanted to get high school over with. I looked deeply into my reflection and saw the beast that I’d become. My eyes, dark, sunken pits, failed to reflect the perfect life I’d thought I was living. My once rosy complexion had tuned ashy from daily experimentations with illegal substances. Everything was so unlike that simple girl I’d seen in my reflection a month back at the creek with Jay. I couldn’t even look at myself. I felt like reaching into the glass and pounding some sense into this new forsaken me. Suddenly, I wasn’t flying anymore; I was sinking- sinking into a bottomless pit with no one to help me up. I moaned and my hand dove into my pocket for my phone. Flipping it open, I dialed the three numbers.
A couple days later, I was at the hospital being treated for obvious drug overdose. I felt weak, but at the same time, a little powerful. I’ve always believed that while it can be easy to destroy your life, it is much harder to rebuild it; I knew I was rebuilding mine. There were, however, a few things I was guilty about. Calling the police had meant giving up the Latin King’s secret crib and exposing every bit of their wrongdoings to the limelight. I expected that most of the Kings had gone into hiding, but I felt sorry for Jay because although he had chosen the wrong path, he truly had been my only friend. Who knew what he was doing now?
My days as a loner were dwindling, however. In the past couple days, several people had visited me: friends I’d abandoned after meeting Jay, teachers who’d talk about my future, but most importantly, my dad. I’d seen his bloodshot eyes and tear-stained face and realized that he, like me, had gone through a similar phase of redefining goals, setting priorities, and building a lost identity. It was all good now, like the ending to one of Disney’s fairy tales. My dad had promised me a stable life, and I guess that’s all I expected from him. I sighed contently, looking forward to a better future.
Mr. Wurman had also stopped by to make sure I was still sane. I’d rolled my eyes when he shuffled into the door, but inside, I was smiling. After a brief overview of everything I’d missed in school, he’d asked me, “So, Janine, are you still up for that contest, or is you brain still fuddled from this past last month?”
I’d laughed. I knew what to write about. So I’d stated quite confidently to the expectant man, “Mr. Wurman, not only am I up for it, I’ll make sure my essay wins.” And for the first time in my life, I was sure of something.