Monday, September 12, 2011

Jim O'brien's : The Girl with the Mirror

Part 2: The Girl with the Mirror
I’ve heard Caheri Gutierrez describe her face as “deformed.”  That’s her prerogative, of course.  Certainly its irregularities -- after three surgeries limited to the right cheek and around her chin -- are noticeable, although no more so than her extraordinary eyes.  There is scarring and disproportion; there are isolated ripples and patches of raised skin.  The 21-year-old says she’s lost her mojo with men because of the changes to her face since it was shot up in a drive-by two-and-a-half years ago.  “Guys don’t holla at me like they used to,” she says.  Certainly it is not the face it used to be.  But it is beautiful again. 

You have to understand something about the face of Caheri (pronounced "carrie") Gutierrez, then and now.  If now it has sometimes a vulnerable, searching expression,then its expression was more of a prowl.  In modeling photographs taken in the year before the shooting, the face confronts you with one of human history’s miraculous hybrids, a perverse yet sublime symbol of what we can accomplish, over centuries, if we work together: the big, dark, almond shaped meso-American eyes and wide, pre-Columbian cheek bones; the flared, triangular, European nose and black hair; the dark skin -- burnt, Mexican; the full, downward, frowning mouth pure early 21st Century Oakland, California, USA. 

Its attitude seems to pose a challenge that is both sexual and street.  It is intimidating.  All this, and the brashness of unambiguous beauty it exudes, express precisely the East Oakland Gutierrez grew up in as the sister of a gang member (shot when he was 17) and the daughter of a single mother who works as a waitress and cleans office buildings.

“I was kind of part of the whole Oakland thing.  When you’re young and you’re in Oakland it’s a trend to be bad, it’s a trend to smoke, it’s a trend to, you know, like, just not care, I don’t know, it’s stupid.  You want to be tough; you want to hang out in the streets.  When I was in high school I would cut school, go home, hang out, just chill, smoke, I used to smoke a lot of pot, smoke, just chill.  I was never violent but I would just, you know, chill out, not do much.”

One person, one gun, one dark urge and one powerful bullet on the night of November 18, 2008, and that face, with everything it represented -- beauty, history, our time and place, a person’s very identity -- was gone, half-shredded like a cheap grocery bag
Caheri Gutierrez in early 2008

I woke up remembering
The night of the shooting, after fighting to stay awake at the scene, in the ambulance and into the emergency room, Gutierrez had closed her eyes under the white hospital lights and begun to slip away.  Or maybe it was something else she was seeing.  Anyway, the last thing she remembers is a “very white light.”

It would be a week before her awareness returned.

“I woke up remembering.  I feel like I was woken right after, but I don’t remember anything until a week after.  I was intubated, I lost hearing from my right side, my face was paralyzed, I had no teeth.” 

Even before she remembers waking up, she’d been talking.  Writing, actually.  In a medicated daze, with no jaw and a tracheotomy tube stabbed into her throat, she was incapable of talking.  So she had a notepad.  “I’d start writing and then I would go to sleep in the middle.  How are yyyyy....”

Apparently, she’d been asking for her friends who’d been in the car with her, asking if she still had a nose, if she still had her right ear.  Asking for her mother.  Asking for a mirror. 

I knew I was not the same
The doctors had advised against giving her one.

“They said, ‘No mirrors inside the room, don’t let her see what she looks like.’  They were afraid I was going to go into a depression, a deep depression.” 

Her mother handed her one anyway.  A small makeup mirror.  It had to happen sooner or later.

“I had tubes everywhere.  This scar down on my jaw was up on my right cheek.  I had metal plates.  The trach scar.  Blood in my ear.  Blood in my fingernails.  I just looked ugly.”

She was toothless, bruised and swollen.  But Gutierrez says what she felt when she looked in that mirror was not shock or even sadness. 

“I knew I was not the same.  I expected it.  So when I saw myself, it was kind of like a relief, I was relieved.  Because I finally got to see my face.  And I knew that it wasn’t going to be pretty.  I wasn’t scared.” 

It’s hard to understand at first.  Relief over sadness.  But you get the sense that Gutierrez’s brain had been working all the time she was out, working, trying to understand her predicament.  And that now, finally seeing herself in the mirror was the proof she and her brain needed that she was alive.  After a brush with death that comes out of nowhere, ourselves, even our maimed selves looking back at us from a little mirror, may well be our most comforting companion. 

She kept the mirror nearby.  She looked into it constantly.  Everyone assumed it was the desperate shock of the disfigured beauty that drew her to that mirror.  When she told me about the mirror, that’s what I’d assumed.

But Gutierrez says it was something much simpler, more practical, something that gives you a small detail of her long, unpleasant hospital existence. 

“You know what, people always didn’t want me to look at the mirror because they thought I was judging myself, about how ugly I looked or something.  But I would always have mucous coming out from the trach tube, and always was slobbering on myself, and I kept wanting to clean myself up because it felt uncomfortable.  So that was it.  Not obsessing.  Yeah, for a moment, I would be like, ‘Wow, I don’t look the same,’ but I never took it that serious.  I don’t know why.”

The Vixen
Still, I’m skeptical.  Even Gutierrez finds her relationship with the mirror a bit mysterious.

“Of course I had those thoughts, but not to the point where I would be sad about it, because, I don’t know, it’s just crazy how I didn’t think about it that much.”

She keeps working toward a possible answer.  If she is a pensive young adult now, before the shooting, she was a girl more attached to her physical beauty.  How could the reflection not be a constant blow?  When she’d first told me about the mirror, it seemed like a sign of her shock, or a symbol of seeking, of some forlorn hope that healing would return to her the thing that had defined her.  Because you get the feeling, when you hear about her life before the shooting, about skipping school, smoking, drinking, that more and more she was counting on that face to carry her, in one way or another. 

And it might have worked.  At the age of 16, she’d even become a Vixen.

The Vixens.  How to explain the Bay Area Vixens?  The Vixens were a racially mixed collection of hot Bay Area party girls with a dream of modeling.  Or models with a dream of being party girls.  I can’t quite tell, but I’ve seen the pictures.  The Vixens would host boozy events, publish on myspace photo shoots of themselves in alluring outfits.  In the photos, Gutierrez tends to look serious.  She was very popular at the events.  Also underage.

When she tells me about being discovered by the Vixens, what stands out is the frequent use of the self-effacing qualifier “I guess.”  Nowadays, she speaks of herself with a modesty that I can’t imagine was much in evidence in the youngest member of the Vixens. 

“I came to one of their photo shoots.  When I was younger I was really into fashion and design and creativeness with hair, I still am, so I was really spunky, and my hair back then, it was a trend to die your hair and I was really good at it, I guess, and so my bangs were blue and purple and my outfits were really eccentric and cute, I guess.  They said, ‘You’re really pretty,’ I guess, ‘would you like to be part of the Vixens?’  I was stoked.  Everyone in the Bay knows about the Vixens, even in LA, and to be a part of that was like ‘Wow, I’m a Vixen.’” 

The girl in the Transitional Care Unit of the county hospital, depressed by the dreary, lightless days of late fall, the girl with the tubes and the mucous and the torn-up face and always with the mirror in her hand, the girl who couldn’t talk, or eat, whose long hair laced with her own blood had been bunched up in the emergency room and left to transform into a bloody dread on her pillow, that girl might have been spunky, but she was not pretty, she was no longer so self-assured as the girl in the pictures.  That Caheri was lost.  Gone.  Dead. 

Certainly her nurse felt that way.  He said the mirror had to go.

“He was like, ‘Stop looking at that, you cannot have a mirror anymore.  You need to worry about your education, forget about your face now.  People only look at people because of their looks, but now you’re in a different situation.’”

One day, two years later, over lunch -- she’s self-conscious eating in public sometimes because her chin is still numb and she can’t tell if there is food on it -- she talks about her gratitude toward that nurse for that kick in the ass.

“All I used to do was go to school and party.”  It’s sounds like the Caheri she’s describing is a childhood friend, someone for whom she still has affection, but who she has zero interest in seeing ever again.  “My looks, I was known as this pretty person, and the way I dressed, I was an icon, and people would copy me, I was a trendsetter.  I used it for self-esteem and attention.  It was all positive, it made me feel good about myself.”

She insists, insists on insisting, ultimately with some persuasiveness, that when she looked at herself in the mirror at Highland Hospital, she was thinking about moving on, ready begin a new life not defined by her beauty. 

“I’m hella smart, I’m really smart, I’ve achieved a lot of things in my life, but my face, I really was like that part of my life was over, that partying, that modeling, that hanging out, that depending on my looks, that was over with.  I just wanted to do something different.”

What she didn’t know, what no one had prepared her for, was that the fight for rebirth had hardly even begun.

Caheri Gutierrez in 2011

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