The power of Isabella’s lipstick

Dara E Healy -
Dara E Healy -

Culture Matters

Adventures of a

Christmas Angel


“AYUDAME, por favor.”

Angel looked at the piece of paper the scantily dressed young woman slipped under the cloth she was using to wipe the bar. With her limited Spanish she recognised the words written in lipstick on a piece of toilet paper – “Help me, please.”

Inside the seedy, crowded bar the lighting was dim. A few Christmas lights scattered around the room blinked in a desperate attempt to be festive. Patrons talked in hushed tones in cubicles or danced to their favourite songs, the more explicit the better. Angel learned to tune out the music, vulgar dancing and the constant flow of people.

When alcohol and other substances made some of the men too friendly towards her, Jorge the bouncer would stand next to them, all six-foot-something of him rippling in his vest and tight jeans with bulges not only in the expected places. Jorge never once said a word, but the men would stop their grinning and salivating and slink away.

Angel had been working at the bar in a shabby section of the city for a little while. She was saving for her fashion degree and the newspaper ad seemed perfect. Applicants should be female, no older than 25 and willing to learn. The owner, an overweight man in a short T-shirt that revealed his expanse of stomach, puffed on his cigar and sized her up. She started the next night. She served drinks, made conversation and, most importantly, collected tips.

Gradually Angel began to notice other things. For instance, the girl who slipped her the note would come in with two, sometimes three other Spanish-speaking women and a man – short, dark glasses, baggy clothes and heavy gold chains. They would spend a short time in the bar area and then head off somewhere behind the building.

“Ah coming back.” Angel headed to the bathroom and opened the piece of toilet paper with the words asking for help, her mind spinning. She stared into the mirror, then decided – she was going to help that girl.

“Is wha gwaan gyal? Yuh ’ave de runnings or wha’?” Cedelia from Jamaica startled Angel. Cedelia cackled and checked her lipstick in the mirror. “Gyal galang back by the bar eh. Meh soon come.”

As soon as Angel walked out of the bathroom, the smile fell from Cedelia’s face. She checked all the stalls and the bin before walking out.

“Aye Dex, you awake? Meet me home.” Angel called her friend as she walked home after her shift. “Girl, is two o’clock in the morning. Suppose I hugging up with a nice…” Angel cut him off. “Just meet meh.”

Dexter walked into Angel’s tiny studio apartment. “Girl you real lucky you nice eh, to geh me…”

Angel shoved the tissue in his hand. “Look, a girl slip me this tonight.”

Dexter squinted at the paper. “And you wha?”

Ayudame, boy. It mean, ‘Help me.’ Dex, I feel they trafficking women in that place.”

“And what you want me do ’bout that? Girl, them people will kill yuh. And me!”

Angel sucked her teeth. “Ok Dex, don’t bother. I’ll handle it.”

“All right, miss law and order. I’ll help yuh. But if you make them people kill me before I could eat meh black cake and pastelles I’ll deal with you.”

Over the following weeks Angel found ingenious ways to communicate with the young woman, whose name she discovered was Isabella. Sometimes Angel would drop a tissue on the floor with her question, or would write it on a napkin wrapped around a glass. It was slow going and terrifying, with Cedelia and Jorge watching her every move. She would pass any information to her friend Dexter.

One night before closing, police and immigration officers stormed the bar, guns drawn, shouting for everyone to get down. Jorge drew his gun and the man with the gold chains tried to run, but it was too late. They arrested Cedelia, who resisted of course, spitting and cursing in raw Jamaican creole. Some officers brought the owner downstairs in handcuffs. Their faces were covered, but Angel thought one of them winked at her. She gasped; she was sure it was her friend Dex!

As Isabella was led out with the other young women she whispered to Angel, “
Muchicimas gracias. Es la mejor Navidad de todas." "Thank you so much. This is the best Christmas ever.” Angel smiled and walked away from the bar for good.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


"The power of Isabella’s lipstick"

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