Have you been sleeping badly?
Some nights, it’s insomnia. I lie in bed, blinking at the darkness, trying to calm my imagination. Its current preoccupation is a terrifying place: the future. I struggle to conjure soothing images. Sheep. Lavender. Vaccines. Once I do fall asleep, my rest is fitful. I wake up during the spookiest of hours, around one or two in the morning. After shoving off my sweat-drenched sheets, I stagger to the kitchen, pour myself a glass of water, and breathe. I return to bed. The challenge of falling back asleep intimidates me. My dreamscapes are no longer benign. The macabre saturates them.
My insomnia worsened during the weeks leading up to the discovery of Vanessa Guillén’s remains. On April 22, she went missing from Fort Hood. For two months, people searched central Texas for her. I wasn’t hopeful that she’d be found alive and on the evening of the day that I learned the details of her femicide, I dreamt a gothic nightmare.
A figure silhouetted against the night sky appeared before me. I knew the figure’s gender not because I could see who she was but because I could sense who she was. My imagination always feminizes Death.
A dark rebozo cloaked her. She hovered with her face turned away from mine and I longed to see this part of her. I felt that if I could see her face, and look into her eyes, I might understand what she wanted. I’d be able to read her desire. As I craned my neck to try to catch a glimpse, she turned her face further away.
I awoke from this visitation sitting upright, panting.
Why wouldn’t she let me see her face? I thought.
I left the lights off and sobbed.
I shared the content of my nightmare with family, friends, and acquaintances. One told me that my nocturnal visitor was la Santa Muerte announcing her protection. Another said that I’d been visited by la Siguanaba, a shapeshifter known to hide her face from admirers. Once la Siguanaba has inspired your curiosity, she reveals that she has no face. A fleshless skull rests on her shoulders. Privately, I wondered if the figure wasn’t Guillén herself. If my killer murdered me with a hammer, I’d want to hide my face, too. I wouldn’t want the violence to frighten people.
I wondered if my visitor was Sophia Castro Torres.
My connection to Sophia was wrought decades ago, in 1996. I’d finished my first year of university and returned home for the summer. I walked alone through a residential neighborhood on a warm afternoon when, from behind, somebody grabbed me. They held me captive on the sidewalk, lifted my skirt, and tore down my underwear. The attacker clutched me as his face invaded the territory between my legs. My public hair bristled. Once I screamed, he let go of me and ran. As he turned a corner, he looked over his shoulder and smiled. What horrified me most about him was how normal he looked. Wanting to take back what he’d stolen from me, I chased after him for half a block. He turned and entered an alley. I paused. He lingered by a dumpster, taunting me with a final smile. I understood that if I continued chasing him, only one of us would leave the alley alive. Chances were, it would be him.
I don’t remember much else about that day. My memory largely goes dark. I remember speaking to a detective. I remember a nurse telling me to “get over it.” I remember my father driving me home. Weeks later, I returned to my university campus. I was nineteen and a sophomore and I believed that the best way to deal with what had happened to me that summer was to forget about it.
Months later, in December, I learned the attacker’s name: Tommy Jesse Martinez. After sexually assaulting me, he attacked more women and girls. He remained silent when he attacked me but he spoke to other victims. One had demanded to know what Tommy wanted of her. He replied, “To destroy your pretty face.” Tommy was honest about his intentions and on the evening of November 15 he chased Sophia, a shy Mexican migrant, through a city park, terrorizing her with a pipe or bat. He raped her, bludgeoned her to death, and slashed her face. As a trophy, he stole her green card.
I haven’t seen Tommy since the day he forced his head between my legs. Police captured him but I refused to attend his trial. I didn’t want to sit in a room where I’d have to breathe the same foul air as Tommy. A jury found him guilty of capital murder and a judge sentenced Tommy to die by lethal injection. As a result of Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 moratorium on the death penalty, Tommy now awaits death by natural causes at San Quentin State Prison.
I never met Sophia. I’ve never seen a photograph of her. She does, however, live in my imagination. I think of her almost daily. I consider the life that she didn’t get to lead. I consider the beauty that Tommy robbed from her and us. Although I can’t describe Sophia’s face to you, I feel a peculiar intimacy with her. I don’t think I need to explain the intimacy to you. I think you understand.
Although they have more time than us, ghosts aren’t frivolous. They don’t haunt for haunting’s sake. Appetites animate them and the nocturnal visitor who appeared in my dream craves justice. She wants the scales to be properly balanced and her dignity to be restored.
She wants her face back.
Philosopher Franz Fanon wrote that violence restores self-respect. It provides a way for one to re-create herself. Feminist Mona Eltahawy echoes these sentiments when she asks, “How many men must we kill until men stop raping us?” I don’t know the answer to her question. I do, however, know this basic fact: dead men can’t rape. And that thought helps me sleep a little better at night.