FALDAS Y FOTOS:
When I was twelve, Mamá maintained that I couldn’t wear a falda if I wanted to ride my bike to school. When pressed, she claimed that it was too risky — my skirt would fly up, and boys would see my underwear, and bad things would happen to me, as they had to my Tía Guadalupe, Dios la guarde en paz. But I had found dingy photos in shoe boxes in the forgotten corners of our house, and in them, Mamá wears a velvet-textured smile and skirts of all kinds. Faded denim miniskirts, long and swaying peasant skirts, vibrant screaming Yucatan skirts, short breezy layered skirts — whatever type of skirt, if you can name it, my Mami wore it, and for ages, I was dying to demand why.
I asked her about the photos, once. She was in the kitchen with Rosa, Raquel, y Amara, all four of them composing a song of popping cooking oil, the chemists behind the sublime scent of heat-crisped sopes. The kitchen sink formed the base of a tower of dirty plates, used pots and pans — casualties in the battle of Saturday afternoon meal prep. I knew from the long hard look Amara was giving me, Oh, now you want to help? that it would fall to me to wash them.
Shoving her look to the side with a dirty glare of my own, I turned to Mamá and demanded: “Mami, why don’t you wear faldas anymore?”
It is important to understand that Mamá has a special back — it possesses the ability to straighten infinitely, parallel to her displeasure, reaching an angle impossibly perpendicular to the ground, one whose limit does not exist.
“Skirts, Athena,” Rosa insisted. “If you’re going to speak in English, do it right.”
“Dejala que hable Español, Rosa, de por si lo está perdiendo,” Amara snorted.
“Well, Mami?” I demanded.
Mamá’s spine approached fearsome perpendicularity to the scratched floor tiles. She stirred the rice, she looked not at me, she spoke prickingly like the needles on a cactus you ran into headfirst when you were looking the other way: “Put those pictures back where you found them, Athena Bernal Martínez, o te lo juro on Abuela’s grave…”
Amara’s hand shot out for the pictures, darting like a rubber band. I yelped and slapped it away. “Give them to me, idiot! You’ll stain them with your grimy fingers,” she spat out.
“Or what, Mami? You’ll make Papi come back and spank me?”
Amara’s ladle burst out in a surprise appearance to smack me across the mouth, leaving red lines of chile dribbling down my chin.
Mamá’s back stiffened twenty degrees like she was trying to accommodate a pole someone had shoved down her throat inside her.
“Really Amara?” Rosa huffed, pulling the ladle out of her hand and dropping it in the sink.
“Te calmas o te calmo? And you, Athena, basta con las preguntas and the disrespect. That was not a request, I tell you to do something, you go do it, are we clear?”
I don’t know what it was that indicated that we were not, in fact clear. It could have been that her magical back, ever straightening, also sensed my narrowed eyes on it. Maybe she felt how tightly my fists were curled around the photos. Perhaps she already knew where my curiosity would get me.
But she relented: “You simply can’t wear a skirt if you want to succeed, Athena. It’s dangerous, how men will get. You girls don’t need to realize that, I realized it for you. You need your pants if you want your freedom.”
I took the photos away but I didn’t push them back in their shoebox, figuring there was more to the whole skirt thing, and reflecting to myself that ghosts don’t like to be kept in all the time — you have to air them out every now and then.
You didn’t know that was the figurative case, but you knew it was the literal one. Looking at the photos now, now that I know, I have to ask you Mami: What part of you made you think that was a good answer? Did the thought of giving an answer with a little bit of truth, a little bit of warning ever cross your mind? Perhaps not at that exact same moment, but at any point in between then and now might have been nice. Because I wear these pants with you today, and it is the sign of anything but my freedom, and if you’ve forgotten now, you hadn’t forgotten then. The woman in those photos knew freedom, knew men, knew a world outside this town; I’d even bet she knew happiness. So juramelo on Abuela’s grave this time, since this is the only answer I can’t seem to get from it: What happened between now and then, Mamá? I want to know why have you let it happen to me.
Once upon a time there was a woman who forbade skirts from the women of her house. Nobody knew why this was, but for as long as the town could remember, they had never seen the woman wear anything other than trousers. The old women of the town whispered about her behind their fans in church, and snide rumors commented that it was her pants that drove her husband to work far away, three towns over. But the woman put on a bold face, and carried on with her work.
Others believed that it was her abundance of daughters that drove the husband away, but on one of his visits home, he left her the gift of two twin boys, hatched out nine months later, and when still he stayed away, that rumor was dispelled.
But if her husband found her pants displeasing, he was the only one whom they deterred. All the single men of the town, and not a few married ones too, made their interest known in manners as diverse as their appearances. The young mechanic on Alameda Street delivered white roses to her doorstep every Sunday morning, rain, snow, or shine, even in the midst of winter when there was no other site with a single rose in sight. On Fridays at the cantina, the barber on the alley across the church was known to boast of how one day he would conquer the Bernal bitch. Her daughters’ teachers were always wanting a word if she ever picked them up, even on the rare occasions when there was nothing to be said.
If the woman’s daughters had thought they’d disliked the girlhood days when they suffered the humiliation of wearing shabby, too-short dresses to school, as women they found that they disliked the ban on skirts even more. As each one entered womanhood, they whined and complained, argued and formulated, but no protest they could concoct ever succeeded in swaying her. Instead, she remained firm, ever watchful, ever waiting.
On the eve of her thirteenth birthday, the woman’s youngest daughter took this question to the cemetery. “Doña,” she asked ponderously at the foot of a time-worn headstone, “Why is it that Mami says we cannot wear faldas when we become women anymore? All the other girls of the town do. Why has my Mami never left this town?”
Sitting in wait for a gentler response, the girl screamed when a rabid wind tugged her hair and pulled her to a reverent standing position. When the wind had finally stilled and she was no longer blinded by the yellow sharpness of the blinking moon, veils parted to reveal the figure of an old woman in a long black dress and a severe chignon.
“You dare to question the judgement of your mother?” she thundered. “Very well. Since you have ventured to ask, you will find out.” And with a snap of her fingers, the old woman had disappeared.
At first, the girl looked around and found nothing out of the ordinary. But as the seconds passed, the grass seemed to grow longer, and when she sensed something begin to crawl across her feet, she looked down, and cried out when she saw the tendrils of thorny twine twisting their sinuous way around her ankles and up her legs until they were all cut up with vagrant red gashes streaming angry rivulets, and she was tethered in place.
With every added gash, the moon seemed to blink wider and deeper, swallowing up the whole sky past the point the girl thought to be bearable, pulsating and giving rise to an army of silver human silhouettes that slowly began to encroach upon her. Athena, they sighed, for that was her name, extending haggard, ghoulish arms towards her.
“Who — who are you?” stuttered the trembling girl.
“We are your ancestors,” boomed the united voice of the crowd, narrowing and tapering down until it became the voice of a single individual, a woman who separated herself from the crowd and stepped forward towards Athena.
“We are your ancestors,” she repeated, all prideful cheekbones and dusty skin, swirling tattoos lining her arms and an obsidian spear gleaming firmly in her right hand. The tint of rust appeared to mat her deeply embroidered tunic, but when Athena’s eyes traced it down to her legs, she was appalled to find that it was blood, bursting out from her pelvis and washing her legs in a crimson, unending shower. When Athena could lift her eyes to the woman’s face once more, she saw that the flowers of violet, green, and blue that bloomed from the woman’s neck were not the collar of the tunic, but mauling bruises.
“My ancestors,” the girl whispered.
“Yes,” the woman agreed. “And as we have with one of every generation of the Yaxilan Bernal, we claim you to be ours. Your blood has been spilled from curiosity onto this earth. You are now tied to this land, as we are, and every month, you will spill your blood once more and hear our stories. And you shall not leave. And so it shall be.”
The woman nodded sharply, and the brambles around the girl’s legs fell away, leaving her swaying, bloodied and weak. The woman disappeared, and the crowd surged towards her — Athena! They cried out, demanded, pleaded.
“Mamá!” Athena sobbed out, and with strength she scarcely knew she had, she sprinted away from the graveyard on the hill and through the sleeping Saturday streets of the town, all the way to her mother’s house. Just barely had she managed to pull the back door open when the last of the strength left her body and she collapsed half on the cold tile of the kitchen floor and half on the concrete street of the sidewalk outside.
With the advent of the sun, Athena’s mother rose, and entered the kitchen to begin the day’s work. The sight of the open door gave her pause, and with a frown, she approached it, quickening her pace when she spied the body of her sleeping daughter lying between it.
“Mami?” asked the fearful voice of her eldest daughter, approaching behind her. “What happened to Athena?”
Kneeling, the woman reached a hand to stroke the hair falling over Athena’s face. As she and her daughter watched, the scores of short and vicious gashes that crossed about Athena’s legs disappeared, leaving only a single, deep-set cut from the back of Athena’s knee to the end of her ankle, that had not fully closed. Quivering drops leaked out in a single, solitary file.
With a heavy sigh, the woman traced a similar line down the path of her trousered leg. “Rosa,” she finally said. “Bring a pair of pants for Athena. And wake your sisters to let them know that they may finally wear skirts again.”
When her daughter had left, she let the tears drop from her eyes. “Mi pobre niña,” she murmured, still stroking her daughter’s hair. “I am so sorry. It had to happen to one of you. But still, for you and for myself, I am so sorry.”
Athena — While certainly very fantastical, your piece did not answer the prompt, “Write about a meaningful experience that changed you as a person.” We asked that you write about a real-life event but you have instead given us a fictional story. You also failed to describe how this fictional story changed the main character as a person. You will be given two additional days to turn in the assignment that was actually requested. This is not a grade that you want, so I recommend that you take them.
Best of luck,
Dear Mrs. Roberts,
You asked me to write about an experience that changed me as a person, so I did. It’s not my fault you’re too narrow-minded to understand that. And as for not describing how it changed me as a person, there’s a little something called reading between the lines. The only part that I confess was fictional was the ending — only a fool would believe that my mom would ever coddle me, and also she didn’t immediately let my sisters wear skirts after that. They had to beg and argue for a couple of weeks after the incident before she relented, and also my sister Raquel went on a hunger strike. But I can change the ending if you want.
Dear Mrs. Roberts,
I apologize for Athena’s last response. She’s a teenager going through a difficult phase, and I’ve since had a good, long talk with her. She will turn in her actual assignment as soon as humanly possible.
I apologize for the inconvenience,
DREAMS AND FRIJOLES:
“Vamonos, vamonos, vamonos!”
“Mamita where are your shoes? Go get them!”
Loud and plaintive: “Rosa, that’s my headband!”
A dirty scramble of shoes in the hallway. Jackets snatched up and put back down, thrown all over the sofa. A rush to finish washing the dishes before we had to leave. Empty glasses of milk, Mamá’s twice-filled coffee cup, bare brown plates scraped clean of their chorizo and morning eggs.
There were nightmares in the bathroom. Rosa and Amara pushed and shoved for the final seconds adjusting their hair in front of the tiny mirror, while Raquel and I tried to clamber around them to get to the sink and spit our toothpaste out.
Mamá ruled this chaos like a frowning deity. Amidst all this confusion, her angry finger directed us like a large planet settling its moons into the correct orbits. When I wanted to spend the last five minutes playing with my swap-meet Barbies, the sharp jut of her chin notified me that I had better direct my attention to combing my hair and tying my shoes instead. One morning Amara got it into her head that she could exit the door with her shirt hand-cut above her belly button, but a burst of steam from Mami’s ears and the miraculous appearance of Doña’s thunderous face behind her shoulder quickly set Amara to rights.
Before we had a car, Mami would walk us halfway, before we switched paths so she could go to the bus stop and we could walk the rest of the way to school.
The conjoined elementary and middle school had never known a time when it wasn’t overflowing with kids.
That school stands sharply in my mind as a place where harried-looking women who wore discounted department store dresses and plastic high-heeled pumps everyday tried their best to teach classrooms of thirty, occasionally over forty students, and very often resorted to screaming so that they wouldn’t resign to crying.
It was also a playground where boys with bad-boy older brothers would try out the cuss words they had learned from those guys, and snicker at girls for having vuh-jinas back before we even really knew what a vagina was. I remember being confused as to why they would choose to make fun of vaginas, which in my mind were nothing more than the narrow passage leading up to the interesting stuff, when they could instead be discussing the intriguing organs just past it, like the uterus, maybe, or fallopian tubes. One of my friends told me that the real way babies were made started with “s-e-,” and I had to go through the whole alphabet before I landed on the word “sex,” something I’d never ascribed a meaning to beyond the first three letters of the more important word, “sexy.”
In our world, there were always the bad kids — the poorer, slightly dirtier, sometimes darker kids who almost always arrived late and all of whose parents had two or three jobs — and the good kids — slightly better-to-do, whose dads might work two jobs but whose mothers stayed at home, who were usually on time, had nicer sweaters, and usually looked pretty clean. My sisters and I always straddled this line. Mamá never let it show, but I realize looking at it now that going to those back-to-school-nights and mandatory parent events always made her nervous. For a woman to work multiple jobs without child care assistance from her family members, and for her husband to always be far away, and to occupy a space always left-field of where the standards for women of our background wanted her to be left her standing alone in a position often subject to snobbery and judgement, even from the families poorer or as poor as ours. She was tainted with scandal, and her mania for wearing pants and never anything with a skirt, at a time when any given woman was expected to wear lipstick for everything from the most menial of employments to grocery store runs, made her suspect to all the other mothers, and a good deal of the fathers who ever bothered to show up to our events too.
But I’m denigrating the fathers unjustly, it might seem. The truth is I was always jealous of the girls whose dads showed up. Even with their beer bellies or when they hadn’t bothered to change out of the stained white T-shirts they’d worn to work, or when their eyes glazed over instead of paying attention to whatever the teachers were saying, they were there, with arms wrapped around their little girls’ shoulders or absentmindedly patting their sons’ heads.
The facade Mamá set up to hide her nerves also hid the fact of her caring from me. When she pinched my arm to be still, or put on her glasses while keeping an iron grip on my shoulder to read my writing project on the wall, I didn’t realize it was because she knew how many eyes she had on her, and the fact that any unruliness on my behalf, or semblance of lax indifference on hers, would reflect stormily down on her. All I knew was that it hurt like a bitch and that the next day I was going to find a purple bruise in bloom.
I remember the embarrassment of Mamá arriving to my classroom exhibition nights forty-five minutes late, with my trail of sisters behind her, because she had had to attend three others before that and the school had not bothered to stagger them by grade, despite the fact that literally no one had a family of only one child. But between the ages of five and ten I could never have realized that she was more aware of the judgement it exposed her to than I was.
On the weekends and after school we had Doña, but it is not the same thing to have the ghostly apparition of your abuela show up to take care of you as to have your own flesh-and-blood mother present. For one, Doña could advise us, but she could never physically cook our meals or put out the fires we accidentally started when we tried to make them ourselves. More importantly, she couldn’t spank Amara’s ass whenever she domineered the remote control on evenings that were supposed to be my TV nights, or stole whichever of my Barbie clothes she considered superior to hers. And this lovely, toothless, barely literate ghost of a woman could not help us with our English homework or our multiplication tables.
For all that, Mamá always refused to apologize for having four closely-aged daughters and doing her best to care for all of them on her own, even when that led to our resentment. I wished to God that she would. Too many parent-teacher conferences elapsed in awkward silences between me and my teachers while we waited for my mother to arrive, fifteen, twenty minutes late, and my teachers tried to gently inquire why, if my mother could not come on time, my grandma or my dad or one of my aunts could not come instead. I was too young for it to be amusing whenever a newer, white teacher blanched at the explanation I offered without prelude: My grandma’s dead, my aunts left town, and my dad works far away and only stops by to visit every few years or months or so. But eventually Mamá would arrive, shirt impeccably tucked in, not a hair out of place, glasses slipping out of a pocket and onto her nose, and her quick, businesslike “Good afternoon Ms. X, tell me how Athena’s doing.”
Her efforts to compensate whenever she did have time were not endearing. At around seven thirty p.m. each school night, either Raquel or I would take up watch on the living room sofa, keeping vigil for when Mamá turned the corner onto our street and we rang the alarm for the rest of our sisters to join us in getting things into order. An evening tumble that paralleled our morning ones would then commence as we scurried like cockroaches to put our shoes away, straighten up the living room, complete whatever chore she had told us she wanted us to do, and scribble last-minute answers onto homework assignments that she would shortly review one by one, with the meticulous attention to detail of a marine officer.
Mamá, awe-inspiring in all her aspects like a fearful god, was most frightening with her glasses on in the aspect of the Educated Mother. The day I muttered that I wished she didn’t know English, like my friends’ mothers, was the day that I received a slap on the face and the tedious assignment of two five-sentence paragraphs on the importance of English-language skills and well-educated caretakers. Mamá reigned despotically over our multiplication tables and reading questions. While our dinner’s beans sizzled on the stove and the comal began to warm up for tortillas, she sat us at the kitchen table for each to present her work, and may some higher god deliver us if she found a mistake.
Mamá was exhausted and frustrated, and her patience was short, but we had Rosa with her natural love for learning to help us. But if the sheer number of us amplified the perpetual scarcity of money and food, it was also what made the whole misery bearable. Nothing brought me to the edge of tears of frustration like our daily procession into school with pants too tight around the top and baggy around the bottom, frumpy windbreakers against the winter cold, and hair yanked back cleanly in a founding-father ponytail that left nothing to be imagined of the roundness of my face. My hope and protection lay entirely on the shoulders of my scowling and pretty sisters walking in behind me. Rosa scorned the skirt prohibition regularly, forcing us to wait for her in the school bathroom while she shucked off her skinny jeans in favor of a miniskirt she’d obtained from God knew where.
And I took my seat in the classroom corners, dreaming of distant worlds in between each note I wrote down and each slow, torturous sentence my classmates read aloud. I liked my friends, but I was fully aware of my small ugliness, like a drab little word, when I stood next to the Kimberlys and the Celias with perfect skin and charm bracelets and a sophisticated dab of makeup from their mothers every day. Amara snickered at me, but on several days I preferred to walk around the blacktop reading my book instead of playing with the other girls or chasing boys. The teachers snickered too, and wondered that I never ran into anything.
But it was alright, because in my mind I was somewhere far away, and in my dreams I was waiting to become like my sisters. Rebellious, mysterious, and beautifully clad, with the imminence of escape upon me. But that was just a dream, and even when combined with the dinners of measured beans and little meat Mamá could give us, dreams are not enough to subsist off in our harsh reality.
Mamá lifted the sheet from the barrel of water where her elbows were submerged, and handed it to me to wring. She watched me, and nodded when she deemed it finished.
“Pon ese aquí.”
I hung the sheet where she told me to. Spots of red bloomed on my forearms, roused by the soapy solution that stuck and dried on my skin. Mamá pushed her sleeves further up her arms.
Her mouth was set in a firm line. She had closed her eyes and gingerly began to lift her hands from the sheet. An acolyte, I turned away and followed suit.
In the beginning, there was nothing. The arid burst of wind, the petty sun, a harsh blue sky and drab, chirping sparrows rolled over me and then hit me in a wave.
I gasped. When I opened my eyes, the first figure was withdrawing itself from the faded floral patterning of the sheet, shaking out limbs like it had been cramped in one position for too long. As it moved outwards, it took on the shape of a woman, with a sharp chin and a long dress and critical eyes. “Lorena,” she tsk-tsked at Mamá. “Que te dije? You always leave this for too long. It’s worse that way.”
Mamá’s jaw clenched, “Disculpé, Doña Xiomara. We’ve been very busy trying to survive.”
“Trying to survive! Hmm. You modern mujeres know nothing about what it means to have to fight for your survival. Back in my day—”
“Sí, sí Doña Xiomara,” Mamá interrupted with an impatient edge in her tone. “Athena, the plum.”
I reached deep into the basket, and when my hand felt the squish of juices bursting through flesh, I grabbed it and resurfaced. Purple and red dripped down my arm and stained guilty trails behind them. The plum trembled between my fingers, prepared to fall apart at the slightest increase in pressure. I handed it to Mamá and she bit into it promptly, even as Dona Xiomara kept speaking, “—ate every other day, when we were lucky. Prayed long hours on our knees on the dirt floor each dusk, after working since dawn. But we knew what was — ay Dios, Lorena, que tipo de nombre es Athena? That’s not a name and you know it, are you and your daughters too good—”
Mamá passed the bitten plum back to my hand, “Now, Athena,” she told me.
I slowed, even as I raised it to my mouth. It was so old. “Athena, ya,” Mamá insisted sharply.
“—told her to tell her granddaughter not to let him marry—”
I screwed my eyes shut and shoved the plum into my mouth. Without opening my eyes, I chewed, and gagged, and chewed, and swallowed. When I had swallowed, I opened my eyes, and Mamá took the plum from my hands. Slowly, she bowed her head and dropped to a kneel at Doña Xiomara’s feet. With her free hand, she beckoned for me to do the same, and I set the basket of plums down behind her and followed suit.
“She is your great-aunt. Look at her. See her,” Mamá instructed. I raised my eyes to Doña Xiomara as hers moved slowly and critically over me.
“No es mala criatura,” she began to say. “Obedient, and she’s not ugly, at least not like Concepción—” Clenched hands through a surge of protective resentment for Concepción. “Only time will tell,” her face contorted like she’d bitten deeply into a lemon. “Time hasn’t been good to—”
“Athena, I said look at her.” I found my eyes tracing her outline desperately, as though seeing only the edges could save me from the rest of her. Again, I looked. A large, discolored wart settled heavily above the coarse hairs of her left eyebrow, and the pale shadow of mustache quivered atop her upper lip. Flesh sagged limply from the jutting bones of her skeleton, where it wasn’t rotting, arms flabby with it despite the thickness of her torso, and what remained of her eyes didn’t spell out happiness, or satisfaction, or anything even distantly related to either. A taste like mud filled my mouth, and my intestines squirmed as though seeking to accommodate a pair of large earthworm tenants. The tragic clarity of a dusty casket being lowered into barren ground forced everything else out. A priest presiding and a handful of mourners, miserable in ill-fitting, breast-beaten black. A lump of dirt fell in tiredly, followed by a second and a third, and then the grave was forgotten. My stomach growled and the image left, and I remembered that it had been months since Papi had come and brought money. My knees ached and I remembered the long, miserable rosarios that had filled so many evenings.
The final plum fell to the ground in front of me, an offering laid at Doña Xiomara’s feet. Mamá uttered a final sentence in a language I did not comprehend, and the worms and the mud disappeared from my mouth, replaced by a faint but persistent bitterness and the memory of Doña Xiomara in the ache of my knees.
I stared at Mamá. Panting, Mamá stared at me too.
We were a mirror of woman and daughter, putrid lines of drying plum juice drawing twin masks around our mouths. We knelt in front of each other, open-mouthed and wide-eyed under the caws of the hawks and the indifference of the sun that pierced the air. A hysterical giggle burbled out of Mamá’s mouth. A dry laugh left mine, more of a waterless sob.
At some point in time, Mamá pushed the hair back out of her face and helped me stand up. We returned for the sheet to the desert when the sun began to set, and found it clean and bloodless, the lace about the trim renewed; it had been a sheet from a wedding trousseau, one of the few luxuries the women of my family in Xiomara’s generation would have allowed. The spots of rot appeared on my thighs the following morning, where I would carry them for a full week until the presence of Doña Xiomara left our house. Mamá told me this was normal, and I never asked where the spots appeared on her.
I first felt Xiomara when I touched a bolt of synthetic silk at the corner store, and a lust for it filled my gut like I had never known before. From then, I was struck by pangs of urges to go to the church, to sit outside and watch the children play, and to eat as I had never eaten before. Constantly, frequently, present reality fell away and I sank into her memories.
Xiomara was a bitch to carry around. She had an endless hunger that Mamá and I together had to assuage, and that left little food left over for my sisters. When her week was up, she refused to leave, and our bodies became bloated with her spirit. We moved about our duties, at first, sluggish and ill-pleased, but soon it came to the point where we could no longer move with her inside us. This is where Mamá got out the tequila, and Xiomara seemed to like that, but Mamá would not let me have any, since I was underage. As soon as Mamá had sedated the spirit of Xiomara sufficiently within her, she got it together enough to make my sisters help her load me into the car, and drive into the desert to look for the curandera.
“Fucking lot of good it does us,” Mamá spat to herself. “Ohhhhh Lorena, you’ll get to hear the ghosts. Oh Lorena mija, it’ll be your job to keep their memories alive, and help the town with their knowledge! But I can’t even use it to help myself and my own birthed children.”
Her eyes must’ve turned to the picture of my papá on the windshield, because a cackle that belonged to Xiomara spewed out of my mouth and I began to mutter about good-for-nothing men and the women stupid enough to choose them.
I was lucid enough to catch Mamá roll her eyes, and sure enough, I hadn’t imagined it because it was followed by her “Really Athena, I know it’s hard, but you could truly make more of an effort to contain her.” Neither Xiomara nor I were all that pleased with Mamá, so I didn’t make that much of an effort after that, but I did eventually get so fed up with her that I begged Rosa to bonk me on the head so that she would finally shut up.
It might have humanized Mamá to me, and maybe even Xiomara, if she’d been at least a little bit swayed by the alcohol. The slightest unsteadiness on her feet, a slurred sentence, if she’d run a red light. But frustratingly, she did not.
Rosa was reluctant to comply with my request, but Amara obliged, and that was how I found out that physical harm to my body would put a damper on my mental energy, but not Xiomara’s, so in fact I was left with even less to fight her. I do think that I started railing against Xiomara’s clothing choices to the point where Amara was considering completely knocking me out just to prevent Xiomara from having a physical way to speak.
“Don’t do it,” Mamá told her. “She needs to be conscious for when we get to the curandera, and besides I think Xiomara might even talk while she’s unconscious.”
The curandera lay me on a bed of rose petals and put me in a dream state so that in my mind, I was wandering through the desert. Xiomara was there too, but the curandera had set a hot steaming plate of legumes, sausage, and softest bread with honey so that while Xiomara sat down greedily to gobble it up and eat, I slipped away and dove into the oasis beneath the North Star, and when my feet touched upon the lake floor, I resurfaced on the other side of the spirit world, and the curandera guided me back awake.
She cluck-clucked at Mamá for resorting to tequila and urged her next time to see a counselor, brew a jarabe, or meditate, but Mamá laughed and told her that counselors are for rich white people with no discipline or strength of mind only. The curandera had tied mine and Mamá’s hands together so that when the spirit of Xiomara descended upon the food in my mind, the half that resided in Mamá would leap into me and follow, though I suspect this was in part helped by Mamá chasing her out with a broom.
The sun had set when I woke up so we had to drive through the desert in the dark to get back home, and when we did at last arrive inside, we found that Xiomara had left one big, last present painted in Mamá’s red lipstick in the bathroom mirror: the gentle caress of “SLUT.”
“So I guess she didn’t enjoy our hospitality. That’s too fucking bad,” I told Mamá. Mamá gave me a telling-off for using unimaginative language and speaking ill of our ancestors, but at the end she admitted “Yeah, she is a bitch,” and informed me that she hadn’t had a case as bad as Xiomara in a while.
“She must’ve been drawn to you,” she told me. “The young blood.” And then she left me alone in my room, while she ransacked the kitchen for an old pot in which to warm up the jarabe the curandera had given her, for the bruises on our legs where Xiomara had tried to kick her way out of our bodies and run free.
“How was it?” Raquel asked me that night when the moon was high in the sky and we had turned off all the lights in the house.
Her voice was tentative.
“I think I hold the record for worst first period ever,” I murmured softly.
She laughed. “That’s not true. Not to be cliche but I was wearing white jeans when I got mine, in third-period social studies. I didn’t even notice until Anthony and Daniel started laughing about it, and by then it was too late to discreetly cover it up with a sweater and escape to the girls’ bathroom. I still wore the sweater over it, but everybody knew. The boys followed me around making jokes about my vagina the rest of the day.” She paused. “I always feel like that moment got stolen from me.”
“Getting told a vagina joke?”
She rolled her eyes in the dark. “Getting my period, dumbass.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. You still got it. You still have it.”
“No, I mean the discovery of it. It’s supposed to be this big moment, you know? When you become a woman. When you realize you’ve become a woman. But then it’s stolen and you still feel like a little girl.”
I could see that she was staring at the ceiling.
I turned onto my side to face the window, and the moon and the azalea tree outside. “I know.”
Maybe I should have comforted her. Maybe she shouldn’t have been selfish, and was supposed to comfort me. I mean, did she think I really felt like I had a deep and totally self-connected moment of womanly realization when I woke up on our doorstep with all sorts of blood dried on my legs? Maybe it was someone else’s job to comfort the both of us, but maybe we shouldn’t have been in situations where we needed to receive comfort anyway.
Two rooms over, Mamá wiped away Xiomara’s lipstick message by herself, and picked up the phone to call Papá.