A hazy summer day in first grade. Dani and I were sitting on the steps of her grandfather’s house. Our mouths and hands dripped mango juice as we swung together on a worn hammock, our bare feet dangling off the edge. In our shirts, we cradled mangoes like babies and threw the large seeds at each other and out into the yard. I dozed off on her lap, my hair fanned out across her stomach, head rising and falling in sync with her breathing. I remember Dani in that sweet glamor of childhood, which is to say it aches when I miss her.
Before there was “Ana and Dani,” there was “Rosario and Luisa.” Our moms had stumble-met in their teens: they’d played volleyball together, then forgotten about each other, only to find themselves, years later, living a few houses apart. And so Dani and I were born neighbors. Dani was my pseudo-sister in the sense that I couldn’t recall a time before her.
We attended the same kindergarten and walked there together, mothers and sisters in tow. Then one day my mom insisted we walk home alone, just the two of us. This was around the time that Dani had started chewing leaves around the playground; she had decided to become a giraffe and walked forever on her tiptoes. During our walk, my mom warned me against copying her. “If Dani jumps off a cliff,” she said, “are you gonna jump too?”
That was the “before” of our friendship, glossy and sticky. The transition is foggy now: Dani was there, then wasn’t. Suddenly she was missing from school, from our neighborhood. All I knew was that her family had moved because there were too many stairs in their old house. I knew not to ask too many questions. I also knew that when Dani’s dad, Eduardo, came out in his new wheelchair, I should kiss his unshaven cheek and not be afraid.
Sometimes my mom would take me to visit them. On those occasions, Dani and I would chase each other up and down the many ramps they had installed for her father. Like the ivy in her new backyard, we adapted. On the day of her First Communion, we danced in our white dresses and ran around her garden in childhood bliss. We played with our dolls, resting plastic babies on our still-bony hips. The game was always the same: we were mothers to beautiful babies and wives to husbands busy working in abstract, foreign places.
One day, however, Dani added new words to our game.
“Me violó,” she giggle-whispered as I bottle-fed my baby. “He violated me.”
“What?” I asked.
“The father of my baby is not traveling. And he is not my husband,” she said. “He forced me, which means I don’t know who he is.”
Looking back, I wish I had asked how she knew about these things, asked why. We were only 9. Now I understand why my mom was scared. We didn’t know it then but our days together were counted; we were at last Peter Panning out of our childhood.
A year passed before I saw Dani again. Her mom had opened a clothing boutique in the center of town in her latest attempt to support her husband, children and aging parents. My mom hauled my siblings and me into the family car and over to the boutique to support her. Dani was taller by then, and her lankiness was endearing. This was my friend: the girl I had made a home of before I could appreciate the abstraction of belonging. I had missed her more than I knew.
But there was something I didn’t recognize. Dani didn’t quite smile anymore; she’d become cold with awkwardness. When we were looking at ourselves in the mirror, she pulled away from me. “You got fat,” she said, then disappeared into the back of the boutique.
I cried the whole ride home. But I cried a lot in those days. It was around that time that I had begun to realize that someday I would die and my mom would die, and this wasn’t a game we were playing. Sitting in the bathtub that night, watching the skin on my fingers whiten and wrinkle like prunes, I decided to forget about Dani. She was mean, and crude and my new friends are better, I thought.
Six years later found my family living in New Haven, where the ground is always wet and summer feels like a dry heave. I never did forget Dani. During first year finals, she became a recurring dream. Even now I think I see her in convenience stores in New Haven. Dani in a Texas airport. Dani in my school’s B-wing. Leaving Guatemala had made me nostalgic, and I examined every memory with a magnifying glass. But everything was fuzzy with childhood adoration. I didn’t trust myself. And with the distrust came fear. I was scared for Dani. She had known too much. I should have said something. But she had been my normal, and now it was too late. For years I ached to unload all of this with her. Once again I needed her validation. For her to say, Yes, that’s what happened. Yes, we did that, we felt that.
Four years after we had left, my family returned to Guatemala on the coattails of my uncle’s funeral. During his 40-day Mass, I glanced back and spotted Dani clutching her hymnal and felt even more disoriented. Beside me, I could hear the hum of my grandmother’s praying: y en tu casa, oh Señor, yo siempre viviré. Meanwhile, I twitched with otherness from my front-row pew. When I turned around again, I saw that Dani’s mom Luisa was as pretty and tired as I remembered: all blond and translucent. Beside her, Dani looked like a fun-house reflection, too tall and thin in her black jeans.
“Did you know?” my sister asked, tilting her head back towards them.
“That they were coming? No. Did you?” I whispered back. She shook her head.
I was not surprised. Of course, she remembered her. Dani was one of those never-quite-forget, appeared-in-my-dreams-four-years-later kind of people. Te pegas como la goma de mascar, I sang to myself. You stay stuck like bubble gum. And for a moment I resented her and how much space she had always taken in my life.
The mass passed in a blur of sitting and standing and praying. When it ended, I walked my grandmother down the aisle to the exit like in a telenovela. She greeted people as we walked, taking their hands in hers and introducing me to everyone. Do you see? My granddaughters are back, she repeated even as her church lady friends left. I let her bony fingers clutch the soft of my arm. I wanted to be a comfort. But mainly I wanted to avoid Dani. As I tried to sneak away, I felt a tap on my shoulder followed by a soft “Ana Paula.”
“Hi, Dani.” Our hug felt almost automatic.
She was a few inches taller than me. Are you ok? I wanted to ask her. Did you turn out ok?
“My mom saw about your uncle’s passing on Facebook,” she said. “I’m sorry.” When we were ten we had gotten in trouble for spilling nail polish on my uncle’s bedroom wall. Still, I could tell she meant it.
“How long are you staying?” she asked.
“Just another week,” I said. Behind us, our mothers embraced. “We’re staying at my
aunt’s in Monterey until our passports get updated.”
“Nice,” she smiled. “Monterey’s by the water, right?” She didn’t wait for me to answer but instead glanced somewhere above my head. “You always loved swimming.”
Dani had been there when I placed in the top twenty in the 12-and under nationals. I didn’t tell her I hadn’t raced in six years, nor did I ask about her dad.
“Is this your first time back?” she asked.
“What? I mean yeah,” I said.
Dani reached for my hand but settled somewhere along way for the pocket of her jeans. Together we walked towards the park. It was late in the afternoon and only a few kids were left. A couple of boys played basketball, and some girls giggled through the monkey bars. It was the same park where Dani had once told me the firework noises we heard during the day were sometimes gunshots. Sometimes, she’d stress as she’d glanced towards the street. I turned to see if she also remembered but she was tying her shoe. I watched her fiddle with her boot laces. We were the last two kids in our class to learn how to tie our shoes: I had been hiding from her under our kindergarten’s slide the day I finally learned. That had been during her giraffe phase and I was tired of chasing after her. Maybe I still was.
When Dani made no move to get up, I sat on the sidewalk beside her. She patted her lap and I laid my head down like muscle memory.
“When did your hair get curly?” she asked as she weaved skinny fingers through it.
“I don’t know. Puberty?” I said, and she laughed.
The street lights turned on around us, and the park emptied as kids raced home before
their mothers came calling.
“Last time I saw you was by that playground near your house, remember?” Dani said.
At first, I was angry. I wanted to correct her. To remind her about the boutique, about calling me fat and how I had cried. But at that moment, I realized she was right.
It had been the year before my family moved to New Haven. I had been on my way home from the corner store when Dani had waved at me from the swings. I remember thinking she had run away from home, but she’d told me her mom had wanted to pay a visit. We’d walked home in half-silence; there’d been so much I wanted to tell her, but it all stayed wedged in my throat.
Two blocks from my house, she had stopped under a lampost.
“This is where they shot my dad,” she’d said. “Did anyone ever tell you?”
“No.” I’d felt myself tearing up.
“That’s what I thought,” she’d said as she traced the cement post. I took a step towards her, my instinct to comfort her overriding the distance between us.
“I’m okay,” she’d smiled, backing up. “Don’t worry. I’ve gotten used to it.”
After our move to New Haven, my parents would tell eager Americans our story and stress our newfound safety. We can walk with our phones. The girls can walk alone, they would say. I had thought them dishonest at the time: What exactly was the danger we had supposedly run away from? Somewhere along the line, I think I had blocked it: the months my mom stopped driving after having been robbed outside a bank; the alarm system my parents installed after someone broke into our house; the truth about Dani’s dad. The safe haven of my childhood dripped with fiction.
As I remembered our conversation in the park, I realized that maybe Dani had been jealous the day she called me fat. Jealous I was allowed not to know when she had to deal every day with wheelchairs and ramps, her dad getting weaker every minute.
Maybe we had both been hurting.
“Yeah,” I told Dani as we got up and walked back towards the church.