Editor’s Choice Award
By Renee Menchaca
“Here, mija.” My mother places the bowl in front of me. I look at the contents and push the bowl back.
We are in my aunt’s kitchen surrounded by sky blue, lime green, and corn yellow tiles. The once-white tiled floor is painted in sneaker tracks and reflects a world constructed in murky images and stilted grey forms. The back door behind me is open, letting in a chill summer wind.
The scent of fried chicken, garlic, cumin, and an assortment of spicy peppers cling to the air. Though she hasn’t been here long, I know this jumbled up mash of smells has already embedded itself into my mother’s clothes like they have mine. When we leave, our clothes will be thrown in the washer, our skin scrubbed and hair rinsed until there is nothing exuding from us except hints of strawberry shampoo.
“What is it?” My mother asks, her perfect smooth brow pinched in irritation.
Her patience is like the fingers of a fire, shrinking and expanding with the wind. Sometimes she releases a puff of air through her nose, other times she snaps back, her bullwhip tongue smacking against my wall of indifference. She wants an answer, an explanation, but all I do is shake my head at her.
“She doesn’t like tomatoes, do you mija?”
My aunt comes in from the backyard. She is covered in sweat and dirt, hands still dressed in mulch and grass. My aunt ambles over to the counter and takes a swig of water from a red plastic cup. She stands over the sink and splashes some of the water onto her neck and face. A dozen water droplets fall to the floor. She doesn’t look down as she washes her hands over the sink with the remains.
There is old knowledge in her movements. Later when there is no chance of scurrying feet or scraping chairs, she will come back and sweep and mop the day away as the moon hangs heavy over the house.
My mother watches in her elegant clothes, earrings shining and manicured hands on hips, waiting for her explanation. “She doesn’t like what? She never tells me what she wants.”
I look at my aunt, who pulls a red plastic bowl from a cabinet above her. She moves over to the stove with a pair of plastic tongs, grabbing a pile of warm noodles from the 12-gallon pot.
They are bare and she places them in front of me, pushing and taking away the ceramic bowl where the noodles and tomato sauce lay untouched. She gives me a soda and throws a dash of salt on the noodles.
I start eating as my aunt and mother begin to talk, discussing innate things. They speak in English, sprinkling Spanish here and there, like salt on pasta. “I didn’t even know those pendejos could charge that much, $45 for a thing my kid doesn’t even play more than once a week.”
“I wish the boys could play the violin, but they’re agraciado como burros.”
I am leaving to go to my mother’s apartment this week, the fact sending tendrils of dread straight to my belly. The cycle of events always plays the same. I go to my mother’s apartment, we watch TV, we go to bed. She goes to work, I stay, watch TV, go to bed. Sometimes we go clothes shopping, which I have no patience for. The monotony drives me to go outside, where my mother has forbidden me to go alone. When my older sister is with me, we visit the gas station or go to the apartment pool. But she is not coming this time. It will only be me and my mother and the tv.
Sometimes we stay at my aunt’s house. I prefer staying here even when my mother makes her predictable escape into the night. Where she goes I don’t know, but when she gets back I sometimes smell a sour tint of alcohol and tobacco flowing off her clothes like incense.
I prefer staying at my aunt’s, where I can play outside until sweat leaks down my face, chase after the ice cream man and his cart as he darts around bright houses and free-roaming dogs. I can eat a popsicle, with its coat of salt and lime dripping down my hands under the shade of my aunt’s plum trees. No one makes me shower or fixes my hair, no one comes to swat away the dozens of mosquitos attached to my uncovered legs. When she musters enough energy to catch me, my aunt will take me to the grocery store or the public pool, or give me money so I can take myself and a gaggle of younger children to the movie theater where we can soak up a few hours of cold, musty air.
Staying at my aunt’s house is always an event; it is filled with music blasting through static from an old radio, adults hang out on the front porch from evening to midnight, barking out barbs at the expense of themselves, riddling the air with hand motions and cackling laughter. I am one of the dozens of children scampering through doors and yards, taking abandoned bicycles and roller-skates to the streets until dusk pushes down on the sky. I can play inside a warm house until midnight strikes and exhaustion takes hold. I can crawl under the blankets in a bed with more little bodies in it than pillows.
The times I dread are when I am unable to sleep with all the others. I stay up, watch TV, and sneak off to bed when I hear my mother’s car roll up into the driveway in the early morning, grey streaks of light pushing through layers of window blinds and hanging sheets. I don’t tell my mother that sometimes I can’t sleep unless I know where she is. I don’t tell her of the panic that slowly consumes me while infomercials replay over and over again. I don’t tell her that when the crawling panic crescendos, I place a cushion over my head. That I press the pillow tight against my flesh, hard enough that only the burning in my lungs forces me to draw breath. That when I emerge for air all I see are red and black stars dancing across my sight.
I fight the urge to beg her to stay with me when she leaves. I fear she will leave and find another place to live, where there is no little girl waiting for her. I think telling her anything will make her leave for longer, so I say nothing. I clutch the cushion tighter against my lap as the TV plays and the car engine rumbles farther and farther away.
I don’t know why she even takes me over to her apartment. Maybe it’s to assuage her guilt for not knowing me. Maybe she doesn’t know what to do with me other than leave me to my own devices. I am the anomaly in this relationship. I am, what my 5th grade history teacher Mrs. Stevenson calls, a Gordian knot. A knotted ball consisting of tight ropes interlaying and wrapping around each other until nothing can unravel it. I do not know if I am more frustrated when my mother gives up, or more relieved when she leaves the twisted ball of twine alone.
I like museums and running shoeless, wrestling my cousins and lighting fireworks.
My older sister is all the things my mother can understand; clothes, makeup, Britney Spears, boys. My older sister has been escaping these weekends of nothingness through the new-found freedom of driving. She jumps into a beaten jeep and races off, a handful of blonde blue-eyed friends laughing away with her. She smiles in school photographs, while my mother asks me why I look like a criminal in mine.
“Maybe I want to look like a criminal,” I think sourly, as she frowns over the picture. There is a wildness in me that confuses her, a defiant rebel in tiny female form. It’s as if she has taken the wrong child off the playground years ago and only now notices the switch.
The conversation with my aunt takes a turn, my mother isn’t laughing. They leave English outside the kitchen, in the garden shed with all the other useless garden tools. They are talking about me.
Like listening through a fan, the words swirl around, fast and detached. I don’t look up from my bowl of noodles, I am too busy pretending to not listen. Too busy snatching the words cascading off the walls. I grab the ones I know and weave them together, forming a picture with gaping holes and tattered edges. I have in my mind an incomplete picture of a spiteful monkey that has no heart.
My family mocks me for not knowing “how to speak.” They are like documentarians noting the failings of a fallen baby bird. Its wings flopping uselessly as it hits the ground. They are tittering to each other; the baby bird has failed because somewhere in its tiny baby bird brain something is broken. They stand around the fluttering wings with amused pity, taking notes on the failings of nature.
But I know the clicks and hisses coming out of my mother, and the long sentences she’s stringing together tell me her head is snapping back and forth and her hands are coiling in on themselves.
My aunt clicks back, saying something small and loud all at once, “Tienes que intentarlo mejor que con tu matrimonio.”
My mother’s anger breaks the surface with the sharp rise of her voice, ““Mija, get your stuff.”
I flinch when the patio door slams shut.
I finally look up at my aunt, her back is to me as she turns the kitchen faucet back on. There are always dirty dishes in the sink, always new messes to clean up. My aunt does it without complaint or malice. She simply bows her head and washes, scrubs, dries, folds, hugs, cleans, peels, and wipes.
“Don’t forget your toothbrush, mjia.” My aunt doesn’t tell me to stay or go, but I get up to gather my things anyway.
The small house is made tinier by the children that move perpetually through it, even now their screams of delight cut through the air as they charge up and down the front and backyard. I dig through piles of damaged toys,most sport firecracker burns and duct-taped wounds. I love playing with them because nothing I do can destroy them any more than they already are.
My cousins have left their mark on every item, from minor tarnished toys to the large bed posts sporting jagged scratches and teeth marks. My cousins are numerous, loud, and male. Dirt bikes and bottle rockets announce their arrivals and departures, many of them carrying a supernatural gift for destruction. My cousin, Jose, somehow lit my aunt’s hen house on fire with three sticks and an empty beer bottle. He avoided punishment by trying to save the chickens and chicks before the coup was engulfed. Jose grabbed peeping chicks and screaming hens, all while enduring Lorenzo, the ill-tempered rooster, as it launched itself against any exposed flesh, pecking and scratching as well as any harpy.
By the end of it, my aunt, hearing the frantic squawking, put the fire out herself with a garden hose. Jose had furiously wiped his watering eyes as our aunt simultaneously bandaged, chastised,and littered him with kisses. He was given ice cream and a new yoyo by the end of it.
The younger cousins, including myself, took note. My aunt had to put a lock on the hen house by the end of the summer after the third cousin tried and failed to save two chickens from another “accidental fire.”
My aunt mutters a prayer through the kitchen window as a marauding group of children chase a clucking hen up and down the sides of the house. My aunt cooks endlessly to feed their endlessly hungry mouths. It is the fate of the women in my family, though I do not know it. This is the destiny my mother has thrown in the pyre along with our family portraits. I don’t understand yet what she has done, other than travel beyond the horizon. Like an old western, she gallops away as thunderous music begins to play and the end credits come up. The credits roll over me as I stand in the doorway, watching her figure grow more and more distant.
All I know is that the kitchen of our home sits, unused and dark. Part of the lure of going with my mother is her food. Made with lard, bacon fat, and spicy chili peppers, her food helps me pretend that I am younger and I am sitting in the kitchen of our house. I can taste her love in the delicately made tortillas, in the salted pinto beans that have been boiling for hours, and in the chicken that she has cooked and shredded by hand. It has become rarer these days, my mother substitutes savory dishes with drive-thru meals, wrapped in yellow wax paper and smelling of water cooked meat.
When I ask for her meals soaked in love, she sighs, lays on the couch, a magazine covering her face and talks about time and energy. “We can go to the mall,” she’ll say, and buy me new clothes instead. I slink off with my stack of tattered comic books before she makes these threats real.
Sometimes when she has the energy she takes me to the library. I am not allowed to take books home with me, something about the wrong address and more money than it’s worth. There are also times when she loses track of me while clothing shopping.
When we are at the mall, with its bustling bodies and clogged air, I scurry around groups, moving through gaps of flesh and cloth, to a space free of the hurried movement and congested air. I hide between the shelves of a bookstore, where rows of books sit unmolested by firecracker burnt hands. My fingers touch the spines of books I can’t quite read but want regardless. My mother always finds me, trudging up with her bags of clothes.
We leave the bookstore without anything, my mother complaining at my silent, sour face,
“You read too fast, I can’t buy things that you’re only going to use once, what’s the point?”
No matter how good a mood I am in when this shared time begins, it drains away like a water balloon with a hole, only to be refilled by hot irritation. Like a blossoming wildflower that’s been yanked from the ground, roots exposed in graphic detail, the reasons come out as I watch her put the books back. My throat closing as she grabs my hand and pulls me back to the horde of bodies. It is fed by arguments I can’t win and from power I don’t have. It comes from the realization that all I am is an expensive pet.
“She’s not mad at you,” my aunt tells me as I open the front door, breaking me out of my festering anger. I stop and look over my shoulder at her, backpack on and baseball cap slightly askew. My aunt hesitates, she fixes my cap, brushing locks of wild black hair behind my ear.
“Sometimes love can be hard, mija.” She hugs me.
I stand there hugging her back, confused because loving her isn’t hard at all. I take a moment to inhale her scent, the smell of sweat and dirt, of garlic, and spice. I want to bury my head in her shoulder, I want her to hold me and tell me not to go. My mother’s car horn barrels through the room and my aunt pushes me out the door before I can say anything.
I walk through the green yard decorated with mismatching ornaments and an array of fauna collected from various nurseries. My aunt’s house can’t be forgotten once seen. It is unapologetic in its gaudiness as it stands squat with its bright blue walls and wide, overflowing yard. Three-foot-tall sunflowers stand over the purple and white irises. Plum trees stand at either end of the front porch, the lower branches having been picked clean by small, hungry hands. Leaves the size of elephant ears hang over the dirt path that leads to the driveway and the waiting car. The painted crocodiles smile as I walk by, their plastic ridged heads tilted in wonder. I am inside my mother’s car, clutching my backpack, staring out the passenger window to the cloudy sky above. The smell of rain lingers in the air, I soak up the damp scent that follows me.
My mother sits, hands locked around the steering wheel, digging into the leather like its flesh, “Do you want to stay?” Her voice is tight. My marble brown eyes carry nothing but shadows as the actual question echoes in the car.
My mother looks forward, dots of crystal lining her eye. I stare, unable to look away as her beautiful wet face twists into something dark and ugly. “Then go already.”
She unlocks the car door and I jump out. I look over my shoulder as a wall of indifference consumes her. She bares a watery smile, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
A bitterness grabs a hold of my chest. I want her to promise me things will be different this time, I want her to beg me to stay, I want to hear her scream, I want tendrils of fire shoot from her mouth. I want her to take this knot inside my belly and pull and twist and tug until the girl she wants is untangled and smiling. But then I remember the singular picture of me by her bed and the numerous pictures of herself with friends I’ve never met hanging on the walls around I remember being left somewhere far and away, gut-twisting, waiting to be left again.
I grasp onto the small power I have been given. I push the door open, it slams shut with a resolute finality. I refuse to look back as I climb my way back up my aunt’s lawn. I pass by the same plastic crocodile smiles, the overgrown elephant ears, the ripe plum trees with half-bare branches, the tall sunflowers, the abandoned bikes along the curb. I leave it all behind for the grey summer sky and the promise of rain.
My aunt’s front door opens easily as I climb inside. I throw my backpack to the ground and go back to the kitchen, unwilling to look behind me. My only thought centers on the possibility of filling the sudden emptiness in my belly with warm, bare noodles.