To Grow Young
Old Simeón’s right hand was permanently clawed. His curled, yellowing nails converged towards each other in a longing gesture, as if he were trying to grasp the last strands of something long gone. Sometimes Vanessa wondered why such a particular fate had infested Old Simeón’s phalanges. She hypothesized that the clawing probably happened gradually, like the shrinking of a flower’s petals as water breathes itself out. But another, much more grim possibility had come to her one night as she was falling asleep on her unshared bunk bed. She envisioned that fatal agglomeration of blood obstructing Old Simeón’s left brain, and his extremities instantly recoiling at the evaporation of half a life.
Every morning, when Vanessa took it upon herself to massage Old Simeón’s wrinkly fingers, she felt a piercing worry that her body would betray her in that same way. She thought of all the inexcusable curses she had directed at her limited limbs when her feet couldn’t bear two days of walking after crossing the Venezuelan border. At the time, driven by impatience, she had collapsed on the side of a jungle-ridden highway, where only blades of dried grass had pierced her back into consciousness. She had asked God why none of the passing cars acknowledged her stretched out thumb, and jerking her damp sneakers out of her feet, she asked why her throbbing toes wouldn’t allow her to reach a couple kilometers further, where maybe she would find a hospitable town.
After many years, Vanessa found herself able to take pride in some things again. Small things. For instance, she claimed all credit for the slight tremble of Old Simeón’s fingers whenever his wife took his stiff hand in between hers. She took pride now, in his ability to juggle up a pair of dice and throw them on a parqués board, with the help of his left hand, which was spared by some impossible bifurcation of the brain’s connections.
The dice clinked against the glass board and showed a pair of six dots protruding from the white cubes.
“How much is that, Don Simeón?” Vanessa said, lifting his arm from the table to prevent him from accidentally pushing the pawn-shaped pieces off.
Old Simeón let out a brief growl and stared at the blank air behind Vanessa’s curls.
“Twelve,” she answered herself. She took Old Simeón’s red pawn and hopped through the boxed trail. “One, two, three, four…” Vanessa then took advantage of her turn and threw the dice on the board. They spun around until the odds settled for two and four dots.
A prolonged sigh coming from the other side of the room stopped Vanessa from killing one of Old Simeón’s red pieces. Doña Rosario’s glasses reflected the blue light coming from a box-shaped TV. The bulging screen showed footage of flooded streets and fallen palm trees, brown heads peering out of hills of roof tiles and window frames.
“Not one house is still standing, can you believe it?” Doña Rosario said, noticing Vanessa’s shared interest in the news report on hurricane Iota.
“The island will need a full reconstruction, they say,” Vanessa had been following the case from a blue radio that she kept in her room. The numbers were most astonishing. 1600 families, 98% of infrastructure. Still, she found it hard to sympathize with the victims. She couldn’t help but think that her people had probably gone through worse, just nobody had bothered to quantify it.
“Providence Island is a beautiful place,” Doña Rosario said, in her unusually high-pitched tone. “You know where my last name comes from? Abraham Robinson, my grandfather, immigrated from Britain to Providence Island.” The way Doña Rosario pronounced every one of those words with utmost pride kept Vanessa from coming up with any reasonable response.
Doña Rosario had a way of talking. When she had given Vanessa the keys to her recondite bedroom, Doña Rosario made it clear that she came from a long tradition of landowners who knew how to manage helpers in the household. “Your nursing title does not make a difference,” Doña Rosario had said. “I still expect obedience and respect in your care for my husband.” Throughout the many months that Vanessa had worked for Doña Rosario, she had come to realize that behind her harsh words stood her unconditional love for Old Simeón, but also her self-remorse for having married a man 15 years older in age. The old man’s life was coming to an end, and he was swallowing Doña Rosario’s own life along the way.
From beneath the open windows, not only moonlight leaked through the iron bars, but also the flickering lights coming from a neighbor’s balcony. Behind linen curtains, dark silhouettes danced to the congas in Rodolfo Aicardi’s La Colegiala. It was only late November, but the people of Acacías were already playing New Year songs over indecently loud speakers. At least in that respect, Acacías wasn’t all that different from back home, Vanessa thought. She had also noticed they had the same tradition of making a dummy filled with gunpowder and setting it on fire just as the clock struck midnight. Old Simeón and Doña Rosario never engaged in such activities though, because no matter what day of the year it was, they always went to sleep promptly at 8 p.m.
Old Simeón tapped Vanessa’s shoulder with a poignancy that disoriented her. He pointed at the color-lit balcony.
“They must be having a party, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, assuming that was the information that Old Simeón was requesting.
“And you?” Old Simeón responded, his words as clear as they ever got, carrying the rasp of an underused voice.
Vanessa was not entirely sure what Old Simeón meant. Perhaps he found it strange that someone of her age was playing parqués with an old man instead of curling her hips to tropical beats, or he was wondering why the neighbors had not invited her. Vanessa smiled at the thought of these possibilities.
“None of us are supposed to be partying,” she said. “There’s a very bad virus out there, so we have to stay home.”
In some corner of the world inside Old Simeón’s mind, he knew it was the pandemic that had insulated his days so much. But Vanessa was not aware of this. She was rather excusing her situation, considering that maybe once it was all over, things would be different for her.
“You heard that, Simeón?” Doña Rosario said, projecting her voice to make herself audible to Old Simeón’s almost deaf ears. “Our last years of life, at home.”
By the time the news broadcast was over, Old Simeón had already fallen asleep on his wheelchair. His nightly routine consisted of Vanessa and Doña Rosario collaborating to strip him of his clothes and tie his diaper around his waist. The diaper was rather an ornament, since Old Simeón would wet his bed sheets every night, and every day Doña Rosario would replace them with a new set.
Vanessa had little to complain about. Her salary, although less than legal minimum wage, was enough for her personal expenses. Since Doña Rosario and Old Simeón provided her with a place to sleep and three meals a day, she also had enough money to send to her family in Venezuela every month. She planned to keep saving up to bring her mother with her too, away from a dictator’s injustices and a husband’s infidelities.
There was a catch to her living arrangement, though. Some days, Doña Rosario would wake her up particularly early and ask her to make breakfast. Vanessa could tell that Doña Rosario did not like her cooking, as she always complained that she put too much salt on the eggs, or not enough cheese in the arepas. Therefore, Doña Rosario’s request took place only when strictly essential, like when she had to go get fresh milk at the plaza on Saturday morning, or when she attended early morning mass.
This time, Doña Rosario had woken her up with a phone pressed against her ear. Doña Rosario had learned to pick up calls, but never to make them, so when some relative or friend called her, she made sure to catch up with them for at least an hour. However, when Doña Rosario had tapped on Vanessa’s door, her furrowed eyebrows and trembling lips suggested that this was not one of her usual bubbly phone calls. Instead, she was quiet, while a female voice at the other end of the line spoke in mechanical shudders.
As Vanessa walked up to the kitchen, Doña Rosario took a seat on the adjacent dining table. Old Simeón, his eyelids still struggling to stay open, sat on his wheelchair in front of the TV at the end of the room. In between the whisking of eggs and the patting of arepa dough, Vanessa managed to catch some slivers of Doña Rosario’s conversation—“What do you mean?”, “Hmph,” “God Bless,” “Why don’t you come over?”
Judging by Doña Rosario’s choice of the pronoun Tú instead of Usted, the person at the other end of the line could only be her daughter, Nadia. She was Old Simeón’s and Doña Rosario’s only daughter, even after 60 years of marriage. Less often than Doña Rosario would’ve liked, she took her Chevrolet Swift down the narrow road between Villavicencio and Acacías to visit them. When Old Simeón’s pension fell short, her teaching paychecks would pay for the house bills, as well as Old Simeón’s medicine.
Vanessa knew rather little about Nadia, but what she’d heard pushed her to garner utmost respect. She heard that Nadia had been in the house when Old Simeón had gotten his first thrombosis attack. He’d fallen on the floor, shaking and salivating as if being possessed by an evil spirit. Doña Rosario had stood frozen, covering her eyes away from the sight of her convulsing husband. But Nadia had been the one to pick her father up from the floor and place him on a chair, before calling every relative in town in search for an after-hours doctor. She was the reason he was still alive.
Once Vanessa was done helping Old Simeón eat his breakfast, Doña Rosario gestured for her to sit at the dining table.
“Nadia is coming later this afternoon,” Doña Rosario said, but she wouldn’t meet Vanessa’s gaze. “Vanessa, I need your full discretion on what I am about to tell you.”
Before making breakfast, Vanessa had tied her black curls into the shape of an onion. The pull of the low-hanging bun tugged at her hair as she nodded.
“Simeón’s brother Alberto passed away last night,” Doña Rosario said in a soft voice. “He caught that damned virus.”
Even though Vanessa had never heard of said brother, she made sure to state her condolences as politely as possible.
“You know he can’t know, right?” Doña Rosario briefly glanced at Old Simeón. “He’s not in the proper state to hear this.”
In spite of the prolonged coexistence of the three members of that household, Vanessa was the only one who made an effort to converse with Old Simeón. Sometime after Old Simeón had become speech impaired, Doña Rosario had lost all her patience, seeing that her only companion could no longer reciprocate her interactions. Now she limited herself to short words, and the warmth of touch. Vanessa, instead, would talk to him about the warm weather, the dogs barking outside; anything that crossed her mind. His answers consisted of low groans, unintelligible mumblings, and the occasional phrase that one could judge as either gibberish, or the enigmatic findings of a mind sorting through an extensive past. Vanessa liked to think it was the latter.
Whenever Vanessa heard Nadia and Doña Rosario talking to each other, she couldn’t help but wonder how it was possible that she sounded so different from them. She was puzzled by their ability to give every syllable a distinct tonality. They seemed to have every unit of sound recorded in a dictionary, that they would parse through in every uttering. They took no shortcuts, unlike Vanessa, who could not find the time to bring her tongue to the roof of her mouth swiftly enough to whistle her words—her ‘s’ sounds would descend into brief sighs. However, she had learned to minimize her vocal sloth during her time in Acacías. Doña Rosario had told her that not everyone in that town would be as kind to her people as she was.
Nadia and Doña Rosario sat on the dining table, their short coffee cups steaming next to their fidgeting hands. Vanessa glanced at them intermittently through the windows, as she pushed Old Simeón’s wheelchair around the house. She could tell that at one point Old Simeón had made a habit of walking around the house, because he seemed to have picked favorite spots to glance at throughout the perimeter. At the back of the house, he liked to look at one of the columns that held up the clay roof where the white paint had peeled off in a shape resembling a trail of mucus left by a slug. At the right side of the house, the edge that faced a living fence which separated their neighbor’s house from theirs, he liked to look at a patch of red ground where grass had refused to grow. From the turning of the soil, Vanessa could only assume that a tree had once stood there, and she imagined it to be as high as the neighbor’s balcony.
At the front of the house, Old Simeón usually stared at the plastic bowls filled with brown cat food that sat next to the front door. They owned three cats who spent more time on the streets than at home and would only let themselves be petted by Old Simeón. Today, there were no cats to be seen, and Old Simeón was instead looking through the window, towards where Nadia and Doña Rosario were sitting. Vanessa could tell by the disparity between Nadia’s age and the number of wrinkles that crisped around her eyes that she had a tough disposition. Her downturned lips were unphased by both the taste of black coffee and Doña Rosario’s slow tears.
“You must’ve been a really good man, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, pushing the wheelchair into motion away from the window. “You raised a very strong daughter.”
The feeble white hairs on Old Simeón’s scalp trembled with the gush of the wind. Otherwise, he remained motionless to Vanessa’s words. She continued.
“I think that’s what matters. Knowing that you’re leaving this world having created something good,” Vanessa said. “Is that more or less right, Don Simeón?”
This time, Old Simeón let out a deep mumble and twitched his head in a manner that could’ve been a nod, or an attempt to shake away a mosquito’s itch. Vanessa noticed that Old Simeón seemed particularly light on the wheelchair today. One of the reasons why Doña Rosario had hired her was because of her big arms and thighs. She could manage the weight of pushing Old Simeón’s chair down Acacías’ unpaved roads and steep bridges.
“I’ve got a lot to learn from you, believe it or not,” Vanessa continued, ignorant to Old Simeón’s droopy eyelids. “I’ve been thinking about what comes next. For me, you know. I’ve been thinking that maybe after all of this virus thing is over, I could move to the city. Work for a retirement home, maybe? And meet some people. Build something of my own. Wouldn’t that be good?”
Old Simeón’s clawed hand suddenly stiffened around the wheelchair’s armrest. He sat with his spine straightened out, fighting against a decade-old hunch.
When the clock struck 2 p.m., the designated time for Old Simeón’s daily stroll was over. Doña Rosario and Nadia were still sitting at the dining table, but their urgent whispering had stopped and transformed into vociferous complaining about why the chicken delivery had not arrived yet. Doña Rosario instructed Vanessa to heat up some of the leftover rice from the day before, so she wheeled Old Simeón’s chair to the dining table and secured the brakes before walking up to the kitchen.
She had just struck a match alight when the squeak of sliding wooden chairs called her back into the dining room. Back there, Old Simeón was still sitting in his wheelchair, and Nadia and Doña Rosario were kneeling at each of his sides. His expression was twisted so that every one of the creases that time had encroached on his skin were sunken in, and dense tears were running down the labyrinth of his face.
“You told him.” Doña Rosario said, turning towards Vanessa’s newcomer presence. She took a step back and kneeled to Doña Rosario’s height.
“I swear I didn’t. It must be something else that’s troubling him,” Vanessa said, the sighs in her speech as heavy as ever.
Doña Rosario stood up and the folds on her long skirt swirled wind at Vanessa’s face. “He fought in the military, for God’s sake. He doesn’t just cry.”
Vanessa continued to excuse herself while she picked herself up from her kneeling trance. Behind Doña Rosario, Nadia took a pack of Kleenex out of her bag and handed it to Old Simeón. He folded his once clawed hand around the tissue and groaned into the white cotton. But all Vanessa could notice was the tightness of the tendons on Doña Rosario’s neck, which pulled her entire face into a murderous stare.
“You Venezuelans can’t keep your mouth shut,” she said.
That night, Nadia left without saying goodbye to Vanessa, but she found a funeral invitation wrapped in violet ribbons sitting on her lower bunk bed. After writing down an event reminder on her phone, Vanessa turned on her blue radio and pulled out the long antenna to tune in to the nighttime news broadcast. She fell asleep to the sound of a clinical female voice announcing the hopes for a successful vaccine against COVID-19 in early December.
Laurisa Sastoque is a student of Creative Writing and History at Northwestern University. She was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and currently resides in Evanston, Illinois. Her poetry work has been previously published in Somos en Escrito and the Helicon Literary & Arts Magazine. She is the winner of the Mary Kinzie Prize in Nonfiction for her essay "Contradicting Home; Anecdotes and Aphorisms." She is excited to make her short fiction debut with "To Grow Young," a piece about complicated family dynamics in rural Colombia. In addition to writing and reading, Laurisa likes to spend her time researching Latinx and Latin American history, and taking pictures of her favorite cities.
Cumbia Therapy is an intergenerational story told in three distinct sections, each exploring intimate relationships and la maldición put on four generations of women and meant to undo those relationships. Part I, Alzira, tells the story of Elena, a Mexican-American woman in her early twenties, and her Brazilian girlfriend, Alzira, as they meet in Italy, travel through Spain and Morocco and live for a time in Seattle in the mid-1990s. Part II, The Curse, explains the origins of la maldición, starting with Adela in revolutionary México and continuing in New Mexico. Part III, El Camino, explores how each generation of women questions the validity of the curse and deals with it in her own way. Cumbia Therapy has received an Illinois Art Council Fellowship. “Better a Bridesmaid” is an excerpt.
“Better a bridesmaid”
When Tío Freddy finally married Natalia, my sister Sofía and I had to be bridesmaids. We’d never been in a wedding and, as I had no interest in them generally and didn’t want to have one personally, I was not looking forward to all the hype. It didn’t help that Cristina, Natalia’s best friend and maid of honor, wasn’t thrilled about our inclusion and wanted to argue over every chingadita, including the scriptures Natalia had chosen for us to read at the cathedral.
Cristina barked at me, “El pasaje tuyo is longer and more dramatic.”
“Has leído El Anarchist Cookbook?” I asked. “If you want dramático, maybe slip in a paragraph or two from that.”
She moved on to the dresses. “Este no me queda bien. These dresses aren’t suited for a mature figure.”
Sofía said, “Ay, por favor. You’re just jealous because our figures are fifteen years younger.”
Cristina stopped speaking to her and that meant she wouldn’t stop chatting me up. In truth, I hated the teal taffeta dresses and thought they suited Cristina much better. With the exception of a few hours on Sunday that included Mass, she wore miniskirts and midriffs everywhere and, after getting her chichis done, she liked showing off her cleavage—which the dress definitely did.
By the second fitting I was tired of looking at dresses and hearing about Cristina’s date for the boda: a paleta man from Potosí. So, I decided to convince her to let me feel her chichis. The fitting area of Betty’s Bodas was crowded and stuffy and I whispered to her that we should step outside for some air. Then I slid around the corner, to the quieter side street, and as innocently as possible, said, “All this looking at women in dresses made me curious about your operation, Cristina. And I was wondering if I can touch them.”
She stared at me a moment. “If you give me one good reason for wanting to, I’ll let you.”
“I’ll give you two. First, I’ve never felt chichis other than my own. Second, I’ve never seen falsas.”
“They’re not falsas,” she sniffed. “They just needed a little lift.”
“Why not just get a good bra?”
“You’ll understand someday.”
I doubted it, but when she straightened her back and said, “Ándale,” I reached out and touched them. They felt like plastic baggies filled with Jell-o.
Cristina lifted her shirt and bra and quickly showed me the scars. “¿Qué piensas?” she asked.
“Pues...in my humble chichi opinion, the scars look painful, pero las chicas look nice and lifted.”
The day of the gran ceremonia toda la familia met at mi abuelita’s to pick up boutonnieres and corsages. Mi Tía Gisela had a summer cold, but she didn’t let it stop her from walking around snapping fotos of everyone. Her fotos always came out blurry, off centered and with our heads chopped off, so no one bothered to pose.
Abuelita was following Freddy around the house trying to convince him “to groom himself.” His reddish-brown hair fell to his shoulders in waves and he brushed it frequently and was careful about what he put in it. Women loved it, pero abuelita thought it made him look uncouth and insisted he tie it back, at least for Mass.
“Do it for me, hijo,” she pleaded as he went from room to room, inspecting himself in every mirror.
“Pero, mami, Natalia won’t recognize me.”
“Then, por lo menos, shave your face. Natalia should see what you really look like.”
“Oh, she’s seen me...”
“No quiero saber, Freddy. Listen to me, please. You’ll thank me years from now.”
We were just about out of time when abuelita and Freddy went into the blue baño and closed the door. When he emerged with his hair in a ponytail, without his mustache and forked-beard, we couldn’t believe it. Abuelita beamed and Freddy walked out of the house like a chamaquito forced to attend his big brother’s wedding.
We got to the church and smashed into the back room where everyone congratulated each other on how lovely they looked. Cristina was wearing a pair of aqua-colored contacts that matched her dress. Abuelita took one look at those eyes and said, “¡Ay, Cristina, qué susto!”
When the first few notes from the organ flooded the cathedral, I joked, “No turning back now,” and Natalia burst into tears. Sofía and I shared a we’ll laugh about this later look, then we grabbed our partners—Natalia’s cousins, shy as feral cats—and we headed up the aisle. After taking our places in the pews, we watched Natalia in her weeping moment of glory. When she got close enough to see Freddy’s face, she did a double take and Tía Gisela’s flash went off.
As soon as everyone settled into the hard creaky benches, the priest began the old New Mexican tradition of roping the novios together with a large wooden rosary that resembled a lasso.
I whispered to Sofía, “Ya vez, that’s what marriage is.”
When the novios knelt, we saw someone had taken Kiwi’s white shoe polish to the bottom of Freddy’s shiny rental shoes. The left said Help and the right said Me. While the congregation attempted to stifle their laughter, Gisela started a stream of squeaky sneezes. Her gringo-date kept passing her tissues as if they were love notes, not snot catchers. The novios got to their feet and the sin vergüenza Cristina began motioning for Natalia to look at the bottom of Freddy’s shoes. Instead, Natalia snuck a peek at her own and, finding no chicle or puppy poop, shot Cristina a watchale! look.
It didn’t take long for the ceremonia to lag. Prayers, preaching, promises to do this and not do that. I was ready for the fiesta. We’d already had a few, including an underwear party where we bought Natalia new chones, ate taquitos and played silly games for silly prizes. I knew that, in the hall adjacent to the church, kegs were being tapped, wine uncorked and champagne chilled. It was easy to imagine la cocina full of aromas and comadres arguing over who put too much salt in the frijoles and how picante the chile should be.
The wedding finally concluded with a big beso where Freddy bent Natalia back like they were doing the quebradita. Then we marched into the hall that Natalia’s friends had decorated with blue-green streamers and purple paper flowers. Tío Freddy let down his hair and I traded my heels for Vans.
The mariachis started with “Un rinconcito en el cielo.” They invited abuelita to sing a few songs with them and, after applauding louder than anyone, Sofía and I tried sneaking a beer to the bathroom. Tía Gisela, who should have been paying attention to her gringo-date, intercepted us.
I said, “It’s for Carolina.”
Our older cousin never drank, but Gisela just said, “In the baño?”
“Yeah, she doesn’t want anyone to see her taking a swig.”
I looked at Sofía and followed her eyes to Carolina, who was in a bright red dress talking to a group of people not far from us.
“Hand it over,” Gisela said, holding out her germy hand.
“¿Qué te importa?” I snipped.
“¿A ti te importa if I tell your mamá?”
We handed it over.
After dinner the novios knelt again for La Entrega, which must have been uncomfortable con panza llena. It’s supposed to release the newlyweds to their new life and, though some people stage it at end of the night, my familia does it right before the dance, to release the novios to their fiesta. As the band tuned up, los compadres roped Freddy and Natalia together with a sandalwood rosary and gave them la long bendición while people tossed money onto Natalia’s long white train. Con el último amen Gisela tossed a dirty green bill that slid down Natalia’s silky back.
As soon as the money was scooped up the band began to play. They waited about an hour for people to start feeling buzzed and generous before they started The Dollar Dance. I paid $4 to dance with Natalia and $3 to dance with Tío Freddy. He told me he liked my Vans, then he picked me up and spun me around. Sofía said it was dumb for me to dance with Natalia and I said what was dumb was her pinche statement. Natalia looked so stunning with her heavily outlined eyes and her blue-black hair pinned up that some men paid twice to dance with her, making The Dollar Dance nearly as long as the wedding.
Freddy’s best man pinned dollars on my tío’s tux, but everyone in Natalia’s line pinned the bills on her themselves. When her train was covered men began carefully pinning money on the front of her dress. It made Natalia’s mother nerviosísima and she told the band, “Wrap it up, chicos!” She probably cost the novios fifty bucks.
After all the bills were unpinned, one by one, Natalia danced with Freddy a couple of times before Gisela singlehandedly “stole the bride.”
To no one in particular, her gringo-date said, “Is that a Mexican tradition?”
I was standing next to him and answered, “No, it’s more of a Southwestern scheme to get more loot. One that happens to imitate the kidnappings latinos have become infamous for.”
He stared at me and excused himself to get a drink.
Gisela led Natalia to a coatroom at the back of the hall where she would voluntarily stay sequestered. Knowing everyone would just be removing more money from purses, pockets and wallets, when Cristina followed, I went too. It didn’t take long for Gisela to pop open a $200 bottle of champagne intended for the newlyweds’ private party and, while flattering Natalia and filling her glass, she snapped fotos.
In between songs we could hear the bandleader: “Oye, the bride is still missing! Come and make a contribution to Comadre Yolanda so we can raise enough ransom to bring Natalia back!”
The coatroom hosted more fotos, more drinks and, at last, the band announced, “Ya está. Tenemos el dinero suficiente and the novios are $453 richer!”
By the time Yolanda tiptoed into the room in impossibly high heels, Natalia couldn’t have subtracted five from ten and she just hiccupped uncontrollably when Yolanda handed her a wad of cash. She passed it Cristina, who started counting.
“What’d you do to her, Gisela?” Yolanda asked, nodding at Natalia.
“¿Yo?’ Gisela sniffled, ‘pues, nada...”
They argued, Natalia hiccuped and Cristina, who’d counted the money twice, asked, “What’d you do, Yolanda? Slip a fiver in your bolsa?”
“How dare you!” Yolanda glared at Cristina as if she were a cucaracha.
“We all heard the band say the crowd raised $453.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yolanda scoffed. “I needed to make change.”
A new argument ensued that Natalia interrupted with her silence. Everyone stared at her.
“Hiccups are gone,” she giggled.
Cristina and Yolanda shuffled her back to the dance and the band said, “Let’s welcome the bride back! Let’s hear it for Natalia.”
The crowd cheered. But Natalia’s mamá took one look at her daughter and cried, “¡Válgame dios! Natalia missed half the dance and, look at her, she’s as clumsy as a cow!”
Natalia probably should have sat down and had some water, pero she fell into Freddy’s arms, in the middle of a Cumbia, and away she went. He had no idea his wife’s head was spinning like a top when, holding her hand above her head, he spun her halfway around so they both faced the same direction. He held her tightly for a few pulses, her back against his chest and his hand on her stomach. Then he gave her a media vuelta so she faced him again. Finally, he twirled her three hundred and sixty degrees with the left hand, a quick one eighty with the right, another with the left and, with two hundred eyes upon her, Natalia puked like a cat.
I turned to Cristina and said, “¿Sabes qué? Forget the dinero—better to be a bridesmaid.”
Marcy Rae Henry es una latina chingona de Los Borderlands. She’s lived in India, Nepal and Andalucía and now walks her rescue dog by the Chicago River. Her writing has been longlisted, shortlisted, honorably mentioned and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appears or is forthcoming in The Columbia Review, PANK, Epiphany, carte blanche, The Southern Review and The Brooklyn Review, among others. She has received a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Grant and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship. DoubleCross Press will publish a chapbook of her recent poems.
FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published Sonia Gutiérrez's novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Read an excerpt below. Order a copy from FlowerSong Press.
Our Doctor Who Lived in Another Country
Whenever Paloma, Crucito, and I got so sick Mom couldn’t heal us with her herb-filled cabinets, an egg, or Vaporú, we had to wait for the week to hurry up, so Dad could take us on a trip to visit our doctor who lived in another country. We crossed the border to a familiar place called Tijuana, Baja California, México. Estados Unidos Mexicanos—the United Mexican States—said the large shiny Mexican pesos in Spanish. With her miracle stethoscope, our doctor’s Superwoman eyes and Jesus hands always found where the illness hid.
As our father drove into Tijuana, the city looked like an expensive box of crayons. Fuchsia and lime green colors hugged buildings. Dad parked our shiny Monte Carlo the color of caramelo on the third floor of a yellow parking facility, and we walked down a cement staircase and crossed onto Avenida Niños Héroes. Then, we went up peach marble stairs and entered our doctor’s waiting room.
On the weekends, patients from faraway cities like Los Ángeles and San Bernardino came to see La Doctora. Judging from the looks of some of the patients’ faces, they were there to see the doctor’s husband, who was a dentist. They made the perfect couple—the doctor and the dentist—for both their Mexican and American patients. The doctor, a tall woman with smoky eye shadow, looked directly into her patients’ eyes when she spoke. Not like some American doctors in the U.S. who didn’t look at Mom because she only spoke Spanish.
On one of those doctor visits, I heard the dentist, a tall, burly man with a mustache that looked like a broom, speak English on the telephone with a patient. “John, you need to come in, so I can take a look at your tooth.”
Another time I saw an elderly gringo, waiting for his wife, seeking the dentist’s services. That’s when I realized the other side was expensive for them too.
When we were done at the doctor’s office, our next stop was El Mercadito on the other side of the block on Calle Benito Juárez. Churros sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon in metal washtubs rested on the shoulders of vendors. Fruit cocktail and corn carts were closer to the sidelines of streets, so passersby could make full stops and buy their favorite pleasure bombs to the taste buds.
During summer visits to Tijuana, Paloma ate as much mango as she wanted because fruit was affordable in México. My weakness was corn. And even if I felt sick, I always looked forward to eating a cup of corn topped with butter, grated cheese, lemon, chili powder, and salt. Mexican corn didn’t taste like the sweet corn kernels from a tin can—Mexican corn tasted like elote.
Approaching El Mercadito, dazed bees were everywhere. Mother warned us about not harassing bees. Because according to Mom, bees were like us—like butterflies. “Without bees, our world would not be as beautiful and delicious. Bees are sacred, and without them, we wouldn’t exist. Paloma and Chofi, please don’t ever hurt bees,” Mom said as we walked by our fuzzy relatives and nodded in agreement.
The smell of camote, cilacayote, cajeta, and cocadas added to the blend of enticing smells at the open market, where we roamed with buzzing bees peacefully. Colorful star piñatas and piñata dolls of El Chavo, La Chilindrina, and Spiderman hung along the tall ceiling, and the familiar smell of queso seco filled the air heavy with delight. Wooden spoons, cazos made of copper, molcajetes, loterias, pinto beans, Peruvian beans, and tamarindo provided such a wide selection of merchandise vendors didn’t have to fight over customers. Politely, they asked, “What can I give you?” or “How much can I give you?” as we walked by.
In Tijuana, street vendors sold homemade remedies for just about anything imaginable. “This cream here will alleviate the itch that doesn’t let your feet rest,” and “For a urine infection, drink this tea,” vendors hollered. And then there were the funny concoctions, for which even I, a girl my age, didn’t believe their miracle powers: “For the loss of hair, use this cream that comes all the way from the Amazon Islands.”
Hand in hand with our familia, Paloma and I walked the streets of Tijuana with our sandwich bag full of pennies and nickels. We gave our change to children who extended their little palms up in the air. Mom would take a bag full of clothing and find someone to give it to, which I never understood, because most people on the streets dressed just like us, from the pharmacists to children wearing school uniforms.
Once, when we were walking in Tijuana, Paloma and I saw a man with no legs riding what looked like a man-made skateboard instead of a wheelchair. Our eyes agreed; the man needed the rest of our change.
Besides the rumors about Tijuana being a dangerous place, nothing ever happened to our car or Mom’s purse. In Tijuana, doctors had saved Crucito’s life because my parents knew, if they took Crucito to a hospital in the U.S., he might not come out alive because American doctors wouldn’t try hard enough for a little brown baby like my little brother. In Tijuana, our parents spoiled us with goodies and haircuts at the beauty salon. And I felt bad for Americans who couldn’t afford a doctor and didn’t have a good doctor or a dentist like ours in El Otro Lado—on the Mexican side. Pobrecitos gringos.
“. . . Girls--to do the dishes
Girls--to clean up my room
Girls--to do the laundry
Girls--and in the bathroom . . .”
—The Beastie Boys, “Girls”
Because we couldn’t afford a fancy steam iron, Mom was very practical. Instead of using a plastic spray bottle, she sprayed Dad’s dress shirts, including other garments with her mouth. She gracefully spat on each garment lying on el burro.
Ironing was always an all-nighter that seemed endless and agonizing. I hated ironing Dad’s Sunday dress shirts—or anything, requiring special care and Mom’s supervisory instructions.
There were two chores I hated most about being a girl: ironing and washing someone else’s clothes.
The piles and piles of Dad and Mom’s dress clothes on top of our clothes seemed endless. (Thank God Father worked in construction or else long sleeve dress shirts would have added more to the pile). As soon as Mom started setting up el burro—the ironing board—in what should have been half a dining room, but instead we used as a bedroom, I began my whining.
“Mom, but why do Paloma and I have to iron Dad’s clothes?”
“¡Ay Sofia! You’re so lazy!”
“It’s just that I don’t understand. I don’t wear Dad’s clothes. Why us?”
“Sofia, are you going to start? That mouth! ¡No seas tan preguntona! You always ask too many questions! You always talk back! That tongue of yours. Where did you learn those ways‽”
When I nagged, my mother’s facial gestures expressed her disappointment, and she turned her face away from me. What had she done to deserve such a lazy daughter like myself? With a cold bitter laugh, Mom responded, “Because he’s your father,” which I never understood.
Having to live in apartments also meant we needed to fight over laundromat visitation rights. If anybody left their clothing unattended and the dryer or washer cycle ended, Paloma had to spy to check if anyone was coming, and I’d quickly take out the clothing and place it on a folding table. I’d throw our clothes inside the washer or dryer, and then we’d run to our apartment; otherwise, we’d be washing and drying all day.
When we moved from Vista to San Marcos, that’s when I noticed chores strategically favored the man in our family. For instance, we girls never carried out the trash like Dad—just heavy laundry baskets mounted with dirty clothes. To me, mowing the lawn didn’t look difficult at all. It looked super easy and fun.
How to Mow the Long Green Grass
By Chofi Martinez
1) Check the lawn for Crucito’s toys, Dad’s nails,
and any other sharp objects, including rocks.
2) Add gasoline.
3) Turn the lawn mower’s switch ON.
4) Press on the red jelly like button several times.
5) Pull the starter a couple of times.
6) Push the lawn mower with all your human strength.
If I could mow the lawn like a boy, at least I could be outside and listen to the singsong of finches, watch white butterflies flutter through the garden, greet and wave at neighbors passing by, and stare at the endless blue sky. But instead of Paloma and me mowing the lawn, Dad dropped us off at the laundromat on Mission Avenue next to the dairy to wash and fold everything from heavy king-sized Korean blankets to Dad’s dirty and not so white underwear. Bras and underwear were the most embarrassing garments to dry, especially when red stained or not so new underwear fell to the ground, while we checked the clothes in the dryer. If an undergarment accidentally fell, it’s not like we could ignore it and just leave it there when it was clear we were watching each other. For us, if someone looked at our bra or underwear, it was as if they were looking at our naked bodies. It was equivalent to watching feminine hygiene commercials in front of boys or even worse—Dad. Oh my God! ¡Trágame tierra!
Sometimes, when we barely had enough quarters and single dollar bills to spare in our imitation Ziploc bag, I’d window shop at the vending machine with its snacks and cigarettes then stare and admire the package labels with the bright oranges and mustardy yellows.
While we waited for the washer to end, we sat on the orange laundromat chairs (bolted to the ground in case anyone tried to steal them, I figured). My eyes wandered—at the graffiti, the announcements, the tile floor that needed a broom and a mop, the Spanish newspapers with the sexy ladies with their back to the readers wearing a two piece—a thong and high heels and the constant drop off and pick up of wives and daughters.
Swinging my feet back and forth out of boredom, I stared at the dryer’s circular-glass door with the thick-black trim, where garments would slowly go round and round and round and round, painting a picture of a vanilla and chocolate ice cream swirl, which was like meditating in front of a TV screen. Another dryer gave form to a motley of colors from the palette of Matisse’s bright yellows, blacks, oranges and greens Ms. Watson, my art teacher, had lectured on. And then, the dryer came to a full stop, and the colors—the burgundy red and thorny pink roses and the stoic lion—on heavy blankets took their true forms in need of folding.
Our Dream Home
Mom and Dad were always working for our dream house. In his early twenties, dressed in slacks and a tie, José Armando, our real estate agent, came to our apartment and talked to my parents about becoming homeowners. He sat patiently for what felt like hours translating endless paperwork. José Armando, Tijuana born with Sinaloa roots, grew up in Carlsbad, “Carlos Malos.” He smelled like a professional, and the heaviness of his cologne and starchy clothes filled our small kitchen and living room long after he was gone. Our real estate agent felt like familia.
“Helena and Francisco, the contract states that if you complete all the renovations within a year, the bank will approve the loan. You can move in now, but the house is not in living conditions.”
“But Jose Armando, I’m sure you’ve heard stories--what if the gringo doesn’t keep his promise?” Mom asked our real estate agent.
“Helena, please trust me. Mr. Stoddard is a good man and will not back out of the deal because he signed the contract,” José Armando assured Mom the owner would follow through. “You know Francisco more than I do. Your husband is going to make the house look like a palace—like your dream home. Helena, the property even has a water well. You can add the roses, calla lilies, and fruit trees you’re looking for in a property. And, most importantly, you won’t have to commute from Vista to San Marcos anymore.”
Where Dad and Mom came from, waiting periods to build a house didn’t exist; people didn’t need permits to build a home made from adobe or blocks. In the U.S., however, my parents had to settle for a fixer-upper Dad could mend in no time with the help of family and friends.
When José Armando finally struck a deal with the owner, it took Dad a whole year to claim the house on 368 West San Marcos Boulevard as our own. After Dad came home from working construction all day, he’d work at home. Mom must have had sleepless nights when Father agreed to buy our first house. That’s because Mother didn’t see what Father saw. We would have a street number to ourselves, 368.
The first days at 368, Mom refused to eat in the kitchen, and how could she eat in there? How could her children eat in that thing Dad called kitchen? Yes, the house included a small stove, but cockroaches were baking their own feasts in the oven. Dad imagined a swing set for Crucito in the backyard’s green lawn. But Mother had heard the neighbors walking by say the backyard turned into a swamp during the rainy seasons. Dad imagined a one-foot swallow lined with miniature plants that would keep the water moving to the large apartment complex next door. But Mom saw the swamp at our feet. Dad imagined the pantry and mom’s new wooden cupboards. But Mom saw mice and cockroaches. Lots of cockroaches. Mom saw the faded dilapidated and peeling mint green paint. Dad saw a new wooden exterior and a fresh coat of paint.
Our new but old kitchen was infested with silky brown cockroaches—the thin kind that matched the plywood. Underneath the crawl space lived the critters, and at night, big roaches squeezed and welcomed themselves in through both the front and back door to drink water and eat crumbs. Paloma and I, in our superhero capes, made from black trash bags, became Las Cucaracha Warriors de la Noche and ran after the cucaracha bandits. We routinely turned off the lights, and then at about ten o’clockish, Mom turned on the kitchen lights, and Paloma and I charged at them. While they scattered everywhere, we all took our turns killing the horde of nightly visitors. The pest problem at 368 went away with endless nights of Raid attacks and hot water splashing. Paloma and I even conquered our cockroach phobia and squished cockroaches with our very own index fingers.
The master bedroom had seven layers of dusty carpets pancaked on top of each other. The wooden floor in our living room held itself together miraculously—we were always careful to wear shoes to prevent any splinters from pricking our bare feet.
When we finally settled into our new home, one Saturday morning Paloma and I still in our pajamas were arguing over who would have to sweep and mop before our parents got home from work when suddenly we found ourselves shoving and wrestling each other. And then with a big push, the unexpected happened. I flew through the wall.
“Oh my God, Chofi! Look what you did!”
“Look what I did? You pushed me, Mensa!”
Paloma and I had to reconcile immediately to cover up the crime scene.
When Dad got home later that afternoon and walked through the hallway to inspect our chores, he demanded an explanation, “¿Y este pinche sofá? ¿Qué está haciendo aquí?” Chanfles, we thought as our eyes placed the blame on each other. Dad gave us the mean Martinez Castillo stare with the white of his eyes showing that always worked, shook his head, and stormed out of the house because Dad knew he had to replace all the house’s old plywood with new drywall.
Our idea of placing a love seat in front of the hole to cover it up didn’t work. Our fear for our father’s punishment turned into giggles and then uncontrollable laughter. Poking at each other’s ribs and yelling at each other, “It’s your fault!” and “No, it’s your fault!” we almost peed our underwear. We laughed at the hole in the wall, the sofa that barely fit in the hallway that must have looked ridiculously out of place in our father’s eyes, and at our new but old house facing the boulevard.
Strangers driving by honked or waved and gave Dad a thumbs up when he worked on our house on the weekends. We were living in Father’s dream home, and we were happy. José Armando, our real estate agent, was right—Dad fixed our house, and Mother created her garden of dreams, where Dad and Mom planted hierbas santas. Orange, avocado, peach, cherimoya, guava, and purple fig trees. And native yellow-orange, deep-purple, and rose-colored milkweeds for our butterfly relatives who passed by and travelled south to Michoacán, our parents’ homeland. One day we would follow them if Mom and Dad worked hard and saved enough money. One day.
The Guayaba Tree
In San Marcos, our backyard smelled like Idaho. The familiar smell of manure from the Hollandia Dairy on Mission Avenue lingered in our backyard. Months before the guava tree joined us at San Marcos Boulevard, Mom took free manure from the dairy for our garden and prepared the earth with water. Even if we already had a few trees, Dad and Mom talked about the trees and plants with special powers that would join our family. Next to the guayaba tree’s new home, the apricot tree had already joined us, and now it was the guava tree’s turn to step out of its black plastic container and to spread its roots and branches. At the end of the week with their Friday paycheck, Mom and Dad’s eyes were set on an árbol de guayaba.
Right after work Dad drove us to the northside of San Marcos on the winding road to Los Arboleros, the tree growers’ ranch on East Twin Oaks Valley Road, to buy the perfect tree for our backyard. As we approached a dirt road leading to the Santiago property, Don José in his sombrero and red and yellow Mexican bandana tied around his neck waved at us. At his side, two large Mexican wolfdogs with imposing orange eyes barked at us as we approached the nursery next to their house.
“Paloma and Chofi, be careful with Don Jose’s dogs.”
“Okay Ma,” we answered in unison.
“Buenas tardes, Francisco and Helena. Don’t worry, Señora Helena. My calupohs don’t bite unless they smell evil. They scare off the coyotes that want to get into the chicken coop. Last week a red-shouldered hawk snatched one of my María’s chickens in broad daylight.” Don José’s dogs, Yolotl and Yolotzin, sniffed our stiff bodies while I prayed to San Jorge Bendito: “San Jorge Bendito, amarra tus animalitos . . . .” Yolonzin sniffed and licked my hand. Thankfully, Don José’s calupohs remembered us; we were in the clear. “If you need anything, holler at me. I’m going to water the foxtail palm trees on the other side.”
At Don José and Doña María de la Luz Santiago’s small ranch, Paloma and I were careful not to step on rattlesnakes. We walked through the rows of small trees in 15″ containers and played with sticks next to a large flat boulder with smooth holes. I filled the holes with dead leaves and dirt and mixed it with a stick. “Paloma, let’s ask Don Jose about the holes on this large boulder. How do you think these holes got here?” Paloma shrugged her shoulders and signaled with her head to get back. With the calupohs following us, we found Mom and Dad still deciding on a tree and a crimson red climbing rose bush.
“But Pancho, look how green the leaves look on this one!”
“Yes, Helena, but look at this one. It has a strong tree trunk.”
“Pancho, this one has ripe fruit! Smell it, Pancho. With time, this one will be strong too.”
“You’re right, Helena. We can take the one you want. Let’s pay Don Jose and get going before it gets too dark, so we can plant our tree today.”
“Yes, Pancho, it’s a full moon!”
“Paloma and Chofi, I’m glad you’re both back. Go look for Don Jose, and tell him we’re ready to pay.”
Paloma and I ran to look for Don José. On our way to find him, I remembered we needed to ask him about the holes on the boulder.
“Hola Don Jose. My mom and dad are ready to pay.”
“Let’s go then.”
“Don Jose, we have a question for you. We saw a big flat rock on your property, and we’re wondering how the holes got there.”
Don José cleaned his sweat with his bandana and gave us a pensive look.
“Those holes. Well, Chofi, as you may know, this land you see here from Oceanside all the way to Palomar Mountain and beyond was inhabited by Native people. Women sat and pounded acorns on metates like the one you saw and made soup and other foods. You can only imagine how many years it took for those indentations to leave their mark and to withstand time. Those women, Chofi and Paloma, left their mark.”
“Oh, wow, Don Jose. That’s why the road is called Twin Oaks Valley Road? It’s a reference to Native people’s trees, who lived in this area?”
“Yes, Chofi and Paloma. Native people still live on these lands—in Escondido, San Marcos, Valley Center, Fallbrook, Pala, and Pauma Valley and beyond. Ask your U.S. history teacher about the people who inhabited these lands. I’m sure they can tell you more.”
“Thank you, Don Jose. I’ll ask.”
Dad and Mom paid Don José, and off we went to plant our guayaba tree. With our guava tree sticking out of the window in the Monte Carlo and lying on Paloma, Crucito, and me in the back seat, Mom was all smiles and kept glancing back.
“Pancho, please drive slowly and turn on your emergency lights. Children, hold onto our tree carefully.”
“Don’t worry Helena. Two more stop lights, and we’re almost home.”
Dad agreed to Mom’s pick because he knew she loved guayabas—all kinds. This time they chose the one with the two guayabas with pink insides, which wasn’t too sweet and just about my height. I preferred the bigger trees at Los Arboleros. Why couldn’t we get bigger trees? Mom and Dad always chose the smaller trees because those were the ones we could afford, and plus we didn’t have a truck like our neighbor Don Cipriano’s, but maybe we could borrow it next time.
As soon as we arrived home, Dad cut the container down the middle with a switchblade, and Mom pushed the shovel down with her right foot and split the earth.
“¡Ay, ay! ¡Ay Pancho! Be careful with the tree’s roots. Here, grab the shovel. Let me hold onto the arbolito.”
Dad dug the hole, exposing the dark brown of the earth as two pink worms shied away from the light.
“Dad, can Crucito and me get the worms, pleaseee?”
“Hurry up Chofi and Cruz. Go ahead. Your mom and I want to plant the tree today.”
While I carefully took the worms from their home, Mom held the guava tree as if she held a wounded soldier and whispered to the tree, “Arbolito, don’t worry. You’re going to be safe here. I’m going to water you when you get thirsty and take care of you—we all will.”
“Pancho, one day we’re going to make agua de guayaba.”
“Sí, Helena, we’re going to make guayabate like the one my mom used to make. It was so good!”
“I bet it was, Pancho. To prevent a bad cough, my mom used to give us guava tea to fight off the flu.”
“Helena, did you know guava leaves are also good for hangovers?”
“Ay Pancho. ¿Qué cosas dices? Let’s get this tree planted.”
From the dried-up manure pile, Dad mixed the native soil and compost and pulled the weeds. As Mom placed the rootball above the hole, they both looked for the guava tree’s face and centered the tree on top of the hole. With the shovel, Dad poured the dirt around the tree. Mom took the shovel from Dad and pounded softly on the dirt surrounding the guava tree, making sure they left the edge below the surface.
Next to the apricot tree with a woody surface, the small guava tree with tough dark green leaves would be heavy with fruit one day for our family, our neighbors, and friends. Dad went looking for a canopy for the young guava tree to protect her from winter’s threatening frostbite, and mom stood in the garden, admiring our new family member.
It was time to return the worms to the earth; they were so tender but so strong. I made a little hole with my hand, placed the worms inside, said thank you to the worms, and covered them with dirt. The guayaba tree would make a perfect home.
Sonia Gutiérrez is the author of Spider Woman / La Mujer Araña (Olmeca Press, 2013) and the co-editor for The Writer’s Response (Cengage Learning, 2016). She teaches critical thinking and writing, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published her novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Her bilingual poetry collection, Paper Birds / Pájaros de papel, is forthcoming in 2022. Presently, she is returning to her manuscript, Sana Sana Colita de Rana, working on her first picture book, The Adventures of a Burrito Flying Saucer, moderating Facebook’s Poets Responding, and teaching in cyberland.