I return to San Francisco with little resolution, not greatly changed, nor with particularly more hope.
I didn't tell anyone I was coming back. So no one was waiting for me at the airport. A fact that created a swell of self-pity. I guess I should call a car. I am the kind of person who discusses my disdain for Uber and Lyft and then gives a respectful pause before ordering one, the way a person might say a quick prayer when they passed a cemetery or cross their chest when passing a church. The pause is a gesture that makes me feel moral (that was more than most people gave), but I didn't really fool myself.
As I got into the fake cab, I began to hear my stomach gurgle. I knew I had food poisoning. I always, always got food poisoning in Mexico. A doctor in Oaxaca once told me I had given it to myself. I was neurotic. He was so upset by my Western fragility. We were talking about the quality of water, but each time he responded to one of my comments he said "water" with a punctuated offense, like we were having a coded conversation very much not about water, which I guess we were. I was always upset that after decades of eating food prepared by my Mexican grandmother's unwashed hands, all that poop hadn't given me a lick of immunity.
My dramatic, thrill-seeking self (borne of my dysfunctional family) wanted this stomach issue to escalate so my body could be as sick as my heart was broken, but my anxious I-hate-vomiting self won. I reached into my bag and pulled out the precautionary antibiotics I had gotten for just this occasion. A white friend had suggested just this and I was amazed by the wisdom of the people around me. But I was also ashamed that I needed it and that I was the kind of person who listened to white people's third world travel advice.
As we get on the freeway I see a little brown chihuahua in a blue harness trotting around on the strip of green between two converging streams of traffic.
STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP. THERE WAS A LITTLE CHIHUAHUA BACK THERE. WE HAVE TO GO BACK.
The driver (being not a professional and all) begins to break and I am then horrified by his inability to drive safely. He gathers his bearings. Says ok. I will turn around.
He drives fast, running a red light as he turns and circles back. There is no easy way to get back to that on-ramp, he tells me.
I begin to imagine all the possible scenarios.
The chihuahua has no tags and despite my tepid efforts to find his owner I cannot and we become best friends. The universe has given me the chihuahua I always wanted but was too afraid to get lest I regret having expressed desire only to find out that I am indeed as unable to love anything as I thought.
Or the chihuahua has tags. I call his owners and they cry tears of joy when we return him. And I cry too. Happy. A hero.
Or another person who also has always wanted a chihuahua or perhaps is a serial kidnappers of chihuahuas sees him sooner than I had and by the time I return there will be no trace of him and I will convince myself that I had made the whole thing up because I am a woman after all.
We finally arrive at the green strip. He puts on the emergency lights. He gets out of the car with me. I am gently treading, afraid I might scare the dog or something. I don't know.
The driver has wandered up ahead of me and after a few seconds he turns around, and there is an expression on his face like he is about to lie to me or say something to make me forget what we were doing there, and that's when I see the little dog's body on the road.
He runs back to me. Hugs me. I let him. "I wanted him to be ok," I say into his gross sweatshirt that smells like sweat. "I did too," he says, crying all the tears he's been saving for months and months, tears that had been waiting for a moment like this when it's unquestionably acceptable to cry.
We get back in the car and he drives me the rest of the way home.
“Abre tus ojos,” a soft command that feels more important. I don’t want to. I don’t want to open my eyes and see him, see myself. I pretend I can’t hear him, giggle a little. He says it again. Why? I ask him. “Look at me,” he says. Look at me. Again. He touches my face. I don’t like that. I tell him to stop and he does. I open my eyes and he’s looking at me, into me. I hate being seen. But I like this. This feels nice.
“Tell me a story,” I say.
“What kind of story?”
“A fantastical one.”
“Well, some people believe that Jesus died on the cross for the whole world’s sins, but the truth is it was all a misunderstanding. Actual Jesus was the son of the biggest asshole the universe had ever known, and as everyone knows there ain’t no silver spoon boys giving up shit for anybody but themselves. Jesus liked to do that slumming shit and so he came to earth one day cuz he heard there was some bomb pussy and some good ass snacks.
He did a total snot nose noob move and was just walking around with pristine clothes, looking around like a puppy. Everyone could read his ass, and so he got found by a bunch of thugs who had booze and promised ladies. Being royalty he had access to a lifestyle that most folks didn’t know. He got super drunk and started telling these dudes about his dad and the planets and teleportation and all that. At first they just thought he was hella crazy, but after several hours of it they started to believe him. The facts just seemed to line up. And they did what any smart criminals would do when a prince decided to show up like a dummy: they kidnapped him figuring his rich daddy would hand over something of value in exchange for him.
That night when God sat down for dinner there was no Jesus, and he started to worry. It was tater tots night. Jesus never missed tater tots night. So he started asking around, found out he was on earth and decided it was time for his ass to get back. He called up Jesus on his futuristic heavenly phone, but no one answered. He started to worry. Who could he trust to transfer his valuable properties to and carry on the legacy of his name if not Jesus? He had disowned a bunch of his kids. Maybe he could just leave Jesus down there? No. No. It took a long time to get a kid who was the right combination of dumb, selfish and easy to manipulate. Shit. He was gonna have to take care of it himself.
Well, heaven-time and earth-time were really different. On earth each year was just a few heaven minutes. So, just the time between tater tots and God realizing he had to find a way to get Jesus back was several years. The thugs started to get real restless. Jesus was a whiny lil bitch and they were getting tired of waiting to collect on their investment. They had been taking him out and making him say weird magical shit to people in hopes that someone would pass the word along that they’d seen Jesus, but everyone was so into these strange shows – cuz remember life was real boring at that time - that no one wanted them to end.
So Jesus’ captors came up with an elaborate plan. Serve him up as bait. Publicly. Get him to start wailing and screaming. Maybe his dad would come to them. They gathered around with some weed and some Scooby snacks and got to scheming. The higher they got the more elaborate the ideas, until finally they were like: let’s put him in some panties and hang him up on a cross. Well, it worked. God did take notice.
When he saw Jesus wearing panties his epic homophobia kicked in and he was like ‘fuckit.’ Jesus didn’t die for anybody’s sins. He died cause his dad was a bigot. The end.”
“So my grandma has been praying to a ‘lil bitch’ – was that the phrase you used…?”
“… and a bigot for years?”
"I mean, I guess that actually sounds about right now that I think about it. That story got me pretty wet though.”
And this is the moment in the story where Jesus ate me out, like a real feminist, like any real revolutionary pussy-loving human would. In case it’s unclear, I still do not realize he is Jesus. That’s coming.
And so am I. :D
“What are you? Some kind of clitoris magician?”
“Naw, I’m just hella old. I’ve eaten a lot of pussy. You know what they say? El diablo no sabe por diablo si no por viejo.”
“Oh my god. Are you actually the devil? Is this the surrealist twist to our encounter?”
“No, girl. I’m the dude from the story. My dad did leave me on the cross wearing panties. Some nice old ladies brought me down, did some brujeria, spit some agua ardiente on me, left me in a cave for three days, and when I woke up they taught me all about my male privilege and how to be an actual fucking human. Now I just hang around Mexico City giving head to girls with broken hearts.”
I sat there, panties around my ankles. He wiped his beard, laid down next to me again. I could smell my lemony cunt on his face. Had I just fucked Mexican Jesus?
"Wait, I had planned to meet you at a bar and you were supposed to tell me about my grandmother. What happened?"
"Girl, you still don't get this story ain't about your grandma?"
When the door closes my friends look over at me, raise some eyebrows, go back to their blunts and their tortas. I ask my friend who this guy is: “I dunno. We met him at a bar.”
“You just invite randos over to your house? What if he tries to poison my bubbly water?” I tell her. She looks at me: “Girl, no one is trying to poison your bubbly water.”
When he comes back, I tell him I’m not thirsty anymore. He can put that shit in the fridge. “Thaaaaaanks.”
You wanna be a martyr, papi? Then I’m the girl for you. I’ll throw you under the bus, treat you like a pieceameat, leave you for dead and not even know I cared.
He comes and sits next to me, his outer thigh touching mine. I can see the sweat coming down his chubby cheek, dribbling into his sideburns.
I’m eating the black beans now and I push them into the crevices between my front set of teeth. I look over at him, offer him a big smile, the dark skins of the beans wedged up in there like rotten holes. “Do I have anything in my teeth?” I ask, determined to repel him with my strange personality.
He reaches over, finger outstretched and starts to pick the stuff out from between my teeth. Challenge accepted. Now I’m embarrassed, blushing. I’ve dared him to jump in and he did. I never have a plan for this sort of thing.
I’m definitely gonna give this guy a hand job. At least. I can already tell.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“I haven’t seen you around before.”
“I live in San Francisco. I’m just here to learn Spanish from a white woman.”
“That’s cool. That’s cool. Did you grow up there, in San Fran-ceeee-sco?”
“No, I grew up in a suburb not far from there. It’s kind of a mall with a zipcode. What about you?”
“I grew up all over, speak a lot of languages and all that.”
“Totally. Are you an alcoholic?”
“No, I mean, I dunno. Why? Are you judging me?”
“No, not really. It just probably means you have depression in your family.”
“That’s a funny thing to say to someone.”
“Well, my great grandfather was an alcoholic. He killed a bunch of people in the revolution. My grandfather raised me and he never drank but he had all the behavioral issues of an alcoholic. I learned in this group called Adult Children of Alcoholics that my old boss took me to one time, that even if people don’t drink alcohol they can be dry drunks and that leads them to use experiences and non-illicit substances like they’re drugs. Do you do that?”
“Naw, I mean not any more than any other person.”
“Cool. So, you seem pretty not mentally ill. What drew you to me?”
“Does every dude who’s drawn to you have a mental illness?”
He laughs, takes another swig of beer. “Well, you’d need to be mentally ill to survive this world. Some people just have the kind that makes things easy, and some have the kind that makes shit hard.”
“Are you some kind of philosopher slash Marxist? I don’t give handjobs to men who are Marxists.”
“Do you always have to know every single thing before it even happens?”
“No, I’m not a Marxist, then. I guess that means we are cleared for the handjob.”
“I guess it does.”
“I’m gonna go into that room over there. I would love to hang out in there with you.” He gets up and goes. My heart is beating. Everyone else is busy and super high. I won’t be missed. Ok. Ok. Ok. I’m gonna do this.
I walk into the room. There’s a bed with a black comforter with some bleached spots on it. Above it is a huge framed portrait of an electric chair. He’s sitting on the bed, just below it. “I’m ready for my handjob,” he says smiling. He feels different, softer in here. Maybe it’s that I’m softer.
I crawl up on the bed. Lay next to him.
“I came here to learn about my family and why I don’t know how to love them the right way.” I told him. There.
“What’s the right way to love them?”
“I don’t know, but I know I’m not doing it the right way now. Like it’s kind of behavioral but not all the way. It’s not that I feel like I would need to act different necessarily, but the way I felt when I acted should feel different. Or something.”
“You think a lot. Maybe you’re addicted to thinking. Maybe it keeps you from having to deal with some awful shit, just like your great grandfather.”
What is this, therapy? Cuz I'm into that.
“Yeah, maybe,” I tell him. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I’m just gonna start the seduction show. I look up at him, chin down eyes up, just like a baby doll, just like a little girl, just like men like it. I push my tits together, deep cleavage. I close my eyes.
My friend Juliana says that if you want to meet Jesus you should go to a bar.
Jesus was like my grandmother’s best friend. She talked to him more than she talked to anyone else. So I figured if I wanted to learn about her then I should find him.
I waited at this little bar down the street from my apartment night after night, but it wasn’t til I went to my friends’ house to make soap and quesadillas that I actually found him.
We had all been at this girl’s shop, Rosa Pistola in Colonia Juarez. It was a little boutique that sold neo-goth streetwear, enormous sunglasses with cat ears and spikes on them, and neoprene sweatshirts with anthropomorphic marijuana leaves on them. Once a week that shop transformed into a private dance class for queens and femmes who wanted to practice perreo. A girl with curly-wavy hair and denim overalls (only one strap clasped) leads the class. The class allowed me the opportunity to feel that I had really come up from the days in marching band and dieting in high school, a chance to twerk in the mirror. And it got me an invitation to this little soap party.
After the class, a group of us walked, like, 25 minutes to this girl’s house – the sun setting, we passed a vaulted relic left by Spaniards, and a bunch of ladies in prom dresses texting on the back of a Cadillac convertible. We stopped and bought squash blossoms in a can, Oaxacan cheese and black beans, some herbs for the soap and a bunch of bottled water and coca cola. Up to the 9th floor, no elevator. Everyone was skinny but me.
We get to her house and start melting down the glycerin in these huge pots. Add food coloring. Add salt or brown sugar for exfoliation. Add scents: rosemary or maybe peppermint. Choose a mold so your soap can be shaped like a tiny pig or a flower or a vulva. I decide to make my soap blue, jasmine scented, and shaped like a flower. Don Charles is there (remember Don Charles?). He’s wearing a poncho and tenn-ees with no socks. I ask him if I should put sugar in my soap. I’m worried it will give me a yeast infection. “That soap is gonna make your pussy shine like a diamond, baby,” he says, a joint dangling from his mouth.
I’m bad at smoking weed. I never had that initiatory moment that everyone seemed to have when they were 13 and that one friend they’ve since lost touch with or who died in a car accident forced them to learn how to smoke, and they coughed and coughed and then barfed a little while their friend laughed and watched them taking deep drags on their own cigarillo. I can’t say I didn’t have a rebellious phase, but it wasn’t my love of trouble that got me there. It was my love of dick (or maybe it was my drive for casual love and transient intimacy. I hate sleeping with people I know. It’s disgusting. Sleeping with strangers allows me to fuck someone who’s never hurt me before, and who I won’t know long enough to hurt me later. Clean.).
I laugh at Don Charles’ casually dispensed RiRi poetics and then go into the kitchen to make the quesadillas.
I want to be useful and I feel confident that I am the best at incorporating squash blossoms from a can into the cheese. This feeling is based on nothing, but I am definitely the most passionate of the bunch when it comes to squash blossoms. The first time I had a squash blossom was in Oaxaca, that time I went to shunt my colonized self away from the un-infected rest of me I’m not sure even exists. Down there they put the blossoms in soup, deep fry them with batter. They’re delicate. Eating flowers in the south of Mexico – a place that reminds Mexicans of their pre-colonial past – is something, almost bold, almost poetry.
I open up the can and the squash blossoms are wet, floating in salty water. I pick out each one and carefully wring it out over the sink. Then I put it on a plate with a paper towel, letting them dry out a little. I turn the stove on, put oil and some salt on the pan. Open up the little plastic bag filled with corn tortillas. The oil starts to sizzle and I take the first tortilla put it down on the pan. I push the tortilla down with my fingers, hastening the sizzle. I open up the plastic bag with the queso Oaxaqueno in it. The cheese is like a white coiled snake inside. I grab its head and pull it out, break a piece off, begin to peel it like the string cheese my grandma used to get me sometimes when I was little. I lay the cheese on the tortilla, watch it melt a little. Now the blossoms. Another tortilla on top. Use the spatula to push it down, and get the cheese to adhere to it. Add a pinch of salt. Flip it over. I make 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 quesadillas, stack them on a plate with a towel on top to keep the moisture in, the steam keeps them warm. My grandma taught me that.
When I walk outside I notice there’s a new person. I had been so immersed in the kitchen that I hadn’t heard the door open and a new person walk in. He had long hair that was up in a man bun. His skin was dark, like a person who always walks across the street to be on the sunny side. Dark brown eyes, almost black. He had a double chin, and a beard. “What are you, some kind of Marxist?” I thought. I was annoyed that there was a new person I had to incorporate into my night.
He looks up at me. I read him as straight and that automatically puts a lemon in my mouth.
He probably wants to fuck one of these flacitas. He’s fat, but with that man bun god knows he must be a self-loathing self-righteous piece of shit hipster misogynist who can’t understand that his lack of attraction to fat women is a sign of his own internalized inferiority. Whatever. I’m just gonna eat my mufucken quesadilla as loudly and grossly as possible, not even offer to make him one, and pretend he isn’t here.
He asks everyone if they want a beer. Presuming he’s only talking to everyone but me, I don’t answer. He tries to get my attention: “Hey, you, la feminista, do you want a beer?”
“No.” I say shortly.
“Can I get you something else then?” he asks.
Oh shiiiiit. He’s like doing some other thing I don’t understand. Well, ok.
I tell him I want some bubbly water, mineragua. I know he’s gonna have to go to the bodega to get it, down the 9 flights of stairs and back up again. We’re both about 250 pounds. He’s gonna feel every one of those steps, like I did. Everything’s always a test. I’m expecting him to say no. He has registered that I am bitter and suspicious already. He’s smart enough to know that. So I wait for him to say no, but instead he stands up, puts on his shoes and says he’ll be right back.
I sat up and looked at Frida.
She knew how to be sad. She knew how to let it sweep her up, swallow her whole and she was all the better for having been consumed. My grandmother also knew this.
I remember once I was talking to her on the phone. She was congratulating me for the home my boyfriend had just bought. “I didn’t buy it,” I said.
“All the better!” she said, that sneering soft-power obviousness in her voice. I like when she used that tone. It made me feel like she finally admitted she wanted something.
She knew how to be a woman. She knew the game, saw the game, played the game, got her piece of the pie, didn’t fight it, had the humility and foresight to swallow it down, made the calculations, figured she couldn’t beat it. That’s where her power came from: her willingness to be of this world.
Her heart broke and what was left was soft pink flesh that made her feel too weak not to rely on someone else.
My heart broke and what was left was stone, proof that I didn’t need anyone.
“No, I mean it’s not mine,” I said.
“Uh huh,” she says, like there’s something delicious in her mouth. In her mind, this fact made me worthy of congratulations. In my mind this fact indicated that the house did not belong to me in any way and that I had no intention of pretending. “You better be careful, Virginia.” She always left cryptic things like that dangling in the air, an indication of her unwillingness to openly discuss sex or spinsterhood, convinced that saying the words out loud would tempt fate. Both were equally taboo. I knew this time she was talking about spinsterhood.
She passed the phone to my mom. “What’s so ironic,” I told my mom, “is that it was growing up watching her cry every day and threaten to run away and panic every time dad came home that made me feel like having kids and a husband was a death sentence. She was so sad all the time.”
All of a sudden my grandma’s voice screams “THAT’S NORMAL.” It turns out the phone was on speaker. Three generations of women on the line: a widow, a manic depressive and a soon-to-be spinster with no heart.
To my grandmother, it was an expression of femininity to be openly sad. Suffering was the measure of your womanhood. We all knew that Eve lured Adam into original sin and her punishment was painful childbirth – the kind that makes you wail, the kind that reminds you that you’ve irredeemably fallen.
I look at Frida, and I decide that I want to want to be able to feel as intensely as she does. That’s so me: always wanting to want things.
It’s getting dark now. The sun is setting. I ask her if I can take her out for a paleta, maybe some mango with chili. She agrees, and we go into the mercado near the Casa Azul. We eat piloncillo and pepitas. We look at the pinatas of Donald Trump and My Little Pony. I buy my grandma a little toy llama made of wood, and my mom a big fan (she’s always sweating nowadays). I buy Frida a coconut paleta and I buy myself an horchata one. I dip it in a little cup of coffee and then slurp it up before it melts. A little like an horchata latte, like they have in that little café in Highland Park in LA. A little like an affogato. She wants to try it and I hand the tiny enamel cup – blue and speckled white, just like the old style that every Mexican gramma has – and the paleta to her. She smiles and gets horchata slush on her mustache.
I walk her back home. She kisses me, and before she closes the door she says: “Practice being sad. You might love it.”
"Her heart was broken, and nothing on the other side of that door could fix it. She knew it, and she didn’t know how but somehow she accepted it. She stopped pretending and she accepted that this was her reality.
She had misunderstood the monster. She didn’t know him. He had been around for much longer than she could even imagine, had met many little girls as smart as her and had become many of their bed fellows. ‘I’m you,’ he would say to her. ‘I’m you,’ and she would smile not understanding. ‘There’s no getting out from under this. You think I’m a stranger, and maybe I was, but not anymore, mijita. Not anymore.’
How could she beat something she didn’t see as an enemy? How could she teach herself to love again? How could she take the risk of looking over her shoulder one more time when she thought – she truly believed – that doing that sort of thing would kill her, would remind her she was already dead. She couldn’t imagine. She didn’t even have the words to know she still wanted things like that.
What’s worse is that, had she thought of it, she’d have known that it wasn’t her mother who could save her anymore. The time for that had passed. She hadn’t known it was gone forever from the very first day, from that very first morning she didn’t feel her on her bed. She wasn’t prepared, so she didn’t take the time to let it go. So it lived like a shadow over everything, haunting her every gesture, derived from those days when she was trying to get her back. Nothing had been given its own life, its own meaning just for her.
Everything had always derived from that heartache, everything was built from that place of absence, from longing, from the sense of emergency and the drive to make it stop.
She was right. Nothing on the other side of the door could fix it. But she was wrong that she was hopeless. There was someone who had come inside in her mother’s absence, but it wasn’t a monster. It was herself. She wasn’t dead. Far from it. She wasn’t alone. She would have to accept that the things she had thought were gifts had been for her, not someone else. She would have to accept that she could not have done anything to stop her mother from going, and likewise – the harder thing to admit – she could not have done anything to bring her back."
"The Monster knocked on the door. The girl was surprised. Excited.
She ran to the door, laughing hysterical. She couldn’t wait. Her mother was gone but she was back now and all she could feel was everything.
When she opened the door it wasn’t her mother. It was someone she had never seen before. He stood outside on the little mat that said ‘home’ on it. She looked up at him. ‘Where is mom?” she asked, immediately ashamed that she hadn’t said hello or ‘how are you’ or ‘what’s your name’ or ‘can I offer you some tea?’ Hadn’t her mother taught her better? But she was scared now and she didn’t know if it was ok to behave badly when you weren’t happy, when your mother was gone.
He looked down at her. ‘Oh she’s with me,’ he said. She ran to hug him. This was the next best thing to her mother being there. He knew where she was. He had come to bring them together again. ‘I can’t wait to see her. I have so much to tell her. I didn’t wear my slippers on the linoleum and I am still alive. I am ok. I broke some things, but we can fix them together. That’s ok.’ He looked down at her and he smiled, a big smile, a smile that didn’t seem to end. And then he walked away.
She wanted to run after him but her mommy had told her not to leave the house without her. Would her mommy be mad if she did it this one time? She didn’t want to risk it. So she let him go. She yelled after him. Sir. Sir. Sir. Sir. Just like her mom did that one time they went shopping together and a man had left his wallet and mom called after him so she could give it back to him. Sir. Sir. Sir. Sir. Sir. Sir. But he was gone. He must be deaf. Her mom had told her about people who couldn’t hear very well.
When she closed the door she started to wonder about what had happened. Maybe the person was upset because she didn’t say hello or offer him tea. Maybe he was shocked at how rude she was. Maybe he left because of something she said. What could she do, what could she say to make him tell her? When would he be back?
A-ha! She had an idea. She would make a special meal for him. She had seen her mother make some cookies and tea for strangers before. She wasn’t supposed to touch the stove, but this was an emergency, wasn’t it? So she turned it on. She didn’t know how to tell if it was working. So she put her finger on the top of it to touch and OH It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. She pushed her finger into her mouth and it pulsed. She pulled it out. The skin had turned white.
She cried until she felt like she didn’t want to cry anymore.
‘Ok,’ she said to herself. ‘It hurt but you learned something. That’s good. Learning is good.’
So this time instead of touching the top part she let put her finger a little above it and she could feel it get warmed up. She was proud of herself for figuring this out. How smart you are, her mother would have said if she were there.
The kettle was too high for her to reach. She had seen her mother use the chair to get too-high things before. That’s what she would do too. So she pulled the chair up to the stove. Now she was tall. She felt herself smiling, and she instinctively looked over her shoulder because this was the kind of moment her mother would have been so proud of. This is the kind of moment where she would have looked behind her and seen her mother’s face. But no one was there.
Well, that was ok. She would have to feel proud for herself this one time.
She got some water, put it in the kettle, got the tea from the little cabinet, put the tea inside the kettle, and put the kettle on the top part that was hot. She heard the pot do what it had always done when her mom made tea. She did it. She really did it. The tea was ready. Now the cookies. Where were the cookies?
She looked in the little cabinets and in the drawers, but couldn’t find them. Where were they? She knew those cookies were important. They were the only way she was going to get her mother back. She started normal and patient, but then she started to break things and push things again. ‘Where are they?’ she said louder and louder and louder until she was screaming. She was mad at her mother now. How could she put them somewhere so secret? Why would she do that? Why did she have to be so mean?
She didn’t find the cookies. So she decided on something else, whatever she could find.
She heard a knock on the door again. And again she ran to the door. Again there was he was, the person she’d never seen before.
‘Hello, sir! Please come in. I have some tea for you. I tried to find some cookies but I was unable to, but I have other things.'
The stranger walked in, looked around inside, and sat down at the table where her mother used to sit. ‘Oh that’s my mother’s chair,’ she thought, but she stopped herself. She didn’t want him to leave. He could tell her what she needed to know. She smiled at him, served him the tea. She was thinking now, thinking harder than she ever had before. How would she get him to tell her? She thought about what her mother would do. What would my mother tell me to do right now?
‘How are you doing, sir? How has the weather been?’ she asked smiling.
‘The weather is nice. I have been fine. How are you?’ he asked. She was terrible, sad, hurt she said. Her mother was gone. Did he know where she was? No, no. That’s a stupid question. She was sorry. Of course he knew where she was. She was sorry. But could he help her? Could he bring her back? She kept talking hoping to keep him there longer, thinking that if he stayed long enough she could get the answer, she could get her mother back. And he did stay longer than the last time, but he gave her no answers still.
He rose from the table, and let himself out. And it continued like this over and over for a very long time. Each time she let him in he stayed longer. Each time she tried to woo him with bigger and more elaborate tricks. She pushed herself so hard to create something more alluring for him, thinking ‘this time it will work. Really.’ And each of the tasks she assigned herself pushed her to be better and more skillful.
She learned to cook and clean for herself. She took baths by herself. She had cleaned up all the messes she had made while she was upset. She threw away all the things she had broken, all the things that had her mother’s ghost in them. She didn’t look over her shoulder anymore. She wasn’t sure she missed her mother anymore. She couldn’t tell what she felt.
One day there was a knock on the door. She didn’t run to see who it was. The monster lived with her by now. On one of his visits he had accidentally fallen asleep on the sofa after she’d fed him a feast, and she realized how nice it was to have a companion after all. So she never asked him to leave and he simply stayed without much conversation about the matter. She had stopped hoping it was anyone else at the door. She finished the sip of tea she was in the middle of. She carefully placed it on the little plate. She quietly put the little plate on the table and then she looked at the clock as she rose from her chair to head to the door.
She walked right up to the door, put her hand on the knob, even turned it, but then she stopped. She took her hand off the door and returned to her seat, finished her tea and went to bed."
“Sadness is a monster,” Frida said. “It swallows up cities and people and sometimes even entire countries. Mexico lives in its belly. Do you want me to tell you a story about a girl who tried to outsmart the monster?”
She pat her thigh, inviting me to lay down or lean on her, some support. I refused and sensing what I needed and my lifelong reluctance to take it, she pat her thigh again louder. The bells on her bracelets tinkled.
“There was a little girl. She was normal. She liked all the things little girls like. She liked getting dirty and playing games and listening to her mother tell her stories. Her world was small, but beautiful. She used to sit for hours on her bed playing with the doll that her mother made her. It had little black braids made out of yarn, and two little black eyes, and a red mouth – small with a cupid’s bow just like hers.
Every day the little girl woke up when her mother came in and sat on her bed. Her mother was so excited to see her, that unlike most mothers whose children woke them up, she found she couldn’t wait to see this child, her best friend. The little girl had never felt anything besides love in her own heart. So she had no words for how she felt. She thought this was just what life felt like.
Until one day she woke up on her own, not from the sensation of her mother’s weight pulling her body close to the place where she sat, like gravity, like the earth’s pull to the sun. The sun was in her eyes, and she decided to wait. She would close her eyes, and pretend she was asleep and surprise her mother. This would be something new, a new game they could play together. So she closed her eyes, and every few seconds she would open one just a little, just a crack. Each time she did it she could barely stop herself from laughing. Her giggling wanted to come out of her, it was like a belly bursting out of too tight pants. Just like her mother that time.
She played the game alone for a long time, for hours, until the sun went down again. She stayed in bed until the game stopped being fun. As she was pulling down her blankets, getting ready to sit up and walk outside her room, she noticed she had never done this before. Her little slippers - the one her mother said she had to wear whenever she was on the linoleum so she wouldn’t get sick from a disease people get when their feet are cold – weren’t there. Should she walk on the linoleum and risk getting the cold foot sickness? She couldn’t stay in bed anymore. Where was her mother? She was hungry – that was new too.
Many things were different, she realized, now that her mother wasn’t there. She asked herself questions she’d never had to consider. She found new things bubbling up inside her that she couldn’t understand. She had never felt uncertainty. She had never felt fear. She didn’t know what they were but she knew she wanted them to stop.
She looked for her mother, all over the house. Under the table. In the pantry. In her bedroom. In the closet where she kept her dresses. She even looked in places that her mother couldn’t possibly have fit into: the drawer with the place mats in it, the little closet where the sugar and the salt and the oregano were, underneath the big rug in the kitchen.
Her mother had just vanished. Poof. Like the smoke from the tea her mother liked so much. Like the bubbles that flew up sometimes when she was washing the dishes. Like the time she chewed 4 pieces of gum at once and then pushed her tongue into the wad making a pocket and then blew into the pocket and it expanded and then it deflated with an almost silent and completely dissatisfying ‘fooof.’
The terms of her world had changed completely very quickly and knowing nothing about anything, she started to panic. Her chest went up and down, her eyes hurt and water came out of them. But it felt different than when she fell that one time and there was blood. It wasn’t like that. It didn’t hurt inside that time, only outside.
She got mad at her doll, suspecting that she was the cause of her mother’s disappearance. She broke things, mad that each thing held a memory of her mother, her mother’s ghost.
Smash the little paper mache basket painted black and red with pink flowers that held her mother’s bobby pins.
Smash the tiny yellow plate that had the stain from her mother’s tea spoon.
Smash the mirror that they used to look at together. They played a game where mom would stand behind her and they would look at each other trying not to smile but not being able to contain how happy they were together. And then she would braid her hair, looking at her in the mirror as she told her about how the angels in heaven had picked her just for this home, this moment, this mommy. And angels never make mistakes, do they?
I guess the smashing made enough noise that the monster heard.
I met Frida in her garden.
I heard her jewelry first. It sounded a little bit like change moving around in someone’s pocket. The rustle of her skirts, her silver and gold jewelry like tiny bells announcing her arrival.
I took a cab from my apartment on Avenida Revolucion to the Casa Azul in Coayacan. The Casa Azul is a museum now, but Frida Kahlo was born there in 1907 and she lived there for the final 13 years of her life.
The house is a dark blue that feels alive. There is a green garden in the center, a magnolia tree, pink blossoms popping out from between green leaves, and rooms all along its perimeter. The sun is out.
I could hear her coming, just like they said. I sat in the middle of the garden, next to a tiny pool with two conches in the middle, a pair of vulvas announcing rebelliously the presence of femininity in this place. Femininity, when claimed, is no longer the negative space that masculinity has left behind.
I was writing in my little brown notebook, sketching something I had seen written in her diary:
muerte, madre, mar.
I was thinking of the video of her that played in a little cul de sac in the museum. In the video she’s drawing near a little lake, her feet up. At first, she is unaware that she is being watched and then she senses it, turns over her left shoulder, a smile spreading across her face like a ripple of water in a pond. She talks, but there is no sound. What did she say? Who was filming her? Why did she want to be a mother so badly? Why don’t I?
When I told the cab driver I was going to see Frida’s house, he said:
“Frida Kahlo (like her name was made out of warm taffy that made his teeth stick together). I call her Sufrida. What did she even do? It seems to me her primary role was to inspire Diego Rivera. He was the true talent. She produced much less work than him.”
My Spanish isn’t good enough to have given him my feminist perspective on the matter, but I did manage to tell him that in many parts of the world she was far more famous than Diego. He seemed politely unconvinced.
In the 1940s she wore flowers and Tehuana dresses to claim identity, loud jewelry to announce that she was alive and she was formidable. She was the great grandmother of selfies.
I had come to Casa Azul to find her. I brought some gifts:
a tiny seashell I'd found at Ocean Beach that was cracked open revealing its inner pink coil, my favorite fuscia lipstick from the wig store in West Oakland, and a tiny purple tin of lavender-flavored mints.
“You’re bleeding. I can smell it.”
This didn’t seem like the oddest thing she could have begun our conversation with. It was intimate from the start, just the way I prefer it. “I know the smell of blood better than I know the smell of roses.” She sat down, slowly, gathering her layers of skirts, and then smoothing them down around her curatorially. She looked down at her hands as she did it, and when she was done she looked at me with a warm sternness.
“What does it feel like to want to be a mother?” I asked her.
“It feels like hunger, in your stomach but also in your bones. It’s a small sadness, a nostalgia for someone you don’t know. You can imagine what your life with them would be like, you love them, a little ghost, and they haunt the memories of your future.”
“I don’t know what that feels like.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I can’t imagine hurting someone the way that my mother hurt me. I couldn’t live with myself if I ever sensed that I had betrayed my child.”
“Betrayal is inevitable. In a child’s eyes you are the queen of their world. Until one day their life cannot sustain this belief any longer. This is the first betrayal: that you are not a queen or an angel, but an animal who shit and bled while you were birthing them. You are not bigger than the life you were given. Neither are they.”
“Do you ever wonder if you wanted to have a child for the wrong reasons?”
“Desire is bigger than reason, and error is built into reason. Reason is a creation of man. Desire is a creation of god, like children. Doubt is reasonable, but you talk in a way that seems to indicate that you have a control that you in fact do not.”
“What does 'madre, muerte, mar' mean?”
“Madre. Mother. The beginning of all things, powerful, loathed, love. I don’t know that we ever forgive our mothers for bringing us into this world, but we share an intimacy with them that is so great, that is unbreakable. Many women see the way that children treat their fathers, and they envy an admiration that is bred of distance. A mother does not have that distance. A child will always be in love with her mother, and that kind of love is wild, filled with pain and shame, rage and reconciliation. There is no love more animal than this kind.
Muerte. Death. In our children lies the truth of our mortality. The pain we feel when we birth them bears down on us, reminding us we are flesh that tears and bones that ache. Death is both the parent and the lover. We are afraid and in awe.
Mar. Sea. This is the salt of our tears and the strength of our resilience, our ability to expand and comfort as well as to harm. The sea is our humanity, vast and humbling and dangerous.
Let's take a radical feminist self-care break from Don Chingon. His tender misogynist entitlement can be overwhelming at times, que no?
I want to tell you about something that happened to me today, a realization I had right in the midst of avoiding writing. The truth is that writing a book about the biggest unresolved emotional reality of your life is more daunting than I’d thought. Each chapter represents a moment of realization. Each chapter represents a moment of resolution. As the chapter closes on each character, I must make peace with the person that character represents. But I'm not ready to make peace with Don Chingon (or the person he represents, my dad), and he has a will of his own - he never wants his chapter to end. So, like all the ghost people I've always been surrounded by, he stifled my ability to cleanly move forward - all I have ever imagined I wanted to do.
Much like Don Chingon, when my dad was alive he was always talking, always gesturing and yet he never let anyone see him. There was never any skin in the game. The stakes were too high. I am a lot like him. He wanted intimacy and closeness more than anything, but all he could ever eek out were material representations of his love.
Every time I called home, I never wanted to speak to him. He always offered me money, asked me if I needed anything. Each time I knew he was offering love, and each time I said no. There was too much at stake for me too. So we went on like this for years and years, talking around ourselves and our feelings, an estranged relationship between two people who only knew how to hurt each other because at the core we didn’t believe we deserved any better.
Yesterday I was cooking eggs on the gas stove. I had bought this bag of stir fry vegetables in the frozen section at Safeway. I had made a stirfry the night before with steak I had also bought at Safeway. I always like to pick the cheapest pack of sliced up stirfry-ready steak, but this time the cheapest package hadn’t been sealed well and some of the meat had oxidized. I checked the expiration date. At least 5 days away from today, my brain registered.
I thought of my grandmother who would think I was being picky or snobbish for finding this meat suspicious. She made me that way, but she also doesn’t like that I use it to impose superiority, the kind of superiority that reminds her of her family and of living in the US. She also taught me how to be a penny-pincher, and she doesn’t know how much it hurts to have to put that slightly browned, still likely totally fine meat back and finding another, fresher but more expensive package. I hadn’t used all the vegetables the night before, and I felt bad, knowing that half-used bags of low-grade broccoli and cauliflower mixes don’t get used. They get taken over by the Father Christmas ice fingers in my freezer. They become undifferentiated globs of ice-vegetables.
I was proud of myself for not letting my anxiety force to me go out hunting for muffins in the streets of the Sunset, and rather make the perfectly good eggs I had right in my house. I decided that even though carrots and cauliflower are not excellent mixers for egg scrambles, that I could win the extra double proud-of-myself bonus points if I used them. So I put the vegetables on the pan with some oil.
I remembered something. I remembered something that he thought was funny. Like when I wore ridiculous hats or when I got excessively angry at my white boyfriend. And I thought about seeing him laugh the next time I went home, and then I remembered that he wasn’t home anymore. That his laugh only existed in my memory. His gold-tooth flashy laugh inspired by my cruelty and strangeness. People like him couldn’t afford not to be cruel. The whole world would end. He would die. The earth would swallow him up and he wouldn’t be able to claw his way out, not ever again.
And this brings us to white boys. The bane of my existence. The metaphor that never entirely made sense until today while I was putting on my sandals, after dousing myself with marshmallow-scented body spray from Bath and Body Works. The scent is called “Summer Marshmallow.” It was $5 and I bought the accompanying body wash and lotion in hopes of making my dreams come true. I realized that spraying myself 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 times was an homage to my grandparents. They love perfuming themselves up. It’s a marker of class mobility and importance – the idea that you can smell heavily of roses or musk or fruit or gelatin desserts rather than shit, piss, dirt, or motor oil. It is completely antithetical to the subtlety that permeates middle class scent expectations, and putting that much marshmallow scented liquid on my body reminded me of them. That I can stand out. That I can make an impression. That I can smell like all my teenage dreams of being the biggest ho of all.
I had just talked to my therapist, and she had asked me “what is normal?” after I’d admitted to her that I torture myself about not being close enough to it.
“Normal is white collar privileged whiteness,” I tell her. It’s succinct. It’s clear.
“Are there grades of normal?”
“No, either you have a white husband and a half-white baby and a home you own in a reputable neighborhood or you have nothing. You lose the game.”
As I was writing this it felt both like my truth and also not mine. One thing that continued to befuddle me was how I could be so strongly anti-racist, a hardcore feminist – the kind who would kick a man or spit in his face (both things I have actually done). How could I be so clear on where I stand and yet allow some outside force to determine the grounds upon which all this standing was taking place. And who was this outside force?
And I realized in that moment as I bent over to put on my sandal – my fatness moving up closer to my face – my thighs pushing up my stomach, my stomach pushing up my breasts, my breasts pushing into my double chin – what it was. It was my family. It was all the hopes and dreams I’d wanted to put into them, but didn’t. I couldn’t show them I loved them, not the way I wanted, but I could succeed at this thing that mattered to them. I could let whiteness dictate my life because then I could show them that I was good, that I didn’t take them for granted, that I didn’t refuse to see their gift. I could unconditionally and loyally commit to the things that mattered most to the nation they chose as a way of showing them that they mattered to me, that I couldn’t hug them the right way or show up for Sunday lunch all the time, but that I could give up my life, that I could put myself second, that I could allow myself to be eaten alive.
It became clear that it was an intimate gesture of longing that was for them – not for white boys or for Martha Stewart but for these Mexicans who smelled like too much perfume.
I could both be something and not be that same thing because that is the depth of my love for them, a love that cuts them and me too. The very reason behind our distance – the fact that I rejected them in favor of a world that promised the kind of safety an anesthasized operating room does. Nothingness. A chance to never have been hurt. A chance never to have to feel anything ever again. A chance to bury myself in a dream, an idea, rather than a person, rather than myself.
All that to say, I'm not sure if Don Chingon will resurface (He might be too precious to give away), but imagine him chattering away for the remainder of this story. Remember the way he sucks his teeth, his nails, his urgent ferocious fear.
ABOUT THE BOOK
I release a new chapter a week on Thursdays - unless I'm exceedingly overwhelmed or whatever I write is so epically terrible I'm too embarrassed to put it on the internet.