I just don’t know how to love Don Chingon.
He’s all needles, and all I want is soft touch (I can admit it now, finally). He only knows how to love this one way. Nothing risked, nothing ventured, not really. Just like me.
He tells me stories, stories, stories. Output. His love only goes one direction. He wants to be remembered more than he wants to be here, fingers in the wet sand.
He’s already a legacy in his own mind. He wants me to treat him like one, and I know how to please so I do what he wants.
We love as deep and as wide as we can, and that’s all. And for some people that’s an ocean. And for some people that’s a stream the width of a finger.
Don Chingon only knows danger, only knows bombastic tales of war. He gets angry when I ask him what he’s so afraid of.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” he says, sucking his teeth that way that feels so familiar even though we’ve only just met.
Let me speak for him, what I imagine he thinks.
I’m afraid of everything but most of all that I am unloved.
I’m afraid if I start to cry I’ll never stop.
I’m afraid that I’ll die.
I’m afraid that there’s no redemption for people like me.
I’m afraid that my body is made of bone.
Me too. Once I sat in the dentist chair, laid back, and he showed me the x-ray of my mouth. “Look up,” he said gently, his soft flower petal voice, the way a son whose father didn’t hug him speaks. “That’s you.” And I cried because I had to admit that my mouth was made of teeth and bone, too, just like all the other humans.
I’m afraid of my sagging cheeks.
I’m afraid that I’m nothing.
I’m afraid that you’ll leave if I stop talking for just one second, and that will mean I never existed at all.
I look down at his hands, the cleanest part of him. He scrubs them everyday with harsh soap made for machines, gets under the nails. Life is dirty, but it can’t touch him – not where he doesn’t want it to. Once he met a woman who was all the things he couldn’t admit himself to be – sad, desperate, vulnerable - and he thought if he loved her then maybe he could bring himself back to life.
How long have you talked like this, Don Chingon?
Each word a eulogy he’s afraid no one else will give him.
He’s talking and I’m remembering something:
The other day I was cleaning the house, and I found some bubble wrap that needed to be broken down so I could throw it away. Normally I’d just get a pair of scissors and slide the blade up each row of bubbles, cutting open the air pockets noiselessly. But this time I decided to pop them. And it reminded me of being a little girl.
One time all the kids in my summer school class were assigned a task to build a contraption that would keep an egg intact after it had been dropped from 30 feet.
I told my dad about this. He worked at a rubber factory then and I was sure that he would make me a special rubber solution that he’d put in a tiny, dark glass bottle. I would paint it on the egg and when it was dropped from 30 feet the egg would bounce off the black top in the playground.
He agreed to help me, and then he came home one day with a bunch of stuff.
A small rubber tube he had made at work, tape, and a bunch of insulating material, including bubble wrap. I was surprised or maybe disappointed by the lack of magic, but I didn’t say anything. We went outside and he put everything on the wooden picnic table under the awning he’d built. He got to work, asking me to hand him this thing or that thing. Bubble wrap is like kid crack. My chubby little kid fingers couldn’t resist the bubble wrap. I held it in my hands, popping one bubble and then another and then a third.
Each time I popped a bubble I would smile, giggle cautiously and look at my dad, wanting in some conspiratorial way to share this delight with him.
He didn’t look at me the first or second time. He kept working on the contraption. After the third time he stopped and said, “if you want to lose you should keep doing that.” I felt that silent red shame in my cheeks.
The next week my egg survived the drop. I didn’t lose.
I wanted him to be magic. He wanted me to be hard.
I recently toured with the novel - now officially called Awake, Sleeping Heart - as part of the Sister Spit Tour, and the feedback I received was wonderful and honestly kind of surprising to me. Thank you to everyone who came out to the show or bought a copy of the work in progress. I've been traveling quite a bit lately, and will be out of the country until May 3. So the novel is out of town too. Writing will resume in May. I'm sorry for the interruption and thanks to everyone who's been keeping up with the work as it unfolds here.
He calls me little doll – munequita and other things, like little grape, little mango, little goat. He says these things to me because no one says them to him. He treats me with cautious affection. He speaks because he can, and if I pick up some jewel of wisdom then hey. That’s fine, but that’s not the point of this story, which is less of a story and more of a free-flowing soliloquy that was sometimes darkly funny or pointedly prescient.
He talks like some people sing. Mexican Spanish. Elongating the syllables at the end, holding on longer than is strictly necessary, each word connected to the next. It reminds me of the way the sun feels. Languorous. Languishing. This is the way I talk when I’m warm and comfortable and my Mexicanness is transmuted through my valley girl way of talking. Did the valley girls get it from us?
The mimosa is effervescing in my nose, little bubbles popping in my face. I can smell the fermentation of the champagne. Is this mimosa giving me diabetes right now? Probably. I sip slowly, staving off the diabetes by at least 10 or 11 minutes.
He looks at his nails, the ceiling, the tree.
“You know what I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, munequita?” He leans forward a little. “Dead skunks. Yeah. I’ve seen like 17 in the past 2 weeks. They are.. everywhere. It feels like a sign, like locusts, but skunks? Ooohf. What is diosito trying to tell me with all these skunks? Maybe he wants me to make a big, stinky skunk fur coat. Maybe he wants me to go to church with my big stinky fur coat and wake some of these sinners UP, munequita.”
He laughs – a big open mouth - and his gold teeth flash.
“You know what? Individuality is another word for loneliness. Do you know what one individual can do when there’s a fire or a catastrophe, when there’s a bunch of assholes beating their wives, when there is an epidemic? Nada, mijita. Don’t be dumb. Use your head. Is that what they teach you up in there in CAL-EE-FOR-NIA? You got it real bad for them, don’t you? I bet you even want those blue eyes. You don’t even know how it feels to want anything different, anything better, huh? That’s how they do it. They never let you get the taste for it, and then when the possibility of something good comes along you think it smells like shit.. like skunk. You can’t even stomach it.”
My mom was the one who wanted blue eyes. She told me that when she was a little girl that she would pray every night for blue eyes. And every morning she’d wake up with the same brown ones. I don’t wish for blue eyes, but I wish for other things.
Don Chingon translates the words I grew up hearing and believing in.
Anyone can grow up to be president: no they fucken can’t
Self-made man: liar
Fate is the purview of the gods, Don Chingon said. Mexicans know it, and gringos don’t.
“Yo creo que at one point there were a few viejos who knew they were lying, but then they died and their sons didn’t understand the fairytale. They encourage you to step away from your blood. Without your blood, without your roots, you’re lost. No language but the one they give you. No way to see how your face looks like your mother’s, so you’re likelier to look at those magazine ads and think ‘that’s what’s beautiful.’ No menudo, just grilled cheese sandwiches. Grilled cheese sandwiches are mostly bread. Bread’s never filled anybody up. What the fuck you gonna do with a grilled cheese sandwich, ‘manita? You can’t understand why your face looks that certain way when you’re upset, or why your pinky toe is all twisted, or why your hair waves right in the place where it does. It’s easier to create homogeneity that way. Everyone wants it the way they want it though. Don’t fool yourself into thinking any place is a paradise because that’s when they’ve got you. You want to believe, and that’s all they need. That’s all they need, uvecita.”
(This chapter took 3 weeks to come out. I didn't want to write about Don Chingon. Or maybe he didn't want to be written about. But finally here he is.)
Don Chingon de Cacahuates has gold teeth.
The inside of the room is pink, and he sits on a sofa that is big and shaped like a set of pink lips. His legs are crossed.
Did you know that the Spanish word “cacahuate” means “peanut” and is derived from the Nahuatl word “cacahuatl” - cocoa bean – and that the word “ca” in Nahuatl means “ to be?” A “cacahuata” is a slang word for “junky” or “one (likelier a woman) who pops pills.” One can drink chocolate from a cup made from the calabash, which is derived from the Spanish word for skull.
I remember how my mom worked at a chocolate shop while she was pregnant with me, the first time in her life she was allowed to gain weight without judgment. She ate enormous pizzas that she ordered from the pizza place downstairs at the mall. She filched roughly a pound of chocolate a day, her chubby fingers plucking pink bonbons from their papery nests.
The bonbon is a European invention, as is the smooth version of chocolate that requires conching. The conching process is somewhat alchemical, but its primary purpose is to make chocolate smooth, not gritty. Among chocolate connoisseurs and those who judge chocolates at things like competitions for best chocolate, gritty chocolate is looked down upon. Conching must be done by machines.
In Oaxaca, which is very close to the equator, there are many Theobroma
Cacao trees. The chocolate ones buys at the market is gritty. A short, fat woman with black hair makes that chocolate with a machine. She turns a crank, which is attached to two large wheels that smash all the ingredients: the cacao, sugar, cinnamon, maybe other things. You can bite into granules of sugar like sand. There is cinnamon bark in the chocolate. When you smash a cacao bean hard enough (hard enough to give yourself a callous), fat comes out. This is cacao butter. When you smash the bean hard enough the bean crumbles and then turns into little nibs and then the nibs turn into paste, and you have almost made chocolate when the oil in the paste begins to catch the sun or the light. The paste shines with the oil inside it. The fat alone can hold a block of chocolate together, but most people in the world who live near Theobroma Cacao trees do not eat blocks or bars of chocolate. Nor do they eat truffles. They might smash up the beans a little and put what’s left into water. The water has kaleidoscopic swirls in it – that’s the fat again, catching the sun.
Don Chingon interrupts my weird internal cataloguing with the sound of him sucking his golden teeth.
Don Chingon reaches up, pulls a dark green pod from the tree, cracks the thick husk on the pointy edge of the mirrored table his feet are on. I’m looking at the reflection of the bottoms of his feet, dirt snaked into the cracks.
I have seen the inside of a cacao pod before. Have you? Inside there is white pulp. Fruit that is fluffy and floral. They look like polyps, like wet vinyl kernels of corn, slick. And inside each one is a big brown bitter seed. You take the fruit and put it in your mouth. You suck the fruit, which is more like a membrane that protects the seed. Someone told me once that monkeys open up cacao pods, suck the fruit and then spit out the seed so another tree will grow. Plants are very intelligent, an ethnobotanist I met in Oaxaca once said. Plants are manipulative. If you bite down, you will taste the bitterness. This is the chocolate. This is the heart.
When you make chocolate, you let the fruit ferment the bean. It rots around the seed, and this gives it a special flavor. If you buy an $8 bar of chocolate at a fancy store in Berkeley, you can taste the fermentation. You can taste the fruit.
Did you know milk chocolate has no milk in it? Just sugar.
Inside Don Chingon’s pod there is nothing like what I have just described. Inside the pod he has just pulled from his Theobroma Cacao tree is a small stick of bright pink lipstick that smells like pineapple. He puts that on. And then pulls another pod, cracks it open. Inside there’s a tiny bottle of nail polish. He paints his nails, offers to paint mine. I say yes. Once he’s painted his nails and my nails and we’ve blown on them until they are dry. He reaches up and grabs another pod. Inside there’s a little box with another little box inside with another little box inside, and inside that little box there’s a piece of paper folded up about 10,00 times, and written on it is this story – the once I’ve been telling you. He reads it, slowly, while sucking his teeth and rubbing his glossy, pineapple scented lips together. Then he pulls two more pods and inside each of those is a mimosa – one for me and one for him.
He looks at me, brown eyes, pink lips that catch the light. “I want to tell you a story. It will take 23 years to tell, mijita. Are you ready?”
Don Chingon doesn’t say that. He would never warn someone about what’s going to happen. He’s intelligent. He’s manipulative. But he begins his 23-year long story that I don’t know will last 23 years. And I will tell you what he told me in his little pink room.
Everything smelled like chocolate when I woke up.
I walked outside and looked over potted plants that sat on the edge of the rooftop, down onto a woman who was wrapping little chocolates shaped like hearts with two tiny rose petals accenting one side of the heart’s curve. Her breasts lay flat; her cleavage like sand colored crow’s feet, the floor of the dessert I drove through once.
I called down to her, asked her what she was wrapping. Chocolates with rose inside. I imagined the delicate pink flavor mixed into the robust darkness. I imagined struggling to find the taste, rubbing my tongue across the roof of my mouth, and then all of a sudden finding the bouquet like a clown had pulled it out of his coat pocket.
I left my little apartment on the third floor of the Diego Rivera designed building on Avenida Revolucion. I walked carefully (using the sides of my feet) down the first set of tiny, narrow ladder-like stairs, and then down the grand staircase that creaked with my weight.
I walked out the front door after I waved to the cleaning lady who told me she had contemplated eating a slice of pastel de frambuesa I’d gotten at Pasteleria Esperanza. It had white puffs of whipped cream on top, like chubby spires. She’d eaten the avocados and my black beans, but she had a sense that the cake was off limits she said. I would have preferred having the beans; you can’t live off of pretty cake, I thought.
When I got downstairs the lady informed me that she couldn’t sell me the chocolates. Oh. She had an agreement with a fancy chocolate store a few blocks away. It was new, run by some Americans, and she said that I could follow her there.
We turned left and left again, past the street with all the rubble on it where I get my laundry done for 50 pesos.
We pass the hipster coffee shop where they serve Intelligentsia and sell cake that must taste good to people like me.
We pass the convenience store that sells toilet paper and little gums and lolly pops dusted with chile. We end up on a tiny street, and then she walks up to an over-sized door, pulls it open and there’s a tiny pink chocolate shop inside.
There are bright yellow truffles on sky blue cake plates. A little machine that has liquid chocolate inside. There’s chocolate shaped like animals, high-heeled shoes, and body parts. The chocolate lady hands the rose truffles to a woman in the back whose black hair is in a perfect bun that is positioned in just the right place to make her look both serious about her profession and familiarly warm.
She walks over to me, heels clacking on the gray stone floor. She tells me about each chocolate.
She uses words like enrobage and couverture and “caramelized white chocolate ganache.” I choose a few chocolates. I notice on the little paper where the prices are written that each piece of chocolate is 30 pesos, but that if you buy a box with four chocolates it’s 150 pesos. I have to stifle the part of my brain that feels this is a waste of money. I force myself to think “the chocolates are beautiful – just pay for the box.” She wraps them in the small box with a satin ribbon. Her finger nails and the ribbon are the exact same shade of pink. I tell her in English that I’d like a cup of chocolate too.
“Water or milk?” She says, her tongue barely skimming each consonant, like this chocolately world has turned her words into sweet soup.
“Which do you prefer?” I always ask this question, eager to be in on the secret.
“The milk softens the bitterness of the chocolate and thickens the drink. The water allows the chocolate to coat your mouth. I prefer to add only water.”
Ok, water then, I tell her.
“Can I add something to your chocolate? Curry powder or passion fruit are popular.”
The word for passion fruit is maracuya.
She puts passion fruit pulp into my chocolate and I go sit down at a white table with oil cloth doilies on it. The chair below me teeters on delicate legs. I feel like an oversized Alice in a shrinking room.
I’m trying so hard to focus on the chocolate I’m drinking. I want to think about all the things that make me feel guilty all the time. Doesn’t my brain ever get tired of this shit?
A man walks in. I look over at him, down at the doily, back up at him. His hair is greasy. His mustache is long, and straight. The coarse hair has no kink. I look down at his shoes – dirty and white with no socks. He’s looking at the chocolate, and the woman comes over to him.
“How much is the box?”
He pulls out the money from his pocket, rolled into wrinkly worms. He could have bought individual pieces, had her put them in a bag, then he wouldn’t have had to pay for the box. He clearly lived on the streets. What was he going to do with that pristine white box?
He waited, unhurried while she packed it. He didn’t look at anyone, no curiosity and no need for approval.
He headed out the door, and I left at the same time. I walked behind him as he stuffed one exquisite chocolate into his mouth after another, leaving a trail of waxy brown accordion paper cups behind him.
When he got to the end of the box he threw it on the street behind his shoulder, and then he walked into a door.
“Adelante,” he yelled from inside.
When I came in he was sitting with his legs crossed. The room was filled with the green of leaves. They grew in from the walls and up from the ground. I looked up to the ceiling and saw red and green pods dangling from the trunk. This was a Theobroma cacao tree.
“You can’t grow these here inside a house in this climate.” The farthest north these trees grew was Oaxaca, 450 kilometers south of where we were standing.
“But here it is, mijita. What else have those yanquis taught you?”
I slept for 3 days after that.
I dreamt of my dad. I was with him inside a clear plastic box, the size of a tiny room. He was sitting at a clear plastic table on a clear plastic chair. His big plastic frame bifocals have slid to the end of his nose. I was screaming loudly but no sound was audible, trying to find a way out of the room but I couldn’t. I could feel the exertion in my throat, but I was watching myself from outside the plastic box, which was soundproof. Or maybe the dream was soundproof. There was the quiet crispy static of radio silence. My dad was reading as I screamed, until finally he looked up in annoyed disbelief, like he couldn’t understand why I would want to leave, why I was willfully disturbing his reading. Didn’t I know how much he needed his silent reading time?
I dreamt of Arnold Schwarzenegger. This was, like, mid-40s Arnold, like Terminator Arnold, not dubbed Hercules Arnold. His skin had just begun to pull away from the bone, from the sub-dermal anchor that makes skin taut. We were on a crime spree. He worshiped me. He managed to scam us into a ritzy hotel penthouse. He was sitting in the Olympic size hot tub, steam rising from the pool and the head of his hard dick was visible. I was walking around slowly, just like he liked, in an enormous full-length fur coat. And finally I stop in front of him and I drop the coat to the mother of pearl encrusted floor. He starts crying – he’s never seen anything more beautiful than my naked body. A thin white woman appears, and she tells me there’s no way a man like him could love a woman like me. She has a frothy, venomous smile. Arnold doesn’t bother moving. He knows I’m going to take care of it. I lean forward, my cheek against hers, my mouth against her ear, and as I push a knife into her leg I tell her what a piece of shit liar she is. Arnold happily watches.
I dream that I am at a lecture. The woman says:
“The thing about internalized colonialism that you need to understand is that you don’t necessarily feel it. It’s not like a cold, where you start to feel a tickle and you know something unpleasant is on the horizon. Internalized colonialism is more like the frog in the slowly boiling pot. Imperceptible. Until you’ve been consumed, and you can’t even imagine how it all happened.
“It’s like being taught to only eat bones. You don’t know how to have an appetite for meat.
"Internalized colonialism lives in the tiny feelings, small discomforts, clearing of throats, minor flushes of the face. Not some monster with horns and tentacles, but yourself with the parts of you that you don’t know how to shed. Not loud, panting bigotry, but polite smiles and naïve hopes.”
I dream about the time I was a little girl, and I was learning all the names of the books in the Bible. The sad woman who was teaching us all the Bible things was named Tanya. She liked talking about weight loss. She liked sugar-free, caffeine-free coca cola. She'd ask me to bring her can after can from the little cooler we packed for our weekend at Little Girls Who Love Jesus Camp. Her husband had a red face and liked vodka. Her son had a speech impediment that was caused by the expectation of his silence. We'd sing:
At the camp Tanya asked every girl to come into her bedroom to talk to her alone. She'd begin with simple questions "do you like the camp?" "did the Holy Spirit touch you tonight?" and those quickly progressed to the measurable outcome portion: "did you speak in tongues?" I didn't like to lie and so I said no. She said, "well you weren't touched by the Holy Spirit then, were you?" And I felt the sting of failure.
In the dream I can hear Tanya's thoughts. She hates me and all my fellow Girls Who Love Jesus campers. She relishes the opportunity to tell us that the Holy Spirit didn't touch us. She pretends to speak in tongues. She says "you stole my bowtie" over and over, faster and faster.
She looked at her own hands, pale and barely wrinkled. And I could see from the way she turned them left and right, palm up and palm down, that she was recalling a time when she was alive when my callous words would have cut her, but not now.
I knew she had taught Mom the line she’d said to me so many times:
El diablo no sabe por diablo sino por Viejo.
The devil doesn’t know things because he’s the devil but because he’s an old man.
She spoke like a poet, like a seer. I wanted her to tell me how wrong I was, how awful I was. I wanted her to tell me how to fix all the parts of me that seemed to have no resolution. I wanted her to explain how I could long for so many different kinds of lives and not be torn apart. I wondered if she knew this feeling – not of jealousy, but of loss.
“Every decision in life has a cost,” she said. “For everything you choose to do, you choose not to do another thing. Even if this life makes you happy and even if you never thought of another life, somehow it haunts you.
“You don’t like the idea of hands that smell like fish because you lived in that world. You knew that world. It reminded you that women in this world are expected to do the work that is considered low. You felt shame because you saw yourself – your own vulnerability – in her. You wanted to be loved in a man’s world without any of the humiliation that comes with that. You must love yourself to love the woman you came out of, and the woman who came out of her, to see that we are sacred little balls of shit.
“You could feel loyalty toward a woman you didn’t know because you didn’t know her secrets. You didn’t see what she had endured to become like that. You didn’t know how much shit she’d eaten. You didn’t know what she looked like when she was sick or desperate or wished she was dead.
“It’s a child’s wish to look up at her mother and see an angel. Every child deserves that, but few get it. You didn’t get it.
“The anger – and whatever else you feel – is part of what it means to be close to someone. The darkness of the feeling mirrors the intensity of your connection. I can tell you that you and her were not so different. She dreamed of a life like yours. She just chose something else, and the confusion you feel is the ripple of the life unchosen. You have to accept the inevitability of gutting the fish we eat, the pain we feel whether love is requited or not, whether we have children or not, whether we marry or not, whether we are madly in love with the person we marry or not, whether we die young or die old. You know one life and not the other, but they both hold the same truth. The idea that you could escape it, the idea that you can, is all that holds you back.”
And then she was gone.
“Why is it so hard to love our mothers?” I ask her.
“Hating your mother is a luxury. You should be grateful. ‘Used to be people couldn’t afford to turn away people. They needed everyone to get you through this difficult life.” Her voice was deep, matter-of-fact, with an edge of barely contained impatience. She talked to me as if everything had already been said, like I was one page behind in the dialogue. It reminds me of the way I talk to my grandmother – waiting for something to strike me as strange or wrong, waiting to be offended or frustrated. “We never forgive our mothers for bringing us into this heart-breaking world.”
I wait for her to say more, but she’s said it all.
“Mom is at the end of her life now. She’s lived a pretty long life. Almost 80 years. She was married for over 50 years, but Dad died last year at Christmas time. It’s been hard for her since he died. She has to face her old demons alone now.
“Your death was her defining moment. She never recovered from that. She was terrified that night she saw you in the casket. She was home alone. All her sisters were grown, married and she was the youngest. Her dad didn’t mourn you the way he should have. He sounds like he was a real asshole. She can’t bring herself to say that about her father, but I can. And she says she saw you because they did the funeral at home. And she screamed, and it echoed in the house. The house was so big, and it made noises all night. She thought you were making the noises because you were haunting her. And then she didn’t talk again for a year. She was catatonic.” I stop rocking myself on the hammock. “I want to understand her. I’m so angry at her.”
“What for?” she asks.
“I wanted her to be as big and important as the moon or a planet. My love was that big, and I wanted her to take up all the space in my heart. But she wanted to be small. I wanted desperately to admire her because I knew I couldn’t love her if I didn’t. For years I had an accent like hers. I would notice things that I knew she’d notice and talk about, like how pretty someone’s car is. I lengthened the ends of all my words and softened consonants. Pretty was perdy. I spoke English the way she did. I knew the right way to make all the verbs and subjects and nouns change. I knew all the pronouns. I knew big words inside. But she didn’t, and so I chose not to.
“I was 8 years old when I gave up trying to be like her. I was in second grade, and my teacher was named Mrs. Moore. She was tall and a red head, a white woman in my brown world. She wore lipstick and silky blouses. I could see the lace of her slip through the slit of her beige business-casual skirts, like a secret only I had bothered to notice. A language all to itself that articulated respectability, femininity, and the distant understanding of the connection between all the things I was sure I wanted to become.
“She relished her mastery of English. She loved teaching us spelling, composition, reading, and writing. She once caught me cheating. I hadn’t studied for the week’s spelling test. I hated the idea of getting a single answer wrong. I thought I’d die if that happened. I thought the whole world would unravel if I couldn’t control my success at tasks. Before the test I wrote the week’s vocabulary words out on a napkin – light orange like a creamsicle. The napkin was textured, like a tiny sewing machine had perforated it with a small, intricate pattern. I had written out the words in marker. The words bled into the napkin, weaving around the small raised parts of the pattern.
I put the napkin down on my desk and tried to hide it in the crook of my arm. She would walk up and down the rows during tests. She wore chunky high heels that were beige or navy, and she’d tap past our desks with a thick clack.
When she saw the napkin she snatched it right out through the crook of my bent arm, and held it up high above her head. ‘See, children, this is the sort of thing that is UNacceptable.’ Everyone was silent, and I don’t remember feeling ashamed.
“I loved her. I decided to stop talking like Mom. I conjugated my verbs, used my big words she didn’t understand. It was like I only had so much loyalty to give and I had to give it all to Mrs. Moore. Because she was the kind of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be the kind of woman who would expose cheaters on spelling tests, not the kind whose hands smelled like she’d been cleaning fish for dinner all day.”
I like to start writing in the morning, before I’ve taken a shower. I like writing when I’m dirty. It makes me more honest, somehow. The fog of Mexico City is rising above me like the white foam of a cappuccino. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was clouds.
I sit on the hammock on the roof eating chocolates, writing, and I can see her in my peripheral vision. She’s been standing on her head in the corner of my bedroom night after night. I catch glimpses of her when I wake up for a second. She’s blurry in the dark and without my glasses on, but her presence is unmistakable - judgmental but not malicious. This might scare me if I was in my apartment in San Francisco, but I’m not. I’m here in Mexico, and this is the sort of thing that happens in tiny studios on the top floor of apartment buildings.
In the corner of my room there’s a little mason jar filled with two bunches of jasmines, which I bought from a man with plucked eyebrows, near the zocalo. I like smelling them before I go to bed, and when I come home from running errands or eating ice cream. My great grandmother had a jasmine garden. She loved the smell, too. Almost too sweet. I knew I could get her to come if I put out the jasmine. Behind the jar there’s an enormous bean bag that doubles as a chair, I guess, for guests or bitter old apparitions.
But for the first time now she’s with me on the roof in the daytime.
And here she is, sitting and glowering while I eat chocolates. One of my legs is in the hammock, straight out, and the other bent at the knee, the tip of my big toe against the cement of the rooftop, rocking myself back and forth. Careful not to scrape the chartreuse nail polish. I’ve always been meticulous about the tiny things I know I can control.
“You’re going to get fat with those,” she says in that Spanish I know, the kind my grandmother used to speak to me.
“Too late,” I say, putting another chocolate in my mouth, refusing to look up at her.
“Everyone can see your pussy, too,” she continues.
“I’ll look forward to the thank you cards.”
We’re both silent after that. I can hear her exhale with delighted disgust. For women like us, hating someone feels better than loving them. It feels like winning and never having to tip your hand. I can almost hear her purse her lips, her old skin wrinkling around her mouth like an accordion.
I’m pretending to write, but I can’t concentrate. My heart is beating. I have to be ready to counter whatever vitriol comes out of this old woman’s mouth next. I know how to be defensive. This is my favorite. This is my least favorite.
She takes in a breath.
“Clearly you wanted me for something or I wouldn’t be here,” she says, her words like little balls of dough.
“I thought you were going to be nicer; that’s what grandma said. She said you were nice,” I say to her looking her in the face.
“Ooooh mijita, shit changes when you’re on the other side,” she says exhaling, slowly, pained, holding her hand below her belly button just like grandma told me she did before she passed. “Besides, memories make things look different. She was just a little girl when I died, and then my husband (she says "husband" slow, pulling her head back a little like she intended to spit the word out but instead it came out like a tendrilous snot) married that 19 year old buck-toothed bumpkin. He was a ‘man of the lord.’ Shit. I never should have let him take my religion from me. The virgen had been my god until that preacher man came through from Texas, put ideas into my husband’s head about curing the sick. I knew it was witch craft when he put his hands on my little brother’s eyes and made him see again. He was so young when he started to lose his sight. We knew it. He would walk around touching the walls to steady himself, touching around for the silverware at dinner. And then that brujo came and my husband made a pact with him. That was a devil’s pact. It wasn’t a pact with god. I know a lot more now. If I could go back I would have cut his dick off then when I had the chance.
“I used to go for a walk every afternoon, and I went out of my way to go past these two old spinsters living in a pink house. Back then I thought I was going out of my way to make them jealous of all that I had, but now I realize I was jealous of them. They would sit out front, drinking tequila, almost like they were waiting for me too. I would look over at them every time and say ‘have a blessed evening, ladies.’ They used to laugh - cackle and howl - at me. Their teeth were yellow and black from smoking cigars. I would walk past their house with all my kids, your grandma in her little buggy, with my starched collar and a self-righteous stick up my ass. They used to tell me how greedy I was for wanting to suck not only my husband’s dick but also God’s. ‘All that dick sucking is gonna get you tired, sister, gonna kill you’ they’d say. I thought they were sad and crazy, but I was the one. They were telling me about my future. A few years later my uterus got filled up with cancer. Pregnant again, but this would be for the last time.”
to be continued next week, in chapter 12
“They say that the Mexican is the only person in the world who laughs at death,” the cab driver says. I know these macabre poetics. I’m estranged by the romanticism of the words, but I’m moved by the reason that anyone would bother saying things like this. He’s looking over his shoulder a little. We are driving from the Benito Juarez airport to my apartment in Tacubaya.
I roll down the window, watch the men whose hair reminds me of my dad’s. I can see the lines left by the comb they ran through it before they left the house. Their hands look like his: big and dark brown with those same pronounced lines, finger nails that are thick, hard like bone.
“My dad just died,” I say. Telling strangers about personal details feels like second nature to me. “He died and I never really knew him. I mean, I knew him like you know a book, a volume of stories, and I picked the dried skin between his toes when I was a little girl, but I didn’t like to cry in front of him. I didn’t like to tell him about myself.”
“Maybe stories and skin is all there is,” he replies.
Mexico City is vibrant, unanesthetized.
Mexico City is the smell of old men’s cologne, hipster cafes that serve cappuccino in tiny pink cups, old women with short hair, machas with hunched shoulders, brown eyes, slow gait, men dressed like clowns selling peanuts, organ grinders, American music, doves on rooftops, clothes lines with plastic pins in rainbow colors, DEET-indifferent mosquitos with unprecedented skill and an eye for the long-term payoff of extended occupation, five-course lunches, a decaying walk of fame, pink taxis and buses that don’t stop all the way, quinceanera princesses on the backs of cars texting on their smart phone and waving like beauty queens, guava jam, dogs whose dicks are out all the time and that fuck on the street, and rich neighborhoods whose borders are demarcated by lighter eyes and smaller features. Twerking is called perreo, derived from word perro – dog – as in: to fuck like a dog.
Milk tastes like one must imagine actual milk tastes like.
The streets smell like gasoline, onions, soup, salsa, garbage, wet cement. The restaurants have fewer walls, and inside sometimes they play acoustic remixes of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up because maybe Mexicans or Americans or Mexican-Americans are into that shit. Here you get your laundry done for 50 pesos and when you’re a westerner with a digestive system unaccustomed to a world where handwashing is bordering on bourgeois, you sacrifice flavor for safety. And it hurts like nothing you know because, as with all things, the dirtiness somehow makes everything better than your wildest dreams. Bacteria is life’s bouillon.
In Mexico City the coffee is from Chiapas, and when something is delicious you say “que rico,” and when something is delicious and you’re hanging out with your new friend named Don Charles, who is a capricious queen who will forget you surely, you say “que cookie.”
I ask the taxi driver if my friend Don Charles is the only person in the world who says “que cookie” and he explains that no, that this world describes things that possess Hollywood-level glamor.
My dad told me a story once about the time he learned that you can never trust anyone. His friend, perhaps 6 or maybe 7, told him to steal 5 pesos from his dad’s wallet and he did, and once his dad found out he was given 5 lashings with a whip, one for each peso stolen. He was 5 years old. He told this story with gratitude and pride. His father was a hard man, an alcoholic who had killed people in the Revolution and never forgave himself.
This is what Westerners are nostalgic for and Mexicans understand. Suffering and the intimacy it affords. The kisses on the cheek, the love for a parent whose commitment to your survival is not often tender and must be renewed every day, far beyond infancy. Friendship that can afford no secrets, experiences that are so undeniably cruel that they don’t have to live in your gut as a vague sense of injustice, whittling away at your sanity.
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.