by Felicity Landa

We are family, so we sit at the front while they renew their vows at the Catholic Church where my Abuelito is a Deacon. The little cousins wear white dresses because my aunts say it isn’t a wedding so why not, qué cute. The jagged lace on the bottom sticks in their chonies.

At the reception my Abuelito gets mariachis. For my dear one, he says. A teenage cousin brings a güero because last time her Ma said why don’t you date Chicanos. My older cousin has a new baby, and my Abuelita won’t speak to her because she isn’t married to her man. She wears the baby against the skin on her chest wrapped in a pouch. I curl my finger under the stretchy fabric.

I am alone. Where is Cesar, my Uncle demands of me. When will you and Cesar have babies, my Abuelita says in Spanish, you’ve been married three years. She takes my hand, slides her finger across my knuckles. Her skin is soft and cool. You are getting old, she says.

I sit with my Ma at our center table in the crowded hall. She tugs the ends of her black shawl around her shoulders, and shifts her thick, sturdy middle around to face me.

Cesar isn’t coming, I offer it before she asks. He won’t come again.

***

The last time I saw Cesar he stood in the kitchen, I sat in the chair. His breath came in hot bursts from his nostrils, mine held frozen in the pocket between my lips.

Valeria, he said. It’s time to go.

I don’t want to, I told him.

You will, he said.

He took my wrist, wrenched it upward, my body followed. You will, he said.

***

My Ma nods and pats my hand. Do not be afraid, she says.

Okay, I say.

My Abuelita takes the microphone from the Mariachis, she sings De Colores. She is holding a birdcage and swaying to the music. She says this one is for my heart. My Abuelito chuckles. He has silver caps on two of his front bottom teeth.

Where did she get the birdcage, my Aunt says.

Don’t ever be afraid, mi amor, do you understand? My Ma says.

Yeah, Ma, I say.

There’s a tiny bird in there, is it real though? A cousin down the table squints. It’s not moving, though, wouldn’t it move?

What is she singing, prima? A baby cousin climbs into my lap and tugs on my sleeve. She wipes her nose with the bottom lip of her lacy white dress.

The colors, she’s singing about the colors of the spring. My aunt answers because she wants to be the one who knows everything.

What colors, she’s wearing gray, the güero says. He sits slumped in his chair because he’s taller than everyone.

My cousin’s baby wakes and cries a tiny cry.

Two boys I don’t recognize roll by on the floor like pill bugs, my Uncle reaches out and takes one by the arm. He hisses a warning, they giggle and run off.

The baby cries louder. My cousin stands and bounces, presses her cheek to the top of his black fuzzy head.

Where is Cesar, my other Uncle demands again. He has my hat, he says.

***

For a long time it was just me and my Ma. My father was Irish, and my Ma said her sisters would always whisper qué gacho, because my Abuelita liked him, but wouldn’t let their boyfriends in the house. He was such a nice man, my Ma always says. He ate all the food I gave him, my Abuelita says. A Catholic, my Abuelito says. A good Catholic man. He died when I was six, but I have his eyes, lighter skin, and a line of his freckles across my nose.

Cesar liked my skin. You are not really a Mexican, it’s a good thing, he’d say. Mexican girls are loud, they hit, they don’t listen. You are kind, shy. He would run his finger over my freckles and my skin would burn. He wanted to marry me after six months. It’s good, my cousin said, he can’t live without you. It’s good, my aunt said, your babies will be brown.

He was good to me, he was kind. He always put his hand on my lower back when we stood together in public. He took care of my Ma, bought her Twin Dragon almond cookies when she couldn’t find them at the market. He took me to Mexico and brought back a silver spoon in a black velvet case for my Abuelita from Basilica de Guadalupe. He spoke to her in Spanish and she would nod, smile with no teeth and say, teach Valeria, she needs to practice. On Sundays we took the metro to Olvera Street, bought mangoes sliced like flowers and ate them against a cinderblock wall. The juice ran down my cheek in a sticky line that followed my collarbone. The sun licked up our feet to our legs and beat down on the tops of our straw hats.

***

My Abuelita tries to get people to sing with her. She swings the birdcage onto the table and flaps her arms. She grabs a cousin’s hand and gently tugs, nodding to the music and shifting her eyes to the dance floor. My cousin sinks into her chair. She is a teenager, with straight black glossy hair that moves on her back like she’s underwater. She has her phone in her other hand, and she snaps a picture. My Abuelita swats it away.

Valeria, take the baby? I gotta pee, my cousin whispers to me. She carefully lifts the little baby out of the straps on her chest. He sleeps, his head squished into his shoulders. He is so dark, a deep pasty brown with black hair spread on his arms like smooth grass. She puts him slowly in my outstretched arms, his head falls into the crook between my breast and my shoulder. He is warm, his chest moves up and down in gentle flutters. I sniff his cheek, it smells powdery. I move my lips against his soft fuzzy skin.

***

I couldn’t get pregnant. Mexicans make babies, my Aunt laughed when my cousin’s belly swelled and my Abuelita watched with pursed lips and a subtle shake of the head.

At home I cried to Cesar, there’s something wrong with me, he pressed his forehead against my collarbone. We will keep trying, he said. But it never happened. We spent all our savings on fertility treatments. I took the shots every day for two months, the only two we could afford. At first Cesar helped me but one day he stopped, and I cried when I couldn’t get the needle in straight. When I pulled it out it would wrench to the side and draw deep red blood.

Cesar would come home from work with dirt caked beneath his fingernails, and look at me through glassed eyes as if I wasn’t there. A baby, I reminded him, remember once we wanted a baby? He would shake his head, slam the bedroom door behind him, let loose a low angry growl. No tenemos nada, Valeria. We have nothing.

We stopped speaking. It happened how most things happen, slowly, creeping under doorframes or through the slits in the window screen, and one day I looked up and I had married a man I didn’t know. If I was in his way he would grab my wrist, dig his fingernails into my skin and move me aside. When he would place his hand on my lower back I would push it away.

I couldn’t speak. Responses were harder to find when he would answer me in short-clipped Spanish. I hated him. He hated me. I told no one, the shame of my failure pressed the words down into my throat when my cousins would call, ask me how I was, say let’s get coffee, Prima. I’m busy, I would say, te quiero mucho. I knew what Cesar would say, coffee costs money, Valeria, tell your primas to get off their fat asses and make the coffee themselves.

I said, we could do counseling. He would laugh bitterly, what will you do for the money, Valeria? Sell tamales with your Abuelita on the street corners? Make soaps and sell them to your little white friends? I told him to stop talking to me that way, or I would leave. He looked at me with black eyes creased deeply into his skull, and dared me. Do it.

***

My Ma is making cooing sounds to the baby, but he still sleeps. I press my hand onto his tiny belly, gently lift my finger and run it over his bare arm. It’s so soft I can’t believe it’s real.

Quées eso, Valeria? My Ma says. She presses her fingers onto the bruise marks, three perfect ovals shaped of fingertips on my wrist. No, she shakes her head. You should have told me, Mija. You come home with me tonight.

***

When he grabbed my wrist, I swung. He moved away but my forearm cracked against his and for a moment the pain pulsed so sharply I thought it might have been broken. He slammed my wrist onto the table, and I gasped, my breath left me and I thought maybe he would keep going, maybe he would do his worst. But he stopped, lifted his hand away, and pointed a shaking finger at my nose. Your Abuelitos expect us to be there, he said. His voice was thin, he was afraid. You will go, Valeria.

Yes, I said. I will go, and I will not come back. I took his hand from mine, lifted it gently and pressed it to his chest. And you will not come with me, I said.

***

Don’t be afraid, Mija, My Ma says again. Her hand is still on mine. The song is over and the mariachis have taken back the stage. My Abuelita is short and stout, she walks slowly to her table, her hips rising and falling. Her hair is pepper and it curls into her scalp. My Abuelito comes, they stand apart locking hands together, and they try to twist underneath each other, but they can’t. Instead they laugh and try again. My Abuelito is tall, his back curls forward from the years of working, or bending to lift his eight children and then twenty grandchildren, or bowing at the altar during mass.

I lift my Ma’s hand and kiss her palm. Of this, I say, I am not afraid.

 

Photograph by Artsy Vibes on Unsplash