My mother was obsessed with soap operas and pan dulce. One day, after my photo shoot, I went to a panadería she likes. It’s a Cuban place with little sweet breads stuffed with guava and cheese. I hadn’t planned on visiting her, but the photoshoot went well and it’s still early. My mom likes to drink coffee late while she watches television, so, I buy some sweet bread and then drive to her apartment. The lock to her door is tricky but after a couple of tries I get inside. She’s on the couch, watching a show about the best Telenovelas of the 80s and 90s.
“Trajiste pan!” she says when she sees me come in. It’s not cold but she’s wearing a burgundy sweater and she has a blue fleece blanket draped on her legs.
“Son panecillos cubanos,” I say. “The ones you like.”
She looks into the bag and says, “Que rico. Voy a poner el cafecito.”
I don’t see her often but whenever I do I can’t help but focus on the deepening creases around her eyes, the thinness of her hair, the way her skin is so dry it looks shiny, like scales. She grunts when she gets up from the sofa, and then grunts again when she bends over to get the pot for coffee. While the water heats up we sit in front of the TV and watch reruns of old novelas.
“Uy,” she says. “That novela came out when I was thirty! Look at how young Veronica Castro was! Wow. You know, she still looks really young but that’s only because she can pay for it. Rich people don’t get old. I’m getting old. Everything hurts now.”
Behind us the water begins to boil.
The coffee she makes comes in little yellow packets we empty into our cups of hot water. It tastes terrible but I drink it anyway.
“This coffee is really good,” she says. “I’ll buy you some for your house. Does Sofia drink coffee? I forget.”
The theme song for another novela comes on and she says, “Do you remember when you used to watch this one with me?”
I shake my head.
“No? You were little. We had no electricity so we used a black and white TV that was hooked up to a car battery. You don’t remember? You never remember anything.”
I remember swimming in the ocean with her when I was six or seven. She’d cradled me in the water and hummed songs.
“It used to make me cry…this novela. When I left El Salvador it was still running. I was on my way here and I thought about you all the time. I thought about you while I was on those long bus rides and those long hikes through flat land with nothing in sight. Nothing, mijo, just flatness and heat.”
She takes a sip from her cup. Her hands tremble a little now. I want to hold them and press them against my leg to keep them still.
“Did you walk through deserts on your way here too?” she asks. “I can’t remember. Entonces, I was somewhere in Mexico. We were eating street food, tacos or something, and then the lady who was making the food had a little black and white TV by her comal and this novela was playing.” Her eyes tear up. I want to ask her if she thought leaving without saying goodbye was a good idea. I want to know if she ever thought about how I would feel when I woke up and she was gone. Instead, I look into the brown water in my cup. “You know what it’s like now. You have Marisol and you fight for her and you miss her. You probably miss her right now. Now you know what it means to love another human being.”
“I have loved before, mom,” I say.
“¿Me vas a decir que es igual? It’s not the same. You don’t love me like you love little Marisol. It’s okay. I have never loved anyone as much as I love you. And that day in Mexico I was crying and crying. Sobbing, mijo, because I could feel you against me still but you weren’t there.” She wipes her eyes with a napkin. “And the coyote he kept telling me to stop crying, that people were looking, that they would know I was no from there. And I thought, how strange that was. ‘¿Qué?’ le dije. ‘Mexican people don’t cry?’” She laughs a little. Pats my knee.
The story has come up before several times, once while we were eating street tacos somewhere in East L.A., another time when my car’s battery died in a Costco parking lot. Each time I feel like I should say “I missed you too” but I never do.
“The coyote used to tell me the same thing when I would get sick in the buses,” I said. “He wanted me to stop throwing up, as if I could magically turn the whole thing off.”
“Ay, mijo, you’ve always been so brave.” I’m about to tell her I’m not when the song for La Creel’s telenovela comes on. I recognize the sad piano music, the sorrowful strings, the synthesized horns. Then, the evil actress appears on the screen, her signature black hair neatly combed into something resembling upside-down ocean waves. Her eyepatch.
When my friends and I were all around eleven years old we came to the logical conclusion that to prove we were men we would have to have sex with a prostitute. We joked about it, as if we understood more than we did. The only one in our group who ever talked about having sex was Bladimir. He was twelve, a year older than the rest of us, and he regularly claimed he’d already done it with a prostitute, one from a whorehouse in another part of town, somewhere the rest of us had never been.
He turned our playful fantasizing into a challenge that filled me with a sickening anxiety, with a type of energy that made me want to run until I collapsed. We would be like the other men who hurried quietly to those whorehouses where music rang out in loud distorted tones day and night.
“¡Ya es hora de hacerle el amor a una puta!” Bladimir said. We were in the almond tree, each of us on our own branch, chewing on the tough skins of ripe almonds. Bladimir was on the highest branch and when he spoke he swayed with the movement of his gestures.
“El primero que se heche a una puta es el mas valiente, el mas hombre,” he said. He spoke softly but the way he leaned into his words told us this was no game. Miguel, the youngest of our group, smiled the biggest, cheered and rubbed his hands together like a fly on shit.
Antonio was on the branch right above me, the underside of his feet calloused from always walking around barefoot. Through the space between the leaves the sky dimmed to a gray. The wind blew, promising rains and thunder.
“Es facil,” Bladimir said. “Las putas saben lo que están haciendo.”
Bladimir didn’t know what his older sister had done to me. That I didn’t like it. That I didn’t want to do it again, not with anyone. But maybe sex with a prostitute would be different. It had to be. Men paid for it. It must be good. It must feel better. It might change my mind about it.
“We’re all going to do it” Bladimir said. “If you chicken out, we will kick your ass.” Some laughed nervously. “I’ve already done it with one,” he said. “It’s easy. ¡Ya no somos nińos!” We all clapped.
I often wonder whether the amount of sex I witnessed as a child was normal. Adults tried to hide its presence, but they hid it under a flimsy cover that was constantly being lifted by music, carelessly guarded pornographic magazines, the thin walls in our homes and, of course, the whorehouses that yelled out sad music day and night. My dad didn’t talk to me about sex. He would say, “I don’t want to see you at any of those salones, Marcos. You’ll get in their way. Let them work.”
Sometimes though, when he was working in the garden, sweaty under that hot Salvadoran sun, he would call me over and send me into Niña Raquel’s whorehouse to pick a song from the colorful jukebox that stood like a throne right in the middle of that dark place. If he didn’t tell me what song to choose, I knew he’d be happy hearing anything by Leo Dan or Roberto Carlos. Sometimes he’d ask for something by Vicente Fernandez and, if he was drunk but not too drunk, he’d ask for one of Jose Jose’s sad songs. The whorehouse was close enough that the music reached us quietly, like colorful hums. If he did see me in that whorehouse when I wasn’t supposed to be or if he caught me talking to one of the prostitutes he would get angry and try to beat me with his belt or his shoe or a stick or whatever was nearby.
“Each of us will choose one from any whorehouse,” Bladimir said. “You have to tell us when you’re going to do it so we can wait outside and watch you come out. That’s the only way we’ll know.”
The wind blew harder. In the distance the ocean growled. Little wisps of gray clouds floated leisurely in the sky. Bigger, darker clouds chased them.
“It’s not fair,” Miguel said. “Marcos already hangs out con las putas. It’ll be easy for him. Right, Marcos?”
I forced a smirk onto my face and nodded.
“How do you do it?” he asked. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” I said trying to keep my voice from trembling. “I’m just a natural.”
It’s not like talking to prostitutes was an activity I looked forward to or worked into my schedule. I don’t know what it was. Two years before, La Garroba had rescued me from drowning so my relationship with her was built on a foundation of trauma. But with the others, the ones who smiled at me or called me over to talk to me…I don’t know why they were drawn to me. I struggle to remember the names of any of the others. When I close my eyes, I don’t see distinct faces. I see mostly brown skin and permed hair walking in and out of those sheet-metal houses. It is only when I see the woman on the television, her unflinching stare into the camera, that I remember La Creel.
She was one of Niña Raquel’s whores and, like the angry lady in the telenovela, she wore an eyepatch over her right eye. Niña Marina’s whorehouse was in the center of our neighborhood, right where four roads ended—or started. In front of the whorehouse was a sort of roundabout where we played futból and tag and other games that required open space.
“Hola, amor,” she would say to any men who walked by, a soft smile on her face, something that made them want to stop to look. Her voice was always tender, like a loud whisper. Sometimes she called them by their name. “Today my room smells like fresh roses, Jorge. Just like you like it.” If the men simply walked past her, her face relaxed and her eyes glazed over as if they weren’t looking at anything in the world. Sometimes though, her attempts worked, and men would get close to her and touch her legs or her smiling face.
Whenever she saw me walk by, she would say, “¡Marquitos! ¿Como estas, amor?” And her voice would be all high-pitched and happy, as if she were talking to a smaller child. I liked the attention. Her one visible eye squeezed together into a dark slit and her cheeks creased into the deepest dimples I’d ever seen. She didn’t care if I was with my dad or not. She would walk up to me if she saw me at the market or on my way to school and she’d put her warm hands on my shoulders and speak loudly into my face, her one eye digging into one of mine.
It amused my father that she talked to me like that and, once, he said to me, “What is it about you and prostitutes? Why do they like you so much?” And it was as if he was genuinely curious, as if he didn’t understand what it was about me that attracted those women. His lack of concern over my interactions with them is one of those things about my dad that I will never understand. Still though, when he finished laughing, he looked at me and repeat what he always said, “I don’t want to see you inside any of those salones. Men don’t come by if they see kids around.”
But up in that tree, those other boys and I made plans to walk with those women into their dark rooms.
“What you should do,” Bladimir said, “is go to the salones so you can find the one you want. You can find out how much it costs.”
“How much did you pay?” Miguel asked Bladimir. Bladimir bounced up and down his branch and didn’t answer the question.
“I think I’ll fuck La Creel,” I said.
“Is that the one with the eye patch?” Antonio said.
“No,” said Bladimir. “That’s La Facil.”
“That was her old nickname,” I said. “They don’t call her that anymore, not since that new novela, the one with the evil lady and the eyepatch. Now people call her La Creel because that’s the evil lady’s name.”
“Es cierto!” Said Miguel. “She looks like that lady too.”
“Just because of the eye patch,” I said.
“You’re seriously going to fuck her?”
“What’s wrong with her?” I said. “She’s pretty and she has a nice voice.”
“She’s ugly,” Bladimir said. “And who cares about her voice? You should be looking at her ass or her chiches.”
She wasn’t ugly. She had short straight hair that she kept out of her face with brown Bobby pins and, sometimes, a yellow plastic peineta that she constantly readjusted. Her eye was a honey brown, the same color of the sun when it set behind thin clouds. She spent a lot of time sitting on the front porch of Niña Raquel’s whorehouse massaging her long brown legs and batting her eyes at any men who walked by.
“I have to start somewhere,” I said. “Might as well start with the ugly ones.”
Everyone laughed and cheered and I almost felt proud of my joke.
The sky above us lit up with white lightning and seconds later thunder roared at us and we roared back and went home.
It rained hard that night. I was alone again. Dad was out drinking somewhere. I don’t remember ever feeling scared of being by myself in that old metal house. I liked to fantasize that I’d built it, that it was okay that little drops of rain leaked through here and there because I put it together with my own hands and it was fine if it had flaws. When the thunder clapped and the walls rattled, I felt proud that the house didn’t crumble, that I’d made myself a good home. That night, I lay in my bed staring up at the ceiling wondering how long and how hard rain would have to fall on the metal roof for the drops to poke millions of holes through it. I wondered how long it would take for all that water to fill the house, how long it would take to drown me.
There was no timeline for the challenge. That was my first thought when I woke up the next morning. Maybe Bladimir would have forgotten about it by then. It had happened before. Once, we’d made this bet that we would all swim out into the ocean as far as possible and the one who swam the farthest would win. We’d planned it out in the almond tree, even went as far as walking to the beach to study the waves, but then someone had started to dig a hole in the sand and we all joined in. Instead of swimming out into the white waves, we all ended up inside the hole, trying to fit inside its crumbling walls.
So I breathed easily as I walked around in the silence of the morning because I knew the whole prostitute thing would be out of Bladimir’s brain by the time I saw him again.
Dad was asleep in his room, snoring into his pillow. I hadn’t heard him come home in the middle of the night. Some nights I did hear him, bumping into things as he looked for matches to light the one candle on the dining table. He liked to sit with the flame of that candle trembling in front of him, its orange light a steady glow on his damp dark skin. He probably thought about mom, probably missed her. Sometimes his finger moved through the flame quickly as if he was trying to turn it off. Other times he moved it slowly through the flickering tip, daring it to burn him. Other times he just stared at it as if in all that light lived something he needed, and he was trying to figure out how to pull it out.
When I saw him in bed that morning, he was still wearing his work uniform. The pants fit loosely around his heavy work boots. His left hand hung off the side of the bed and, right below it, on the dirt floor was an empty bottle of güaro. I picked it up to sell later. His breaths scraped out of his nose as if he was trying to inhale the sheets and they didn’t fit inside his nostrils. How did he not die in the middle of the night, suffocated under the weight of his drunk head? I knew of women whose babies died on a bed, smothered by their own pillows or blankets. I moved his heavy head to one side until his breath gurgled softly in his throat. It was the first time I’d touched him in a long time. His face was warm. The bags under his eyes felt like someone had filled them with water. He smelled salty like the ocean. I wanted to remove his boots but then he stirred, I left him on the bed and walked outside.
My feet sank into the wet ground. Mud slid between my toes and tickled. I walked aimlessly, half looking for my friends, half looking for big puddles to cross, pretending I was an explorer in a jungle trying to escape quicksand. The sun was already out, making vapor out of mud. My friends were nowhere to be found and I was hungry. I was craving beans and eggs with tortillas or a pupusa de queso with lots of curtido and salsa. I walked to the almond tree and climbed it to find fruit to eat. That’s where I was when I heard La Creel under the tree.
“¡Hola, Marquitos!” she said. Seeing her made me feel embarrassed and nervous. I was afraid she would see in my face what I’d agreed to do. But she just smiled at me.
It was early and she wasn’t wearing her usual tight flowered dress with the low neckline. Instead she wore a pair of white shorts and a red T-shirt with a Rubik’s cube on the front. She had a plastic bag in one hand. Inside was something wrapped in brown paper with grease stains. The telltale signs of pupusas.
She said, “Son pupusas. ¿Quieres?”
I looked to make sure my dad wasn’t around and climbed down the tree. I still had an almond in my mouth.
“Vamos al salón,” she said. “We can eat on the steps.”
There was no music anywhere yet. Just some people on the streets. The man that sold bread was yelling about the freshness of what he carried and how that day he had some sweet bread with him too.
“¿Quieres pan dulce?” La Creel said.
I nodded and she called the man over. He carried all the bread on his head, in an enormous wicker basket that looked like a huge deep sombrero.
“Choose one,” La Creel said.
We ate in silence. When she chewed her eyepatch shifted a little and I could see what looked like dark wrinkled skin beneath. She saw me looking and adjusted it.
“Lo siento,” she said.
I was too embarrassed to say that I was sorry for staring.
Every once in a while, someone would walk by and look at us. The men passed by without saying anything but the women, especially those who knew me, moms of friends, whispered words that slid out of their mouths like sticky sap.
“What disasters are you in charge of today?” she said. She finished eating and cleaned her hands with a napkin.
“I don’t know,” I said. “We might go to the dump to find old tires.”
“To push around with your hand?”
“Be careful. The dump isn’t a place for children. Sometimes those tires have metal poking out of them. You don’t want to stab yourself in the hand.”
She pulled a little green bottle out of her pocket and poured some drops from it onto her hands. The air filled with the sweet scent of patchouli as she rubbed her legs.
“And your mom? Have you talked to her? It’s a shame she left. You must feel very sad.”
“I don’t,” I said quickly. She looked at me and tightened her lips. She didn’t believe me. “I don’t miss her.”
I wanted to say that I dreamed about my mom often, that when I woke up from those dreams it was hard to get up from the bed, as if they had drained whatever it was I needed to move through the day.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “You must. She’s your mother. You must miss her. Did you know I knew her? I don’t mean that we were friends but that I would see her around. That’s dumb though, right? Of course I’d see her. This town is small. I remember her. She seemed like a good person. When you were little, a baby still, she would walk you up and down these streets while you cried and cried and cried. You were one of those babies that was just unhappy with everything.” She laughed. “Everyone tried to help her. All the women would offer their own advice. ‘Tiene gas,’ they would say. ‘¡Tiene cólico!’ And they would buy her a Coca Cola and she would put it in your bottle and shake out all the gas and give it to you. You would drink it but as soon as you finished it you would start crying again. She was patient with you. I would have just thrown you into the ocean for some peace and quiet.” She laughs and ruffles my hair. “¡Estoy jugando! No. I would have tried to comfort you, I guess.”
I’d never heard that story before. Hearing about it made me want to ask her more questions more about my mother, other things La Creel had seen from the sidelines.
“Do you have kids?” I asked.
“No,” she says. “I would have probably thrown them into the ocean.” She laughs again. “I had just arrived here,” she said. “When your mom had you. I was young. So young.”
“She abandoned me,” I said. I’d finished all the food she’d shared with me. My stomach stretched taught under my T-shirt.
“You don’t know that,” she said. “Everyone who goes to that country doesn’t go to be alone. They go to nest. That’s what she’s doing. Nesting.”
“She’s not a bird,” I said. “She used to say she was a Jaguar. Jaguars don’t nest.”
She sighed. “Fine. She’s not nesting. She’s…doing whatever it is that jaguars do. Believe me. She’s getting ready for you. It’s impossible to leave behind what you know, Marcos. I imagine living a child behind must be so difficult. I can’t imagine it. I just can’t.”
A man walked past us. He looked at her, at her legs which she was still rubbing with the patchouli. She looked at him and her face transformed into what I now understand was a flirtatious smile. It said that even if she wasn’t working yet, she would be working soon.
“You’re too young, Marquitos. Leaving is difficult. That’s why the ocean never leaves. Have you ever watched it carefully? The waves. Have you ever noticed how every wave could be the same one over and over again. Some days it’s a strong wave and it makes it past the sand barrier and into someone’s house, but at the end it gets sucked down by the sand and the dirt and it ends up right back where it came from. No one can leave where they’re from. I doubt your mom wanted to leave and, really, she’s not gone. You’re here. You’re the sand that keeps pulling her back.”
“No me dijo adiós,” I said. I dug my heel into the still wet ground. “She just left. I didn’t matter to her. I’ll never see her again.” I felt a knot in my throat. I pushed my feet harder into the mud. La Creel shook her head and pulled a purple handkerchief from her pocket. She wiped the area around her eyepatch and said, “How old are you, Marcos? Eleven? You’re too young to be talking like that. Talking like you’ve lost all hope. Niño, you don’t know what that’s like.” She shook her head again. “You want to know what it’s like to lose all hope?”
I didn’t answer her. I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Did you know I was kidnapped by the military?” she asks. “No, of course not. How would you know? It’s true though. I was 12. This man they called Güayo. He used to walk around with his M16 stretched across his chest. He liked to whittle wooden toys for the kids. He would walk around with that knife and that rifle and everyone knew he was evil, that he…that he was evil.” She dug her heel in the muddy soil too. “He was the devil, Marquitos, a man who had no soul. Something, someone sucked it out of him when he was little. I I know it.” She looked at me and put her hand on my cheek. Her hand was warm, heavy with the scent of patchouli. “He had these eyes that spoke in full sentences. Do you know what I mean? No? Well, you will. I think you have eyes that will speak in sentences too. More quiet sentences, more peaceful ones but full sentences. I like to think that when I was little and I had both my eyes that they too spoke in sentences because that’s a sign of intelligence. One day este culero me agarró, right from the street, just like that. And he took me and told me I was his…I…” She was having a hard time speaking. I wanted to leave but I also wanted to touch her. I didn’t know how or where. “I shouldn’t tell you these things, Marcos. You’re so little. But you should know, you should know what it’s like to lose hope. You should know what some people are like, what some people are capable of doing. Some people see us and they see garbage, Marcos. Garbage. You and I aren’t garbage. I missed my mother and father and I wondered where they were and why they weren’t looking for me and every night I would cry and cry for someone to rescue me and this man…this man would…he was evil Marcos.”
“Why didn’t you run away?” I said.
She put more drops of patchouli on her hands, put them against her nose and took a deep long breath. “Evil threats,” she said. “The threats he’d use…and he…there was a door, a metal door. He had dolls in that room and clothes and I know I wasn’t the first one there. That’s who he was.” Her face relaxed, like what a face does when you sleep. It scared me. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she said. “But one night I tried to run, Marcos. I still had both eyes. People told me they were beautiful. You know, I have no pictures of me when I was little. I don’t remember what I looked like with both my eyes.” I tried to imagine what she would look like but I couldn’t unsee the eyepatch. “Sometimes he wouldn’t lock the door. I knew what it sounded like when he didn’t. I don’t know why he did that. Maybe that’s how sure he was. Who knows. I walked out of the room quietly and then out of the house. You know where he had me? In a house in the middle of all of these really tall almond trees, like the one you and your friends play in. And I ran and ran and ran but I had no idea where I was going and then…this is why I know there is no god, Marcos. This is how I know the world is just shit. I ran and ran and came upon this pond. I’d never seen it before. I was thirsty from running and I bent down to put my face in the water and then I felt myself being pulled in. At first I thought it was an animal, something big. But no, it was not an animal. I wasn’t that lucky. It was him! You see how there’s no god, Marcos? You see how of all the damned places in this fucked up world I had to drink from where he was bathing? And he said, ‘I’ll teach you to run away from me!’ and he yanked me out of the water by my hair and pulled his knife out….”
She was crying. One of the other prostitutes must have heard her and came out of the salon. She placed a hand on La Creel’s head. “Que pasa, Magnolia? Que sucede?”
“Nada,” La Creel said. “Nada. Estoy bien.” She adjusted her eyepatch and wiped the other eye with her handkerchief.
“Magnolia,” I said softly.
She smiled. “Only they call me by that name.”
“Esta bonito,” I said.
“Marcos, you’re my favorite little man in this whole town,” she said and took deep shaky breaths. “Don’t grow up.” The other prostitute walked back into the salon just as music started playing. It was a cumbia, a song about having sex in the weeds.
I placed my hand on La Creels knee and patted it a few times. That’s when Bladimir showed up. He was grinning from ear to ear. He walked up to me and La Creel, laughed and said, “You’re fast, Marcos!” I wanted to throw myself at him, to punch him in the face, to shut him up. I stood up quickly and almost slipped on the mud. “How much are you going to charge him, Fácil?”
La Creel looked at me. I looked away.
“¿De que estás hablando?” She asked.
“Marcos picked you. He’s going to win the bet.”
He told her what we said up in the tree, added his own commentary to the whole thing, about how he thought we were all little inexperienced children who had no idea what we’d gotten ourselves into.
“I’m the only one who’s done it,” he said. “I shouldn’t even be competing.”
The whole time he spoke to her, her eyes were on me, heavy and full of questioning, holding my body in place as I tried desperately to escape.
“That woman was evil,” my mother says. She’s talking about the character in the telenovela. I don’t even know if she knew my Creel. “I was already here when that one started. I had just gotten here. This country, you know. It’s so big. I couldn’t believe the size of all those buildings. Pero tu me conoces, mijo. I wasted no time. I started working the next day. That’s when I started working with Esperanza. Remember her? Of course not. Como odio a esa mujer. Vieja estupida. Her husband was a pig. Have I told you about him? He was a pig, mijo. People over there think everything here is streets paved in gold. No. You soon find out it’s not. That man. I was watching his children. His children!” I’ve heard this story too. She worked as a live-in nanny, taking care of three boys. The woman, Esperanza, was a friend of hers from El Salvador. “They were so sweet those boys,” my mom says. “I taught them Spanish. I had to because Esperanza didn’t. She married a white man and all of a sudden Spanish was too good for her. They spoke really good Spanish. Really good. But that man. That man.” She tells me again how she caught the boys’ dad masturbating next to her bed while she slept. “Can you believe that? How many times had that happened and I hadn’t woken up? And then Esperanza doesn’t believe me when I tell her. She says I’m trying to steal her husband, that I wanted to marry a white man to get papers. Can you believe that. Vieja estupida.”
She watches the screen. La Creel is yelling at someone. La Creel never smiles.
“Did you ever know a prostitute they called La Creel?” I said.
“In Acajutla? No. And I remember them. I don’t remember one by that name though.”
“She used to have an eyepatch. I think she—“
“Esa era La Fácil! No le decían La Creel.”
“They called her that later. You had already abandoned us.”
She squints. I’ve hurt her.
“I liked her,” she says. She takes a slow bite out of her guava and cheese pastry. “She used to sit on the steps and rub patchouli on her legs. I never liked that smell. I think it smells like marijuana. Sometimes she would carry you when you were a baby and she’d leave you all smelly.”
“She carried me? Dad was okay with that?”
“He didn’t care. Hasta creo que le gustaba el olor. He’d sniff you and he’d say, ‘¡huele rico!’ and he’d put your belly against his nose and try to breathe you in. But also he was busy with work. I was the one who had to listen to all the old ladies tell me how I was holding you wrong or how you just needed a little bit of Coca Cola. ¿Éramos locos, no?” She lets out a loud laugh. “We gave babies Coca Cola. Oh my god.”
“She was nice to me, too. I remember her.”
“You never remember anyone, but you remember the prostitutes. You talked to her? Was she like La Garroba?”
“No. No. She was just nice to me. She liked to talk to me I think.”
“She had it rough you know,” she says. She caresses the thin gold chain around her neck as if conjuring a memory she doesn’t want to see appear. “Do you know how she lost her eye?”
“Yes,” I say. “Sometimes she told me things I don’t think were appropriate for someone my age.”
“She told you that a soldado did it? With a knife? Can you imagine that? Something like that happening to you?” She shivers under the thought.
We watch the rest of the show together, laughing at the ridiculous drama of 80s and 90s telenovelas.
That day in Acajutla, after La Creel sighed her lungs empty, she shook her head slowly and smiled, a smile that was making fun of herself, like she was feeling a certain way and it was ridiculous that she felt like that.
“Hombres,” she said, like a complaint, and walked back into the musty dimness of that salon. Bladimir said, “Hombres. Si, somos hombres.” He looked at me and said, “¿Que pasó?” in a sort of playful way that sounded like he knew he’d ruined something, that he’d destroyed a possibility, the birth of something big and that it had been on purpose, a sabotage. I could have gone inside the salon, could have chased La Creel into her room, could have talked to her and apologized. But I didn’t.
“You ruined it for me,” I said to Bladimir. “It was about to happen. You saw, I had my hand on her knee. She would have done it for nothing.” Up until the moment I said that, I’d never felt sticky words before, had never inhaled weight as I spoke.
Bladimir laughed and slapped me on the back. “Lo siento,” he said. “Now you’ll have to pay for it like the rest of us.”
I saw her often after that of course. She didn’t leave Acajutla simply because an eleven-year-old boy had reminded her that boys aren’t too far away from men. She never talked to me again though, never looked at me when I walked by. At the end, what I’d predicted about Bladimir came true. He forgot about the bet and we moved on to trying to hit dragonflies with rocks flung at high speed from our homemade slingshots.
When I’m ready to leave my mom’s house she walks me to the door and says, “You know why they liked you?”
“The prostitutes. Do you know why they liked you?”
“Well, I was a cute boy.”
Her face gets serious. “Don’t be stupid, Marcos,” she says. “Sometimes people just need someone to listen to them. It gets lonely sometimes. Some people get tired of listening to themselves inside their own heads and they need to let the voices out. That’s why they liked you, I think. You’re a good person, mijo, and you listen.”
She hugs me. Her head smells like the shampoo she likes, sweet, with hints of minty medicine. She’s shorter now, like she’s crumbling. It’s a strange moment to think of her death but I can’t help it. I wonder if I will feel pain when she dies. I would, of course, but I think I would also feel the weight of all that we’ve left unspoken. I realize I’m still angry at her for leaving. All those years have passed, all that life, and I’m still holding on to how I felt about her that day a long time ago when I spoke to La Creel.
“¿Que pasa, m’ijo?” she says. “¿Que me quieres decir?”
I think about what she says, about how sometimes people get tired of listening over and over to their own thoughts. I take a deep breath and I say, “I think I’m still mad at you for leaving us,” I say it to the top of her head. She pushes me away from her, gently, just so she can look at my face. Tears fill up her bottom eyelids and they stay there. “I know,” she says. “Y está bien. Really. I would do it again. I would leave you and then I’d bring you and then I’d lose you, but I would do it again and again and again.”
I want to say something. I want to tell her that I understand what she means, that I would do the same for Marisol. I want to move my mouth to say it but nothing more comes out. I say, “Ya me voy,” and I leave under the darkness of a cold night, shuffling memories of my mother’s first days in this country, of her trip and of the loneliness she must have felt. I think about what La Creel had said so long ago, about people not being able to leave where they’re from. Back then I didn’t think she’d said it like it was something to watch out for, like some sort of dark doom that awaits us all. But that’s what I think she meant. Everything has the potential to be an ocean from which you can’t escape. How does one get away from something that powerful? How do you not die in the process?
Andrés Reconco is a 2014 PEN Emerging Voices Fellow. He is a high school teacher in Los Angeles and he received his MFA from Warren Wilson College. He is working on a short story collection tentatively titled “Crisálida”.