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The Last Chorizo MAG
I wake up on July 15 with this sort of weird, bittersweet feeling in my stomach. Not the Mama-made-my-favorite-meal-but-I-have-to-do-home-work-right-after kind of bittersweet, but an ache I imagine only old men and military officers wake up to. Not the most healthy emotion for a fifteen-year-old girl to have, but I've read somewhere about rapid premature aging where you have the body of a ten-year-old but feel like an eighty-year-old.
I don't need to push back the curtains to see it is a bright, 10 a.m. morning, the kind where your little sister barges in and screams, “WAKE UP, HERMANA! ES EL QUINCE DE JULIO!” She's five years old today. I can fully appreciate her intrusion because she's one of those sweet little hermanitas who makes you pictures of flowers and smiles for no reason – not the hair-pulling, screaming sort. I guess I'm lucky that way.
I walk downstairs, still in pajamas, to the sound of relatives. But not just any kind of relatives – the screeching, raging sound of your Hispanic tíos and tías, your cousins running around knocking down that science project that took you five hours yesterday. They insist on coming for every holiday, birthday, small ritual, Columbus Day – any excuse to keep tabs on us. I suppose I should feel grateful that we're such an incredibly (hard-to-breathe) close family, but it's hard to feel this way every time Uncle Eduardo sets off the smoke detector with his cigarettes or Grandpa goes on one of his homophobic rants. At least the food is always good: The smell of Aunt Isabela's pork enchiladas engulfs the kitchen.
As I approach the storm of my family, I can hear my grandparents prepping their fingers for cheek-pinching. They catch my sister first, and she squeals with delight, writhing in their arms as they hug her tight.
“¡Ay dos mío niño, lo grande que eres!” Abuela croons, tickling her. “You've gotten so big! Happy birthday, Catarina.”
“And this one, too,” Abuelo comes over, patting my forehead in his gentle way. “Our little niñitas are growing up so fast,” he says with such nostalgia you wouldn't have thought they were here last month. Which they were.
And as they go in a line, saying their customary exclamations of “you're growing up so fast” and “how old are you now?” I can't help but note the absence of one: “You've got your father's eyes.” I haven't heard that in ten years for obvious reasons. Before the incident, it was the one thing they said the most to me. Maybe it's for the best. I'm not sure if I could take it as a compliment now.
But of course, then my mother, my loca mamacita, this fricking crazy woman, gathers everyone together: Uncle Eduardo and Aunt Isabela, my grandparents, the three cousins, Jose, Pedro, and Belinda, Uncle Federico and Aunt Lisa and their toddler Ema, and she announces:
“We're going to tell Catarina today what happened on her birthday five years ago.”
I always suspected my mother was a true madwoman. There was always something a little off about how she psychotically inspected her cabinets for lurking dust bunnies, or how she'd throw a fit if my socks were mismatched. Once, when Ms. Ellis refused to give me back a point on my math test, calling it “unnecessary,” my mother called her a “b**ch.” Of course, she said it in Spanish.
But I never, ever imagined she'd do something like this.
“Mama, are you crazy?” I interject. Even this crazy bunch knows it's a bad idea. “What do you think is going to happen when we tell her? Everything will be all right with the world?” That bittersweet feeling is coming back, hitting me in the stomach like a double-edged dagger. Except that the sweet part isn't there anymore.
“She needs to know,” she states firmly. “If you had to witness this firsthand, Cat at least deserves a solid account. She's five years old. She's about to start kindergarten, for God's sake. She should know the basics about her parents.”
“I dunno, I agree with Flora,” Uncle Eduardo says, taking a long drag of his cigarette, his eyes heavily lidded. I am 99 percent sure this man is high more often than not.
Aunt Lisa, ever practical, always worrying, kneads her hands and protests. “How could this child understand? It's oh-so-complicated, so complicated …” she trails off, her eyes misty with sadness. There's a silence, and I look at Cat, sucking her thumb, not understanding a word. And finally …
“Your father dropped you guys like a hot potato,” Aunt Lisa blurts out, throwing her hands up like someone forced her to say it. “But he was a little-”
“He ran away like a sissy,” the oldest cousin sneers, grabbing another tortilla chip. “You shoulda seen him, Cat. Your mother was so pregnant with you, it just scared him one day. Probably couldn't take the idea of another kid, too much responsibility. He took the last chorizo your mother made and got the hell out of here.”
At this point, I can only cover my face with my hands. Looking distressed and confused, Cat climbs into Abuela's lap, takes her thumb out of her mouth, lines forming above her brow that tell me the consequences of this conversation are going to be great.
“But, but, but, little one,” my grandmother soothes, “a few hours after that, you were born. July fifteenth, on this very day. After a curse, you were the blessing. You healed the scars that your papi left. When he was gone, we got you: something much better.” She kisses the top of Cat's head, whispering sweet nothings. Again, no one says anything for a while. The hum of the air-conditioning reverberates; Mama nods her head silently, agreeing with all that has just been said. And then, like clockwork, on a count of 1, 2, 3:
One of the benefits of living in San Mateo, California, is that there's these little parks everywhere. In the heat of July, all we need to do is walk a block or two from our house and arrive at a park. Nothing glamorous, but a solid swing set, jungle gym, and sandbox, surrounded by redwoods and oak trees.
As I walk my crying sister down the street to said park (“Comfort her, Ava,” Mama pleaded), I thought about how unfair it was that Papi chose this day of all days to run away. With the brilliant sunshine beating down on our backs and reflecting on our neighborhood landscape, I couldn't help but think that he'd stolen my favorite time of the year with his cowardice.
At the park, she runs for the swings, wiping her nose on her hand. She's my little sister, but the truth is we're far apart in age, interests, everything. Being ten years older is a handicap at times like these. I sit on the swing next to her. And as we swing, we watch the bluebirds fly on and off the bars of the jungle gym, pecking at the woodchips.
“Ava, why did Daddy leave us?” She looks at me, her eyes widening to half-dollars, snot dripping down her nose. “Were we not good enough?”
It was an easy enough question. It would be easy to say “of course not” and “he wasn't good enough for us” or, in the words of Jose, “he ran away like a sissy.” And maybe all of those are true, but to be honest, I'm not sure. I'm not sure I'll ever be sure. In my mind, I can still see my ten-year-old self watching his silhouette fade into the distance of 6:30 p.m., his flyaway hair sailing above his helmet as he rides away on his motorcycle. I remember when he grabbed the last chorizo my mother had made and quite literally drove off into the sunset, like Don Quixote on his noble horse. Except there was nothing noble about this escape.
For the last five years, I'd suppressed this scene in my mind, so much so that I'm not even sure what would be the best answer. But then I realize, before I can spiral into confusion, that my sister is five years old. Give her a five-year-old answer, and maybe we'll go from there.
“You know, I don't know,” I swing higher, my hair flying upside down. “Daddy was always a good person. He really was. Whenever Mama made dinner, he'd help her. He read me bedtime stories every night and he tickled me” – I reach over mid-swing and waggle my fingers, she squeals – “all the time, and he would always, always buy me an enchilada whenever we went into town, no matter how much the price was.”
I pause, think. “But maybe one day he decided that he needed other things. I'm sure we're still important to him, and he loves us, but for now, he needs to be somewhere else.” Maybe I'm trying to convince myself as much as Cat, but I think that's closest to the truth. And besides, it's not like I don't see those joint custody checks come regularly in the mail. I look at my sister – a real, long look as the sun sets. Six-thirty p.m., to be exact.
She grins at me. “Okay,” she says contentedly, pumping her legs, swinging almost as high as me. “Okay.”
And that's how I know, ten years later, it's okay.
(For now, at least.)
(I mean, I briefly tried imagining my parents getting back together, with how Mama is right now, swinging a butcher's knife and cursing Papi's name every chance she can. It gave me shivers that had nothing to do with the evening chill.)