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The day she left was a Friday. It was mostly normal, except she left early, and Mom read us our story instead. She did the dishes, kissed my sister, changed into street clothes, pulled on her old wool coat, and waved goodbye. The weekends were for spending time with my parents, so I didn’t think about the early departure until Monday when no one was there to cut us fruit in the morning and pour us glasses of milk.
“Make yourself something,” Mom said. “You’re old enough to walk yourselves to school together,” heels clicking and briefcase swinging as she kissed us quickly and strode out the door.
So we pulled on our uniforms, brushed our teeth, and did just that. We walked ourselves back, too, at 3:00, made our own snack, did our homework, and played together. “We’re latchkey kids now,” I told my sister, repeating from something I’d read somewhere.
Alma was from the Philippines. Short, caramel-colored skin with freckles, straight brown--almost black--hair. Hard eyes that never changed. Every year, her dark hair faded more and more as youth seeped out of her body, leaving her cold and frail and gray. But I remember her best when she was soft around the edges, warm when I hugged her.
Alma would cook for us, make us breakfast, help us dress in the morning, take us to and from school. But her main job was to take care of Gigi. The baby. She came when Gigi was just born, and I was an annoying toddler at the worst age, who just screamed for my Mom and made a mess. Gigi, with her big eyes and chubby cheeks, who never cried and only smiled, was a joy to take care of.
No one told me that, and I don’t really remember. I just guessed. From pictures or something.
Every night at 8:00, our bedtime, Alma would tell us a story and sit with us as we fell asleep. Lying on my bunk bed--of course, the top went to me, the older sister--I’d strain to hear her movements after she said “The End,” as she checked to see if the little one was asleep. When Gigi fell, her job was done and she’d creep out and leave for the day. I used to pretend I was asleep too, but when I got a bit older, I’d say goodnight as she walked out, just to let her know that I was still awake.
She calls sometimes, always for Gigi, and I used to pick up another phone and listen, not to eavesdrop, but just to hear her voice. If I closed my eyes, it was like she was right in front of me, and I was young again. Sometimes I could hear her say my name, the way she said it when I was in trouble: "Isabel!" Other times I swore I could feel her stern grip clamping around my wrist as we cross the street because I wasn’t allowed to walk on my own. Or maybe she was braiding my hair like she did every morning before school, pulling and weaving the strands just a little too tight, making my head ache all day.
Other times, when I closed my eyes and let her crackling phone-voice roll over me, I'd remember when I spied on her through the crack of my bedroom door, as she softly into her cell phone when she thought we were all asleep. I found out the hushed words were for her daughter Bianca, when, once, she whispered her name. I eventually picked up that Bianca lived far away in Manila with Alma’s mother. I’d never met Bianca or seen a picture of her, and Alma seldom talked about her, but I imagined that she looked, or acted, like Gigi. Alma called them both “dayong,” or darling in Tagalog.
After a while, I noticed that the phone-listening was creepy and probably rude, and I stopped. Years earlier, I had eventually done the same with Gigi's calls.
In the summers, we would walk through Central Park every afternoon and go to the Natural History Museum. Every day I’d tell her it was too long a walk and I’d be tired, and every day she made me do it anyway. We knew the exhibits inside and out, but for some reason we never got bored. She would push Gigi’s stroller and tell me to hold the side as we walked. So I wouldn’t get lost.
We took the same route every day. First to the animal exhibit upstairs, and we'd walk the whole perimeter. We’d pass the lions, roaring, the flamingos, so pink and perfect, the monkeys, that, I learned, weren't all that different from us. In the middle were the elephants, bigger than anything I could have imagined. I wanted to tower over everything like that, with thick, shiny white tusks that dipped, and a long, majestic, curling trunk that I’d flip and twirl like a long scarf. I’d travel in a pack, where my family would protect each other from predators and wash each other clean with our trunks like I saw on that Discovery Channel documentary Dad made me watch.
Next was the dinosaurs. Even bigger than elephants! But not as beautiful, and I didn’t want to be them. I just wanted to climb them! Make their brittle bones and swooping tails my jungle gym and swing, slide, fall, get back up and do it all over again. I’d climb on the T-Rex’s back and it would come alive, like in Night at the Museum, and I’d roam up and down the streets of New York, waving to a crowd of fans. The Dinosaur Tamer! A legend! I would be famous, and I could travel the world on my T-Rex, just marching. I bet his legs would be long enough to cover the whole world.
Sometimes we’d go to the butterfly room, where it was hot and humid, and my hair stuck to my forehead, and my hand holding the stroller would slide. I’d stick my face up, and stretch my arm out until it burned, hoping one would choose me. I wanted one to land, on my nose maybe, a big orange one, and I told Alma to have a camera ready to take a picture when it landed. It never did. I guess I was too jumpy, too anxious, too sweaty, too eager. Once, when she thought I wasn’t looking, Alma extended a finger, and a big orange one landed obediently, not budging until she shook it off. I figured the butterflies now had a change of heart and wanted to land on me like they landed on her, so I sweated even harder, stood even stiller until my arm started to shake.
Last is the planetarium, and the same show about the sun exploding and the world ending. I never got bored of it. Gigi would get scared if she watched it, Alma said, so they'd wait outside and I’d go alone. It was scary, and there were strangers around me, but they were always nice. Something about watching the world end makes people nice. I craned my neck and saw the sun explode and die, and the world was on fire, burning, and it was gone. Just like that. All my things would burn. My toys, books, clothes, backpack, my mom, my dad, Gigi, Bianca, Alma. Everything important. And I would burn too.
I’m the last one out. I wanted to stay in my seat and see it again, but I knew Alma was waiting for me, and Gigi might get fussy and she’d be mad, so I'd just walk out. I’d have nightmares about that show for days, dreams so vivid I swore I was gazing up at the show from a rigid theater seat. I'd even wake up with a crick in my neck. But I always insisted on seeing it every time we went to the Museum.
On the way back, we’d walk through the park again. Sometimes we stopped and sat on a lawn if it looked particularly green and inviting.
One day, a sticky August afternoon, we took our trip, saw the same things. Gigi was already asleep by the time we got to the lawn, so it was just me and Alma. We talked for a bit, the grass tickling our feet through our sandals. She asked how I liked the show, the butterflies, the dinosaurs, the elephants. I just said they were pretty and cool, and decided that was enough. She agreed--they were pretty and cool, after all. We got up. I held the stroller, she pushed, and we walked home. That was the last time.
“New tradition,” I said to Gigi at 8:00, the first Monday night without Alma. She waited in her bottom bunk, pressed against the protective rail on the side, her wide, wet eyes uncertain. “Songs.” She grinned, and I opened my mouth to sing softly whatever old-fashioned ballad we had learned that day in music class. For the first time, I watched her fall asleep. I didn’t really need to watch; I’d spent years listening to her breaths become steady. But it just felt wrong to go to bed until I was sure. When her eyes fluttered closed, I crept closer and I studied her still face. The long curled lashes, the plump rosy cheeks, the beauty mark on the side of her mouth. She looked young.
“The End,” I whispered, before crawling into my own bed.