When Mom called to tell me the news that Memito had died, I went to go fish out that old photo from what could barely be called a closet. I wanted to feel its course silver frame, and to see the warmth of the photo’s yellowing edges, the smile I had plastered on my face, the socks pulled up over my knees, and Abue, her hand, with so many fewer wrinkles, resting on Memito’s shoulder, and on those shoulders, me, grinning through the sunburn that had already crept its way onto my face, the plastic decal of an Orca whale jumping out from behind my head at the entrance of Marin World. I have no photos here, in this apartment. My walls are as bare as the day I moved in. I have taken to counting the flakes that fall from the paint, only to reveal layers and layers of more paint, reds and blues and violets, underneath the beige I see now.
But this photo, this is the only one I kept, this is my one luxury, the one piece of me that I had held onto no matter how many Christmases I had missed, no matter how many reunions during which I was “sick.” It is the only photo where Memito is smiling.
I found it underneath my mismatched towels and the tiny hand soaps that I had taken from the office bathroom. There I was. Summer at Memo y Abue’s, going to Marin World. I was maybe six or seven, back when I was seeing them every week, spending all summer at their house, laughing with them, watching telenovelas with Abue and asking Memito for more vero mango candies, back when I knew who I was, back when I was a good granddaughter.
In the photo, I’m missing three teeth, gaps I wear proudly, for it meant I would be able to stash them under the pillow for El Ratóncito Pérez in exchange for a candy or the coveted $2 bill that I only got when I slept over at Memo y Abue’s house. I used to save my teeth up, hide them in the soles of unworn shoes, and spread them out all at once like seeds on the pink cotton children’s bed in the guest room where I slept when I was there, hoping those teeth would grow into sugar or money, the currencies of childhood. But I stopped doing that a few years later. I said El Ratóncito didn’t exist. I said he was for babies.
“You have to come home, miija, you have to be with family right now,” Mom pleaded on the phone. She didn’t know I had this photo, didn’t know I cradled it on nights where I wished someone would leave a $2 bill under my pillow, would leave a vero mango for me to suck on, the chile and sugar mixing and mingling and leaving my tongue burning so that it sought refuge on the roof of my mouth.
“Who would I be,” I said, “if I didn’t?”
I put the photo on my nightstand while I packed. I made plans to head back home. I called out of work for the few days I would need. I put the life I had constructed for myself on pause. I had spent so long bent over its curvature. I obsessed over its oblique shape. I worshipped the work and its promotions, the late hours. I taught myself to relish the life in the city, the apartment. I thought these things made a good American life, a good American me. But how silly they seemed now, without Memito. How silly I was to think I could run away from what I was and be happy.
Mom doesn’t know this, but it never would have mattered whether she called. I was always going to make myself go, to return back to that place between the river and the mountain, forgotten thing, and I would go and pay my dues. I could never miss this sacred ritual of sitting around for Memito and sipping off-brand soda on a metal folding chair in a living room I had avoided for years, of returning to the limb I had amputated. Even after I had cut myself off, I could never shake the phantom feeling, it was always there, haunting the empty space it had left behind. I was always going to come back. I was always going to return to the family house.
I pulled out the duffel bag and began to cobble together what I would need for the weekend trip. A black dress. Pajamas. Chargers. Out of the cellars of my mind, I called forth the other things I would need: the names of cousins I hadn’t seen in years, the names of second aunts twice removed, Tías and Tíos who had existed within the confines of Easter cards. But like a dream, everything seemed to slip away the more I needed to remember. And wasn’t this what I deserved, for missing so much? Who was I to call these people, these faces and these memories, out of thin air when I needed them, when I wasn’t there, when I had missed the birthdays and graduation parties? Even by the end, I avoided Memo y Abue. I could feel their disapproval seeping out of them, in the questions they asked, the raised brows when I answered. Or at least that’s how I remembered it. Maybe they had kept their eyebrows just where they were. When I seldom worked up the willpower to pick up the phone and call or text, I afforded them five minutes before I ran out of things to ask, the awkward silences growing beyond comfort but never quite settling back into it. “Alright Abues, I gotta go make dinner,” or “Okay Abues, lunch is over for me,” and then click and nothing. I had banished them. One week would go by, then another, a month, a few months. I let this chasm open up like a gorge, and the lines on their faces became vague and fuzzy in my memory. I couldn’t even remember what Memo’s voice sounded like, not really.
And now I never would.
It started with hair, and ended with a pair of safety scissors and a severed braid during a night at a friend’s house. When I was young, Abue had loved my hair, said it was de los angeles, from the angels. It grew rapidly, its ends swinging past my waist even when I was ten and my torso had grown long. My hair grew with it. Abue would take the strands as I sat cross legged on the floor watching the TV. Your hair was an extension of your spirit, she’d say, and if you didn’t take care of it, your spirit would get out and run away like a stray dog, or poison you from the inside out. Abue even had a special brush, passed down to every woman in the family. One hundred strokes every night before bed. That’s what a good granddaughter would do.
But Abue did not have to deal with the kids at school who snickered as they pulled out each baby hair that curled away from my head during class time. She did not have to deal with the cruelty that children can bring when the lunch your family packs for you must be eaten with your hands, when they say you eat like a baby, when they stuff your locker full of pacifiers, when they leave tied up diapers covered in shit by your desk. And who could blame me for using my allowance the next year on the school’s lunch, opting for the greasy residue of bulk macaroni and cheese coating the roof of my mouth, served up on a grimy lunch tray, instead of the fresh, homemade tortillas, and simmering meats, and tangy pickled vegetables they made me. At least the kids left me alone after that.
When I was old enough to use one, I didn’t hesitate to choke a strand of wavy hair between the irons of my straightener, steam rising up to the fan in the bathroom, the singed smell tickling the inside of my nose. But it took me so long to straighten the lengths of my mane, and who cared about long hair anyway. Who says I couldn’t cut it? Who says I couldn’t make all of this a whole lot easier? With one brutish stroke, I did.
Mom never let me live it down after that. Then, the vitriol came. I must hate my family, must hate Mom, must hate everything they do for me. How could I do something like this to them. To them! Imagine! And never did they consider I thought the same thing.
When Abue saw I had cut my hair, she didn’t speak to me for a week. She spoke only to Memo, to whom she would say things like “Tell la gringa her lunch is ready, if it’s good enough for her” or “Give la gringa five dollars to buy a ‘burr-ee-tow.’”
Eventually, she spoke to me, but it was never the same. I asked Mom what I should do, I missed Abue, I missed watching telenovelas with her, I missed the feeling of her fingernails on my scalp. Even though I had no hair for her to brush, she still wanted me to be there with her, right?
“Oh mija,” Mom said, “that vieja can really hold a grudge.”
I only had Memo. He would give me vero mango candies as Abue and I sat and watched TV in silence. He called me la chida, the cool girl, and he’d tussle my short hair. I could survive summers if I had Memo. And I hoped that, one day, Abue’s stubbornness would deplete, and we’d sit together again, yelling at the TV, the puckering sounds of both of us enjoying candies brought to us from Memo as he took a break from working in the garage.
But as I got older, even Memo had his rules. Big girls did not sit with their legs open, with their cueva out, good girls did not have boyfriends, and soon, we were arguing about everything. He poked fun at me for flinching at the spice of a jalapeño, and when I asked him to leave them out of my tacos, he took to sneaking four or five into the bottom because he thought I was faking it. He would sneak hot sauce into the insides of burritos, which I had taken to eating with a fork. After finding a serrano stuffed into the center of a tamale, I threw it on the kitchen floor and asked what the hell was wrong with him, what about “No” didn’t he understand? He told me he wished he had a real Mexican granddaughter.
I couldn’t eat spicy food or maintain my hair, I didn’t know where to buy calaveritas in November and I didn’t care. I didn’t need to know how to prevent avocados from browning or hasten them to ripen, how to cradle fresh tortillas in your hand without breaking them. I was not a good girl, pounding maiz away in the kitchen while the men drank beer, I was not the pepper-eating niña they wanted me to be. So be it.
I never spent another summer at their house again after that. Instead, I begged my Mom to let me stay in the city, where I burrowed my head inside magazines filled with people whose porcelain skin seemed to shimmer and glisten on glossy manufactured pages, people who looked a lot more like my classmates than my family. It was easy. Those classmates had pools, they had maids and cooks. I’d lay reclined by the water in their houses on the other side of town while their pool boys apologized to me as they scraped my thick, wavy strands of hair from the surface of the water, the curl of them betrayed by the hydration, my hair that, aside from length, was indistinguishable from their own. I drank lemonade, I ate cookies, I was never so happy to eat meatloaf in my life, and not a spice to be found for weeks on end. Whatever faults I saw in their houses — a heavy pour of wine from someone’s mom, the rattling of prescription pills from the bathroom someone’s dad took refuge behind, moments, arguments that I had witnessed between the cracks of doors or heard from behind thin, decrepit walls — I ignored. If I hadn’t, I might have realized that everyone feels this distorted, this wrecked and unfair, betrayed by those who are closest to them. My own walls were the only ones that seemed so remarkably decrepit, notably thin.
The summer before I went to college, when I had been accepted at the university downstate, Mom sent a graduation card to the family, and did not listen to me when I said I didn’t want a party. Everyone was invited, and because it was my own, this was an event I could not skip, not feign sickness, no, I had to face the crowds of family head on, had to pick poblanos and hide them in crumpled napkins. I could not take it, could not take the prods and pokes, the ways in which my family felt they could whip me until I bent, conformed, until I became what they expected and hoped for me to be.
Abue showed up late, right before I opened gifts. She came right up to me, took my hand in hers, then put her other hand on top of mine, and said the words I had been waiting to hear. “We’re proud of you, mija,” and Memo nodded too, and a Tío wooted and lifted his Corona in the air, and everyone hollered and clapped, and maybe if I hadn’t already been cast out, already been made aware of all the ways I was lacking, it would have been easier to come back into that circle, to return to them. They meant well, in their minds, in their way. But I had already decided. I thought I knew how they felt about me. And, living in the ooze of my grudge, once I had decided, I vowed never to question the decision again. I could never bring myself to open up the possibility that I could belong.
In college, Abue would call me, but I found it easier than I thought to ignore her voicemails in between football games and nights out. Every month, Memito left a message on my phone asking me to call back, asking if I had joined the Latino Student Union, if I had met a “nice Mexican boy” yet, asking about school. I would text him back, sorry memito, busy. Little dots bounced on my screen as he spent five minutes typing his reply, its ok jita, call bak wen u r free. But I never did. At college, I was safe. There was no one there who had any expectations of me, no ways in which I was lacking. Calling them back would have broken the spell, and I wanted, for once, to live so badly in the idea that I was whole.
It’s easy to ignore the passing of time when that time is filled with things that occupy you, things you think are important, even when they’re not. I had a good job, a nice apartment, I worked long hours and was promoted several times. I was the poster child of every organization’s brochure pamphlet. I was a success story, a first generation college graduate, a hard working, determined employee who was “easy to be around.” It didn’t matter to me that they had no idea I woke up two hours early to straighten my hair every single morning. To them, I belonged, and to me, it made sense. A foot in both places gets you nowhere. But at least there, in my life, I could pretend I had both feet together, I could contort those limbs into the verisimilitude of belonging.
Last fall, in the dry brisk air that quiets a city and coaxes winter coats out of their hibernation, a chunk of my hair that was steaming between the plates of my sixth straightener came clean off my head, hanging limply in my hand. The depression stood out on my scalp. The severed strands were still steaming when I removed them from the plates. I sat on the toilet seat and held the orphaned strands in my hands, feeling the dead, brittle fibers blow against my calloused fingers in an invisible breeze. Before the panic set in and I sprung to solve the problem, in that moment between moments, I wished I could call my Mom, could call Abue. I wish I could call and know that if I told them what happened, they would say everything would be okay.
I tied my hair in a bun so tight that by three o’clock in the afternoon I had a headache. But by the time I had gotten home, and I relinquished the hair tie from my head, it was not the way I looked that preoccupied me, nor the fact that I would have to forego straightening. In the gap where my hair had been, I couldn’t help but think that now Abue and Mom would never be able to run their hands through my head. I wanted to feel their hands on my scalp, for them to caress the hair that grew out of my head in spirals, I wanted them to think I had the hair of angels.
I decided to stop straightening my hair for good, and went to the corner store after work to try to find some products. After talking to the owner, I was taken to a separate section in the back by the service door. “For your people hair,” he told me, and gestured to one shelf where there were four products that all listed “Natural” on the front. The women on the packages were beautiful. Their eyes confronted me, photogenic white teeth sparkled in the glimmer of the wrapping on the bottles. Their hands were thrust into their curls like they wanted me to see it. Wanted me to know that out of hundreds of thousands of follicles in their scalp, they grew this miracle of gravity-defying volume without even trying. They didn’t look exactly like me, but they looked happy. I wanted that, I wanted to thrust my hands into my hair with abandon, I wanted their own wanting of their hair. They ate whatever their mothers and fathers and family cooked without hesitation. They told all their friends about it, they relished in the smells that wafted from their lunchboxes onto the playground, they got their hands dirty making their favorite meal, the one their mom made from scratch so that when they craved that flavor, the one they hadn’t had since they were little, they had the knowledge to make it. They could reconcile the past with the present. I bought the bottle that had “Also for Thick and Wavy” in small letters at the bottom below a woman who had her arms wrapped around her own waist. As I walked home, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and pulled up the text thread with Memo. The last thing he sent me was about a month ago, wen i c u nxt mija? Better late than never.
I had managed, using the very curvature of my own curls, to hide the damage the straightener had done, and the tousled waves fluttered in the hot air from the window as I drove to the house. But once I arrived, I sat outside. I saw the two car driveway, the two spots on the sidewalk, and the two spots on the curb already taken. Everyone was already here.
I parked across the street and idled. I imagined the bodies crammed inside, cousin upon cousin whose name I will have forgotten, loud clanking of dishes and commands in shouts through hallways, some in Spanish, which I would no longer understand. And they, like happy bees, thriving in the storm of family while I stood, trying my best to be unnoticed, to blend in, to dissolve, to let the storm trample over me like a stampede. Shadows drifted across windows and sound spilled out onto the street. I could hear the clanking of silverware against porcelain though everyone I saw in the windows carried plastic party cups. I turned the engine off and listened to it tick and cool while it slowed. I reached up and felt the gap from where my hair had fallen out. I hoped it would grow back, I hoped Abue would not notice its absence, I hoped there was still a chance she might run her hands through my head.
“Lena! What’re you doing, get inside!” a faceless silhouette peered from the opening of a window. “Is she here?” “Is Elena outside?” more voices, including Mom’s. After a moment, she appeared in the front door. “Lena, what’re you just sitting there, come inside!” she shouted as she wiped her hands on a towel stuck into her waistband. She didn’t hesitate to hug me with still-wet hands, “We’re so happy you’re home.” Despite myself, I felt the possibility that it might be true.
She wrapped her hand around my back and flung me forward into the hum of the house. Everything was in its own orbit. Children fluttered up and down the main staircase, laughing in high-pitched tones that made Abue’s dog, Chiclet, tilt his head from side to side. The accusatory eyes of the painting of Abue’s great grandmother stared down at them from the top of the staircase, the overwhelming whites of her eyes making the black pupils almost invisible from the bottom of the staircase. Cousin Damian sat with one leg up on the couch, pointing the remote at the TV, flipping between one game and another, the loud drawl of the announcers overtaken by Tío Manny’s retelling of the motorcycle accident that gave him la raya, the scar that traversed his shoulder, which he showed off every chance he got. Tía Rosa and her three children, John-John Jr., Josiah, and Jeremiah were talking to someone I had seen before, but whose name escaped me, about the prayers they said for Memito before he passed. “Every night we knelt, every night we had Abuelo Memo in our prayers, but the Lord needed him in heaven, He needed Memo to come home,” she said, and when she said Memito’s name, everyone within hearing distance did the sign of the cross without stopping whatever they were doing.
Mom jabbed her hand into my side. “I stopped doing that stuff at 13,” I whispered. “Aya, what would Memito say?” she said, chuckled, then walked into the kitchen, leaving me alone in the living room. The dining table was nestled in the alcove in between the kitchen and living room, and it was absolutely buried under everything: rice, beans, carnitas and beef tongue, sour cream, guacamole swimming in the pits of the avocados that made it (which Abue swore kept it from browning), shredded lettuce piled high in a precarious mountain, glistening leche flan, the jellied flesh wiggling whenever someone walked by, and cookies whose cinnamon chocolate aroma hung in the air like a blanket, coating everything in its smell and warmth, all of the bounty hovering over warming candles or ice baths to keep them until we all sat down to eat. The centerpiece was a circular bouquet of flowers, colorful oranges and blues that reminded me of spring, of life. The bouquet encircled a framed photo of Memito, taken sometime after the war. He is in his regalia, a starched uniform so creased that the shadows cast hard lines across his chest. He is not smiling, but his eyes glisten like maybe he had recently been crying or laughing, like maybe Abue was on the other side of the camera, telling him a joke, or something sad.
The last time I had seen the spread, had graced my mouth with the flavors and smells only Abue could conjure, was years ago. And it was only in seeing it now that I realized how much I had missed the crunch of the lettuce, the sour bite of the crema, the tender and buttery smoothness of meat cooked for so long that you aren’t sure where the meat ends and the marinade begins, the way Abue cooked, her throaty hoarse laugh, shockingly deep and loud for a body so small, her elongated and delicate fingers squeezing limes with the strength of an ox, her tight ponytail, pulling at the baby hairs near her temple, wisps that had escaped throughout the day dancing in the wind as she moved dish to dish. “Taste it, taste it!” she’d beckon, holding a wooden spoon for me to taste, back when I deserved to.
“Elena! My Elena is here,” and Abue was there, arms above her head in a gesture to both welcome me and demand I come greet her, her wrists flicking her fingers from me to her. Abue was ninety years old and always moving. Memito’s celebration of life would be no different. She preferred to do the sad part on her own, casting away family who asked to see the burial. “You can visit when I am done with him,” she said, “just bring food to the house after.” If anyone else in the family had asked for such a thing, they would have been happily ignored, almost expectedly disregarded. But Abue was not just anyone. She was Abue. She hugged me, never stopping to wipe her hands on her apron.
“Lenita, too long since the last time I saw you, niña, all grown up now,” she said, pulling me back from the hug to hold both my shoulders as she appraised me. “Not too long, Abue,” I said. “Sí, mijita, never too long,” she said. I waited for her to say something else, to scrutinize my hair, to comment on my weight, I waited for the judgement that I knew would come, which I deserved. She looked over her half-moon glasses, the dangling of the strings on either side which met behind her neck in sharp contrast to the stillness of her body. “Meet me in the kitchen later, ‘jita, after you say hello to everyone. I’ve got something for you.” Then, she turned into the kitchen and disappeared.
So it would be later. She would make me wait. “I’m sorry for your loss!” I said, a little too loudly. She didn’t turn around, waving her hand in the air, “Thanks ‘jita, but he was an old pendejo anyway!”
“She left you something,” Mom pointed to my back. A white hand of flour on my black mourning dress, evidence that she’d touched me. And she’d called me by my name. No nicknames, no jabs. Just my name. “Go clean it off, ‘Lena,” Mom pointed to the bathroom. But staring at it in the mirror, adorned by salmon pink tile, I couldn’t bring myself to brush it off, the delicate silhouette of her fingers, the dusting clinging to every polyester fiber. I couldn’t bring myself to wipe it away.
I put on my jacket instead, and moved along the hallway. The house felt muskier, almost too warm. Steam emanating from the room condensed on my skin and I felt the pinpricks of sweat begin to form on my upper lip. There were so many people, threading between doorways, handing beers and soda to each other, Spanglish mingled in the air, elusive to me. Even here, in the middle of the hallway, I was alone, outside, I was in the house, but I could hardly breathe. Two Tiós walked by, “Hey ‘Lena!” and did not wait for a response. The entire inside of the house was claustrophobic. Standing abreast in that corridor, both my shoulders touched the walls. By the time I remembered the names of my Tíos, they were long gone into the depths of this place.
I turned around and was dwarfed by a wall of photos. A haphazard gallery wall, a mountain that leered over me as the pictures stretched toward the ceiling. The heavy, dark wooden frames almost pulled the wall down with them. Sepia-toned vintage portraits of Memito and Abue, of their parents and grandparents, photos where the stillness of the subjects reminded me of how long photos used to take, the unsmiling and unblemished faces stoic and still, eyes dark and unflinching. But the amount of faces I know is a pitiful fraction of the faces I don’t. Mom probably knows everyone, and has most likely shown me once or twice before, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. She wouldn’t tell me again. And even if she did, would I remember this time?
I saw a picture of Mom, I thought. Just a lot younger. I wasn’t positive, but her smile looked like mine, wide and goofy and unashamed. Then came the school portraits in the full clarity that digital HD can bring. Plaid jumpers and polo shirts, shiny bright sports uniforms, hands resting on basketballs, volleyballs, matching family outfits against mall shop backgrounds. These photos were exchanged with all the primos in Christmas cards, Easter cards, birthdays. I only recognized some of them. But in the shape of their eyes, the arch of their brows, in their curly, unruly brown hair, I knew we were related. Even if I didn’t know their names, I could see myself in them.
I saw my fourth grade school portrait, the year they switched the uniform sweaters. I felt itchy just looking at it. And the photo from 8th grade, the only photo where I couldn’t bear to bring myself to smile. That was the one Mom doesn’t hang in her house. That is the photo the morning after I cut off my hair.
“Are you really gonna do it?” Mia had asked, “won’t your family kill you?”
In truth, I should have listened to Mia. I was finding myself more and more under the American spell that daughters are loved unconditionally, that they should be cherished, either long hair, short hair, bald, covered in mud, in their Easter dress. But I was starting to harbor the idea that maybe my family was not this way, and I wanted to see what would happen if I messed up, on purpose. What would happen if I was not the daughter they wanted.
The scissors caught the fluorescent bathroom light in the mirror. I spoke to Mia in the mirror’s reflection, “I can do whatever I want,” and snapped the hair right at my neck.
I carried the dead hair in a braid like a declaration of war and laid it at the door of Mom’s bedroom. I retreated to my own room. When she came out to say goodnight, I heard her scream, and then the stomps of her feet, and even then, before my skin was raw with the metal end of a belt, before she had even come in the room, I knew that the love for me was conditional, and I had found the hidden terms of my family’s invisible contract.
The next morning, she woke me up before dawn and tried to fix the hair that I had destroyed. She was taciturn for almost an hour. Then, she spoke.
“Mija, when you had lice, the doctor’s told me to shave it all off, to be done with it. Instead, I spent five hours with a comb, pinching eggs out of your scalp with my bare hands.”
I still remembered the ache in my neck, the feel of her nails digging into my scalp.
“Why did you do it?”
Looking past her gaze, I could see one gray hair, spiraling out from her head in defiance. I knew that, later, as she got ready for her day, or perhaps in the bathroom of her office, she would spot that gray hair and reach for her tweezers and pluck it out by the root and pray for it never to curse her again. She stood up and told me to get my stuff and go.
After the big chop, my hair, which had originally been tame and wavy, grew in frizzy and unruly, leading me to the straightener that would take a piece of me away all those years later.
“Aya, Lena look it’s your Mom,” Tía Christina said.
“No, Tía, that’s me.” She squinted.
“Ah, ya, you both looked exactly the same after you chopped it off. Hers is over there,” she pointed to a tiny four by six in the corner, near the ground. It was nothing to her, a passing remark, but as I squatted down to get a good look, there was Mom, no smile, her hair a triangle of frizz around her head. So she, too, had broken the contract. I could hear, from the hallway floor, their voices mingling in the kitchen. So it was possible to become after an unbecoming. I wonder what penance Mom had done to be welcomed back in, for Abue to forgive her slight, what made her worthy of a second chance. I wonder how she renewed the familial contract. Or rewrote it.
I went outside to grab a drink from the cooler on the patio, to have something to fidget with in my hands. Tía Mica was smoking a cigarette and Tío Miguel was nursing a sweating beer.
“You look stressed, mijita,” my Tío said, wrist flicking for me to sit down.
“Yeah what’s wrong, they giving you a hard time?” asked Tía Mica. I shook my head.
“Nothing,” I said, “just tired.” They both nodded and went back to their vices. Souvenir ashtrays decorated each ledge. Porcelain mermaids with fanned out tails in the shape of a bowl, waiting to cash the burnt edges of a cigarette, metal wiener dogs whose abdomens had been flattened and squashed, this is where the unneeded things came to reside. A busted dining chair sat in the corner, and cobwebs decorated the spindly and lacey metalworking that made up the railing of the patio.
I sat down and cracked a beer open, trying to get comfortable. The open air and silence allowed expectations to fall away. Away from the pressing eyes of Abue, of those photos, of the tradition seeping in from the walls, Tía Mica could sit and talk openly about all the men she had had and how few she had seen fit to see again. Tío Miguel could share the same without fear of raised eyebrows, hushed chuckles. They could be themselves, stride the line between inside and outside, still at the house, but not quite inside.
I could have stayed outside for hours, until the crowd died down, and I could sneak out unnoticed. I wouldn’t have been happy about it, but it would have been so easy to stay there, to live in the comfort of this moment, even if it was a little cold outside. Even from here, I could smell the food in the kitchen, the wafting savory breeze. That was where Abue’s strong arms were working, stirring the pots on the stove, flicking heavy knives into the avocado pits and, with a quick twist, releasing them from the flesh. The same hand whose print was still on my back. I knew the print would fade, but I didn’t want it to. When I forgot what her hand on my back felt like, I wanted to be able to pull out the dress and look at its outline, to remind myself, to remember. I didn’t want to forget the way I had forgotten the sound of Memo’s voice. I wanted to come home.
She didn’t look up when I entered the kitchen, just came over and grabbed me by the elbow. “Here, mija,” she planted me on one side of a vinyl table in the kitchen, next to a mountain of ingredients.
“Help with the dough, the cousins have had enough of the kitchen, and I haven’t talked to you yet.”
I had never made masa before. Mom had stopped making it herself after I refused her cooking, and I was happy to avoid learning how to make it. And without visits to their house, Abue never needed to know that I didn’t know. The ingredients stood before me like glyphs. Even if I tried, I would never be perfect, not to cousins, tíos and tías, to Mom, to Abue.
She’d already moved on to the next ingredient, and she peered back at me over her shoulder, over her glasses, her chin turned down and her eyes cast toward me, like I was an onion she might buy at the store.
“Your Mama never taught you.” Abue pushed her glasses up with the back of her wrist, wiped her hands on her apron, and sauntered over to my side of the table. “It’s easy, mijita, no need to worry. My Mama taught me and then I taught your Mama too. No reason why I can’t teach you too.”
She grabbed fistfuls of flour and sprinkled them into a plastic bowl. Each handful sent a small flurry of dust into the air, and then, despite the constant disturbances, the cloud eventually settled back into the bowl.
She eyeballed an amount of water with no measurements, then her right hand began to work the water into the flour’s dryness, and when her eyes found that the amount of water added was sufficient, she placed the pitcher down and began to work the dough in earnest.
“Now, you grab one,” she said and I repeated what she had done. My fistfuls of flour found the floor almost as often as the bowl, but Abue didn’t say a word. I brought the bowl back and showed it to her. She said, “More,” and so I got more, and when I came back, she found that it was enough. I put the bowl down and grabbed the pitcher of water. I waited for her to give me instructions, for her to notice I was lost. She spoke without looking up from kneading.
“People think there is one way to make masa, that there is one amount of flour and one amount of water and maybe salt or chicken broth to make it perfect. That anything else is garbage. Everyone fights about this, about who is right. But it’s mierda, Elena. We don’t watch someone as they make it to know what it is. We see how it looks, how it fries on the pan, how it steams in the pot, how it tastes. So many annoying Abuelas have ‘special recipes’ and hidden secrets, but the only thing that matters is the end.
“If someone asked me, which they don’t, but if they did, mija, I’d say there’s a million different ways to make masa, and if you asked me on one day, I’d give you one answer, and if you asked me on another, I’d say something different. One day, maybe more water, and some days it is too wet, the dough is drowning, and I add more flour. I taste one tortilla, then I add more salt, some chicken broth, then more flour to avoid drowning the dough, and so on.
“On the days I add salt, or broth, or more flour or water, no one asks, no one cares. They wrap up delicious queso para freir y nopales just the same, they drink up the juices of the carnitas just as well, and that’s the best masa I could make, the one that feeds these mouths of our family. It’s the only dough that belongs here, but it’s a trick. The only dough that belongs here is the dough that is already here, and because it is here, it belongs.”
By the time she was done speaking, her dough was a smooth, perfect ball. She floured the table and poured the ball out. She wiped her hands, then draped it with a wet towel. She smiled, and left the kitchen.
The house hummed just beyond the walls. I poured water from the pitcher in spurts. When enough had wet the center of my bowl, and islands of flour clumps danced on the water’s surface, I stopped and sunk both my hands into the container. The dough stuck to my hands. The dull roar of familiar voices in the other room, the living room, the patio, doorbells and footsteps and laughter all seemed to fade away and I was confronting the dough alone. Puffs of flour danced in the air. And to my surprise, soon the mixture told me that it was thirsty. Crumbling bits begged for more water, and with a caked flour hand, I poured more water from the pitcher. This water hovered above the flour at the bottom of the bowl, and I scooped it with my palm, incorporating it. But no matter how much I worked, excess water squished wet clumps of flour, and soon it became a batter. I grabbed the flour and sprinkled some from the bag. And after rubbing the caked-on layers from my hands back into the bowl, I worked the dough over and over. It began to come together. The crumbling bits of stray flour latched onto the ever-growing ball. It became pliable, flexible, absorbing all the leftover bits. Flour that had become stuck just moments before seemed to pull clean off of my skin and onto the dough. And with just the movements of my hand, in the natural motion that my elbow and shoulder joints were drawn to make over and over again, a perfect, not quite blemish-free, but unquestionably real ball of dough was formed.
I admired my dough. It was, of course, imperfect, but mine. And I accepted that it was mine. I was happy it was mine. Staring at the flesh of my imperfect ball of dough, for which I was beginning to foster an admiration, a love almost, I realized that I had seen it before, this likeness. I had seen Abue roll bits of it between her hands, the way Mom’s knuckles slowed down their straining as the dough was kneaded, that was how I knew the dough might be done mixing, might be ready to roll, to fry. I needed only to be reminded, to live in the memories I already had, and I would find what I was looking for.
“Ay, did she give you the masa speech? Long time coming,” Mom opened the fridge for a beer. She looked at the ball. “A little lumpy, no?”
I cocked my head. “Will it work?”
“Dough is resilient, mija. Don’t worry, and you’ll always get better with practice.”
“Can we practice sometime?”
“You’re asking if you can help me make food? She should give you the speech every day.”
Mom popped her beer open and walked into the living room, where Memo’s portrait sat on the table, surrounded by food. She was right, it was a little lumpy, but I could see it still shimmered under the fluorescent lights, the curve of its side had relaxed and smoothed in its brief rest. It was still mine, and very real, here in the kitchen of this house I had almost forgotten. It was right. It belonged here. I had always known I would have to come back and pay my dues. I did not expect to reap any reward.
It was rolled out, and pressed, and fried by many hands, including mine, Mom’s, Tía Rosa’s, and Tía Mica’s. Later, Tío Miguel, Cousin Damian, and the rest of the men in our family would bring the plates, carry the extra metal folding chairs to the table, and my tortillas would be mixed among the rest in their steaming baskets, wrapped in old tea towels. No one would know which of them were mine or Abue’s. Not even me. We would tell stories of Abuelo Memo, we would celebrate his life, we would remember. At the end, we would take a family photo, a picture of all of us around his portrait on top of the table with food. The photo would go up in the tiny hallway, my face a lot older than my previous photo on the wall, but not nearly as old as I would be in the last one that I would take by the end. I would make sure of it.