When We Were A Family I remember when we were a family. Mama would be waiting for me when I came home, clomping noisily into the kitchen. I could always smell the frying butter and hear the bubbling of the pans.â€œMi amorita,â€? was all she would greet me with. Mama had dark, purple bags under her eyes but she still smiled. Oh, and when she smiled, the whole room lit up. Light seemed to radiate out of her and Papa and me crowded around her, just to catch a single ray of it.
Whenever Papa looked at her, his eyes burned with adoration. Even when she was yelling at him for not eating all of his frijoles or rice, you could still see how much he loved her. It was in his eyes, or in the way he guided her into the living room after dinner, his hand placed tenderly on the small of her back; or how his face twisted up in pain every time she was upset, as if he could not physically bear the thought of her being sad. In those days my house was full of love, not loud, flamboyant love, but with a quiet, steady love.
On good days, Mama, Papa, and me would walk up our street and count the stars. 1...2...3...They would swing me up into the air. They had long legs and I tripped to keep up, laughing and giggling as the air burbled with happiness. O n b a d d ays, Mama would scrub the dishes fiercely, muttering under her breath. Something about men and their “piggish, ungrateful ways.” Papa would sit in the corner, with his cheek in his hand, his eyes tracing the cracks in our wooden floorboard. gentleness as his bear hands could manage, brush the hair across my face. His hands said it all. But even on bad days, Mama and Papa would still come in together every night and brush their lips against my forehead. “Good night my angel. Mama loves you.” She would whisper in my ear, her cool cheek against mine for a quick moment that slipped away into the darkness too soon. Papa never said anything. Instead, he would take his big, rough hands and with as much gentleness as his bear hands could manage, brush the hair across my face. His hands said it all. I would close my eyes and think about how many stars we would count tomorrow, or how high they would swing me tomorrow, or sometimes, just about tomorrow, but those days are gone. That was when we were a family.
When the Light Turned Off One day when I came home, Mama was not there to greet me. The kitchen didn’t smell like frying butter and the silence was loud. I stepped slowly inside, shutting the door carefully behind me instead of letting it slam like I normally did. The kitchen looked just like it always did but something felt different. It felt like it hadn’t been used for decades, like I was just returning home, after years of being gone.
I remember feeling cold all of a sudden, like my heart knew what my brain couldn’t. I felt a deep, heavy sense of dread egging up but I tried to stifle it. Clasping my fears with an iron lock, I heard a meek, helpless cough coming from Mama’s room. My lock burst open.
There she was, lying on her side, her face sallow and her eyes empty. Papa lay next to her, his arms wrapped around her, not tightly but stubbornly, tenderly, like there was nothing in the world that could ever make him let go.
I stood there in the doorway for a minute not wanting to move, afraid that if I did, something would change and Mama would be gone. But I couldn’t stand there forever. Mama didn’t see me until I lied down in front of her, my face only inches from hers. She smiled. Her eyes flickered with their old light. “Mi amorita,” she whispered, her voice hoarse, cragged like sandpaper. “I was waiting for you.” The light flickered one more time and then it was gone. No one m o v e d . P a p a ’s hand clenched tighter around her and I stared into her eyes, trying to will her back, trying to turn the light back on. There wasn’t a sound, except my heartbeat, monotonous like a steady drum. I forced my self to stay still, afraid that one slight movement might allow the searing pain I knew was inevitable to come crashing down on me, but I couldn’t hold my breath forever. Hesitantly, I allowed my self a tiny, gulp of air. I screamed so loud it could wake the dead.
Except it didn’t.
Hollow Eruptions After Mama died, Papa disappeared for a while, too. He came home from work every evening at 7:30 sharp, answered when asked a question, and still kissed me good night at the end of each day, but he just wasn’t there. Maybe if he had cried, things would’ve been different. Carmencita, my old baby-sitter, always said that crying was good for the soul, that if you didn’t cry, all of your fears and angers and regrets would be locked up inside you forever and you would always have to live with their weight in your heart. I was proud of myself for how much I cried after Mama died. I think my soul must have been really clean. Papa on the other hand, didn’t shed one single tear. In fact, nothing really changed about him. He sat in the same chair every night, slept on the same side of the bed, and woke up just as early as he always did even though there was no one to cook him breakfast-but he was empty. It almost seemed like if I banged into him, he would rattle like a hollow tin kettle and if I knocked on his chest, all I would hear was a distant echo of what used to be there. The only times there was ever any life in his eyes was when he was mad. I remember the first time he got mad after Mama died. I was in my room when I saw it, the mouse, that little grey ball of fur that skittered across the floor so fast I almost convinced myself I hadn’t seen it-but once you think you’ve seen something, once you’ve planted that tiny seed of suspicion, there’s no denying it. I peered tentatively under my desk, holding my breath.
“A mouse! A mouse!” I ran into Papa’s room and threw myself onto his bed. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes slowly as he took his time to look at my face. “What?” his voice rasped. The noise sounded unfamiliar. I hadn’t heard much of Papa’s voice these days. “A mouse!” I was crying now, hot tears running down my face. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t jumping out of bed to protect me like he would have just last year. It wasn’t that long ago. “Alicia, go back to bed. There’s no such thing as a mouse.” He turned away from me. I wasn’t going to accept that. “Papa, please,” I begged. He didn’t move. I waited a minute and finally let out a small, inconspicuous cough. And then he erupted. His face changed from pink to blood red to maroon to blue to white and his neck throbbed. Drops of sweat smeared across his forehead. “How many times do I have to tell you, Alicia? There is NO SUCH THING AS A MOUSE! Adios mija!” His eyes glistened and for a moment I couldn’t believe that this man was my Papa. I couldn’t see Papa anywhere inside of him. It lasted no more than five minutes but it terrified me. I had never felt so completely along. Things like that happened almost every week. Papa never lay a hand on me but the same transformation I witnessed that day would happen again and again over the smallest things. I didn’t wash his plate. I forgot to bring him his paper. I don’t think it was because he didn’t love me anymore. I knew he still did. I know he still does. He had just forgotten how to love me.
Choking on Silence “Papa, I’m going to college.” What did I just say? I took a hesitant step forward to his frozen body. He was sitting at the kitchen table, his back towards me, his hand clenched around the glass of papaya juice he had been about to lift to his lips. The steady beat of his foot quietly tapping the wooden floor silenced immediately. I could hear the room stiffen and I could smell the tension that was brewing menacingly, waiting to erupt. He didn’t turn towards me. “What?” It was a sensible question. After all, no one in my family had ever gone to college before. Even though I was expecting this, I felt myself collapse a little bit inside. I leant forward desperately. I wanted to shake him, yell at him, scream at himjust get him to react. All I needed was an ounce of pride, a tablespoon of support. I walked slowly to his side and cringed at how loud my footsteps were. Pushing the thick, yellow envelope into his hand, I stood back cautiously as he fingered it. He didn’t want to open it.