Sounds: Sit outside for about an hour. Write down the sounds you hear.
There was something about the rain that forced her to sit down and listen, to close her eyes to everything outside and just feel the little drops hitting against the grass and pavement. It was the first rain of October, still warm, somehow, strong, the type of rain that you want to see from your chair, in your patio, like she was. She had never liked it when the weather started turning dark, when the sky became gray and there was not much difference between morning and afternoon. That was the reason why she hadn’t liked London that one time Patrick had invited her. When she had arrived in his place, and after they made love as it had become a habit in every single of their little rendezvous, she had been surprised when he had jumped to the shower saying he still had to be at work by eleven. She checked the digital clock by the bedside table, red numbers bright, and realized that it was, indeed, only ten-thirty.
To her, it looked more like five if not six in the afternoon, oh well. But then, that wasn’t the only thing that she had misunderstood in her life with Patrick, if anything, it had been a silly preamble to their next three years together. A series of back and forths, misunderstandings, half-truths, painful lessons. That was maybe, ironically enough, why she cherished the rain so much, its peaceful sound, it reminded her of him. He was long gone, now, and she had moved on, too, or at least she wanted to believe she had. And, there was no harm in reminiscing, right? In bringing back memories as she held the mug of burning hot tea in her hands. Like the time they’d been caught in the rain late at night, walking through a nearly empty Hyde Park. At this time only junkies and lovers, he’d told her. And to that, she had replied, well, which one are we?
Lovers, of course. And they proved it when they hid in a remote corner and made love under the rain. That was a notion then she’d begin to second guess a couple of months after things ended. Had they ever really made love? What they had was a lot more like a sex arrangement, once all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and all she could think about was how naive she’d been to buy the whole long-distance bullshit. It was the perfect storm, though, and they both needed that. Stuck in the Dallas Airport because of the weather—thunderstorm. They both had the same reaction when they announced that their flights—hers to New York, his to London—would be delayed overnight. They’d laughed at the fact that they’d both uttered the same words, and once their eyes met they knew that delay was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to them.
Their airlines gave them a hotel room each, but they only needed one, and that was the start of their passionate affair. They took the shuttle together, and she followed him to his room, no questions asked, no need to know who was who. There was a sort of silent agreement that neither of them would ask the other anything. There was no name exchange and she even left earlier than him to catch the shuttle. But, then, as if it were some sort of sick game, they coincided again, gates next to each other. He got there as she was ready to board and handed her a piece of paper. I promised myself that if I saw you again today, I’d give you this. He smiled as she disappeared into the boarding gate. Once in her seat, she opened it. His phone number. She hesitated a couple of times, and it wasn’t until she landed back in Dallas that she decided to text him.
The rain always made her go back to that moment, to that first time they met outside the bedroom. That time in London when she waited for him by the hotel entrance. The excitement, the anticipation, feelings she didn’t know she was still able to have. Her heart was beating faster as she got his text saying he was on his way down. To which she replied that he hoped that’s where he’d be a few minutes from now. She blushed as she sent the message, but a couple of minutes later he was buried deep between her legs, eating her out like it was nothing.
The fact that he didn’t go pick her up at the airport never really bothered her. At least not until later, once everything was over. But it’s not like it didn’t cross her mind, as she sat in the subway (underground?) with her bag next to her. She had already done the big trip, why couldn’t he do the little one and get her at the airport? But if anything, it was a bit rude, but not really suspicious. She wanted to believe that what they had was real, and if not real, at the very least mutual, because there was a lot that she was risking for him.
The rain stopped for a brief moment, and she turned her eyes to the clouds, still gray, heavy with water. And, sure enough, just as suddenly as it stopped raining, it started pouring down with a force that wasn’t there before. A determination like the one she had the morning she went to the clinic to get rid of their baby. There was no better way to put it, nor had she ever tried to euphemize it. She knew well she was a murderer, but as a good Catholic wife, she had so much to confess already, that this was the thing she felt the less guilty about. But then and there, with that rain, she only remembered the good, the things in Patrick that helped her survive that moment in time, her father’s death, her mother’s illness, her husband’s addiction. He had been that anchor that ha kept her grounded--them was her happy place to the point that she knew that after a point, it’d become about herself, what she needed, that refuge that only he could give her, however sloppy. To a certain degree, maybe, they had been the junkies, too.
Jewelry: Write about a piece of jewelry. Who does it belong to?
When the power went out of the school that morning, the first thing she heard was the cheers of the kids in excitement. It was well known that when that happened, the school had forty-five minutes to restore the power or the kids would be sent home. Even if it was just first period, she was ready to go home as well, even if it was just first period. Tired didn’t even begin to cover it, she was beyond exhausted. Every day was getting her closer to Christmas, and to the decision she was dreading. Did she want to stay in Taft, or did she want to move to the East Coast with her mother?
They had all dealt with Julia’s death in different ways. Dad, overworking himself in the field until a heart attack took him for good, Mom, leaving town never to come back again, and then there was Remy and her. Remy started working as a nurse, then joined the Air Force and started traveling the world. She, different from them, had stuck in that town, made it through college not too far away, and walked right back to become a teacher in the same school she and Julia were attending when she died.
“Ms. Garcia,” approached Bella, her hair long to her shoulders. “Is it okay if I go to the restroom?”
“Is it okay if I go with her?” Lily said, and both girls smiled wide. “It looks scary.”
She nodded, lost in her thoughts. She was just waiting for the principal to walk in with an order: the kids were to get their stuff and report to the gym to wait for their parents. Outside, the wind was blowing strongly, announcing that fall was finally here. It had taken longer this year and the past couple of hot days had them wondering if it would ever come.
“Miss!” Bella came in running, followed by Lily.
They were both out of breath, and Lily was bending over, with her hands on her knees, trying to catch hers.
“Miss,” Bella repeated, “it was horrible in there, and there was a girl crying in the stall at the very back.”
“What?” She asked them, confused.
“Yes,” Lily kept going, “We tried to ask her if she was okay but she didn’t reply.”
“Do you know who it was?” She walked out of the classroom to see if there was someone who could keep her class, but the hallways were empty and the other classrooms were noisy enough with the doors closed.
“She didn’t reply, she just kept crying,” Bella said.
“But she did give us this from under the stall.”
She used her flashlight to see what Lily was showing her, and her airway cut off right away, falling back against her desk as she held it in her hand. It was a necklace in gold with a nameplate. Only one look at it, and she knew; she would recognize that necklace with her eyes closed.
“Where did you get that,” she said, snatching him from Lily in an impulse, the little girl looking at her in surprise.
“The girl threw it from under the bathroom stall, the girl that was crying.”
Could it be? She looked at the name engraved on the necklace. Yes, it was, and then, it could only be that.
“Bella, Lily,” she told the girls, who were looking at her with wide eyes. “You both are in charge. Please make sure your friends here don’t go crazy, okay?”
Both girls nodded, and as she left the room she could hear them proudly announce to the rest of the class that they were in charge. It was pitch black in there. She had never been afraid of the dark, that had been Julia, always, but at that moment she felt a chill running down her spine. So it was there that it’d happened. She’d always been suspicious, but nothing confirmed until then. That day, so many years ago, it had rained a lot—she remembered. Dad had given them the option to stay home, which she had taken, but Julia wanted to go to school. They didn’t lose power in the house, but it was entirely possible that they had lost power at school—there was really no way to know because by the end of the day the story that captured the town was how a 6th grader was missing.
Nobody remembered seeing Julia that day, both teachers and students had told the police. When they found her body abandoned by the lake, people just assumed that she had wandered off and her little escapade had ended badly. She was always that student, the timid one, the one that always seemed a little lost. The one everyone made fun of, but not to her face because they felt sorry for her. But kids were getting crueler, jokes were getting harsher—like the time she had found a dead rat in her locker. Mom had gone to talk to the principal, but nothing had ever come of it, since nobody would admit to it. Even for the teachers, she was the little weird child. It had been a drowning, apparently, but rumors were going around that she had killed herself. It made sense, for Julia, so shy, to have also been depressed. Maybe she knew that she was lonely in the world. But for her, her sister’s story was different. There was more to it. And now she knew that that bathroom held the answers she needed.
Rewrite: Take any poem or short story you enjoy. Rewrite it in your own words.
That night was the first time Deb had left the house in months. Mom and dad were happy to see that finally, she was letting herself live. Not a lot of twenty-three-year-olds devoted their life to their studies quite as much as she did, and they were starting to think that their high expectations back when we were still in collège or lycée had permanently ruined her. It was true, though, that they had planted that seed, that thirst of knowledge, of hard work. They’d always led by example, and that was how, after putting in a lot of sleepless nights, sweat, tears, you name it, they now held one of the best cafés in town, and everybody would come to read a book, drink a cappuccino, or simply to listen to the live music that played every Friday after six. Not that Friday, though. For the first time ever, mom and dad had decided to close the café on Friday. It had been a hard decision but well thought out. Yes, they’d lose a lot of money, but they’d probably make it up the next weekend with a three-day music and food festival they had been planning.
Deb convinced them to close the café that Friday, moved by what she could only call a premonition. For three consecutive days, she had been having this horrible dream of a terrasse being shot at time and time again with an automated rifle, or a gun, she couldn’t really tell. She was never superstitious, none of us were, but it was the second time something like that happened in her lifetime. The first time, it was when she was thirteen and she had a dream, also three consecutive days, that our grandma had died, all the way back in Dallas. And sure enough, right after those three days of dreams, we got the call. It all happened the way she’d said, also, all the way down to the time indicated in the microwave clock when we got the call.
This time, though, it hadn’t been so clear, there were no such details, just graphic images that kept playing in her mind. It was a crowded terrasse, that much she knew, and it looked a lot like ours. Friday 13th was coming up and, even without being superstitious, it was true that it wasn’t something easy to brush off. So Deborah pleaded, asked them, begged them. And, lastly, she used the one thing she knew would make them give in: she told them she wouldn’t go to the Eagles concert at the Bataclan. Instead, she’d be there at the café to make sure nothing happened. They weren’t about to let her do that. She had been planning for that concert for months, bought the tickets right after they became available, and it was the first thing she was going to do in a while. Her internship at a lab of a cosmetic firm, although prestigious, was taking a lot of her time, and mom and dad were sometimes worried she was forgetting herself a little.
“Okay,” Mom had said that Wednesday, over dinner, “just go to your concert, we’ll close the café. After all, we have two weekends coming up that look like it’s going to be a full house, so that shouldn’t be much of a problem.”
“It’s okay,” she said, “I’m gonna stay anyway, you know, since Mario is not coming to the concert anymore.”
But Mario was going alright, just not with her. They had broken up not long ago, right before the dreams started, so mom used to say the dream might be nothing more than a creative way of her brain to process the emotion of the breakup. After all, that shooting could also mean Mario killing her dreams of one day having something more serious together. It was farfetched, and it was mom’s first try, and it didn’t work.
“Go, Debbie,” Dad said. “You’ve been waiting for this day for months.”
“Rock is more of Mario’s thing,” she argued. “I think I passed that phase already.”
“Don’t be silly,” Mom said. “You worked very hard to get the money. Plus you’ll get distracted, forget about the whole thing. Cécile is going, too, right?” Deb nodded and mom went on, “there you go, just stay with her.”
“I guess,” she muttered under her breath and gave a faint smile.
“Just make sure you wear your prettiest clothes,” mom added and winked at her in such a way that she made everybody at the table laugh.
And when the day came, she did dress in her best clothes. Tight black jeans, a band t-shirt, and her best basquettes. The one thing she was struggling with, was accessories. Yes, Debbie wasn’t exactly the most fashionable person, that was an understatement, she was a little bit the garçon manqué de la famille, at least until Mario came around, but that day she tried. She raided my jewelry box.
“I thought you’d be working late tonight,” she told me when I caught her red-handed.
“Not really, no. Mom and dad wanted me to help them move some stuff around here since the cafe won’t be open tonight.”
“Oh, cool,” she said and started to shyly move away. “I guess they want to keep busy, huh?”
“Were you trying to find something in particular?” I asked her.
“Maybe earrings, or a real cool necklace?”
“Sure,” I said, looking around.
There was something about her that didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t quite tell what it was. I took out a necklace with a single diamond pendant and gave it to her.
“Il s’appelle reviens, though,” I told her. “It’s my favorite.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll bring it back sain et sauf. Do you have the earrings qui vont avec?”
“Yeah, sure. Everything okay?”
“No, not really,” she said.
“Is it about tonight? Don’t worry, it’s just a dream, Debs, nothing will happen.”
“No, it’s not about that dream, but it is about tonight.”
I was always very cautious with how I asked her questions. She’d always been very secretive, shy, and there wasn’t a lot she’d share with us about her life.
“I’m going with Mario,” she added, but the tone she used for it, sad, distant, confused me.
“Well that’s great, isn’t it? Why didn’t you tell us that you made up?”
There was silence, then she looked down at her fingers, nervously tapping against her knee.
“We never broke up,” she said, her voice flat.
“Okay,” I said, not sure about what else to say.
“It’s Céline I broke up with.”
“Oh,” I let out, not too sure about what else I could say. “Do you wanna—”
“Talk about it, you mean? No, no, not now at least.”
“Do you wanna tell Mom and Dad?”
“No, I don’t, but maybe I should at some point.” She sighed, “that’s why Céline broke up with me.”
“Tired of being the best friend?”
I looked at her, as I handed her the earrings. I cupped her hands in mine.
“I know this can be hard, but please go and have fun. We’ll talk about it when you get back, I promise.”
She smiled and hugged me, then said some words that I couldn’t quite understand, followed by a shy thank you. I promised her everything would be alright as I saw her leave the room. A couple of minutes later, I heard the front door close.
The Professor: Write about a teacher that has influenced you.
What Mrs. Lucas didn’t know was that every time she called home, my stepfather would beat me. Badly. But for some reason, I’d keep not working in class and talking back whenever she confronted me out about it. It was a reflex, my way to lash out. A part of me wanted to be noticed, what I couldn’t quite understand at the time was that attention didn’t need to be negative. So that Tuesday afternoon, after she called to tell my parents that I’d been talking way too much in class with a certain boy and that even though she understood it was the age for me to start getting an interest in boys I should try paying attention, Noah nearly beat me unconscious. What kind of corrupt behavior was I exhibiting? Was that the example I wanted to give to my sisters?
Noah was smart, he would never beat me in places that could be noticed. He’d start right in the middle of my forearm all the way to the middle of my lower legs. That was also his way of making sure that I would always wear modest clothing. That was another one of his pet peeves, my clothes. He hated when I dressed like those whore friends of yours, and he was always ready to let my mother know how bad I was being. My mom, crazy in love, was ready to take his side without hesitation, ready to blame the whole thing on me. That Tuesday night was no exception. She did put a cold wet clothe on my forehead to make sure I came to, but it was more about Noah not getting in trouble. She got after me, reminding me how much I owed Noah for wanting me when my own father didn’t. The least I could do was try to behave accordingly—never stop proving myself worthy of his generosity. It made no sense in my mind that my own mother would treat me like that, but that was who she was now—what Noah had turned her into.
The next day, as soon as I crossed the gate to the school, I started crying like never before, with all the heart, soul, pain, and there was no one who could stop me. As I was sitting in the court by the fountain, alone as more people headed to the cafeteria for breakfast, I saw Mrs. Lucas approaching me. I knew she didn’t like me any more than I liked her, so I quickly wiped my tears with the back of my sweater to make sure she wouldn’t be able to rejoice. She sat next to me, and as soon as our eyes met, I started bawling, again, uncontrollably.
“Is everything okay, Hannah?” She said, and all I could do was shake my head as tears kept running down my face. “Does this have anything to do with the call I made to your house last night?”
I nodded. She continued, “I’m so sorry, Hannah, but I have to make sure to notify your parents. I know that you really wanted to go to that weekend at the beach, but maybe next time.”
I was clueless. What weekend at the beach? All I could do was keep crying while I tried to piece together the information. Nothing had been ever said about a weekend at the beach. Actually, we almost never went to the beach because Noah wouldn’t let mom wear a bikini or even a regular one-piece swimsuit and she hated the long bathing dress and pants that he had gotten for her. He had probably lied to Mrs. Lucas like he had been lying to everyone around us. I pulled up my sleeve to let her see a big red mark that was starting to scab.
It was a risk, but I needed to take it. I saw her face turn from concerned to horrified in the split of a second.
“What is this?” She said as she pulled my sleeves further back to uncover all the scars, old and new. “He did this, Hannah?”
From surprise to guilt, in a second as well. I didn’t know what I was hoping, but it felt well to let it out. It had become a very heavyweight for me to bear alone.
“Hannah,” she repeated, “did your father do this?”
“He’s my step-dad,” I felt that it was a fair distinction to make.
Even if my real father had left when I was about seven, never to be heard of again, and Noah had tried to take his place. Still, he wasn’t my dad and knowing that somewhat made it more bearable.
“Does your mom know about it?” I looked down and she knew, she had to know, and when I looked back at her, I could see that her eyes were turning glassy and that it was getting hard for her to hold back tears. But she was doing her best. I’d never seen a teacher cry, and I was convinced that this wouldn’t be it. As for me, I had stopped crying a well. Telling someone had really changed the way I perceived everything. Sharing secrets was never my strong suit, but I was happy to have told Mrs. Lucas.
“I have to report him, Hannah,” she told me, “I hope you understand. I just can’t let this slide. Those bruises, they look horrible. Does she hit your mom and your sisters, too?”
I shook my head. That was unthinkable for him, to beat his own daughters. As for mom, well, he didn’t need to. She already did everything he wanted, he was feeding her from the palm of his hand. Noah couldn’t do anything wrong in her eyes. He was so different, she would say, to my dad and to all the other men who had ever crossed her path. But Noah was a monster, and it was hard to understand how she could be okay with sacrificing me for his sake.
“It’s okay, Hannah, I’ll make sure that you’re safe. Is there anyone that I can call? Someone you can stay with while all of this is sorted out?”
I only had an aunt, the sister of my biological dad, but I barely talked to her and I knew that staying with her meant I’d have to stay away from my sisters, and I didn’t want that.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I’ll be fine. I don’t want to leave my sisters behind, they need me.”
But I needed them more than they’d ever need me. I felt like having someone to take care of, gave me a reason to keep going. Even though, truth be told, my sisters didn’t really care if I lived or died.
Shopping: Write about your shopping wishlist and how you like to spend money.
Baba was very clear in that he didn’t want me to have a quinceañera, but Mami put her foot down and said that then she’d simply remove him from the guest list. At home, my quinceañera was a tense debate, emotional, almost visceral, like pretty much everything between them, and even that morning, as we were getting ready to leave for the mercado, they were still going at it.
“Shame on you!” Baba told Mami, taking to the sink the plate where they had shared breakfast.
That was one weird thing they’d always had; they would have breakfast, and sometimes dinner, from the same plate. We never really understood what that was all about, and the explanations they’d give us went from saying it was a cultural thing, to arguing that it meant fewer dishes to clean. Whatever the reason was, we always thought it was cute, and with time it just became a signature of their relationship and their love.
“You’re always talking about feminism this and feminism that, yet you have no problem having your daughter go through one of the most sexists traditions of all.”
“Oh, really? Have you been reading a lot on it, or you’re going off of what you’ve heard me say here and there?” She didn’t let him answer and said, “It’s a cultural thing, okay? You wouldn’t understand. I had one, my sisters had one, my cousins had one. All of Hazel’s cousins either had or will have one, too. So she’s gonna have one.”
“It’s gonna cost us a fortune, and I’m not even gonna enjoy it.”
There was the silence. Not silence, the silence. The silence was what we called it when Baba said something wrong both he and Mami realized it right after. Neither would say a word. Baba, because he was bracing for what was coming, and Mami, well, because as we had learned to understand, she was working on what she was going to say, crafter her argument, polishing it. The silence usually meant that we were about to get one of her lectures. Some were laced with humor, some were more somber, and some took unnecessary shots at Baba’s culture. It was evident that even twenty years in, their marriage was still rough around the edges, and their cultural differences will surface here and there. It had never been much of a problem, a couple of comments and it was over, they were back to loving each other to pieces.
“Well, then that’s too bad because it’s not meant to be for you to enjoy. It’s about Hazel, remember? Plus, remember Isabella’s quinceñera? Haze loved it!”
“That’s true, Babişko,” I said from the living room. “It was a lot of fun. Plus, everyone at school was talking about it for, like, a week.”
“You see?” Mami said, encouraged. “She wants this, it’s going to be important for her.”
Baba rolled his eyes, defeated. It was like that with them a lot, on both sides. There were battles that each knew they couldn’t win. Mami hadn’t gone out of her way to fight Baba’s sabbatical in Turkey, Baba wasn’t going to make a big deal out of my quince.
Mami was clear, though, in that she didn’t want anyone other than her to see the dress. There wasn’t a reason as to why, other than she wanted to be the only one to give input. Like a good older brother, Furkan didn’t mind too much. Little Derya was a bit more disappointed. At first, Baba had suggested we take her with us, but he quickly understood that a 5-year-old running around wasn’t going to be much help.
Mami had been asking around in Church to see which stores were the best ones to find quinceañera dresses, and Paquita had recommended her niece’s boutique. Oh wow were Mami’s first words when we went in.
“You’ll look like a Christmas tree,” she whispered in my ear.
I knew her well, and I knew there was no way we would buy anything there, still, Paquita had told her niece that we were coming, so for Mami keeping the appointment was the least she could do.
“Anita!” The woman said, getting Mami in a hug. “How’s everything going? I’m sorry I haven’t been to church that much, you know, I’ve been very busy with the shop. Now that things are slowly going back to normal we have a year and a half worth of quinceñeras to make up for!”
Mami smiled, knowing as well as I did that she was lying. The reason she hadn’t been back to Church was that Padre Mateo had found out that her roommate was actually her girlfriend and they had excommunicated her. I knew all about it because the day she found out, Mami came home and ranted for close to an hour to a poor Baba who only wanted to see his Sunday football highlights.
“Like I told them,” she’d started, pacing in front of the TV, Baba trying unsuccessfully to catch a glance, “what’s wrong with you people? Is that how Jesus told you to love your neighbor? Of course, but then your band of rapists that is okay, right? Another scandal in that Parochial school of yours, I heard everything about it, but that is hush hush, right? I’ll tell padre Mario to send you his blessing from his new assignment, right?”
“Annie,” Baba dared to say. “If you ask me, that sounds like a you problem. You’re the one who stays, even though you’re mad, even though you don’t see eye-to-eye with your church all the way back to when they opposed our marriage.”
And then the silence. Mami knew he was right, but she also knew there was more to it. We all knew it, actually.
“You know how things are for me, Berkan,” she started. “I was born a Catholic and I shall die a Catholic. Like my mother, and her mother before me, and like that all the way to colonization. Because sure as hell I’m not some tree worshiper. God knows that’d be horrible, but killing thousands in the name of God isn’t.”
Baba had rolled his eyes and let out a sigh. Now, in that store, all I could do was to text him quickly, as Mami looked at the different dresses with pretended interest. I had to warn him so that he could get ready, because tonight, for sure, we would have to listen to one of Mami’s lectures. I was already bracing myself for it.
Good Vibes: What makes you smile? What makes you happy?
That day she left work early and didn’t care about who knew. She packed her laptop and the quizzes she still intended to grade that weekend and walked right out of her classroom and out of the school. She wasn’t really sure about where she was going, or whether she would be back, but she knew that she needed that moment.
It had gotten to the point where she was feeling asphyxiated, it was more than she could take. And she had tried everything except for what she had just done right now: take control for once. And as the school shrunk in her rearview mirror, she started feeling that she could breathe again.
For a couple of miles, she drove without a destination, but then she decided to go to the only place that had succeeded at making her happy without fail. So she drove the four hours it took to get to Brownsville and then cross the bridge to Padre Island. The beach was there, waiting for her, that beach of her childhood, back when she taught that missing Arturo Garza’s birthday party because she was grounded for that 68 in Social Studies qualified as a near-death experience. The one place Amá and Apá could never keep her from.
They’d been the ones to bring her there in the first place, back when school had become too much to bear. It hadn’t always been like that, though. In the beginning, she was like any other kid, with friends, talking in class… she had even gotten in trouble more than once, with teachers asking her repeatedly not to talk. But then Nico, her cousin, decided to take her out for a joy ride. She was ten, Nico was fifteen. He was driving way too fast and before she realized it, she woke up upside down, kept in place by her safety belt, on a flipped car, blood flowing to her head. When she turned around, she saw Nico, covered in blood, his head almost detached from his body. Nobody knew what happened for a fact, all they knew was that she sat there for a couple of hours, slipping in and out of consciousness until the firefighters arrived. She was never the same after that.
Depression followed shortly after, the long and expensive treatments, the going in and out of hospitals. When she was finally given the okay to go back to school, it was a hard adjustment. Then came the lethargicness in class, the complaints of the teachers, the mean jokes of the students, the crying in the bathrooms, and the cutting in English class. And one day she ended in tears because Raquel had told her that her lilac flower sweater looked stupid, and Amá had to come to pick her up early. Lily thought Amá would get after her for not having tough skin, but instead, she let her into the car and started driving in silence. Neither of them said a single word. Amá crossed the bridge and drove for a couple more miles, before parking right by the beach.
Amá sat down on the sand and invited Lily to sit down as well. Only later in life would she understand how that beach was just as therapeutic for Amá as it was for her. The reason seemed evident: having to deal with a depressed daughter had left Amá out in the dark, she had to quit her job to be ready in case the school called or if Lily was too depressed and had to stay at home, also to take her to the doctor, to observe her after new dosages or new medications were ordered; it was more than she could take sometimes, but Lily learned that later because Amá never let it show.
“Look at the ocean,” Amá told her. “Look how big it is. Now, think about our problems, whatever they may be. I don’t think they are as big as this ocean. Actually, I think it’s quite the opposite. Our problems are insignificant, they are not problems at all.”
She wasn’t sure if Amá even believed what she was saying, probably not, but that the last card she had to play, her last attempt to make a difference.
“Lily, dear,” Amá told her, grabbing her hand, “this can’t go on like that. You need to learn to let some stuff go. I understand it can be upsetting, believe me, I’ve been there, but you have to try. Look at the ocean now, let the ocean take your problems away. Here,” she said and ripped a little piece of paper from her phone book. “Write your problem here, and then, let’s throw it in the ocean. I guarantee you, it won’t last a second. That’s how little it really is.”
Lily did as she was told, feeling surprisingly better once the little paper drifted away into the ocean. She did the same a couple of times after that until her therapist convinced her that it was probably a better idea to get a little notebook so that she could write out her feelings, keep them, and go back to them whenever she needed to see growth—that and the fact that it was better than littering. She went through a lot of notebooks that way, but it had proven a great way to cope.
And there she was, years later, on the same spot, breathing in the salty air. That was what she needed, that was the peace that she had missed. And as she looked at the vast ocean, she wondered what she was doing. Why was it that her job has stopped feeling right so long ago, yet she kept pushing herself to stay? It was hard for her to understand now, because whatever reasons she kept giving herself, all of the sudden, just felt insignificant.
Shadow: Imagine you are someone’s shadow for a day.
I couldn’t be with him so I became his shadow. Neither of us wanted that, but it was the only option we had at that point, the only option I had. Before, I had tried to tell people, and it ended up being me who got in trouble. No proof, they said, and Alyssa always denied it. It didn’t surprise me, though, most victims do. I did, too, and for a long time, but then when it all came back at once, without warning, it broke me in half. I wasn’t about to let my daughter go through the same.
I suffered, until a couple of years ago, from a form of amnesia put in place by my brain to protect me. Growing up, I just couldn’t understand why I didn’t enjoy my father’s company. I was always uncomfortable when we were in the same space, and I tried my best to be away from home—until I finally left as a teenager. Once gone, I’d turn away his calls, make excuses when he wanted to see me. Avoiding my mom was easier since she’d never been that present in my life anyway. Then one day, as I was driving, I caught on the radio the testimony of a victim of incest. The pain in her voice, the words she used, the descriptions, both succinct and detailed, opened something in me, and the memories came flooding back. The first thing that I remembered was the feeling of his hands, the calluses in his palm as they moved up my legs, the determination of his fingers. Those were the early memories, those of a 4- or 5-year old whose father is tucking her in at night. That father who, at least on one occasion, told my brother to shut up and go back to your room, I’m busy when he knocked on my door because he was afraid of the dark. Then, after I turned 8, the added feeling of the weight of his body, over me, this time it’s not his fingers inside. All those memories came back so quickly, but I knew they are real, and then those images left way to a painful question. Who knew? And even more than that, why didn’t those who knew do anything?
There I was, in that parking lot, A/C on, music full blast, waiting. He had to make a mistake, they always did, and when that happened, I’d be there, ready. It was my fault for falling in love with him. They do say that you attract certain types of people, and after what happened with my dad, it was obvious the only type of men I’d ever attract would be those like him. I thought Jeremy was different for some reason, I don’t even know why or what possessed me to fall in love with him, to start building a family. But he was a good actor, just like dad, always showing his best side. Dad was able to fool everyone, my friends, our neighbors, my teachers, even my mom—or so I wanted to think. Honestly, though, I always thought she knew, she must’ve known right? As a kid, it just seemed impossible that something like that would happen in our house without mom knowing. She had to know, and she let it happen; she gave him the perfect opportunity.
Right before my mother’s death, as cancer was eating her insides, I asked her, point-blank, if she was aware of what was going on and she said she didn’t. Even more than that, she called me a liar; in her dying moments, she still had the strength to call me ungrateful, to tell me that I was forgetting all that my dad had done for me, how he had sacrificed his career and his life to stay at home with my brother and me, to allow her to fulfill her dream and succeed in her job. If anything, she’d told me, it was my fault that he had left her. By running away from home at sixteen I had shown him how bad of a mother she was, unable to teach us the slightest form go gratitude and respect. If anything, me running off at sixteen and him leaving home shortly after should have alerted her, at least a little. But instead, like she knew how to do, she blamed the whole thing on me. I left the hospital in tears, and the next day she was dead.
He showed up to her funeral, or at least that’s what I heard, and I had never felt a greater validation for deciding to skip it. She wouldn’t miss me anyway, that much I knew, how could death change something that wasn’t there in life? He asked about me, though, and to more than one person. He seemed preoccupied with the fact that I hadn’t shown up.
“Your dad was all worried,” tía Cecilia told me on the phone the next day. “He thought something may have happened to you. I told him you were fine, out of the country just in case he tries to find you.” She paused, “Oh, and there’s another thing.” Another pause, this time longer, until she finally added, “he knows about Alyssa.”
My tía was the only person who believed me when I told her about my dad, she told me that she’d known from the beginning that her sister had married a bum. She sold you, she told me, for a green card and a fancy life. With tía I learned more about my mom than she ever told me, I learned about her family, her dad who beat her, and how that resulted in her need to be outside of the home as much as possible. She didn’t want children, my tía also told me, and went so far as to go to a doctor when she turned eighteen and requested to have her tubes tied. Nobody would do it for a girl so young. Later on, she was grateful because when she met my father, all he ever dreamed of was a little girl.
And that’s one thing that should’ve alerted me about Jeremy. After all, what kind of grown man wants to have a daughter? All normal men want sons, to play catch, to talk about women. But a daughter? That’s just ridiculous. Well, my dad was like that, too. And when my mom failed at first, when she delivered Robert, he threatened to leave her, which is probably why she got pregnant with me so fast. And then, just like that, she was gone, she started working, making money, making a name for herself. I think she forgot about me because I was just her gift to him, that was it. She left me there, with him, at his mercy, and that was the main reason why I fought so hard for Alyssa’s custody when Jeremy decided to leave.
“He left you because you’re crazy,” Annaleya told me when I called her on the phone, sitting outside his job. “I don’t know, May, I mean, I believe you but at the same time, you have to be crazy to think Bert could ever do something like that to Alyssa.”
And there it was again, the doubt, the victim-blaming, the gaslighting. The reminder that, no matter what I did, I was the guilty one. Annaleya believed me because she had to because she was my best friend and it was in her job description. But I knew, I knew that deep inside she thought I was making it all up, that I wanted attention, that I had a problem, like so many before had told me.
Closed Doors: What’s behind the door? Why is it closed?
The door had closed without a warning. Or maybe after many, it was hard to tell. One thing I knew for sure, laying in the dirty ground of that so-called tent, is that I’d die here, and my children probably would, too. In the calm of the night, I could hear the steps of the guards patrolling the area. Sometimes it was the guards, but sometimes it was some of the women, going around, making sure the others were compliant, and taking care of those who weren’t. Khadija had died like that the other night, stabbed in front of her children because word got out that she had asked to be repatriated to France. I never knew her real name—Khadija was the name she adopted when, like me, she converted to Islam.
It wasn’t until I ended up in Syria, though, that I changed my name. The six years I spent in France after converting, I was simply Élodie. Technically, my name was Mélodie, my parents chose it because it was one of the first words Maman had learned when they came to France, and she’d always told Papa that if they ever had a daughter, that’d be her name. It took them ten years, five miscarriages and a whole lot of prayer for that dream could come true. “Mélodie,” however, never stuck, I don’t really know why. As a little girl it just seemed easier for me to say “Élodie” and, little by little, everyone just went with it. But they were lucky enough that right after me came Amélie and Jeanette, and we were inseparable. Five years after Jeanette, Emilio was born, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Papa. All was going well, perfect, even, until Papa got into an accident that left him good as dead.
I was in collège at the time, barely fourteen, and nothing made sense. Papa was a good man. He was a family man, a big shot at an international firm, a church-on-Sundays kind of guy. He was doing everything right. If something like that could happen to him, then it could happen to everyone. But, anyway.
When I landed here, following the good-for-nothing husband that I was desperate to leave but too mentally weak to, they asked me my name, and when I said “Élodie” the three women in front of me started laughing. “Élodie?” one of them said, “that’s the name of an infidel , of a kufar. Chose a Muslim name for yourself, or we’ll choose it for you.” “Do you have any children?” Another one asked me, and that was the question that stung. No, I didn’t have them, not that I didn’t want them. Mehdi and I had been married for close to 10 years by then. We’d met when we were only children, fifteen in the hallways of our collège. Me, the quiet, sad little girl, always with her eyes glassy from tears, waiting for the moment her dad would pass; him, the misunderstood youngest of a fratrie of seven, where everyone had excelled in one way or another.
We got married in secret, shortly after meeting, and the problem wasn’t so much that we were minors, but that I wasn’t Muslim. It wasn’t a real marriage he told me, meaning it wasn’t a civil one. But he did want to have a religious blessing so that we could have sex, he put it in that many words, and at the time and for some reason that I have yet to comprehend, it made sense in my mind. If I needed to convert, to say this or that, I would, it didn’t matter much to me, god had failed me already. One of his sisters, Jannah, a year older than him, was in the ceremony. He gave me a little necklace, supposedly in gold—well, it must be, I still have it—as a dowry and after the ceremony, we proceeded to his house where, with his parents gone, we had what was probably the worst sex of my life. Not that it got any better—fortunately for me, the first couple of years of our “marriage,” monogamy wasn’t really my strong suit, nor was it his, so I got to have experiences that were actually worth it.
I was this close to getting married, for real this time, to a guy that I met while in nursing school. At the time, Mehdi had technically been my husband for close to five years. We would hook up here and there, and we never lost touch, but when I told him it had to end, he begged for me to stay. We were husband and wife, after all, but if what I needed was a paper, then he’d take me to the mairie so we could make it official. There was history between us, some sort of attachment, that’s why I said yes, or that’s why I want to believe I did. He also said to me, though, that the reason why we were struggling so much was because we had both walked away from the religion—well, he had walked away because I hadn’t as much as walked towards it. At the time, though, it made somewhat sense to me. Papa had just died, and our family was in pieces. Maman barely talked to any of us anymore, and we each had to deal with his death as best we could. So religion seemed like a nice way to do it. An easy way. You didn’t need to give it much thought, all the answers were laid out for you.
I don’t remember exactly when or how we decided to go to Syria. Mehdi had lost his job, and I wasn’t very happy in mine either. I had started wearing a headscarf and the looks, the treatment from friends, coworkers, nurses and doctors, from people in the streets, from everybody bothered me. Now looking back, I think I was just done. I needed to walk away from a life that had become too cumbersome, from the reality of broken family ties and the memory of Papa. It was then that we heard from Maxence, a weed dealer that had gone to lycée with us. He had converted to Islam, changed his life radically, and was now in Syria. He convinced Mehdi that it was the best decision, a fresh start, and, well, it didn’t Mehdi that much work to convince me.
Once there, while Mehdi was doing his combat training, I was called to the hospitals to help. And it was then that I saw it, the cruelty, the disdain with which women like me, coming from Europe, were treating the locals, those who, supposedly, we’d come here for, those who we were supposed to help. In one of my first cases, I was to assist with a delivery. I remember that poor woman, lying in that dirty bed, blood and water coming out of her, and the head nurse, a woman coming from Germany, a convert like me, telling her to shut up and stop complaining when all the pain was doing was purifying her of her sins. I saw that woman bleed to death in front of me. The baby was stuck, she needed a c-section in a country in war. That day, I thanked god for not giving me children, what I didn’t know was that I was already four months pregnant at the time.
Fear: What scares you a little? What do you feel when scared? How do you react?
They say that if you write about it, it doesn’t come true. That’s what was going through my mind that Sunday morning as I walked out of the hotel room, notebook in hand, to the beach. I had lost everything once, so that didn’t really matter, it was the horrible way in which I’d lost it that made it that much scarier, that much harder. Baby G was still sleeping in the crib next to her father. I had insisted that we bring a crib instead of the pack and play just because it was better for Baby G. Rodrigo had rolled his eyes, annoyed at the evidence that, yes, his wife was one of those mothers. But he didn’t know.
At the beach, I found a quiet spot right by the water. There were a couple of runners but nothing more, the sun wasn’t fully up yet. I took a look at my notebook, page by page. Some stuff that I had to buy, a phone number or two, nothing special. It had been long since I’d last kept a diary, and I knew exactly why. I hadn’t because it was cumbersome, it was a waste of time. Right? What could someone store in a diary? And what interesting things could I possibly write about? I started writing, just words first, then sentences. Then I was back there again, back in that dream that had woke me up in a cold sweat in the middle of my vacation. The dream that had brought me here.
Is it possible, even, to lose two children in one lifetime? I’m just saying, there should be a cap for that. Something like how lighting doesn’t hit twice in the same place. Because that’s what it feels like, after all—like being hit by lightning. I wasn’t that person anymore, though, the person I’d been when I’d lost Bella. Rodrigo didn’t know either, who I had been, and that made it harder because I had no one to share my pain with. No one to talk to, no one I could tell that, for me, the nightmare had once been real.
I woke up three days later and Bella was cold and blue. In the dream, I’d woken up to find Baby G dead in her crib, her body limp. It was happening again. That time with Bella, though, I was waking up from a drug binge. I needed it after being sober for about seven months, ever since I’d found out that Bella was healthy in my womb, and I had taken it as a call to sobriety. When she was four months old, though, it became too much for me. Yes, they had warned me that maternity was hard, they said I’d crack. I wanted to prove them wrong and show them that I could beat this, that I was stronger than they gave me credit for. And I did, eventually, but it cost me my baby.
There had to be a way for me to pay for all the suffering I put my parents through, right? After all, they gave me everything they couldn’t have and then some, and all I did was become a junkie and a dropout. I straightened out afterward, and I like to think they’d be proud of my new life, if only guilt hadn’t driven them off the cliff, quite literally.
The thing, see, is that when I found out I was pregnant and that Bella was fine, I went crying back to my mommy’s arms. That was, after all, what you were supposed to do, right? But she turned me away, though love that they call it. It hurt me, of course, because after all, I wouldn’t have gone to her if I didn’t need her. My dad even egged her on—a fun expression, that one—and in the end, I was on my own. It would’ve cost them nothing to open their house to me, to be there for me, helping me get better. They did pay for the rehab, though, and I thought that if I made it through, that if I stayed sober, then that’d prove to them that this time it was for real. This time I was going to clean up my act and become a better person.
Mom was with me at the delivery room; at that point, I was sober already. She held my hand through the whole thing and then scrubbed up and went with me to the OR when they decided to do an emergency C-section. And when I woke up, there she was, with Bella in her arms, perfectly healthy.
Mom, I told her, I need to go back home with you and dad. I need a place to stay until I can at least get a job.
Mom didn’t look at me or give me an answer. Her silence spoke for her, and it became clearer when dad came in followed by a social worker. They thought it’d be best if I gave Bella up for adoption. Once that was done, they said, they’d let me go live with them for as long as I needed to. I said no, of course, and at the time I thought I could do it on my own. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t and when they learned what had happened they couldn’t handle it. They understood that if only they had let me stay with them, if they had welcomed me, us, no strings attached, then maybe Bella wouldn’t have died choked in her own vomit. They ended their lives by driving their car off a cliff. A weird way of dying, if you ask me. A guilty way of dying.
I never intended for it to happen again, I didn’t want to. But then last night I saw Baby G in my dream, pale and blue and limp. And I just knew it had happened again. But how? I have been sober for so long now, years. A nice career, a car and a house later, I met the man of my dreams, and that’s how Baby G came to be—after a big fat wedding, of course, where my boss was the one to walk me down the aisle. But then, how could it be? If I had done everything right, how come she was still dead?
Numbers: Write a poem or journal entry about numbers that have special meaning to you.
Baba was number twenty-three in the list the Turkish government put out, Babaanne and Dede called him early one morning to tell him. Years later, Mami would still remember what it was like, getting that call. For her, a confirmation, a relief, she wasn’t crazy, and Baba could finally start healing. Or so she thought. It had always been easier for her, all that “immigrant stuff.” You were practically born on a plane, Baba would always tell her. And it wasn’t necessarily false. Three months after her birth in England, where her mother was the cultural attaché at the Colombian embassy, her family had taken a plane to Paris, where she would spend the first five years of her life before heading to Brazil and then back to Colombia. For her, home was nowhere, or everywhere I am with you, as she’d always tell Baba. But this time, it was him who had to redefine his meaning of home.
I woke up in the middle of the call, it must’ve been close to two in the morning, and I remember following the light that was coming from the hallway. Our apartment was tiny, so you could virtually see and hear everything. And even if my Turkish was already fading, I could tell that what Baba was talking about was important. Mami caught me infraganti, right as I was tiptoeing to the door, she held me in her arms and brought me back to my mattress on the floor of our bedroom. We were moving soon, or at least that was the plan, so that was just a temporary arrangement.
“I love you, mami,” I told her, because at that age I knew better than to ask uncomfortable questions.
“Me, too, papi,” she said, resting her hand on my head, lovingly.
That was all Mami could do, keep us safe, shelter us from the outside world. The thing was that, at the time, even Baba needed that comfort. Only years later, when Mami was committed, in room 23 none other, I understood the depth of the sacrifice she had done. For a day, that turned into a month, that became years, she was a shelter for four different people, then five, but for that, she had to first become a shell of herself.
Twenty-three. That was how old I was when Mami called me saying that we could go back to Turkey, finally. She told me that Baba would probably start planning a big holiday trip together and that I had to say no. She wasn’t ready. None of us was. We had grown up knowing that a part of us was from Turkey, the part that came from Baba, but other than that nothing. We knew that we had fled, that we weren’t able to go back. We knew that Dede had died and Baba hadn’t been able to go to his funeral and that that had killed him a little. But I also knew what it had meant for Mami to start again from scratch, for the third time almost. This time she may not have had the pressure from Baba’s family, but his community in our city was quick to take the relay.
Twenty-three was also the number of students in Mami’s Spanish class at the Turkish center. It didn’t take much to convince her, because Mami always liked to feel useful, that she was part of something bigger. Apparently, practically being born on a plane wasn’t without consequences: sometimes you didn’t know where home was anymore. And if home was where she was with Baba, then that made his community her family, whether she wanted it or not, and she wanted to belong. What started as a class with 5 little Turkish-Americans, turned into a full-blown classroom with 23 kids. But she loved it, and she had fun, and she was able to do something different, find a purpose. That, of course, until the Turkish women started complaining about her, her loud voice, her laugher. It didn’t help her case that she was unapologetic, unafraid, like the time she got after Tuncer because he said a boy holding hands with another boy was disgusting, or that her favorite candies were Starbursts, or how she didn’t care when people called her gavur.
Twenty-three was the last anniversary Mami and Baba celebrated. After that, Caner was ready for college, and they finally signed the divorce papers. And I say finally because it was all we could hear them talk about since I was around eleven. They loved each other, and that never came into question, but they were so different that love alone wasn’t enough, and neither of them was willing to compromise anymore. They had agreed that they would end it, but they would wait for the best time. They set a deadline: when Caner, the youngest of us four, moved out for college, they would sit down and talk about it all the way to the smallest detail. They bought a piece of land and agreed to build two houses, once for each. It had been mostly Mami’s idea, but Baba had followed along. They moved to the new place a month before they started the divorce procedures, so there was no telling what was going on. And we didn’t give it too much thought either. They were old enough to make their own decisions, and we were old enough not to be caught in the middle of it all. It was clear, though, that they would still spend more time together than they did in their own house. The divorce, for some reason, was finalized a week earlier than expected, on November 23rd.
Twenty-three was also, curiously enough, how old Mami was when she’d gotten married to Baba, and how old Baba was when I was born. For some reason that number kept coming back, there was something about it was seemed to be bound to our family.
That’s why I laughed that day a little that night, when I brought Gaby to that Chinese restaurant, ready to propose. They brought us, with our menus, a couple of Chinese cookies. To my surprise, but not really, when I opened mine up and read the little paper. Lucky Number: 23.
Dread: Write about doing something you don’t want to do.
The second the bell would ring, Marina’s stomach would turn. Third period was coming, and with it the nearly fifty students she was supposed to teach Spanish to. It was ridiculous, unfeasible, but still, they’d keep giving her the runaround, making up excuses. The French teacher had bailed. Madame Anaïs had decided that she didn’t want a class with 30 screaming, prepubescent noise machines, and had called it quits, which forced them to divide the students into the remaining classes. Of course, she got a couple more students than the others, because apparently teaching a language to fifty kids was easy as pie.
She didn’t even like teaching Spanish, even if she didn’t talk much about it. She still remembered how hard it’d been for her to go to school as a Spanish-only speaker, the look on everyone’s face as she struggled with her English, the laughing, the mocking. And now she was called to teach Spanish to them, the big irony. Spanish was good as long as it knew its place, pretty much like her. Second, always, never first. And that was the reason she knew she’d never get that promotion she’d applied for two years in a row now, even though she was by far more qualified than anyone else. But they needed her, she was the only consistent Spanish teacher. Before she was hired, around March, they had already gone through six different teachers. If there had ever been a red flag, that had been it. Mostly because she hadn’t applied for the Spanish teaching position, but for the math one. They had hired her promising that she’d only teach Spanish for the remainder of the school year. The next year, they’d say, she’d be fully devoted to math. Nothing further from the truth, though. Not only did they keep her as the Spanish teacher, but they also gave her classes full of students impossible to teach.
“Maestra,” one kid ran in her direction, his hands blue with ink. “Can I go to the restroom? My pen just exploded.”
She rolled her eyes and motioned with her head for him to go. Before, in the beginning, she used to do the whole dimelo en Español, por favor gig, but after a couple of times of the kids staring blankly at her, and the rest of the class taking advantage of the opportunity to be annoying and loud, she stopped. At this point she was just trying her best to survive; she had done her part, and she felt exhausted.
“Hey, miss,” one of the kids in the back tables, Marcos Something, shouted. “My parents are taking me to Mexico in the summer and they want me to speak Spanish over there.”
Well, though luck, because you don’t know a single word since you don’t give a damn about this class. She wanted to say that, to shout it even, but she contained herself. It wasn’t professional, for one, and frankly even a little bit mean. Instead, she put on a smile.
“Well, that’s nice. Make sure that you learn a lot, then.”
“I will, miss,” he said, taking a notebook and a pencil out.
She didn’t remember seeing him with anything to write with in the past, but this time he seemed awfully committed. Something had changed and she could tell.
“So, tell me,” she said, raising her voice over all the noise. “Which cities are you going to visit?”
“Miss,” he started, “we just got our green card, miss. So that means that we can go to Mexico and actually come back.”
She didn’t know what to say, mainly because she couldn’t relate. She’d always been able to go back and forth between New York and Caracas. Not that they went a lot, of course, because there wasn’t always the money for it or the will from her parents. But she’d always had a visa, then a green card, always a social security number, she had always existed.
“That sounds exciting,” she told him, and yes, it did sound exciting.
She was wondering whether what had changed in him had something to do with that.
“So now you want to learn, huh?” She said, and they all suddenly became quiet and turned to her.
It wasn’t her intention for it to sound like that, but it was out already, and there was nothing that she could do about it. Marcos looked at her, surprised, his face turning red. Right when she was about to explain herself, he opened his mouth.
“I’m sorry, miss, you’re right.” The silence that she’d always wanted in her class, was finally there as he continued, “I know I didn’t always pay attention and I’m sorry, I should’ve. It’s just that, it’s really weird, you know? I want to learn Spanish, well my parents want me to learn Spanish because it’s their language, I know but…I don’t know…it just feels, foreign. Like I don’t want to know Spanish, or I didn’t want to, until now. It’s hard to explain.”
“Well, try to,” she said. “You already have everyone’s attention, that’s far more than I’ve ever gotten.”
Some students laughed, but the majority of them stayed silent. Marina took a look around and for the first time she was able to consider something that hadn’t crossed her mind before—maybe Marcos’ situation wasn’t unique to him.
“Already when I go out,” Marcus continued, “or when I meet someone, I don’t know, people already assume that I speak Spanish. People assume that I am not from here. And well, until yesterday night I kinda wasn’t.”
“What happened yesterday night?” One student could be heard saying.
“He got his green card dumbass,” the other one replied.
“I guess that before,” Marcos continued. “Learning Spanish, or speaking it or whatever, was like saying that they were right, that I didn’t belong. Now, now it’s different. Because I belong. I will go to Mexico and come back, my house is here.”
Nobody said anything, but Marina was starting to realize that, maybe, her students weren’t that different from her after all. The fear of not belonging was something she knew all too well. Even if knowing that would do little to solve the main problem, at least she could let go of that else of failure that overcame her all too often. Some things were just out of her control.
Sugar: Write something so sweet, it makes your teeth hurt.
One Sunday when we came back from church, Linda had had a litter of kittens. They were all sticky and gross, so daddy ran to get a towel to clean them up. We didn’t even know she was pregnant. Well, truth be told she wasn’t even our cat. She was more like the neighborhood cat, and everybody in our cul-de-sac will give her food. Still, we were the only ones who had made a little bed of sorts for her to rest whenever she felt like it. I guided that was the reason why she had chosen us. Elena had told us how once a stray dog that was wandering around her neighborhood had given birth right under her father’s truck, and they had had to ask a neighbor to take them to school for at least a week while they figured the right way to get the mom and puppies out of there safely. She had a certain way of telling stories, that was funny, and entertaining, and kept you on the edge. And daddy would look at her when she did it and there will be a twinkle in his eyes and that’s how I understood that he loved her.
Elena asked us to help her bring some warm water, and I looked scared at her big belly as she brought the bucket to daddy.
“Be careful with that, sweetheart,” he told her. “One litter at a time.”
She laughed and kneeled down to see what was going on with the kittens. We stayed at a distance until she noticed and called us with a gesture of her hand. Nico ran to her, like he always did, while I was a bit more cautious, more paused in my steps. For him it was easier, she was, after all, the only mom he knew. But I, I had spent some time with Virginia as well, she had been my mom at some point, I’d called her that an all, so it was harder to just forget about it, about her, and let someone else take her place.
“Jade,” Elena called me, tenderly extending her hand. “Come here sweetheart, don’t you wanna see the kitties?”
I nodded and started walking slowly. It was hard back then to understand my reservations, the fear I had of just letting myself go and trust someone again.
“What are they doing?” I asked, as I approached and saw that the two kitties daddy had already cleaned were stuck to their mother.
“They’re nursing,” daddy explained. “That’s what babies do, they get food from their mama.”
“Did I get food from my mama?” I asked innocent, and there was silence.
Daddy and Elena looked at each other, as discretely as they could, but I still noticed. They didn’t say anything. Of course, what was there to say? How do you explain to a ten-year-old that she wasn’t able to nurse because her mom started using again almost right after she was born, but was weirdly enough still able to tell that breastfeeding wasn’t maybe the best option. That unfortunately she hadn’t been that wise—or caring—the second time around, and Nico had ended up in the ER, that’s when they’d removed us and sent us with daddy.
“Yes, you did,” Elena said, breaking the silence. “Your mom loved you too much, she took great care of you. She just needed some extra help, kinda like Linda here. We’re going to help her be happy and healthy, and in this case, it means we will have to find loving homes for the kitties, and that’s okay because they will be so very loved by their new families.”
“Do you love me?” I asked them.
Daddy immediately put the kitty down and took me in his arms, “of course,” he said, “of course I love you, sweetheart. You and your brother are the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there before as much as I should’ve been. But I’m here now.”
“What about my mommy, do you love her, too?”
I understand now that it was a wrong question to ask. Or maybe not wrong, just awkward. But if well it reflected in daddy’s face that it wasn’t the question he was expecting, Elena seemed unfazed. If it bothered her, she didn’t let it show.
“Of course she loves her, baby,” she said, taking me in her arms. “Why wouldn’t he? She’s your and Nico’s mom, she gave him the most precious gifts, it’s only natural that she loves her. And you know what? He’ll probably always love her, wherever she might be.”
I hugged her because that sentence alone was able to comfort me to an extend I didn’t know I needed. Only years later, at fifteen, when I started seeing Dr. Lauren did I understand that I needed the comfort of knowing daddy didn’t consider me a mistake, and at the same time the need to know that Elena didn’t hate me or see me as a threat.
“Come here, sweetheart,” daddy said, picking up the little kitty and putting it next to Linda. “Let’s see what we can do to help these little kitties, okay? Then maybe later we can grill some burgers?”
“Can I have mine with cheese?” Nico said, his hands still around Elena’s neck.
“With whatever you want, baby,” Elena said. “You tell me what you want yours with, Jade. Oh, and I’ll tell you what. I got that ice cream you liked the other day, the one that’s like little pebbles, we can eat some after dinner.”
I nodded, shyly, and then looked at the little kitties, coddled next to their mother. I never missed my mom in everyday situations, but at times I did feel like I should miss her, and that would always throw me off. Elena, though, her I missed. Even sometimes more than my dad. Like when I moved out for college and she was the first one I’d call whenever something exciting or sad would happen. The love with which she always treated us, how she always made us feel loved and at home. Without her, I don’t think my childhood would’ve been the same. I never called her mom, but that’s what she was to me, and that’s why I insisted on being the first one to make this toast. Because I am, after all, Elena and Don’s eldest daughter. Here’s to you in twenty-five years of marriage. Thank you for all you’ve given us.
Smoke, Fog, and Haze: Write about not being able to see ahead of you.
They told her that it would be dangerous to drive the night of a blizzard, but she thought it was a stupid warning. After all, she had driven before, and in the middle of a Hurricane of all things, back when she was a teenager trying to leave New Orleans. But they were right, this time it was different. She couldn’t see anything ahead of her, there was no way to know when a car coming her way until it was too late and the lights turned her blind for a second. It had proven harder this time also due to the fact that she was a full fifteen years older than she had been when she had decided not to stay and die in New Orleans with her family. It was youth, that endless source of energy and fearlessness, that had driven her all the way up north. All that was long gone.
The thing was that she needed to make it south, even if it cost her life, ironically. It wasn’t every day that the person that had hurt her the most in her life was executed. Her mom, arrested in Texas and found guilty of sexually assaulting and murdering three little boys. One of them was her brother, Anton, who she had never met. After she had run away that day, in the middle of a hurricane, the family had moved to Texas out of precaution, afraid that she would go to the police and reveal their secrets. Of course, Katrina’s imminent arrival had been a catalyst as well.
But she wasn’t interested in telling anything to anybody. Not any more then than she was now, in spite of different media outlets being interested in her story, the one who got away. She had, however, made it clear to the lawyer that she wanted to know when her mother was going to be put to death. For that occasion yes, she wanted to be the one that got away, the one that would be able to look at her in the eye as she died. She wanted to be the last thing that monster saw before her eyes closed forever and she started her journey to hell—the same hell that she had put her through.
The first couple of weeks after she ran away, Dalilah thought that Mommy and Daddy were going to find her. She made it to Detroit and then even considered crossing the border to Canada. But she had run away without any documents, she wasn’t even sure if there was anything out there that could attest to her birth or existence. She had certainly the feeling that she didn’t exist anyway. And then, it was also around that time that she had learned about the devastation that Katrina had left in its wake, and she figured that her family was among the dead, not wanting to leave because it was god’s will.
Mommy, like she liked to be called, was all about God’s will, in her own very twisted way, and there was little room for challenging or questioning her. It had all started when her older sister, Olga, was six. Olga didn’t have a lot of memories about it, but she had once stumbled on pictures of before. Before Mommy met Dalilah’s dad, or Daddy. Mommy was a single mom, trying hard to make ends meet. Daddy was a pastor at a little rural church, or at least that was how he presented himself. Seeing how much her mom struggled, he told her how it was all a result of her sin. After all, she had slept with a man without being married, no wonder he had bailed as soon as he’d found out she was pregnant. What Daddy was offering her, though, was a path to redemption in the eyes of the Lord. She could start anew, and he would take care of her daughter as if she were his own.
In the beginning, or so Olga told her once, all mom wanted was to be with him. She didn’t really attach too much importance to the religious aspect, but that quickly started to change, and a little too quickly for Olga’s taste. Her mom because Mommy. There was a structure to it all, and Mommy was the pastor’s wife now. But it wasn’t only the prayers and the constant bible reading. It was the guilt, there was a lot of guilt, and that was what Dalilah had been born into, that guilt, that feeling that nothing was ever enough to reach god’s mercy and contentment.
Delilah didn’t remember when the physical abuse started, it was kind of embedded in her, that was just the way adults behaved. But the sexual abuse, she remembered clearly. She was six and it was Daddy’s brother. And she had run to her home, naive, to tell her parents what had just happened. She was the one beaten, for being disobedient. After all, Uncle had told her not to tell anyone, and that included Mommy and Daddy. That day it became clear to her that no one will ever come to her rescue, and she’d started thinking that maybe that was just the way it was everywhere, in every family.
The fact that they didn’t go anywhere didn’t help at all. They were homeschooled so that no one could alert authorities as to what was happening. Not that she realized at the time, because for her, there was nothing there to be scared about. For her, in all the houses, in all the towns, moms would bathe their daughters at night to prepare them for their father’s visits, and their uncles’, and their cousins’, even their grandfather’s. Olga knew it before she did that it wasn’t normal, and that had been the reason why she’d run away at the first chance she got, also the reason why she’d ended up an addict, trying to soften the pain with heroin. Four years sober, it had been seeing Delilah after all those years that had brought all the pain back to the surface. She’d OD’d not long after. And just like that, the only person who had meant something to Delilah was gone. She knew, then, that even though seeing Mommy die wouldn’t bring Olga back to life it would, maybe, give her some sense of peace. Some sense of justice.
Foreclosure: Write a poem or short story about someone who has lost or is about to lose their home.
Living in your car wasn’t that bad if you put your mind to it. After all, what was a car but a moving house that would come with you wherever you needed to go? Or wanted to go. That’s why the first night she’d slept on the beach, with her windows cracked open to feel the cool breeze of the summer. She’d always dreamt of having a house by the beach, with a swing on the porch from which she could see the sea. Well, there it was, and as she sat the night before, her trunk open, looking at the ocean, she told herself this couldn’t possibly be so bad.
It had wiped them out, her husband’s debt. Who would’ve thought that paying for cancer would be even worse than getting it? In the end, he had passed, but the bills hadn’t, and she found herself without someone’s shoulder, but a lot to cry about.
“I told you not to marry him,” had been Mother’s words on the phone when she had called, asking if maybe and for a little while, she could stay in their house.
The time I get back on my feet, she had told Mother, find a job and can rent a little place to live. But Mother had been untouched. It was her belief that in the end consequences would catch up with you, regardless of your good intentions. But it had nothing to do with good intentions, marrying Joe. He was a kind, sweet person that deserved to be happy in the same right as others. Granted, they hadn’t met in the most conventional way—Ellie was his caseworker at a detention center outside of Robstown, where he had landed because he’d crossed the border illegally. He claimed to be seeking political asylum, but between meetings he had confessed what he was really running from, a life of misery, drug dealers, lack of food, job, opportunities, complete hopelessness. She never wrote that on her notes. To her, it was his right, to move in this world one way or another to try to find what he needed. But she knew not everyone would see it the same way.
And they didn’t. In spite of providing proof of persecution, of arguing a strong case, Joe was ordered to leave. She wasn’t willing to let that get in the way of their happiness, and she didn’t. She traveled with him back to Mexico, then to Guatemala, where they got married and applied for a spouse visa. She had to stay there with him for two years, and even if she was able to get a job as an English teacher at a local school, she still longed for the day they could go back to their home in America. The same home she didn’t have anymore.
Sitting at that beach, though, she missed it a little. The simplicity of their life right outside Ciudad de Guatemala, in spite of the complications. Waking up and feeling the warm air, the smell of fresh grass right in the front yard. The fact that they could just sit outside their little home and drink a cup of coffee, the fact that they had a home to begin with.
It was a long shot, trying to buy a house anyway. She managed to find a job again as a caseworker, this time at a local hospital, but she knew that if she really wanted to make it, she’d need to get her master’s degree. She was only two classes away from graduation when Joe was diagnosed with advanced lymphoma, and the doctors said there was nothing that could be done about it. But they wanted to try, she wanted to try. It was the only thing she could think about, mostly because she had found out that same morning that she was pregnant. They had hold off on kids, too, for a while. They wanted to wait to be back in America, for at least one of them to have a stable job, and they had succeeded on both counts. Joe had also gotten a job, if only recently, as a sous-chef at a steakhouse. Since she was almost done with school, they thought it made sense to start trying. It would take a couple of months anyway, and by the time the baby was born, her diploma would’ve been long in her hand. They were wrong about that, too.
But there were a lot of things they weren’t wrong about, like that that their love would carry them on to the end of time, of life, of breath. Until his very last moments, she sat with him, read to him, prayed with him, sang to him. He got to feel his daughter kicking right before he passed, and she knew he had passed knowing that he left a part of him to be with her forever. There was a silver lining, she kept telling herself, she just had to be patient and wait for time to work its magic.
The collectors, though, didn’t want to wait. One by one, all the things they’d worked so hard for were gone. His car, everything inside their house, and then, as it was to be expected, they came for the house itself; she couldn’t afford the mortgage anymore, and there was nowhere to go. Her car was fully paid for, and she refused to give that up as well, so she packed up her things and got in her car.
Other’s first stop was actually her last. After staying a couple of days here and there, with friends that seemed to pity her too much to turn her away but not enough to make her feel welcomed, she thought that her mom could at least give her some relief. But she was wrong. Mother had never gotten over the fact that she’d left everything behind “for some random Mexican,” all the hard work she and Father had put into her education for her to first, end up working as some caseworker, and then throw everything away for a man. And a man like him.
As the stars started splashing all over the night sky, Ellie looked back at her life with Joe. Days at a time, then months, and there were no regrets. Following her heart had been worth it and, even knowing how it would end, she’d do it all over again. This little home, that pillow and blanket waiting for her in her backseat, were maybe the price to pay for having been so happy.
Missed Connections: If you go to Craigslist, there is a “Missed Connections” section where you can find some interesting story lines to inspire your writing.
Texas thrift (San Antonio)
© craigslist - Map data © OpenStreetMap
You are beautiful female blue jean shorts black shorts rose or heart tattoo is know you noticed me checking you I really hope your see this (sic)
Growing up with his mom, it was their thing to go thrift shopping on Wednesdays. It had to be Wednesdays, it couldn’t be any other day. Mom worked insanely hard, and his school was very rigorous as well, but Wednesday was half-day off, and mom had decided for that day to be their day. She’d reschedule meetings, cancel events, change plans, all so that they could hang out on Wednesday. Thrifting was by far their favorite thing, and they went at it with a plan already in mind. Each of them had to find something interesting, it could be a piece of clothing, a book, an artifact. Then, they would sit down at a diner close by and share a story they’d made up for it. It was the shirt that she’d worn on her first date with her now ex-husband, or the vase that his grandmother had given him, which he decided to throw away after he found out she’d been the reason his mom had left.
The stories grew weirder and more complex, as life itself did, but even after he left for college, he’d spend his Wednesday afternoons at the thrift shop, buying stuff, and then they’d meet with mom, usually via FaceTime over dinner, and talk about what they’d found. Occasionally she’d surprise him by popping up to his college, then to his workplace. He’d do as she had, cancel meetings, move plans around, say no to friends, and he didn’t mind. Thrifting Wednesdays, as they had come to call it, was their thing, their best thing, and then, when mom got diagnosed with cancer, their only thing. It was those Wednesdays afternoon that kept them going when he moved back to San Marcos to be with mom, and she would fight with the nurses and doctors every single Wednesday so that they’d let her leave the hospital just for a couple of hours, there was something she needed to tend to.
And the last story mom came up with, was by far the most beautiful. It was about a little girl who had been too afraid to love. Nobody ever understood why. She had grown up in a big house, with wonderful parents who loved her. Maybe that was the problem, that she was afraid her love story would fall short of the one she’d grown up in. Once she grew older, however, she fell in love with a young man from a different country, and they lived a short but passionate affair. Even though she told him he could stay, get married, build a life together, he felt that it was his duty to go back to his country and be with his family, build a family over there, like his family wanted, even if it wasn’t what made him happy. Before he left, though, he’d given her a necklace, and although she’d kept it for a while, the woman’s mother had given it away when the child was born. This child, a son, was born of that union, of that brief story, but her mom had felt it was disrespectful to keep the necklace—why keep something that reminded her of the man who had left her behind like that.
“You don’t remember that story, do you?” Mom told him that time at the diner, looking paler than usual and bracing for what she knew was coming.
He shook his head “no” and she smiled.
“It was the first time we went thrift shopping. I found the necklace,” she said, and she took a necklace out of her pocket and put it over the one she’d gotten that day from the thrift shop. “I told you the story, and then you started crying, said it was too sad. So I told you I’d made it up, and that’s how our little game started.”
He didn’t know that, didn’t remember. Or maybe he did, but he had buried it somewhere in the depth of his brain, trying to forget.
“When you go through my things, you’re going to find a manila envelope. There, you’ll find all the information I could gather on your dad. His name, what he does for a living, where he lives,” she swallowed hard, “the name of his wife and children. They are your family, too, if you ever want to find them.”
But he didn’t, and after mom died he just put the manila envelope away with her other things. He put it in the pile of things to keep, though, even though at the time all he wanted to do was trash it. The only thing was that once he threw it away, there’d be no coming back, and whoever his father was, would remain a mystery forever. He decided to keep it, at least while he built the courage either to open it or just get rid of it. The remaining things, the things that he didn’t feel like keeping, he loaded them in his car and took them to the first thrift shop where they’d ever been, the one where everything started.
After he was done putting the boxes down, he thought it made sense for him to just go around. It was, after all, Wednesday, and mom would’ve wanted nothing more. So he went up and down the aisles looking but not looking at different artifacts, clothes, even games, and it was next to the jewelry section that he saw her. Blue jean shorts, black t-shirt, a rose tattoo on her right inner arm, taking a look at a pair of long silver hoops with colorful beads.
“She was probably wearing those when the football team captain asked her to prom.”
He thought he’d startle her, but it was a risk worth taking. She didn’t as much as bulge and, without even looking away from the earrings, she started, “and she said yes, but it wasn’t him that she wanted to ask her. He actually wore these earrings because her best friend liked them, and she thought he’d ask her instead.”
“They were special, those earrings,” he continued, “because they’d bought them at the fair together, that day they’d ditched school to go to San Antonio.”
“In his dad’s beat-up car,” she said, still fixated on the hoops. “The one that he had given him for his birthday.”
“They had a great day, though.”
“Yes, they did.” She turned at him and smiled, “and before they even made it back home that day, they already knew they were in love.”
Great Minds: Write about someone you admire and you thought to have had a beautiful mind.
The seal was broken every time he looked at her. Lips unsealed, legs parted, but it was just his way. It had been long since she had last seen him, it could’ve been a lifetime, too, a full fifteen years since that prom night where instead of going to the lovers’ lane with her date, she’d followed him to a motel. She chose her Spanish teacher over the football quarterback, and she didn’t regret a second of it. Her virginity bothered her, it was a fact of life, and she’d thought it’d make more sense if she picked an older, experienced guy over a horny do-nothing ballplayer, who would probably hump anything anytime anyway, thinking about everything but her pleasure.
She had followed him all these years, from the shadow of course, and not at all in a stalky way. It so happened that sometimes she’d google his name, check if maybe he’d opened up a Facebook page, but nothing—although she was sure that he probably had one under a different name. She knew he had gone from teaching in high school to teaching in college so she did expect to find him randomly at a conference, whether in the States or in Spain somewhere, and she had even registered for some conference in Laredo, TX, with that sole purpose. He was cited among the panelists, under some boring title along the lines of Español en South Florida: The Experiment of Bilingual Quality Education in Underserved Populations. She thought the title was long and stupid, but then again so were most paper titles in academia.
But Laredo had been a bust. And she had looked for him in his panel and elsewhere unsuccessfully.
It was one morning as she was driving to work that she got a call from Ida, struggling for breath, waiting to talk.
“You’re—oh my god—you—you’re not—”
“Okay, okay, take a minute,” Lucia told her, shouting over the noise her daughters were making in the back seat. “What’s up?”
“Yeah, I got the email too but didn’t bother opening it. I don’t think I’ll go. Too boring. I don’t have time to fly to Miami at this time. I don’t want to see any of those people.”
“Oh my god—god—stop—stop and listen. Santiago—gosh—Santiago is going to be there.”
She hit the breaks, thankful that there was no car behind her and that her daughters were fully strapped to their car seats. Car in the curve, she brought her phone to her ear, at a loss for air. Now it all made sense.
“What?” She told Ida. “How do you know?”
“You’d know if you have opened the email. Ugh. I hate you. He wrote a bullshit message about how we were the class that graduated during his first year of PhD and bla bla bla. He’s gonna be there, Luce, and so are you.”
She closed her eyes and started reminiscing. This was what she had been waiting for all along, unbelievable that it would fall into her lap like that. But, just like that she knew, being Ida the one to call her, the one to talk about the imminence of their encounter, she knew it was going to be senior year all over again.
“I’ll cover for you,” she heard Ida say distantly.
It started replaying in her mind. Those last words her best friend had told her as she was leaving the gym. Meeting him randomly in his classroom, when she had gone to reminisce about what it meant to her. He had surprised her there, and only later had she learned that it was Ida who had told him where to find her. There she was, sitting on her desk, all fluffed in her hot pink dress.
“I thought you couldn’t wait to get out of this place,” he told her.
“Out of this school, but not out of this classroom.”
She gave him a smile and he smiled back, then walked to the chair in front of her and sat there, looking her way. His fingertips bordered the uncovered skin of her arms, and she felt a vacuum at the pit of her stomach. She looked at his hands, the ring on his finger shining brightly, then he looked at him, his deep blue eyes fixated on hers.
“I’m sure you’re up for great things,” he told her. “Your life will just get better from now on.”
“It should,” she chuckled a little, then looked away. “At this point it kinda owes me.”
Santiago knew her struggles, everyone did. Her father, hooked on drugs, had started more 12-step programs than she had taken classes during her whole time in high school. Her mother, absent, inexistent almost, had left to get sober and had succeeded, except that she had forgotten to come back for her. But she had had no problem in replacing her with three more children with a new husband. If it wasn’t because of her tía, there would be days that she wouldn’t even eat.
“Valedictorian, huh?” He told her, and his hand moved up to her chin. “I didn’t expect less from you.”
“I’ve been working hard,” she admitted, then smiled, “you are an inspiration, though.”
Inspiration. How stupid. She could’ve at least thought of a better word. Inspiration. He must’ve thought that she was an idiot, one of those groupies that were all over him at school. But if he did, he didn’t let it show.
“I should probably head back,” Lucia said, standing up.
But as she tried to walk past him, he grabbed her wrist and tenderly turned her around. Face to face, the kiss to come seemed imminent, but still, she waited. What was he waiting for? Their eyes locked, she smiled, and a couple of seconds later, his lips were on hers. Her eyes closed, she wrapped her arms around his neck. Was it even real? How to tell? He pulled her body against his, his hands wrapped firmly around her waist. It was the beginning of the best night of her life.
Cleaning: Hey, even writers and creative artists have to do housework sometimes. Write about doing laundry, dishes, and other cleaning activities.
They celebrated the weekend before, and maybe there was their arrogance. Abigail had cleaned the house from top to bottom, dusted every corner, mopped every floor until the house was sparkling. And she had done it herself, too, as she normally did. It was this long-held belief of hers that she had to be the one cleaning up before family birthdays. Delegating that to the maid just didn’t seem right. Even getting help from her mother seemed like profanity. It’s my daughter, she’d say, it’s the least I can do. Deniz, her wife, had tried to do the same for her or at least had wanted to pretend she could. But then Abbie found out that she’d tasked the maid with doing it, and ever since then she’d clean the house for her own birthday, too.
But there was a different superstition, one that she had overlooked when she shouldn’t, one that she had discounted just that one time, thinking it was insignificant. Mamie was dead, after all, and it was her who would keep that old superstition, brought from the old continent, alive. Never celebrate a birthday before it actually happens, Mamie would say, and, as ridiculous as it sounded, she was adamant. And when Abbie had called Papa and Mami to let him know about the party, Papa had been sure to remind her, but she hadn’t cared. That’s just an old superstition, she’d told him, nothing’s gonna happen.
But it did, and before Hazel had the chance to see her actual birthday, she was found dead just a few miles outside of Mathis, by lake Corpus Christi. She was supposed to be celebrating with some friends in Houston, and Abbie had a hard time understanding how she had made it all the way there. She was wearing a bathing suit, two pieces, one of those elaborated bikinis Abbie and Deniz would spend their money on, so in the beginning, everyone thought she had drowned. Maybe had been drinking for her birthday and had decided to take a dive. It made no sense, though, that she’d go take a swim on her own, in a place they’d never heard of, let alone been to, and that was three hours away. And if that was the case, then, where were the friends that were with her? Her car was nowhere to be found, so it was clear to her mom, and frankly to everybody, that she wasn’t there alone.
No one saw anything out of the ordinary, Hazel was still the same bubbly, lively girl, just a lot more tired since she had started medical school to follow into the footsteps of her moms, an ob-gyn and a cardiologist, nonetheless. But, still, she stayed at the club, danced a little, then a lot, even giving an unsolicited lap dance to Jacob, who everybody knew was her go-to booty call. But after she left, Jacob stayed, and Deniz’s call woke him up the next morning. Hungover, yes. With Hazel, no.
“I told you, Abigail,” Papa said, bursting into their home. “Mamie wouldn’t just say things to say it, there’s science behind all that.”
Deniz rolled her eyes, harder than ever before. It wasn’t unlike her beau-père to make a stupid comment in a moment like that. What the hell did they give now about superstitions? But, to be frank, if Anne was there, she’d have probably said that it had something to do with Hazel losing the Nazar bracelet she had sent her a couple of weeks ago. And, as usual, Abbie and she would be the only ones hanging on to science where everyone else saw belief.
Maybe they weren’t wrong, though, and both women were starting to understand it. After all, what else could explain what had just happened? Their daughter, mysteriously found in a lake, her lungs clear, no sign of water. Her skin, pristine as usual, showed no signs of struggle. They rushed all the reports, they had to for two doctors pillar of their community. No high blood alcohol level, no traces of drugs or other substances in her system.
She had left early that night, somewhere around midnight. But her friends just assumed she was going back to her place to catch up on some sleep. They had planned to go skydiving the next morning, Hazel’s choice for her birthday. She had invited her moms to tag along, as it was usual for her, but they had both declined on account of a difficult patient that they were monitoring. Well, that, and the fact that they had agreed that it was time for them to start letting her be a little bit on her own. She’d always been very much their little girl, never staying away from home for anything more than a night. After graduating from the French School in Houston she got accepted to Texas A&M, and she’d chosen the hour and a half commute over living so far away.
They both knew what it was, though. When Hazel was seven years old, Deniz got meningitis and was very close to dying. To some, she had gone to the other side and back. Nearly seven months in a coma, no one expected her to wake up again, or talk, or move, much less go on to completing a medical degree with a prestigious residency. It had been a hard time for everyone, but especially for Abigail and Hazel. Hazel, the little girl who hadn’t left her mother’s side, all while the fear was there of losing her legal parent, and then having to lose the other parent she had ever known. That fear had created in her a need to have her mothers always close to her, within arm’s length. She needed to know that they were there, with her, and that there was not a chance that they would ever leave her.
And this proximity, although it warmed Abigail and Deniz’s hearts, also worried them. They wanted to see their daughter build a life of her own, with a partner, maybe even kids. They never thought that she’d be the one to leave them.
Addict: Everyone’s addicted to something in some shape or form. What are things you can’t go without?
Going more than two days without having sex triggered a physical response in her, more like a mark of distress. She would start itching down there, having to move in the weirdest ways to manage some scratching without being noticed. It could happen anywhere, at work, at a friend’s house, when she was out on the beach. It was uncomfortable, and she knew exactly what she needed to do to take care of it. It was the day that she’d had sex with a random stranger at a beach public bathroom, sandy, sticky, and unprotected, that she was willing to accept that she had a problem.
It wasn’t the fact that she was—happily—engaged, or the fact that she had just chosen the first person that had literally looked at her “funny,” it was the fact that she was less and less able to control her impulses. Sex had always been a must for her, and she had thought it was normal, but only recently had she started noticing how much she actually needed it to function properly. It was the first thing she’d think about waking up, the last thing she’d do before going to sleep, and up to that moment, in that dirty bathroom, as she welcomed a complete stranger inside her, she told herself it was only normal. Everybody probably felt like that.
She blamed on her strict Catholic education the lack of words she had for it, the discomfort it brought just mentioning something related to sex. And because of that, she’d gone through life assuming that what she was experiencing was normal. Insatiable libido, wasn’t that what men always dreamt of, anyway? When her brother had invited some of his med school buddies to a BBQ in their beach house, she had caught two of them in a conversation by the pool, where she was dipping her feet in the water thinking maybe that way her discomfort would subside.
“I really like OB/GYN rotations,” one of them said. “Although I think I failed the last question about PCOS.”
“Oh, yeah,” the other one replied. “PCOS can bring on enhanced libido, but it can be easily treated with hormonal contraceptives.”
“But who would want to treat that anyway?”
He said, and they both laughed, and it was then that she understood that she had become a punchline. The always-horny woman, the one that never got enough, every guy’s dream come true. And that idea, too, resulted harmful to her.
That afternoon, after showering herself for the third time since coming from the beach, she did the only thing she could think of. She called Diego, a guy she had met while volunteering in the afternoons at a migrant shelter, and asked him to meet her for coffee. Sad as it was, she couldn’t imagine confiding in anyone else. Not at that point at least. Jack was out of town for business, but even if he weren’t, there was no way she could tell her fiancé she’d just reached the lowest point by bumping into a guy whose name she hadn’t even bothered to ask. Then there were her friends, of course, whether from work or from college, but there was no way she felt that close to any of them as to unveil what had just happened. Diego was a safe bet, older than her by a couple of months only and new to the city. Besides work, he didn’t have a lot of stuff going on; he seemed like a person who would understand what she was going through.
“I needed to talk to someone,” she told him as soon as they sat down, at a small table at the very back of the café.
“What’s up, you’ve got me worried.”
She wanted to tell him how thankful she was that he’d come on such short notice but decided not to.
“I did something wrong,” she said instead, “but I don’t know who I can talk to about it.”
“Well, I’m here, so get started.”
She took a deep breath, trying to find the right words to summarize her pain without it making her look too bad. It was too late for that, and she knew it, but she still wanted to do some preemptive damage control.
“I did something I wasn’t supposed to do.”
“You slept with someone, didn’t you?”
She was shocked at how straightforward he was, which could only mean one of two things. Either she was bad at hiding things, or he was very good at reading her. For a second, both thoughts scared her a little.
“It’s not the way you think, though, it didn’t mean anything.”
“It rarely does,” he said, taking a slow sip of his coffee. “Why are you so tormented anyway? You love Jack, Jack loves you. You just had a hookup.” A beat, then he added, “hookup hiccup. It’s gonna be okay.”
“I didn’t use protection,” she said, looking away, and he turned silent.
“Oh, I see. Now I get it.”
“What am I gonna do?”
“Did you ask him if he was clean?” He said, once again straightforwardly.
“Yeah, because he was gonna tell me, ‘no I have HIV, we shouldn’t have sex.’ Don’t be silly, Diego.”
“Did he ask you?”
She rolled her eyes and hoped he’d understand without her having to say it. But even then, it helped her getting it off her chest, telling someone about it. He was the first person, and probably the only person, she’d ever admitted it to.
“I don’t know what to do,” she kept on. “This is getting out of control. I have urges that are getting the best of me. And when Jack’s around is fine. But when he’s not, well, it becomes tricky.”
“Tricky as in what?”
“Tricky as in I find the first person I can to have sex with.”
“Well, you know what you can do?” he said, then when she didn’t reply, he added, “whenever you get that urge, instead of going to random people, just give me a call and I’ll help you take care of it.”
She was confused but was afraid to ask. What could he possibly mean? She just stared at him, disconcerted.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t sleep with random people, sleep with me.”
Eavesdropper: Create a poem, short story, or journal entry about a conversation you’ve overheard.
Mami knew that there was trouble in paradise, and she would’ve been lying if she said that it didn’t at least make her smile. I was fifteen at the time, so I could understand the happiness under her fake indifference. I didn’t blame her, though, it was a very human reaction to the very human anger and bitterness that she’d been keeping inside all these years.
Gizem and uncle Orhan had been married for about two years now, and I still had nightmares about that wedding. We had flown all the way from Baton Rouge, and even if Mami had been adamant that she didn’t want to go, Baba had managed to convince her, like he always did. Babaanne made it clear from the beginning that this was the wedding she cared about, the first real wedding in the family. Not like whatever that was that she had gone to back in New Orleans, close to seven years before. After all, what kind of wedding had the two kids of the couple running around? It was no secret that Baba was the favorite child, but as much love as Babaanne felt for him, as much hate she felt for Mami, the woman who had taken him away.
Uncle Orhan and Gizem had met in med school in Istanbul, both from conservative families from Konya, it had seemed like a match made in heaven. And Babaanne didn’t miss an opportunity, ever since we stepped in Turkey, to make it clear that Gizem was the only daughter-in-law that mattered. Surprisingly enough, she would love me and Levent to a fault, where one would’ve thought that she might hate us as well, but I guess the love for Baba overruled everything. Mami, as painful as it could be for her, had never interfered in our relationship, making sure that we called them every day, talked to them on special occasions and others. She didn’t have to, that was the truth of it, but she did it because she knew that it was the right thing to do. Babaanne, at that point, just thought it was Mami’s duty, and never recognized that she was just being better to her than she deserved.
Gizem had given birth about two months before, but to the day that Babaanne called Baba, no one in our family had seen the baby—Babaanne didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. Gizem and uncle Orhan had moved to Ireland shortly after their wedding, and that had been the last we’d ever heard of them. Over there, rumor had it, they’d both been accepted into residency programs, but Orhan had decided mid-semester to quit his. No word to anyone or anything, Babaanne had learned through Gizem’s family, who had complained about how Gizem was overwhelmed being the sole breadwinner.
Back when Baba was stationed in Clarksville and Mami had to quit her job to follow him, Babaanne didn’t seem to mind, so when she called Baba worried about uncle Orhan, all alone without a job, Mami couldn’t help but laugh.
“That’s cruel, Ily,” he told her. “My mom is having a hard time.”
“Well, your mom can suck it,” she said, unapologetic as she had always been, and Baba rolled his eyes. “What? Now you’re not gonna tell me you feel sorry for her.”
“She’s an old woman, Ily, and you’ve always taken everything too personal.”
He was lying, willingly, mainly because he knew there were far too many implications into accepting that she was right.
The more the story kept unraveling, the more satisfying it was for Mami. I knew she wasn’t proud of it, and that was the reason she had decided not to comment on it anymore, but the truth was her feelings were legitimate.
When at uncle Orhan’s wedding, Babaanne had made sure that she humiliated Mami to the fullest extent of her ability. First things first, was making sure that Mami and Baba wouldn’t be in the same space. For that, she had chosen to segregate the wedding party. Two salons, one for men and one for women. For Mami that meant that she’d have to be on her own because neither Baba nor Levent nor I could be in the room with her. It’d make the women uncomfortable, Babaanne had said.
“If it’s a matter of women being uncomfortable,” Baba had told his mom, “then she can come with us to the men’s salon. She won’t feel uncomfortable then.”
“Are you crazy?” Babaanne had said. “Then all the men will be looking at your wife!”
“Yes, mom,” Baba had said. “I’m sure everybody is waiting to look at Iliana. I’m sure they have nothing more interesting to do.”
“I said no, Oktay, and when I say no, that’s what happens.”
“Then we’re not coming,” Baba said, firm as I’d never seen him. “I’m not gonna put my wife through that. She’s already making enough sacrifice by coming all the way here to a place where she doesn’t understand the language, the culture, nothing.”
“Sacrifice? You call that sacrifice? She’s your wife, she has to do it. Sacrifice the one I’ve made, losing my oldest child to America. You never served your own country but now you go around wearing American uniform, you go fight their wars, you stayed over there because of that woman and you turned your back on us. You won’t turn your back on your brother on his wedding day, shame on you if you do.”
When the wedding ended and we met Mami outside the hotel, she was in tears, puffy red eyes, nose running.
“I hate you,” she told Baba, looking at him straight in the eye. “I hate you and all of your family and your culture for all you’ve put me through. Remember one thing and one thing only. I’ll never forget this day, and I’ll never forgive you for it.”
And she never did. She also never talked about it, but when I asked one of Baba’s cousins, she told me that Mami had spent most of the time just looking around, trying to find someone who would communicate with her. But whenever someone tried to approach her, Babaanne would make sure she assigned them something to do so that they couldn’t talk to Mami. From that day on, I decided not to talk to my grandma anymore. I became the king of excuses, each one of them a brick in the wall I was building to keep Baba’s family at bay. Now that she had lost us of her own willingness, Babaanne was finally seeing that what Mami had done for so many years her Turkish daughter-in-law hadn’t even bothered to do once, and maybe, just maybe she was learning a lesson. I didn’t care anymore though, and neither did Mami, and I was glad we didn’t.
Read a book and circle some words on a page. Use those words to craft a poem. Alternatively, you can cut out words and phrases from magazines.
Güela was a teacher and a poet in her village. And the fact that a woman who used to teach others, and who wrote some of the most beautiful poetry ever known to men was later on considered illiterate just because she didn’t speak English was among the most unfair things I’d ever witnessed in my life. But it was like that and Güela had gone through life thinking that she was dumb. To a certain extend, her kids thought so, too. Amá among them. She’d always talk about the shame that she felt every time Güela came to pick her up at school, her apron dirty from cleaning after others, her hands hoarse from all those products, all that effort.
“¿Qué tal la escuela hoy?” Güela would ask.
“Mom, I’ve told you,” Amá would reply. “Please don’t speak to me in Spanish. I don’t understand you.”
And Güela would then feel a slight pinch in her heart, but she would keep asking each and every day, and each and every time in Spanish. The response from Amá wouldn’t change, though, but tía Isabel would be a little more receptive, always trying hard to speak Spanish with her mom. Amá would argue later that it was easy for Isabel to speak Spanish. She was born in America, after all, so she had nothing to prove. Amá, on the other hand, was just as mojada as their mother, and in her skin could still be read the marks of their travesty. Speaking Spanish, for her, was admitting that she was still from there, and that, she couldn’t afford.
“Again with those old pictures and those notebooks?” Amá told me, walking into the attic. “I’ve told you already, if you want them, they’re yours. They’re only collecting dust in here.”
“Are you sure you don’t want them?” I asked her then, irrationally dreading she might say yes, however unlikely that was.
“You can have them,” she said. “That way you can read them day in and day out in your dorm. Knock yourself out I’m telling you, even if you don’t understand a word.”
I never quite understood that weird pride in saying that none of her children spoke Spanish. She sounded bitter, whenever she talked about it, about being born Mexican, and it infuriated her whenever someone wanted to guess where she was from by her accent. I don’t have an accent, she’d always say, then lie, I was born here. Amá bore her American citizenship like a medal, something, the only worthy thing she might as well have done in her life.
“You don’t miss her at all?” I asked her, putting the notebooks back in the box and moving it ever so slightly, as an indication that I was taking that with me. “Look, this is a picture of the two of you in Mex—when you were little.”
She looked at me, and all I needed was for her to pretend she hadn’t heard what I almost said. Otherwise, I was sure she’d take that picture and shred it to pieces. She’d done it before. I put it quickly inside the box, without her noticing. But it was in Mexico, there was no doubt, Amá was still too little.
“A ver, let me see,” she said, and we both pretended she hadn’t let those first two words slip.
Instead of the one I’d been looking at, I handed her one of Güela and the two of them, Amá e Isabel, in what seemed like a neighborhood party.
“Oh, yeah, I remember that one. It was Lolita’s quinceañera. Tacky, as usual if you ask me, but oh my god did we have fun.”
It wasn’t common to see Amá smile, much less at her childhood memories.
Stop always being so bitter about it all, I’d heard tía Isabel tell her once, people will think that you had a horrible childhood.
It hadn’t been, though, or at least not the part she had lived here. Truth be told, she had always been a little secretive about what life used to be like, back in Mexico. I’d always attributed it to the fact that she was only seven when they had crossed the border, but come to think about it that was time enough for at least some memories to form. Güela didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, so, even if this didn’t make our connection less special, it didn’t help me in my quest for answers. That took me to tía Isabel, the only one who had been willingly living between both worlds, the only one who could answer my questions.
“What happened to Amá in Mexico, tía?” I went straight to the point that day as I was helping her peel potatoes for the merienda.
“Ay, mijo, don’t go asking for what you don’t want to know,” she told me.
But that’s where she was wrong. Not only did I want to know, I needed to know, because that might as well have been the only way I could ever understand her.
“Your güela was such a beautiful woman,” she then started. “She was known as one of the most beautiful and smart women in her pueblo. Beautiful teacher, wonderful poet. But then she met this man, Heidy’s dad. He gave her a horrible life, mijo. He would beat her day in and day out.”
“Is that why she decided to come to America?” I asked, naively, and tía Isabel nodded.
“Things weren’t easy for your Güela, you know, and your Amá witnessed a lot of that. She might not tell you, but there was one day when that monster beat your Güela to a pulp, and your Amá had to go around the barrio looking for help.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that.”
“Yes, mijo. Güela was a very beloved teacher, but she had to stop working because her husband wouldn’t allow her to. She never stopped writing, though. If you look in her things, I think she still has all the poems she wrote in those days. They are so sad. I don’t think she ever wrote a happy poem, all the way until you were born.”
“Until I was born? Why me?”
“Because you were a new beginning, mijo, you were the first man to be born in the family in a generation. You were the one who was going to break this curse.”
Greeting: Write a story or poem that starts with the word “hello” or other greeting.
“Hey!” was the first thing she ever heard him say, and she wasn’t even paying that much attention.
He had caught up to her at the RER station, right as she was reaching the last step. When she turned around and took a look at him, she realized she didn’t know who he was, but he had her credit card in his hand.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said, “but you left this when you paid back at the store.”
Only then did she notice the logo on the top left side of his chest, and the lanyard hanging around his neck. She must’ve been distracted, thinking about making it to the RER on time, but it was fortunate that he would find it and follow her all the way just to give it back.
“Head in the clouds,” she said, then, when he smiled back, she added, “you didn’t have to come all the way here.”
“Well, you don’t look like you’re from around here, and I wouldn’t want you to get worried about your card later on.”
She realized he was speaking to her in English, and had made no attempt whatsoever to have a conversation in French. And there she thought she had done a great job playing the local girl. Well, she had visibly failed.
“Thank you,” she said, taking her wallet out. “But you really, really, shouldn’t have bothered.”
She expected him to turn around and leave but, instead, he stared at her in a way that made her uncomfortable. His eyes, of a light blue that was kind of disturbing, seemed to linger more than welcomed. Since he wouldn’t move, she just looked at her watch, pretending to be late.
“How about coffee?” He said then, stopping her in her tracks.
She’d loved to pretend that she hadn’t heard him, but his voice had been loud enough.
“I’m late already, I need to get back,” she told him with a thin smile.
“That’s okay. I have a car, I’ll take you back.”
“No, thank you,” she said. Then, thinking it might be a bit harsh, she added, “That’s very kind of you, but I really need to go.”
“There’s a café just down the street that I think you’d like. There aren’t a lot of tourists that go there, it’s kind of a hidden gem.”
“Thank you, really. But right now I need to go.”
“Trust me,” he insisted. “You won’t regret it. And I promise I’ll take you back to your hotel right after.”
She let out a long sigh, and he didn’t seem to mind. No, she didn’t want to go with him, but she also didn’t want to keep coming up with excuses. So she finally nodded and agreed to follow him.
Even though the bags she had weren’t heavy, he offered to carry them for her as they walked out of the mall and into a ruelle. She didn’t like the look of it, and she immediately thought about how easy it would be for him to kill her, or worse, all because she didn’t want to be rude.
But they made it to the other side, and when they did, there was the little café he had mentioned. He was right, there was no way tourists would ever venture to get there. It was a little café with a front terrace that had a little fountain. Around the fountain, there were a couple of cats laying down in the shadow, while one or two were trying to play with the fish weirdly swimming in the fountain.
“I told you it was pretty,” he said, pulling out a chair. “I really thought you should take a look at this place before you head back, Anna.”
Hearing him call her by her name startled her at first, it had been long since anybody had called her that. How did he know? But then she realized he must have gotten it from her credit card. Granted it was only her middle name initial, but how many more names were there with an A? He probably tried his chances and got it right. It had to be that.
“It’s almost five in the afternoon, so cappuccino, right? You like your expresso in the morning to wake you up.”
Anna was confused, she didn’t know what to do other than nod. Yes, he was right. Past noon all she drank was cappuccino, before then only expresso would do. But there was no way he could’ve known this from a credit card, could he? And that’s not the type of information she’d inadvertently put out in social media or any other place.
He left her there to go order inside, and in spite of the fact that the wisest thing would be to stand up and leave, Anna stayed there, glued to her seat, looking at the cats playing together. There was something about him, though, something familiar. And though, at first, she couldn’t really tell, not at the store and definitely not at the RER station, now she had a feeling that she had met this person before. She couldn’t just quite tell where.
“Here,” he said, handing her a little silver tray with her cappuccino and a small fruit tart.
That was another detail that he couldn’t possibly know. She wasn’t the type to go around posting pictures of her food online. Nobody knew that this was her preferred combination, unless she’d ever had coffee with him, which she knew for a fact she hadn’t. It was the first time ever she was seeing him, wasn’t it?
“I know you don’t like sugar, but I’m going to leave it here just in case you change your mind.”
Change her mind? That’d never happened. She’d always had her cappuccino without sugar. That was what she liked. Except for that one time… and then it all made sense all of a sudden, and she knew.
“You’re Alex’s brother, aren’t you?” She said, a little nervous, and he nodded his head.
Friendship: Write about being friends with someone.
He became my friend because he wanted to date my mom, or at least that was what he initially told me. And that was weird to me since he was a full two years my junior. My cousin, I would’ve understood, but my mom presented some problems that I couldn’t shake away. I laughed as I remembered, now waiting for him so that we could have lunch in this city that was, strangely enough, now largely foreign to me. I told myself I’d mention that at some point, just for old times’ sake.
It was a long way from the ESL classes where we had met a couple of years ago as teenagers, now we were two mostly grown adults, or so we could dare to believe. Still, we had kept in touch, her and there, sharing what life was bringing our way. I’d invited him over when I moved to Tallahassee for college, but for some reason, we always kept postponing. He ended up moving to Austin and invited me over as well, but it wasn’t until he graduated and moved back to Brownsville that the opportunity presented itself—oddly enough in the weekend I was to come back for my mom’s wedding.
“Amiga!” He said, when I waved at him in the distance, and when we met in a hug, it was as if we’d never said goodbye. “Como va todo?”
His accent was both funny and sweet, and his wide smile brought me back to the first day of our ESL classes, when he’d asked me why did I want to learn English when everybody around town spoke Spanish. I had just shrugged, first because he was right, but also because explaining that to him required me to go to a place I wasn’t yet ready to visit.
“I knew you’d learn!” I told him, and even if the hug was over, my arms were still resting on his shoulders and his on my hips. “It’s been so long, oh my god, how have you been?”
I’d followed his exploits here and there, his trips, his two or three serious girlfriends. The approval of his asylum application, and the beginning of his path towards permanent residency, a path that, in spite of the distance, we’d walked together.
“You brought it with you?” I asked, taking my lanyard apart.
He immediately reached for his pocket, taking his wallet out. We found it almost at the same time and pulled it out synchronously then laughed.
“I look terrible,” I warned him.
“Who cares!” He told me as we exchanged. “It’s a green card, you could put the picture of your foot and it’d still be good.”
“Maybe invalid, though,” I laughed. “With the foot I mean.”
He gave me a look he hadn’t given me in a while. The ‘I know it was meant to be a joke but it’s not funny’ look, and I smiled because I’d missed it, all of it.
“It blows, though,” I told him, indicating his place of birth. “They still put Iraq.”
“It sucks, I know, but I guess they have to. That’s the Regional part in Kurdistan Regional Government. It’s still Iraq for most intents and purposes.”
“Well, look at you with all your fancy English!”
He picked a table outside, he knew that’s what I liked. If there was one thing nobody could ever understand was my obsession with hot weather. The need to feel the sun on my skin, that slightly burning sensation, was the reason that kept me going to warm places.
“We’re having six quesadillas,” he started as soon as the waiter stopped at our table, not even giving him a chance to hand us the menus. “Two chicken, three beef, one cheese only. In the middle please, to share. Side of guacamole, pico de Gallo, and sour cream. She’ll have an orange Fanta, ice to the top of the glass please, and I’ll have a Corona, dressed. Thank you.”
“It’ll be right out, sir,” the waiter said and left.
“How do you know I want to have that and not something else?”
“How do you?” He told me, and I was puzzled for a second. “I mean, maybe I also want to try something new, or eat something else. But that’s our meal, remember? Every Friday after ESL classes. It’s special to us. Tomorrow, later on, whenever else, you can eat whatever you want. But today, we’re going back.”
It was like him to do stuff like that, though. He had a good memory and would hang on to a lot of details that the average person would forget. That was why he would send me random pictures and memes of things that reminded him of anecdotes we’d lived together. And, to be honest, I really liked it, to know that I’d been so special to someone.
“So, when are we traveling together?” I asked him. “You know, somewhere other than here.”
“That’s funny, because I was going to ask you if you wanted to go to New York with me?”
“What is there in New York?”
“Well, I don’t know. The Statue of Liberty?” He laughed, “I just always wanted to visit.”
“I thought maybe Nashville would make more sense,” I said, and braced for him asking—I wanted him to ask.
“Nashville? Why Nashville?”
“Well, isn’t Nashville the city in the States with the largest Kurdish community from Iraq?”
He smiled at me, “Impressive. I see that you keep learning more and more.”
I had to, of course. In my one way, I was still trying to make up for that time I had told him that I had no idea where his country was located. It was one of our first conversations, the one where I told him that my mom had dragged my little brother and me on a plane from Bogota to Mexico City to then take us on a bus to the north and have us cross the border with her. He told me he won, though. Same trajectory, only he had done Kurdistan-Turkey by land, Turkey-Greece by boat, Greece-Mexico by plane, and then some coyotes had helped him for the last leg across the Rio Grande. Oh, and he also won because he had done all of that on his own. No family, no friends.
Why didn’t you stay in Europe? I’d asked him mostly because it seemed like the right question to ask.
I don’t know, he’d told me, I guess I figured I might as well just make my whole way over here. I always dreamed of seeing America. He’d looked at me and, probably sensing that things were getting a bit too emotional, had smiled and added, plus, it was also destiny. I had to meet your mom. don’t forget you have to help me ask her out on a date.
Animals: Choose an animal. Write about it!
Whiskers turned out dead in a little wooded area right behind Nesla’s house. Come to think about it, it was a stupid name, Whiskers. But it had been the first thing that had jumped to her eyes, back when she had found her abandoned in that old, moldy box under the bleachers of the track field. Those long, long whiskers, black like the rest of her fur. She was tiny, all coddled up, probably trying to avoid the cold that had already started. For Nesla, it was a no-brainer. She had to take that baby to safety. And she did, and her parents were not surprised in the least.
She was an odd duck, that Nesla. Always in her books, not at all talkative. An only child, she could get away with a lot of things other kids her age couldn’t. Like when she dyed her hair black and started wearing heavy eyeliner even though she was barely thirteen. It was her way to communicate to the world, or so her parents thought, that they couldn’t hurt her more than she’d already been hurt. Born and raised in a house of horrors until she was six, she’d never opened up about what she’d endured. What the Hinjosas knew was only what the caseworker had shared from her file, which was virtually nothing, and what they had read in the news at the time.
House of Horrors right outside Sinton, TX.
Mother dead, father in custody after a face-off with the police.
Cult-like compound surrounded by police after anonymous caller alerts to child abuse, incest.
Yet again, they couldn’t believe everything that they read. After all, the “compound” was nothing like that. They had visited it together, alone, a week before the adoption was finalized. It was nothing but a little house. In the middle of nowhere, true, but a far cry from the massive compound the media had made it out to be. And, yeah, the traces of the torture were still present. The hooks for the chains still stuck to the wall. One would think that the police had cleaned all that up afterward, but the blood from cut wrists and ankles was still there, the pools of C.D.’s—what she’d been called by the press, Nesla’s older sister—blood on the floor because she had been chained during her period. All that was real, it was still there. And the Hinojosas questioned at that moment, even if only for a split of a second, and even if they would forever deny it to one another and to the world, whether it was a good idea to move forward with the adoption.
That was the reason why, when Nesla came back home with Whiskers, Sandra Hinojosa said yes right away. She had learned to know her daughter, it’d been more than six years already since she had gotten that call for a placement, being told that the girl would spend the night getting checked at the hospital. They had never had major problems with her, no tantrums, no yelling, no shouting, no slamming of the doors. Not even playing loud music. She was always reading, and when she wasn’t reading, she was taking care of plants or animals. They had a little pond in the backyard where three koi fish were growing, and she enjoyed sitting there to watch them dance.
At school, always the same: Nesla is a great student, but she has problems opening up to her peers. She was taunted by her classmates, alright, and they had moved her around quite a bit, settling in a Catholic school thinking that maybe smaller classes would make things easier, and religious education would make kids’ hearts kinder. But they were wrong. Except that this time around, Nesla wouldn’t say anything. She would just act as if nothing was happening so that the teachers wouldn’t be suspicious. That was, of course, until Whiskers disappeared that one day. Sandra used to let her out on the front porch, on a basket that Nesla had decorated and that served her as bed. Whiskers would wait there patiently, sometimes sleeping, sometimes just looking around, until Nesla came home. But that Wednesday afternoon, Nesla came back home to find Whiskers’ basket empty. They looked everywhere. Sandra called Ignacio, her husband, who took Nesla in his truck to go around looking for the cat. Nothing turned up.
Needless to say that Nesla wasn’t in any mood to go anywhere the next day, or the day after that. It wasn’t until Carmenza, the neighbor two doors down, found the body when she was taking her dog pee, that the Hinojosas stopped looking.
Sandra didn’t know that Nesla was listening to their conversation, until she found her passed out in the hallway, bloodied, a big gash across her left wrist.
Once in the hospital, it became evident how many people knew about Nesla’s history, in spite of the efforts the Hinojosa’s had done to conceal it.
Ain’t that the girl from that satanic cult?
Wasn’t her mother her sister too?
I heard they used to tie up the girls and have the boys rape them.
At another time, or even maybe in another life, Sandra would have gone after each and every person that made a comment, and would’ve started a whole thing. But this time she didn’t have that luxury. She was there because her thirteen-year-old had just attempted suicide, and saving her life was all that mattered.
In that waiting room, however, she let herself go as she called the school. Part of what Carmenza had told her, was that some girls at school had been taunting Nesla telling her that she was a witch, because of her connection with what now had turned into a whole blown-out-of-proportion distortion of a horrible childhood for which she wasn’t responsible on the least. It was then that Nesla had decided to change her wardrobe, her hair, and the make-up. What she thought was just a way to show she didn’t care, became a certain proof for her tormentors. Not only was she a witch, a Satan worshiper, but her evil black cat was probably helping her, too. That’s when they got the idea to take Whiskers from her basket, bring her to the woods, and throw rocks at her until she was dead.
When Sandra learned of that, her heart ached for her daughter. She longed for a friend and companion, and that’s what Whiskers was for her. Whiskers, I mean, that was the name of the cat for God’s sake! And Sandra knew that with Whiskers, whatever little hope she had of seeing her daughter smile again, had died.
Dream-catcher: Write something inspired by a recent dream you had.
I usually know when I’m dreaming, but not that time, not that day, not with him. There was something about him, a special connection, just something, that allowed me to let myself go and live the dream as if it was actually happening.
I don’t know if it has happened to you, has it? Oh, yeah, sorry, the dream. Well, for some reason I got word that he was here, in Corpus. He was at a hospital on some sort of mission but he couldn’t go out because of the visa. He doesn’t have a visa, so the hospital was this sort of international area where he could be and hang out, but he couldn’t go out so I told myself, it doesn’t matter, I’m gonna go see him. I need to see him.
And what do you think it was, that need?
I don’t know, I just thought, well, at least he’s here so I might as well, you know?
You might as well?
Okay, okay, I knew I had to go see him, there was no doubt in my mind. Actually, I don’t really remember what I was doing when I learned he was here. I was in my car, in some street, I don’t know. But as soon as I did I told myself I needed to go and see him, this might be the only chance I got.
The only chance for what.
I’ll get to that.
So I start this mission to just drive to where he is. And you know how when you’re dreaming sometimes you’re trying to make a call, read something or do something and you can’t? Well, it was the exact same thing. I was trying to put an address on my GPS but I couldn’t even see what was on the screen, so I just started driving and driving. I didn’t know where I was going.
What was guiding you at that point?
The need to find the hospital, the need to see him. I remember there were times when I was convinced that I was just going around in circles. Still, I just couldn’t stop, I had to keep going.
I want to have a better idea of what was moving you, though. Okay, there’s this person you’ve never met face-to-face and you finally have the opportunity.
That wasn’t it, though.
Oh, it wasn’t?
No, it wasn’t. It was more than just meeting him face-to-face. If anything, it felt like we’d already passed that stage.
The stage of meeting. It was like, we already knew each other for a long time, and then, there’s this sort of connection that already existed--
In real life or in the dream?
In the dream, of course. I don’t think I ever got to know who he really was in real life. See, the connection only existed in my mind, in dreams. Sigh. But, truth be told I know that I’d do it too if it happened in real life.
Well, you did start by saying that you thought it was real life, so I can believe that part. But tell me more about that feeling.
I don’t know, really, it’s just something that’s there. That exists. And as weird as it may sound, I know having that dream just brought me closer to him. I mean, just like that. He didn’t really need to do anything.
Okay, we’ll put a pin on that. So you’re going around and you can’t reach the hospital. What happens next?
I feel like I’m running out of time. I guess I knew I was in a dream, after all, and I was afraid of waking up. But, also, I knew I had to make it, and that I was going to make it.
So? Did you?
Yes, yes I did. I finally got to the hospital, and I just parked my car close to the ambulance entrance, in the ER, and I ran to the door. The hospital looked at lot like Doctor’s Regional, you know, where I used to volunteer for the SART, same entrance and all.
Sexual Assault Response Team. Which is funny, if you consider how things ended.
What’s funny about it?
I don’t know. Nothing. The irony. I’ll get back to that as well.
You don’t need to, unless you’re ready…or if you are, we can talk about it now.
No, I’m not ready. Nowhere near. But I’d like to continue with the dream if that’s okay.
Of course. Sorry. So you get to the hospital. Did you see him?
I saw him, yes. He was there, in scrubs.
He wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, though, right? I mean, in real life.
Yeah, yeah, that’s right. He wasn’t, no. Actually, I don’t see him being one of those things, either. Later on, though, I’d learn from his cousin that he did apply for med school but didn’t get in. But that’s neither here nor there.
Okay, got it. So, what happened next?
Nothing. I saw him and wanted to walk in, but they wouldn’t let me. And see? My eyes are already watery.
Okay, let’s develop that. Why are your eyes watery?
Because of that feeling of getting so close, but being so far. I don’t know. Like, I went all that distance for nothing.
Did you get close to him, after all?
I did, yes.
So, what was so important, what did you tell him that necessitated you to drive all over town?
I didn’t tell him anything. I just gave him a hug. That was all I wanted, so I did. I hugged him, and--
Wait. So, all of that drive, anxiety, nervousness, all that, just because you needed to give him a h--
A hug, yeah. And believe me, it’s just as crazy as it sounds.
So when earlier on you talked about this being your only chance, you meant your only chance to give him a hug?
Pathetic, isn’t it?
No, I never said that. I’m just trying to understand.
There’s nothing to understand. I myself don’t understand it, I wouldn’t expect you to.
So, after you gave him a hug, what happened?
Nothing. I just woke up.
Eye Contact: Write about two people seeing each other for the first time.
It would’ve been awkward enough already if she hadn’t been there thirty minutes in advance. But the truth was that she wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible, and she childishly thought that being there early would make it go away faster. This wasn’t exactly how she intended to spend Labor Day weekend or why she had decided to go back home to be with her family. She was expecting some home-cooked meals and maybe going at night around the Riverwalk, not her auntie Sabiha setting her up for a date with someone she barely knew. Auntie had gone straight to her, bypassing her parents because she probably knew it wouldn’t sit well with them, especially with Ma. Babişko wouldn’t have minded much, but then Ma would’ve gone on a rant that would’ve ended with him being mad.
“So, there’s this young Turkish fella,” Sabiha said, probably trying her best to imitate what she thought young people sounded like. “He just got here for college. I think you’d like him. His parents moved around for some time. They’ve been in Nigeria, Kenya, Peru, Colombia, and now they are in Mexico. I think you’d like him.”
Miray had rolled her eyes, questioning why having three daughters of her own, all around her same age, Sabiha would turn to her for the match-making.
“I don’t know, auntie,” she’d told her. “I’m kind of busy and I only have this one weekend with my parents.”
“Don’t worry, it won’t take long. Just one date. I told him you like Cheesecake Factory. He’s never been there, maybe you can show him.”
It was hopeless, so she didn’t argue and once back home, she told her parents. As expected, Ma was everything but happy, but still, she bit her tongue, mostly on account of Sabiha being her friend for close to thirty years, going all the way back to when she was just a college student dating Babişko. Surprisingly it was him who was a bit upset by the whole thing.
“You’re in college now, it’s not time for dating,” he’d said. “You have to minimize distractions if you want to get into med school. I really can believe Sabiha’d set you up for failure like that.”
“It’s only one date, Babişko,” Miray told him, with the sudden urge to defend Sabiha teyze. “I’ll just go, say hi, and kick him to the curb. And I get a free meal in the process so it’s kind of a win-win situation.”
“If he gives you hard time you text me,” he’d say. “I’ll call you and tell you you need to come back right away.”
“I don’t think I’ll need that, but thanks.”
In the past, she had used her father’s calls to get out of boring dates. It had always seemed weird to her how nobody would ever say the slightest thing about her father just calling in the middle of a date to ask her to come back home. But it’d worked for her in the past, so she was not willing to give it much thought either.
She had worn a pair of torn jeans and a mesh tie-dye top with a black tank top underneath, her hair up in a ponytail. The reservation was under his name so when she showed up early, the hostess, confused, walked her to the table. She ordered a glass of water with lemon and a soda while she waited, and started looking at the menu.
He was there at six on the dot. There was that feeling of having someone staring at her, and when she finally put the menu down and looked at him, she was surprised at how he didn’t look at all like she’d pictured him. He was about her same height, with sandy blonde hair and dark brown, almost black, eyes. As much as she hated to admit it, there was something magnetic about him, attractive. He gave her a shy smile, and his teeth, all white and lined up in a tidy row, quickly became his best feature.
“You must be Miray,” he said, sitting down, “I’m Burhan. Nice to meet you.”
She smiled, not knowing what to say. Only then she realized how awkward the situation really was. She didn’t know who this guy was, nor why they were there. Was this supposed to be a blind date for what? Friendship? Romance? Marriage? She cursed herself under her breath for giving in so easily, and for a second thought about reaching for her phone. Another look at him, but she couldn’t really tell what he was expecting either. His posture, his silence, even the clothes he was wearing—a UTSA sweatshirt and light wash jeans—seemed to indicate that this was just as much of an unknown experience for him as it was for her.
He took his hands out of his pockets and started rubbing them vigorously, “wow, it’s cold here. They like AC in America.”
Yeah, I guess we do, she thought about answering, but instead gave him an awkward smile and took the last sip of her soda.
“What is good to eat here?” He asked her, flipping the pages without reading.
“I don’t know,” she said, and then her eyes fixated on the dirt under his fingernails.
She did as best she could to repress a gag, then added, “I can order for you if you want. Maybe you should go wash your hands first.”
She didn’t mean it in a rude way, but if that was the way it’d come out then so be it. Burhan took a look at his hands and hid them immediately, embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I played ball this morning with some friends. I did wash my hands, though, just guess I forgot to wash under my fingernails. I’ll be right back.”
Miray gave him a quick smile as he stood up and left the table. It was so clear that the date wasn’t going anywhere, so she took out her phone and clicked on Babisko’s name.