By Alma Luz Villanueva.
Dear Alma Luz at 13 (aka Super Girl),
I see you’ve stopped eating, the sight of your ripening breasts, the patch of pubic hair, announces you’re becoming a girl. No, a woman. When you began to bleed between your legs; when you climbed to the top of the ten story building scaffold, sunset, all the men gone. Only silence, bird wings, the Bay Bridge lighting up like Xmas, spanning the deep water. Exit to la mar where you used to swim with your swim team at sunrise (yes, an ice cube). Mission Playground, the pool, you borrowed the scratchy swimsuit, but finally the mean-ass swim coach brought you a swimmer’s suit. Thin, your freezing girl nipples exposed, your shy V- but you could swim smoother, faster. The scratchy swimsuit bloated up like a sponge, the mean-ass coach yelling, “Ya got lead in yer ass, head down, up, breathe, swim like yer drowning!” You always laughed, which pissed him off. The other girls were scared shitless of him, his yelling voice. You’d heard that voice before, your insane, drunk stepfather (the bad one, not the good one you’d finally meet)- and you knew you could grab a weapon to defend yourself, or just heave yourself out of the pool. “Go fuck yourself, Mike!” And never return, leaving the thin, swimmer’s suit behind. You had your pride.
So, when you began to bleed at 12, at the top of the building scaffold, silence and bird wings, you remembered your beloved Yaqui Mamacita’s words and warning (in Spanish)- “When you begin to bleed between your legs, niña, you’ll become una mujercita, which means someday you’ll have children from your own bleeding womb. There’s pain, but you must bear it, never forget. The joy and sorrow of being a woman. Your strength and courage lives in your womb, niña, even now, never forget.” And how you heard Mamacita’s voice in the wind, “Never forget” (the power of words), and you slid down the steel so fast your palms were bleeding when you touched earth.
You were always Super Girl for your girly friends who couldn’t fight, punching the bully right in his stupid face. He’d been picking on your best girly friend, trying to feel her up. You made his nose bleed; he didn’t expect to be punched in the face by a girl. He started to cry; you laughed. “Next time I’ll really kick your ass!” you yelled, grabbing your friend and running. He was bigger than you, but you had coraje/courage that lived in your womb. You were Super Girl. When you stole food for yourself and Mamacita- only bread and syrup for a week. Your mother, Lydia, took Mamacita’s check, going to stay with the insane stepfather. You brought back Spam, canned beans, veges, evap milk, even cookies, in the over-sized coat Mamacita bought for you at the 2nd hand store. She turned on the radio, found her rancheras, lifted her long dress and danced a little. That Spam tasted like (now I know) filet mignon, and once again Super Girl saved the day. And the grocer, Mr. Ramirez, took the coca-cola bottles to the back, staying as long as you needed to fill your pockets, the inside of your boy shirt. You let him keep the deposit dinero, yelling, “Gracias!” (The power of words.)
When the insane stepfather came crashing through the door at Xmas, Lydia yelling, your little brother crying in terror, you knew- you knew he was going to toss the scrawny Xmas tree you’d decorated with stolen, glittery balls and tinsel, right out the window. He loved to do things like that and you knew it- hit your mother, slap your baby brother. That’s what he did. She was trying to leave him, but he kept finding her, your mother and baby brother. So you stood on the edge of the sad-assed couch and waited for him to come flying through the broken door. Red-faced, drunk, insane. And you timed it perfectly, your skinny, bony fist finding his stupid mouth. Blood.
“My mouth, my tooth!” he yelled. You knew what to do, call the cops, the pay phone on the corner. You followed behind the cops. You knew if he got his hands on you, he’d kill you, or rape you like he did to his sad-assed daughter who didn’t even fight back. Maybe she did once. When you lived with them for those months, she never laughed, even once. When you knocked him out with his favorite marble ashtray (he was trying to strangle your pregnant mother), and left in the middle of the night. San Francisco, three buses to your aunt’s place in the projects. She, his daughter, watched you throw your stuff into a paper bag, whispering, “Bye,” as you left.
“That little bitch knocked my tooth out!” he screamed at the cops, a towel on his bloody mouth.
“This skinny kid?” the young cop laughed. “Looks like you broke down this door, scaring everyone here on Xmas eve. Looks like you had it coming,” he kept laughing.
“Good job, what’s your name?” the young cop asked you.
“Alma,” you said in your tough, tomboy voice.
“Good job, Alma.” He looked around at your sad-assed place, took out his wallet. “Here’s a twenty, Merry Xmas, Alma.”
You tried not to smile, but you did anyway. “Thank you,” your girl’s voice answered.
“You’re sleeping this off in jail,” the older cop said, dragging It away.
The lock was busted, but the door could close at least. You went to the store and bought hot dogs, a large can of pork n’ beans, bread, mustard, milk, cookies. Your mother wanted the change. You gave her $2 and she gave you the Evil Eye. She wanted it all, but you knew better. When she had enough money again, her job, she always back to It.
You cooked the Xmas eve feast and played with your baby brother, making him laugh. And you slept with your jeans on, the sad-assed, smelly couch, the change deep in your pocket. And, once again, Super Girl saved the day.
You moved to a better apartment, under the good stepfather, who lived upstairs. He got drunk sometimes, but he never hurt anyone. That’s when he told you stories about his life when he was a toe-headed kid, which made you laugh thinking of a toe growing out of his head. But he meant his hair as a kid was white-blonde and how he got his name, Whitey. How he jumped on a train to Los Angeles because his stepmother beat him and his brothers, sisters, when his father left for his job running trains. So he hopped one at twelve and never went back. He said she tied them up and beat them till they were bleeding. He never went back, the stories, when he was drunk. In the Army, WW2, he’d take cans of food to the jeep, tossing them to the hungry kids that followed them.
“Some a those kids could barely walk, jes babies.” His eyes soft and red like he wanted to cry, but he didn’t. He poured another Jack Daniels, straight. Once you poured half a bottle down the sink, trying to save him. He laughed, reaching under the sink for a full one.
One afternoon, the morning fog had lifted and your baby brother was four- your mother, Lydia, took you to her closet in the one bedroom. You had a cot next to the window, the fire escape, which you often jumped out of instead of the door. It was more fun. The garden below that Whitey tended on the weekends. He planted an apple tree, some tomato bushes and roses. So you didn’t mind sleeping next to the garden- your baby brother and Lydia on the big bed next to you.
She opened the closet door and it was filled with cans of food, piled high on the shelves. “This food is for John and me,” she said in her business voice. The one you’d heard her use at her job, those visits. She was the medical secretary with red lipstick, and when she spoke to a doctor it sounded like she was begging, which made you feel shame. That’s when you told yourself you didn’t want to become a woman. With that begging voice.
Then she put a small lock on the closet door. It clicked shut. Their food. Not yours. You thought of all the places you could go eat, like your girly friends, and especially Whitey upstairs. He’d fed you from the beginning. He saw your hunger. Your skinny girl self, in tomboy street disguise. You made him put the plate of food outside his apartment door, on the landing next to the stairs, where you were ready to leap for your life. But you were hungry- she’d been gone for over a week, no food, $5 in an envelope, no words. You waited as he placed the full plate, carefully, on the floor.
“I’ll bring you some milk, kid,” he laughed, leaving you alone. “What’s your name?” he returned with milk, on the floor. You wouldn’t answer. Fried chicken, mashed buttery ‘tatoes, mixed veges, his specialty, you’d come to know.
You wanted seconds. He read your eyes. “Push the plate over, Pocahontas, ah’ll get ya some more.” He picked it up, laughing. How does he know I’m a Yaqui Indian? you wondered. You were suddenly angry, exposed, ready to leap the stairs, but he returned with the plate steaming, laughing, Pocahontas, a carton of cold milk he placed next to the plate.
“Feel free to finish up the milk, Pocahontas, there’s another one in the fridge. You want some cherry cake, just baked it, it’ll jes go ta waste.” Sometimes he spoke regular and sometimes he spoke like a hick, making you smile but inside. And he brought a huge piece on a small plate, candied cherries on top; and you drank the whole carton of milk.
When you finally entered his apartment weeks later- he’d left the door open, the wonderful scent of food making your stomach grumble- you inched your way in, noting a couch, some chairs, everything clean.
“We’re havin’ spaghetti ‘n meatballs tonight, Pocahontas, ya hungry?”
“Yeah,” you almost whispered.
“Can’t hear you from this hot kitchen, speak up!”
“Yeah!” you yelled, your Super Girl voice.
“That’s better, sit yerself down anywhere ya want, here it comes, Pocahontas.”
He laughed seeing you perched on the arm of the couch, ready to run for the door. He placed the plate of spaghetti with meatballs, piled high, the still warm garlic bread, in front of you on the small, low table. He paused to shut the door- every cell in your body screamed, RUN.
“Start right in, milk’s coming up and chocolate cake tonight. Do you like chocolate, Pocahontas?” He walked toward the kitchen, laughing.
“My name’s Alma!” you yelled belligerently, rising to hide the girl who wanted to run. For her life. “What kind of name is ‘Whitey’ anyway?”
He placed a tall glass of milk in front of you, some juicy sliced tomatoes over lettuce on a small plate. “That’s thousand island dressing, hope ya like it, Alma,” he laughed, sitting down on a chair opposite you, watching you eat. Smoking his Kools, drinking some coffee. You never, ever, saw him eat. And he told you the story of the toe-headed kid; not the bad stuff. He only told those stories with his pal, Jack Daniels, in one hand, ice cubes clinking as he lifted the glass to his mouth. His eyes becoming red, blurring, like tears, but he never, ever cried.
“This food is for John and me.” Closet door shut, click of lock. The power of words. Mamacita was gone, that daily Yaqui song to the Child Sun, sound of her rattle, and sharing of dreams first thing in the morning. You felt entirely alone in the world- you didn’t realize your mother, Lydia, envied your shy, reluctant, angry beauty hidden in tomboy guise (you thought).
“Where the hell’s that kid, ain’t seen her in weeks!” Whitey bellowed.
“Oh, she’s been sleeping a lot, that’s all. Expects to be waited on hand and foot,” Lydia’s irritated voice.
He took one look at you, “Is this kid eating, are you feeding her, goddammit! What the hell’s wrong with you, Lee?” (He called her Lee.)
“None of your damn business, Whitey!” she yelled back
He came over and touched your exposed hand very lightly and said softly, “I’m coming back with some soup, kid.”
He sat down next to the cot, his eyes wanting to cry but he didn’t. “It’s not hot, kid, just sip some, you look like hell.” You opened your mouth slightly to try some- the smell made you sick.
“Her damn gums are bleeding, Lee, this here’s a damn crime!”
The deepest sleep, no dreams, maybe this is where Mamacita went and you’re looking for her. She came in white light, her funeral night, and stayed with you till you slept. Darkness. You open your eyes. A large Chinese man is sitting on the chair watching you. Whitey’s behind him. He reminds you of a Buddha statue you once saw, but you decide not to ask him if he’s Buddha.
“This here’s Dr. Wong and he’s going to check you, so don’t you worry none, Alma.” He says your name especially gentle-like.
After Dr. Wong touches you, very gently, asks you to open your mouth, your bleeding gums- he says, holding your eyes, “If you don’t start eating, you’re going to die. Do you understand me, child?”
“Yes,” you whispered, an echo of hunger trembled through you. The power of words. That’s when Super Girl came to her own rescue. She chose to live.
Every morning Whitey came with oatmeal thinned out with milk, at first. Sat you up to eat. Packed you a lunch. “This here’s for Alma, don’t you eat it, Lee, goddammit!” Soup and toast for dinner at first, until you asked for fried chicken, finally. Your stomach growling like a starving girl tiger, which you were.
“I’ll be at my place, so dress up like a human being, don’t wanta see ya mopin’ around no more, goddammit kid!” His voice balanced between anger/tenderness made you smile. The power of words.
“Your strength and courage lives in your womb, niña, never forget.” The power of words. You got up, got dressed, following your own blossoming hunger. At thirteen. Your first child, a daughter, born on Mamacita’s birth day. At fifteen. And it would take every drop of red courage, womb strength, to arrive where we stand now at seventy, Super Girl.
You keep on saving me. The power of words. The power of. So much. Love. Dreams. Lighting up. The darkness.
I love you, Super Girl. I’ll keep saving us with words.
Alma Luz Villanueva
Dia de Los Muertos, 2014
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
By Alma Luz Villanueva: I’ve published four novels, most recently, ‘SONG OF THE GOLDEN SCORPION.’ As well as seven books of poetry, most recently, ‘SOFT CHAOS,’ and an upcoming book of poetry, ‘GRACIAS, spring 2015. My poetry, stories, excerpts of my novels have been published in many magazines, anthologies, textbooks- most recently, my novel, ‘LUNA’S CALIFORNIA POPPIES,’ in the anthology, ‘CALIFLORA, A Literary Field Guide.’ And an excerpt of my novel, ‘NAKED LADIES,’ in the anthology, ‘CALIENTE, The Best Erotic Latin American Writing.’ I’ve taught at Antioch University Los Angeles MFA in Creative Writing program the past sixteen years- and have lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the past nine years, returning to teach, visit my family, friends. My Authors Guild website- www.almaluzvillanueva.com