By Serena Trujillo
The trick is to stay alive. Like clockwork. There is a clock that lives in the dining room, it is my fathers. It is the only thing in the house he cleans. The clock looks like marbled wood and is shaped like a stain. I am too afraid to touch it and far too small to reach it. “The trick is oil”, my father whispers as I stretch my body toward the plaque of time, “and keeping it high enough so that you and your sisters cannot reach it”. My father is short, I bet I can reach it in a couple of years. He laughs.
My mother tells me to stomp. “Keep your legs and your head up high.” It is a fifteen minute walk to the coin laundry. We go at night because that is when my parents are awake. I am afraid of the dark but I am not allowed to say so I just stomp. It keeps the cockroaches away. It keeps the dark away. The dark can’t be loud, can it?
The kids at school take my tongue. I tell them, it is a tan. I tell them grandma not abuelita. Cookies not conchas. Bread not bolillos. I kill my culture. It is okay. It is okay not to cling to things.
Ana’s brother calls my mom in the morning, I hope to get invited over. I hope we get to play. Ana is dead. His words are long. I can hear her mom crying in the background. My mom is crying. My sisters are crying. My dad is mad. He is filing taxes and we are getting our tears on receipts and W-2’s. He tells me this is life but I am eight years old. I do not know how to not cry. I do not know how to do taxes. I do not know how to die or to live.
The rules are simple; when a car comes by, we pretend they are shooting at us. We stop, we drop, and whoever is on the floor last, gets shot. We call this “drive-by”. We play this when we get tired of kickball or tying strings around beetles to pretend they are our pets. It is my favorite game to play.
There is a boy that lives at the corner house named Chow Mein, I am sure his parents spell it different. He is tall and skinny and funny.He walks passed the gate to our apartment three times a week, I sometimes wonder if it is because he wants to say hello or if he knows we will have food to share with him I never ask because I am ten and ten year olds do not talk about these things. So instead on Monday, on Wednesday, and on Friday I do not eat my snacks.
Instead I sneak an extra juice pouch before going out to play—Instead I act surprised to see him. I make a joke like “Hey Chow Mein, what are you gonna eat for dinner tonight? Some chow mein?”When I know, this is it.
Where I am from my mother teaches me what side of the street to walk on. Teaches me to ignore the men singing at me in wailing voices and by the time that I am ten I know how to keep even the parts of me I do not know about from them. Teaches me to make myself small and invisible. Teaches me to survive. Where I am from, all the women on the block come out at the same time everyday either in a robe or a pajama set that does not match but always a half lit cigarette. They watch us walk—all of us—yell at us to be safe and careful. My mother teaches me to find a home, how to listen and watch. I know what my mother teaches, I should not preach but I still walk with a fist and when the man bumps me in the grocery store. I apologize.
I pretend to start my period when I am thirteen so my dad will buy me tampons. The day before this my mother is bleeding all over the sheets. She is begging my father. He calls her a whore. He calls her broke. He doesn’t want to put her back together. I cut my thigh with a razor I take from a sharpener from my Hello Kitty pencil pouch. I rub it on some underwear for proof. It smells like pennies. It smells like a long day. He threatens me at the store, “these better not be for your mother”, he swears to God. I stay quiet, my silence is a promise to the both of them.
My dresser is tall and heavy. It is filled of notes I pass in Mr. Gaddy’s class when I do not want to learn about a hexagon or whole numbers and hand-me-downs. After we brush our teeth we all go into our bedroom. There are four of us and our mother. We leave the front door unlocked and we push the dresser in front of the bedroom door. Sometimes my mom doesn’t stay in the room with us. “Sometimes it is better to be sorry, than safe.” I wonder what my mother is sorry about and what my father is so angry at. I wonder why it takes my mom so long to tell us to call the cops. I wonder why we hide like we can’t see what is happening on the other side of the door. I pretend that my dresser is a skyscraper, one that I will one day live in, because one day I get to live, that is my trick.
Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.