Is it real if it doesn’t leave it’s mark?
Like my first real pet, a black and white kitten, the runt of the litter
Who left white scratches on my knuckles and passed away two years ago
Like the family trip to Canada, and the string of lakes like pearls and falling rain
And the slight pitting on the front of my right shin that will never go away
Like my grandmother who passed away last summer
And left her dark skin and fine cheekbones on my face
Like you, and our love, and these tear tracts on my face
It was real.
8:10 AM is seared into my eyelids by my phone screen.
I’m clocking 3 hours of sleep for the fourth night in a row and I feel like it.
Because Finals Week isn’t depressing enough, my phone pipes up with a very cheering reminder that it is in fact Friday the Thirteenth
Bad Things happen today, so I wear my lucky testing necklace, and I dress to kill, red lipstick, hair up.
Failure hurts less when you look good.
The hollow pounding in my skull is probably what’s left of my analytical reasoning trying its damnedest to squeeze out of my head through my eye sockets. Lunch is a haze of leaning on someone’s shoulder, nodding my head at the appropriate points in the conversation while trying to simultaneously keep my eyes open and eat a decent meal before I walk home to my apartment.
Rain… it is raining. Everything is cold and damp and I am entirely apathetic toward the situation. The apartment is dark and empty, but in the bed is a welcoming cocoon of blankets. No sooner am I face down, I am asleep.
The ring of my phone is like a jolt of electricity straight to the heart and reflex has it at my ear before I register I am in fact awake.
The silence on the other end is broken by a few choked breaths, and I can feel my throat closing. Nononononono…
“It’s grandpa… he passed away this morning.”
I hold my breath, waiting for it to start to hurt…but it doesn’t…I just feel numb.
Mama is sobbing on the line and I can’t think of a thing to say. My heart is in my throat. I want to deny it. He can’t be! I was there just last weekend!
“It’s alright though… the Alzheimer’s never got as bad as it could have. He was happy… at the end.”
I know! I was there! He remembered who I was and he asked me how my engineering classes were, and he sang karaoke after thanksgiving dinner, and he was so happy. He can’t be dead. A person can’t just die like that.
“The memorial service is Wednesday. I want you to concentrate on you finals. Don’t worry about this. Do good, and then come home.”
It’s hard to find something to say, “Alright mama, I will. I love you. I’ll be there soon. Bye,” it sounds so meaningless I almost wish I hadn’t said anything.
I can almost see her, red faced from crying, dark circles under her eyes, “OK, Baby, I love you, Bye.”
The line goes dead and I stare at it for a long while. Slowly, I crawl back under the covers and close my eyes.
What do you do, when someone you’ve lived with for nine years is dead? Should I put a picture of him on Facebook “RIP Grandpa P. I will always—”
That seems to be what everyone else in the family has done.
Is there something wrong with me? I don’t want anybody else to know. I don’t want the page of single sentence blurbs, “Our prayers go out to—”
If I can just keep it quiet, where no one but me knows, no one will ask. If no one asks, I will not cry, and it won’t really be real. If I don’t cry none of it’s real and I can just be. numb.
I’ve realized I don’t want to go home. If I go home everyone will be crying and sobbing and grieving… I am afraid I will stand there, dry eyed, face tingling, everything far far away, like I am now, and then they will know something is wrong with me.
I feel so strange, like I’m stuffed full of cotton balls, and all I want to do is sleep, but I can’t , there are finals and papers, and I can’t just shut down.
So I won’t and I don’t… but nothing seems real real.
Wednesday 1: 17 pm
The memorial service is like watching a funeral on television for a character who’s name you know but whose face you can’t recall. It’s not real. It really isn’t, until a slideshow starts to play and Dr. Antonio Penaloza’s voice, cracked with age, begins to sing. His voice fills up the tiny church as he belts out To God be the Glory, and I Will Always Love You at the top of his lungs. My eyes, dry till now are suddenly overrun with tears, too much to blink back though I try, slowly deep achy sobs drag themselves out of my chest, and I clutch my mother’s hand as my aunt presses tissues into my hand so I can contribute to the small mountain that is forming between the three of us.
In memory of my Grandfather Dr. Antonio Penaloza who passed away on December 15th 2013. Loss is hard, we all deal with it in our own ways. Rest in peace grandpa. We miss you every day.
The last thirty minutes of a six hour drive is always the longest. Every pothole looks familiar. You know how to drive these roads at night, in the rain, with headlights shining in your face, half asleep or half drunk. This is so close to home you can taste it. Your mind is already leaps and bounds ahead, and it’s like no time has passed at all.
You’ll pull in the drive and tumble out into the cold, and tell everyone all about school and the friends and the guy you just met, but he seems so nice…
And that’s when it hurts. It’s sudden, like a fist to the gut, like all the air’s been sucked out of the car and replaced with bleach. You can’t miss people constantly that would be crippling. So you don’t. You forget. You pretend that home is exactly like it was when you lived there every day… except it’s not.
The house that looks so familiar will be cold and empty and full of stale air, most of the innards that made it home, pictures, dirty clothes, things that indicate the presence of people are gone, packed into neat little boxes stacked in unused rooms, or brought with them halfway around the world. Most of the pets have been given away to friends and neighbors, who can care for them better while the family is abroad.
It’s so…so stupid that for a minute you let yourself think you were going HOME. Because you’re not, it’s not home anymore. Home is family. Home is the smell of Dad’s cooking, the cat petting himself on your shins, and everyone’s shoes spread out in a blast pattern from the back door. All those things have picked up and moved across the Atlantic. You’re really just driving to a particularly familiar storage closet that holds your winter clothing. You shouldn’t have let yourself get excited for that.
It’s hard to go home when you know nothing will be the same
This is the graveyard shift, the long hours after Dad’s finally too exhausted to drive in the wee hours of the morning until they stop for breakfast at ten. Everyone is asleep. My sister barely lasted thirty minutes awake before she knocked out, feet leaving foggy imprints on the windshield, tucked under a blanket stolen from the parents in the back. The Bobcat, or the Coyote or some other tiny country station is buzzing static as I drive further from Amarillo. The roads a grey swath under yellow headlights, and the only thing I’ve seen in miles is eighteen wheelers blinding me with their headlights as they go barreling north the other way on this tiny two lane highway.
Seven exits after the red light on the dash pings a strident warning, the yellow glow of a Love’s sign pops up beside the next overpass. I exit pulling in under those too bright white lights, and my sister makes a muted protest. The door comes open with a rush of cold. It’s a matter of minutes ever more tedious minutes to get the tank filling. It’s one of those that have to be depressed by hand, and 16 gallons seems ever so long, and the smell of gasoline is doing odd things in the cold that is burning her fingers.
Thankfully a run quick run indoors offers climate control. Finally the real reason for insanely large gas station cups is revealed. Coffee. Large, and more a vector by which to imbibe cream and sugar. It runs hot through her veins and the remainder of the night is spent in a pleasant buzz of caffeine and jittery fingers on the wheel tapping out to old country classics she hasn’t heard in years but hey—Thank God and Greyhound She’s Gone!
Coffee and country make for the best company on late night drives
Start with ripe peaches, so soft your fingertips bruise them as you lift them out of the paper sack from the roadside stand. Find a big pot and blanch them till their fuzzed, dusky skins are all bright orange and sunset red. Take a moment to hold chilled blanched peaches in your hand, remember the skin soft as wet velvet, and that smell like sunshine and syrup filling up the kitchen. Peel them and make a stack, sticky sweet and blushing, smooth as blown glass bubbles.
For the filling brown sugar and a little bit of molasses. Mix in the lemon juice last and let the lemon oils from the bright dimpled skin stay on your hands, grandma always said it would make your skin soft. Sprinkle in cinnamon and nutmeg and breath in as you mix, let the smell of nutmeg bite at the back of your throat.
Pit your peaches, remember the difference between the smooth orangey outsides and the bloody veins at the center. Get sticky, yellow juice all down to your elbows. Lick it off when no one’s looking. Mix the fruit into the spices with your hands, you’ll thank me when you get to taste the peach syrup lining your palms.
Add an extra three tablespoons of butter to the crust because diets are stupid anyway. Pour a dash of vanilla extract because you’re feeling decadent. Bake until peaches are bubbling through a flaky brown crust and the whole house smells like cinnamon. Enjoy with vanilla ice cream melted on top, make sure it’s the same brand of vanilla your mom bought for hot summer days, because trust me it will taste better than the $12 container that hardly holds 6 oz but has “real Mexican vanilla beans”.
“I am soft,” the creature seemed to whisper with its syrupy buzzing voice.
Its rotund, striated body was dusted in huge, golden pollen granules that smelled warm and sweet in the august heat. I smiled wiggling carefully closer as I watched it.
It was straining upward, its small, transparent wings glimmering like jewels, its gilded body almost sagging under the weight of its precious yellow cargo, before depositing itself to nestle once more into the downy face of a dandelion. The deep hum of her fellows could be heard all around me, almost drowning out the sounds of the playground. Tall dandelion heads swayed in the breeze that did little to cut the summer heat.
I lay on my stomach, my elbows pressing into the damp ground. The shepherd’s purse stalk in my hands being relieved of its tiny heart shaped seed pods by my small, now green rimmed, nails. A pile of the hearts rested before me. After a few minutes I reached out and plucked one of the brilliant, swaying stalks. The end was purple-red and oozed wonderfully sticky sap, which I dabbed onto my palm to glue a tiny heart to myself. Satisfied with the adornment I returned my attention to the little bee.
She was still busy with her dandelion meal, her small face buried deep in the feather petals; her little legs gripping, as her wings beat the air, pollen sacks bulging with their cargo. She looked so soft, so warm and nice.
I reached out a small hand and lifted her downy bed. Holding my breath, I moved her. Far more delicately than any queen was ever raised on her golden palanquin, I raised the little creature up to my eye level and observed her as she continued her quest within the little circle of organic sunshine. She hadn’t noticed the movement at all, or if she had she discounted it as the wind.
A devious plan began to form in my mind. Lifting my eyes from the golden queen captured between my grass-stained fingers, I looked across at the boys who had shunned me from their football game because I was ‘too slow.’
The other girls could play with them, but those were their ‘girlfriends.’ Feeling disheartened by my lack of a grade school love life I had retreated to the dandelion patch to play a better game. I had already found three pecans, but they and the large rock for cracking them, were forgotten in favor of this new engagement.
Cupping the handful of tiny hearts and holding the little queen with utmost reverence, in the other hand, I rose and made my slow and careful way across the big field, past the hot, shiny bleachers toward the football game.
They were taking a timeout. How fortunate. I plastered a straight face on and approached Jonathan, a tall fifth grader like me. He had a large dark birth mark on his neck, short wispy brown hair and a big smile. Some days he was my boyfriend, some days he laughed at me and dumped his water bottle on my head, threw erasers at me in math class, and stole my Nancy Drew books, hiding them in the boy’s bathroom. Today was one of the latter.
Today Tracy was his girlfriend. I could not have cared less, however, it was expected that we make up, so, what better way? I thought as the curly black haired girl sidled up to Jon.
“Hi…” he muttered, looking anywhere but at me.
“Hi, Jon…Tracy,” I acknowledged the taller girl grudgingly.
I pressed my lips together trying hard not to grin. I felt that horrible blush heat my cheeks as it does whenever I speak in front of others. Usually I hated it, my ears got hot, my upper lip dampened, my bangs stuck to my forehead. However, at the moment I was an embarrassed ex-girlfriend.
I bit my lip and held out my offerings of peace. Reaching out he took the handful of hearts and the little queen’s palanquin, disguised as a flower.
The moment his big sweaty hands closed around the stem the devilish grin took over my features and I scampered away just in time to hear the whole group scream.
Girls and boys alike darted past me, trying to escape the irate gilded creature.
Soon the football field was empty, and the little queen had settled back down to the business of collecting her gold. Careful not to disturb her, I walked over to her new bier, a daisy. Bending I plucked her up and traveled back to my field of dandelions.
“I’m sorry, little bee, I didn’t know they would scream so.” I lied, but it is best not to anger royalty.
A few boys approached, retribution in their eyes, but I only smiled and held up the little queen, I her loyal bearer and she my talisman.
Middle school is hard for everyone.
First published in the 2013 R2: The Rice Review 9th Edition