We sat at the cafe, separated by a slab of wood and two ceramic cups. I took a sip—the coffee tasted bitter. On the sidewalk people were exclaiming as they found their friend or their parents. They raised their arms towards the sun as they leaned in, their shadows forming an odd silhouette on the pavement. My dad’s hair was disheveled and dark circles sat below his grey eyes. There was something unnerving about him being here, light from the open window revealing wrinkles I hadn’t noticed before. How he moved slowly, like every movement pained him. As if weights were tied to his wrists and ankles. When I was around him, I moved slower too.
“You look more like her everyday, ” my dad said. We hadn’t seen each other since he’d dropped me off at my dorm room and we’d met my roommate. Her forehead folded at the sight of us, as if we were a puzzle with a missing piece. But her expression was familiar, an unanswered question waiting behind her tongue—one she didn’t know me well enough to ask.
“You don’t have to say that,” I told my dad, knowing he was talking about my mother. He only saw her in my features because he wanted to. He wanted to find her in my eyes, in the crease of my smile so badly that he conjured her there himself. I didn’t look like my mother. My mother had been beautiful the way women in old black and white movies were beautiful. She had soft angles to her face that became even more prominent when she smiled. She knew how to emphasize her beauty. As a little girl I’d watch as she opened the glass door of the medicine cabinet to reveal rows of makeup. Fluffy brushes that looked like clouds and lipstick that resembled the petals of the magnolia in our backyard. I’d sit on her bed and watch as she talked about having to “ponerse la cara.” And that she’d teach me when I was older. I was in no hurry.
“I’m serious Esme!” my dad said, and I resisted the urge to shake my head. The only thing my mom and I had in common was the deepness of our skin. My face was round while hers had been long. Her eyes were almond shaped while mine were too large for my face. She had been tall and thin while I was short and curvy. It made no sense to me why my dad compared us. It didn’t make me feel closer to my mom. It felt like a lie.
I stared at my coffee, swirling it slowly until the silence grew uncomfortable.
“So, how are you liking your classes?” he said. I couldn’t tell him about how my Spanish teacher had asked where I was from and I’d responded, Oregon. How she had gone on to ask where my parents were from. California, I’d said. There was a laugh behind my teeth, as I knew she wasn’t getting the answer she wanted. When she’d asked where my grandparents were from and I said Texas—she gave up, directing her attention to the boy on my right.
And I absolutely didn’t want to tell him about how I had been skipping my classes. That the sun burned my eyes as it filtered through the blinds and clung to my bedsheets.
About how my roommate would whisper “Aren’t you coming to class?” and I ignored her, pretending I was still asleep, even as I pulled my sheets up to cover my face. After the first couple weeks she gave up and had taken to giving me a judgmental glance as she closed the door behind her.
“They’re fine,” I said. “I really like my poetry class.” This much was true—poetry was the only class I didn’t skip. Last class we’d read our poems aloud and mine had been particularly depressing. The one other brown girl in class, Cynthia, had handed me a flier for her club.
“You should come,” she said, her voice tentative, her eyes filled with pity. I’d heard her read her poem earlier. In it, she spoke about her home in Aguascalientes, before she came to the United States. She spoke of desert roads and houses made of clay and the smell of mantequilla and tortillas in the morning. She locked eyes with me as she read, as if I alone would know what she was talking about. I didn’t look away, even as my breathing grew shallow and the chain of my necklace tightened around my throat.
The flier read Mujeres. Underneath was a picture of girls with skulls painted on their faces, wearing crowns of colorful flowers. I crumpled it up and threw it in the trash on the way out. Now I avoided her gaze in class and skipped the days I knew I’d have to read aloud.
“Want to head over there?” I jerked my head in the direction of Red Sun books. It stood across the street in an old Victorian, green ivy growing up the side of the house and twisting around the sign. My dad nodded, holding up his finger as he swallowed the remainder of his coffee.
The bell dinged as we entered the store and my dad’s grey eyes widened as he took in the endless rows of books. Some shelves curved to fit the unusual shape of the house while others were impossibly tall, grazing the dusty ceiling.
We were passing past the middle grade fiction section when my dad whispered softly “Look.” He pointed at an orange book with a girl on the cover. She was running, her cascading brown hair a tangle of curls. Pages from the book she was holding flew through the air behind her, torn out by the wind. It was our book, me and my mom’s. She’d died before I’d finished reading it to her. I still had my copy, the pages yellowed and torn. I’d reread it dozens of times over the years but I always stopped where we stopped, at page 239. I’d promised myself that if my mom didn’t know the ending to Naomi Soledad León Outlaw’s story, I wouldn’t either.
“You look like her,” my mom would say. “I thought it was you on the cover.” I used to think she said that because Naomi had unruly hair like mine. Now I think she said it because of the book in her hands—back then I’d always be carrying a book. In elementary school, this skinny, wavy haired kid named Henry had stolen my books. I’d be reading, my back resting against the mossy brick wall and he would snatch my book and run away with it. I’d chase him across the playground and he’d hold it above his head, laughing while I’d jump to reach it. Even then I’d been short for my age, Henry’s long arms taunting me.
But this particular day was the end of fifth grade and my mom had been gone for three months. I was fuming at my dad for making me go back to school. My head was still pounding from how much I’d cried that morning. Fury seized my limbs and I wanted to climb out of myself, out of my body, out of this world. Instead, I punched Henry in the face. It wasn’t enough to break skin but it was enough to surprise him into dropping my book. Yo, Naomi León fell through my open arms, landing in the mud. Henry, the shock of being punched wearing off, shoved me aside as I reached for the novel. I tasted dirt as my face collided with the ground. There was mud caked to my eyes and I pried them open to see him gleefully tearing out pages. They hung in the air before plunging to the earth. This time, there was no wind to catch them.
My dad raised his eyebrows at me, as if to call me back to the present moment. I wonder if he remembered what he said to me that day. I’d come home, teary-eyed, clutching the ripped out pages.
“He’s probably just teasing you because he has a crush on you,” my dad said as he handed me a towel to wash the dirt off.
“What?” I said. Had he not understood what I was saying? It wasn’t teasing—it was bullying. “How can you not see that he’s evil?!” I continued. Mom would have never said that. I never had to explain myself to her.
“That’s not what I-” my dad started, “I’m on your side!” But I was already running upstairs.
I woke up the next morning to see the book outside my door. The front cover was still stained but the pages had been taped back together. My dad had taken on the project with an attention to detail. The edges of the tape were smooth under my fingers.
Now, instead of saying the wrong words my dad had taken to saying nothing at all. He gauged my reaction to the book on the shelf. I wished he wouldn’t look at me like that. Like I was made of glass.
After mom died, my dad started sending me to therapists but they never lasted longer than a few months. They were usually brown middle aged women with glasses. I guessed he thought I would feel most comfortable with them. I didn’t. Or that I needed a mother-like figure. A therapist could never fill that role. But at least he sensed that I needed something he couldn’t provide—even if the band-aid he chose was ill-fitting.
The therapist I had at the moment was a short filipino woman; younger than they usually were, rapidly approaching forty. She wore a pantsuit, which was formal and off putting. She asked about my family history and I told her that my dad was white and it was my mom’s great-grandparents who had crossed the Texas border.
“So you’re not really Mexican? I mean it sounds like both sides of your family have been here for a while” she said.
“I guess not,” I said. I’d never really thought of myself as Mexican. I don’t think my mother did either. Maybe we were nothing at all. All we knew of México was leyendas and recipes and Spanish sayings. But even those were lost each generation, until it got to me. My Spanish rusty, “Mexican” to white people but never to latinos once they heard me speak—once they saw my dad.
Then a bubble of laughter escaped my throat as I realized how ridiculous it all was. How funny it was that white people had ever called me Mexican. She was right, there was a reason I never liked that label. I wasn’t Mexican at all.
But when I was done laughing my chest ached and I wished more than anything I could speak to my mom. I could ask her what she did when tall boys with curly hair and posters of Malcolm X on their walls wanted her to speak Spanish to them. If she would hate me for saying yes, and praying my words don’t trip over each other on their way out. I wondered if she ever thought it was easier, better, to be what people thought she was. If she liked how it felt to be more myth than person, if only for the duration of a sentence.
“Don’t you need a new copy?” My dad nodded in the direction of Becoming Naomi León. But this was the English version—my mom and I had read the Spanish so we could practice together.
“Why would I need a new copy?” I must have spoken too loudly because my dad flinched as if I’d hit him.
“I don’t know, the pages are falling out. I just thought…” he trailed off.
“You thought wrong.” I wished he could read my mind. That he would look at me and understand. The way my mom did. But sometimes I thought she had become someone else in her absence. Maybe the memories I clung to were never even my own or what really happened. Maybe her fingertips never brushed the sky. Soon, as the years coursed past me and through me, I would know her longer in death than in life.
At the beginning of fourth grade, I hated going to school. I preferred the fictional characters I read about over real people. And my mom felt the same way when she watched television—so I started telling her I had a stomach ache.
“Pobrecita,” was all she said, pursing her lined lips. “Of course you don’t have to go to school.” I grinned and jumped on her giant bed, sinking into a new home under a silky white duvet. We watched sitcom after sitcom. There were always people getting stuck in elevators, and quirky neighbors and badly dressed bosses. But what I liked best was that everything wrapped up at the end of the episode. The laugh track came on and the credits rolled and the music ended. There were no loose threads or persistent problems. Every problem could be solved in twenty-eight minutes and return exactly to the way it was.
But after a few weeks of this, my mom stopped going outside. Her skin turned grey, like a layer of dust had crept over a wooden countertop. Except there was no wiping it off. She tried to cover it with a foundation but it was the wrong color and didn’t match the rest of her limbs. Her veins were prominent and they branched down her body like a series of blue and purple roots. She still dusted blush on her cheekbones and sometimes it was enough to distract from the hollows where her cheeks had been and the sharpness of her collarbones.
“Why does your skin look like that?” I asked her once, tracing a blue vein on her pale forearm.
“I just need some sun, mijita,” she said, but she smiled without her teeth.
When we watched sitcoms, my mom didn’t laugh when she was supposed to. After the punchline, she would take a drag of her cigarette, allowing the smoke to drift through the open window. Though she was looking at the screen, her eyes were glassy, her mind adrift. Sometimes she would cry—her tears creating streaks in her makeup. When this happened I started reading to her. My voice always calmed her down. And as I turned the page I’d glance up and find her looking at me, really looking. She studied me when I read. Her eyes following the curl of my hair, the shape of my throat—like she couldn’t memorize me fast enough.
We spent two months like that, everyday the same, laying in bed together. But then my dad found out what was happening. I overheard their yelling match from my bedroom.
“What were you thinking?” my dad said. I’d never heard him so upset. I’d never heard him scream at all.
“I don’t know, I don’t know” my mom kept saying. Her voice sounded congested, like she had just finished crying.
“That’s not good enough.”
“I wasn’t thinking, alright,” my mom said. Then so soft I almost didn’t hear it: “It was nice to have someone here. For once. ”
“She has to go to school.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“She has to go to school,” he said again. This time his voice was gentle. And even though I wasn’t downstairs, I could picture him tucking a loose strand of my mom’s hair behind her ears. The way he used to. The way he sometimes did to me, before I started pushing his hands away.
I stared at his hands now, confused as to why he was holding Becoming Naomi León.
“I told you I don’t want that book.”
“It’s not for you, it’s for me.” I raised my brows but he didn’t elaborate. He paid and we left.
We walked to my dorm together. The sidewalk was hot on the soles of my feet. Leaves of yellow and brown coasted to the ground—unwilling, almost lazy in their descent. When we got there my roommate was about to leave, her sandy hair pulled back into a ponytail, freckles splayed across her nose.
“Hi!” she said. “Esme, I didn’t know your dad was coming to town.”
“Well, he’s here now,” I said, hoping she would take the hint and leave.
“Mr. Wright, how’re you doing?”
“Great, and you can call me Dan,” my dad said, his hands stuck firmly in his pockets.
“How’s Mrs. Wright?” she asked. “I hear Barcelona is beautiful in the fall.”
“She’s..” he paused, and as he tried to compose himself I reached out to touch his shoulder. It was an awkward movement, foreign to both of us. I didn’t remember the last time I’d reached for him. It’s always been him tucking a loose curl behind my ear, wrapping me in a giant hug when he came home from work. But he hadn’t done either of those things since I was a child. I remembered them though, the way one remembers a dream or a bedtime story.
“I hope she’s happy,” he said at last. “And wherever she is, it’s beautiful.” Silence grew as my roommate gave us an odd look.
She creased her brow, looking from me to my dad. But then, she was gone, the door shutting behind her. Something was wrong. My dad’s hand was shaking and his face looked like all the blood had been drawn out of it.
“How could you lie?” His voice was harsh, stiff. He wasn’t afraid that his words would shatter my skin.
“I—” I started. “I didn’t think it would—”
“You didn’t think what? That it would matter?! That I would care?” He was yelling now and his voice permeated every corner of the room. His words hung in the air around me, until I couldn’t ignore them any longer.
“I thought it would be harmless as long as…” I didn’t want to finish my sentence. As long as you didn’t find out. As long as you stayed put, somewhere far away.
He shook his head. “This is my life, too,” he continued, “mine and yours. You can’t just change it up on me.”
“I know.” He was right. Mom was our tether. I often forgot how he used to look at her like she could do no wrong. How he could never stay mad at her. Even when she kept her illness a secret from both of us. Even then, he only got angry for a second, before deflating into his chair. He tried to speak but every time he opened his mouth no words came out. He ran his fingers through his hair before his arms found my mom’s shoulders. That was the only time I’d seen him cry, his tears dripping down his chin and into her hair. His expression now reminded me of how he looked then. As if a curtain had been lifted and he was letting me see what was underneath. His grey eyes had a sheen to them and his jaw was clenched.
“I’m sorry,” I said and I meant it.
“It’s alright,” he sighed. He sat on my dorm bed and with his shoulders rounded he looked small all of a sudden. “What did you tell her anyway?” He didn’t sound angry anymore. He sounded tired.
“I told her mom was on sabbatical in Barcelona.” The second she’d asked about my mom I realized I had a chance to rewrite the past. I could be someone else in college, someone whose mom was mysterious and adventurous and alive. I started to believe it too. I imagined my mom at a cafe table with a book full of dog-eared pages—resting her long legs after hours of walking down cobblestoned streets. My dad shook his head. His face was turned toward the carpet and an odd sound escaped him—something between a sigh and a wheeze. At first I thought he must be crying but when he looked up at me I saw the smile on his face. What I’d heard must have been a laugh.
“That’s a little out there don’t you think?” he said. “I mean, if you were gonna lie, you could have chosen something more realistic.” The side of my mouth curled upward.
“How dare you insult my story!” I was grinning now. “I think it’s entirely plausible.”
“You could have picked somewhere more pedestrian. Like Detroit?”
“Who takes a sabbatical in Michigan?” We were both flooded with laughter. My dad was wheezing and my shoulders shook. As I sat on my roommate’s wrinkled duvet, I wasn’t thinking about why mom left us or the smell of her silk sheets or boys with misleading posters. I wasn’t thinking about anything at all.