By Nico Kateri Cisneros
Nico Kateri, isn’t related to the great Sandra Cisneros, but she’s an admirer and hopes to be a great author as well someday. Until then, she’s working towards English and Music Technology degrees in good ol’ Texas.
“Words are nothing, harmless. They fix as much as they break. Words are not why you lost her.”
This is Lora’s two cents, interrupting me while I was talking to mi primo. She was scrubbing the pan Primo had used earlier to make your friends some of our kind of empanadas. Yeah, those friends you hang out with after school and volunteer with? They came to see you. Their “leader”, that David kid, suggested they come here to surprise you at work. Surprise was on them, ‘cause you were finishing an English project, complete with a written report and PowerPoint that you just weren’t satisfied with. (When are you satisfied with anything?) He had looked slightly disappointed to know you weren’t there. Yeah, I smiled when I saw his face.
But now I’m thinking my face looks like his did. What the hell are you talking about, loca? “It’s Lora, pendejo,” she said, irritated. The boys always called her Loca Lora when she snapped at them, so I get the anger—and the nickname. The look she gives you makes you think she’s gonna take that sponge and shove it– “And you think your little romance will die because of one stupid fight? A little battle can ruin empires, boy, not relationships.”
Well, we haven’t spoken since the fight, so—
“Ever heard of cause and effect?”
She just shook her head, pointed the sponge at me. “You look back over how you got here, cabron, and you’ll see what I meant.”
ONE YEAR AGO
The mosquitos were on their way out, making us their last meal as my boys laid on the grass and I sat on the fence. They were talking shit about this, that and the other, but me, I was watching the sky. Sun was fading real slow, not like it was a few weeks ago when it would hang there like a chandelier. You could smell summer slipping away—when the breeze blew, there was no warmth in it. Only the scent of leaves and…perfume. I didn’t know what it was then. Learned later on that it was vanilla, the scent of your mother that you wore for the memories, the comfort it gave you.
But right then, you were just this petite chick with thick, black hair like mine, only longer, streaked with this deep, brick red. And a silver ring in your nose and left eyebrow, with a silver chain on her neck that held a charm from your father. With so many bracelets on your tiny wrists I wondered how you weren’t being dragged down. Contrasted all that by sporting only one ring on your thumb. Had a too-big-for-that-tiny-frame GNR tee with tight, tight black skinny jeans. This get-up was trying—and failing—to distract me from your firewood brown eyes, the light burning within them.
Next to you was a boy with eyes like yours, just not as bright. He was taller, too. No piercings, no jewelry, no rock tee. Blue jeans, plain black tee, hair down to his shoulders. He started talking to someone on the grass, but I didn’t hear them talk. My ears were full of this American oldie song my Mamá played whenever she was happy…
“This magic moment, so different and so new
Was like any other, until I kissed you…”
The song would come on in a movie we’d be watching one time and I’d tell you about this; about how corny I felt. About how your eyes drifted toward mine right when the chorus was coming up on that first day. You’d tell me you thought I was a little slow since it took me a minute to stop staring at you and respond to Hector. He’d asked me to go get Javi, I hadn’t heard him. I’d tell you I was a bit distracted right then, so you can’t blame me. You would shake your head, smiling, the same way you did when I fumbled trying to get off the damn fence.
That would be much later, though. When we first met, you were just this weird chick, waltzing in to my life, like you weren’t about to change everything.
EIGHT MONTHS AGO
Ask me what we learned in school last year and I honestly could not answer. We went to school together, and the only thing I was concerned with learning about was you. Biology? Algebra? You really think any of that stood a chance against you, Cielo Moreno?
Moreno? I know that name, I told you. Was a popular name in my community. Ecuadorian? You smiled when you said this. Your smile made me smile. When you got the high-five from me that you wanted, you went in to this whole rant about how nobody knows where the country is, that it even exists. The land mass between Colombia and Peru. Home of Christina Aguilera’s father. Home of our fathers. Former haven of the great Incan empire. A place each of us only knew through old stories and even older photos. Regardless, you spoke of it with the passion our parents do. Hello? Do people think the Galapagos are just floating in the ocean, unclaimed by anybody? There’s not an inch of this earth not claimed by stupid humans!
And I’d laughed, ‘cause you were funny, smart, and right. Those were the first three things I learned about you. You could make anybody laugh, even Javi’s cranky old abuela. Yeah, you were a star in school, but you weren’t just book smart. And that combination meant you were usually right about everything. I would always put my money on you when Hector thought he was right about something.
Then I found out you wanted to be a teacher. Of what, you didn’t know, but you were leaning towards music. You even played piano, signed up to be in our school’s music program. And you signed up to be a tutor—not in music, in English and Math. You signed up to be part of the volunteer group that works the afterschool program at the elementary school, too. That showed me you’re not selfish, though. So did the time you babysat Elena’s daughter with me, but that was different.
That’s when I found out about your family. About your mom and dad taking an extended vacation in New York from Guayaquil. About what it was like to live on the third floor of a little four-floor house in Queens. How they worked and worked until they forgot about Ecuador. How you didn’t even remember it at all. How you remembered them, remembered the day they got picked up, remember the day you and Raul had to say goodbye to them. Then CPS found you some legal relatives so you guys would have somewhere somewhat familiar to stay. It only took two years for Raul’s anger at the city to make him move you both to Javi’s.
I’d listened to you, put a hand on your shoulder when you’d finished. The smile you gave me was small, sad. I already know all about me. What about you?
So I told you my Mamá and Tia had pulled something similar, but decided to settle somewhere inconspicuous like here. Mamá was doing for me and my little sisters what our father flat out refused to do, and Tia was taking Primo away from a Tio who seemed to be taking out his anger about his eldest son’s death on their faces, their arms, anywhere he could hit. That’s what I remember most about Ecuador, to be honest. America was so different. It was the land of toys and food, and nobody was allowed to hit anybody—not at school, not at home. Best of all, I got to live with Primo, my best friend and the only brother I’d ever known.
Yeah, America was all sunshine and smiles for us. Mamá and Tia made us think that, anyway. Didn’t know the hard hours they were putting in to make it that way. Couldn’t imagine that three years in this country would be enough time for mama to get a sickness she couldn’t get taken care of. It spread too quickly, anyway.
That’s all I could say about it. Even now, I can’t really talk about her. But you rested your hand on my shoulder. When I looked up at you, the smile you gave me was empty of sadness. It was still small, but it was full of understanding. And as you went to open your mouth, I prayed you wouldn’t apologize.
I’m sure she was truly beautiful, you said instead.
She was, I tell you.
So are you, I thought.
SIX MONTHS AGO
Jealousy, when it happens outside of a relationship, is the test that proves you think of your friend as more. I don’t know if you could classify what I felt as jealousy or frustration. I lean toward frustration. After we started going out, you’d tell me I should’ve just asked you out instead of “pining away so angrily”. Yeah, I’d say, you would tell me this after we’re already dating.
Whatever, I just know I never had any feelings about my job before you started working there, too. You needed a job so Javi hooked you up with one at Ricardo’s, where everybody works. The owner’s cool as hell, but asks that you take the ring out of your nose and your eyebrow, please. I could tell that you didn’t want to do it, but you smiled and obliged. Then he asked if you could be hostess, seat the guests, get them drinks, do the cash register. You told him you thought you were gonna be a busser, and he laughs. “A bonita like you? You can’t be a busser.”
And Ricardo, he’s harmless. He’s a nice, chubby guy old enough to be my dad. It’s just that he complimented you. Not that other guys hadn’t, hell I’d heard them compliment you. But this time something weird stirs in my chest, something that makes me want to hit him in the face. I squeeze my rag instead.
That becomes my go-to thing when I hear a customer or a chef or other busser hit on you. Our friends call you bonita for laughs. Everybody else calls you bonita for the hope of getting your number. So I squeeze my rag, or scrub harder, or throw silverware into the bin the way I would throw a dodge ball at your little volunteer group leader David. Yeah, he’s just as bad as the restaurant guys.
It’s one beautiful Valentine’s Day when the pendejos have been coming outta the woodwork and into Ricardo’s that I break a glass. Then a plate. Then two more. Then three more glasses. By the fifth glass, I’m ready to curse. In English. I don’t, but I’m extremely tempted. I’m about to turn and grab the broom when you appear from thin air in front of me, broom and dustpan in hand. You hold the pan, I’ll sweep. I’m not trusting you with a broom if you can’t hold a single cup. Just like that, my anger dissipated. I laughed. I wanted to tell you you’re beautiful. But I just took the dustpan and knelt down, smiling ‘cause our hands brushed when I took the pan from you.
That same night, we’d be sitting on the fence outside of Javi’s. Everybody else would be inside, dancing and eating and drinking, all in the name of Saint Valentine and romance. You would call the night cliché, the whole thing, especially us. How are we cliché? I’d asked you. We’re not the ones inside. We’re not dancing. We’re not grieving wallflowers, either. Hell, we’re not even drinking.
You laughed. No, we’re just a girl and a boy sitting alone on a porch swing on what the culture has dubbed “the most romantic day of the year.” Face it: if you’re not on one side of the cliché, you’re on the other.
Maybe, I’d said. But I like our side. Don’t you?
Your eyes scanned me up and down before you answered. Yeah. I do.
The music behind us went from a club hit to a slow jam: “Your love is one in a million. It goes on and on and on…” Our eyes were locked, silence thick between us. I felt a pull toward you. You felt it, too, got as close to me as I had to you. When we were just a centimeter apart, I gulped. You did, too.
I looked in your eyes one more time before I kissed you.
TWO MONTHS AGO
You always want senior year until it actually hits you. All this shit about this being the make-or-break year. What college you’re applying to, if you are applying for college. If you’re not, what your plans are. Military? Work? Peace Corps? Just take a few community college courses, see how you like it? Just keep your grades up, just in case. You’ll need them anyway. Make sure you save up, too. For tests. For the car. For prom. For applications. No matter what, you’ll need cash.
Did any of this faze you? Why would it? You’d written all your essays, registered for all your tests. Your brother was always bragging about how you’d never missed the honor roll, and last year you hadn’t proved him wrong. This year wouldn’t be any different. You wanted to let the schools to know you were the real deal. The grades, the test scores, the essays combined with your activities, all while working at Ricardo’s. Yeah, they’d be Stevie Wonder-blind not to see your drive. You’d try so hard to play down how psyched you were for this year, but everyone knew you were. I spent the most time with you, Ci, how would I not know?
Sometimes I thought you tried so hard because of me. But it’s not your fault I have no idea where the hell I wanna go after I get that damn diploma. And it’s not like you didn’t try to help me. You were the one taking me to all those college fairs at school, to the military info sessions in the auditorium, to the tables of Peace Corps and the like whenever they were set up. You got me to register on College Board, on Common App, got me looking at the brochures you’d gotten from your top picks. Hell, you even convinced Raul to let me come along when you guys went to visit schools around this time. (Even though, while you were in the restroom at one of the universities, he told me if I do anything to screw up your plans, he’d have my ass.)
But you were never pushy about it. You knew I didn’t know shit about this college stuff, or any of the future stuff, that it made me nervous. That I hadn’t done any activities ‘cause I worked a lot and was trying to keep up with the hermanitas. That you were my tutor in math. That I’d made honor roll, yeah, but just barely. And not the distinguished ones you made. That I felt I was losing you. You were just trying to help me, to ease my fears, I knew that.
So why I acted the way I did, I don’t know. I wasn’t being a jerk or anything, just wasn’t talking to you about what I was thinking. Didn’t ask you about what you were doing or thinking either. Whenever we hung out, I could tell you wanted to ask me what was up. You figured I’d tell you. I knew you did ‘cause that’s how it usually went. You were cool like that, never pushy about anything. And I wanted to tell you, I just—I don’t know, I don’t know why I didn’t. I wanted to, especially since I’d see it in your face that it was getting to you.
And yeah, it was affecting us. We would kiss, but we didn’t make out anymore. I still held you, still loved having you in my arms. But I held so tight you’d half-joke that you couldn’t breathe. You’d hold my hand, but the weight of your hand in mine just reminded me of everything real. I’d want to tell you I love you. I’d find a stupid excuse to walk away instead. It wasn’t your fault, and you knew that. And you didn’t understand why it was being taken out on you. Still, you never pushed me for why.
It didn’t take long for that to get old, though.
TWO WEEKS AGO
The night of Gerardo’s “back-to-the-BS bash”, we rode with Primo, Sara, and Yami in Primo’s car. We were squeezed next to each other, like always. Except you hadn’t reached for my hand. I used to be the one who’d reach for yours, but lately it had been reversed. Everybody was pretty happy that night, me included, so I didn’t make a big deal about it. Just draped my arm over your shoulders. Didn’t make a big deal when you shrugged it off, either. I figured I’d ask you when everybody got out of the car.
After we parked, I told everybody to go ahead, we’d be right there. Sara looked at you, but Primo pulled her away, nodded to me. “Okay, coz. Hurry up.” We both watched them walk out of earshot, hearing their laughs echo down the street. It made me smile.
It faded when I turned to look at you. You didn’t look happy or sad or mad. You looked like you didn’t know to arrange your face with my eyes on you. It was weird, it wasn’t like you at all. My hand brushed some hair out of your face, traced its shape from your forehead to your chin. Hey, I whispered. What’s wrong?
You tell me.
I dodged you. Babe, I’m not the one acting weird.
You rolled your eyes, pushed me off you. Don’t call me that. And cut the crap too, Julian. I act like you’ve been acting for ten minutes, and it’s a big deal. But you act this way for the past few weeks and I’m supposed to let it go?
I didn’t reply, lowered my eyes. Took a step back from you. You kept going.
What is it, Julian? What is so bad that you don’t want to talk to me anymore? What, you don’t like me?
Of course I like you, Cielo, don’t be like that.
Well what else am I supposed to think? You don’t want to talk about anything anymore, you rarely kiss me or do anything remotely affectionate. And you could always tell me anything when something was bugging you before, but maybe that’s because it’s never been me bugging you. So is that it?
You shook your head at me, laughed this empty laugh. Threw up your hands. Well you’ve got me, man! I’m running out of guesses here, ‘cause I know I haven’t done anything wrong relationship-wise. So maybe it’s something else I’ve done. Like the volunteer group-
Oh, Ci, c’mon.
–Or the piano group-
Ci, you know it’s none of that, you know-
-Or the college tours we went on.
I shut up at that. Worse than that, I flinched. And you saw it. Your eyes narrowed.
So I’m getting warmer?
I turned to leave. Ci, can we please just go enjoy the party?
Did Raul say something to you?
No, Ci, he didn’t say anything.
Then what, you didn’t like the schools?
That was when I started to walk away. The schools were fine, Ci. Great, really.
Really? You’re gonna try to pull sarcasm on me, Senorita Sarcasma herself? I threw an empty laugh at you. You tugged my arm, made me face you.
And I will not forget the expression you had. Your eyes were bright, the way they get when you realize how to nail a piece for the piano or when you get a killer idea for a project. Usually you had a smile on too, but your lips were parted, like you were speechless. There’s no other word for it: you looked shocked.
You’re afraid you’re not gonna get in?
I pull my arm away, sharp like a stab. I’m not even applying. I start off again.
Then that’s it.
I stop. I give. I turn to face you, yet again. What, Ci? What is it?
You come up to me, so close we could kiss instead of argue. You still don’t know what you wanna do. Even after all the stuff I took you to—
–And all the stuff we did. And you think I’m gonna be pissed at you because of it. Am I right?
Cielo—Am I right?
Would you get the fuck off my back about this?
Hindsight’s 20/20. Even in the .5 seconds after I said those words—I didn’t even mean them, spitting them out the way I would a curse after missing a goal or burning my hand on a plate. You should have known that. Still, I knew I’d regret them. Why do you think the anger melted from my dumb face, my eyes immediately pleading for forgiveness my stupid mouth couldn’t ask for?
Not that it would’ve mattered. Your face went from hurt and devastated to cool and composed in 2 nanoseconds. And when you spoke, your voice was like December.
Excuse me for giving a shit about you.
It took a lot of driving around aimlessly and ending up in ghost country to know what the hell really went wrong—and to plan out how fix it. Phase One was to talk to you about it in this miraculous vehicle of epiphanies when we got out of school. We both would be heading to work anyway, it would make sense that you ride with me to the restaurant. Primo got a ride with Hector, gave me the car. Pressed the keys into my palm, “Buena suerte, and if you hurt my baby, I’ll kill you before Cielo gets the chance.” Ja. Ja. Ja, I’d said.
Yeah, it was cheap of me to spring it on you the way I did. Calling out to you in the hall, running up to you and interrupting your conversation with one of your friends. Don’t think the little glare she shot me was lost on me, either. I only ignored it ‘cause I was busy asking you if you needed a ride to work, and the maldita was walking away after I asked. And the look she shot you when I asked? Caught that, too. But your answer took priority. You didn’t look in my eyes when you nodded, didn’t see me smile at you. Well, you did when you raised your gaze to me. You gonna stand there all day, or are we gonna go to work?
Of course you would blast the radio the minute we get in the car. I would turn it down, ask how your day had been. You would give me short answers—not rudely, you just answered the questions, didn’t embellish like you would have before.
Of course I would press you for more, ask you more questions. I missed you, everything about you. Don’t think I didn’t miss our conversations. I was grasping for straws that whole drive.
Of course you never gave me an inch. Not that I expected you to, really. I was hoping…
Then I curse out this biker who cuts in front of me, ‘cause I could’ve killed you, you fuckin’ pendejo, stay in your lane! And you laugh, just a little bit. My head snaps in your direction, eyes see yours looking at me in that way they used to when your smile would reach them, then reach out to me.
Of course I’m about to open my mouth when the car behind us honks ‘cause the light’s been green for 2 nanoseconds. As I hit the gas, I sense my opportunity.
Wow, I got a smile out of you. Thought you’d never smile at me again.
Don’t be so melodramatic. Your tone tells me the window is closing.
‘S not dramatic, Cielo, it’s romantic.
As romantic as Romeo. You hate that guy. Yeah, he’s just a name on a page, but to you, he’s this “impulsive dumbass who calls himself a romantic, then proceeds to fuck up his chances at being with the one he loves. Romantic my ass.”
Of course I remember. So I shut my mouth, turn up the volume. We’re a mile or so away, and you decide to say something after a minute.
You sigh, eyes straight ahead. What do you want, Julian?
I just want to talk.
About us. Nothing gets past you, woman.
Is there an “us”?
You stay quiet for awhile. You’re about to say something when we turn the corner to be at Ricardo’s.
Of course it would be getting raided when we pull up.
Of course I would turn the car around and peel out of there.
Of course I would catch you, out of the corner of my eye, reaching your hand out. Like you could stop time, stop what we were fleeing from. Like you wanted to tell me to wait, to go back. Like you could pull your brother, our friends to safety. Like you were guiding God to where he needed to be today.
O f course it broke my heart.
A BRIEF MEMORY
When a woman’s face doesn’t show what she’s feeling, worry. Mamá taught me that—years and years of an unreadable mask coming down to cover her sweet, weary face. With it on, she could drop bad news without dropping a tear. She could dish out a punishment without dishing out her disappointment. Nothing good could come of the damn mask. Nothing could get through the damn thing, either.
Sometimes she wore it when she would look out the window in the middle of the night, staring up at the moon. I can’t say what she was thinking. She didn’t look like she was dreaming or wishing; she looked like she was being—or trying real damn hard to just be her. Again, I don’t know ‘cause I never had the courage to break the quiet to ask her for her thoughts. Just didn’t wanna bother her when she looked like that. I’d take her hand. Never gave it a reassuring squeeze, never tugged it to distract her. Just placed my palm in hers, laced my fingers with hers, let her know I was there for her if she needed me.
Eventually she would say goodbye to the moon by shutting her eyes. Her face would return to its softness, just a little bit. She’d never say anything, and neither would I.
But our world would feel better after that moment.
This is what comes to mind when I dare to look your way, ‘cause in a glance I can’t gauge you at all. We’re right in front of the creek, in half-naked woods. Dead leaves dance around the car, the wind serves as music compelling them to move. But we’re still. We’re sitting here, you staring out at this slow river in front of us. The sun starts dipping down into it, and I’m reminded of the day I met you. The sun was setting just like this…
It feels like so far away. It also feels like we’ve been here for days. Really, it’s only been an hour, two tops. Neither of us have opened our mouths the whole damn time, though. I want to tell you I panicked, I’m sorry, they’ll call us as soon as they can, Javi’s cousin is a citizen and an amazing attorney, too. Then I want to tell you I’m not sorry—well, I’m sorry that your brother and my primo and all our friends are fucked, yeah, but I’m not sorry for what I did. But fuck if I wouldn’t do it again. Mi amor, all the dreams you have can’t be done where they’d take you. You know what you want to do with your future—and no, I don’t know what I want to do with mine. But my mind’s been stuck in the today everyday of my life. I wish I could change that, and I’m gonna try, I swear. I swear on mi primo, mi mamá, you. But baby, you’re already there. You already know. And I’m not gonna let anything or anyone get in your way.
All of this is on the tip of my tongue, screaming to be told. But I don’t know what good it would do. What good do any words do, anyway?
My decision to stay silent solidifies as my eyes drift down to the console between us, where your hand has been for as long as we’ve been here. Slowly I reach mine over to yours. I place my palm in yours, lace my fingers in yours. I’m here if you need me.
Your eyes close.