I am seven.
Mami braids pools of Salcedo rains in my hair, carrying the memory of limestone terraces within the soft lines of her palm. She doesn’t show exasperation at the sight of my disheveled curls or the uneven strands of my bangs, which I had haphazardly snipped with a pair of scissors that left a faint bruise on my portly thumb. She is painted with patience, something I sought to curate within myself, but ended up abandoning long ago. Crumbs of hardened bread fall into my lap and as I hastily brush them off, Mami sighs at the sight of my wrinkled khaki-colored slacks.
“You need to care more for your stuff, mija,” she murmurs, wounding her finger around a knotted curl, “It’s important to make a presentation.”
“Why? No one cares what I wear,” I wince as she tugs at the knot.
“You are going to be in a uniformed environment. You don’t want to look like a mess in front of your friends, do you?”
“Friends don’t care if you have wrinkly clothes, as long as you have funny jokes.”
Mami stifles a chuckle, shaking her head in mock disapproval. Her gaze is dotted with flecks of green, and I find myself wondering if people would stop calling me my father’s child if I had Mami’s eyes, if I had auburn hair that glinted in August lightning, if I had pale skin that glimmered on plastered billboards.
“There,” Mami smooths down the fabric of my collar–muted blue tint that sat unflatteringly on my skin. “Now, don’t feign a stomachache just so you can get out of math class. Don’t insult your language teacher. And please, por el amor de Dios, don’t cheat off Leonardo again.” She clasps a purple clip into my hair, its flowered embroidery akin to the warmth of her gaze.
In the kitchen, I notice slabs of meat propped into a pot of water in the sink. They remind me of when I accompanied my father to a rusted brick building on Burlington Ave, one nestled far from the clear-cut boutiques whose roofs slanted as if atop of one another. The dollar store sat across the street, its copper-encrusted sign looking drab against the flit of light hitting it.
Once you took a step inside the building, the potent smell of chickens and litter peeled the skin off your nose. The walls were coated with green paint, streaked with a yellowish hue that only made the place appear duller.
Chickens were cramped in small cages, tawny-colored feathers fluttering gracefully in a place that was anything but graceful in its incentive. Their shrills would pierce your ears, incise themselves between the faults of the concrete, and dig themselves into your skin. My stomach lurched at the sight of men with smattered dirt stains on their sticky white t-shirts, their arms oiled neath the July heat. They would force the chicken out of its cage, its arms frantically itching for escape, and clutch onto it as they pulled its head back and deftly sliced it off with a small knife.
“Why do they do that, Papi?” I would ask, aversion lodging into my throat.
“That, mi niña,” Papi replied, retrieving a crinkled bill from his back pocket, “is how we eat.”
I am thirteen.
Fragmented. I have dug shards of glass into my hair now. I press brick coated with rust against my palm, its surface cold and drenched in the smell of wet earth. I have trekked through deep depressions and cragged stone.
The room smells of anxiety-ridden thoughts. A lady stands, her fingers haste in shuffling a stack of papers. Her skin is paper-thin, stretched.
“Let me see your arms,” she darted her gaze to me.
I extend my arms. My mouth is wound taut. By anxiety: no. By trepidation: yes.
The room stood blankly, hollowed-out and shoddy. I think the counselor said something, though it scraped against my ears like an outcropping of rock. I muttered something then, darting my eyes to the golden ceiling. Here I was, sitting blearily and sluggish. If depression could take shape, it’d be the deep exhales of breath I did not know were coming out of my mouth.
I teethed through excuses, garbling them around my gums and hoping the ones that spout out would convince the counselor of my fabricated happiness. Her eyes roved over my arms, then my face, then the phone on the polished desk. I sat idly.
She picked up the phone.
I am seventeen.
Walking along pavements I had not thought I would walk on again four years ago.
I am no longer made up of skin —
only steel, meshed with resilience. I pick at crinkled journal pages rather than scars on my forearms.
Mami’s words no longer rushed in wavering concern, previously sanctioned by the deteriorating state of her only daughter. She pulls on a hanging curl that had been released from my bun.
“Don’t pay mind to anyone or anything,” she says, her voice akin to the warmth of Salcedo. “Only focus on yourself.”
These words ricochet against my brain, carried along every setting. It’s hard to focus on yourself when you care so heavily about those around you when your chest constricts at the mere thought of someone’s image of you becoming distorted due to a mental illness. I want to tell this to Mami, urge her to engrave this into her mind, but I decide to indulge in my own thoughts instead.
“I know,” I respond, brushing a stray curl framing my face.
There are journals scattered around the bedroom–hues of brown, blues, and purples. Every single page holds a piece of my stumbled phrases in English, of my mother’s flecked brown eyes, of the pain I had harbored in the pit of my stomach. There are heavy laughs and heavy cries, and there are mud-caked fears, and splintered bones, along the fading lines of the pages.
I ask Mami to braid my hair. She sits me down and college acceptance letters sit haphazardly on the table before us. We had sifted through them, discussing a future that I did not see myself in when I was thirteen.
“Why don’t you clean up all those books, mija?” asked Mami.
I purse my lips, a corner curling up into a suppressed smile.
“Because, Mami,” I begin, “that is how I eat.”