Short Stories - Jimmy, is that you?
When I first heard her, I thought it was the paper boy, Reynaldo, slinging the news over the gate as he did every morning but Wednesday, the one morning his mother, Antonia Moreno, drove by in her 1968 Buick Sportswagon, throwing the paper like a life she wanted to discard. Maybe, I thought, the thin voice was Reynaldo greeting an early morning reader.
When my mother Dolores heard Paloma's cry, her eyes opened and her ears scanned for emergency, but hearing nothing more than the cry, Jimmy, she softened for a second into the butter brown of my father's bare back and remembered watching old reruns of Superman. My mother sank back into her first days in this country, when she watched the television for clues about American life, watched the man change out of his suit and become a completely different being, powerful, attractive, magic, and strong. She remembered Jimmy Olson, his soft, obsequious smile, his awe of this man who could leap tall buildings in a single bound. For a moment, she herself became Superman, and she knew she was finally flying.
My father, deep in a dream, played in a cantina band with his brother Pablo, who was a hard, dark man with a tattoo of a bear on his neck. Pablo beat a drum and sang Las Mananitas for their mother, Abuelita Lolita. In my father's dream, it was May, in Cuernevaca, and hot Mexican rain beat down on the metal roof like peanuts, keeping perfect rhythm to his brother's drum. My father, Diego, lost himself in the beat of the music, the timpani of the rain, spinning and twirling, red, black, green, and yellow engulfing his ears just like the music, coming out his eyes and fingers. He moved in one spinning ball of color until his only focus was a small rhythm, a moan, really, the voice of my dying sister.
Before we stepped into the quiet morning, our feet bare on the dirt of the front yard, we never would have imagined Paloma hung like meat on a hook, flesh severed and broken, blood dripping down her arms like wax. Both her eyes were black, her nose a mysterious hole in her face. Her smile was wild, crooked, hysterical, but then we saw she wasn't smiling at all, that her mouth was torn into an unnatural grimace, an anger and sorrow so deep we could not miss it.
Paloma cried out, "Jimmy, is that you?" even as my mother, bent and moaning on the ground, stroked Paloma's dirt streaked hair, even as my father ran into the house to call 911. Who is Jimmy, I wondered blankly, holding Paloma's foot, still strapped neatly into my mother's gold pump. "Oh, Jimmy," she said. "Jimmy, is that you?'
When the paramedics came, they cut the gate post off rather than pull it out of her arm. She fell to the ground, and they worked on her, but my golden sister died before we remembered who Jimmy was.
My sister never liked me, so I could only watch her life like some brilliant, foreign movie. I, shorter, darker, quiet from the day of birth, needed only to be the audience to her songs and the admirer of her sandstone skin. When she was eleven and I was eight, she took to wearing my mother's old dresses, the ones my mother bought to go to El Sereno High's proms, her first dances in the United States. Paloma sifted by, taffeta and silk, feet high arched in slingbacks with sequins. "I am a dancer," she said, moving her arms like tan swans around her head. "You will never be a dancer. Your body isn't right," she said, looping past me. "You wait and see, I will dance in New York on the stage." Glum and brown, I sat in the corner, eating churros thick with cinnamon and sugar, clutching onto her hem whenever she twirled by.
A year later, she hung onto the toilet rim, staring down into the redswirl water. "I am a woman," she said to me. I sat on the edge of the bathtub, holding on, too, trying to not fall backwards, trying, I think, to hold her up. But Paloma was not falling. She was slapping the thick napkin in her underwear as if she had long ago memorized the curious diagrams in the Maxipad box my mother hid in the bottom drawer of the cabinet.
"Does it hurt?" I asked, having seen the burgundy splotches on her underwear, blood that looked like it came from something important: a kidney, a liver, a mysterious tunnel of intestine. "Of course not," she said. "Don't you know we all get it. It happens to us all."
And then, her wildness was magic, her breasts emerging like blessings, her hips swinging to the swish swish beat in her head. Maybe, because her hair curled down her back like honeysuckle vines, her legs grew long, and her teeth shone like a private invitation, my parents ignored the silent afternoons when Paloma locked herself in our dark room, the days she refused to eat or put on clean clothes.
"Paloma," I would whisper by our door, my cheek pressed on the redwood, the echo of silence in my ear. "Come out before Mami and Papi come home. I want to see you . . . I want to see you dance."
Sometimes, she would open the door, her hair snarled, her nightgown rich with sweat and nightmares. Once she stared at me for a long time, finally sighing and asking, "How long have I been gone?" Other times, I would fall asleep to the smell of wood stain against my face, my knees bruised from kneeling under the doorknob for an entire afternoon.
When Paloma was fifteen, my parents threw her a quincenera. All our neighbors, friends, and relatives in this country came. My father cleared away the furniture on the hardwood floor of the living room and his friends, Olivero from Argentina, Enrique from Puerto Rico, and Sofia from Tijuana would dance, eventually bringing us all to the floor, the colors and music mixing, a swirl of salsa, samba, and tango.
Later, after the toasts and presents and congratulations, Paloma danced. She raised her hand over her head, her fingers splayed like resting butterflies. And then the music started, guitar, violin, deep and sorrowful male voices, Paloma's hips, knees, and ankles moving to each beat, each note, each twang of string. Perhaps she was tentative at first, pretending to be shy in front of the crowd, but then she stomped to the rhythm of the hired mariachis, her red and blue skirt flipping, the adults moving back slowly, surrounding her in a circle. She danced for all of us, someone we would watch even if we had never met her, someone whose blonde hair and green eyes would stop us on the street, her voice and body keeping us there.
Then one morning after searching the house, Mami and I found her in the dirt of the backyard, her bare feet leading her in circles. She looked toward us but kept moving, crying out, "No, no, no. Not yet. No, no, no. Not yet." At first, my mother and I sat on the stone wall by the patio, waiting, we thought, for a gesture: Her hand flinging up above her head, poised for the music to begin, or her neck, arching back, chin thrust to the light, her mouth a practiced smile.
When nothing happened -- my sister, unseeing, unsmiling, body stiff and mechanical, turned to an empty music we couldn't hear -- my mother began to pray. And when God forgot to hear her words and Paloma struggled out of her nightgown and threw it at her feet, my mother stood up, her fist at her throat as if she were trying to hold back her breath, almost refusing to breathe in the new moment of a different Paloma. I stayed back, watching my sister, mi hermana bonita. I watched her spin and spin, wondering if what was happening to her brain was something that would happen to me, too, just like our woman parts had opened in order, the older first.
The day after we found her crying and twirling in the yard, my mother, Paloma, and I left my father at home and drove to the town my mother grew up in, Cruz Blanca, a dot just north of Acapulco. My father sat silently at the kitchen table as we lurched away in Antonia Moreno's Sportswagon, my mother holding the steering wheel with one hand, Paloma's flailing arms with the other. I sat in the third seat, as far away as I could, as far as I could get from Paloma's whimpers, and stared at the road trailing behind us like newspaper, watching Los Angeles fade into tan, the smog of Riverside a dirty eyebrow on the horizon.
"Yanira will help her," my mother said tightly, her mouth a slit of fear. "If anyone can help her, it is Yanira. Dios mio. You know, she saved me when I was born." And to calm herself, my mother again told me the story of her birth, born blue and still, and how Yanira breathed life into her baby lungs, working and breathing until my mother was pink and crying. "She gave your abuela special teas to help her pain. If it weren't for her, we would both be dead."
In Cruz Blanca, my mother and Paloma huddled in Yanira's one room house, away from the heat that radiated like voltage off the smooth beige boulders. I sat under a coconut palm, watching the door.
"Luz, come inside . . . Come in, mija," my mother said before they closed the door, but I had heard enough, had listened too long to my sister's mutterings and sudden screams, had learned too much about Paloma's fears--that if she stopped moving she might disappear or, worse, that if she turned a corner too sharply, she might run into herself, and then another, Palomas coming at her from all sides. Before I backed away, I stared into Yanira's unlined face.
"Can you help her? " I asked. "Can you make her like she was? Did you know she is a dancer? Did you know she is a woman?"
Yanira spoke to me in a thick Indian dialect that sounded like twigs breaking. I have always wondered what she said, wondered if those words were part of the cure or, instead, a warning no one was ready to hear.
The three of them were in the house all day. As I sat, kicking dust at scorpions and red ants, I imagined the herbed smoke, Yanira's crackling words, my mother's constant wails, and Paloma's deadened face and sad, wild eyes. Finally, at dusk, I moved from the shade of the palm to the window, listening in, hearing chants, smelling the dank odor of a wet fire. "Ayyyy . . .," I heard my mother yell. "Dios mio."
We stayed for a week in the home of my Tia Flor. Paloma slept almost all day, every day, and my mother pronounced her cured. "It was like magic," she said. "I saw it come out of her with the smoke. It was evil. Totally evil. Paloma is just as she was."
Our relatives nodded, knowing the strong power of the curandería of Yanira Gonzalez. And when we brought Paloma home, quiet, shining, something beatific in her face, my father wept. "I should have never doubted," he said. "Oh, you are back."
I looked at Paloma carefully, felt the tight high corners of her quiet smile in my heart.
The day after we found Paloma naked on the beach in Santa Monica, I went with my mother to the county hospital. Our neighbor, Mr. Ramirez, had called us at three in the morning.
"Excuse me, Señora. But I think your daughter, the, uh . . . Paloma. She got on the bus. I saw her when I came home from work. She did not look. . . right. Maybe like the last time?"
"Call the police," my father said, even as my mother stuffed her purse full of Kleenex and rosaries. "Let them pick her up. They'll take her to the right place."
My mother snapped her purse shut and pulled maps from the shelf below the telephone. "I can't let them find her, mi Palomita. Mi chica. Ay, pobracita."
We followed the map's black and red lines from El Sereno to Santa Monica, a crowded city on the Pacific Ocean. From five until seven, we drove up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, looking for Paloma, my mother fingering a rosary in her right hand as she drove. When we finally found her, naked and slumped against a light pole, she was talking to a friend she had met, a man we could not see, but one whose mother used to give him two plates at dinner time. "Two full plates," Paloma said. "Always two full plates. She never would have treated him like this. He gets nothing now. And he deserves better. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. He needs to get what he deserves. Don't bother me. I'm talking to Jimmy."
"Who, Palomita," my mother said, pulling Paloma to the car. "What plates, mi corazon? What are you saying?"
I followed them, holding my mother's purse, sitting behind Paloma on the way home, holding her arms still as she tried to take off her clothes again. "Don't be surprised if you see me . . . No, no, no. I won't say that. I can't do that. No, no, no."
My mother never drove on the freeway, so the car ride home took forever, Paloma throwing clothes, screaming for full plates, looking excitedly out the window for other Palomas, licking her fingers and smoothing her eyebrows over and over again. I looked to my mother for a prayer, almost saying myself, Dios mio, ayudame, ayuda mi hermana, but my mother was silent, her eyes on the road, her body just slightly turned away from Paloma and the ocean, our car headed back toward the hills.
At home, when Paloma finally fell asleep, her hands still moving, seeming to serve up full dishes of mole con pollo, chile verde, and carne asada, my mother leaned back deeply into her chair, seeming to want to fold herself between the thin pine dowels. My father was at the kitchen table drinking a Heineken, his eyes and fingers trying to search for something sane, and finding nothing, he was still.
My name means light, but I have always been dark. Paloma had always been the bright one, the one moving to inner music, teasing us all into believing that life was a place we wanted to be.
One night, I heard her moving in her bed, moaning softly. I turned toward her figure, and saw her rhythmic swaying, heard her breathing hard and deep. I felt something opening up inside me, but I didn't know what it was, something wet and unknown, salty and yearning. I listened to her rustling, the rhythm of her hand under her covers, and when she sighed, I melted into the pillow, aching to discover what I had missed. Every night, until the time we found her on the beach, I listened for her movements, her breaths, and she showed me what to do, and my hand moved to the warm spot between my legs. I fingered my almost hairless self, and felt what Paloma felt, and we moved together to the beat, this pulsing, this something we could share because we never talked about it.
I couldn't tell the county doctor about how she had taught me this thing, this important thing when he asked about her past.
"Has she always acted out?" he said to my mother in English. I looked at her and translated, "Siempre ha hecho cosas locas?"
My mother searched my eyes for the answer. Acted out? Claro que si! That's why we loved Paloma, her dancing, her golden hair, tan thighs, her prom dresses. Every meal was a show, with Paloma directing each movement, the conversation.
"No, doctor. No acting out," my mother said.
After her first hospital stay, Paloma came home full of drugs, and death, half of herself left somewhere at the hospital, maybe that half was still with Jimmy, the man who wanted the big meals his mother served him. Her green eyes reflected nothing, and her breath smelled like ceviche left for days in the refrigerator. After weeks of watching her list through the house in her pink nightgown, one arm dragging almost as if she were carrying something heavy, we all slowly began to circle in, taking on pieces of her, the pieces we could find.
My mother bought a red dress, silk and gold trim, and swirled around the room before Mr. Ramirez's niece's quinceñera. My father read to us from the paper with feeling, the deaths, robberies, births, murders, and business mergers suddenly like tiny movies in front of our eyes.
And as the months and then the years went by, my thick baby body turned slim with long bone and smooth muscle. My beauty began to stop men on the street, and I ignored my mother's frown as they looked, her hand on my sleeve as she led me away. I grew my hair down to my waist, the long brown ends turning blonde from the sun. And even now, I still look like Paloma on the outside, no longer brown and thick, but light and slim and free.
At night, as Paloma breathed deeply in a drug dream, I started to move to the old music she taught me, that night time sound that brought out something of Paloma in me, a voice of my own I could never hear enough of.
Mornings would bring my sister's voice and the loud honk of a car as it slid away from our house, trailing dust and sorrow. When I went outside to find Paloma, she would laugh and then fall to the ground, her eyes as dull as Jefferson nickels. After I would wash her, cleaning lipstick from her face and the mess of men from her thighs, I would discover her full pill bottles in the bathroom trash, the name of the nice county doctor on the label.
Once, after my father found her with a man in a parked car outside the local cantina and brought her home screaming, she grabbed my arm as my father tried to wrestle her to our room and pulled me with her down to the floor. Paloma was silent now, her eyes the same green as the night she danced for us on her quincienera.
"Paloma, let her go. Let Luz go," my father said, trying to lift her up and take her to bed.
She gripped tighter, her nails like animal teeth in my skin. I said nothing. She leaned back, her hair smelling of tequila and vomit, whispered, "What will happen next?" and then dropped my arm. The circle she left on my skin was first white, then red, the next day purple, eventually the yellow and green disappearing, though I could still feel her sadness as she dug in, hunting for bone. Even now, I rub the area between my elbow and wrist, knowing that somewhere there has to be a scar.
We lived like this for four years. Some days, back on the medication, she was fine, painting her nails flamingo pink, looking at me piercingly. "It's not like I'm gone," she said. "I know what is happening." Fat slowly filled in her curves, her lovely breasts engulfed by stomach. Other days, she would put on a prom dress, squeeze into it like a hand into a wet rubber glove.
"Put on Yo se que volveras, Luz. I'll dance for you," and she was like a wild red bowling pin twirling around the living room. My mother would stop cooking, and she'd lean on me by the doorway.
"Mi corozon. Mi nina bonita," my mother would sigh, looking at Paloma and holding my hand.
I can tell you how my mother's face aged with sadness and worry as she watched Paloma leave us, cell by cell, even as her body grew bigger. I can tell you how my father drank more and talked less, how he drove his car at night searching for my sister in every parked Maverick and crowded cantina; how we would drive her to one mental hospital and then another, and how he would go to pick her up the next day, later drinking on the couch as she crooned love songs to her feet.
I can tell you all this and she will still be hanging on the fence one summer morning, a stiff metal gate post in her arm, her face ripped open as easily as plastic wrap. Paloma will still be wishing for Jimmy, even as the paramedics pump air into her lungs, push on her flabby chest, and hurl their life force into a body that can't take one more second of nada.
And I think of the one minute she and I had alone, after my mother, her daughter's blood on her cheek, followed my father into the house. Once he said the words My daughter . . . terrible emergency . . . hurry, please to the English-speaking operator, he hung up the phone and turned, kissing my mother, holding her body like porcelain, knowing he had to move slowly back to the time before Paloma. He placed his body, now older, softer, and more afraid against hers, remembering the nights of their honeymoon in Rosarito Beach, the black ocean that pushed crabs, sand dollars, and seagull feathers to the door of their small cabin. My mother was so tired now. She lay her cheek on my father's shoulder, rubbing their daughter's blood on his shirt. My mother sighed, breathing in salty skin, wet sheets, sea foam.
Outside, I held my sister's face in my palms, waited for her eyes to open. I wanted her to see me and remember that I was the one who had been watching. I almost shook her, and she stirred, her eyes flickering, then opening, two emerald bowls holding my face clearly.
"Jimmy will come this time. It's time to go."
Paloma never said another word to me. The paramedics came, and I backed away, seeing everything clearly, too: My mother, my father, the rest of my life without her, flat and brown, rising from the Los Angeles basin with the force of my sister's soul.
First published in the Prairie Star, Summer 1999, Volume 1, Issue 1.