Thursday, November 18, 2010

How to Grow by A. Kalena Williams

The readings for the last few classes inspired me to share a Queer fiction piece I wrote for my fiction workshop. Please feel free to add critiques and comments you would only be helping me. :)

How to Grow

The concept of brunch is misleading. I think of families laughing over grapefruit and Belgium waffles and picking over each others’ meals because they aren’t strangers. Marisol and I can’t laugh together because I don’t know her. I knew Andres. I want to know where my brother went. I look at Marisol with her long brown hair filled with tiny golden threads and search for remnants of him in the creases oh her hands. Marisol takes a sip of her orange juice and leaves a magenta stain on her glass. She is a clone of Eva Longoria. She lifts her shades to order because she is not hiding behind them. I stare at the menu hoping I didn’t do my math wrong. I’m a clone of America Ferrera.

I am stiff in my chair, while she is practically in lotus position talking about her new place, about how she is taking up gardening. “What are you going to plant first?” I don’t actually want to know but we’re playing a game so I ask. “You know I think I may plant a few trees in the back to have more shade.” She pauses hoping I will contribute to her plans but instead I stare at the little green eyed boy in front of me eating apple slices. I want to smile and then cry. I shake the sadness out of my outgrown bob and forfeit the game. “So you still like trees?” I asked. She nodded as she removed her shades and placed them on the table. I wonder if Redwoods are still her favorite.

When Andres was well, my brother Andres and not Marisol, he would cry when trees where cut as if he was a branch being torn from its trunk by a rusted blade. But that was when he was seven and I was five and we weren’t ashamed of our emotions. In time however, we would learn to shed our childhood for tougher skin to make it through the daily contests we always lost.

Andres lost the most. He lost the ability to make the words on the pages stay in one place. He tried to keep the p’s from looking like q’s d’s and b’s but the girls were yelling again and he couldn’t concentrate. Someone else was leaving, someone else had a baby, someone else was going to have to teach him how to read because his tutors were dropping like flies better yet, they were leaving like they had been kicked out of the house for getting pregnant at 17, 16, 15. I was lucky. I relied only on myself when it came to book smarts.

Afterschool we would always study in the kitchen. “The red wood forest is the only place the red trees grow.” After thirty-five minutes he managed to read one sentence. He closed the book and began to wash his hands in the kitchen sink. I was reading our sister Angie’s journal to see if she would be the next to go play house. “Let’s make a snack Nati.” “You should probably finish your homework.” “I’m almost done.” “You read one sentence.” “So how about grilled cheeses and green apples?” “OK. Fine” I would always give in. He would only let me help him that way. I tried to teach him how to read but he just starred at the pages for hours, even when he gave up on deciphering the words. He would look at the pictures and tell the story he saw. This worked pretty well until the books he read no longer had photos. After that he began to sink inside himself and even I wasn’t allowed in.

I watch Marisol neatly eat her crepes. I wanted to know what happened that day after we finished the last of the apple slices but she was more focused on small talk. I had lost track of Marisol’s progress on the house, she was saying something about changing the color of the living room then going for modern light fixtures in one room to antique fixtures somewhere else. She was stalling. “I can’t believe we’ve only been talking about me. How are you?” Even behind my shades she notices my impatience. Whatever she wanted to say since she called me last Monday, “Hi Natalia, have brunch with me. I miss you” was going to pour out soon in front of all these happy people. “I can’t complain.” I really couldn’t.

I have been trying Buddhism for a while now; the whole concept of “ending suffering” drew me in. It’s the only reason I am here today. “This can be a healing experience if you let it be.” The words of my teacher no longer made me think I was in Jedi training. “Don’t empower negativity.” “Take the time to free your mind.” “When you hold grudges you enable suffering.” They have turned into quiet mantras I whisper as I adjust my worn tote bags filled with overdue notices on my shoulder while walking the seven blocks to the write for a magazine no one ever reads.

As I slump in my chair I claw at the phrase “This can be a healing experience if you let it be.” I take another bite of my bagel. Take one last glance at the little boy as he waddles out the door. This Bistro in the valley is a clone of the clean ones for tourists in Hollywood. I take my shades off and look at my sister. Andres is gone.

My brother was my soul mate before I knew what one was. I never really had sisters. I had nice girls that would brush my hair and told me stories to go to sleep before their boyfriends came to tap on the windows late at night. They didn’t know me and left the house before they could. I had been waiting for this, for some way to piece the yesterdays back together. I was done with the ugly pleasantries. They were remnants of the mariansimo I thought I had peeled away from after picking it apart while getting my B.A.

We no longer play make-believe. Marisol strokes her shades as if she wants to be strangers again. Before she has time to really ponder it I speak again. “Why didn’t you tell me? I used to feel sorry for you but then I realized it was happening to me too. To all of us so I just started to feel sorry for myself.” “Your editor Shawn tells me you are covering the opening next week, will you promise not to leave until you see the whole exhibit?”

Andres would do this all the time. He was three steps ahead of me when it came to things like this. No matter how many words I could read I could never quite predict his reasoning. “I know you are struggling with stuff right now Nati, I also know that we don’t know each other anymore. One conversation over one meal won’t help us. Besides words were never my thing. I can show you the answers you want or atleast a way to find them.” I stare at the remainder of my fruit salad.

That day we were studying in the kitchen Andres told me he had something to show me. He had the biggest smile on his face and I got excited. I chewed the apple slice as quick as I could and ran after Andres to Susie’s old room which was Sara’s old room before that.

There’s only a few dresses in the closet, heels scattered on the floor like they’d been picked over, and a white comforter over the bed. All things you leave when you have to grow up and have babies. Susie had left her favorite shirt on the bedroom floor before she left the house. It had been lazily swept under the bed, where all things went when wewere supposed to clean the house. Andres retrieves it as if he knew it was down there.

He puts it over his clothes and it fits like an oversized dress. “Did you wear my shirt? It feels bigger then it was last week.” His impression of Susie was flawless. And it helped that they looked the most alike. “That’s perfect!” I laughed. He even held his hands like her. His green eyes glowed as he twirled his dress. I think he forgot that I was in the empty room with him. “Kids!!! Andres, not again, why do you like to do that. Your sister has been harassing me for this thing.”Andres yanked the dress off, walks past my mother, and grabs my hand. We walk back to the kitchen. I wanted to ask him what mama meant but he had the dead trees look in his eyes, so I thought otherwise.

I look up to see Marisol’s face she has the same green eyes as before, as always. Even when Andres became Andy and only looked at me when he was tapping on my bedroom window after mama locked him out for skipping curfew, or because she found his makeup bag, they never changed. They always seemed too say, I wish we could be kids forever.
“The redwood forest is the only place where the redwood tree grows.” Andres closes the book because that’s all he needs to know. Marisol is like a red wood herself, she was forced to grow in one place until she convinced others to cut her down and take her with them.

We had both tried to escape the pattern our sisters created. I struggled in school and landed a job on the bottom of the journalist food chain writing for angry lesbians. Marisol worked gods know where to pay for her surgery and then took up photography. She was lucky enough to gain a kudzu like following and is comfortable at 32, at least financially. But we both lost everyone even each other. We should have just been normal and had babies as teenagers.

I sigh and agree to all of the conditions Marisol mentions, she graciously pays for our meals and I wave goodbye not yet ready to embrace her. We had opened a wound and had barely begun to treat it. I would have to wait for the 16th of September when Marisol débuted her photography exhibit titled Funeral.

I didn’t want to be there but questions that need answers. More importantly I had bills to pay. Bills that did not care if I hated the crappy “how to” pieces I was forced to write to prove myself to the magazine. When I first received this assignment I thought it would be the piece I had been aching to write: “How to Spot Queer Art: Today’s Top Ten Queer Artists”. Since art had many interpretations I thought I would have free reign but Shawn who was not only the editor of Grapefruit but a controlling Octabitch already picked the artists. Once again I was still stuck writing for someone else.

That night I stood in front of the gallery and held a promotional card in my hand. Behind the when and where was a photo of six manikins four girls make a perfect row in the back a younger girl and a younger boy are in the front, They are in a forest with bare trees. Although this was the opening night, the title of the exhibit: Funeral, told me everything. I knew what she was going to do and a familiar unease settled inside me. She was going to kill my brother, again.

I stepped into the gallery the typical white walls were painted sandstone and made my red button up and black blazer standout as I maneuvered through the entrance. The first photo I see is called Hermana and is the same one that is on the card. The photo has a captive audience around it. They unknowingly swoon over our childhood. I look at the photo and feel sick. I hated the day that photo represents.

That day, my hair was slicked back and braided tightly to keep in the wildness. My dress was 66% starchy tool and 34% polyester. My neck and belly itched underneath it, my sprit itched underneath that. I am holding Andres' hand and he is wearing a stiff maroon button up shirt with a bolo tie, black slacks and crocodile boots with a metal toe that matched his aglets. We grasp each other's hands hoping we could teleport somewhere else. But instead we are ushered to my sister’s wedding reception which would not end until 8 am the next morning.

After five hours of our drunk “tios” telling us to get them more beer, Andres and I ran to a back room and with little dialog, exchanged clothes. In our innocent joy we returned to the party and resumed our waitressing roles. Mama was furious when she saw us. The next week she shipped Andres to our Tio Mario’s house for the whole summer, figured he needed a male role model. That summer I begin to slip into the pages of the stories I read and when that was not enough I would write my own. Before I walked to the next photo I realized that the younger girl has green eyes. Mine are brown.
There is a nervous smile on my face. A survival skill I learned from my mother. I smile to save face and so I am not judged for burning inside as she did that day she shoved us to the bathroom to lock me back in my dress and Andres in his pants and tie. When we saw that smile as we walk through the party, we knew our mother was hurting. The guilt seeped into our small chests and we began to hurt too.

Marisol must have kept that smile with her as well because her next photo is a remake of our mother. The woman in the photo had a scarf over her head and was starring into the candles that lined a mantle. My mother prayed to the Virgen many times a day hoping for answers and all she was given was the strength to cope. Although she would never admit it, after awhile, she began to think she was cursed for leaving Mexico and her husband. Curse or no, the strength she had to leave that day was what helped me love her even when she no longer loved me or Andres, or Marisol.

I pass many other photos and after the seventh one they had begun to tell stories about a world I only saw hints of in those green eyes as we grew older. One of the last photos was of a figure balled up back against a white wall. Everything was blurred except the hands. The nails were manicured and painted magenta, the hands covered in makeup covered the face. The photo was titled Andie. My throat tightened and it was hard to swallow to breathe. I began to understand. Andres was burden, a lie my mother tried to mold Marisol into. Here in these photos Marisol was trying to kill the burden that laced the beautiful parts of the Mestizaje our mother shared with us in the womb. Tears escaped from my brown eyes and soothed my burning cheeks that were still trying to maintain my pride with a smile.

In a startling motion I am disoriented and find myself in an embrace. Marisol has found me and I have found her. I quiet the rush of emotions inside and hug her back. She smells like the children we will never have. She lets go and we look at one another there was so much to recover and I had only just begun to understand. Her eyes held back tears, they were the only part that still hurt like she used to when she was merely a secret hidden behind a body.
That night I realized that I had been running from many of the answers I had been looking for. There is something in our family, in our culture that kept us from growing into the people we wanted to be. And it wasn’t my mother’s fault alone, someone had taught her how to limit her expectations and her identity. What else could she do but perpetuate the cycle? To transcend the norm meant an internal loneliness because no one really gets you, you don’t even get it all the time. I guess I am lucky to have Marisol at least now we can be lonely together.

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