Sofia T. Romero
After a grey, drizzly morning, the sun finally broke through. Outside on the playground for recess, we divvied up the roles. Everyone wanted to be Jo, of course. I called dibs.
You can’t be Jo, Susie said.
Why not? I said, kicking the damp dirt a bit with my sneakers. We were all wearing sneakers, but I was the only one who didn’t get nice white sneakers that year. Mami made me get Zips. They were navy blue so they wouldn’t get dirty. Susie had white Nikes, the leather kind.
Because, she started. And then she paused. Why don’t you be Meg?
No one wanted to be Meg. Meg is bossy. She’s the annoying big sister. We all wanted to be Jo because she was cool. I liked her because she wrote stories.
You know what, said Christina. I’ll be Beth.
Phew. No one really wanted to be Beth, who did nothing interesting but be sweet to everyone and then die at the end. Where’s the fun in that?
I like being Beth, said Christina.
And you’re good at it, I said, trying to be encouraging.
You can’t be Jo because Jo had brown hair and you have black hair, said Susie to me, seizing on what she thought was some kind of reason. Down the hill, the boys were playing kickball on the blacktop. Another group of girls was playing on the swings and Kimberly was upside down on the jungle gym again. Everyone could see her underpants.
The whistle. A teacher spotted Kimberly and ordered her to sit upright. She did, but stuck her tongue out at the teacher first.
I’m going to be Jo, I insisted.
She flushed. You can’t be Jo, Lulu, and I won’t play if you are.
Why can’t she just be Jo, Christina put in. Recess was almost over. We wouldn’t be able to play.
I looked over at Christina, who smiled softly at me. Christina was always on my side.
Lourdes, I said. My name is Lourdes.
Tina, she can’t be Jo because she is, Susie paused, well, she’s portorican that’s why and Jo is not portorican.
I opened my mouth again but the words would not come. En boca cerrada no entran moscas, I heard Mami say. I stood up from the grass, brushing dust off my Toughskins. I could not be Jo.
C’mon, Lulu, said Susie. Say something in portorican. Ooono, dossss, tress, quatrrrro, she started counting.
It’s not called Puerto Rican, I muttered.
Say something in portorican! she insisted and started to laugh.
It’s called Spanish, I said, and then I ran. I ran to the swings and climbed on and started to swing and swing.
Swinging, I could see the foursome had fallen apart. Christina had walked away. Susie kicked the dirt. I kept swinging.
I closed my eyes, felt the breeze on my face, my hair flying backward behind me and then forward in front of me.
Can I swing with you? It was Christina.
Sure, I said. I don’t care.
Christina was different from the other girls. She has dark hair like me but her mom and dad came from someplace else, too, from Greece. They spoke with even more accent than Mami and Papi did. She never asked me to say things in Puerto Rican or made fun of my hair when it got frizzy. And I didn’t make fun of the t-shirt that her mom made her wear that said Foxy Lady all over it.
Your mom made you wear Foxy Lady today, I said.
She rolled her eyes. Frowned. She doesn’t really get what it means, she said.
Susie called you Tina, I said.
Yeah, said Christina. No one else calls me that. And she called you Lulu.
Yeah, no one calls me that, I said. Sometimes my family calls me Luli. But not Lulu.
Christina nodded and said, Hey, I’m going to race you to the top.
What do you mean?
I’m on Cloud Five, she said. I’m going to race you to Cloud Nine.
I started pumping my legs. No way! I screamed. I’m going to get to Cloud Nine faster than you!
We pumped our legs faster and faster. I’m on Cloud Six! Cloud Seven! Cloud Eight! We were gasping, swinging so high that sometimes the chain went slack.
There was a cheer from the blacktop. I could see the ball dribbling past the diamond, just out of reach of one of the boys, the one wearing a striped top. He was running toward us to catch it.
Hey, Lulu! he shouted when he saw us. Lulu’s a loser! He snickered and ran back to the game.
Ignore him, said Christina, and we went back to our game. Six, seven, eight. I’m on Cloud Nine! we yelled at the same time. And we swung and swung until the teacher whistled for the end of recess.
At home after dinner, I walked into the kitchen and when I saw them there, looking sharply at each other, stabbing the air with their gestures and with the sound of their voices.
Today, Mami stood over the sink, trying to stuff something down the drain, the disposal was running, the water was running. She got something down there, and I could hear something grinding, grinding, and then stopping. Papi had flicked the disposal switch.
Carajo, he said to her, grabbing her wrist and holding it tight. I can’t believe you would do that.
Let go of me, Mami said, but he held her wrist tighter, and he pulled at something in her hand, and what she was holding in her hands suddenly broke and dozens of tiny beads fell to the floor. It was Abuela’s necklace.
They didn’t see me as Papi told her to go to el infierno and Mami said she would see his Mama there, and my father saw me and yelled come here come here. And in his hand I could see that he was holding Abuela’s prendas, the ones he brought home after she died, and Mami was trying to throw them away. These are yours, he shouted at me and thrust them at me, but I couldn’t move my hands, move my arms, and they fell to the ground in front of me.
And finally I willed myself to leave, and I ran to my room, just as the jewelry, some earrings and a necklace, crashed to the ground, the sound chasing me up the stairs.
My windows were open to let in a little bit of air, and the breeze blew the curtains slightly. I could hear the rise and fall of my parents’ voices, not enough to know what they were saying, but enough to know they were still arguing.
I got the flashlight from my night table and opened the drawer. I could see all the tiny travel-sized things I had gathered: a toothbrush, toothpaste, a bar of soap. What had started as a collection of things I thought were cute because they were small had turned into my running away stash. There was an envelope, I knew it had 17 dollars in it. I wondered how much more I would need before I could run away.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a brief movement, but when I looked, there was nothing but the blank yellow wall. The moonlight cast a strange shadow. And then the shadow moved.
Then I realized who it was.
Hi, I said.
I hadn’t seen Bambi since I was five. He and all his friends used to live along the wall of my bedroom then. Bambi, Thumper, Flower. They were all there. I used to talk to them at night about the things that happened to me that day and what I was thinking about. They were there every night, until one night they just weren’t anymore. When my mom asked me what happened, I just said: They went to Florida.
And now they were back. Well, at least Bambi was.
No Thumper? I said. No Flower?
Bambi shook his head.
I told Bambi I was happy he came back. He bent down to nibble at something. I could tell he was listening.
I don’t know what to do about Mami and Papi are fighting all the time, I said. Run away?
I could tell from the look in his eye that he didn’t think it was a great idea.
I want them to stop fighting, I said. But they don’t. So I just read my book and pretend I can’t hear them.
Bambi thought this was a good plan.
Bambi, can I tell you something?
When I’m on the swing and swinging super high, I sometimes pretend I go to Cloud Nine, I told him. You know what Cloud Nine is? Christina says it’s a place where you’re really really happy.
Bambi seemed interested.
You’re not really in Florida, are you, Bambi? I said. You’re on Cloud Nine, aren’t you? Can I go there, too?
I was crying a little bit now, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, Bambi had faded away.
Miss Matthews let me go to the nurse because my stomach hurt. I walked down the hall. The door to the nurse’s office was closed, and the sign said “knock, walk in.” I knocked and politely waited outside. Come in come in, Mrs. Phillips shouted impatiently, don’t you see the sign says come in? You don’t have to wait outside.
Honey, what’s the matter, said Mrs. Phillips. Her white hair framed her face. On her desk she had lots of photographs of people who were smiling.
My stomach hurts, I said. I don’t feel good.
Mrs. Phillips looked me over and asked some questions. Then she had me sit down. Well, let me call your mother, she said, and disappeared into the room next door.
There was a pile of old books next to the chair I was sitting in and I started to flip through them but none of them was interesting. I stared at the poster on the wall. “BE HEALTHY, BE HAPPY” it said in really big, really red letters. There was a family sitting around a picnic table, and the mom was giving out the lunch. The kids, a boy and a girl who both had blonde hair, were waiting patiently for their sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly, I thought.
Yup, that’s right, said the boy in the picture, turning to me. Good old PB&J. And after this, my dad and I are going to play catch. Then we’ll go home and watch the Brady Bunch.
I’m not allowed to watch the Brady Bunch, I told the boy.
Your parents won’t let you watch the Brady Bunch? he said, surprised.
No, I said. My mom doesn’t like it. I shrugged. I don’t know why.
But I saw it one time, I told him, so he wouldn’t think I was a total loser. One of the girls was in trouble. I forget what else happened, she got in trouble but her parents weren’t that mad or anything.
Marcia and Jan have long blond hair, just like mine, said the girl. She tossed her hair to prove her point.
My hair was too frizzy to toss. At home sometimes when I changed into my pajamas at night, I wouldn’t pull my shirt completely off so it would make something like long smooth hair, good for tossing.
On Cloud Nine, I have long hair and I can toss it, too, I said.
You do not, said the girl.
I do, too, I said. Christina said on Cloud Nine, everything makes us happy.
Mrs. Phillips reappeared. Honey, she said. Did you say something?
No, I said. I looked back at the poster. The boy and girl were frozen, smiling, waiting.
Oh, she frowned. I thought I heard you say something. Anyway, your mom wasn’t home. But your housekeeper said she could come and get you.
We don’t have a housekeeper, I said.
What do you mean? she said. I just called your house and the housekeeper answered.
No housekeeper, I said.
Mrs. Phillips couldn’t hear me. What’s that, Christina?
I’m not Christina, I mumbled again. I’m Lourdes Martinez.
Oh my goodness, she said. What a mistake! I always get you two confused.
She’s Greek, I said, my voice soft. I’m not Greek.
What’s that, dear? Mrs. Phillips said.
Nothing, I said, looking away. I am not Greek, I said, again, under my breath. I am Lourdes.
While we are driving home, I told Mami what I told Mrs. Phillips while I was waiting to be picked up. How Mrs. Phillips asked me how everything was going, in a voice that was warm and made me want to tell her everything.
I told Mami what I told Mrs. Phillips, how when I told her that when I came downstairs on Saturday, Papi was holding Mami by the wrist at the top of the steps that led out of the house. How she was turning away from him, pulling away from him, and finally he let go of her and how she fell. How they told me to get out. How he pushed her away, how she fell, stumbled down the few steps to the bottom.
My mother’s black eyebrows were jagged on her face. Her mouth was like a bruise, angry and hard. She could see me in the rearview mirror. I looked out the side window, as though she couldn’t see me if I couldn’t see her.
She was already annoyed she had to pick me up. She said I didn’t even look sick. Luli, why would you tell her that, she asked, finally.
I don’t know, I said. She asked.
She was angry. She was silent. We don’t talk about that, she said, finally. It’s private.
But she asked, I said. She asked how everything was going at home.
But nada, Mami said. It’s private.
We were quiet in the car after that. Before we got home, I said, I wish you didn’t give me such a dumb name, I wish you named me something else.
Oh? said Mami.
Yeah, something like Beth … or Amy … I said. Lourdes is a stupid name.
At dinner, Mami and Papi were fighting again, but this time they were fighting about me. You won’t believe what Luli did today, she said to him, putting dinner on the table. My father started to eat while Mami got dinner together for the rest of us, her and me and Mateo.
She told the teacher about what happened yesterday, she says. How do you like that?
My father had no expression, but I could tell he was getting mad by the way his neck was turning red.
I slid to the floor so that Papi wouldn’t see me. If he did, he might pinch my nalga, twisting my skin between my fingers so that it really hurt. Or he might make me kneel in the corner for a long time. Maybe fifteen minutes, maybe thirty minutes. Really kneeling, like in church, without my bum resting on my feet. If he caught me resting my bum on my feet, he would give me another fifteen minutes, with my back to the clock, with no way to tell what time it was except for when the clock boinged at the end of each fifteen minutes.
I kept expecting someone to say something but now my parents were fighting about what happened yesterday. Papi put his fork and knife down, stopped eating his dinner.
I slipped out the door, into the backyard. I could hear their voices, her high-pitched one getting higher and higher, his low-pitched one getting louder and louder.
In the backyard, the light was still grey, I could just make out the outline of the swingset. From inside the house, a door slammed. I sat down on the swing and started to pump my legs.
Cloud Two, I said softly. Cloud Three. Cloud Four. Cloud Five. Cloud Six.
Cloud Seven. Cloud Eight.
The wind swept my hair, forward and then backward. When it blew back, I imagined I was a princess, my long hair blowing over my face, and my swing was my horse and we were running away. I had 17 dollars in my pocket. I kept pumping my legs, the swing going higher and higher. I could feel the mist wrapping around me, bathing my arms and my legs, my face. When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see inches in front of me from the fog, chilling and damp. I opened my mouth, tasted the cool cotton.
I had arrived. I was sure of it. Cloud Nine. I waited for the happiness to come.
Sofia T. Romero: "I am a writer and editor living in the Boston area. My work has appeared in Blue Mountain Review and is forthcoming in Waterwheel Review and Leon Literary Review. I am a graduate of Wellesley College and Boston College."