What You Cannot Replace

“The spider is our pet now, children, but one we can’t touch.  We leave him in the corner above the lamp. And we don’t hurt his webs.

“Charlie, you do not blow on the spider.  Do you see how he jumps and wiggles about?  He think’s there’s a storm and he panics.  Do you want to make your pet panic?”  Mary looked down at her son.  Charlie huffed and crossed his arms.  His sister, Emma, kept her eyes trained on their new pet.

“Yes, Emma, we can name him.  No, we cannot name him Mommy, because that’s my name.  No, we cannot name him Daddy either.

“Charlie, let your sister decide the name.  You named the dog and the fish, and now we have two pets named ‘Charlie.’”

Emma thought for a while.  Though only a year younger than her brother, she was never quite as creative as Charlie was.  And here she was, with the important task of naming a new pet.  Charlie looked up at his mother.

“No, we cannot ‘just kill it’, Charlie.  Can you make a new spider?  No, I didn’t think so.  Don’t destroy what you cannot replace.”  Charlie’s eyes shot down to the floor.  He stomped his foot.  He could not name the spider, he could not touch the spider, he could not kill the spider.  The spider might as well have never bothered to exit.

Charlie turned his body and marched over to the couch where he sat, sulking and breathing heavily.  He stared at Charlie, swimming between rocks in the fish bowl.  Another pet he wasn’t allowed to touch.

“It’s okay, Emma.  Your brother is being a poor sport.  We’ll let him mope until he is ready to join us again.”  Emma moved closer to her mom, holding the fingertips of her hand and humming.  She stared endlessly at the spider, studying its thin, brown, branch-like legs, and trying to think of names outside of her family.

Emma’s mom was also thinking about names, or rather, one in particular: Roland.  If Emma choose any name but that, it would be okay.  It already belonged to a loved one.  Mary kept her head high, and was glad that her son was pouting on the couch and her daughter started so intensely at the spider that she did not blink.  It meant no eyes were on her, and unwatched, she could reflect.  Her memory worked in faded colors, like the old home movies she sometimes watched when she couldn’t fall asleep.

Though staring at the spider, she could see the room she grew up in, white, and its hardwood floor, glossy.  She felt the rug she was rolling up, stiff, and the metal from Roland’s cage under her bed, cold.  She enjoyed the pitter patter that his toes made wandering across the hardwood flooring.  He was smart, and she had taught him to grab ahold of her hand when he was hungry.  He’d grip her finger firmly, and she’d feed him a piece of bread tightly coiled into a ball.

Roland had come from her 4th grade teacher, who did not want to keep the pet rat in the class after school had ended.  Mary was very skilled at forging both of her parent’s signatures.

Though only 10, Mary had learned a lot that year with Roland.  It was true that her father normally knocked on doors, and it was true that she could quickly sweep Roland back into his cage and under the bed when he came to visit her.  But these truths were not absolute, she found out.

Without hearing the light switch flick on, without hearing footsteps in the hall, and without hearing the door knob turn, Mary was caught by surprise.  And so was her father, who stood at the doorway with a bowl of popcorn.  The bowl slammed to the floor, scattering kernels and warm popcorn .  Both of her father’s hands gripped the door frame at the sight of Roland running across the wooden floor, his feet slipping.

There was yelling, mostly from fear, and mostly from her dad trying to protect his daughter from such a dirty creature.

There was so much yelling that he could not separate his voice from hers.

So he did not hear her say that his name was Roland.

And that she was his friend.

Or that his favorite snack was bread.

And she did not hear the bones break.

But she saw the neck twist.

And she saw his kicking legs drop loosely beside him.

And learned that blood can sometimes seep from the mouth.

Emma finally took her eyes off the spider.  She gazed, instead, at her mom.  “‘Leggy’ is a fine name, Emma.  From now on, he is Leggy.”

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What You Cannot Replace

Mi Abuelita Muere Cada Noche

Every story is a gateway to a more detailed dream, so I asked my dad to stop telling them.  My bedtimes were filled with recounts of the death that he has seen, and that I now cause.  It’s a memory of mine now, one we share, and when I close my eyes I can hear the wood creaking when the ropes tighten, as my abuela steps off the chair.  His stories, my dreams, are what my father remembers from when he came home from school that day.

The rigidity of her fingers and fabric, unaffected by the wind generated from her own swaying, tells me when I’m dreaming, but I still wander the crooked flooring of the apartment building and become suspicious at the air standing still.  I know what will happen before I gaze inside her darkened room.  I don’t choose my this, but Abuelita swings from the rafters of her bedroom and dies every night.

That same year my dad found his mother, he quit school.  School hid behind ugly fonts and stories about perfect white families, and he could no longer pretend to listen.  He had seen what the world was like as the paramedics sawed the rope from the rafters, letting her carcass collapse so heavily to the floor that the downstairs neighbors ate bits of the ceiling that had dusted into their cereals.

My dream tonight was not like the other ones.  On the night Abuelita died, my dad said the rain water fell in quarter-sized drops, and all of them hit his head as he spent the night in the park’s tennis court, alone.  Tonight’s rain mimics this, and she knows it.  Her legs kick wildly for the first time, and water spills from ceiling around us.  She screams Stop this, Mija.  

I jerk awake, hyperventilate, and run for the park, for the tennis court, while my dad takes sleeping pills.  His back slouches along the couch as the TV’s voice sooth his thoughts into reruns.  He does not stir when I swing the door open or shut.  He does not ask me where I am going.

I sit against the tennis net with the breeze that comes with it biting my nostrils down through to my throat.  All of the rain hits me, but the drops against my skin fade while I think about her voice in my dream.  She had not only kicked, she had spoken.  For the first time in 30 years, her voice clawed through to her mouth.  I only starred.

Every story my dad tells me is a new memory.  Each word builds the room she is in, until it is more like my home and less like her casket.  From old photographs, I know of a sign she kept above her door:  love is not bearing the pain alone.

The truth is, Abuelita did.

And so will I.

Mi Abuelita Muere Cada Noche