We spoke on the phone that morning. Día de Los Muertos. I was on my way to catch the city bus to school. I was running late, as usual, but I missed the first bus and took her call on Facebook Messenger. She liked that app. It was so much better than the international calling cards she used to buy.
“Hola, mi Amor, Como estas?” she trilled in her phone voice, sweeter and shriller and louder than her normal speaking voice.
“Como está la casa?” She sounded happy. Happier than she’d sounded in a long time.
“Bien. Bien.” I replied. “Todo está bien. Pero la casa huella a cigarrillos.”
“Por que?!” she demanded. “Están fumando?!”
“No. No…” I tried not to laugh at the shift in her tone. “Es que quemaron tus frijoles.”
She’d left us several huge tubs of boiled, red beans in the fridge when she left. We’d been slowly working through them over the course of the three weeks she’d been gone. This last batch caught fire. My mother lost track of time and left them unattended. The whole house was filled with what might be mistaken for the smell of stale cigarette smoke. Burnt beans.
Since then, she’d made her way back to her hometown of Santa Farsa, a small pueblo in the mountains near the Salvadoran-Guatemalan border.
“Heeee…” She inhaled sharply. “Quien los quemo?”
Her intonation felt something like accusation. She and my mother were always at each other’s throats. I didn’t want to stir up conflict, so I left the real culprit unnamed. I lied and told her it was me.
She clicked her tongue and chided gently. “Hay que tener cuidado, mija. Hay que poner atención.”
“Sí, Abby. En la proxima, tendrá mas cuidado.”
I called her Abby. I couldn’t say abuela when I was little. Abby stuck. She preferred it to Petrona.
“Okay. Que están haciendo?”
“Estoy en ruta a la escuela. Y tu? Que haces?”
She told me she’d spent the morning with her sister, decorating her mother’s tomb. In El Salvador, Día de los “Defuntitos” is a religious occasion. There is a great deal of praying. And a lot of bright-colored, handmade, plastic flower arrangements. She gushed about how beautiful everything was and told me she was at my Tia Mela’s house resting for the afternoon.
“Gracias por la llamada, Abby!” I said. “Te amo.”
“Okay, tita. Cuidala a tu mamá. Es una mujer buena.” That was the first time I’d heard her compliment my mother in years.
“Cuando me muera, no quiero que lloras. No quiero que están triste.”
“Abby, por favor, eso me va a matar a mi.”
We start in the center of town, at the Catholic Church situated right next to the town hall. It’s large and blinding white with a deep orange outline that makes it look like a transplant from a cartoon. The copper bell in the middle of the tower shatters the illusion.
I used to think they were beautiful, but today I’m suspicious of the pink Maquilishuat trees in the church’s courtyard. They work with the lush, green mountains and the pastel buildings of the town and make me feel like I’ve accidentally walked into the background of a surrealist painting.
I stand in the middle of a large procession, ready to exit the iron gates of the courtyard. I’m wearing high heels for the first time in years. I hate heels, but she loves them.
There was this little song she used to sing to me every once in a while: “Con los zapatos de tacón, las mujeres se ven mejor.”
My sources tell me that Abby was very “coqueta” when she was younger. She never denied it. I’m not sure she ever grew out of it. Meanwhile, I could rarely stomach a dress. Every once in a while, we would go to Big W or any of the other shops in Macquarie and play an adult edition of dress up. It wasn’t for me. I enjoyed myself because it made her happy. I always wanted her to be happy.
She always wanted to look her best.
She doesn’t, though. Her makeup looks terrible. Whoever did it just caked it on and smeared copper glitter across her lips. They should have let me do it. I barely even recognized her last night.
The gates open slowly. The truck leads the crowd and I out of the courtyard. We take our first steps out onto the cobblestone streets. Abby is on the truck. The bed is filled with fresh flowers. Mostly red roses and white lilies, but there are others as well.
A garden on wheels. Abby loved flowers. She would think it’s beautiful. I want to think it’s beautiful too. But the bittersweet smell of the flowers threatens to make me sick.
I never wanted to be here. I wanted her at my graduation. I wanted to grow up and make money, so that she could move out of their house. We would live in a small apartment in a city where they spoke Spanish, and she could get around on her own. But they sent her away. Just a vacation, they said. And now she can’t come home.
The procession continues into the main road. It would have been a highway in the U.S. Strange. It’s sticky and hot, and we have another two miles to go. Cars are going around us. They are accustomed to this. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m just glad to be out of the church.
I wasn’t allowed to speak at the service. That role went to the surviving male heir. I don’t want to be angry, but I am. She did not raise him. She raised me.
I always thought I belonged here. When I visited before, I never felt any different from my primos. Now, my connection to a culture I thought was mine has been severed. I have lost my claim to latinidad. I don’t belong.
Being next to her gave me the illusion that I could. That it was mine.
My pride in my heritage has morphed into something that feels a lot like shame. I don’t talk about it. In English or Spanish. I can’t seem to do her justice either way, and I hate it. Every word seems fake.
My mother talks too much. I don’t want to be angry about that either. She goes on and on about how much she will miss Abby. As if she has any right to talk about her. As if she wasn’t always instigating arguments. As if I didn’t spend all of my free time mitigating them.
I analyze the stout woman head to toe. Brown curly hair. Blue eyes. Pale skin. La gringa. She calls herself my mother, but I know who raised me. It wasn’t her. She was too young. More of a moody older sister than a mother.
She was irrational. Possessive. Jealous. Now, she’s guilty. And I am being cruel. “Everyone processes these things differently.” I don’t want to be angry.
I try to focus on the sound of incoming traffic.
With Abby, I was a different creature. Something that made sense.
Now I’m just some beingless being, an overtagged Instagram photo: “American[e],” “Te pareces a tu mamá.”
I wish they wouldn’t say that. I can’t contest it, but it makes me hate myself. I don’t look the way I’m supposed to look. Abby’s bromas become insecurity in her absence. Being a white passing biracial person never bothered me before. But, now, without my tether, I am floating away.
Everything familiar is suddenly foreign. I don’t speak except as a politician.
I don’t belong here. I should leave. I can’t be anywhere else. I’m stuck in this crowd. This endless progression, the freak of the frontera.
There will be no more of so much. No more spontaneous trips to the beach. No more pan dulce. No more casamiento. No more pupusas. None of that anymore. No one will make them for me, and I’m no cook. No proper Latina. I’m more of a man. That’s the joke my father tells.
He’s been introducing me as his son since I cut my hair short. I don’t mind. It’s truer than he realizes. I was the man of the house when he was away. I’ve always considered myself the eldest son. I look down at my heels. Very funny. They might as well belong to someone else.
Our party turns onto the main road of the graveyard. The decorations from Día de Los Muertos are still on all of the graves. They make the stretch of land look like a dusty, multi-color piñata.
The sadness has been slow to take over. I know that once it hits, I’m likely to drown in it. None of this seems real. I’m living out a childhood nightmare.
Any minute now. I’ll wake up 10 years younger. I’ll run into Abby’s room crying.
“Que tienes?” she’ll say groggily.
“Soñé que… moristes.”
“Estoy aquí. Acostarte conmigo.”
And I will. And this will be over.
Any minute now…..
I swear, this dirt road goes on forever. There are vendors along either side. Up until now, there’s been nothing but cars and my mother’s nervous chattering in the perfect Spanish that Abby taught her. She taught me too. She raised me in Spanish, and I grew into her translator.
Some of the old ladies start to sing. Their words are garbled and incomprehensible, but it’s pleasant. I accidentally make eye contact with a stone statue of Maria on one of the graves. She is crying. Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe those tears are mine.
We are coming up on the last part of the cemetery now. Our assembly passes through another gate. The final gate. Everyone disperses into the safe spaces among the poorly organized graves.
There’s a man calling out to us. He’s selling elados.
My great-grandmother’s grave is open at the bottom. Abby will be buried right below her. In the very grave she decorated for Día de Los Muertos. The red plastic flowers she placed herself are still here. The irony is bitter on my tongue.
We’ve arrived. The end of this death march. The end of her.