Content warning: domestic abuse
Sylvia lived next door, which is a good thing, because I wasn’t allowed to play at anyone else’s house. We were six-years-old when we met through the chain-link fence that separated our backyards. Our clotheslines were side by side. Hers was empty that day while we had all our whites out, snapping in the hot breeze, boxelder bugs sticking to Daddy’s Fruit of the Loom underwear like glue.
I crouched in the yellow weeds, trying to catch a lizard with my dog Basehart. My hair, slick with baby oil, was pulled tight in a ponytail, and I wore a red-and-white checkered dress with matching red leggings. Mama liked me to be picture-ready at all times, even to play in the jungle backyard. After our daily hair-combing fight, my only instructions were, “And don’t be getting dirty either. Stay pretty.” I promised her I would, but we both knew better. It’s impossible to stay clean while hunting lizards.
That’s how I met Sylvia. I had to catch my breath when I saw her – silent, and standing so close I could nearly touch her except for the chain links between us. I didn’t know the new family next door had a girl my age. I found out later they had lots of kids. That day, I only met Sylvia. She reminded me of some paintings I saw with my white grandma. One time when Grammy came to visit from Florida, she took me to a big museum that conducted art classes. I saw paintings of little Indian children with serious faces. Sylvia looked like that. Her face was brown and round with straight black hair hanging in chunks around her black eyes. She carried a bag of candy wherever she went. Always, her mouth seemed to be full of marbles, and she had some kind of sticky candy juice dripping from her lips in reds and greens which swirled together, turning into a brown rainbow that dribbled down her chin and onto her clothes.
Daddy said, “Did you see her teeth? They’re all rotten.” I didn’t tell him that was just because she didn’t have her own toothbrush. I had been letting her use mine until Mama came into the bathroom and said, “What are you doing? No. Sylvia, you’re going to have to get your own toothbrush.”
Sylvia could come and go through the neighborhood as much as she wanted. I had to stay home, never getting out. I played at her house only once, and only outside where I could be seen. She taught me how to climb in her plum tree that began in the shape of a V. One step up to the V, then up further. We giggled with dark-red plum juice running down our arms, all the way down to our elbows. We scratched our legs climbing that tree with the dark bark and even darker in-betweens. We dared each other higher, and it was always me taking the chance to get there. I climbed slowly, carefully to get the fullest plum, the one with a white sheen. I grabbed it and wiped it off on my shirt to reveal the deeper reds and purples and little specks of gold. We shared the best plums, the really fat ones. I took a bite and handed it to Sylvia to take a bite, and nobody cared who finished it. We tossed plums down to Sunny Boy, her little brother who was too small to climb. He looked just like Sylvia. Dried plum juice stuck to our skin and we licked it off. I felt light in the cool of the shade, and we laughed at Sunny Boy making clown faces at us from the bottom of the tree.
Afterwards, Mama pulled my hair. “What’s the matter with you? You are filthy. Why can’t you stay pretty? Don’t you want to be pretty? Why are you always getting dirty?”
I didn’t have an answer for her because of course I wanted to be pretty. I honestly didn’t know or remember how I got to be so dirty. I didn’t say that though. Luckily, Mama liked Sylvia and usually allowed her to come over to play. She liked Sylvia because she was Mexican. Mama didn’t like the white girls in the neighborhood.
“Sylvia knows how to behave. She’s quiet and she doesn’t bother me,” Mama said, which was true. Sylvia was very quiet. Mama said that a good Mexican girl is sweet and quiet, and that white girls were brought up to be mouthy, and she didn’t like that.
I didn’t care about all that, except sometimes Sylvia was so quiet I might as well have been alone. At least I had a friend. We played until we heard her mother from their front porch calling, “Seel-vee-ya! Seel-vee-ya!” Then it was time for her to go.
As much as I liked for her to come and play and keep me company, the silence always hung between us. I thought it was because I was still an only child then, desperate for a friend. Sylvia had twelve brothers and sisters. She never needed me like I needed her.
Sylvia’s house was like a circus. Through the windows, I saw shadows of people all the time. They were bustling and loud. Voices and laughter pitching high and low. There were family and friends and a constant parade of parties. Birthday parties, first communion parties, baby showers, wedding parties, quinceañeras, and on and on. Always people drinking. Mama looked out the kitchen window.
“Ay Dios!” She closed the curtains.
Sylvia’s father Chencho had fallen drunk in the driveway again. Then there would be the fights, where the primo, Chuey, was always involved. That’s the name I heard the most. Finally, Chuey got stabbed one night. He died. I didn’t hear about him anymore.
The morning after the party in which Chuey died, her house was quiet, like no one lived there. Sylvia came over to play later in the day, and neither one of us mentioned it. We were good. Quiet girls.
Then came the times when my house was like a circus too, except Daddy didn’t pass out when he drank. He raged, pushing my mother against the wall, kicking furniture aside. He burned our belongings in the fireplace, talking like the crazy man who walked up and down the alley, peeing in bushes. The night Daddy burned our things, he started with the dried desert flowers in the tall vase beside the door. I remembered shopping for those flowers at TG&Y with Mama. She took a long time to pick them out, and it hurt me to remember how happy she was to make something pretty for the house. Now Daddy was using them, along with wood and a charcoal lighter, to build great big lapping flames. Mama screamed at me to go get help, but I was scared. I hid in the backyard instead, holding onto Basehart. We watched shadows moving inside. Through the window, I saw my father laughing and talking to himself, breaking down the furniture to better fit in the fire. He sounded just like a crazy man, except angrier.
“Ha-ha,” he laughed. “Everyone is out to get ol’ William.”
Why did he say these things? More laughter. The fire crackled and hissed. From outside I heard it gathering strength, the fire. I knew it wanted to burn us all up and eat everything. Mama cried to herself, and to God, saying, “Please God. Please God, help me.”
My father laughed meanly. I shrank away, wanting to disappear.
Would he burn the whole house? Would he finally kill her? More screaming, crashing, crying. What to do, what to do. The alley behind me was black. No way to see. Who would help us? I couldn’t wait any longer. I heard Mama choking, shrieking, begging him to stop. I looked at the alley once more. So dark. My mother needed me. So I ran. I ran with my pink princess nightgown flapping around my legs. I ran down the dark alley for help.
I passed the houses with the meanest dogs, the ones I could hear snarling through the chain links, their claws digging to get out, to get at me. I shrieked again and again. From out of nowhere a man scooped me up in his arms, even while I fought him off. I thought he was a stranger. Turned out he was a neighbor, the people who lived at the end. His wife Marlena sat me on the kitchen counter and held my head against her chest.
She hugged me to her tight. “Shhh. It’s okay. The police are coming.” I wondered if the police would take my mother away. I couldn’t tell Marlena that Mama was afraid she’d be sent back to Mexico if immigration found her. Marlena thought I was crying because I had glass in my foot.
“I’ll be careful,” she said. She poked my foot with her tweezers. “Tell me if it hurts and I’ll stop, but you have to quit moving.”
What if they took her away from me? Maybe if a Mexican policeman came, someone who spoke Spanish, maybe he’d understand. I just wanted to go home and help save my mother. Marlena said she didn’t know if she got all the glass out. She wanted to know why I couldn’t stop crying.
I woke up in my own bed, not remembering how I got there. Had this all been a nightmare? But the bad feelings still hung in the house along with the smell of smoke and burnt plastic. No one talked about these things though, not one word. Daddy went to work. Mama walked around with puffy eyes. I spent the time being very quiet. I pretended not to notice the things missing, black and charred in the fireplace. The pretty flowers all gone. I stared at the vase a long time, cracked and empty like Mama’s voice.
Sylvia came over, and we played Barbies. We didn’t talk about the commotion from the night before. She looked right at me and put one of Barbie’s shoes in her mouth. She chewed it like a piece of gum. She spit it out and picked out another one. Still watching me, she bent Ballerina Barbie’s head back until it popped off.
I didn’t care about Barbie, but I remembered Grammy bought me these things and it was another reason to feel bad.
“Go home,” I said to Sylvia.
That same afternoon Sylvia came back just when I thought I would die of loneliness. I practically gave her more Barbie shoes to chew to make sure she would stay. A voice inside me kept repeating, “Please, please. Don’t leave me here alone.”
We sat on the back stoop. Sylvia shared candy from her brown bag. I sucked on a lemonhead. “When I grow up, no one is going to hit me or break my stuff or make me cry. I’m going to be strong.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. She rolled the rock candy around in her mouth.
“I’m going to be a fighter like the boxers on TV.”
Sylvia laughed. “You can’t. Girls don’t fight.”
She was right. The only girls I saw in the fights were the pretty girls holding the signs. I would have to think of another way to be safe.
Later I told Mama about Sylvia ruining the shoes. She said that was typical.
“Why?” I asked.
“We’re of a better class,” she said. “Sylvia is just jealous of you.”
I thought about Daddy’s shadow in the window the night before going up and down, laughing, talking to himself, and burning our things. The house still smelled like burnt plastic. Sadness filled me, buried me in a bottomless pit. I wanted to belong to Sylvia’s family and have brothers and sisters.
“We’re better,” Mama said, “because your papa has a steady job.” Her eyes were small raisins in her head like she needed sleep or like she’d been crying all her life. “We own this house on Kansas Street.” She thumped her chest. “I never thought I would have my own house but I do.”
“But Mama,” my voice cracked, afraid of what I was about to say, “Daddy is mean sometimes, isn’t he?” I fought my tears. Seeing my mother sad was the hardest thing in the world.
Mama looked like she might start crying again. “Your father has a good job and this makes us better. He takes care of us. He loves us. You know that.”
“Sylvia’s dad has a job too,” I said softly.
“That drunk? He picks fruit and does odd jobs, whatever he can find,” she said, disgusted, like this was exactly the proof of us being better. “We have health insurance.”
All of this was supposed to make everything alright, and I had my own Barbies, but I was jealous of Sylvia too. I liked the idea of being able to come and go. If there was a fight, I could leave for a while until they made up. Like Sylvia’s family. They went everywhere, to places like Texas and Mexico. Not at the same time – there were too many of them – but there was always someone in the family that was gone somewhere. I wanted to be like that, able to run around like her to the store, to the park, or to a friend’s house.
“Mama, why did you pick this house?” I asked. Daddy said I wasn’t allowed outside because of the bad neighborhood, so why did they pick this one?
“I didn’t pick it,” she said. “Your father did. He bought it and then brought us here. I hated this house when I saw it, but it’s a lot better than the one we were renting before. Now I’m used to it and I like it.”
I nodded as if I agreed with her, but secretly, I didn’t think I’d ever get used to it. Now we smelled like burnt plastic and we hardly had any furniture. Never being allowed to walk around. Always having to stay in my own yard. Kansas Street wasn’t any fun.
Mama hugged me close and kissed my forehead. She choked back a sob. “You know what he gave me that is more precious than anything?”
Her sudden fierceness surprised me. I didn’t know what to say.
“He gave me a beautiful daughter.”
I let Mama hug me for a long time. Slowly we rocked back and forth. “Everything I do is for you,” she whispered in my hair.
Outside the window, Sylvia crossed the street to play with the girls over there. She didn’t even look my way so I could wave. I knew they’d all go to the liquor store for more candy, laughing with their heads together while I stayed alone in my own house and hated her for leaving me.
“Mami, can I go play outside and catch some lizards?”
“Yes,” she said. “But don’t get dirty. Stay pretty.”