Fiction


Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

 

Little Deaths

By Vickie Fernandez


It’s dusk, the sky is the color of fresh bruises and Laura Branigan hums from a boom box, “I, I live among the creatures of the night I haven't got the will to try and fight.” I ache to be outside with my friends. Instead I sit at my wicker desk and pine. I can’t go outside because I’m sick. Mom keeps taking my temperature and calling my grandmother.

“Ma, the fever isn’t breaking. She won’t eat and when she does she throws up. I don’t know what to do. I need you to come over.”

Mom hangs up the phone not realizing that the curly, yellow chord is wrapped around her waist. I reach out to her from the wobbly kitchen chair as she presses her cool hand against my flaming forehead. 

Mom isn’t good at taking care of me when I’m sick. That’s my grandmother’s job. This is the first time we’ve lived without her. When mom’s job takes her all over the world with friends, grandma rubs Vicks Vapor Rub on my chest and makes me warm milk with sugar when I can’t sleep.

Mom’s new husband, Arturo, sits on the couch watching soccer while she paces back and forth wringing her hands waiting for grandma. I feel terrible but I’m more worried about the look on mom’s face than I am about my aching chest.

Mom met Arturo at a nightclub in Argentina. He’s tall with feathery brown hair and green eyes. I guess he must’ve been really nice to her in Argentina when she’d leave me with grandma to spend holidays and weekends there. Here in New Jersey, not so much.

Mom and Arturo used to fight. Now, he doesn’t even talk to her. It’s gotten so bad that mom hands me notes to deliver to him that she’s written on perfumed stationery. I read them as I walked from the kitchen to the living room where he’d sit with one hand down his pants, his face gray in the glare of the TV.

Arturo,

I don’t know why you are so angry with me. Is it something I did? Would you like steak or chicken for dinner?

I love you.

Ana

While Mom cries behind her bedroom door, Arturo runs up the phone bill smoking and sipping his matte tea through a silver straw– his transcontinental voice sweet and enthusiastic. I hate him for hurting my mom and he hates me for no reason. He refuses to get a job and sits around in his underwear all day. When I get home from school I have to sit outside because Arturo refuses to watch me.

“That is not my child, Ana. I did not come to this country to be a baby-sitter. Do you know how embarrassing it is to be married to a woman with a bastard child? Let her sit outside until you get home. I have more affection for a dog than I have for that brat.”

So I’d sit outside for two hours everyday and stare at the kids playing across the street. Their mom sits in a metal folding chair reading a magazines - her hair in coke can sized rollers, a KOOL hanging from her lips and an ease that pulls me toward her.

“Oye nena! What you doing sitting there all alone, everyday?”

I smile and shrug feeling my embarrassment beam hot and red on my face.

“You can come over here, pero cuidado crossing da street.” She waves one bronze arm at me as she grinds her cigarette into the sidewalk.

I look both ways and dart over to her.

“My name is Carmen and this is my daughter Marisella.”

She points to a little girl my age. Her eyes are two gold-flecked emeralds that shine through her long blonde eyelashes and her hair is a mess of frizzy curls. She’s wearing a wash worn pink pinafore dress with little blue eyelets on it. All of my friends up to that point have been boys. Girls didn’t like me. I was too rough and though I enjoyed collecting stickers like the girls in my class, I preferred GI Joe to Barbie and jeans and sneakers to dresses.

Marisella walks over to me and grabs my sweaty hand.

“You want to see my kittens?”

“Uh huh, I love kittens but I am really allergic.”

“These won’t make you sick they’re magic kittens.”

She leads me underneath the decrepit porch.  I feel like Indiana Jones as we crawl further and further beneath the house. In a pink plastic laundry basket, pressed up against the wall, is a mama cat coiled around her liter of kittens.

I had never seen animals so small. Their little pink mouths feeding off of their mother, their mole like shut eyes. I inch closer to them and sit next to the basket. One of the bigger kittens crawls over to me. He’s black all over with a diamond shaped white speck on the crown of his head. I bend over and let him lick at my face – no sneezing or hives.

Marisella was right, they were magic.

“I think he likes you.” Marisella says as she stands up.

“I love him! I’m gonna call him Speck.”

From that day on I couldn’t wait to get home from school to play with Marisella and my magic kitten. Speck grew quickly but was still small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. Pretty soon he’d follow me across the street when mom drove up at 5:30pm in her big Buick. I begged her to let me bring him in the house but Arturo hated animals. Mom bought a hundred little cans of cat food and every night Speck would meow outside my bedroom window until I came out to feed him.

Now, I’m sick and worried about who will feed Speck if I have to go to the hospital.

Mom’s distracted and staring out the window waiting for my grandmother to drive up. I sneak out the back door and crack open a can of fishy cat food. Speck stares up at me for a moment as if he can tell something is wrong. I sit on the dirty patch of concrete we call a yard and he leaps into my lap. I rub the white patch on his head and wish that everything felt as good as his small tail whipping across my thighs and his pink, sand paper tongue licking my finger. He ignores the can of food and claws his way up my chest with his tiny paws. 

My grandmother appears at the screen door and I start to cry. Speck sprints away his can of food sits on the ground untouched.

In the Emergency Room that night, nurses and doctors talk to my mom with strange looks on their faces. I’m checked in and hooked up to an IV, once secured onto my hand with white tape; I feel a cold rush of liquid up my arm and taste the medicine in the back of my throat. There are needles every wear, urine samples, blood samples and my name in typed letters on a bracelet around my wrist. I don’t leave. I have Pneumonia.

My grandmother blames the neighbors.

“She probably breathed in something horrible at those dirty Puerto Rican’s house!’

I’m exhausted and hooked up to all sorts of tubes but I have to fight back.

“Those are my friends! You can’t talk about them like that.”

“They are not your friends.” My grandmother hisses, nostrils flaring.

This is something I don’t understand. We are Cuban. We speak the same language, eat the same food, and suffer the same blanket of insults – dirty spic is not specific to one Latin culture. How are we different? I’m furious and start to cry. I love my friend Marisella and her mom, Carmen.  For the first time in my small life I don’t like my grandmother. My sobs lead to a coughing fit and mom asks my grandmother to wait outside. Mom doesn’t share grandma’s sentiment; she has grown close to Carmen, staying outside talking through swats at mosquitoes hours after I’ve gone inside.

“Baby, listen, your grandmother didn’t mean that, okay? She’s just very upset that you are so sick. Sometimes, when adults get nervous, they say stupid things they don’t mean. All that matters right now is that you get better.”

“Mommy…can…you” I say through a thick phlegmy cough. “Promise me that you’ll feed Speck.

“I promise. Now, do me a favor and get some rest.” 

That night I crash so hard I don’t dream.

I was in the hospital for a month. I watched as kids with incurable diseases came in and out and left empty beds beside me while my lungs struggled to clear. I liked the hospital. I got to know which nurse was taking my pulse by the temperature of their hands. I giggled at their jokes while they changed the bags of fluids on the IV cart that I dragged behind me, up and down the halls of the children’s ward, like a metallic cross on wheels.

In the playroom I learned about all kinds of illnesses from the other patients and though I was a kid I knew to be thankful for my minor lung infection. Mindy had leukemia and no hair. Johnny had a football-sized tumor in his stomach and couldn’t walk. Mary and Kimmy were twins. They were my age and shared the two beds across from mine. They had matching pajamas and brain tumors that were awaiting surgery.  My new friends though sick and mangled all smiled, laughed and cheated at Candyland as if nothing was wrong. I knew I was learning something important from them.

On my last day at the hospital Mary and Kimmy went into surgery. Mary made it. Kimmy died of a massive brain hemorrhage. Once Mary woke up from surgery and found out her sister hadn’t survived she went back to sleep and never woke up. That’s what mom called it, sleep, but I knew they’d gone to Heaven.

We drove home, the back seat full of stuffed animals and a month’s worth of pj’s.  From the passenger window everything looked dingy and uncomfortable. I was better, my lungs stronger, but still I felt wiped out and lost – not at all ready to face a world without plastic trays of sectioned off food groups and bendy straws sticking out of kid sized apple juice cups. I didn’t want to see Arturo and thankfully he was at one of his soccer games when we got home.

In my room there were stacks of drawings and notes from Marisella and Carmen. They had gone to Puerto Rico for the summer. I thought that maybe my grandmother had said those mean things about them because she was jealous that she could never go back to Cuba.
 
I crawled into bed with my stack of homemade cards. Mom sat next to me and wrapped her arm around me.

“Do you mind if I sit here with you, honey?”

“No, but you have to take off your shoes. I don’t wanna catch anymore germs in my lungs.”

Mom laughs and flings off her Thom McAnn sling backs as I come across a series of “I’m sorry” cards.

“Mommy, what are these.”

Mom looks nervous like she does when Arturo starts to drink beer before it’s dark out.

“Baby, I have to tell you something. It’s about Speck.”

“Did you forget to feed him, mommy?”
 
“No, mamita, I didn’t forget to feed him.”

“Then what, what happened to Speck?!” My eyes start to burn and I get the same feeling in my throat I’d get when mom would go away on her trips.

“Baby, Speck got hit by a car the week after you went to the hospital. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to get upset. You were having so much fun with all of your friends and the nurses…”

I think about Speck’s little pink paws like cushions against my skin. I cry so hard I can’t breath. I take two puffs of my big yellow inhaler as mom rubs my back. A thought occurs to me and I catch my breath. 

“Mommy, do kittens go to heaven like Mary and Kimmy from the hospital did?”

“Of course they do, baby.”

“Do you think the twins would do a good job taking care of him, you know, until I go to Heaven?”

Mom’s eyes get all wet and red like mine and she squeezes me tight.

“Yes, honey I think they will do a very good job.” 

 

*****

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