Churros in Lakewood
El viernes, my older sister Ana picks me up at the school and we walk home together, past the gas station and then the flower shop in the almost-falling down house and then the churro shop and then the YMCA and then La Vaquita, where we turn to get to our apartment. It isn’t a long walk, but I am not allowed to do it on my own until I turn thirteen, and that’s not until school’s out.
So, all the other days, I ride the bus. It takes almost an hour to get home. And my stop is the last one. Two other girls ride the bus with me – Destiny who shares her Starburst or trades them for nickels, and Nora who never smiles and wears pink shoes made out of plastic even when it’s winter. Destiny gets off at Norwood and Nora gets off right after her and then it’s just me. Me and Ernesto and Jon and Evan and Malakai and also Malakai’s little brother whose name I don’t know because he never talks, just looks at me with these big sad eyes while his brothers and his friend circle around me. Malakai’s little brothers’ eyes go to all the places their hands go – my hair, my chest, the insides of my thighs.
“I’d fuck her if you put a bag over her head,” says Evan.
“How wide can you open your mouth,” Ernesto wants to know, and he is touching the zipper of his jeans when he asks me.
Jon shows me his penis and when I close my eyes Malakai pulls on my ponytail and tells me to open them. “We know you like it,” Malakai says, and I look at it and I suffer the terrible urge to laugh. Instead, I look at Malakai’s little brother and he closes his eyes and it feels like he is closing them for me, since I can’t.
“Say you like it,” says Malakai.
“I like it,” I say, and they all laugh. Then I can close my eyes without anyone pulling my ponytail and the sound of their laughter reminds me of birthday parties and recess and how Ernesto’s hair used to be red and how us girls used to call him “pimento” until he cried, or hit us, or both.
On Friday, I tell my sister, who is wise, about the boys on the bus. “Si,” Ana says, nodding. “Siempre habra chicos asi.” When we get home she gives me her rosary. She explains that this was our grandmother’s rosary and before that it was our grandmother’s grandmother’s rosary and so I must understand that it holds more power than a ring or even than lighting a candle in the grotto. And for this reason I must finish every rosary I begin and also for this reason, if I lose the rosary, my grandmothers will curse me and I will never find love or have children. “But you won’t lose it,” Ana says. “Entiendes?”
That night, I say a rosary for every boy on the bus. That is five rosaries, if you include Malakai’s little brother. It would take over two hours to say five rosaries on a normal day, but tonight it takes me three because I concentrate during each Ave Maria so that I can see la Virgen de Guadalupe in my mind’s eye, her cloak the color of the sky in summer, her folded hands radiating gold and silver light, her downcast eyes, her perfect red lips. In my mind, the angel beneath her feet is Malakai’s little brother and he has the strength of five boys.
On Monday, there is an announcement during social studies, my last class of the day. The announcement says that Bus 261 – my bus – has had mechanical problems and so students who ride bus 261 should listen closely for their new bus assignment. I put down my pencil and listen. I can feel abuelita's rosary burning a hole in my back pocket. Ernesto, Jon, and Evan will ride Bus 72, the announcements say. Destiny, Nora, Malakai and Malakai’s little brother - whose name, it turns out, is Micah - will ride Bus 321 with me. From school to Norwood and then from Norwood to Malakai’s stop, no one says anything. We look out of our windows and watch the city go by and up front, the bus driver – a woman who says we should call her Dalia – is humming along to the radio. When Malakai walks past my seat to get off the bus, he doesn’t look at me, but his little brother does, and he smiles.
On Saturday, Ana and I go to the churro shop after dinner and we eat churros that she buys with the money she makes at the grocery. It is almost dark when we leave, and the streetlights are just coming on when we run into Ernesto on the corner of Prince Street. He stops when he sees me and Ana just looks at him with her dark eyes and her even darker eyebrows. Across the street, a crowd of well-dressed people is gathering on the steps of the church. Ernesto seems ready to say something, but when he opens his mouth, nothing comes out.
“Hey Ernesto,” I say. “Still want to know how wide I can open my mouth?” And then I open my mouth, and I scream.
The people on the steps look at us all at once and Ernesto turns and runs. We stand on the corner watching the dirty white undersides of his shoes flashing back at us as his figure grows smaller and smaller on the sidewalk. Our laughter follows him until he disappears.