I want to speak Spanish so I can sound like Marisol who rides the bus home with me, but my mother says I should cut it out and talk American. Marisol lives two doors down and we met on the second floor balcony when her little sister tumbled halfway down the stairs and I had to lend them a bandaid. Marisol’s sister liked the bandaid because it had mermaids, so Marisol told me thank you and I should call her Mari. Mari has two sisters and one brother and a mom and an aunt and a dad, too, except he lives in Ecuador and I have only seen him in a picture above her television. He is small but wide with thick dark hair and arms like Easter hams. Marisol means “sea and sun,” except here, her mother says, there is too much of one and not enough of the other.
On the bus Mari and I talk about almost everything and she doesn’t mind when I copy the way she rolls her ‘r’s or ask her to repeat the words for “butter” and “yellow” because they sound so nice together, the way she says them. When my mom goes into work at C&H Cafeteria on the weekends, I walk across the three blocks and two busy streets to La Superior, the taco shop and tienda where Mari’s aunt works. When I think of an aunt, I think of my Aunt Linny or my Aunt Sharon, who have wrinkles around their eyes and are fat and have houses that smell of cat fur. But Mari’s aunt has moon eyes and hair so shiny it reflects the colors of the pinatas hanging from the ceiling. She says hola, sobrina to Mari from behind the register and when she smiles her crooked teeth make her seem more beautiful instead of less. I sit at at a table with Mari and we eat fresh tortillas rolled with salt. Mari makes me ask for the tortilla myself, in Spanish, and though no one seems impressed by this, I still feel proud. When Mari has to leave, I stay, studying the signs on the menu and in the produce aisle, saying them out loud to myself, wondering what they mean. I consider asking Mari’s aunt, but she is busy at the register. When the store is about to close, I see Mari’s aunt take a broom from behind the counter and start to sweep. When I walk up and offer to take the broom from her, she shrugs and hands it over. Then she goes back to the cash register where she starts counting out the day’s money.
I sweep the perimeter of the floor first, following its edges. I sweep around Mari’s aunt’s counter and around each of the registers where colorful bags of candy are lined up in rows next to bags of pork rinds and peanuts. I sweep beneath a giant shadow box of the Virgin Mary, her statue festooned with flowers and suspended in glass; then I sashay down the salsa aisle and into the dried goods where there are boxes of yellow rice and cans of beans and more types of peppers than a person can count. When I am done, Mari’s aunt calls me sobrina and smiles at me. I hand back the broom.
I come back the next weekend, and the next, even when Mari does not come with me. I have learned to say the name of almost every vegetable and most of the fruits, I can say hello and goodbye and talk about the weather, and Mari’s aunt told me to call her Tia Emilia. It has been three weeks, and I have tried mango for the first time and also avocado drizzled with lime juice and salt. I know how to pronounce each of the peppers and have felt their heat on my tongue, grinning at Tia Emilia as I feel my face burn and my eyes water. Her laughter sounds like something that should have its very own name.
But then one day, Mari comes out on the balcony and slams the door behind her, marching over to my apartment door. She wants to know if her tia pays me to sweep the floors for her and when I tell her no, she asks me if I I am so dumb that I actually think I am part of her family. That she says all this in Spanish and I understand it all only makes it sting a tiny bit less. The next day, she doesn’t sit next to me on the bus. The day after that she isn’t on the bus at all and when I get to La Superior, Mari is there chatting with Tia Emilia at the register and Tia Emilia won’t look at me at all. When it’s time to close, Mari leaves and Tia Emilia sweeps the floor herself, shrugging at me like there’s no words for this in Spanish. She holds the door open for me when I leave.
I walk home in dark rain, racing across the street in front of cars that honk at me because there is no break in the traffic long enough to cross safely. By the time I am home there is lightning, too, and I am very wet and every Spanish word I know is jumbled in my head like a bad poem. Inside, my mom is standing at the counter opening styrofoam containers of food from C&H. “Your favorite,” she says, spooning mashed potatoes onto a plate and then corned beef and after that green beans that are actually not green at all but gray. She slices a roll in half and butters it for me. Mantequilla, I think. Judias verdes, pan. But I don’t know how to say mashed potatoes or corned beef or even cafeteria. I don’t know how to say sorry for loving Tia Emilia more than my own mother or how to apologize for wishing I was Mari instead of me.
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