Cameron requested homemade pizza for her going-away party. She told me she wanted “thick chewy crusts with a ton of toppings”, and that’s why seventeen of us are crowded into my narrow kitchen on a Friday afternoon in early September for The World’s Greatest Pizza-Making Extravaganza, which was what Cameron called it on the invitations she designed and sent out two weeks ago. According to my daughter, I rock at making homemade pizza, and wouldn’t it be awesome to show everyone how to make crusts and put goodies on their own pizzas? Clearly, sixteen-year-old Cameron hasn’t thought about the logistics of the thing, how we will all fit in the kitchen at the same time, if we have enough pizza pans (I went out and bought six more), or even how we will feed everyone when it takes so long to bake pizzas one after another – but no matter. It’s working. Everyone is enjoying Cameron’s going-away party; no-one seems annoyed by the long wait for their pizza, and Cameron is the center of attention and everyone has questions about her trip.
Her favorite people jostle for position at the counter, laughing and giggling, treading on each other’s feet and tagging each other with flour handprints while cheerful South American panpipe music plays in the background. Cameron flits from her best friend to her cousin to her grandmother (who is staying with us for a week), helping and hugging and sneaking tidbits of red bell pepper. You wouldn’t know that Cameron is all packed up and ready for her flight the next morning. You wouldn’t know she is about to live with strangers in Argentina, a country she’s never been to, for an entire school year. By looking at her, you just wouldn’t know.
I, however, do.
From the far end of the kitchen, I watch Cameron slice mushrooms and pass them to her grandmother to sprinkle onto the nearest pizza, and I do know. I know exactly how tough this is for her, how frightened she must be. She just isn’t showing it. I know what Cameron is going through because I did the same thing when I was a teenager.
When I was only fifteen years old, I left everything I knew and went to be a high- school exchange student in Mexico. Just like her, only to a different country. It was such a long time ago, but the truth is I still don’t know how to feel about it. The closest I can come is this: once in a while it was breathtakingly wonderful; but mostly – and this is hard for me to admit – my experience as an exchange student was just incredibly difficult and baffling and lonely. Sometimes it was awful. Painful even. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Even giving birth wasn’t so frightening.
I know from experience how brutal it will be for Cameron, even if she doesn’t, not yet.
So why am I allowing it? What am I thinking? What kind of mother am I, anyway?
(Mexico, Twenty-five Years Earlier)
My plane rolls across the tarmac, heading toward a tiny airport. My journey to Mexico is over, I’ve reached my destination – but now I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to do this anymore. Why in the world did I ever think this would be fun? Why did I beg and plead to be allowed to do this? What was I thinking?
I grip the seat belt between my hands, pulling, twisting, squeezing, as if I could magically will myself back home again with the motions of my hands and sheer determination. I lean forward and peer across the man sitting next to me, trying to see out of the oval-shaped window; in the gathering dusk I see a single runway, two greyed buildings with flat roofs, a row of scraggly bushes, a parking lot, and thirty or forty people waiting not far away behind a chained barrier. I swallow. Lean over even further. Squint. Are my host parents out there?
I know their names. We’ve exchanged a couple of letters. My host mother sent me a picture of the family – my future parents, siblings, grandparents, and cousins – posing around a long rectangular table set for some festive occasion with white dishes and strewn with dark beer bottles. Mom said the family looked nice enough. Dad said they must be good people if they liked that much beer. Mom looked at the picture again and said there was no way we could show it to anyone on her side of the family, especially to my grandparents, which set Dad to laughing and to slapping his thighs. Later, I gazed at the image for hours, studying their unfamiliar faces and wondering what it would be like to live with them. I thought for sure I’d recognize them when we finally met.
Only, I don’t. Not a single face in the crowd looks familiar. What if no-one has come for me? What will I do? Clutching my new travel bag – a going-away gift from my grandparents – I step onto a set of wobbling metal stairs that had been rolled right up to the side of the plane. I venture into the soft Mexican evening even though I want to stay on that airplane, go back home, and forget this whole exchange-student-thing.
I draw in a deep breath. This is Mexico. I’m here. How warm it is still, even though the sun is gone. The air smells of dust, and of flowers, and of airplane fuel, a mixture that makes my stomach lurch. I step down tentatively, and then again. I take in my surroundings – how utterly foreign it is! Look, over there, palm trees! And over there – a Coke billboard, written in Spanish! How weird is that? And, wow! All the women and girls are wearing dresses or skirts, everyone but me. Did I pack enough dresses and skirts?
It hits me all of a sudden, making me feel faint: Abby, you aren’t home anymore.
I knew Mexico would be different from home … but different wasn’t a concept I truly understood until I stepped off those creaking metal stairs and onto the tarmac. Now, I do.
Only, no-one told me ‘different’ would be so scary.
Please. Is it too late to go back?
Foreign voices rise all around, crowding in on me, threatening to drown me, making me feel like I am five years old instead of fifteen, and I have never felt so alone in all my life.
Please. I want to go back home.
“Abby, Abby,” calls a heavyset woman bound up in a girdle so tight it makes me feel sorry for her. She steps up to me. A light breeze blows through her shoulder-length dark hair, and something about her reminds me of my grandmother, who is also fond of unforgiving girdles. The woman peers at me through round-rimmed glasses. “You are Abby, yes?”
I nod and try to smile, hoping she can’t see the glinting of unshed tears in my eyes. “Hi,” I manage to say, forgetting that I maybe ought to try using Spanish. “How do you do?”
“I am Olivia Campaña de Murillo.” The woman speaks English to me, a fact which doesn’t register right away, what with all those Spanish names. “I am your host mother. This is my husband, Señor Arturo Murillo.”
“Nice to meet you.”
He nods. I already know he is a doctor. I’m not sure what type.
“These are our children,” the woman continues – she called herself a ‘housewife’ in the letter she sent – and then she recites their names so quickly I can’t tell which person goes with which name. I know there are six kids, two girls and four boys, ranging in age from eighteen to eight years old, and that I fit right in between the two girls, although right now I have no idea which girl is which.
“Hi.” I clutch my arms tight around my chest. I might throw up.
I scoot into the car they lead me to. I slide over so two of my new siblings can sit beside me. I look behind me for a last sight of the plane that brought me here, but it is quickly lost from view. There is no going back. Blinking, trying not to throw up, I turn back around in my seat. I attempt to smile at the gap-toothed boy to my right, trying and failing to understand his rapid-fire Spanish chatter. I take a deep breath. I sit up straighter. I will do this. I have no choice. I will do my best to face the future.
Because I asked to come here, after all. I asked for it.
(Present day, Seattle)
I am a wreck. For more than a week, I have been a sleepless, irritable disaster of a mother. I haven’t been able to work on my latest painting, I’m just too jittery. I snapped at Cameron after her pizza party when she waltzed away to her bedroom to send last-minute texts to friends instead of staying to help me clean up our catastrophe of a kitchen; I stood there hollering at her to come back – right now! – until my own mother put a restraining hand on my arm and said, “Let her go, Abby. I’ll help you.”
Let her go, Abby, I’ll help you.
Later, after we’d straightened up, I thought about what she’d said. My mother’s words seem somehow prophetic, even if she didn’t mean them that way. Letting Cameron go is so much harder than I ever anticipated. I thought I knew all about it. I thought that because I’d done the same thing at her age, I knew how it would go and how I would cope with it: I’d miss my daughter, I’d worry about her, I’d wonder what she was doing every minute of every day, I’d wonder how long it would take her to charm her host family – but being on the other side, being the Mom instead of the student, is turning out not to be the same at all. I am discovering a host of new things to worry about and to be frightened of. Parent-type things.
What if she gets in a car accident? What if she gets sick and has to go to the hospital? What if she gets robbed, or assaulted, or kidnapped for ransom (because apparently there is a rash of foreigner kidnappings in South America)? Oh my god, how can I let her leave? This child who has barely left my side for most of her life but who has in the past year somehow turned into a young woman who thinks she is so terribly grown-up but is so very young still?
What if something happens to me and she’s not here? Cameron is all I have, aside from my own mother, who is getting older every day. What if being away from school for a year messes up Cameron’s college applications? And what about all of the things I haven’t even thought of yet? How am I supposed to cope with the unknown, all by myself? My mind races; I cannot seem to control the flood of what ifs.
I go into Cameron’s bedroom after the dishes are done and the spilled flour has been scrubbed away and my mother has gone off to bed. Cameron has opened up her suitcase again. There are piles of clothes and shoes and toiletries beside it that have not made the cut but are, apparently, still under careful consideration. “Honey,” I say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I guess I’m tired.” I lean against the door jamb and wait for a long moment. “Can you put the phone down, please?”
She sets it on the bed. “I keep thinking of people I need to say goodbye to. I can’t believe I’m leaving tomorrow. It’s already here.”
“I know. I can’t either.”
She runs her hands through her hair, pulls it into a ponytail, wraps a band around it. She yawns. “Funny. I’m super tired right now but I won’t be able to sleep. I’m too jazzed up. I’m tired, but not sleepy. You know?”
“I know the feeling. You’re worried about tomorrow, right?”
She shrugs. Yawns again. “Not really.”
I study the new hand-drawn poster on her wall, a gift from friends in her summer-school advanced-placement Spanish class: Have fun Cameron! We’ll miss you Chica! Que tu vayas bien! Don’t forget us when your away! I can’t help wanting to correct both the Spanish and the English words that her friends have scrawled in colorful markers – but of course it’s the thought that matters. And this poster matters to my daughter.
My friends hadn’t made me a poster. But then, my parents hadn’t made sure I’d taken an advanced-placement Spanish class before going to Mexico, like I had with Cameron. When I’d arrived in Mexico, I’d barely been able to ask where the bathroom was in Spanish. I didn’t want that for my daughter. We’d done everything the exchange student program asked of us, and more. We’d gone to the get-to-know-you lunch, we’d attended the educational seminars, we’d met other families preparing to do the same thing, we’d filled out reams of paperwork. I had, anyway.
“Are you ready?” I ask.
“Mom.” She picks up her phone again. “I’ve been ready.”
(Mexico, Twenty-five Years Earlier)
I’m still scared. I might as well admit it.
I feel out of place most of the time. I don’t fit in here. I’m too tall, too light-skinned, too Protestant, too liberal and too foreign in this conservative, old-fashioned part of Mexico where (I was right) none of the women would be caught dead wearing pants. It took me completely by surprise that I am mostly too bashful to use my Spanish (which isn’t nearly as good as I thought it was; it turns out that a single year of high school Spanish isn’t even close to sufficient) … but things might be getting a little better. I’ve been here over two weeks and nothing horrible has happened.
People are nice enough. I’ve finally figured out who is who in my new family. I’ve met my new grandparents, who live next door, and I really like the Grandfather. He thinks his job is to teach me Mexican folk songs by singing a new tune to me every time we cross paths, which is fairly often because, like I said, he lives right next door to us. He doesn’t speak a word of English, so I appreciate the effort he puts in to communicating with me. I wrote to my Mom and Dad that things here are fantastic! They’re great! I absolutely love it here! I said they shouldn’t worry about me, but I left out all the bad things and the scary things and I didn’t tell them I cried into my pillow on that first night. And maybe on the second night too.
So things are okay, kind of … but my new school is a disaster.
Seriously, a disaster.
I mean, it’s nice enough. Colegio Chapultepec is a private high school, and it is only for girls, and we have to wear a uniform, and it’s Catholic (there are nuns in honest-to-god habits who come to teach some classes) – but that isn’t why it is a disaster. That would be because whoever is in charge thought it was a good idea to put me, the gangly exchange student, two grades up from where I am at home, with girls that are – surprise! – two years older than me, and who knew? Catholic high schools in Mexico aren’t fooling around with education for girls; it’s hard.
Why would they do that to me? I mean, what were they thinking? The only reason I can come up with is they think I’m older because I tower over the other girls. Maybe because I’m younger I don’t have much in common with them: I don’t slap on a ton of make-up like they do as soon as school is over, or paint my toenails because they’re hidden and the teachers won’t know (which I think is ridiculous). The worst part of school is that not only do I not understand a word the teachers say, I don’t come close to understanding the subject matter.
It’s a total disaster, and I can’t figure out how to tell anyone. Yesterday I mentioned the problem to my host mother, Mamá – which she asked me to call her, even though it feels weird – and she brushed me off. “You will speak español very soon,” she assured me. “You will understand.”
I don’t think so. This is more than a language problem. I looked up recta tangente – from yesterday’s math class – in my English-Spanish dictionary and I found out it means ‘curve tangent’, whatever that is. Such a thing never came up in my Freshman math class back home. I asked Mamá and she said, in English, “You know, Abby, it is a curve. A curve and a tangent. Together. A curve tangent. Yes?”
See what I mean? At least I didn’t burst out crying.
Instead of schoolwork, I’ve been filling the pages of my new red notebook with doodles and sketches and letters home when the teachers do dictation – there are no textbooks at Colegio Chaultepec, amazingly – and who can blame me? I have to do something during class. I can’t just sit there twiddling my thumbs and looking stupid.
I sure wish I could call home. Mom would know what to do, Dad would commiserate with me and make me see the funny side of my predicament, and all of us together would figure out how to fix it. But we’re reserving phone calls for every other Sunday evening at six o’clock because they’re so expensive. I still have to wait a while before I hear their voices again. Letters are going back and forth, lots of them – but they take so long to get here! And there can never be enough! It makes me feel like I am marooned on a desert island.
I didn’t know it was possible to be so homesick.
We go to Colegio Chapultepec in a parent-driven carpool, just like I did way back in elementary school. The first thing I hear when I wake up in the morning is the newspaper boy out on the sidewalk calling ¡Noroeste, Noroeste! in his sing-song-y voice. If I lay still and listen, I can also hear rattling trucks, the squawking of brakes and honking of horns, the shouts of the crew working on a new house down the way, the squeals of neighborhood children; I was surprised to find that my host family lives on a narrow but very busy street. When I hear the Noroeste call, I know that the father of one of my classmates, Señor Ruidiaz, who looks so very Mexican to me, with his beige hat and his dark mustache, will be here soon to pick up the three of us – me, my older sister Yolanda, and my younger sister Lupita. Yolanda secretly carries blusher and eye shadow and lipstick in her bag. Ridiculous.
On the way to school, I sit crammed into Señor Ruidiaz’s car with all the other girls, listening to the music that is constantly blaring from his car radio. Yesterday I mustered up courage and told him in halting Spanish that I liked it. Me gusta la música, I said, after going over the phrasing in my mind and hoping I’d conjugated the verb correctly. He was pleased, so pleased, and turned the volume up even louder. He told me this music isn’t Mariachi, it’s called La Tambora, and is a kind of folk music local to this northern Mexican state. The songs are full of trombones and tubas and have an oom-pa-pa time signature in three-fourth time (I recognized it because I played flute in the school orchestra last year) which makes it sound just like a German waltz (amazingly, according to him, that is exactly where La Tambora has its roots). The songs make me want to tap my feet and hum along.
I think Mexican mornings are my favorite part of the day.
But I’m still scared most of the time.
(Present Day, Seattle)
I may be forty-five years old, but apparently I still need my mother.
It’s well after midnight, the house is quiet, it still smells of pizza, and I ought to be asleep. Instead, I’m lying in bed, wide awake, worrying about Cameron, whose flight is early tomorrow morning and who must be anxious. I try to remember what was going through my mind on the last night at home before I left to be an exchange student, but I can’t get past the fact that Cameron is leaving. I am fumbling with my bottle of melatonin, trying to get the lid off, when I hear padded footsteps making their quiet way down the hallway. I set down the bottle.
“Hello?” I whisper. “Who’s there?”
It’s my mother, coming from the guest bedroom on the far side of the bathroom. “Abby? Are you awake?”
“I am.” I take a half-breath, absurdly happy to hear her voice, thrilled and comforted that she’s come to visit me. “Come in, Mom. Lay down with me.”
She comes in. She lowers herself down onto the bed where I’ve scooted over to make room for her. I smile wanly at her. Somehow she has sensed that I am suffering on this, the night before my daughter leaves. I want to hug my mother so hard she can’t breathe. I want to drown in her supportive motherliness. I want to let her be the mother for a change.
“Is she done packing?” Mom asks.
“Who knows? When I went to tell her good night she said it would be cold in Buenos Aires and she needed to take more sweatshirts and scarves and socks. She forgot the seasons are reversed over there. Our winter is their summer. We took most of it out again.”
We fall silent, and it is such a warm, soothing silence I don’t want it to ever end, just like I don’t want this night to ever end so I don’t have to say good-bye to my daughter. I sigh. Then I sigh again.
“This is so hard, isn’t it?” Mom says after a while. “Sending your kid away.”
“How did you do it? When I left?”
“Well. I wasn’t exactly for your being an exchange student in the beginning.” Mom’s voice is hushed. “But you pushed so hard to go. You met that girl at school from Spain…”
“Marta? I remember her.”
“Yes. Marta. She was a cute little thing, wasn’t she? After you got to be friends with her, you talked and talked and talked about it. You wanted to be an exchange student and nothing else would do. Not even a summer exchange program. You pestered us constantly.”
I laugh. “Really? I thought Cameron was bad. You know how she pestered me.”
“You were worse.”
Mom grins. “I was there, remember? For a whole year you were on a … a campaign. You wanted so badly to be an exchange student just like Marta. You begged and pleaded and you just wouldn’t let up. You wore Dad and me down! You would pop into any room we happened to be in and one by one on your fingers you’d list your reasons for going.” She pauses. “Do you not remember any of this?”
“Um.” I shake my head. “Not really. I do remember wanting to go. Yeah. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. None.”
“Well. How could you?” She shivers, takes a sideways look at me. “You were so young. I was terrified for you. We did give in finally, but I really didn’t want you to go. I don’t think I ever told you that, did I?”
“Well, I didn’t. But I also didn’t want to ruin your trip. And just look how it turned out.”
“Mom,” I say after a bit, “how did you cope when I left?”
“You helped with that.”
“What? I did?”
“You don’t remember what you did?” Mom gathers a handful of blankets and pulls them up over her legs. “Not at all? Well. It was a long time ago.” She laughs softly. “You were so special to me, Abby, did you know when you were a kid how much I loved you? You had a heart as big as the ocean. Only you would do what you did.”
“What did I do?” I ask in a hushed voice, baffled. What had I done? And why didn’t I remember?
“You left notes scattered around the house for me and Dad to find after you were gone. Only you would have thought of that! The first day I opened the refrigerator and found a Post-it note taped to the milk container. It was decorated with little blue hearts and your initials. I remember what you wrote on it: ‘I love you so much Mom! I am fine!’ Well … yeah …” My mother’s voice catches in her throat; she clears it. “Well, I wasn’t fine, and it made me cry.”
But she isn’t finished. “A couple of days later I found another one hidden in the napkins on the kitchen table: ‘Don’t worry about me! It’s what I always wanted!’. You stuck one near the end of the book I was reading so it would take a while for me to find it – ‘I am learning so much in Mexico! Thank you thank you thank you for letting me go!’”
I am speechless. I barely remember writing those notes. Certainly I had no idea they’d meant so much to my parents.
“Dad got notes too, you wrote messages just for him too. His favorite was the one he found inside his shaving kit: ‘We’ll go for a long walk when I get back and we’ll talk! Don’t forget me Dad! I love you!’. He taped it on his nightstand, right beside his lamp, did you know that? It was there for years, after you graduated from college even. He finally picked it off around the time you married Ryan.”
“Wow,” I murmur, because I can’t think of anything else to say, because we almost never speak of Ryan, who died in a car accident only two years into our marriage when Cameron was still a baby and I had only just finished art school, but mostly because Mom and I have never spoken about what she felt like when I went off to be an exchange student, not even once, and now it makes me feel sick to know that I hadn’t cared enough to ask.
“Your funny little notes helped us when you first left. They really did.”
“I’m glad,” I say finally. “Because this really sucks, doesn’t it?”
“Those fancy brochures don’t mention how hard it is on the parents, do they?”
“Yes. They should.”
She stays with me until it starts to get light out; we may have dozed. She may have held my hand for a time. She’s my mother. It’s allowed.
(Mexico, Twenty-five Years Earlier)
For the past few weeks after school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (I am still in the same class, go figure), I’ve been going with my Mexican grandfather – who has asked me to call him Papanino like his other grandkids do – to Casa Blanca, his ranch (his working ranch, he tells me proudly, with cattle, and horses, and bee hives, and mango orchards). Casa Blanca ranch sits all by itself in a valley about half an hour to the north outside the city. At the end of a dusty, bumpy road there is a sweet little house, painted white inside and out, with vines bursting with the most gorgeous fuchsia flowers I’ve ever seen (bougainvillea, he told me), and a neatly thatched roof that overhangs the walls so I have to be careful or I’ll run into it and get straw in my hair and scratches on my forehead. The house looks so very Mexican to me, and because I absolutely love all things that look Mexican I adore the place and I wouldn’t ever want to leave if I were him – but I guess Papanino prefers to live in the city where the rest of the family is. For reasons I don’t understand, his other grandkids, my host siblings, turn down his invitations to hang out at the ranch with him.
So, demonstrating how truly different from everyone else I am: I eagerly await Papanino’s invitations and I can’t wait to get to Casa Blanca. I feel like I can let out my breath and be myself there. I don’t have to be around girls who only care about what kind of eye make-up stays on longest, or impressing boys, or keeping track of what songs are popular on the radio; I won’t have to worry that I’ll get in trouble for not doing the math homework or writing that big art-appreciation paper for the estética class that everyone else is working so hard on.
I looked up the word estética; it means ‘aesthetics’, whatever that is. I’m finding out that dictionaries aren’t always helpful; they translate but they don’t tell you what things mean. At least I’m finally able to understand almost everything people say. I don’t do the translate-to-English-and-then-back-to-Spanish thing anymore; a couple of times I’ve even dreamed in Spanish, which is kind of weird but totally exciting. I read that it takes four months to fully understand a new language, and a couple months after that it’ll be way easier to speak. So I’m waiting. I’m listening. I’m paying attention to the rhythms of the language. I’m letting all those Spanish words and phrases gather in my head and roll around and do their thing. I understand so much more than I did at the beginning, so that’s good.
I’m not quite as homesick as when I first got here, so that’s good too.
Today Papanino has a surprise for me; he has instructed me to wear the jeans I brought along to Mexico but that I haven’t worn yet, and my tennis shoes too. I am excited but I can’t imagine what he has planned. I guess last time we were here he seriously liked it that I drew pictures of his beloved doves (or are they carrier pigeons?), which live in a row of wicker cages in back of the house and that he hand-feeds with bits of cut-up fruit. He was thrilled when I took out my sketchbook, sat down cross-legged on the ground in front of the cages, and drew his favorite three birds (whose names are Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria). I showed them dancing and strutting across the page – which wasn’t at all easy because they kept moving around. At the bottom of the page, I wrote Papanino a few words of gratitude for being so kind to me. I signed it and then gave the picture to him. He gazed at it for a good couple of minutes, shaking his head, then he folded the page in fourths, put it in his shirt pocket, and patted it every half hour or so for the rest of the afternoon.
Now, he takes me out the back door of Casa Blanca and motions further down the road. His thick black mustache rises in a smile as he tells me to follow him out to one of the barns, he has something to show me.
“Ven conmigo, Abby,” he says, Come with me.
We traipse across the yard and past the dove cages, in the direction of the mango orchard, which is a dark green blur off in the distance. We walk past the corral, past the water tanks, past the adobe mud hut where the ranch’s head caretaker, Don Torivio, lives in a single room with a wife that I’ve never seen, and their six or seven or eight children – I don’t know how many kids exactly because every time I try to count them it comes up different. I hate to think about why Don Torivio lives in a shack with no running water or bathrooms or electricity when there is a beautiful little house on the same property with all these things, a house that only gets used on occasional afternoons by Papanino and his guests, or by me when I am visiting; I know instinctively that it’s not my place to ask about it.
At least Papanino is courteous to Don Torivio. It confuses me, though – why is he so deferential towards the man who runs his ranch but who is made to live in an overcrowded hut? Is Don Torivio the Mexican equivalent of a sharecropper? Is he a modern-day serf? Is he a distant relative from the poor side of Papanino’s family? Maybe Don Torivio is a treasured long-time employee who is grateful for the job, nothing more. In any event, I can’t figure it out. Papanino uses the formal “Usted” instead of the familiar “Tu” when he speaks to him, which confuses me even more; but at least it tells me how to address Don Torivio if the need ever comes up. Last week when we arrived at the ranch Papanino presented him with a bulging package of delicious-smelling tamales that he brought in from the city, which Don Torivio immediately had one of his kids take home to his wife.
A gift of food must mean something. Right?
Don Torivio and two of the middle kids are waiting for us outside of the barn.
“Have you ever ridden a horse?” asks Papanino, and I guess my Spanish must be getting better because I understand him even though the Spanish word he uses is “mount a horse” instead of “ride a horse”.
“No, Papanino,” I say, barely able to breathe from excitement, eyeing the shining black horse Don Torivio is holding by the halter. It looks tall, and muscular, and … very big. The stirrups seem like they are at about my shoulder height, the horse’s head seems as high as a giraffe’s. I had no idea that horses were so huge; the closest I’ve ever been to one is watching ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ but horses don’t look so enormous on TV.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“Manso,” answers Don Torivio, winking at Papanino.
“Manso…it means he is tame. He is calm, and gentle,” says Papanino, in Spanish. “Manso is perfect for you to learn with. Go ahead. Touch him.”
“Let him know who you are,” says Don Torivio.
I reach out and gingerly pet Manso’s flank. He swings his head around and regards me with dark eyes. Are they gentle eyes? How do you tell?
“Manso works all day,” adds Don Torivio, “He is tired. He will not give you trouble while you learn. Because he is tired from working.”
I look harder at Manso, wondering if there is a sub-text here. What are they trying to tell me? Is Manso not so gentle in the morning when he’s fresh and full of energy? A rush of apprehension goes through me. But I tell myself that Papanino wouldn’t let me do this if it weren’t safe.
“He is perfect for you,” says Papanino again. “He is yours to ride any time you want. Don Torivio will get him ready, all you have to do is ask.” He reaches out and strokes Manso’s flank. “Don Torivio will teach you. Listen to him, he’s the best. Have fun, Abby.”
“¡Gracias, Papanino!” I say. “¡Gracias, Don Torivio!”
Papanino leaves us. To take a siesta, he says.
Don Torivio walks Manso to the corral. I follow along after him, with Don Torivio’s kids trailing after me. The younger one is a girl who wears flip-flop sandals and a thin shapeless dress that barely reaches to her knees, as if it’s been worn by many other children before her. When I ask, she tells me her name is Xochi, pronounced Zo-chi, and that she is almost eight years old. Her hair hangs down her back in a tangled mess, and is an improbable bleached-out blonde-ish color that looks striking against her dark skin, as if it’s been faded by the relentless sun. Maybe it has. I can’t imagine that she spends much time inside that tiny hut with her mother. Xochi looks up at me in wonder and with childish curiosity as we enter the corral, as if she’s never seen anything like me, as if I’ve come from Mars.
Manso might be gentle, but I can’t help being scared as Don Torivio and his son, who looks to be a few years younger than me, lace their fingers together, motion for me to put my left foot in their hands. Always mount from the left side, Don Torivio tells me. Es muy importante. They hoist me up onto the saddle, where I feel like I’m eighteen feet up in the air. Manso’s neck skin twitches. His tail flicks. He steps to the side. I hang onto the saddle horn until Don Torivio tells me not to. “Take the reigns,” he says, “hold them loosely across your lap in your left hand. Grip Manso with your legs. Use your legs.” He shows me how to direct the horse by holding the reigns across the horse’s neck, but not pulling, never pulling; we walk around the corral, right, left, forward, stopping, using the reigns with a light touch, right hand placed loosely on my right thigh, never touching the saddle horn. It is hard work, riding a horse.
Don Torivio seems pleased.
I wish Mom and Dad could see me, I think, after the fifth or sixth trip around the corral. I wish somebody could take a picture of me so I could send it home. They would be so excited! Riding a horse in the countryside feels so Mexican! Like I’m in a movie or something, even though I haven’t seen one of those big fancy sombreros, not even once.
Thinking about Mom and Dad sets me to wondering if they’ve found the notes I hid around the house, and if they like them. A wave of homesickness suddenly washes over me, even though right now I’m having a marvelous time. Time is passing, if slowly; how will I ever get through Christmas on my own, much less the rest of the school year? Mom sent me instructions for a series of holiday phone calls, and she says a box of Christmas presents and letters is almost ready for posting. But it makes me feel like crying to think I’ll be so far from the people I love at Christmas, so I make an effort to not think about it, not today, not when things are going so well. When I get back to the city, I’ll write a nice long letter to Mom and Dad. I’ve already written about Casa Blanca, complete with a cute little sketches of Papanino (highlighting his mustache) and of the front door of Casa Blanca (highlighting all those bougainvilleas), but this time I’ll tell them about Manso, about Don Torivio, about Xochi, about the adobe hut.
“Do your legs hurt?” Papanino asks when we are driving back home.
They do. My butt hurts too. A lot. I didn’t know riding horses did that to a person.
“You will feel better tomorrow,” he assures me, “or the day after.”
He turns on the radio. A new song comes on.
“¡La Tambora!” I announce, and Papanino turns to me, astonished that I recognize the oom-pa-pa rhythms.
We grin at each other. Things are good today. Things are really good.
(Present Day, Seattle)
It’s the morning of Cameron’s last day. We’re leaving for the airport in about half an hour, and I just can’t stop worrying. Maybe it’s because I got a scant two and a half hours of sleep last night that I am beside myself: does Cameron have her passport in her travel bag? Did she safely tuck away the $100 worth of Argentine pesos I exchanged for her last week? Has she packed enough warm clothes (after I made her ditch most of them)? Will her new cell phone function in Argentina? Will she remember to call me when she arrives and again when she meets up with her host family, like we’ve discussed?
It doesn’t stop. Maybe it will when she finally gets there. But I kind of doubt it.
Cameron and I are eating cold homemade pizza for breakfast – even though we’ve determined that neither of us is especially hungry – when my mother comes into the kitchen with two packages. She sets the smaller one in front of Cameron and the larger one in front of me.
“Go ahead,” she says, “Open them. I know we’re running short on time.”
Cameron tears the red-and-green Mexican-themed wrapping paper off her gift. My mother has given her a travel-sized sketchbook, a set of expensive-looking colored pencils, and five ink pens with different sized nibs, which also look expensive. Cameron opens the sketchbook and leafs through the empty pages, nodding, as if it is already filled with memories of her trip. “Thanks, Grandma,” she says, shooting my mother one of those gigantic Cameron-smiles she’s famous for. “I absolutely love this. I seriously do.” She abandons her pizza and begins to riffle through her already stuffed-to-the-gills travel pack to make room.
What thoughtful presents my mother has given her. I’m impressed. But I can’t help being upset with myself: I remember sketching and drawing constantly when I was in Mexico – why didn’t I think of doing something like this for Cameron? And I call myself an artist.
“Open yours, Abby,” says Mom.
I pull back the paper, open the box flaps, then gaze at the contents in disbelief. I look up at Mom. “Are these what I think they are?”
“Your letters,” she says. “All one hundred and six of them.”
“You … kept them?”
She nods. “Of course I kept them. Dad and I loved these letters.” She pauses. “We read them over and over. I thought you might like some reading material while you’re waiting for Cameron to call tonight.”
There is a distinct tremble in my voice. “I can’t believe it.”
I choose one at random, an envelope so palely blue it’s almost white. An over-sized Mexican stamp is stuck slightly out of line in the upper corner. “My handwriting looks so childish,” I murmur.
“You were young,” Mom says.
I slip the letter out of the envelope and unfold it. “It’s dated October fifteenth,” I tell her. “Wow. I hadn’t been there all that long on October fifteenth, had I? Wow. Look at this.” I hold the letter out for Mom to see. “I decorated all the borders. Hah! I must have had a lot of time on my hands.”
And then I remember: I doodled all day at school, that’s why.
Mom and I have just started to read the letter – I’m in the middle of a run-on paragraph about Manso the horse – when Cameron calls to us from the living room. “I’m ready to go,” she says. “C’mon. I don’t care if it’s early. Let’s just go.”
And so we do; why not? There’s no reason to draw this out. We stuff Cameron’s bags in the trunk, then the three of us pile into the car. Mom urges Cameron to sit in the front seat next to me – the place of honor, she calls it – and then she goes to sit in the cramped back seat.
I kind of wish there was a lot of traffic, but it’s so early that there is hardly any at all. Which means we’ll get to the airport in record time. Which means it won’t be long before I have to say good-bye to my daughter. Why did I agree to this, I ask myself for the six-hundredth time, what’s wrong with me? My chest feels all constricted and hot. My eyes feel alternately too dry and too wet. I am one hell of a basket case. I probably shouldn’t be driving.
But I’m not alone. Thank god for my mother.
(Twenty-five Years Ago, Mexico)
Today was my best day yet. Or maybe today ties with the day I first rode Manso; that was awesome too. But honestly, I think today might have been better.
It’s late, it’s almost midnight, and I am lying wide awake in bed, still too excited to sleep because I just came back from an outing with friends, which is a major first for me. Coming back so late was a problem because when Gloria’s father dropped me off at home the front door was locked tight, the porch light was off, and – I couldn’t believe it, how could they do this to me – I couldn’t get in. After sitting on the front porch for five or ten minutes wondering what to do, jumping at every sound, wanting to visit the bathroom in the worst way, growing annoyed and frightened at about the same rate, I saw a light go on in Papanino’s house. So I went over there and rapped on his door.
“¿Que pasa, Abby?” he asked. He was in a maroon dressing gown, which seemed slightly scandalous to me. “Why are you standing out there all alone?” He let me in to my house with his extra key, shaking his head, saying, “Dios mio, what has the world come to?” I couldn’t tell if he was upset because I was out by myself so late, or if it was because I’d been locked out and he wasn’t happy with my host parents. I’m hoping it was the latter. Because today was the best day ever.
Gloria Perez and Rosalba Campaña, my friends from school, took me on a ‘street-food-and-movie-tour’. They’re both in my class and so that means they are two years older than me, but we don’t care about that, we don’t even notice it really, we just hang out and have fun and joke around. My Spanish is good enough for that now, which makes all the difference; I’m so glad the speaking-a-foreign-language-after-four-months thing is actually true.
They were so excited for me when I got my Christmas box from home. I did a second un-packing-of-the-box just for their benefit. One by one I showed them everything that came in it, all the sweet little gifts that mean so much to me: the boxes of candy, the art supplies, the letters, the packets of stationary; every last thing in there. It made the pain of being away from home easier to bear, to share it with my friends and to let them see my tears, because, I’ll admit it, there were a few. Anyway, I only cried for a couple of minutes while they patted my back and said comforting things in low voices, in Spanish. Then I got hold of myself. I had Gloria and Rosalba pose for me and I sketched their portraits with my new charcoal pencils and I gave the pictures to them. With Gloria and Rosalba there is no boy-craziness. No fingernail polish. No sneaking of cigarettes. It just took a while – a long while – to find my people.
Today’s tour was Gloria’s idea. We got permission from our various parents to be out and about on a Saturday afternoon as long as we stuck together and made it to the theater in time to meet up with Gloria’s family, which we did.
“Where are we going?” I asked when we set off. “What kind of street food are we getting?”
Gloria laughed. “What kinds of street food, you mean.”
“It’s a surprise,” said Rosalba. She was carrying a bag full of those overly large Mexican coins to pay for it all and they wouldn’t let me contribute a single centavo. “We’re not saying.”
“You’re sure it won’t make me sick?”
Gloria gave me an are you an idiot look. “We know these places. They’re good. We eat street food all the time.”
“You won’t get sick,” added Rosalba. “I promise.”
I’m worried, though. Promise or not, my stomach is gurgling right now a few hours later as I lay here in bed, although that might be because I ate so much. I really hope I don’t get Montezuma’s Revenge. Before I left Seattle Mom made me promise not to eat street food – but tell me, what was I supposed to do? Turn it down? Insult my friends who planned this incredible street food adventure just for me? Really?
First we had tacos al carbón from a horse-drawn wagon parked on the street near Gloria’s house. They weren’t like any tacos I’ve ever seen; they were tiny little things that we squeezed quartered limes onto, and we only ate one taco apiece because there was more street food coming our way, lots more, but oh my god, that one taco was so delicious.
Then we had coconut water straight from young green coconuts. The vendor (from another wagon on a different street) took a machete and whacked the top off a coconut for each of us, slipped in straws, and handed them to us. Wow. Heaven in a coconut shell. So refreshing and cool, even though the coconuts hadn’t been chilled. They had a sublime flavor that didn’t taste anything like the angle flake coconut Mom uses for her famous macaroon cookies. Who knew you could drink coconut water?
What else was on our food tour …oh my, what wasn’t there?
We walked for miles and miles (at least it felt like it), crisscrossing the city, looking for Gloria and Rosalba’s favorite food stalls. We had homemade black walnut ice cream from a toothless vendor who told us jokes as he scooped. And then we sipped freshly squeezed juice from ugly little oranges that made the sweetest, most flavorful orange juice I’ve ever had. After that, even though my stomach was starting to protest, we nibbled crispy chicharrones – fried pork skin – which sounded so revolting I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to try them but turned out to be so amazingly tasty that I knew on any other day I’d eat a whole bag without stopping. The chicharrones were liberally sprinkled with lime juice and chile powder, which I gamely ate even though it made my eyes water and my mouth burn and caused my friends to laugh at my antics.
And churros! We devoured hot churros which we watched being extruded from a machine, dunked into a vat of spattering oil, and tossed in cinnamon sugar right in front of us. Ah, what delectable, mouth-watering things churros are. How is it we don’t have churros in Seattle? I may have eaten a few too many churros, even though I wasn’t in the least bit hungry. I’m pretty much regretting it now.
Finally – it was evening by then, and we knew we’d have to hurry the six blocks over to the movie theater to meet up with Gloria’s family but we didn’t care, this was way too much fun – finally, there were the mangos. I’d never seen the sweet, sticky peachy-fleshed fruits with an odd, flat pit before and it took only one bite for me to decide that mangoes are my new all-time favorite fruit. Better even than the fresh apples we get every fall at home. Better in every way.
Mangoes. Wow. There’s nothing like them.
There’s nothing like walking with friends through a golden-hued Mexican evening either. The evening is warm and soft, smelling like those flowers Papanino showed me, the ones that let out their scent only after the sun goes down. I think I adore the Mexican evenings even more than I like the mornings.
Now it’s crazy late but I am still wide awake. My stomach is seriously unhappy. Now I’m wondering if it was that second mango that is making me feel like I might throw up. Eating that second dish maybe might have been a mistake. Maybe Mom was right about street food. I don’t know. But even if I get sick, the whole thing was so worth it. Spending the day with friends was so worth it. Being introduced to all those new-to-me foods was so … totally … worth it.
I think first thing tomorrow morning while it’s still fresh in my mind I’ll confess the whole wonderful outing to Mom and Dad in a letter, using the pale blue stationary that they sent me for Christmas – only I might not mention how much my stomach hurts. I’ll include sketches of me and Gloria and Rosalba sitting at that taco wagon, squeezing limes on our tacos. They’ll like that.
Which makes me wonder … do Mom and Dad actually read all these letters I send?
(Present Day, Seattle)
Mom and I were with her as long as possible. We walked Cameron to the ticket counter. We walked her to the security lines. We stood with her as she worked her way up to the front of the line, which might have been a mistake. Our final goodbyes and hugs were rushed and uncomfortable because the security agent was tapping her pen on her podium, annoyed with us for holding up the line, motioning for Cameron to come forward and for me and Mom to get lost.
Mom and I make our way back to the car, and we complain about how much airport parking costs. We drive home, and we complain about how much traffic there is now that it’s later in the morning. We get off the freeway and we complain about how many red lights we hit on the way home. The two of us just feel like complaining. We’re out of sorts, I guess.
“You know,” Mom says when we’re about three blocks from home, “being an exchange student these days is totally different than it was for you.”
I frown. “Nah. I don’t think so. She’s still going away from home for a long, long time and living alone in a foreign country.” My voice catches. “How is that different?”
“The two things are very different. Don’t compare.”
I don’t answer. How can I not compare?
“It is, Abby, it is.” She sounds like she’s thought about this. “How about that phone you bought her? If it works like it’s supposed to, she’ll call you any time she wants, right?”
“Or text you.”
“Um. I’m not much into texting…but, yeah. I guess. But I told her I got the phone for emergencies.”
“Let her use it, honey. Let her know she can call whenever she needs to. Or wants to. Wouldn’t you have just plain died for that when you were in Mexico?” She paused. “You won’t need to wait two weeks for her letters to come through the mail, like we did with you. Cameron can write email letters to you and you’ll get them immediately.” She shakes her head. “That’s different. I wish we had that. It won’t seem like she’s in outer space.”
“Outer space, huh? It sure might feel like that to her.”
Mom goes on. “Having the internet is a huge difference from when you went away. The internet … it’s a game changer if you ask me. There’s something else.”
“Something very useful.” She grins. “It starts with an ‘S’.”
“Skype,” I say, glancing at her. “You’re talking about Skype.”
“Cameron and I talked about Skyping. Or talking on Facetime. We’ll do it once in a while, for sure.”
“Once in a while?”
“Maybe more than once in a while.”
“I think you should.”
Mom and I fall silent as I pull in front of our house and parallel park.
I’m impressed by my mother, I admit it. There is so much more to her than I give her credit for. She’s right. She’d absolutely right, everything she’s said and done in the past few days has been spot on. Mom’s been through this, and she is helping me understand things I ought to have realized weeks ago: this isn’t my trip. My trip was twenty-five years ago. This is Cameron’s trip. It will be an entirely different experience from mine, and it will be hers. I ought to accept it and enjoy it for what it is.
This is a different time. And Cameron and I are very different people.
(Mexico, Twenty-five Years Ago)
I think I might be lost.
Today I took a new path when I went out riding, and now I’m paying for it. After a couple of hours on horseback I managed to get myself so turned around that – get this – I wandered into some other valley near Casa Blanca that I didn’t recognize. And then I led Manso into a second one when I tried to turn around. I have only the vaguest concept of where I am in relation to Casa Blanca, but I’m not too worried. Well, maybe a little. I’ve heard that a horse will go back to his barn if you give him his head … only Manso didn’t go anywhere when I let go of the reigns. Maybe he is turned around too. Or maybe he thinks he is out for his regular afternoon walk with me and trusts me to know where we are. Which, apparently, I don’t.
We didn’t cross the highway, so there’s that.
At least I’m no longer afraid of Manso. That passed a long time ago. He doesn’t seem as big as a house to me now. He no longer steps to the side when I launch myself onto the saddle and I’ve gotten so much better at it that I don’t need Don Torivio to help me up anymore. I’ve been riding constantly for months now, two or three times a week, and Manso and I have become friends; I’ve decided that Manso is a good name for him. When the time comes for me to leave – and it’s not that far away – I sure wish I could take Manso home with me.
I’ll miss him.
He’s such a great horse. He does everything I ask. Sometimes we go trotting or galloping up and down the ranch’s dirt roads, other times we explore the paths through the brush beyond the mango orchard. He doesn’t mind when I want to stop at some pretty place and we just stand there listening to the birds and studying the muted colors that make up the beige and brown Mexican countryside so I can sketch the scene later with the colored pencils my mother sent me for Christmas. On a different day, and if I weren’t on the verge of being lost, I might get down from the saddle to get a closer look at those funny pink flowers that look like plastic (but I know they’re not); they look like they’re stuck randomly onto the sides of a fat little barrel cactus that I just saw, but I am nervous enough to not risk it.
I bring us to a stop. I take a long slow look at the scenery ahead of me, behind me, to the side. Does anything look familiar? I’m not sure. Which way should I go? I’m not sure about that, either. Should I stay right here on this ridge between the two valleys and wait for someone to come looking for me? I imagine that when enough time passes, Don Torivio and his older kids will saddle up their horses and come searching for me, but I don’t want that, I really don’t.
I squint my eyes: there’s a path to the right and slightly in front of me going in what might be the right direction, down through a brushy area between two gnarly trees that I might have ridden through ten or fifteen minutes ago. Yes, I’m pretty sure I did. It looks familiar. I think Casa Blanca lies in that direction. I’ve just turned Manso to the right so we can go down the path when I hear a voice.
“¿Señorita? What are you doing here?”
I swing around, startled. “Xochi?”
It seems so odd, so out-of-place to see Don Torivio’s daughter – a little girl, all by herself – out here in the middle of nowhere on this ridge between two valleys that has to be half an hour’s walk away from home. Is Xochi lost too? Somehow, I don’t think so. She seems thrilled to be alive and delighted to see me, which is incredibly reassuring. I realize suddenly that she has grown since I first met her. She’s wearing a dress that I’ve never seen before, but it is as washed-out and threadbare as any of the others … and she is smiling so widely I think I must be her most favorite person in the whole wide world.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
She loses her smile. She regards me and Manso. Then she points in the direction I’ve just come from. “But Señorita, Casa Blanca is that way.”
I am struck dumb. I was just about to make myself even more lost?
“I am going home too,” says Xochi. “you can follow me.”
I turn Manso around as Xochi waits patiently on the side of the trail. One of his hoofs slips on some loose pebbles which makes me lurch, but I am okay, everything is good, I am not lost anymore. Things are as they should be again. “I have a better idea,” I say. “Have you ridden a horse before?”
Her face lights up even more. “Sí, Señorita.”
We find her a boulder for her to clamber up, and I help her onto Manso’s back to sit in front of me. The two of us are a tight fit in the saddle, but Xochi sits tall and proud in front of me, her wild hair tickling my chin, her brown hands reaching out to pet Manso’s sleek neck. She smells dusty, like the countryside – it’s not a bad smell, just strong, and different – but it makes me wonder yet again how so many people live in her tiny one-room home with no running water. It just baffles me. It makes me uncomfortable. I’d rather not think about it.
“Ready?” I ask.
We’re in no hurry to get back. As Manso walks along the winding path toward Casa Blanca (how could I have missed it? This is so clearly the right direction), I ask Xochi question after question: do you go to school? Have you ever been to the city? Why were you out here all alone? Do the rocks in the path hurt your feet because you’re wearing flip-flops? Where were you going? It doesn’t take long for my small admirer to turn into quite the little chatterbox as she answers all these questions, and more.
“I was picking up something for my papá,” she finishes up, showing me a bag cinched tightly around her waist. I’d thought it was a belt. She unties it and draws out a shiny bit of copper, a two-inch piece of tubing with threading on the ends. “I had to go to the village, to my Tio Marco’s shop. He has everything.”
“Careful with that,” I say. “You’ll drop it.”
She tucks the pipe-thing back in the bag. “It’s for the barn because the water is leaking. My papá needs to fix the pipes.”
So … the horses get running water but Don Torivio’s family doesn’t?
I am appalled that he sent his sweet little daughter out on this half-day errand; but as far as I can tell she was thrilled to be chosen for the job, she knew exactly where she was going, and it’s something she’s done before; maybe she and her siblings come this way to school? I look down at the top of her head with something very close to admiration. Xochi can’t be more than eight years old, and yet she’s out here on her own, confident and happy, and at the rate dusk is falling she wouldn’t have been home before dark if I hadn’t come along. I couldn’t have made this trek at her age. I could barely come here, to Mexico, and I am grown up.
As my mother would say: Abby, the two things are very different, don’t compare.
But still. I am impressed.
Xochi has already moved on to a new subject. She’s telling me about her new baby sister, how cute she is, how this new baby is her favorite yet, how she hopes the next one might be a brother. The next one? I bite back my horrified reaction. She prattles all the way back to the ranch, until we reach the outskirts of the mango orchard and she says, suddenly and loudly: “Go over there, Señorita! Under that tree. A little further. Now stop!”
We come to a halt between the wide branches of a mango tree. Waxy oval-shaped leaves the size of dessert plates hang low all around us. I’ve never ventured this close to the trees before and I am surprised that the golden evening light I’m so partial to has taken on a dappled green overlay from the trees. It even smells different under here, like growing things.
“Look,” says Xochi. “The mangos are ripe.”
And then I see them, all around, like nuggets of sweet treasure hidden amongst the leaves. These mangos must be a different variety than those I ate with Gloria and Rosalba. These are larger, plumper, with red-and-green skins. “Wow,” I say, touching the nearest one and setting it to swinging. “There are so many of them.”
“We should eat one.”
“We can’t do that.” I pause. “Can we?”
“We can!” Xochi is so excited she’s almost jiggling in the saddle in front of me. She twists to one side and then to the other, grabbing at branches, looking for a perfect mango to pick. “El Señor says everyone who lives here can pick and eat a mango each day. As a special treat.”
“Really?” I think she must be talking about my Papanino.
“He is super nice to us, Señorita.”
“Do you think so?”
“Oh, yes.” Xochi nods emphatically. “He pays for school, for all of us kids. He makes sure we have composition books and pens. And he buys us lunch each day.” She doesn’t mention the hut she lives in. Or the fact she’s never had a new dress in all her life, or real shoes. “Look here, Señorita! I found a big fat one.” She shows me how to hold the mango in my hand and how to twist and twist the stem until it breaks free. “Now you find one.”
From horseback, I find a mango so beautifully ripe it looks like it would have soon fallen from the tree. “Now what?” I ask. The street-food mangos I fell in love with had been peeled and chopped and ready to eat, but I don’t know what to do with this unfamiliar fruit; the mango in my hand is fresh from the tree and it is no apple, ready for a big crunchy bite.
“Watch me. You have to use your teeth. Like this.” Xochi forces her teeth into the thick peel of the mango and tears away a dime-sized piece. She spits it away. “See? You have to use your teeth to get rid of the peel.”
We bite and spit, bite and spit, and soon we are laughing at ourselves and the mess we are making, and poor Manso is pricking his ears at us in alarmed curiosity. Our hands are so gummy that our fingers want to stick together, and our arms – somehow – are covered all the way up to the elbows with sugar-laden mango juice, and mango pulp, and bits of mango peel, and our chins and cheeks are too, and even our noses. Which makes us laugh even more.
Xochi and I slurp loudly at the delectable tree-ripened fruit, licking and nibbling and using our teeth to scrape the sweet mango flesh from the back of the peel, and I have never eaten anything so divinely delicious in all my life. I suck the last morsel from the oddly-shaped mango pit and throw it away as far as I can, just as Xochi has done before me, only my throw goes further. What fun we are having!
A thrill goes through me as I sit in the saddle trying not to touch anything with my gummy hands – especially that crazy hair of hers – and I know that this moment, this perfect moment in Papanino’s mango orchard with Xochi and Manso is more special than I have words for, and that it will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I will remember this forever.
(Present Day, Seattle)
Mom and I are back from the airport. As soon as we came inside she headed upstairs to take a shower and I wandered into the kitchen meaning to make myself a cup of mango-flavored tea, but instead I am just standing here, looking out the window, leaning against the counter where Cameron’s people made pizza last night. I scrape a piece of dried-up pizza dough from the countertop with my fingernail, wondering how long it will take for me to get used to this new quietness. The house seems so vacant without Cameron’s teenage energy. She is gone, even though piles of her belongings are still scattered around: clothes, and shoes, and art supplies, and books; not to mention the many things that didn’t make the cut to go with her to Argentina. I will clean it all up. Later.
The box of letters Mom gave me is still on the kitchen table.
I slide into my chair. For a long while I finger the wrapping paper that the box came in, long enough for strains of almost-forgotten oom-pa-pa music to start running through my head, but I don’t pull any envelopes out. Instead, I push the box away. When the time comes I will treasure these letters I wrote so long ago; I will read all of them, one by one, in order. I will take my time pouring over my youthful descriptions of the things I did and the people I met, I will enjoy the doodles I drew in school instead of doing classwork, I will allow myself to become nostalgic over the occasional snapshot I sent home to my parents. Most of all I will dearly miss Papanino, and Gloria and Rosalba, and Manso, and little Xochi who, incredibly, is a grown-up woman now.
It will be cathartic for me to re-visit my year as an exchange student; it is something I’ve resisted but the time has come for me to face it. Time may not have blunted the painful and frightening and baffling bits at the beginning of my stay, but by the end, my time in Mexico was wonderful, even if it has taken me this long to see it. I will read these letters – but not yet. There is something I must do first. There is something that isn’t finished between my mother and me.
I must write one last letter to her.
I will thank her for what she did, for having the strength to let me go.
I will thank her for helping me find the strength to let Cameron go.
And I will tell her something she already knows: I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t been an exchange student to Mexico when I was fifteen years old. //
About the Author
Over the years, Evelyn Arvey’s short stories have appeared in many literary magazines, including Pedestal Magazine and Pentimento Magazine. She is the author of two novels published by Ellora’s Cave and several others that are currently searching for homes. In June of 2019, along with two other fabulous writers, she co-wrote “We Grew Tales”, a well-received collection of short stories which reviewers said were “short but delicious gems”. Evelyn lives in Seattle, WA, with her husband and six loveable yet demanding cats.