I remember the first time I asked a question that my mother couldn’t answer. I was eight years old, standing at the end of a driveway, watching her wash the car. I could hear the bucket, the water, the slap of the wet rag. Suds ran into the street. I tapped the water with my sandal.
It was a hot day. My mother was wearing a navy blue Lacoste pique polo shirt with short sleeves. Behind her was a bright green yard with a blooming bird of paradise and a bottle-brush tree. The house was yellow. Our neighbor’s house was orange and the one after that, pink. A typical Mexican neighborhood in Orange County. The year was 1986.
“Today at school, some boys were making fun of Janelle,” I told her.
The rag paused mid-swirl. She dropped it into the bucket and shook the suds from her hands, then put them on my shoulders. She looked me in the eye in a serious way.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “People can be mean sometimes. It’s very sad when something like this happens.”
It was obvious that she was concerned. I could tell that she was sad. But her response was not soothing, nor did it help me understand. The weight of her hands on my shoulders was uncomfortable. Her face was too close.
We had the same hair, long and dark. I was wearing red shorts and tan leather sandals. My tank top had stripes. “Why,” I asked. “Why did they make fun of her?”
My mother looked even more serious. She could not explain. “I don’t know,” she said.
Janelle was our neighbor. We went to the same school. That day, when those boys made fun of her in the halls of our elementary school, her face remained empty and dull, as if she was made of clay.
She used to tell me I was beautiful, but she doesn’t say that anymore.
Janelle is physically and mentally disabled. The result of a rare genetic disease. Lately, she has been confined to a wheelchair. It is considered an amazement that she has survived to her current age of 42. But she is losing her mind. She lives on time, she tells us, and her time is up. Her stomach speaks to her. It gives her orders. It tells her when her time is up. She obeys her stomach and lays down. She is obese. She is anxious.
When I visit, she talks about my children. She wishes she could have married. She used to tell me I was beautiful, but she doesn’t say that anymore. Now she talks about my children. She tells me how beautiful they are.
When we were kids, her low IQ bothered me. She was a year older and, out of habit, we let her be in charge. But there was always something off about her games. Her jokes weren’t funny, and she would mimic our actions with an empty face.
Our families were close. Her sister is younger than me and is strikingly beautiful. She has luscious curls and soft brown skin. Her name is Jeanette. When we were kids she wanted to be like me. She ordered the same food I did at restaurants and would laugh especially hard at my jokes. This bugged me. I would try to outsmart her by telling bad jokes or changing my order at the last second, causing my mother to shoot me a dirty look.
Jeanette and I are still close. During the big wildfire, I escaped to her house to get out of the smoke. I brought my children and my husband. We breathed the fresh air of the north and ate gourmet ice cream in the heat. When Jeanette and I look at each other, it feels like a deep river flows between us. I tell her she is as strong as an oak. She holds my youngest daughter and rocks her like a grandmother. She calls her mija.
When I was a little girl, dinner was loud. I would sit behind our yellow table and pick at my food. Our kitchen was small. My mother would get up to the stove, go to the sink, then sit down again. My baby brother would bang his spoon. Food bounced around. My father ate quickly and boisterously. My parents liked to talk at the table. They debated their day. My father’s shoulders rose and fell in anger. He called my mother by a pet name. My mother liked to argue too. We are Italian. It can be noisy.
“Can I go next door?” I asked.
“I think there is probably some time for that tonight. Finish your dinner first, please.”
I would take a few more bites, then sink under the table to escape, and crawl under my brother’s high chair towards freedom. The floor is sticky with spilled rice.
During summer it stayed light even past bedtime. In Southern California, dusk is punctuated by orange and yellow streetlights and rose-colored clouds. The night brings a chill. I remember running next door through the gate in the backyard. The Garcias are also eating dinner, but the TV on. The backdoor is open, covered by a screen door. I stand on the step and look in, pressing my nose into the dirty screen.
“Can I come in and play with Jeannette and Janelle?”
Mr. Garcia is a gregarious man, but he doesn’t always smile. He picks at his teeth with a toothpick. Mrs. Garcia is gentle and kind. Her smile is big and loving. “Janelle has to eat more of her dinner and then they can play.” I sit on the couch and wait. Mr. Garcia always has the Dodgers game on. The house smells strongly of cigarettes.
Janelle has a restricted diet. Protein is lethal. It was a big deal when Mocha Mix came on the market. We rejoiced with her when she had her first bowl of cereal. They too ate in a tiny kitchen. Her sister sat in the back corner, her head barely over the top of the table.
I watched TV in the dark living room and waited for my friends to finish dinner. We played Barbies in their room until my mother came to get me. I remember 30 minutes never seemed like enough time.
Earlier this year, I received a text from Jeanette. “Jessica, I just wanted to tell you that Loraine died last night. I came down to be with her. Also, we are eating at Chili Pepper right now. Do you remember that restaurant?”
Jeanette sent the text in two parts. I only saw the last part. I did remember the Chili Pepper. It was my favorite restaurant. I read about Loraine’s death on Facebook three weeks later. I burst into tears over my cutting board as I was preparing dinner. I had to explain who she was to my husband. He had never heard of her. “She’s just one of the kids from the block in Santa Ana,” I explained. “She was Jeanette’s age. They were close.”
Loraine died of breast cancer. She had four children. Her youngest was three. I cried for days. We weren’t even that close.
I texted Jeanette as soon as I found out about Loraine’s death. “You are as strong as an oak,” I told her. “Yes,” she texted back.
We share something. We survived the neighborhood. We made it out. We moved away. I take my children to visit and they look at the broken sidewalks and iron gates as if in a foreign land. My oldest daughter is quiet. My youngest, somber and still. Mrs. Garcia buys them pretty dresses from Target. She makes me coffee. We sit on the couch and talk. Janelle stays in her room. She is sensitive to the commotion. The chihuahuas bark ferociously around our feet. The TV is on.
When we say goodbye, Mrs. Garcia begins to cry. “It was so good to see you, Jessica,” she says. “Your daughters are so beautiful.”