When Mamá Told Me
I didn’t understand how someone could just be somewhere and then poof away. I thought it was like when the earth opened up her mouth and swallowed bad people in the Bible, including the kids. Mamá would tell me when I was disobedient, and hit me lightly with a wooden spoon, and say how good I have it because I wasn’t born in that time. Arnoldo must’ve disappeared like that.
Or maybe it was like when I felt so small I wanted to disappear. Like when Ms. H asked me what Mamá does for a living and I told her I didn’t know. She looked down at me through her brown oval glasses, blinking her little eyes, and said, “Well, don’t you want to know what your mom does?” She waited a million and two years for a reply, and all I felt was the river running up inside, pressing behind my eye balls, because I didn’t want to say, “My mom cleans houses, big houses, not like the one-bedroom we share, where Papi was this close to being hurt by the cholos. She scrubs bathrooms and toilets on her knees, like a holy prayer, not like the other moms that stay home.” I wanted to tell her I love Mamá, and I felt ashamed for feeling ashamed, but didn’t say nothing because it was too late.
THE FIRST TIME I see a disappearance is in a documentary. A silent clip in which a young man walks past a fenced building. A grey jeep pulls up, two figures jump out. One chokes him from behind, the other traps his arms. I wonder what the man is thinking, when a third figure with a black gun joins them. Passerby stand still watching the man shout and twist his body, except for his left arm, limp and broken. The one with the gun kicks his abdomen, sending him forward onto the ground.
I move the cursor over the video player, drag the white dot across the screen, to watch it all go backwards. Three figures help an injured young man lying face-down on the dirt. It could have been any of them, all dressed in bell-bottoms, like a uniform. One clutches the man’s arm and pushes it back into place. Together they struggle to pull him up, each relying on the other for support. One by one, they fly back into the jeep, and reverse toward a military base. I pause when only the man is left to air his thoughts in daylight.
“Que lindo, pero así no fue.” My mother rereads my poem on her smartphone,
shaking her head. If it were on a printed page, she would hold it up to the light, flip it over, fold it up like a fan to see if the new lines tell the real story. Or else drown it in fire like the receipts that turned to ashes over the stove. The ones the militares left there after taking my uncle, and everything from his home.
“Él no fue.” He wasn’t the one they left with ears, eyes, and mouth full of stones on
the main road to San Juan. His body wasn’t found like that. That was el Chino, or
was it Manzana? It was one of the solventeros, the ones who huffed paint and sat
near school corners waving at the girls. They never did a bad thing. Everybody has a nickname over there, not their God-given one, it’s hard to remember.
“¿Te acuerdas?” she says. They were all puntos, little dots, erased from a sentence.
Or did she mean a prayer?
Published in The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States , edited by Leticia Hernández Linares, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar, Tia Chucha Press, 2017.