I can still smell the chorizo she packed, taste the flecked salt on her fried plantains. Maman had always packed her lunch with precision, as if it were part of her job, having a presentable lunch. That morning she’d packed it with care, tucking the sandwich beside the plantain chips with the same tenderness a mother holds a child at night. I wouldn’t have remembered, had I not seen what happened, how another teacher collided into her, how the sandwich spilled out of the bag, how the sausage rolled and rolled until it came to a stop against the secretary’s heels.
It was an accident. That’s what I told myself, what Madre would say later, to Padre, when they were lying in bed, their bedroom door slightly cracked, Emilio’s snores emanating from our shared bedroom. An accident, not a big deal. It had happened before.
It had happened before. Maybe once, maybe twice, maybe every time Madre entered the teacher’s lounge to use the microwave, every day she didn’t resign herself to cold cut sandwiches or cold leftovers from the night before, pretending it was okay, that it was normal, to eat alone, that, really, she liked it that way.
There are two versions to what I saw. The only thing I am certain, is that it began with the microwave. Madre wanted to heat the chorizo and the onions she’d grilled the night before. One of the teachers made an offhand comment about how someone kept forgetting to clean the microwave, how frustrating it was to try to heat up a Lean Cuisine and have residue stick to the bottom of the plate.
I knew my mother. I knew she would never let her food explode, let alone leave a mess. But she was the only one using the microwave, and the only other person--the secretary--was clawing in the cupboards for plastic ware, likely not even listening.
Madre remained silent, waiting patiently as her meal heated. The teacher appeared familiar--maybe she taught second grade? She had honey blond hair, silky and fine, neatly confined with a silver headband. She looked no older than twenty-six, with high cheekbones that might have been attractive had her brows not been furrowed so deeply. She asked how Madre’s day was going.
“Fine. I had a few new kids.”
“Oh yeah. One from Russia.”
“Actually, Ukraine. His English is already pretty advanced.”
The teacher nodded in a disinterested way. “I hate to be a pain, but I need to be in a meeting soon. Wondering if I could slide this in the microwave?” She waved a frozen dinner.
The only thing my mother could possibly need to heat was the chorizo, but she shrugged. “Okay. I’ll just finish this after you're done.”
“Thanks. Appreciate it.” The teacher stripped away the plastic film, pushed the dinner in just as Madre took her half-heated sausage out. “You’ve been working here for a while. Haven’t you?”
“Ah.” The teacher peaked at the microwave, as if doing so would make the meal heat faster. “So how do you like it here?”
“Good days and bad days.” Madre laughed. “The curse of being a teacher, I suppose.”
“I meant in California. It must be hard.”
Madre’s smile evaporated. “It’s not really that different from Massachusetts, once you get used to it.”
“Oh.” Heat flooded the teacher’s cheeks. “I thought you were from Cuba.”
There was a beat of silence. I became aware that any moment someone might see me, crouched outside the door, listening. I heard footsteps approaching but I couldn’t move.
“Well,” the teacher said, just as the microwave beeped, “I guess that makes it easier for you. Being able to relate to the ESL kids.”
Madre didn’t answer. The teacher pulled out her Panini, took a small bite. “Damn this bread always gets so soggy. Don’t you hate that?”
“Can’t say I’ve ever tried one of those.”
“Oh,” the teacher glanced at the sausage. “Yea. Well, you seem to like to bring more….” she seemed to be searching for a word. “Creative things.”
“I bring leftovers.”
I didn’t like the way the teacher was eyeing the onions. I could tell she was pondering if Madre was the culprit of the dirty microwave.
For the first time in my life, I had the urge to punch the teacher, felt the same hot blooded temper that all too often pulsed in Emilio. Maybe I was like my brother, more than I thought, I was even angrier, though, at Madre. I waited for her to tell the teacher off, to say she’d lived her, in the States, for over twenty years, that she was as much an American as anyone, that she didn’t bring processed food because a-it was a piece of crap, and, b, she wasn't so lazy that she was willing to shell out hard earned money for convenience.
Instead, she walked away, abandoning the microwave, scooping up a napkin, heading out to eat her cold lunch.
Maybe the teacher didn’t realize they were both headed for the door. Maybe she was too invested in examining her panini to watch where she was going. Maybe it really was an accident, like Madre kept telling herself, what I would learn she’d been telling herself for years.
I kept that incident buried inside me, like a growing tumor. Sometimes I didn’t feel it at all, and other times, as I walked past the teacher’s lounge or watched Madre grading papers, pen perched in her hair, the tumor would swell, make my chest ache. Emilio, for his part, never asked if I’d followed his dare. Either he sensed I had, or he’d already forgotten about it. It seemed easy for him to forget, an art I’d never mastered. Emilio could yell at a friend, accuse him of stealing an idea for a science project, and the next day act as if nothing had ever happened. But unlike Emilio, I had so little going on in my life-no friends outside of school, aside from Sara; no extracurricular activities.
Padre noticed that something was wrong, how I left his homemade black bean soup untouched, barely lifted my head during Mass, and stopped asking for the morning comics. Small changes even Madre, harried with the impending grading before the holidays, failed to notice. Reserved as I was, changes no one else would have noticed.
“Is there something wrong?” Padre asked one morning, just before school. Emilio was still dressing, and Madre was in the kitchen, brewing a fresh pot of Cuban coffee.
I said no, but then he asked me to look at him. “Boys bullying you at school?”
I opened my mouth, closed it. Did he expect me to be bullied? Was he thinking about Madre? Was this more common than I realized?
One thing my parents had instilled in me was a deep obligation to be respectful to my elders--a sentiment that seemed to be antiquated in America, a sentiment Emilio rolled his eyes at. But it was something I more or less held onto, as if holding onto this principle, to the food we cooked and the music we listened to--as if holding onto these gave me a sense of who I was, as if by doing so, I was reaching back to a home I’d never known.
“No,” I said finally. Lying was disrespectful, but so would telling him how I felt about Madre. How I wished she had stood up for herself, how I wish I knew why the teacher was treating her that way.
I was too young to understand an offer when I saw one, or to understand the emotion swimming in Padre’s placid eyes. He took my hand, and it felt rough, like sandpaper, from the years of woodworking he’d performed as a hobby back in Cuba.
What he said next took me by surprise.
“It’s better to risk than to let something fester.”
I nodded. Madre was calling for Emilio, telling him to hurry up.
“When you’re ready,” he said.
The next year, the rain was ceaseless. Streets flooded. Sebastian Marzo, our enigmatic neighbor, had to have his basement gutted. Grade reports came and went. I ate lunch with Sara and never invited her home.
I never told Padre or anyone else about the weight I was carrying, never told anyone how, every time I passed by the teacher’s lounge, I held my breath, as if saving Madre another scene of embarrassment. I never told anyone how I wasn’t sure if I was angry or sad or embarrassed, and for whom.
The rain continued and our streets flooded and school let out. A sloppy, wet summer of tracking mud to the house, and slowly erasing the hard edges of memory. A summer of reading in my room while Madre painted the walls--canary yellow, from our rust orange. Padre never asked again if something was wrong, and I didn’t offer to say anything.
The summer I turned thirteen, Madre deliberated moving. Unlike many of the regular teachers, her work as an ESL instructor left her with less benefits, more after school hours, and lower pay. But she’d picked up jobs, odds and ends, over the holidays and the long summers, working as a cashier at Safeway, or a lifeguard at the community pool--teenager jobs, jobs that embarrassed me. When I was eight it was not such a big deal. I’d even bragged to Sara about how hard Madre worked, how she tried to earn even when other teachers were taking vacations, so we could take a vacation of our own, somewhere outside of California.
But I’d just turned thirteen, and had grown painfully aware of what other guys thought about that sort of thing. I’d stopped going to the pool, saying I hated swimming when I’d seriously considered joining the swim team only a year before. Emilio was, as always, more blunt: at sixteen, he no longer bothered to obscure his disgust. He’d more or less become constantly cloistered with an entourage of parties and soccer games, nights when he did not get home until one or two, no matter how much Madre and Padre took away his privileges.
A week after I turned thirteen, he told Madre exactly what he thought of her working as a lifeguard.
“It’s not exactly appropriate, is it?” he asked one night as she cleared the table of the dishes he and I were supposed to be washing.
Emilio took a bite from a Red Delicious. “Lifeguarding. Come on. I mean, the cashier was bad enough.”
“I don’t see what the issue is.”
“Seriously. You have a degree.”
She gave him a quick look. “There’s nothing wrong with what I do, if it means earning a little extra while I have time. Speaking of which, did you apply to Marco’s like I asked you to?”
Emilio bent his head, shaggy bangs obscuring his tanned face. “I told you. I don’t have time. I have soccer.”
“Maybe you’ll have a little more time when you want to go to college.”
He shrugged. “Soccer scholarship. Easy.”’
Padre entered the room, appearing thinner and paler than I had ever seen him. He’d gotten a bad cold and been fighting it for nearly two weeks. On my birthday, he ate homemade chicken broth while everyone else ate flan.
He was sniffling still. “Problem?”
“Emilio thinks working at the pool is above me.”
Padre raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“You should hear what guys say about her. I mean, I get sick of explaining why my mom is a lifeguard. It’s freaking embarrassing.”
He was lying. Once, I’d walked past the pool and spotted Emilio with his soccer buddies, nibbling on Lay’s Potato Chips and fruit roll ups. One of them asked if that was his mom, lifeguarding, and he laughed. “Hell no. You really think I’m related to a loser like that? I mean, look at her.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d denied being related to Madre, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. The night before, I’d come into our bedroom to see his laptop open, a page about getting a legal name change. I didn’t worry he’d actually do anything like that--could sixteen-year-olds do something like that? -it was like Emilio to show what he thought, and act less often. He’d been sending a clear message to my parents since that day he dared me to look at the teacher’s lounge. In that respect, nothing had changed.
Except now I kept my mouth shut. I let Emilio say whatever he wanted to about Padre and Madre, even when it was terrible.
Padre didn’t say anything. He filled a glass with tap water. “You really should help your mother with the dishes.”
“Whatever. Keep lifeguarding. Not like you guys give a shit what I have to say.” Emilio scrubbed a single pot and let it slam in the sink.
“I don’t understand why he’s so upset,” Madre murmured after he left.
Padre finished his glass. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Did you want any more black beans and rice before I put it away?” Madre asked me.
“No, I’m pretty full.” I was. I was full in many senses. “I think I’m going to take a walk.”
Madre’s eyebrows furrowed. I noticed a single strand of silver in her sleek bun, and noticed creases around her eyes that had not been there before. She looked fragile, still young but something hollow in her hazel eyes, her dress hanging loosely on her shoulders, a dress that had fit a few years ago.
“It’s almost dark, though.”
I wanted to throw a plate. Emilio was allowed to storm off, come back late, shirk his chores, whatever the hell he wanted. He’d stopped attending Mass, come home with his clothes reeking of smoke or maybe plain old pot. Yet it was me who was always given rules, me who suffered the sharpest consequences for the smallest things. It didn’t occur to me, then, that maybe they’d given up on Emilio.
“At least tell us where you’re headed.”
“This is between you too.” Padre rinsed his hands in the sink. I noticed he’d shaved a little too closely, nicked his upper neck. I wanted him to defend me, even take Madre’s side. Instead, he retreated to the other room with a newspaper and a steaming mug of Cuban coffee.
“At least go with a friend,” Madre told me. She looked tired.
“I want to go by myself. That’s sort of the point.” Didn’t she know I only had one friend? Maybe not. Maybe she liked to pretend, the way she pretended with Emilio, the way she pretended with everything. Maybe that’s all that had held our family together, the moments we all probably wondered if life wouldn’t have been better off somewhere we at least fit in. There was a small community of Cuban Americans in California, but everyone knew that most of them were in Florida. Not that it would have made a difference to Emilio. He’d long decided he wanted nothing to do with his Cuban heritage, from the food to the celebrations to the music to family traditions. Over the years, he’d slowly piled up excuses, slipped out of more and more annual events: he had a soccer match or a friend’s party, he had to study for an exam (that at least should have tipped my parents off).
“Fine, whatever. Just be careful.”
I stared at Madre. This wasn’t like her. She was bent over the sink, rinsing dishes.
“You seemed bound and determined, so go ahead.”
I felt the desire for my walk drain. I stuffed my hands in my pockets, cargo shorts that were loose around my scrawny waist, hand me downs from Emilio. Even with the extra money, we were making enough to live comfortably, to pay our bill;s and splurge, but nothing had changed. My parents, accustomed to living paycheck to paycheck, seemed unaware that we probably could afford to get me some of my own clothes. When I was seven, even ten, it was irritating. Now it was downright humiliating.
A part of me secretly wondered, as I strolled the dusky streets, if Emilio was the one in the right. It wasn’t like our parents had done much to help us, or at least it seemed that way. Maybe Emilio had simply accepted what none of the rest of us wanted to face, that it was easier, better to be a full-blooded American, better to blend in, even if it meant losing a part of yourself.
The street lights were misty, almost golden under the setting sun, ashy and harsh, casting the newly paved sidewalk in sepia tones, making me feel incredibly small and big at once. A green Mazda drove past, with a woman smoking a cigarette. I caught some of the fumes from the open windows, coughed. I was terrible around smoke. I was a freak even in that. Whenever Emilio came home after smoking whatever it was he smoked, I had to open all the windows in our room. One time Madre caught me doing this and asked if I enjoyed having rain soak my bed.
I just wanted some fresh air, I said.
Erin Jamieson (she/her) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published in over eighty literary magazines, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of a poetry collection (Clothesline, NiftyLit, Feb 2023). Twitter: @erin_simmer