Today is gray. A sluggish gray, tantalizing us with memories of the sunny days we could see Popocateptl. The day has been immersed with haze, clouds clotting the sky. It’s on days like this that the pollution becomes an accomplice with my asthma, draining my nose and rasping my throat. Rasping my thoughts. My head is cotton, gray cotton.
I hurry to get home, reminding myself of the mountain of homework that awaits. Home isn’t that far from school; close enough that I can walk. My home isn’t in the city’s quiet, peaceful neighborhoods that elude the dizzying pace outside. We live right off Insurgentes, known for being one of the largest streets in the Americas.
It’s six paces from the curb to our strip of shriveled yard, nine more to the steps, four up to the stoop. Our home perches on the street, absorbing the street’s noise and everything else that comes with it. And our home looks like every other one. It’s a cream stucco-concrete building. Wrought-iron bars protectively span the windows. A collection of spikes of multicolored glass crown the flat roof—our generic, low-cost security. Home, enough for our five-person family unit.
I let myself in. The smell of warm bread wafts through the house, hanging in the closets and hovering in the hall. Mmmmmm—Mami must have been to the panaderia. Leaving my satchel in the living room, I float into the kitchen through strands of mid-afternoon light. I know from the smells, from the singing, from the atmosphere, that Mami is inside.
“Mi’ja,” she says, pecking me on the cheek. “Como estas?”
“Oh, I had an OK day Como siempre.”
“Ay, mi’ja, aren’t you hungry? Here, have a torta.” She sets the sandwich in front of me on my favorite azure plate. Food is love, always.
I push the torta away; I just had lunch. “Gracias, Mami, pero no tengo hambre.”
“Ay, Rosana, por favor. You are never hungry anymore. My daughter shouldn’t be so thin. Just look at you.”
I look at myself. Pale skin, lightest of my family; rough hands my mother wishes I’d manicure; protocol jeans. The light above buzzes, on the verge of burning out, like it always is. Mami imposes food on me; imposes it on everybody. Everything is normal.
“OK, just have some bites. Just a little.”
“Por favor, Mami. I’m tired, not hungry”
“Ya, ya. Same thing.” The torta goes back on the counter. She’ll find time later to impose it on some other innocent individual.
“So. How was your day?”
I shrug. “The usual. But, Mami, I was wondering— there are some extra honors courses being offered after school. They would really help me do better in college. Would it be OK if I took them?”
Mami is washing dishes in the sink, deep in the suds of irony I know she wishes she’d gone to college herself. “Really, Rosana, I want you to be an independent woman someday. You deserve a good education, mi’ja. But family comes first. You need to spend less time with your studies, more with your family. Too many rebellious ideas swirling around in your head.”
“Por favor, Mami.”
She turns toward me, shoulders sinking. The kitchen is dim, but her eyes seem lighter, deeper. “You know what Papi would say.” I’m perfectly aware of it: he would say no.
I try again: “But Mami, you always tell me to take advantage of the opportunities.”
Her eyes are glistening. “I know I tell you to. But you’re forgetting what is most important.” Then she pauses, her voice lowering to a whisper. Her voice is grainy, sound coming drifting in separate molecules. “I have raised my daughters to be strong-willed and independent because I was raised not to be. I didn’t go to college. I married too early I wish I hadn’t.”
Her words hang in the air, heavier than the smell of fresh bread. The molecules have stopped floating; now they’re at a standstill. The power of her words has frozen them in place, in time.
Mami turns back to the sink quickly, still washing dishes in the suds of irony. For an instant, it is as if the words were never spoken. “I didn’t mean that. I love your papi very much.” Her words ring unconvincing. And I know without her uttering another word that she really wishes she had gone to college and had a career first. Mami remains silent now, as usual. She’s never spoken about herself that way before.
When she speaks again, it is not my mother’s strong voice. It’s a wilted voice, marred to crack like an egg. Like my mother. Like us all. “My role is to be a good mother, a good wife. I wanted to work; I couldn’t. I had children. I would have been a failure if I weren’t married with children by a certain age. But you are different.” Being different should be a compliment, but it’s not. “You are different. So go ahead, take the courses.”
I should feel happy Relieved. But I don’t. I feel only as if another burden has been placed securely on my shoulders, tension rising, an encumbrance imposed. With my mother’s blessings.