The Distance Between Us
“I won’t be gone long.”
“How long?” I wanted to know. I needed to know.
“Not too long,” Mami replied, closing her suitcase. She was going to a place most parents never come back from, a place that had already taken my father, and was now taking my mother.
The United States.
My sister, Mago; my brother, Carlos; and I grabbed our bags of clothes and followed Mami out the door of the little house we’d been renting. Mami’s brothers were packing our belongings for storage. Just as we were about to step into the sunlight, I caught a glimpse of Papi. My uncle was putting a photo of my father into a box. I ran to take the photo from my uncle.
“Why are you taking that?” Mami said as we headed down the dirt road to Papi’s mother’s house, where we would be staying while Mami was gone.
“He’s my papi,” I said, and I clutched the frame tight against my chest.
“Your grandmother has pictures of him at her house,” Mami said. “You don’t need to take it with you.”
“But this is my papi!” I said. She didn’t understand that this paper face behind a wall of glass was the only father I knew.
Papi had left for the United States two years before. He wanted to build us a house—a real house made of brick and concrete. Even though he was a bricklayer and could build a house with his own hands, he couldn’t find work in Mexico because of the weak economy, so he’d left to go to the place everyone in my hometown calls El Otro Lado, “The Other Side.” Three weeks earlier he’d called Mami to tell her he needed her help. “If we’re both here making dollars, it will be faster to buy the materials for the house,” he’d said, then they would come back to Mexico to build our house.
But in the meantime he was leaving us without a mother.
Mago (short for Magloria) took my bag of clothes so I could hold Papi’s photo with both hands. The dirt road was full of rocks waiting to trip me, but that day I was extra careful because I carried my papi in my arms, and he could break easily.
My hometown of Iguala de la Independencia in the southern state of Guerrero is surrounded by mountains. My grandmother lived on the edge of the city, and as we walked to her house, I kept my eyes on the closest mountain. It was big and smooth, as if covered by green velvet.
During the rainy season a circle of fog wrapped around its peak, like the white handkerchief people tie around their heads when they have headaches. This was why the locals had named it the Mountain That Has a Headache. Back then I didn’t know what was on the other side, and Mami didn’t either. She’d never been anywhere outside of Iguala. Until that day.
We didn’t live far from Papi’s mother, and as we turned the corner, her house came into view. Abuela Evila’s house sat at the bottom of the hill. It was a small adobe house painted white with a terra-cotta tile roof. Bougainvillea climbed up on one side. The vine, thick with red flowers, made the house look as if it were bleeding.
“Listen to your grandmother,” Mami said, startling me. All four of us had been quiet during our walk. She stopped and stood before us. “Behave yourselves. Don’t give her any reason to get angry.”
“She was born angry,” Mago said under her breath.
Carlos and I giggled. Mami giggled too, but stopped. “Hush, Mago. Don’t talk like that. Your abuela is doing us a favor by taking you in. Listen to her and always do as she says.”
“But why do we have to stay with her?” Carlos asked. He’d be seven years old the following month. Mago was eight and a half years old, four years older than me.
“Why can’t we stay with Abuelita Chinta?” Mago asked. I thought about Mami’s mother. Her voice was soft like the cooing of the doves in the cages around her
shack, and she smelled of almond oil and herbs. But as much as I loved my grandmother, I wanted my mother.
Mami sighed. “Your father wants you to stay with his mother. He thinks you’ll be better off there—”
“Basta. He has made a decision, and we must do as he says,” Mami said.
We continued walking. Mago, Carlos, and I slowed down, and soon Mami was walking by herself. I looked at the photo in my arms, at Papi’s black wavy hair, full lips, wide nose, and dark brown eyes looking to the left. I wished he was looking at me, and not past me. I wished he could see me.
“Why are you taking her away?” I asked the Man Behind the Glass. As always, he didn’t answer me.
“Señora, we’re here!” Mami shouted from the gate of my grandmother’s house. From across the street the neighbor’s dog barked at us.
“Señora, it’s me, Juana!” Mami yelled, louder this time. She didn’t open the gate to go in because my grandmother didn’t like Mami. And the truth was my abuela Evila didn’t like us, either, so I didn’t understand why Papi wanted us to stay there.
Finally Abuela Evila came out of the house. Her silver hair was up in a bun so tight that it pulled her scalp. She walked bent to the ground, as if she were carrying an invisible sack of corn. As she came to the gate, she dried her hands on her apron, stained with fresh red sauce.
“We’re here,” Mami said.
“I see,” my grandmother replied. She didn’t open the gate, and she didn’t ask us to come in and cool ourselves under the shade of the lemon tree in the patio. The bright noon sun burned my scalp. I got closer to Mami and hid in her shadow.
“Thank you for taking care of my children, señora,” Mami said. “Every week we’ll be sending you money for their upkeep.”
My grandmother looked at the three of us. I couldn’t tell if she was angry. She was always frowning, no matter what kind of mood she was in. “And how long will they be staying?”
“For as long as necessary,” Mami said. “Only God knows how long it’s going to take to build the house Natalio wants.”
“Natalio wants?” Abuela Evila asked, leaning against the gate. “Don’t you want it too?”
Mami looked at us and put her arms around us. We leaned against her. Tears stung my eyes, and I felt as if I’d swallowed one of Carlos’s marbles.
“Of course, señora. What woman wouldn’t want a nice brick house? But not at the price we must pay to have it,” Mami said.
“American dollars go a long way here,” Abuela Evila said, pointing at the brick house built on the far side of her property. “My daughter has built herself a very nice house with the money she’s made in El Otro Lado.”
We turned to look at the house. It was the biggest one on the block, but my aunt didn’t live in it. She hadn’t returned from the U.S. even though she’d left long before Papi had. She had left my cousin Élida behind, and my grandmother had been taking care of her since.
“I’m not talking about the money,” Mami said to my grandmother. Then she turned to us and bent to be at eye level with us. She took a deep breath and said, “I’ll work as hard as I can. Every dollar I earn will go to you and the house. We’ll be back before you know it.”
“Why did Papi only send for you and not me?” Mago asked. “I want to see him too.” As the oldest, she remembered Papi better than I did. She longed for him more than I did.
“I told you why. Your father only had enough money for me. And I’m going there to work. To help him with the house.”
“We don’t need a house. We need Papi,” Mago said.
“We need you,” Carlos said.
Mami ran her fingers through Mago’s hair. “I’ll be gone a year. I promise by then I’ll come back and bring your father with me. Do you promise to take care of Carlos and Reyna for me, be their little mother?”
Mago looked at Carlos, then at me. I didn’t know what my sister saw in my eyes that made her face soften. Did she see how afraid I was? Did she see that my heart was breaking at losing my mother? “Sí, Mami. I promise. But you’ll keep your promise, right? You will come back?”
“Of course,” Mami said. She opened her arms to us, and we fell into them.
“Don’t go, Mami. Stay with us. Stay with me. Please,” I pleaded, holding on to her.
She kissed the top of my head and pushed me toward the closed gate. “You need to get out of the sun before it gives you a headache.”
Abuela Evila finally opened the gate to allow us inside, but we didn’t move. We stood there holding our bags, and I wanted to throw Papi’s photo against the ground so it shattered into pieces. I hated him for taking my mother from me just because he wanted a house and a piece of land to call his own.
“Don’t go, Mami. Please!” I begged.
Mami gave us each a hug and kissed us good-bye. I pressed my cheek against her lips painted red with Avon lipstick.
Mago held me tightly as we watched Mami walk away. When she disappeared where the road curved, I tore my hand from my sister’s and took off running, yelling for my mother. Through my tears I watched a taxicab take her away. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Mago standing behind me.
“Come on, Nena,” she said. There were no tears in her eyes, and as we walked back to my grandmother’s house, I wondered if, when Mami had asked Mago to be our little mother, it had also meant she was not allowed to cry.