I wasn’t fast enough. Abuela appears behind me, already dressed with her makeup on, hair in a perfect bun. “Ven,” she says, holding two brushes and a flatiron. She gestures for me to follow her into her room. I really wanted to get a few knots out of my hair before she got started.
She sits me down on the footstool facing her full-length mirror. As soon as my butt touches the seat, she hammers away with the hairbrush like she’s some kind of blacksmith hairstylist.
My head jerks as Abuela pulls. She takes a skinny comb with a long, pointy handle and splits my hair into sections with hair clips that look like chomping alligators. With one section in her hand, she takes the flatiron in the other. She feeds my hair into the iron and clamps down on the strands. Steam curls out like a dragon exhaling as the iron slides from the top of my head to my tips. Even though she’s never burned me, I get nervous when Abuela gets close to my ears.
I don’t have my mom’s jet-black hair, but I have her curls. Or waves—my hair swooshes like a rolling tide. But after Abuela’s done with it, it’s as flat as a pancake. Today she straightens my hair out and puts it up into a ponytail.
“Pa’que se quede liso,” she says. I guess she’s worried that if I don’t put my hair up, it will get wavy later. Abuela turns my head toward the window and keeps working.
There’s something comforting about the way the sun enters the room through the curtains in the morning—it’s like a tap-tap-tapping on the window, telling me it’s time to get the day started. A cardinal chirps on the branch of our cedar tree. It flits around, and I’m jealous of the little bird for having so much energy in the morning. I lean over to draw the curtains open and let in more light.
“Quédate quieta, muchacha,” Abuela says. “You’re moving around too much.”
“Aurelia,” Mom says, popping into the room. “Déjala con su pelo risado.”
Abuela stops tugging and looks back at Mom.
“She’s going to go to school with her hair curly and out of control? She won’t be able to focus,” Abuela says.
“What?” my mom replies. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Well, what will people think? I’ll tell you: that she doesn’t have anybody to take care of her. Is that what you want?”
“That’s what this is about,” my mom says. “It’s always about what other people think.”
“It’s important to put your best foot forward,” Abuela says, continuing to brush out my ponytail.
“And I think her wavy hair is beautiful. It’s her best foot, and I won’t let you tell her otherwise.” Mom winks while she scrunches her own hair.
“It’s fine, Mom,” I finally say.
It’s not really fine—Abuela’s daily hair rituals hurt, and I think my hair is like a lion’s mane. And I love lions. But I’m not interested in Abuela and Mom getting into another argument over my hair.
Abuela finishes by putting a large blue bow on top of my head. I get up and move toward my mom, who is still standing at the door. She’s wearing baggy sweatpants and a tank top and has her favorite fluffy argyle socks on. Her long, curly black hair falls along her shoulders like a waterfall in the dead of night.
I look back at my grandmother. She’s wearing freshly pressed pants and a blouse with circles and stars on it, her auburn hair perfectly in place without a loose strand. Her round rosy cheeks and thin lips are stained the color of an Arkansas Black apple, and she’s wearing the same gold-and-pearl earrings she’s worn since my abuelo died.
Between my mother and grandmother, I’m a blend of both. Short, head of wavy auburn hair, eyes large with dark yellow-green colors.
I don’t have Mom’s complexion. One that, as she once said, shows she is a “descendant of the Yoruba.”
“Emilia viene de sangre española,” Abuela replied. “She resembles my side of the family.”
“She may have some Spanish ancestry,” Mom said. “But she also has West African blood coursing through her veins. She needs to know all parts of her heritage, not just the European one—”
“Bueno,” Abuela interrupted. “Remember, most of our family came from Spain. And some from Ireland. That’s why your hair is that color, mi’ja.”
“Si, pero you can’t deny the orishas guide her spiritual journey as well,” Mom said.
“Aye, muchacha,” Abuela responded, clearly frustrated. “She’s baptized Catholic.”
“You baptized her Catholic, Aurelia,” Mom said. Then she whispered to me loudly enough for Abuela to hear: “No matter what, nunca dudes lo que está in your mind and spirit, mi amor. That, and sea como sea, our Yoruba heritage teaches us to respect your elders.”
Mom kissed my forehead.
I smiled. Abuela frowned.
“Come on,” Mom says now. “Let’s eat breakfast.”
“Espérate.” Abuela stops me before I head out.
She slathers her hands with gel and smooths the hair at the top of my forehead so it’s flat against my scalp. I stare at myself in her full-length mirror as the plastering continues. My eyes follow Abuela’s arm to the short cylindrical can she’s digging into. Actually, it’s pomade she’s using. Not gel. Pomade is greasier and stays in my hair longer. It gives it a slick sheen, but honestly, I hate it because it takes forever to wash out. I don’t say anything, though.
We walk downstairs, past the dining room that leads into the kitchen. Mom and I start our daily ritual of making café con leche, with a little slice of Cuban toast and melted butter, plus a large glass of my daily spinach-peanut-butter-banana-and-almond-milk smoothie.
“Doctor’s recommendations!” Mom says, pouring the last of the smoothie into my glass.
“Why do I have to drink that horrible green monster every morning? It leaves specks of green in my teeth.”
“It’s not that bad! Here, take your fish oil pill.”
“I hate that thing!”
“The doctor did say it’s a natural way to help you concentrate.”
Mom tries to add healthy foods into my diet all the time. She says it will help with my lack of focus. I think she’s just trying to cut out sugar. Which I love.
As the coffee brews, the sweet and bitter smell wafts my way. Whoever figured out that those opposite tastes could blend together so perfectly in a coffee drink was a genius.
Mom puts her arm around me, and I lean into her shoulder.
“What’s up, Not-Buttercup?” she jokes.
I perk up and smile.
I recently saw an old movie called The Princess Bride with Mom and Abuela. It’s about this princess named Buttercup who falls in love with a guy named Westley. At one point in the movie, they’re in a forest and these gigantic rats attack them. Westley falls to the ground while wrestling the rat, but Buttercup doesn’t do anything. There’s a humongous rat chewing on Westley’s shoulder, and Buttercup doesn’t even pick up a stick to bash it! She just stands there screaming for Westley to save her. It really annoyed me. Mom and Abuela eyed each other and said they never saw the movie that way.
Mom rubs my shoulder and gives it a squeeze.
“Ready for school?”
“No,” I say, looking out the kitchen window, slurping up the last of my smoothie. Mom goes to the toaster and pulls out the warm bread and cuts it in half. Steam rises when she adds butter, and it melts instantly. She moves the knife like she’s conducting an orchestra across each slice.
My mouth feels dry, but it’s not because I’m thirsty.
“Do you have to leave?” I ask her.
“Yes, baby girl. The conference starts tomorrow.”
“But it’s, like, a thirty-hour time difference, Mom.”
“It’s San Francisco, mi amor. Not China. And it’s only a little more than a week. Who knows? Something exciting could come of it.”
“Like what?” I ask, moving over to help her. I grab a paper towel and start wiping the loose crumbs off the counter.
“We’ll see! Anyway, Dad is coming home tonight,” she tells me. “You’ll get some one-on-one time with him for a few days!”
“And apparently he’s okay with your mother leaving even though he’s been gone for eight months,” Abuela says, stern at the kitchen door. It doesn’t seem to faze Mom at all. She’s used to what she calls Abuela’s “puyas”—side comments meant to get under her skin. Abuela throws shade like a chameleon changes colors.
Mom rubs my forearm and squeezes my hand a little. “Bueno, Aurelia, luckily my husband and I have communicated, and fortunately for both of us, we understand that our jobs may require a certain amount of travel on occasion. As I’m sure you’ve experienced over the years with his deployments.”
Abuela huffs and leaves the kitchen. Mom exhales slowly.
“How do you not get flustered by her, Mom?”
“Patience, mi amor,” Mom says. “The older you get, the more important patience becomes.”
I glance over at my backpack and think about all the classes I have and how Mom is always there to help organize my work and how I can’t let Abuela help me because she won’t understand and suddenly I feel the vibrating in my head that happens sometimes when I get nervous. It’s like a whole bunch of little bees buzzing around and it’s hard to concentrate.
“Mom, who’s going to help me with my homework when you’re gone?”
The calendar Mom and I go over every Monday morning to help me organize the week sits in front of me. Friday is circled with two little stars and a question mark next to it.
“Oh, Mom! Clarissa is having a party on Friday. Can I go?”
“It’s Monday, Emilia. And that’s not really relevant to our discussion, is it?”
“Well, we’re talking about your dad coming home tonight and since it’s Monday, I think planning for your school week is the priority, don’t you think?”
“Mom, please don’t start that priority–organizational thinking thing again. I know it’s Monday.”
“Okay, but you have a math—”
“I know! Geez.” I take a breath and exhale. Patience . . . Right.
“Don’t make that face,” she says.
“The one that looks like you ate day-old bacalao.”
Mom drops her upper lip and her eyes sag a little.
“I hate salted cod,” I tell her.
“Oye, your ancestors are probably rolling in their graves.”
I drop my head onto my mom’s shoulder again. When I lift it, she hands me her mug. “Bueno, at least you like café con leche.”
I take a sip, and everything comes into focus. There is nothing like café con leche. Nothing.
“C’mon, mi amor. Let’s hang out a little before the bus gets here,” she says.
Mom pats my back and heads to the dining room, carrying the café con leche. I follow her with the buttery Cuban toast and sit at the dining table, where we’ve done homework together hundreds of times. Probably thousands. Maybe millions. Abuela moves past us to the kitchen.
“Should we get him balloons or a sign or something?” I ask.
“No, you know he doesn’t like a big welcome like that,”
Mom says. “Be there with a hug and tell him you’re glad he’s home.”
“Well, I am glad he’s home. I just wish you were going to be home too.”
“I know, baby. But this is going to be good. Trust me.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, swinging my feet and munching on toast and talking about the week ahead. She likes to go over my agenda for the week, but it’s kind of annoying because sometimes that’s all she talks about.
“So, you got it?”
“Your stuff for the week, sweetheart,” she says. “Math test Thursday. You have a vocabulary test Friday. What do you have for social studies?”
“Oh, Clarissa’s party! I can go, right?”
“Emilia,” Mom says, using my name like a sharp-edged sword to make her point. “I need to be able to go on this trip knowing you’re ready for the week.”
“Yes, Mom, you’ve told me, like, a hundred times!”
“And social studies?”
“What about it?”
“What do you have for Mr. Richt’s class this week?”
“I don’t know, something. Maybe a test.”
“Maybe? Do I have to call?”
“No, Mami! Please, can we just talk about something else?”
She lets out a sigh. “Okay, mi amor. What do you want to talk about?”
I ask her about her trip, where she’s going to present this cool new translation app she designed.
“Are you going to speak in front of a ton of people?”
“I hope not!” she says. “I hate speaking in front of people.”
“But you have to talk about it.”
“Oh, I have no problem talking one-on-one,” she says. “I just hate talking in front of big crowds. Me da pánico.”
“You won’t panic, Mom,” I tell her. “It’s going to be awesome.”
“I hope so. It’ll be a game changer.”
I hear the bus rounding the corner, rumbling like a grumpy yellow rhino that hasn’t had coffee yet. Would a rhino drink café con leche? Probably. I wish I had a remote control that could pause the bus for a moment longer.
“It’s time to go, mi amor.” Mom gets up and hugs me.
“I’m going to miss you,” I tell her. Her curls wrap around my shoulders like a dark rain cloud that blocks out the sun and cools the sky.
“I’ll call when I land,” she says, kissing my forehead. “And you call me for anything. Okay?”
“I will,” I say, getting up and heading to the door.
Abuela comes back into the dining room and hands me a waffle wrapped in a napkin. The syrup drips onto the napkin and the paper sticks to the waffle. I try to peel it off, but the syrup has already glued it in place.
“Tienes que desayunar más,” Abuela says.
“Ya comí, Abuela,” I reply, showing her my mostly eaten toast.
She shakes her head. “Pero that tiny piece of bread and that green milkshake aren’t enough,” she says. “You have to have a full stomach at school, Emilia Rosa.”
Mom steps in and takes the waffle out of my hand.
“Aurelia,” Mom says. “We talked about this, remember? Her doctor suggested eliminating sugar to see what effect it has on her inattentiveness.”
“And the café con leche you gave her this morning? That has sugar.”
“It has almond milk and a tiny bit of agave in it.”
Abuela shakes her head, then lets out a humph before taking the waffle from my mom. “Whoever heard of café con leche with agave?” she mutters loudly enough for both of us to hear.
Mom steps around her to hug me one more time. “Don’t let her get to you,” she whispers. Abuela frowns. Mom kisses me on the nose and playfully pats my side. “Love you, baby.”
“Love you too, Mom,” I say, heading outside. “Have a good trip.”
“Thanks, mi amor.”
“Bye, Abuela,” I say, quickly pecking her on the cheek and grabbing my backpack.
“Have a good day, mi’ja,” she responds.
The bus is already in front of our house when I step outside. Its doors swing open, and I turn back to look at Mom one more time.
Abuela calls out and rushes to the bus before I get on. She holds my head, tucks a few loose strands of hair behind my ears, and tightens my bow.
“Perfect,” she says.
I think about taking a deep breath, but I just get on the bus.
It feels like my whole life is changing. Like everything that’s normal is becoming the opposite. We’ve been like this for so long—me, Mom, and Abuela. Now that Mom is leaving and Dad is coming home—with Abuela probably in charge—I’m not sure what to expect.
Copyright © 2019 by Pablo Cartaya. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.