Ponytails and Popsicles
Dulce sat in the closet, barely inhaling the musty air, flinching as she listened to the screams. It had been forever since she hid from the arguments, maybe years since she had been able to fit in the closet. But last week, she got rid of a box of old clothes, too small to wear and not good enough to trade with friends. That left her a space, tight but big enough she could sit, knees pulled up to her chin, arms wrapped tightly around her legs, and ponytail tangled up behind her and under her bottom. If her mom found her, heard her breathe, or anything, Dulce wasn’t sure what would happen. Actually, she had an idea of what would happen if she wasn’t found; the family would continue to melt down and then, it would be like it had never happened. Until it did again. In earlier fights, she had seen Chi-Chi, the family’s chihuahua, get both stepped on and kicked, and she worried about her but didn’t dare risk calling her out of the fray. Nobody meant to hurt the old dog, but sometimes Chi-Chi would just not stay out of it.
There was the voice of her brother. Now her mother again. The screams grew louder then quieter as they walked back and forth in the small apartment; each crescendo making Dulce grip the clothing above her head, twisting it in her fingers and rubbing it with her thumb. Then, for who knows what reason, her mother noticed she was missing.
“Where is she?” she heard her mother demand. “Dulce, where are you?”
Dulce tightened her grip on her legs, squirming a bit on the lumpy ponytail behind and beneath her.
“If she knows what’s good for her, she’s gone, long gone from this hellhole,” yelled Arturo.
Dulce could picture it as it happened. Her brother, Arturo, was next door in the boys’ bedroom and her mother sounded like she was right outside Dulce’s closed door. Then her mother’s voice grew fainter, and Dulce could imagine her stalking down the hall to the kitchen, arms swinging hard, weighted by tight fists. Suddenly Dulce heard sniffing. Oh damn, the dog. Should she bring her baby in? If she didn’t, Chi-Chi might give her away. If she did, she might bark and give her away anyway. Crap. Dulce sat paralyzed unable to decide. BANG! Jose, her next brother, had probably just put his fist through the bedroom door. Again.
That was followed by a long stream of screaming and cursing in Spanish, the only language her mother felt comfortable speaking. Dulce breathed slowly and softly, careful not to make the tiniest squeak. It was bad enough to be the target of her mother, and being visible left her open for that, but what would it be like if her mom caught her hiding?
A distant slam brought her back to the moment. Silence permeated the closet, silence, and stifled air that tasted like stale perfume. Dulce pushed at the door the tiniest bit. She heard nothing. She felt no movement. Even her silent ability to detect her mother’s presence, this magic that she possessed since early childhood, was absent. She left the door cracked and clicked her tongue at the dog. There was no response. Chi-Chi never missed that. She must have been taken out by someone if she hadn’t already had an accident from all the screaming. It was time for Dulce to escape or risk the fury of coming out after her mother returned home.
But where could she go? For both her hide and her heart? She could go to her best friend’s apartment, but that wouldn’t work well. Her friend’s mom smoked pot and her own mother knew and resented it. The park was risky because her mom might be there now. Where could she go that her mom would not get angry about? There was just one place, the old woman’s apartment. Her mom held a grudging respect for the old woman who worked with and tutored all the children of the family. Her mom fought with the old woman frequently, but for some reason, still allowed the kids to spend time with her in her apartment home. But if Dulce was going, she better go now. She could always claim she had been there during the fight. That might work.
Dulce slipped out of the room as quietly as she could. The door to her brothers’ bedroom now bore two holes and was closed, but she could hear muffled talking. She squinted her eyes and walked. No, she evaporated from the apartment, ran up the two flights of stairs, and knocked on the old woman’s door.
“Come in,” called the old woman.
Dulce entered and just stood there, unsure of what to do as her eyes adjusted to the soft outlines of the overstuffed couch and towering china hutch. The old woman looked at her with deep eyes, stared into her very core for a moment, then got up and went to the kitchen.
“Sit down, dear one, do you want a pineapple or mango popsicle?”
“Pineapple, please,” Dulce said.
The old woman walked back into the living room and handed her a bright yellow frozen fruit bar. Dulce took it gladly, both to soothe her clenched and parched throat and to keep her from needing to talk, at least until she had thought through anything she might risk saying. She unwrapped it; the stark crinkle of the cellophane paper made her mouth water. The girl and the old woman sat across from each other for a while, each silently enjoying a popsicle. It was a comfortable silence, broken only by the calls of the baseball game next to the old woman. Dulce didn’t understand baseball; soccer was more her game, but she loved the old-fashioned radio and the crack of the bat and cheer of the crowd. The escape of the game was as delectable as the tang of the pineapple on her tongue. The sweetness softened the pang in her stomach and soothed the rolling there.
As she got to the end of the popsicle, she pulled her long ponytail in front of her and ran her fingers through it. But something caught. There was a big knot in the ponytail, and she picked at it but couldn’t release it.
The old woman stood, threw away her stick, and went to the bathroom, returning with a large comb and a brush. She sat back down in her rocking chair and said, “Come here child. I’ll get that out for you.”
Dulce sat down on the floor in front of the old woman, allowing her to release the ponytail holder and begin at the ends, combing slowly to not pull Dulce’s hair more than she needed. Dulce finished her popsicle and drew her knees up under her chin, wrapped her arms around them and closed her eyes, just feeling the old woman combing her hair. Her hair was so long it took a while to get the knots out.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” the old woman finally asked in her softest voice.
“No,” Dulce said without thinking much.
“I don’t mean what happened, I mean how you feel about it,” the old woman said.
Dulce sat, rocking with the extended soft pulls of the hairbrush. Although her hair had been waist length for as long as she could remember, she could not remember her mother ever combing her hair. That had been her sister’s job and when her sister left home, it became Dulce’s responsibility. It felt good to let someone else brush her hair.
“My mom,” Dulce began. “My mom is never happy unless she is in Mexico.”
“I know,” said the old woman. “Te duela?”
“I don’t want to live in Mexico.”
“I know you don’t. I also know you are a U.S. citizen. But does it hurt you?”
“No.” Dulce insisted.
“What hurts you?”
“That’s not what your body is telling me.”
Dulce looked up over her shoulder at the old woman. For a slight second, she wondered if the old woman had gone crazy. But when their eyes met, they linked. Dulce felt the old woman’s heart, round and warm, enter the cold crevices of her body and in a moment, she found herself crying. The old woman’s arms reached around her, and the gnarled old hands lifted her up to her feet. Without knowing exactly how it happened, she found herself standing beside the chair and sinking down over the arm and into the woman’s lap. Dulce’s long, brown legs hung over the edge.
As gently as handling the tenderest baby in the nursery, the old woman gathered the young girl up in her arms. Holding her close, the old woman set the chair to rocking and whispered into the young girl’s hair. “Cry, dear one,” was what Dulce’s heart heard.
And cry was what Dulce’s heart did. For the first time ever, she cried in the presence of the old woman and for the first time since she was six and fell off her bike, she cried in the loving arms of one of her family. The old woman had long called the children her “Familia del Corazon” and for the first time the younger girl understood why and how. Not in words, but in her heart.
It didn’t take long for her eyelashes to mat together with tears. Her throat ached, and her nose was dripping. This was as much crying as Dulce could remember on some horrible nights; those nights when she lay in bed with silent tears slipping down her face. Silent because “If you want to cry, I’ll give you something to cry about,” was a realistic threat. Silent because the mockery, or the lack of understanding, or worse, the pity was more than she could bear from the sisters with whom she shared a room and a bed. Crying sucked but crying alone was the worst.
“You are not alone, pobrecita,” said the old woman, startling her. Had she read Dulce’s mind?
The old woman held Dulce a little tighter in her arms and set the chair rocking again.
Dulce trusted the woman. She didn’t always understand her, but she trusted her and without making a conscious decision, let go. The tears fell faster. She sniffed through her runny nose and sniffed again. Her muscles tightened and Dulce fought instinctively.
“Shhh, luv, it’s okay. Let it out,” the old woman began to stroke Dulce’s hair and way back, in the tiniest, youngest part of Dulce, she remembered that feeling. Someone had stroked her hair when she cried. She didn’t remember who, but she remembered the feeling of being totally loved.
That did it. Dulce curled up, turning her face into the old woman’s shoulder, her own arms crossed over her chest. That’s when she heard it. Somewhere a young animal was keening, crying out for its own mother. It was a heart-breaking sound and Dulce cried harder for it. The wail grew closer. It was a high-pitched breathy sound. It surrounded her. Then she understood. It was her.
The rocking got stronger, and Dulce heard the old woman humming, deep in her throat, crooning a song that had soothed the wounded for generations. The song, the arm around her, the hand on her hair, the motion, all made Dulce feel loved in her deepest wounds, in her youngest parts. Something in her core that was twisted oh-so-tight relaxed.
Dulce blinked her eyes open. Through bleary clouds she looked up at the old woman. She had never seen her up close like this before. Her face wasn’t one color, it was mottled patches of pink and pinker, unlike Dulce’s own face. Her skin was a road map of lines, telling stories of laughter and tears. Her eyes were wet, too. This made Dulce curious, and she flexed her hands, which were cramped like so much of her body, and raised one finger to touch a tear on the old woman’s face. She traced its route and said, “You too?”
The old woman smiled, hugged her close, and then leaned forward so Dulce could get her balance to sit up on the old woman’s lap. “Yes, luv, me too. When you hurt, I hurt, too. It’s one of the hardest and the best things about family. My grandmother used to tell me that pain shared is halved and joy shared is doubled.”
Dulce didn’t have any abuelas or tias in this country. Or maybe she did? She smiled, a tremulous first smile after her long cry. “So, you share my hurt?”
“Yes,” the old woman said, “but don’t forget, I share your joy and your love, too.”
Dulce thought about that a minute. She took a deep, shaky, freeing breath. “Thank you.” She paused, then asked, “Can I have another popsicle?”
Published by The Plentitudes. July 2021.