/ Nonfiction /
My cousin Bianca and I stood in front of Chelle, my twelve-year-old sister, hoping she could entertain us and fill some of the emptiness of the day. My parents always told me they would be back soon and that then we would play together and watch TV together and go to the park together, and I believed them every time. But instead, they always woke me up when they got back from work to greet me or woke me up because they were smashing plates onto the kitchen linoleum and screaming.
Chelle sighed, looking up from her book with a red-robed wizard on the cover.
“Why don’t you guys go play outside?” She asked.
The dark blue afternoon filled Chelle’s bedroom, tinting us all blue in my family’s tiny rental in Incline Village, Nevada, a town on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. Chelle always took care of me and Bianca when all our parents were working as housekeepers. She hadn’t asked to be held responsible for two easily bored eight-year-olds. She just had to since she was the oldest daughter in a Latino family. Her responsibilities grew up with her, from first changing our diapers, to then making us scrambled eggs and quesadillas, and then generally ensuring that we didn’t die.
“Because we’ll get bored!” Bianca said.
“Yeah! I’m bored!” I agreed, crossing my pudgy arms.
We always seemed bored in the days between winter and summer, when Bianca and I missed our parents most while they worked all day cleaning timeshares, and then moonlighting extra hours in the laundry room, and then spending their little free time learning–as adults in toxic relationships do–through making mistakes that hurt each other. Bianca and I played with each other restlessly without them, and Chelle was more used to it than us by now, filling her time reading.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad for Chelle if I didn’t always bother her. Like when I stole her blue cotton candy in Guatemala the year before. Like when I tried to urinate on her and her friend three months before. Like when she babysat me the week before and I held a serrated knife to my stomach, threatening dramatic suicide in the vein of the telenovelas my parents sometimes watched. I bothered her and she loved me despite all this never-ending nonsense, and so even though I sometimes disobeyed her, I always believed her.
“I’m trying to read, Michael,” Chelle said.
“Can you get us money for candy then?” I asked.
“Oh—cállense,” she said.
And we did callamos, ready to sulk away and be bored somewhere else. But then Chelle stroked her chin with one hand, her other holding the book open.
Chelle’s long black hair fell in front of her face when she turned to us.
“I’ll tell you a secret to find a treat that’s even better than candy—I mean, I don’t even eat candy anymore.” Then she whispered in a not-whisper: “And that’s because I discovered something else.”
Chelle returned to her book, a line catching her attention.
“What? Tell us!” I said.
Bianca and I stood on the precipice of begging on our knees–my small hands in my short brown hair–Bianca’s large brown eyes opening ever wider.
She slammed her book shut with one hand.
“Fine, I’ll tell you.” She paused, looking us over up and down one at a time. “I discovered tree sap.”
“Sap?” Bianca and I asked, creases bunching on our brows.
“The sticky stuff from the trees. See, every tree has its own flavor: chocolate, cherry, bubblegum, and more. And you see how many trees there are here? Think about all those flavors!”
We looked at her, our mouths hanging open–speechless, stuttering, trying to muster more words.
Pre-empting us, Chelle said, “I’m telling the truth. Promise.”
“Are you sure?” The air whistled through a gap in my cousin’s teeth.
“Go try some,” Chelle said, adopting a deadpan and whimsical tone.
Bianca stopped our sprint at her bedroom door, turning back to Chelle.
“Why don’t you want any if it’s so good?” Bianca asked.
“I don’t want any now. I had a bunch earlier. Believe me, or don’t.” Shrugging, she picked up her book off her bed. “I thought you were bored anyway.”
Bianca and I bundled up in our puffy jackets. We didn’t bring our gloves, our hands reserved for the delicious. We set off into the patch of Lake Tahoe Forest right behind our apartment, the same forest in which we spent much of our days darting behind trees and picking flowers and holding them up to our noses, comparing observations. We also played make believe based on the cartoons we watched: Transformers, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z—our little play howls echoing amidst the blue jay-filled trees.
We walked through the woods, our fingers and toes numbing from the biting wind. But we didn’t mind, used to the frigid Northern Nevada spring here, used to feeling cold and dealing with it.
Infinite giant pine trees decorated the dark blue skyline around us. We expected an unparalleled reserve of sweetness, ours alone except for the few who knew the secret like Chelle. We believed that never again would we want for ice cream or bubblegum or chocolate, never again denied by our parents when there wasn’t money for candy. We could have all we’d ever want right outside. Every single thing would be better then.
We poked our fingers out of our jacket cuffs, anticipating this sweetness rightfully ours. And It’s like I could see myself in the distance, sitting on a tree stump next to Bianca, the little strings of sap tracing a path from our fingers to the trees, lazy smiles on our faces, wanting for nothing and no one. And then our parents and Chelle would join us, and we would all be happy tasting sap together, no one fighting, nothing breaking, everyone laughing our family’s deep laugh.
The drying amber sap resembled the magma patches we had seen running down the side of a mountain on the Discovery Channel. Our first touches of the sap tentative, we then broke the crust in our excitement, exposing the deep brown fluid, dipping our fingers into the pooling streams.
This is it, we thought. This will be the taste we have been looking for. This will be better than all those sweets, just like Chelle promised.
The sticky stretched and broke, between our fingers. Just like that, we were bending nature to our will, seeing things as they should be, with us in control of our futures and of our family. We placed the gooey amber globs upon our tongues. Both moist and dry, the sap dissolved with difficulty, leaving a film on our palettes.
Yet none of these pine titans, clustered so close together by community design, tasted like Chelle told us. They all tasted how they smelled, acidic and sharp, like pine. We palmed the bottom of leafy bushes and prickly bushes to search for leaf sap, walking out of the forest and to our elementary school. We didn’t want to believe that what she had told us wasn’t true, so much so that we didn't even consider it could have been a lie. Older kids and adults didn’t lie as much as kids like us do, we thought. We knew that they knew more than us, that they would always protect us, that they would shield us from their own failures, so why would they lie?
We hoped the elementary school’s trees would hold the savory sap we were promised; we reasoned that those trees in a place of learning should have learned to taste good. We scurried from tree to tree on the school campus, just like the red and black ants that we had seen scurry along the uneven tree bark, yet we got nothing.
Nothing, just like always—like last year when my parents shouted and shouted and then smashed a $300 dollar cookie jar on the ground and I thought: I could have gotten $300 worth of toys and candy with that. And then dad got arrested. And then he came back. And then they got another cookie jar. And I got nothing. Just like Bianca gets nothing. Not even a dad.
“Do you think we’re doing something wrong, Bianca?” I asked once we had slowed to a pondering pace along the playground perimeter.
“I don’t know. Maybe they were the wrong trees,” she said, spitting some windblown brown hair from her sticky mouth.
“Or maybe they’re not in season, like Mom says about fruit at the store,” I said, turning my palms upward.
“Or maybe our tongues are blind, like someone’s eyes are blind, so we can’t taste it.” Bianca shrugged.
“Our parents are gone a lot, huh?” I said, hoping to again spark our most common topic for commiseration. “Do you miss your mom a lot when she’s gone, Bianca?”
Bianca didn’t say anything.
“Do you miss your—”
“Yeah, I do. But I hate being at home now that el Viejo lives with us. I’d rather stay with you guys.”
“He seems weird. Why’s your mom’s boyfriend so old?”
“He is not her boyfriend!”
I saw Bianca’s tiny hands clench into tiny fists.
Bianca stopped walking, her gaze fixed on the distant mountains that surrounded our small town, her often expressive face somehow blank. She was thinking of what waited for her at home, that Viejo. She could not tell me how she was growing ever afraid of that strange old man that lived with her and her mom. She would not be able to tell me later, either, how she got pregnant at thirteen years old. She put her hand to her temple, slowly, and just like that she was back.
“I know you miss your parents, Michael.”
“I even miss them when you and me watch He-Man and She-Ra.” I hung my head down and sighed an exaggerated sigh. “I wish they had more time to play with me.”
“They fight a lot too, huh?”
“I don’t know.”
“I saw more broken glass in your trash.”
I caught Bianca in my peripheral vision trying to look at my cold, round face. I hung my head even lower, burying it in my coat, my chin touching my chest.
“They break stuff sometimes,” I said, muffled.
Finally, we reached the big kid playground and the final patch of trees we had yet to try. One pine tree towered over the gray soccer field. One of the only things that had stuck from my second-grade teacher who ignored me was that the bigger a tree is, the older it is, with its inner rings telling us its age. By now, this tree must be super old, having grown tall and hardened with the years, I thought, just as we ourselves would. The cold wind whistled through the green branches, showering pine needles upon our tennis shoes.
We held our numb, sticky fingers in front of our eyes, covered in dirt and sap and elementary school germs, double checking that these ten vehicles of taste still functioned despite their lack of sensation.
Bianca and I each scooped up dripping golden globs, glowing with rays of late afternoon sun passing through them, like immaculate droplets of golden glass. We placed the tacky gum on our tongues one more time. The sap felt heavy in my mouth—a good weight—and thickened my saliva before dissolving.
“I think I almost taste something,” Bianca said, smacking her full lips.
“Me too!” I jumped up and down on the hard tree roots.
“What does yours taste like, primo?”
I smiled my wide boy’s smile, my silver capped teeth showing.
“Like cherry chicle!” I said. “What about yours?”
“Like strawberry chicle!” She jumped up and down now too.
Bianca and I stopped to look at each other. We understood that this tree was the kind of tree Chelle promised us, the truth-telling kind, the kind that doesn’t make mistakes in taste, the kind that was there for us.
I opened my sticky lips to speak, making a sound like a kiss.
“Let’s try it again!” I shouted.
This tree of infinite rings could give us all the flavor we cannot find anywhere else, a savory hope that we could own and forever share. We had found the elusive taste–what we were promised–and it was clear we needed more.
The pristine crystal globs now tacky puddles, we scooped up what remained with our hungry fingers. The possibilities bloomed on my tongue, anticipating the sticky sweet, a world where Bianca can live with us instead of with el Viejo, a world where my parents are home when they say they will be and happy like they say they will be. This exclusive access to taste will mean that we are special, that we have the power to seal wounds just as the sap heals the tree wounds.
I tried to taste and taste in that moment, sucking and sucking at my own mouth, my tongue aching from the strain and pressure against my soft palate. I just tasted my spit, tinged with acidic pine.
“It tasted like tree this time,” I said, looking down again, not wanting to witness Bianca’s potential success. Because if she could taste it, and I couldn’t, would that mean that only she could be saved? That I was doomed to feel this helplessness forever? That she would leave me behind in search of even more savory flavors, forever closed to me?
I heard Bianca’s lips pucker against the cold air as she said, “Mine, too.”
Then I knew we were both the same: helpless in the face of our parent’s mistakes. Both condemned to our futures of isolation, me to the bottle in search of attention, and her to much worse. Both alone, for the longest time, despite the people around us.
We were at a loss. Maybe Chelle would tell us what was wrong with us—why the hidden taste had escaped us or disappeared. But maybe even she didn’t know, we reasoned, because maybe older kids and adults didn’t always tell the truth. Maybe they didn’t always know, or do, what was best for us. We hadn’t considered Chelle would have lied about something so important to us. Just like we never considered Bianca’s mom had lied when she said that el Viejo was a nice man. Like we had never considered that my parents lied when they said they were staying together for us children. We hadn’t thought of all the lies on the horizon, either—like the lie that if we, little-Latino-latchkey-children studied and worked hard, we would earn delicacies untasted: a home all our own, guaranteed employment, a feeling of peace. All our possibilities barred by our circumstances, caging us like all the towering trees surrounding us that constantly confused our sense of direction. We watched the last drops of fresh sap drip down the tree before coming to a stop, hardening, darkening in the cold. Now we couldn’t go back. Now we knew.
One of the only things we could be sure of was the way home. We walked, quiet now, heads down, our little brown bodies pushing forward against the whistling gales, knowing we were missing a flavor that we might never taste again. We stared down at our respective Velcro shoes all the way back, the frigid wind whipping our faces every time we dared look up.