A Girl Like Me

by Amelia Diaz Ettinger


Soy Josefina Olivares Ruiz, and if I repeat my name again and again, will I be me? Am I still Josefina? I don’t feel like I am. Maybe that other Josefina was someone I dreamt. Or maybe that Josefina was the spirit. Or maybe I am the spirit now. Like Fonseca. Lita, my grandmother, used to talked to him at night. Sometimes, not all the time. And only when she thought I was asleep. Yet, in the morning she would tell me about Fonseca’s visit.

Fonseca was my Lita’s husband, a long time ago. She showed me their picture. A picture I wish I now had. It was taken at a time when her hair was black and she ran with butterflies. That is what she said when I asked her. But I used to think it was funny that she would talk to someone who was no longer. Hablando con los Muertos. No, niña. No te rías. The spirits are not a thing of laughter. They need us. But we need them more. Someday you will understand.

I don’t laugh anymore, because now I know what I did not know. Now I have the questions I should have asked.

One night, —when was that? Last year? Last night? Maybe it is another invention. Soy Josefina Olivares Ruiz — I felt the emptiness in the bed I shared with Lita. She was up and I watched her standing close to the door. The door was closed. Always closed against the night. Ten cuidado de la noche. Pero Lita, is so hot inside. And I could see something in front of her. Not a proper body. Not one that I could see with my eyes. I sensed a light that did not shine. She was talking so low. I could sense Fonseca was there with my Lita. I had to force my ears to listen. But she was mumbling in that other language she would not teach me. When she came back to bed, I asked her. ¿Quién? Tu abuelo Fonseca. He can’t rest in peace. Lita sighed and sang to me what she always sang to make me sleep, though it was late at night, and the moon was shining right into my eyes. Duermete mi niña, duermete mi Dios. Si no te duermes te coje el coyote.

What would Lita say now if I told her that one night I did not sleep and I saw the coyote.

I told Moco about the night I saw, and did not see, Fonseca. He laughed. Los espíritus, they don’t exist. Aguas, you are as dumb as a monkey. He made me mad. Like he could deny my abuelita Lita’s wisdom. You know why we call you Moco? Because your nose is always full of buggers. I kicked him on the shins. But that day we kept walking down the street. The street I always thought I would see for the rest of my life. Just like my abuelita, .

Was that street real? Can something be real when you no longer see it, smell it, feel the soft hardness of its dust? Maybe the street was real only for that other Josefina. The one with braids as thick as ropes. Soy Josefina Olivares Ruiz. But that Josefina knew there was a mango tree on that street. An enormous monster of green with limbs that could carry the weight of twenty children. Inside those limbs so thick with leaves you could barely see each other’s faces in the dark. The tree was on the cemetery side, behind the rock wall and the iron gate.

Can I still taste the water of a mango warm from the tree? Moco and I climbed and peeled the fruit, that was as big as a baby’s head, with our teeth. I know that a mango can have juice and the sweet warm water drips. That the meat gets stuck between your teeth like golden sweet hair. I know that the juice covered my shirt and chest. This is what I think I know and that the other Josefina worried about; Lita getting mad. How do you get so dirty? You know I have to wash and wash to get those stains out. ¡Cochina!

Maybe I know too that we laughed. Is that really how laugher sounds? Moco’s laugh was quiet. Like he swallowed the sounds, and they made his belly jump up and down. My belly did not do that, because I would let it out. All the laughter came out loud. And that Josefina tipped her head back and her braids dangled from the limbs and she could not see the sky because there were so many leaves. Josefa’ do you want to steal another mango? And we did, over and over again. Throwing down the ones we did not like. Could that be real? Did that Josefina throw away fruit? We ate until our bellies exploded in the twist and turns from the pain growing. Niña you already know that eating too many mangoes gives you diarrhea. Of course, that did not stop us. We stole ripe mangoes again and again.

Soy Josefina Olivares Ruiz, and I used to climb a mango tree by the cemetery and steal as many as I wanted until my belly hurt.

I am not sure anymore. The night to leave came suddenly. Though I knew for a while I was leaving. Your Tío Felipe is going to take you with him to La Frontera del Norte. Buy why, Lita? She did not answer. Not then, not ever. She just told me stories I already knew. And how el Tío Felipe had gone there years ago, when I was just a baby. He sent us money. But they sent him back, and Lita said I could no longer stay with her. She refused to tell me why. Mi niña, with your tío, you will have all the mangoes you would ever want, and you will have those dolls you have been crying about. You see, you will love it so much, you won’t miss your old Lita one single day. Tío would look after you as if he was your papá. Better.

I knew my Tío Felipe was not really my uncle or my dad. He was actually my nephew. But it was silly for him to claim me as his aunt. He was so much older than me. And when he came back, I thought he was Fonseca, because he looked like the man in Lita’s photograph.

Lita was washing clothes behind the house, in that little arroyo that runs cool most of the year, and I was with Moco. We were playing futból when I heard mi abuelita screech. Moco and I ran towards her voice but stopped when we saw her talking with a young man. He was so handsome and I thought, Fonseca! But Lita saw me and said Ven a concoer a tu sobrino Felipe. He lifted me up and smiled and his teeth were broad as spades and white as bones left in to dry in the sun. I knew right away he was like my Lita. In his arms I could be safe. Moco laughed as Felipe lifted me drawing my skirt too high. Moco saw my panties. But Lita she shod him away. Vete de aquí mocoso. Moco left, sticking his tongue at me, laughing all the way his silent laugh that made his belly jump. That Josefina did not care if Moco or any other pitojos would make fun of her. She had Tío Felipe.

When la burra came to take me away from Lita, she had run alongside the bus. I heard her say, No te olvides... But the motor of the burra was too loud. What was I not to forget, Lita? If I had not been so mad with her, my ears might have heard over the motor of la burra. If I had not been so mad, would I know now if I was a girl or, like Fonseca, a ghost?

I was mad. Really, really mad. Early that night—that could have been a year ago, a week ago, or to another girl — Lita cut my braids, all the way to my nuca. Why do you cry? It is only hair. In no time these braids will be just as long. Longer. You will see. And by then you will be living beyond La Frontera, fat as Don Emiliano’s goat. I know, or think I know, that she only said that to make me smile. But it was scary to see my braids like two dead black snakes on the ground. Tomorrow you will wear a hat. And remember, Felipe will be with you all the time, and you call him Papá, not tío.

I went to bed feeling like my head weighed nothing. And my shoulders missed the comfort weight of my hair. My braids. I was mad for the hair, but at the same time I was excited. I was going to La Frontera del Norte with my Tío Felipe. I tried to imagine what it would be like when I left. Because then, I did not know what I did not know. I had imagined La Frontera was not that far. Maybe I could reach and touch it, like I pretended to touch the Cerro out my window. Nothing could be as far as that.

La Frontera del Norte was a place I could not close my eyes and see. I could do that with other things. That Josefina could close her eyes and imagine what her face was going to be like when she grew old. Or what Moco be like when he was a man. But that Josefina, when she tried to see what La Frontera was, she only saw the mango tree by the cemetery. A place with a gigantic wall. A wall with round smooth rocks, one on top of another. A wall fun to climb, but scuffed your good shoes. And on the top of that wall that separated the living from the dead, she could see the green and purple hills at a distance too far to imagine.

Let’s go to the cemetery today, Josefa. Aguas, Josefa, there is a coffin open, let’s see the body, and the mangos are ripe to the taking.

Nothing scared me that night. I was eager. Even the A la rorro nene song did not help me fall asleep that night. Leaving with tío excited me. Though Lita had told me she was not coming with us. I never thought never seeing was such a long time. I guess I was still a child that night. Leaving without her meant leaving really without her voice, her touch, the flavor of her cooking. The visits of Fonseca in the night. The sweet singing voice as she swept the front step to her house, or how she watered the chili plants she had in coffee cans behind the house. Leaving without her really meant not to be with her.

Soy Josefina Olivares Ruiz, and I will never see my Lita again. Not like that girl, the girl with braids to her waist. Maybe I can find the way back. Maybe I will visit her like Fonseca did. Or maybe it is her that will eventually find me. Your eyes are yellow like calabazas, Lita.

That night of the departure, I imagined the morning of my leaving. I saw the girl Josefina eating her favorite plate of frijoles—Lita made the best frijoles. The girl that was me could see in her mind that everyone she knew was coming to the door to say their adioses. She imagined looking at the envy in everyone’s eyes. That girl, Josefina, would lower her eyes in respect, and not to bring misfortune on her new shorn head.

That Josefina would hug Moco, though he would say she looked like a boy. But being her last day, that Josefina could be magnanimous like the Pope, or saintly like Tadeo. She would not say anything mean to him. In fact, she would call him Beto, for the first time. In the imagining of that other girl, she would have said, adiós Beto instead of Moco. The other patojos would walk shyly toward her to say adiós. They would be so jealous. That Josefina was going to La Frontera. They would have to stay behind.

But it was not like that at all. It wasn’t even morning. I had just fallen asleep when Lita was by my side. Rápido, get ready the burra is here, Josefina.

It was too dark to see her face. I wanted to see her. That face that was growing so thin. The skin sagging on her bird-like bones. She was growing each day more yellow. Even the white of her eyes turning the color of a calabaza. Lita you are eating too many calabazas and your eyes are getting yellow. She smiled the sad smile. It is not the pumpkins, my Josefina, it is what grows inside of me, my little dear. Lita was getting thin like fog. And that is when she told me I was going to go with my Tío Felipe. Ya ves niña, I will soon no longer be able to care for you.

Tío Felipe was there. He picked me up from Lita’s arm. Remember to call him papá. She hurried alongside the bus. But the motor of the burra sang its metallic singing and drown the other thing she was trying to say. Josefina, no te olvides… As we rode away from the only street I had known, I fought to keep my eyes open. But soon I fell asleep against my will. My braid-less hair fell on Felipe’s chest. In the comfort of his chest, I spent that first night. That day might have happened a thousand years ago. But if I try, I can still recall that his chest smelled of sun, of him, and something else had I had never smelled before. I did not know then. Now I know the aroma of fear.

In the morning when I woke, I found that tío and I were not alone on the burra. It was full of men. The men were quiet, but for one who had a blue franela with the word JACO. It was not his name. But for days and days, Jaco talked and talked. His constant string of words in the bus’s heat, and the shaking of the tires on the road, made me drowsy. I know I slept a lot. But Tío Felipe, whose arms must have ached carrying my weight, never complained. Sleeping was a good way to forget how hungry and thirsty I was after all the food that Lita made us carry had run out. My dreams were of mango and guayabas. Twice I woke up thinking I had a slice of bumpy guayaba in my mouth. Only to find that my tongue was so dry I could feel all the bumps that made it. Moco, why do you think the tongue is like that? It is all a bunch of little circles. Ah, huevos, who cares!

Tío… Papá I am thirsty. But Felipe was looking at the man, who they call Serrano. He was old. Older than Lita. Lying on a long board on the back of the burra. Another man was touching his forehead. He is not well. He has a fever. We need to take him to an enfermería. But it was my uncle who said, No. Not here. I know of a place, but it might be two days before we get there. The man by Serrano said, He will not make it another day. Even Jaco was quiet then.

Sometime during that journey, that could have taken years, we had to change from the burra to a truck. The burra had been making sounds that felt like two pieces of metals being banged with a hammer, and big black plumes of smoke choked the air inside the burra. There was a new man to drive the truck. I was used to the driver of the burra. He had red-burned skin hanging like folds on his neck and spoke very little. Once he gave me a candy that was so sweet it made my teeth hurt. The new driver was tall, and had a gruff voice. The ends of his fingers look like ash where the skin had peeled. Get on, mi gente. No time to waste.

Before we climbed to the back of the truck, there was an argument. The new driver did not want Serrano on his camión. Tío loaded me on the truck’s bed and left me with the man I called in my mind Jaco. Tío smiled at me reassuringly, and I heard his soft voice. Hombre, we can’t leave him here. I sat quietly with my legs crossed, hoping Tío would hurry up. The bed of the truck was not smooth. Its metal had lines that made my bottom hurt. They settled the argument with a bit of yelling from the driver. Off we went again. The sound of the truck so different from the burra, I did not think my ears would feel right again. But they did, they learned this metal song too.

***

Soy Josefina Olivares Ruiz, and I saw a sick man fall off the truck. A man who was probably already dead. We can’t just leave him there for the buitres. What do you want to do? Quiet. The driver had a gun and pointed it at us. Serrano bounced on the road like a sack of cement, and no one cried. Don’t look. But Tío Felipe did not cover my eyes. The body rolled slightly on its side as the truck increased its speed.

***

It was some weeks after the day the man, Serrano, fell off the truck when my Tío Felipe was quiet. Too quiet. It was not quite night time. But that hour when the sky turns orange near the hills. When you see las gaviotas fly to their roosts, but I could not feel my Tío breathing. ¿Papá? He placed a finger to my lips. The truck stop rocking. Todos acuéstensen. All the men including Tío dropped flat onto the bed as if going to sleep and a tarp was over all our heads. Darkness engulfed us and the air was silenced. For a while there was no sound except I could hear Tío’s heart beating next to my ear. The smell, that by then I recognize, filled the truck’s bed where the heat intensified as we only heard someone walking on pebbles outside.

¿Qué pasa? I recognized the new driver’s voice. Tío Felipe held me too tight. I wanted to tell him he was crushing my bones. He held my head so close to his chest, pressing his arm over my ears. There was shouting. And then, the loud blast of two shots fired. I have heard shots before in a different time. A time when I still have a real papá. I first heard the sounds of guns, when my papa was shot when he refused la Mara. A time when I still had a brother that did not disappear into the night.

The truck began to rumble again as the sound of the wheels spread pebbles into the air, making clinking sounds onto the side of the truck, like tiny bullets. Tío’s left arm was close to the truck’s tailgate. He lifted the tarp. There were two men lying there on the road. Moco, I have seen three bodies now.

***

Aguas, Josefina, want to see inside the coffin? But Moco had already jumped the cemetery wall and ran without me to the open coffin. Why would they leave a thing like that open, Moco? Could the body feel the sunlight? I did not go after Moco, whose real name was Alberto. He Alberto, Beto, loved to see the dead. Maybe because like me, he had also heard the shots on a night. But unlike me, he had also seen what a bullet does to the body of a loved one.

I did not want to see anything dead. But Moco was always wanting to see inside the coffins. It was not the first time he had run to see the coffins in the cemetery. One time he brought me back a human bone, long and yellow. His hands were dirty with the black stains of ash, of death. He had smiled his dumb smile, but I wonder if that skeleton now had to go around the spirit world asking for his arm.

***

Think of something happy, Jóse. Tío Felipe called me Jóse all through those days. Not like José, a softer sound that could still be a boy’s name. That Josefina in the truck, with men that were sweating fear, closed her eyes to the two men laying on the road. They got smaller and smaller as we rode on an endless road, with a tarp over out head flapping in a hot wind.

***

Soy Josefina Olivares Ruiz. Moco’s Mama used to call him Beto. I think that was true. I think this happened. Josefina had a friend she called Moco. They stole mangoes and opened coffins. It was bien cerote, you should have seen it, Josefina. It had really long hair. I didn’t see the skeleton with long hair that day. Tío lifted the tarp and Josefina could not unsee what she saw. Now she knows what she did not know. As the truck swayed again, and the tarp was lifted, two men laid in the road. The quiet man who had taken care of Serrano. Next to him Jaco, the man that never ceased to talk. His blue franela had turn dark on the word JACO. It was like his heart had spilled into the white letterings. Tío Felipe closed the tarp, but it was too late. There was more room in the truck, and a lot more silence.

***

La Frontera was much further than El Cerro. It was like going to the end of the world. If Moco were here, I would tell him the earth was flat, and it went on forever, in heat that made your throat close with dryness. The earth went on forever. It went for days and days. Maybe it was weeks, and months, and years. Eat these and hurry. We need to get back to the truck. It was always hurry. It was always thirst. It was always hunger.

***

Tío brought me things that tasted somewhat like corn or sand. But I swallowed them whole. Once I saw some tuna on a cactus behind the truck where the men sat quietly eating the same colorless food. No one talked just ate hurriedly as if it was the best meal they had ever tasted. Maybe it was. My stomach did not hurt as much. I wanted to taste the rich juice from that nopal. But no one seemed to pay any attention to the fruit and it was beyond the truck, beyond a fence. A woman sat by a shack looking at us. She was doing something with her hands and a bowl on her lap. Keep your eyes down, don’t stare. The woman reminded me of Lita, and the food crawled up my stomach. I pressed hard with my eyes. I couldn’t cry. I don’t ask questions. I don’t sleep and I saw the coyote, right by an empty box close to a nopal. But maybe that was not true.

***

Tío had warned me. We are in Tijuana now. You stay close to me and speak with no one. He stayed by and called me Jóse, and I still wonder why I needed to be a boy. But then I wish I have never known that answer.

A girl passed me on the street. Tijuana was a crowded place, and Tío’s hand pressed hard on my shoulder as we walk to a stand that sold tacos de cabeza. The girl had smiled at me. She was clutching a little wooden box. Her smiled had confused me until I remember that I looked like a boy. She walked away and looked back at me, and I felt embarrassed by her stare and her smile. Tío did not notice, though he spent his days with his eyes searching.

It was a night with a moon as big as a chompipe’s egg. Two of the men who had been with us shared a cerveza with my uncle. We were near an alley with lights like people hang at Navidad. The alley was sticky with the smell of pee. Skinny dogs sniffed in and out. Their sides looking like Lita’s wooden washboard fester there, baring their teeth, and looking for any food that might fall their way. There was loud music coming from different corners. The music crashed against each other and the lights and smells gave everything a sense of confusion. I was glad that Tío stayed close to me. I was glad he had those men to share a cerveza. But even among all that sticky noise we heard someone pleading. No, por favor, no, no, no. ¡Mamita ayúdame! ¿Qué pasa, Papá? Don’t move, Josefina.

I had not recognized the screeching voice as a real living sound. It was the sound of a wounded animal, a cat. Then the two men, who sat with Tío, ran towards the sound I had thought it was a cat. Tío stood and watched. That is when I learned why my braids had laid on the floor of Lita’s house. The girl with the box was there on the ground. Her panties like a banner between her ankles, her dress covering nothing. The men from the bus held knives. The girl was whimpering and the men were fighting. You can’t see blood in a dark alley, but you can smell the iron it contains. The girl’s eyes had turned cloudy. If it was not for those eyes, you would think she was still pretty.