Gina Bruno: On the Phone

From my bedroom I heard a thick wad of papers slap the linoleum floor in our kitchen. My mom’s voice followed, a hiss-scream that said, “This fucking country.” It was a crisp October afternoon and my mom had just come home to a letter from United States Immigration. I looked across the space that separated our twin beds and saw my sister Jessica mirroring my wide-eyed look—Mom never used a word like that, and worse, in English. We bolted through the one room that separated us from the kitchen in our railroad apartment and found Mom sitting on the floor, her face buried in her wrinkling hands and her long, black hair spilt over her shoulders and bent knees.

I picked up some sheets of paper from the bureaucratic massacre splayed around her, “Congratulations! Applicant #984629 Lourdes Maria …”

“Mom, what’s going on?” my sister asked.

“They gave your abuelita the visa,” my mom answered from under her hair, sighing heavily. “I don’t know what kind of stupid idiots they have working there, they give dead people visas and then we wonder how the terrorists got in.” A year and a day had passed since my abuelita had moved on to heaven without St. Peter asking for her papers and passport. At his gate, it didn’t matter if she was entering as a tourist, or to see her family, or to receive treatment for her cancer. There were no questions about the income of the household where she would be staying and she didn’t have to convince him that she was going to go back to where she came from. Ten years of rejection letters later, she finally traveled and wasn’t asked half as many questions.

The word abuelita rang strangely in my mind, like a bell that mistakenly rings in the middle of your class period. Abuelita. Television and Hallmark cards had taught me that grandmothers were meant to be loved and cherished; that they, with their soft arms, tasty stews, and wise sayings, were also the ones who gave grandchildren the benefit of the doubt when they got into trouble or needed advice. Mine had always been a dot on another continent’s map, somewhere in a big, faraway place called Colombia. When Mom would call her family and yell through the heavy static, she would hush my sister and me into silence saying, “¡Cállate! I am on the phone with Colombia!” and I would picture the Colombian coast, Andes, and Amazon waiting patiently in line for their turn on the phone.

The first time I was taken to Colombia to visit my grandmother, our bus was pulled over by a group of men in fatigues with rifles slung across their chests and machetes strapped to their hips. All the passengers were lined up against the bus, our backs against its hot metal, our dark hair burning in the tropical sun. Next to me, I saw my dad grab hold of my sister’s wrist. I looked up at my mom, and she bent down and whispered three unforgettable words in my ear: “Don’t speak English.” It was the early ‘90s and I was 5 years old. In those days, every news report on Univision from Colombia was prefaced by a warning of graphic images followed by contorted bodies laying over pools of their own blood, buses burned down to their skeletons, and wives delirious and screaming for their abducted husbands.

Somehow, the news images didn’t prepare me for the mini-paradise of hummingbirds, mango trees, roosters, and pet turtles that was my grandmother’s home. Her house, with its cool cement floors and lace curtains that danced in and out of the metal bars covering the windows, had a sweet smell of earth and soap. My grandmother, who I assumed would be short, brown, and curly-headed like my mom, was tall, light and had long stick legs that were not wrinkled or limp like the legs of old American women but instead were strong and hard with one long vein tracing the back of each of her calves. We had the same birthmark on our backs and my middle name, hers, finally had a face that I could see living and moving in front of me.

My mom too, was unexpected. For just a few weeks, she transformed into a past version of herself—a little sister, a daughter, a Colombian. Her strictness melted away and the wide, bright smile that showed itself while in her mother’s embrace revealed something that I had never imagined before: a whole other world existed separate from us where she was loved and she loved in return.

But when we walked through different neighborhoods and different cities, people looked, people saw. People knew and they could smell it off of us. Gringos. We had brought all our worst clothes but still, they were American made. The stares at my parents’ pockets and worse, their most valuable possession, their daughters, persisted. After that trip, my parents decided that it wasn’t worth bringing us back; we only had American passports and were too easy of a target. Fifteen years passed before we returned. By then, the cancer in my grandmother’s left breast had eaten her and replaced her with a tombstone.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said, “It’s really unfair.”

Sí, you’re sorry.”

“Oh GOD, here she goes again,” said Jessica.

“Mom, what do you mean?” I said.

“You girls didn’t even care when she died, so please, Stephanie, stop.”

“How can you say that?” I said. “We all wanted her to get — ”

“Stephanie Lourdes. What did I just say? It doesn’t matter.” My mom was holding back tears, a mix of angry and sad ones, the most painful kind. “You girls should have seen how your cousins cried at her—”

“Mom, really, you need to stop comparing us to them.” Jessica said, her hands flying around like air traffic control. “You’re gonna come to us with this now when our cousins grew up with her on the same block and we’ve seen her, like, twice?”

My grandmother had always told her children that if she developed some kind of disease in her old age she would tie a brick around her neck with rope, throw herself in the river, and let the currents take her where she needed to go. She was a woman who, although uneducated and abandoned by her husband, made the most out of the resources her dusty town could offer and fed four growing mouths by going house to house selling sweets and tamales. Life had always been in her hands and her death would be no different. My mom and uncles took her threat seriously until it became clear that the cancer was going to win the race to riverbank. When they finally built up the nerve to tell her, she wanted the chemo, the hair loss, the tiredness, but it was too late.

I was told that my grandmother had waited for my mom to be there to die. I was told that my mom had stroked her hair and told her stories to help her sleep that all began with “Remember the time …” and all ended with “Those days were good, weren’t they?” That she had made mango batidos for her to drink through a straw and that my grandmother had apologized for being so harsh on her when she was a little girl. I was told that my mom had shown her a picture of me and my sister and that my grandmother had smiled and blinked her eyes.

“Oh, so you’ve got it all figured out right?” My mom was ready to snap and my sister, stupidly, was unaware of it.

“Yeah, Mom, I do,” she answered. I looked at both of them, wondering if some brilliant diplomatic line would pop into my head to stop the impending war. “If you wanted perfect, little, Colombian daughters, maybe you should’ve thought about that before raising us here, don’t you think?”

I can still remember the day my mom noticed the dream catchers hanging on our headboards, her look of both surprise and disgust one that I will never forget. My sister had bought them on one of her secret trips to Manhattan and hung them next to our rosary beads that stood as a sort of memorial to the Catholic school tuition my parents had paid to keep us out of trouble. Jessica had bought the dream catchers to “level out the playing field.” My mom hated them; she didn’t like having anything in her house relating to spirits or witchcraft.

It had been an epic argument, lasting weeks and reoccurring each time Mom caught sight of them and asked what was so wrong with the rosary beads and why couldn’t we be proud of being Catholic like our cousins were. My sister would respond, quite simply, that Catholicism bored her. The dream catcher incident was not an isolated one but expanded to all things — having boyfriends, the rap music we blasted, the skimpy clothes we wanted to wear – both of us naively claiming our identities in a melting pot home where everything came out a shade of beige. In the end, Mom let our dreams be caught, citing that America was a free country, but that she better not find out that her daughters were becoming santeras.

“Can everybody just stop for a second?” I said. “It’s not like we can go back in —” My mom raised her hand up, its palm wide open, and as I saw her head tilt to the side, I knew it was no longer my turn to speak.

“Let me ask you girls something since it seems like I’m the only one in the dark here,” Mom said. Her screaming pitch had been replaced by a calm, unmistakable tone, a signal to put your tail in between your legs and whimper away, a trap that I could sense in her voice, a trap that every wise-ass teen recognizes in their parents after they’ve run their mouth too far. “Did you shed one tear, when your abuela died? Hm? Tell me if I’m wrong, go ahead, tell me.”

“You’re being crazy right now, Mom!” Jessica screamed. “You’re attacking us like we did something to you.”

Claro, I’m always the one who is attacking, right? Well it’s good to know what kind of daughters are waiting for me when I die – malcriadas.”

It was over and my mom walked out, triumphant, due to that one word – malcriadas – literally, badly raised girls, the only word that could simultaneously insult us as daughters and her as a mother. It hurt more that way. I stood there, frozen. Were we?

The night my grandmother died I had shed exactly two tears. The phone had rung at three in the morning and even if no one had picked it up, we would have understood. My mom had flown to Colombia the week before and had decided to leave us behind with Dad to “avoid another tragedy.” Phone calls were expensive, used only on an emergency basis and guaranteed to leave a sting. My dad stumbled across the apartment in his pajamas to answer it, and for a few, short minutes there was the faint, distant sound of sobbing and his deep voice saying, “I’m so sorry” over and over again.

When I heard the phone click, the first tear showed itself. I closed my eyes and pictured myself standing rigid next to the kitchen phone, coiling the wire through my fingers, sweating, struggling to communicate after Mom had thrown the phone to my ear to say hello to my grandmother.

Hola, Abuela.” I would say.

“¡Hola, mija!” she would respond.

Every conversation began the same and ended almost immediately with her asking God to bless me. I could barely speak Spanish and worried that she could feel my nervousness and confusion through the receiver. I plowed through my memory, trying to remember our last phone conversation but somehow, the instant replays of words and the sound of her voice had become, like her, a ghost. My tongue hadn’t untied, it hadn’t yet learned the words to ask her about her day, what she liked to do, how her hummingbirds were, who she had been and who she was.

On his way back, Dad crossed through our room, stopped at the foot of our beds and said, “Girls, Lourdes died.” We were both wide-awake in our pitch-black room but neither of us said a word. It was then that the final tear, fat and full of salt, rolled out from the corner of my eye. A newly orphaned woman, eyes puffy and swollen, had just finished using the phone in a hospital hallway somewhere in Colombia. Her life had just been changed forever. Her daughters laid in their comfortable beds, somewhere in the United States, eyes dry. Who would console her?

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