Saturday mornings were for worshipping the dead. The cemetery was nestled between Newark airport and the Budweiser plant off the Jersey Turnpike. The smell of jet fuel and yeast stuck in my head for the rest of the day reminding me of where I’d been.
We took a short cut through back roads littered with the skeleton frames of stolen cars and empty beer bottles that glistened like jewels. From the car radio, a woman sang in Spanish her voice echoed through the cracks in me. Grandma used to love the song but didn’t bother singing along. Instead, she bit her lip and gripped the wheel. Her face taut as she smoked with the windows up, wincing beneath her thick glasses, as if it hurt to be out in the sun.
This was our last visit. In a week, we were moving far away. Leaving the bones and headstones behind – the spirits, I knew, would follow.
Grandma stood in front of the wall of the mausoleum where mom’s box lay sandwiched between strangers. While grandma banged her head against the shiny marble, I collected pinecones and studied the identities of mom’s neighbors. Everyone around her was old except for the boy above her. I obsessed over the fact that he was my age, invented the nuances of his demise in my head.
The cemetery was too quiet. I pictured all the bodies popping up from their graves. I counted out how many steps it would take to get to the car, just in case – twenty-five, less if I ran. I worried about grandma she’d probably just stand there and get mauled because she was so sad and slow.
“Come and say good-bye to your mother, malcriada!”
Her voice a cold snap to my reverie – I wished for zombies.
She was angrier than usual that day because I’d shaved my legs, something I wasn’t supposed to do until I turned fifteen – one of many Cuban rules. When she noticed what I’d done, she chased me around Bradley’s with a broom yelling, “I’m going to kill you! Who do you think you are? You think you’re a woman? Well, take a beating like a woman!”
All the other shoppers froze in front of their carts while Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling played over the sound system.
A lady in a burgundy smock with a name tag that read Liz, tapped grandma on the shoulder, “Excuse me, um, ma’am? I don’t think you’re allowed to use store property to hit your child. I can ring you up at the register if you’d like to purchase that broom.”
“Mind you business, okay?” Grandma seethed and gave Liz the finger as she took off her moccasin and gave me a beating right there in the isle with all the racks of cheap shoes. The smell of carpet and rubber was all around as her blows stung my legs and arms. I held my breath and my tears because I was sure she liked to see me cry.
At least this time there was a reason. I didn’t care if she beat me forever. I was going to keep shaving because I had become a woman. Friday when I came home from school I found crimson streaks on my day of the week underpants. I sat there and stared at the blood. I wiped and wiped and it wouldn’t go away. My chest tightened like it does right before you cry. I told grandma about the blood and she gave me a box of maxi pads, big bulky things that looked alien and uncomfortable. She looked down at me, pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, “Don’t go being a puta, because now you get pregnant if you do something.”
This was her sage advice? At ten years old, my sexual fantasies never exceeded holding hands with uncle Jesse from Full House. Pregnant? Could that happen? From holding hands with a fictitious character in my daydreams? I was really starting to miss mom.
“Are you deaf, Victoria? Come say goodbye to your mother!”
“My mom is in heaven with the angels that’s just her bones!”
In a flash, her thick fingers struck my mouth – the reactionary tears welled up in my eyes. She could hit me all day and I’d suck it up because in a little while she’d see the red marks on my face and feel guilty. This guaranteed a trip to the mall where she’d let me pick out some meaningless object to assuage her remorse.
I stood on the tips of my toes and kissed the cold slab of marble encrusted with pucker marks of every shade of lipstick. There were notes shoved in the periphery of the tomb. I wondered what they said and managed to pry one out while grandma went inside the mausoleum to say goodbye to her mother, my great grandmother, who was in the box next to mom’s – they’d be head to foot for eternity. This comforted me for some reason. I knew they were dead, both of them, bones and rotting flesh, hair and fingernails overgrown, but this way they were dead together.
I unfolded the moist piece of pink stationary that I plucked from the seam of the tomb. The ink was a weepy series of faded blue squiggles.
I promise I’ll be there soon.
It was written in the same wispy script that I’d find on pieces of paper next to the telephone, where grandma absently doodled her name. It made me feel stranded and hopeful all at once.
The note was still in my hand when grandma’s shadow loomed behind me. I crumpled it up, shoved it in my mouth and ate it. I had no other choice. It tasted like carnations and rain. I spent the rest of the day coughing up tiny pieces of wet paper and thinking of zombies.