by Jennifer Tubbs
The beginning of the world was purple. When the earth was empty of people and animals, there were spirits stampeding the plains, jungles, forests, groves. The spirits fought, having nothing better to do. The winner—there is always a winner—was lord of the airy domain, where seafoam intersects sky. He—it is explicitly stated—turned his enemies into volcanoes and mountains. Their wrath is felt when they spit lava down on us or shake the ground below our feet. But, those spirits who readily accepted the sovereignty of the pneumatic god found themselves a home in the night sky, winking at each other in complicity. Historically, complicity has been rewarded.
There’s more to the story, but she struggles to remember it now. The slimy packet of human nerves and veins and arteries lying next to its former placental habitat was purple like the jacaranda trees native to her homeland. Purple, right. Now she remembers. Her mother used to tell her the old Rapa Nui creation story to calm her when she was crying. The earth was once wet all over, glorious and limpid with mucus. It was purple, holding its breath for the first human to tumble down.
The first human was the pneumatic god’s son, hurled to the earth by his father as an experiment. He lay on the rocks for forty nights, cold and alone, until his mother opened a window in the sky to look after him.
As in most stories, there was a beautiful maiden. The young man needed a companion in his empty menagerie, so the spirit god plucked a star down and sent her to his son. She traipsed the earth barefoot, looking for her love. She walked for thousands of miles unscathed, since the gods made grass and silvestres grow in her path before each step. And when she touched the grass and silvestres with her bare hands and feet, each blade and petal flew away as a butterfly or bird. This is how we came to have animals. Suddenly, the grass beneath her feet sprawled out in green tendrils, reaching up in lattices of vines to become a jungle. In the night, she lay down in the cool embrace of a banana tree and searched the stars for her people, but she recognized no one, only the halos of their backs turned toward her. She was alone.
Of course, she isn’t alone for long. Beautiful, young maidens never are. She meets the young man, naturally, and they fall in love by some celestial force foreign to themselves. This is how it goes. The mother peeking out of her pale window at night to watch over her son is what we call the moon. The father, the sun. It’s somehow comforting in its predictability. The rhythm and cadence of her mother’s voice are replaced by the hard clicks and punctuated beeps of machines. She likes to tell herself the story when she’s nervous, which she is now. She imagines herself in a banana tree, searching for her family among the stars.
The pool of liquid beneath her feels like urine, the shameful cross of youth, although she realizes it is not. They said it was amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid, she was told, was her baby’s life support system, a protective sheath like the ozone layer around the earth. She was comforted by this thought, until she remembered she had read somewhere that the ozone layer would be gone in a couple of decades. The baby didn’t seem to mind. It wasn’t screaming, which wasn’t a good sign. Still purple, new world purple, jacaranda purple. She had told herself she wouldn’t care. In the moment, she realized she did.
The night before, a chill had shot down the spine of the Andes, reverberating in the dark into Marisol’s home. In ancient times, in her corner of the world, thunder not followed by lightening was considered bad luck. Inauspicious for childbirth, especially. But Marisol wasn’t the superstitious kind.
“We were stupid,” she had told her mother. That’s what the gringos on MTV say. Their long, lean faces contort into remorse by an excessive furrowing of brows and pulling down of the lips. It had always struck Marisol as histrionic, the type of gesture that would embarrass her too much to even attempt. But, it seemed to work for the gringos, with their parents. Then again, their whole families drove BMWs and had golden retrievers, so the circumstances foreshadowed the tactic’s success for them. And the moms—the moms always wore those silver bracelets with their kids’ initials in silver, little letters and hand-painted basketballs and pompoms, reflecting their children’s hobbies. So they probably wouldn’t mind having another kid around, another metal ball for their bracelets, tinkling around all day on their fat wrists. Not like her mother.
“Except for we weren’t that stupid,” she thought. A purple bulb landed on her knee. The jacarandas were in full bloom, tossing their violet petals in the air like rice at a wedding. Jacaranda blossoms mean spring is here, mean asados, mean rolling up the thick blanket of ice spread across the dessert, mean kids playing outside, but not too far away from the watchful eyes of their grandmothers. Spring was Marisol’s favorite season, but this time around it felt lifeless, a type of roadkill that even her crazy cousin Matías wouldn’t eat.
They had used a condom. She had had to go all the way across town to Tía Rebeca’s—not the nun, of course, but the stoner—to avoid the drugstore owner’s tattling to her mother. That gossipy vieja was always sticking her nose in other people’s business, especially when it came to sex and babies. “Maybe because she isn’t getting any herself,” Marisol had thought. Her nails with the rhinestone crosses glued on click-clacked their way across allergy medicine, ipecac bottles, and off-brand Tums, winding up at the shining boxes of lubricated condoms boasting ribbed pleasure for her and tingling sensations to set your love on fire. Dueña Fran had raised an eyebrow. “I dare you,” the eyebrow had said to Marisol.
“I’ll take the Imodium D,” she had said, chickening out. “I got the runs.” Then she hopped on her bike and pedaled all the way to Rebeca’s, where she chose from about twenty different kinds of flavored, textured, colored, and glow-in-the-dark condoms.
“Why the hell do I need a neon green dick in my life, Beca?”
“It’s just for fun. You’ll see. You’re such a virgin, Sol.”
“And why do all these say 2015? Doesn’t that mean they’re bad now?”
“Whatever, do you want them or not?”
“I mean, it’s not like Los is going to buy any.”
Carlos was described by the aging tías with their hair rollers and their lacquered lips as one of those Good Boys Going Places. He had the kind of face that inspired a coddling instinct in most women, an evolutionary tic that has, surprisingly, not been weeded out yet. Maybe that was why she had chosen him. Or it could have been his eyes. They were a sturdy brown. Not caramel, not mocha, none of that bullshit. Brown. But more likely than not, it was his scar. His father had given it to him when he had caught Los taking the car for a joyride. Since then, Los never mentioned the gash on his forehead below the widow’s peak, seeming to forget the incident altogether. Now that she thought about it, Los had always been fascinated with cars, that sterile machinery that was always so off-putting to her. He worked at the shop every day. “Why do you work so much?” everyone would ask him. Ahorrando. Saving money was always the response. He was going to buy a house in the South, where people invite you in from the rain instead of robbing you in broad daylight. That’s what was said, anyway, though neither he nor Marisol knew of a world beyond the fleshy mountains to the east and the vestal salt flats in the north, where people went to die and the land gave birth to the sea.
The sex itself was painless enough, she would tell Papi later, like when they give you laughing gas at the dentist, but you can see what they’re doing to you from above, like a movie. Afterward, he had asked her if she was one of those women who didn’t come. She smiled a pageant smile and started to get dressed in the absence of a vocabulary to accurately convey her disappointment. She wasn’t sure if there were women who didn’t come, but she had always been particularly adept at her nightly ministrations, those frenetic moments after school or mass, muffling her cries with a pillow so as not to wake her brothers or her mother. When that failed, she would bite into her own flesh to keep from screaming.
During her deflowering, the boy, Carlos, had subjected her to the Alphabet treatment briefly before penetration. Marisol entertained the thought that if Spanish had had more letters, like Albanian or any of the Scandinavian languages with their numerous umlauts, it would have worked. As it was, the boy made it to the letter O, tracing the letters on her vulva before he threw in the towel. The penetration itself was clumsy at best. The squeaks emitted from their bodies seemed otherworldly in the moment, as if coming from an alien spaceship, like that old black-and-white show she and her brothers used to watch.
After she had tried seven different pregnancy tests from at least three reputable pharmacies—not including Fran’s—Marisol finally accepted that she had made a mistake. She immediately decided not to tell her mother, who was on a pilgrimage at the time. Instead, she let the secret fester inside her.
“Its teeth are starting to form,” Marisol suddenly said, leaning over to face Papi. “That’s when it starts happening. Six weeks. You can’t see them for a long time, but the stuff is under the gums.”
Papi nodded knowingly, as if she could tell what this meant. Patricia and Marisol had been friends almost since birth. They were baptized and confirmed at the same church. They bought their first bras together. Marisol didn’t tell Papi’s mother that she was gay and Papi certainly wouldn’t divulge Marisol’s latest indiscretion.
“I’m keeping it,” Marisol said. Her voice was hard. “I’m gonna name it Violet.”
Papi handed Marisol a blue popsicle, which dripped on her pants in transit and would leave a stain later. It was a small gesture, but, in doing so, she made explicit her complicity in Marisol’s plan.
“I don’t know what to do. The Internet says I need vitamins and shit. How am I supposed to get that?”
“Over there, they got all kinds of stuff like that. Vitamins, organic this and organic that, I’ve even seen organic dog food.” She grinned, savoring the ludicrousness of such a product. As she did so, she whistled through her front teeth. When she was little, her sisters used to call her Piggy Bank and tried to fit loose coins in between the gap. Papi had gotten her adult nickname, in part, from her distinctive flaite style and, in part due to her dominance in the “game.” The game in question was smuggling drugs to Gringolandia. The drugs ranged from cocaine to heroin, which Papi would never touch herself. Therein lay the moral dilemma for her, having witnessed firsthand its effects. But where there is demand, there will always be supply, she rationalized. Word had spread that Papi was the best in the business; that she was still alive suggested the rumors were accurate, at least this side of the equator.
Marisol rolled her eyes. When Papi went on and on about Gringolandia like everything was unicorns and roses, it grated on her nerves.
“What, you don’t believe me? I’ll show you. No, for real. I’ll take you with me on my next run. You’ll shit your pants.”
That night, Marisol dreamt of organic dogfood. She woke up thinking, “Dumbasses.” But now that she had decided to keep the baby, she needed a plan. The thought of spending the rest of her life with Carlos—if he even reacted well to the news—was suffocating her like the smog that crept in between the window sills, through the doorframes, jostled the dust mites, and draped itself around her like a shroud.
When she got home from school the next day, Marisol found the house empty. It must have been one of the rare occasions on which her mother had taken the boys to their soccer game and left the place to her only daughter. Marisol cracked open her math book, staring blankly as she flipped on the TV. A gringa was belly dancing, accompanied by four live tigers, in a ballroom. Gold lettering in the background read “Sweet Sixteen.” Marisol had gotten a tattoo for her sixteenth birthday. She glanced down at her thigh. Patients is a virtue. An embarrassingly drunken mistake. A cliché. At least her future kid would get a good laugh from it. “Violet, I asked you to clean your room yesterday,” she would scold. “‘Patients’ is a virtue,” Violet would say. They wouldn’t have much money, and Marisol would probably have to work two jobs, like her mother, but they would laugh and cook dinner together every night and Marisol would never force her to eat Brussels sprouts, because even she couldn’t stomach them.
Drinking pineapple juice from the jug, she read Papi’s new messages to her: hows the little nugget today? I got a little somethin for ‘em. As she wondered what the gift could be—it was too early to tell if it was a boy or a girl, so coming up with a gender-appropriate present was difficult right now—she found herself unbuttoning her jeans, conjuring up Carlos and his mechanic’s wrench. Unannounced, Papi’s hands intruded. The brevity and precision of the image startled Marisol. They were isolated from her body, as if in an invisible picture frame. Soon, but not soon enough, they were washed downstream by her consciousness. Afterward, she fell asleep. She dreamt of dancing with the white girls and their tigers, Violet bouncing up and down on her shoulders.
The air at the park smelled like street sopaipillas and ketchup, which made Marisol want to vomit. She played with her nose ring as the waited for Papi. Pulling it in and out, in and out, was comforting. It produced a familiar, dull pain that radiated from her pores. Finally, she made out Papi’s braids from a distance, bobbing toward her station on the bench.
“You go first.”
Papi pulled out a thin envelope that almost certainly did not contain baby clothes or diapers or prenatal vitamins.
“I don’t want your money. We talked about this,” Marisol chided. When she opened the envelope, a single piece of paper the size of her hand slipped out. It was a one-way ticket to Miami.
“If you don’t like it, you can come right back. That’s the beauty of it. I got one for myself, too. So I can help you out. In the beginning, I mean. If you want.”
The night before, Marisol’s mother was peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink as Marisol sliced tomatoes for a salad. They were going to have a nice family dinner together, something they didn’t have often enough, her mother had insisted. She skinned the potato in her hand elegantly, gouging the eyes out with force. Her mouth puckered like when she was about to say something, but second-guessed herself.
Then: “I don’t want you hanging around that tortillera anymore.”
Marisol was silent, fixated on the tomato spilling out red juice onto the linoleum floor.
“What if the boys got the wrong idea? Or the neighbors? Then word would get around to the tías and eventually your grandmother would hear about it. What if she had a stroke? You know I don’t work two jobs so you and the boys can study for nothing. Don’t you have goals? You and Carlos. He’s a good boy. He’s going places. Don’t forget that.” Her chin jerked upward, as if denoting the direction of these places he was going.
“What do you think your father sees when he looks down on you? It’s like you want to upset him.”
“How do we know he’s looking down on us?” Marisol ventured.
Her mother straightened her spine, standing at attention. The rings under her eyes shone like amethysts, a dull glow.
“Okay, Mamá. Okay,” she said. In her psychology class, she had read that lying was sometimes necessary in relationships. Or maybe she had invented that, but it seemed necessary in that moment. She wiped at the red stain on the floor. Her mother went back to scalping the potatoes.
The next day was a branding iron pushed down on her skull. The students were marching on Alameda as they always did in the summer, when they had nothing better to do. She liked to hear them chant, even when it was the trite un pueblo unido jamás será vencido. She was rarely nationalistic, but, she admitted to herself, those words lit a flame in her gut. This time they were protesting against the pension system, tomorrow it would be for free college education. That’s how youth is, Marisol thought. All helter-skelter, like that song. She, however, was resolute. Once she had made up her mind, that was it.
This time, Papi was waiting for her under their tree. Wayward bulbs floated down to rest on her jeans. Marisol liked the way she made no effort to brush them off, but collected them on her lap. They sat in silence as the protestors shouted their demands into the void. Someone smashed a streetlight. He or she was wearing a black bandana and a full gasmask. Soon the cops would come and clear out the area. They would bring with them the dogs, the tanks, the guanacos spitting chemical water. For now, though, it was just the two of them eating popsicles and the kids with their spray cans.
Marisol noticed Papi’s hand on her knee, toying with the petals of a jacaranda blossom. Instead of shrinking away, Marisol reached for the blossom, accidently separating the stamen from the petals. She instantly felt ashamed at such a violent act, even though the flower had clearly been beyond resuscitation for quite some time and, by the time it had reached her knee from its perch in the tree, had already begun to wither.
Somewhere in the distance the tanks could be heard, pulling onto the main street. Their symphony of metallic screeches rattled around in Marisol’s ear, making it hard for her to hear what Papi was saying. The hand slid upward. It was a pendulum, starting at the hard knob of her knee, working its way up to the crease in her jeans where the pubis meets the thigh. Marisol moved her own hand to intercede Papi’s wandering one. But, as in most stories, she eventually gave up, allowing the rogue fingers to complete their circuit.
Papi’s hands were rough, almost like Los’s, inexplicably so, since she did no manual labor that Marisol could think of. She had always been attracted to his hands, the way the cars had transformed them. Maybe it was the process itself, the daily hardening of calluses, the resilience of flesh that fascinated her. She would tell him tonight, she decided. He would be bewildered and his eyes would beg for reassurance, would ask for something to hold on to. She would stroke his hair, nuzzling him on her breast like a baby, and say, “Don’t worry. I have a plan.”
Papi’s middle finger was enlarging its territory, centimeter by centimeter. The thought crossed her mind that she could have imagined it was a man’s hand, but she did not. From the corner of her eye, Marisol spotted the tanks and trucks making their way toward the protestors. Then the guanacos finally made an appearance, the cannons lifted on their haunches, pointed at the kids and the girls in the grass. When the cascades of toxic chemicals rained down, splashing Marisol and Papi from the distance, they stood up. They fled the scene at a leisurely pace that could be likened to a stroll, not wanting to grant the cops the satisfaction. They held hands, like when they had gone to protests together years ago, when they were even younger and dumber. The leaders of the protest had all dispersed by now, leaving only their devotees. The young boy with the gasmask and bandana was being arrested. A girl with spikey, pink hair was being frisked. A couple was setting something on fire, maybe a Molotov cocktail, or maybe some trash. They were a hearty breed, the ones that remained. Whether they were brave or stupid was undiscernible from this angle, but Marisol silently conferred upon them her approval.
The air between the two was thick with tear gas. They hadn’t brought lemons with them, so they cried. The type of tear gas used in their country was outlawed internationally due to its carcinogenic effects, but this had, apparently, only made the commanding officers fonder of it. The tears came out involuntarily at first, sucked out of their ducts as if by a vacuum. Then, they started sneaking up out of the pits of the girls’ consciousness, making their way to the surface in sobs. Marisol vomited. It was then that she and Papi realized what the hand’s explorations had meant. They implicitly felt as if some sort of agreement had been reached, a kind of contract had been signed between the two of them. While they couldn’t list all the clauses of such a contract, they felt that it bound them in a significant way. A shared cosmology was beginning to form between them, swirling and diving in and out of their musculatures, spindling into veins and arteries, and, lastly, their cuticles. It would have been stupid to have called this “love.” It was, rather, the creation of a new world.
One of them turned to the other and said, “Let’s just go home.”
Whether or not any time has elapsed since this event is irrelevant. We will find them in the slice of night that precedes the dawn. Historically, this is the witching hour. Scientifically, it has been proven that more deaths, births, and conceptions occur at this hour than at any other time during the day. It will be pitch black when we see them next, illuminated by a nearby dome. The desert will be spread out before them, at once both alien and familiar. It will be purple, like a newborn. In this mirage unfurling before our eyes, so many millennia are collapsed into a tube, a pendant. A sliver of moon will cut through the black like a needle in a pincushion, a window. This time, the air hangs low in the sky. The girls will gulp up the night, knowing it will be their last in this land of volcanoes.
“You sure about this?” one of them will ask.
The other girl won’t answer. Instead, she will kiss the rosary her mother gave her. She will inhale deeply and start walking toward the terminal.