A Note for Lorena
She remembers the smell of books and that it was raining outside. There were lots of people in the library ‒ more than Lorena had ever seen ‒ and they were hushed and excited to see someone sitting at the front of the room. Being so small ‒ Lorena was only four at the time ‒ she had to stand on tip-toes just to see the woman’s face, and Lorena’s green eyes turned to saucers when she saw ‒ not a blond-haired somebody ‒ but a black-haired, brown-eyed lady, with a face like Lorena’s mother’s, sitting calmly at the front of the room.
Seeing the wonder in her daughter’s eyes, Lorena’s mother leaned down and said, “Ella es Sandra Cisneros.” She’s Sandra Cisneros. A writer. A famous writer. A famous Mexicana writer. But Lorena didn’t know that at the time. She didn’t know that Cisneros was touring the country, visiting libraries in every state and giving book readings, miraculously appearing in little old Ashe County, where Lorena lived.
Lorena remembers floating up to Cisneros after the book reading, staring with those big green eyes at the most stunning woman she had ever seen. Lorena’s mother and Cisneros spoke, chit chatting in Spanish as Lorena watched in awe as Cisneros chose a book from the stack beside her and signed the inside cover, leaving a special note for the little girl. She placed the slim novel in Lorena’s child-sized hands, saying “For you, mija.”
Later, however, Lorena grew less amazed with Sandra Cisneros. It was around sixth or seventh grade when it happened. Lorena’s English teacher, Ms. Harper, began persistently recommending that Lorena read realistic stories by Sandra Cisneros. “But I like fantasy and mystery,” Lorena had said. Ms. Harper gazed at Lorena with patronizing eyes. “Oh, but you really should read Cisneros. It’s part of your culture.” Anger and disgust surged through Lorena’s preteen soul. So because she was Mexican, she was obligated to read Cisneros? Lorena fought the urge to spit in Ms. Harper’s face. How dare she hold Lorena hostage! Hostage to her own culture. Out of spite, Lorena made a point to be clearly underwhelmed, indifferent, stoic whenever it came to stories like “Eleven” or “Chanclas”. It wasn’t that she hated Cisneros’ writing. It was that everyone expected her to like it.
So Lorena shunned Cisneros from her library. She looked for her copy of The House on Mango Street signed by Cisneros so that she could dramatically throw it away or burn it or something like that ‒ it was just paper after all ‒ but she couldn’t find it anywhere, and she decided that losing the copy worked just as well. It would be years until she even laid eyes on another Cisneros work.
Lorena was sixteen, and her family was finishing up dinner when the phone rang. Lorena’s mother answered the phone. “Hello?” she said using her speaking-to-white-people voice. “What?!...Oh, my God…. we’ll be right there.” and she hung up the phone with a righteous clang. “Everyone get in the car now.” She spoke with urgency and alarm. “Abuela’s in the hospital.”
“Is it her back?” Lorena asked, hurrying with her family out the door. Abuela had back surgery a few years ago and never fully recovered. “No,” her mother said.
Lorena’s parents made her wait outside the hospital room with her younger brother, Tony. He was playing his PSP. Lorena stared at him, hoping her green eyes could slice him into bits. How could he play a video game while Abuela might be dying? The door opened and a doctor walked out, he glanced at Lorena with something like embarrassment in his eyes. Pity? Discomfort? Lorena’s parents stepped out shortly after. They looked pale and sad and exhausted. Lorena’s mother struggled to speak. “Your abuela ‒ ” she began. “Is addicted to percocet.”
An infinitesimal, heavy silence. Lorena broke it. “What ‒ like ‒ the pain pills?”
“Claro….The doctors think she accidentally overdosed.” Here, her mother completely broke down. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She escaped down the fluorescent hallway in shame and fear. Lorena almost wanted to laugh. Of course Abuela was addicted to pills! All the signs were there. She had back surgery and always complained about the pain. She was normally a bitter and irritating woman, but lately she had grown pleasantly, uncharacteristically mellow. Lorena remembered something. Something that should have tipped her off to Abuela’s condition. Lorena was bringing her grandmother her medication. “I need them every few hours,” Abuela had said. Lorena casually glanced at the pill bottle, noticing its directions. “Abuela, this says ‘take as needed’.” “I know,” Abuela said, reaching for the medicine. “Well, are you in pain now?” Lorena asked. Abuela seemed frustrated. “No! ‒ it’s my medicine!” “But if you’re not in pain, then you don’t need it.” “Just give it to me!”
Lorena should have realized then.
Later that week, Lorena and her mother drove to Abuela’s apartment complex while she was still recovering in the hospital. They were there on business. After using their key to unlock the door, Lorena’s mother went straight to the medicine cabinet in Abuela’s kitchen, dumping all of her percocet prescriptions into a garbage bag. She and Lorena swept every room, every drawer, every countertop, ridding the apartment of pain killers. Afterwards, Lorena’s mother ‒ of all things ‒ began to cook. Pulling bags of rice and frijoles from the pantry, she said, “I’ll bet that hospital food is killing her.”
“I’ll bet that percocet was killing her.” Lorena meant to say it under her breath.
“Nothing.” Lorena left the kitchen and wandered into Abuela’s bedroom. The room felt strange without Abuela in it. The bed was unmade, and for some reason, Lorena had an urge to straighten its sheets, fluff its pillows, smooth its corners tight. She walked towards the bed, ready to make it, when something on Abuela’s nightstand caught her eye. It was a dog-eared copy of La Casa en Mango Street, the Spanish translation of The House on Mango Street. Lorena picked it up and sat on the bed. It wasn’t there before when she and her mother had cleaned this room.
Lorena opened the book, and there on the first white page was a note written in flowery black ink. A gasp escaped Lorena’s lips. This was her book. The book that she had lost and then wanted to burn. The book signed by Cisneros. “For you, mija” she had said. Suddenly, Lorena recalled how she had carried that book everywhere when she was little. To the park, to the grocery store, to the movie theater, and apparently, to Abuela’s apartment, where she must have left it during one visit. Lorena remembered long hours searching for the book, and weeping when it was never recovered.
And here it lay ‒ in her lap. Her abuela had it all along.
Lorena stared at the note in flowery print. It read: “If it’s up to you, don’t be anybody’s mother.” Lorena read it again. She flipped through the pages of the book, and noticed that Abuela had circled passages and scrawled in the margins. There were even tiny, lonely circles of slightly wrinkled paper, letters dampened by teardrops. And Lorena thought of her mother, who was cooking for her mother, who had read this book and was now laying in a hospital bed, bitter and rotting. And then she thought, Sandra Cisneros has it pretty fucking right.