Kirie C. Pedersen lives on the edge of the Olympic National Park in Washington State. She received her M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Her stories appear in literary magazines and journals, and she recently completed a novel, How to Cry.
Today, this room becomes mine. More, this room becomes me. This yellow-painted room, my color because fifteen years ago I read a book, and when the heroine began again from nothing, her room began with her, sunshine yellow. It is the largest room I have lived in for a year now. For a year, I have lived in Mexico, and now I must decide how to begin my life again. It may be a long time before I again live in so large a room, so yellow a room; never!
Yet this room is not mine. My sister Rosa says I usurped it from her. She says I have commandeered everything she has ever done or said.
“Don’t make me your confidant,” she says. “I’m tired of being your trained seal.” I dance in horror like a bull fighter, like Miguelangel, the bull fighter I stayed with in Mexico. He practiced for that day’s battle with his blanket and broom sword. My heart pounds. Blood streams down my legs. The blood tells me I am not pregnant with the baby of Miguelangel Anguiano. Yes, I stole that lover from Rosa. Or she stole him from me.
Or he stole us from each other.
I dream I am teaching in Mexico again. The orphanage is a prison, and keeps blending with the university. Mejico Querido y Lindo, you think I forget you, my home for this past year? Tell me, how is the custom of your beloved land? How walk the people, the oxen in the street of the village, the music of the souls who always weep, as Miguelangel called them, only it sounds different in English. As everything does. I came to you, little village in the hills of Jalisco, when I was nineteen. I lived there a long time, the only American, working as maestra in the kindergarten. Some days eighty children walked in the classroom door. Sometimes, when it rained, no more than eight or nine appeared. Today, in this yellow-painted room, I don’t worry, you know? In a moment, I will be happy. For now, I seek words to save myself.
This morning, back home where I was raised with too many siblings, I spent two hours tending to animals. I swept chicken manure from the porch, cleaned the squirrels’ cage, moved the goats, fed and watered the burro. Then two more hours canning pears, hours of mindless drudgery, my mind blank. Rosa ignored my pleas to talk. You must be punished for coming back and trying to reclaim your place as eldest says her fist of a face. Sobbing, again and again I beg for her forgiveness, for being older, for being able to leave our parents’ home and live a year in Mexico, although of course she joined me there, swooping in to claim her place in my world, and then leave again like a tourist. Or emotional terrorist.
Ah, but now she is at the door. At least her body is here, although she sits and sighs instead of talking, as if her soul were dancing around the room. If my sister ceased to be a mystery, these ups and downs of personality and mood, would I then cease to love her? She vanishes again without a word. Oh, I know this Rosa. This is the Rosa of cruel remarks that strike right to the heart of confidences I’ve offered her, the Rosa who makes aloof judgments possible only to the one who knows me well enough to hurt me most. This is Spider Rosa, to whom two parts of me respond:
The Fly: Caught, mummified, and then consumed.
The Man: Strikes the web with a lance and cares not at all. The web was in his way.
Rosa would say, “You are always the Man. The Killer. You strike at me and anyone who gets in your way.”
That is untrue. I am a Fly, and I become enmeshed in the webs of others.
“You love to play the victim,” Rosa says.
In the orphanage, with the children of the kindergarten, I was with them and yet not with them. They had their own world, and I could only partially participate. When I lived in Mexico, I never dreamed of Mexico. I dreamed only of this blood family and my own past; ceaseless nightmares. Now that I am back in the north, I dream only of the children. Did the land itself permeate me? Or is land relative, and we love the land where we are? Back in the Northwest, I am immersed in it again, as if my love affair with Mexico were forgotten. Only the children remain.
A text. Miguelangel Anguiano. “If I ever see you again, I will never let you go.” Yet I remember him walking ahead of me on the narrow trail above the Pacific, holding Rosa’s hand.
Also an email from the university. “You have not yet paid your advance housing deposit. If this is not completed immediately, we have others waiting to get in.”
Do I turn North or South?
If I were to return to the university now, would it be a canard, a postponement of living? I’m tired of being their incubator baby. After living in a village, watching children die, life here seems a travesty. It keeps me awake at night, tossing and sobbing. “Reverse cultural shock,” it’s called. I’ve tasted a different life now, and I liked it better than the one here. When I go into a grocery store, my eyes hurt. The food thrown away in just one Safeway could feed the village surrounded by its low stone walls, my students dying in the night from tetanus because there was no water in the homes, no place for something as simple as washing the hands.
When I boiled water in huge pots in the orphanage kitchen each morning, scrubbed down tables, and washed each child with soap and water, the fatal sores and the deaths stopped. Bruja, some called me.
Angel, said others. One who cures.
Heady for a teenager.
Now I veer back and forth. I’m afraid to choose. Whether I return to college, return to Mexico, or remain here in my father’s house as I recover from this microbio, this bug that invaded me from the open village well, from which everyone hauled water, each choice pushes me in irrevocable directions.
If I were pregnant now and kept the baby, I could simply say, “I will remain at home with my baby.” That seems simple and clear. I want all the choices. I want the lost baby and her clear instruction.
My guts hurt, my kidneys, my bowels. I ache inside. I am rotten to the core, a pear bruised and slowly browning outward from that bruise. I fear noises: cars, airplanes, and the highway; they pierce my backbone, my head. For now I perform my duties in my father’s house, smile correctly when people say, “How was Mexico? What are you going to do now?” Mostly I just listen, deceiving with my smile, with my mouth that becomes an ear. At least I hope I’m smiling correctly; when I look in the mirror, I see a grotesque. I never derive pleasure from “the pure moment.” I am always surprised to hear others say, “What a great party! What a wonderful group of people! What a great year!” I am shocked they are able to make such judgments. I suffer moment to moment, preserved only by the devices of mouth and ear, of change and circumstance. I bounce off the mirror of others. I tell the same stories again and again, waiting to see which I believe:
My Family’s Struggle
I was born and raised on a commune. My parents lived by subsistence, what we could harvest and forage and grow. Then, with nine children, they returned to school. We all share our duties. We are each other’s best friends.
Fleeing my Family
In the village was the first time in my life I felt happy, pure and truly alive. I felt needed there. When I returned here, my father said: “Nobody needs you. Why don’t you go where you are wanted?” It was more than ego, living and teaching in the village, feeling my life had meaning day to day in a way it never did in college. It was also the land. The land and the people, the language and music. I liked speaking only Spanish, peering out at the rare white visitor, hiding when they tried to find me, recoiling at their questions, “How can you bear living like this?”
When I still lived at home, trying almost without hope to earn money for college, I babysat for two families who lived side by side in the poorer district of town. I did not know then it was the poorer district; that’s where I lived too.
The Oakes: Shabby house, urine-soaked sheets in the baby’s crib, or sometimes no sheets at all, just newspaper. The house appeared to be disintegrating. Sitting alone there at night, I was frightened because all the locks on the doors were broken. The doors didn’t even shut. The refrigerator was always empty, or just held stale noodles or a dried carrot in the corner of the salad tray. The light bulbs were always burned out, and the house smelled of the stale food, urine, and dust. The back of every chair was stained with grease, and piles of True Story and True Confessions were stacked on the tables.
Mrs. Oakes was tall, strong, self-assured, and she appeared unashamed of her shabbiness or the run-down house. She earned extra money by making plastic and cork wall hangings or by throwing Tupperware parties for the neighbors. Mr. Oakes was small, silent, and worn-out, always smiling as if in apology. Their eldest son had only one leg. At bedtime, I unbuckled his wooden leg and leaned it against the wall where he could reach it in the morning. The baby was big-eyed, skinny, and he never smiled or cried.
Next door to the Oakes were the Bushings. They were a young good-looking couple. Their red couch was shiny, and lively with fleas. Because I was so isolated within my family, and my family so similar to the Oakes, the Bushings were my ideal of the perfect marriage. Their refrigerator was always full, and their son and daughter cute, although these children, too, seemed sad.
The Bushings moved to a larger house. It was still in the poor end of town but closer to slightly less shabby houses, a few blocks closer to a better life. While the Oakes always went out alone, the Bushings went out with another couple. This other couple seemed to me, even then when still a child myself, to have danger or corruption on their lips. I distrusted them in a way I could not understand, with a physical instinct like an animal.
One night when I was babysitting for the Bushings, the two women returned home without the men. The women were screaming and crying. They seemed to forget that I was there, that the cute and pretty and sad children were there. They had found their husbands in a hotel room, drunk. With whores? I suppose they did not tell me. In one microsecond, I saw Mrs. Bushing, whom I had idolized all those years of my own childhood, as ugly: she wore tight unfashionable pants, her hair loose, eyes red on a face distorted from tears. Her mouth twisted with sobs and screams.
I vowed I would never end up like that. I sent out applications for financial aid for college, which my parents refused to sign because they didn’t want me to leave my job of tending the younger siblings. I found two jobs, the first in a Chinese restaurant on graveyard shift, the other a day shift as a nurses’ aide in a retirement home, back to back shifts that left me short of sleep. I saved every penny to make my escape.
I never saw any of those couples again. No, that is not true. Once I saw Mrs. Oakes at the school crossing with a red flag, helping children to cross the street.
This afternoon, Rosa vanished. Later, from the forest behind the main house of the commune, I heard a hammer striking nails. She pounded and tapped until dusk. She constructed an edifice of wood and nails, a tree house, a sculpture in protest of me.
I was invited to a party to meet friends from college, from before I went to Mexico. I rode the ferry to the mainland as a foot passenger. The cage doors crashed down between my family and me, no gang-plank between us. Sailboats leaned into the wind. The ferry surged steadily forward. A young pregnant girl in a red dress stood near me. The girl looked bewildered. A woman shouted at the girl. “You whore. Look what you’ve done.” I imagined the girl’s life swept away. With her boyfriend, she felt so free, and here she was again, at her mother’s mercy.
At the party, I was rude and obnoxious. I ignored anyone who didn’t speak Spanish. Two Brazilian girls spoke Portuguese, but we understood each other well enough.
Back home, I tiptoed into the main house. I heard my youngest sister Delia singing. I hoped she would not ask me if I had a good time. I retreated to my cabin. Delia banged on my door until I opened it.
“Did you have a good time?”
“Oh yeah,” I said without meeting her eyes. As the eldest, it was obligatory I provide a perfect example. My siblings counted on me for love, stability, predictability, compassion. To children in an orphanage in a country not my own, I could give my heart, but never in my father’s home. If I stay here, meterme en entrega completa, melt myself, surrender, I will be consumed. My family would digest me, transform me into dust.
I packed my belongings into a green Mexican bag, a cedar chest, a battered footlocker, and a brown wicker basket. When she was my age, my grandmother carried the basket from Denmark, ready to start a new life without a single English word. Although I would never answer his text, I dreamed Miguelangel held me as we crouched among the low-growing trees of the cerro. He kissed me. “Not for lust,” he said. “For comfort.” We waited in line for food, which we were both giving and receiving.