ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018
In my version, which is not important, I call you Paloma.
I call me Jenny and I start in the winter of 2008, with the feeling in my stomach when my dad drives too fast down Ijamsville Road, up then down over two consecutive winding hills. We’re a decade before the road work that will flatten this out. You must be 18, because my brother says he took you to a hookah bar that time. I must be 13, because I was in eighth grade when you came to stay for two months, to practice your English.
I don’t know if Jenny is happy. She must be, because she’s falling in love with an old friend, but she’s in eighth grade, so it’s hard to say. Paloma stays on the futon in Jenny’s room, so she hears her talk on the phone to this friend for hours at a time. In this version, that’s one of the things Paloma says, when she calls her family, that she’s surprised by how much Jenny actually talks because Jenny never talks when she’s in Mexico. Not around adults, anyway.
Jenny might talk too much, but Paloma always lets her because Paloma is kinder than she lets on. She stays in a corner of the room where the walls are peppered with Twilight posters. The futon has a metal bar in the middle that makes it impossible to really stretch out across it, but Paloma doesn’t complain.
Paloma can wear all black without looking stupid. The first thing she does with the money her parents sent for the trip is buy an iPod touch, and the first thing she does when she buys the iPod touch is somehow fuck up the speaker setting so that her music plays out loud for everyone to hear, even though she’s wearing headphones. Paloma doesn’t notice, and Jenny’s parents react diplomatically by turning up their music in the minivan, so Jenny finds herself at an odd crossroads between death metal and the soothing sounds of Juan Gabriel. She puts her earbuds in to make a third sound bubble and fills it with Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits. Soft guitar, tender, nothing like the garbage warbling Killers version.
On a day when Jenny’s parents take the girls on a weekend trip to New York, Paloma takes one earbud out to listen to Jenny, and Jenny uses this time to talk about Naruto. It seems to Jenny that Paloma’s English doesn’t really need practicing, given how she lets Jenny rattle off and is able to answer with appropriate affection or derision. That time, Paloma calls her an otaku. They’re traveling north from Maryland, so they don’t pass the hills on Ijamsville Road. They’re in Pennsylvania, probably, somewhere on a highway that doesn’t make Jenny’s stomach drop. Jenny can’t look up what otaku means, because it’s five years before she will have a smartphone, and Paloma refuses to tell her.
Jenny’s mom turns around from the passenger seat and offers them oranges. Paloma takes one but can’t peel it because of her rashy hands. Her hands are rashy from eating chocolate. Jenny likes to make brownies from those big Costco boxed mixes, and Paloma can’t stop herself from eating them even though she’s allergic to chocolate. I will peel it, Jenny says, if you tell me what an otaku is. Paloma hands over the orange, and Jenny digs into it with her nails quickly, efficiently. When she finishes, Jenny looks up expectantly, but Paloma shrugs. I didn’t agree to your terms, she says, pulling off a slice and popping it into her mouth.
Jenny glumly puts her earbuds in and turns glumly to look at the glum trees shivering. She watches the rain race horizontal across the window pane and wonders if she should be offended. Then she presses her fists into her eyes sees spots and realizes goddamn fuck I forgot my fucking glasses.
Paloma says fuck with an accent, like fack, with the softest gentlest a in the world. Shut the fack up, Yenny. When they get to the city, she mumbles, Fack it’s cold! Thirteen miles of walking later, they take the Path train back to their hotel in Hoboken, because staying in New Jersey is less expensive than staying in the city.
This first time in New York, the first time Jenny really embarks on the tourist traps she will get sick of later when other relatives visit, this time isn’t so bad. It’s snowing authentic American snow, pearly new snow that gets grimy fast. Paloma has experienced authentic American Thanksgiving, turducken and all, and now she can experience authentic American Christmas, what with the Rockefeller tree and the inimitable Home Alone 2 vibes. It’s a good day. Jenny gets out of the shower later feeling cold but happy, then wanders over to the bed in the hotel room she shares with Paloma, who is wearing pearly white thermal pajamas and looking like a little kid. She has her eyes closed and her earbuds in, breathing real even, so Jenny thinks maybe she’s fallen asleep, despite the tinny guitar sounds audible even across the room.
The hint of a frown graces Paloma’s brow, but that’s most of the time, so after a while, Jenny really becomes concerned that Paloma is asleep. Falling asleep with earbuds on can lead to strangulation, so Jenny reaches over and tugs the earbuds out, only it turns out that Paloma hasn’t actually been asleep at all, because her eyes flash open and then she scowls and stuffs her earbuds back in and turns sharply in bed to face the wall.
Fack. Jenny reaches over for her own iPod on the nightstand, then puts her earbuds in. Dire Straits, Romeo and Juliet, and Dire Straits says you exploded into my heart and Jenny thinks you exploded you exploded you e x p l o d a n d J e n n y thinks what would that be like, like a bus seat going up in flames, like what, like the blood vessel in her mom’s eye when it popped and clouded the sclera red and she looked like a monster? Like a bus seating exploding into flames like she thought it would when that mop-haired white boy kept pressing his lighter to it and she was too frozen to say anything about it to him, to this pearly white boy with a pearly death wish.
His assigned seat was next to hers, because the bus driver thought that putting the problem kids by the quiet ones solved everything, but really it only terrorized her when she had to talk to him, to say excuse me and squeeze past him to sit by the window because he demanded to sit by the aisle always to talk to his friends. That day he crouched low in the seat and pulled out a lighter, cupped it with his hands to hide the flame, put it right up against the seat, and she thought how if the seat caught fire she would die because he was blocking the way to the aisle to the emergency exit. All those bus fire drills where they practiced jumping out the back of the bus and they made the tall kids hold everybody’s hands through the leap would be for nothing, not if the fire was right there right in front of her path to the exit. Exploding like a bus seat going up in flames, or like that fight in the school parking lot, where Jenny was looking at her phone one second then the next she looked up and a girl with a cut on her face was holding a torn flip-flop and getting escorted away. Exploding like Paloma’s face did so easily into a scowl or like her laugh exploded sometimes into a cackle when she was really happy only I don’t remember so well how she laughed.
Paloma had an elfin face and a tattoo of a phoenix exploding on her back. Or a dragon? It had to be a phoenix. Paloma would’ve been aware of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, probably, she probably would’ve avoided obvious Lisbeth Salander comparisons. Probably. Motherfacker it was hard to remember. Jenny presses her fists into her eyes. Paloma lies next to her with earbuds in, blasting metal music. Or maybe they’re at a grocery store and Paloma has her earbuds in and is drumming her fingers on the cart, really fast, and Jenny wishes she could tolerate the loudness of metal so that she could have this in common with her cousin, so that they could talk about something besides Naruto.
Paloma’s body explodes into flames because she asks to be cremated which means there is no grave to visit, no orange house like the one where her mom’s dad is buried or like the little brick one with the crooked cross on the inside that belongs to her dad’s family.
No, Paloma’s body is next to hers because Jenny can sense her breathing. Or actually her body is, was, is standing, standing waiting outside the door of Jenny’s bedroom at four a.m. when Jenny wakes up needing to pee. Jenny swings her legs out of bed but when she puts her hand on the doorknob she knows that Paloma will be standing on the other side, she is pressed against the door right now, Jenny knows because she can sense Paloma’s breathing like when they shared a bed in Hoboken, like when Paloma stayed on the futon in her room ten years ago, was it ten years ago? Was it ten years ago that she yanked Paloma’s earbuds out and Paloma gave her the meanest and most justified look? Or when they were making instant mashed potatoes and Paloma was unnerved, said they weren’t real potatoes, and Jenny thought wow I guess instant potatoes must not have made it to Mexico yet?
Back then Jenny was sure the bus seat would catch fire, but she couldn’t remember the name of the boy, the one with the lighter. Jenny’s vision wasn’t so bad yet in middle school so she could forget her glasses sometimes, which meant that she could press her fists into her eyes until she saw swirls of dark red and purple. She could sit with her knees up against the seat in front of her and let her head loll against the window, let her teeth chatter with the bus wheels over the street.
Jenny’s winter coat that day of the almost bus fire was puffy and purple, too puffy and also too purple. Jenny’s mom figured Jenny liked purple so there couldn’t be too much of it, and there couldn’t be too much puffiness, not in the Maryland winter which was not as bad as the Pennsylvania winter but was still bad, still fertile ground for blizzards and black ice. Too cold for Paloma and her thermal pajamas and her sweeping black peacoat. What if I wore all black? Jenny said once, and Paloma said leave that to me, you’re too young.
The boy with the lighter on the bus in 2008 had strawberry blonde hair, which was funny because he liked to make fun of gingers. He said on the bus once, to his short friend, You know Kaitlin and Maria Schumacher, and their brother Nathan? They’re all gingers, we should beat them up. Jenny remembered this because Kaitlin and Maria were her friends, and very briefly she thought about saying no, you should not beat them up, and you should not beat up their brother Nathan, but instead she put in earbuds and listened to Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits, or maybe a different song, but definitely not Romeo and Juliet by The Killers.
Jenny was sure that the trash can would catch fire in Chemistry class in tenth grade when those freshmen working behind her station started putting things in the Bunsen burner for fun. They lit up a paper towel, then panicked and threw it in a trash can. Jenny was sure flames would burst out, big roaring ones big roaring flames, but there was only smoke, and the freshmen shoved the trash can into the back supply room and shut the door and Mr. Miller didn’t even notice. Jenny wouldn’t remember the freshmen or the lab partner.
No. Jenny gouged her fists into her eyes. They closed the coffin because Paloma had blood coming out of her eyes, her pearly eyes were clouded red like Jenny’s mom’s that time an artery burst. That’s what her uncle said and he was there so he would know. Jenny wasn’t there so Jenny wouldn’t know. And Jenny definitely remembered the name of the lab partner because for the next five years after that almost fire she thought she was in love with him.
Jenny was not wearing her glasses. She knew this because she could press her fists this hard into her eye sockets, hard enough for spots of dark purple and red to swirl into her vision. She wasn’t wearing her glasses when she was lying in a bed with Paloma in Hoboken. Now, talking on the phone with her best friend, she isn’t wearing glasses either because she’s pulling her fists away from her eyes and her fists are wet.
Motherfacker, Jenny says. Motherfacker.
Paloma has her appendix removed in 2009 or 2010, sometime over a winter break when Jenny visits her in Mexico. She hobbles around but won’t let Jenny help her with anything because she says she doesn’t want to feel useless. A few years later, maybe from a hospital bed, she says if she survives the leukemia then it’ll really be a miracle, it’ll really be a sign that God exists. Or something. Jenny’s not sure exactly what Paloma said because Jenny wasn’t there. Her aunt was there and her aunt says that she said that and since her aunt was there her aunt would know.
When are you visiting me? Paloma asks this question over a WhatsApp call, one of two that Jenny will remember. She’s wearing a beanie, maybe, or a scarf, something that covers the hair loss. Over the summer, Jenny says, or maybe she says soon.
It was 2013, maybe, and it was New Year’s, and their uncle’s house was crowded with family drunk and dancing. Jenny was sitting on a stool at the breakfast nook because she didn’t like to dance yet, and Paloma and her boyfriend were there too because Paloma never liked to dance. Other people were also there, probably, like Paloma’s sister and her boyfriend, and maybe some more cousins. Once Jenny was younger, maybe 12, and Paloma’s sister kicked a soccer ball into her face and broke her glasses. Later Jenny and the other kids stacked their hands in a big pile on the counter in the breakfast nook and took turns slapping each other’s hands as hard as possible, until only one person was left and that person was Jenny, unless it was someone else.
Jenny, 22, sits at her desk chair drinking the rest of a five dollar rosé. She can’t remember the name of the boy with the lighter, but she remembers her lab partner, even though she tries to block it out. She searches for him on the internet only to find that his name is too common and his digital habits too paranoid for her to track anything down besides his name in a local newspaper, along with hers in a list of graduating seniors. She searches for Paloma on Facebook to see if anything’s changed, but her last post is still the same one thanking people for donating blood. Sometimes she opens a message to Paloma to look at their blank chat box and blame herself for never writing, even though supposedly in the end Paloma couldn’t see, supposedly in the end she couldn’t hear out of one ear. Definitely in the end she wouldn’t have seen it because of the medically-induced coma, comas don’t allow much in the way of social media communication, probably.
Jenny looks up and sees a friend waiting for her to finish packing her books into her backpack so that they can leave the library and walk home together. On the walk, Jenny says, my cousin is dying, and they say how are you feeling and she says I feel so weird but later she can’t remember if she also said how scared she is how maybe it’s not weird maybe it’s just scary. They stop in front of the usual crosswalk where their paths diverge and the friend says, I feel like we can’t end on this note, do you know any jokes?
A woman goes to the doctor, and she says, Doctor, please, I need help. I fart all the time, but the farts have no sound and no smell. See here, I’ve been farting this whole time, and I’m sure you haven’t even noticed, because there hasn’t been a sound or a smell! The doctor says: Okay ma’am, we’ll check on your hearing first, and then we’ll see what’s wrong with your nose.
There’s another version of the joke, where someone farts too much in their sleep, and there’s a crucifix on the wall, and Jesus has somehow liberated one of his nailed hands in order to cover his nose. This version is also funny.
In high school, Jenny keeps her ears safely covered by headphones every morning from 6:45 a.m. waiting for the bus to 7:20ish, when her lab partner comes in and sits next to her in the cafeteria while they wait for the first bell to ring for classes to start. Jenny pretends not to notice him sometimes. She keeps her face buried in her folded arms and her earbuds in even though she senses his breathing because she wants him to ask for her attention. He doesn’t ask for her attention so much in those days or these days as a friend and not a lab partner, a friend because she watched all the shows he told her to watch so that they could have something to talk about that wasn’t those freshmen almost setting that trash can on fire.
It’s a brutal summer in the San Joaquin Valley when Jenny, 22, stays in a fancy room in her aunt’s house, a room where there’s a stepladder to get onto the bed and the bed has four giant posts on the edges that make her feel watched over while she sleeps. Jenny spends time with a cousin fresh out of middle school, who gives her a tour of her room, That’s my poster of Bob Marley that my mom doesn’t like because he’s smoking weed, that’s a painting of me from when I went to Disney, that’s Kurt Cobain, that’s from when I did ballet, that’s a picture of Paloma, those are my friends from swimming, those are my medals from swimming. Jenny wants to pick up the picture of Paloma, whose straightened hair falls in choppy 2000s layers, bangs obscuring one of her eyes, but she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself drawing attention to Paloma like she didn’t want Paloma’s sister to notice her staring at the new tattoo on her arm of the doves around the cursive name.
Jenny presses her fists into her eyes which she can do because she’s not wearing her glasses, and she remembers talking to her mom, on the phone.
(angrily) Your aunt says her psychic friend predicted she would die. She says that during a seance or something she asked what was going to happen with Paloma and the candle they were using split in half. What an impressive prediction, that someone with terminal cancer is going to die! I can’t believe your aunt believes that shit. And then she also believes that story that Paloma sent a rosary to Sabina somehow from the afterlife. I don’t understand why Paloma wouldn’t just appear to her mom and dad if she could actually communicate from beyond, they’re the ones hurting the most.
She went to a psychic? Before Paloma died?
The week before she died. I can’t believe she’s talking about this now. Some people just have to make themselves the center of attention when something bad happens.
Jenny takes mental notes for her story where she will make herself the center of attention. Paloma was 27. She didn’t like some of the cliche things people would say to her, especially échale ganas, because she didn’t believe that was actionable advice. She maybe had blood coming out of her eyes, and that’s why they maybe closed the casket. She was cremated and that’s why there’s no grave to visit, there’s only staring out over La Bufa in Zacatecas at the steep drop of the mountain and the blocky colorful houses and the nopales and the semi-desert and thinking, the last time I saw her alive was here and it was a year ago and it was before her diagnosis and she wasn’t wearing all black, she was a smiling skinny vegan in a red tank top and blue jeans and sandals.
(gently or not gently, looking up from where she lies on the futon in Jenny’s room, taking out one earbud) Yo, Yenny from the block, what gives you the right to caricature me as a skinny vegan?
(pressing her fists in her eyes, which she can do because she’s not wearing her glasses) Nothing, I don’t know. I don’t even think that you would make the reference you just made in real life, I can’t remember you ever talking about Jennifer Lopez before ever. Have you even heard Jenny from the Block? It’s a fucking jam, but I don’t know if you would like it. I stand by it being a fucking jam though. Also you saying yo is wildly out of character, but it doesn’t matter, anyway, I can’t find that weeb drawing you did for me in middle school, the Naruto one. I used to have it on the wall, but then I got embarrassed and took it down, and now I think it might be inside one of my old piano books. Do you think that’s where it is? I forgot to look there last time I was home, but I’m not going to be home for a while now, so I have to remember to remember where it might be. Do you think that’s where it is?
(gently or not gently) I don’t remember the drawing.
You remember the drawing. It was Gaara. Remember, I was an emo loser who loved Gaara?
(not gently) Have you considered that switching to this format isn’t effective or necessary? I don’t know if what you’re doing with this conversation is really interesting enough to warrant this sort of a shift in form.
Paloma is a skinny vegan with a tattoo of a phoenix (dragon?) on her back. Paloma wears all black and keeps her headphones on in grocery stores. Paloma hobbles around after her appendectomy but doesn’t want any help because it makes her feel useless.
This is an outdated version, you know, because you weren’t there, in the end.
This version isn’t important. I think I’m trying to, trying to, trying to say something about memory, or, or forgetting? I don’t know exactly what yet but it’s something worthwhile, I swear.
Paloma has rashy hands because she eats chocolate even though she’s allergic to chocolate. She buys these amazing knee-high black boots that she wears with her black winter coat, and Jenny is amazed, Jenny is always amazed by Paloma. Jenny imagines the bus seat going up in flames and she is amazed, she imagines Paloma going up in flames and she gouges her fists into her eyes until she sees red and purple, she is able to gouge her fists into her eyes because she isn’t wearing her glasses today.
Sometime Jenny doesn’t know, she rides over the drops on Ijamsville Road for the last time, sometime before the road work finishes and flattens out the winding swooping hills. Her stomach drops like when she likes someone, like when she experiences attraction as a wave of sudden nausea sudden sickness earbuds ripped out suddenly in the middle of a song when the wire snags on a shopping bag and the sonic bubble bursts. Yenny writes it down. Sick with it again, heavy. Sick and dizzy with it want to die. Sick kill me. It is very dangerous to live even one day to fall asleep in a room where the air conditioning sounds like breathing and Paloma might be standing on the other side of your bedroom door. But she isn’t here, why would she come to see you?
Jenny and Paloma sit next to each other at Thanksgiving dinner in 2008. Jenny’s mom’s friend, who is hosting, refers to them as the girls, says we can’t sit the girls apart, even though Paloma said she was definitely okay sitting apart because she is 18 and cool and Jenny is 13 and dumb.
No, I want to sit together, Jenny says.
I don’t mind sitting apart, Paloma clarifies to the adults, but I think that Yenny wants to sit together.
Please, Jenny says, sitting next to Paloma, here is good, please, let’s stay here. There are plates of grilled salmon in front of them so maybe it isn’t Thanksgiving, actually, but either way, Jenny says, snivels, says, Let’s stay here, please, when I knew you best, when we spent enough time together for you to get annoyed by me.
I probably missed my family here, Paloma says, picking up a fork and digging into the flesh of the salmon. I probably missed my friends, I was probably very relieved to go home after New Year’s. Don’t you remember how upset I was on New Year’s Eve?
It’s okay, Jenny says, it’s okay I promise it’s okay, P, this is only my version, and my version is not important. Call me Yenny I’ll call you Paloma and I’ll start in the winter of 2008, I’ll start with the feeling of going down Ijamsville Road, do you remember Ijamsville Road?
Samantha Solis is a grad student at UCLA, where she studies contemporary fiction and Latinx literature. She is originally from Frederick, Maryland.
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