The tulle of my wedding dress tickles the back of my neck as I sit in the corner of the closet. Despite its voluminous shape that takes up a quarter of the closet, I never stored it or tucked it away. It never felt like a priority.
Knees to chest, arms wrapped tightly. Bare toes digging into the brown, generic, ugly carpet. Back straight, enveloped, no, swallowed whole by the unwieldy tulle. I forgot his words the moment he left for work. What did we fight about? Did we fight? I can only sense the vibration of his voice, the deep timber tinged with an anger I never knew existed within him. He was—is a calm man. Good man. Good white man. Very lucky. Found a good one. So lucky.
The soft tips of my fingers dig into my thighs, holding deep and dragging slowly. Nails unevenly cut, scraggly bitten. So no harm. No hurt. Just a sensation repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over and—
A thin line tethering the body to reality. Fraying thread that had been hiding in the back of my sewing kit for years, slowly unraveling. And the fibers that constitute the thin thread escaping its home, creating a fuzzy line that weakens with the passing years. Forgotten thread so fragile, that if it simply breaks . . .
The body is no longer tethered, and my consciousness begins to float. The body tingles. I can’t feel the thin nails digging into my thighs, searching for a way back into my body and into reality. The floating is almost peaceful. Almost. I have never left my body before, and I am a wisp of my thoughts and the vibrations of his voice on repeat. He had never spoken to me like this. He was my safety. My tether. My thread. I feel alien in my own body.
My phone rings and rings and rings and it is Monday morning and the boss wants to know why, why, why are you not here? Your requested time off for this afternoon is not for several hours. Why are you not typing away at your station, consuming endless amounts of coffee to fuel the labor of nine hours a day? Why are you not here, smiling and ready to give and give and give? Are you sick? We can make an exception if you are sick but you are two hours late and this kind of misconduct could be excused if you gave the appropriate 48-hour notice as per the employee handbook you were given your first day on the job. You know, you are truly jeopardizing your opportunities, your career, your future! How can you expect to make senior partner at the firm with this type of dalliance? And with all your parents have sacrificed for you and all this country has given you and all we, we here at the company, have given you!
The ringing continues until it wears itself out, and it too passes out to the realm beyond the current reality.
A softer, shorter ding. A text. Are you okay? Missed you at the staff meeting this morning. She’s a coworker from a different department, and we occasionally chat in between breaks. I don’t know her very well. The notification fades as the screen turns black, and I forget.
From here, the phone loses its power and hold. I can’t touch it anyway. Those fingers, my fingers, are still too preoccupied with the flesh underneath, doing the most to bring me back. I don’t want to go back. I float in the freedom disengaged from the body that has held me captive through the years and that has now betrayed me. The tulle no longer itches the back of my neck.
Slowly, slowly, heat rises and I sink. Not into reality but into a different realm. Murkier. I regain the feeling of my body and the tightness in my fingers, thighs, jaw, forehead. The band on my finger constricts the circulation to the fingertip buried in my flesh, so I take it off. The heavy cross hanging on a gold shimmering chain chokes me, so I take it off too.
The vibrations are still there, though. There, but morphing into a voice that is not him but someone else. Someone’s vibrations I had forgotten and whose bruises I am replicating with my stubby fingers. I think. The memory is so murky, so buried deep it is difficult to remember with focus and clarity. I dig. I search. I peel back the layers that have obscured my memory for years because now that I have felt the vibrations again I have to know. I have to know.
Empty bottles with elegant necks posed every which way: on the table, on the floor, laying down as to say, “paint me like a French girl, Jack!” I giggled at the thought of the bottles reenacting the scene in Titanic I watched behind my parted fingers last week. He did not appreciate the interruption of his nightly ritual of release after hours of sweltering labor. His peace was not to be disturbed. Whether it was a soccer game, a novella, or simply simple silence, he could not be interrupted. With romance and comedy on my mind, I had forgotten.
I had forgotten this part. The calloused hand, rough from years given to work and to his family, to duty and to the sun, burned my thigh in a swift movement. And it was over. I was gone. And I was once more hidden in the closet with the white tulle of my first communion dress itching my neck and my hands holding my thigh that bruised deep purple and blue the next morning and since I can’t wear shorts anyway no one could see it even though everyone knew it was there it was almost as if that night, that anger, that vibration of his voice and the motion of his hand had simply never occurred.
Morning kisses and hugs were exchanged and the family dynamic remained quite the same. And the bruise healed slowly but surely until there was no evidence at all and I began to wonder if the whole thing had been a dream. My father loves me so much. He would never hurt me.
I jerk awake and push the tears off my face with the back of my hands. My arms feel sore but the rest of my body vibrates, my heart pounding rapidly, a sensation unfamiliar like a distant acquaintance I had once known intimately. I push myself off the carpet and escape the darkness of the closet. I have no words for what just happened.
Water splashed on my face. Coconut oil in hair still damp from the morning shower and then a blow-dry. A light blue chiffon blouse, dress pants, and leather shoes that choke my wide feet. Lipstick, a lighter shade today, and mascara. The basics. I’m late for work.
The gold band is still buried in the carpet. The golden cross, too.
II. Té de Ruda
I never make it to work.
My hands disconnect from my mind, and muscle memory takes over. Before I realize where I am, the hands steer the car into my mother’s driveway. I sit there, frozen for a moment, recognizing a deep yearning within me. My limbs defrost as the warmth of home is so potent it reaches the gravel driveway my father shoveled many years ago.
The mask comes on. It’s a lovely mask with an upturned smile and dimples. It slides on comfortably and easily, an old friend.
My mother hears my car pull in and comes to the door. She greets me with a tight hug, a flurry of kisses, and I love yous, I missed yous. She is surprised to see me (here and not at work) but happy nonetheless. I lie and say I had the day off.
Come help me, then. We go into the kitchen and every burner on the stove is busy. A pot bubbles with black beans. A pan of yellow rice simmers. Two burners are covered with a comal, covered with rising tortillas. She hands me a bucket of soft corn dough while she moves through the kitchen, making salsa, washing dishes, cleaning counters, chopping vegetables for the next meal, a million things at once.
My mother fills me in on the most recent salacious family gossip: who left who, who is cheating on who, who is using again. Who missed church last week, whose son is gay, whose daughter was seen at a certain clinic last month. I struggle to track names and families and the intricate map of interconnected, overlapping relationships.
You look so tired and stressed. You work so hard. How generous of your work to give you the day off. I nodded sluggishly, lips a faint smile.
Your papi is so proud of you. He tells everyone he works for about his daughter, the lawyer. So hard-working, so dedicated to your family. When will you and H— start a family already? It’s about time! He would be such a great father.
I can’t respond, so instead I focus on my hands and their movements. Scoop, roll, plop. Fold, press, press, press. Open, peel, and in a sweeping motion, gracefully lay the perfect circle on the hot plane.
She doesn’t notice the hesitation but senses some amiss.
Mija, does your head hurt? Instantly, she pivots, opening a drawer full of plastic bags filled with dried herbs unidentifiable to anyone at home except her. Her under-the-counter apothecary.
Let me make you a té de ruda. It will help with your headache.
No, thank you mami.
What, are you pregnant or something?
That would be such great news, your father would be so happy. If there is a slightest chance, you cannot drink this. Can you believe stupid girls back home drink this bitter tea to murder innocent babies? It is a shame and a sin.
I nod. I don’t ask if she knows the stupid girls that drink the bitter tea.
I finish the dough and wrap the warm stack of tortillas in a cloth napkin I embroidered as a girl. A Bambi in a field of colorful flowers. I don’t say much but that’s okay, she talks for both of us. I leave before lunchtime, feigning some dentist appointment, much to my mother’s disappointment. As she closes the front door behind me, I walk briskly to my car holding my chest and the air around me thins and my breathing becomes shallow. I push myself into the car, turn on the ignition and blast cold air. I put the car in reverse and pull out of the driveway, driving off until the heat of the house can no longer reach me and I am safe. The mask peels off to reveal a disheveled face covered with sweat and tears. I feel feverish, my stomach undoing itself into knots. My throat sears with more pain than my violent allergic reactions to super pollen last spring. I let myself burn, and sear, and feel. Then I drive.
Two towns over and I cannot shake the feeling of being followed. And watched. Once inside the clinic, I feel some relief but impulsively look over my shoulder a few times. The clinic is sterile, clean, with shining white linoleum tile floors and white-washed walls. Informational pamphlets are the only decoration on the walls. In the corner play children who are too distracted by the colorful toys to bother their exhausted mothers. Otherwise, there is a hush, an arrested sound, the sense of a pause just before a long soliloquy, interrupted only by the clicking of the reception’s fingers on the keyboard.
I touch the ring finger of my left hand to twist a band no longer there.
I sit at attention until my name is called. My body follows the nurse’s voice. The hours of research, pouring over articles, reading every single detail prepared me for this. They explain the procedure. They give me a few pills. They sit me on the big chair shaped like a fucked up W.
I am conscious, yet, I am disconnected from the excavation happening within me. I feel cold. A kind nurse holds my hand. I don’t ever see her face. My eyes are trained on the popcorn ceiling and the fluorescent lights, whose harsh glow is dampened by a cover with a light blue sky with fluffy clouds depicted.
Time is irrelevant, but still, it is over quicker than I expected. I am empty. For a moment, I feel relief.
I am handed papers and Ibuprofen and told to stay in the waiting area for an hour until I feel better. They tell me the pills they gave me mean I can’t drive myself back. I planned for this. My plan fell through.
I click on the phone and text the kind acquaintance. This is not a favor I would ask of a coworker, but I don’t have many options.
Can you come pick me up?
Sure. Text me the address.
She picks me up in an army green Subaru, the backseat piled high with books, art supplies, and poster board. She does not ask about the clinic. We ride back to town in silence and I am grateful. We stop by a pharmacy where she leaves me in the car, AC cranked high. She returns with a pack of maxi pads and some chocolates.
She drives us to her apartment, a second-floor walk-up in the busier part of town. She opens the door for me; with one arm she holds me up. The plastic bag swings from the other. The stairs are not too treacherous, but she holds me firmly until we are inside her apartment.
She sits me on her couch. Although the complex is solemn and austere, the inside of her apartment is cozy and beautiful: an abundance of greenery of all shapes and sizes, colorful art on the walls, decadent pillows arrayed artfully on the couch, more books piled on a desk in a corner, and a black and white cat weaving in between our legs. She offers me a warm bath, a plush towel, and clean clothes to change into. After bathing, I wrap myself in her bathrobe. It smells of lavender.
We still do not talk about the clinic. We don’t have to. We talk about our families, our histories, our roots. Her family is from a village in the mountains of Mexico, too.
She is no longer just an acquaintance, and I feel close to her very quickly. She is familiar; in her I sense a tenderness and understanding I did not feel with H— or with my own family.
What do you need? How can I be here for you? Her amber eyes look at me, earnestly, gently touching my hand. I do not know how to answer a question I have never considered before. My body is static on a broken television, an old one from years ago, disconnected from a power source, ringing regardless. My body hurts, cramps, but it is nothing compared to the pain in my chest and in my gut. I do not cry for what was inside of me. It did not belong. I cry because the mask I wear every day no longer fits, the tears preventing its adherence. The levy has broken and an unimaginable, almost biblical, flood has burst through. I cry because I do not know what to do next, what comes next.
She holds me, holds me until the tears stop. She brings me water and lights candles that fill the room with a light scent of fresh linen.
She does not ask again. She knows how hard it is to answer. Her mother was a healer with magic in her hands. She knows what to do.
She goes to her kitchen, and in her kitchen, her apothecary is a small garden of herbs in a ceramic pot next to a large window. The only earth she can till in a second-floor apartment. She plucks and bundles an herb of small oval leaves topped with yellow flowers. It has a sharp smell. Bitter. She adds a few sprigs of rosemary and ties the bundle with twine. From a cardboard cartoon sitting on her countertop, she gently lifts a brown egg, holding it tight against the bundle. She lifts me and begins rubbing the egg and the ruda on my head and down my body. I know this ritual. She holds me firmly, yet I feel the tenderness and care in her motions. I breathe in, profoundly, slowly taking in the aromas of the herbs.
The tension in my body softens but does not fully release. Not quite. Not yet. I close my eyes as she relaxes the tightness of my jaw, the knots in my stomach, the grip on my throat.
Valeria Sosa Garnica is a writer from North Carolina. She was Nat. Brut's 2020 Artist-in-Nonresidence, where she experimented with messy fiction writing for the first time in her life. When not writing or thinking about writing, she works in development and fundraising for progressive nonprofits. She currently resides in Washington, D.C.