The Boiler

Ashlan Runyan

LA TRISTEZA 

When I am twenty years old my mom asks me to teach her to speak Spanish. There’s nothing left of us, we’ve made it. She asks why I care so much that we’re Mexican. I don’t know how to tell her so sometimes I cry and I say, “I am so lonely.” (This is easier than saying that it’s hard to mourn when you don’t know where they’re buried. That you cannot read the maps that will take you there. That you barely know the words to ask for directions). I don’t think she understands but she let’s me hug her for too long and calls to make sure that I’m taking all my medicine even though I’m afraid of it.

“His ears always move when he’s lying. That’s how you can tell.” That’s what people are always saying about my uncle, he’s fifteen. I am so scared to know that I don’t want to look at his face when he speaks to me. He hid these things as best he could. In his socks, in his shoes too big for him, in some places in his body, in his blood. These are not good hiding places. On the phone three weeks ago, twelve years later my mom says, “You don’t have to forgive him if you don’t want to but you have to put it aside for now.”

I’m hollowed out to make room for them in case they decide to come back. (They are my family and I wish very much to be haunted by them, to hear them moving in my hallway, to feel them when I fall into bed). I try lighting candles. I try giving up. I forget the words to prayers. I sleep too much or not enough. I am losing something I cannot name.

After choir practice when I am four years old, I think I see the Virgin Mary in the chapel praying. She has on a blue veil but looks older than the oldest woman at our Church who lives to be 104. I stare and stare and want to talk to her, or maybe just hold her hand. I walk over to her and I know that I didn’t stop looking while I walked. When I get there, she’s gone. I tell my grandma when she finishes talking with the priest. I say, “Did you see her? Did you see her?” “Who, mija, who?” I tell her. My grandma spends the rest of her life thinking that I had a vision, that I’m especially blessed.

I am broken into parts. I wonder if any of them belong to me at all. I start giving them names. (This is the part that is scared, this is the part that is Mexican, this is the part that is white, this is the part they are calling bipolar, this is the part they call “woman,” this is the part that can still speak Spanish, this is the part that is scared.) Some people tell me this is important, healing, that I am very self-aware. Some people tell me this isn’t the place for me. I say, “Oh. That’s alright I guess” and try to stay very quiet. I don’t know what else there is.

When I move to Colorado, my grandpa sends me postcards from California and I’m asked to read them out loud in the kitchen. He addresses them to a misspelled version of my name. I am different this far from home. At my new school where I transfer into a first grade class three weeks late, everyone looks more like me. Their skin is white, their eyes are light shades of green and blue. But their houses are bigger than the apartment we live in and they make food I hate the taste of so I always say I’m sick and have to go home before dinner at sleepovers. I start telling people I’m Irish on my dad’s side. Never mind that I’ve never met him; never mind that my last name is Lopez. I get the lead in the school play four years in a row. Everyone applauds and brings me flowers.

I’m not sure how to speak of this.

In second grade, a new girl named Janet moves to my apartment complex. She transfers into my class, too. Her family just moved to Colorado from Mexico and I don’t realize what that means. I go to her apartment after school one day and it smells like a market and everyone is speaking fast and loud Spanish and it reminds me of the cousins that we only saw at funerals in California. I don’t go over again and when she asks me to walk home with her I tell her that I’m busy. Choir practice. I don’t like looking at her. My teacher asks me to help her with reading because I can speak Spanish too, right? When my friend Hunter and I start our game of pretending we can talk to ghosts, Janet always believes us.

Lo siento, lo siento, lo siento.

My great-grandmother’s skin hangs loose on her. It’s so soft that I worry it will peel right off when I hold her hands. It’s translucent grey-blue and I wonder when all the color drained out of it. It no longer springs back into place when you move it. It’s like clay now; it’s like clay again. I cry at her funeral back home in California when I am nine years old because other people are crying. I don’t know how to deal with death. I don’t know how to deal with these people. They feel foreign to me and I’m afraid of that feeling. I don’t like this part of myself (which part of myself?). I look through old pictures and walk around with my headphones in, I swim in the pool. I feel guilty for all the times she fell asleep watching telenovelas in her recliner and I snuck up behind with my safety scissors to cut her hair.

This year, I get into the habit of swallowing hard and saying, “things will change” until I fall asleep.

. . .

Two weeks before my twenty-first birthday, I fly home because my grandpa is dying. They say, it’s not the cancer that will kill him, it’s the kidney failure. (The cancer is the size of a baseball on his liver, but even then, it’s the cans of beers piled high in a landfill somewhere that will do him in). My family calls to say get on a plane in three hours, pack your bags. I’m hung-over and half-asleep in the room that I share with my friend. On the phone I just say, “Okay. Okay.” I sound more irritated than sad. (Lately, I’ve been getting my emotions mixed up so my doctor’s have been telling me to check in more regularly in conversations with people to ask them how they think I’m feeling. I refuse to do this). Without speaking, my roommate gets out of bed and silently cooks me breakfast. I go onto the back porch to cry loudly without worrying my other housemates who are drinking black coffee and doing their homework. I throw up in the bushes. I send someone text messages that tell him he has no sympathy for me and never has. I want to be mad at him so I don’t have to be anything else. It doesn’t make sense. My taxi driver to the airport says, “Have fun in Colorado” and helps me with my bags.

In the summertime my grandpa grows lemons in the far back of our yard. The grove is behind a wooden fence and he tells me not to go there. There is a neighbor maybe who’s there sometimes, watering them. I’m not allowed to talk to him, I only ever see the top of his head. This is where we keep our dog who gets rabies; he runs back and forth behind the fence and right near the end he starts to break through it. I am so afraid of everything behind that fence. I think my grandpa is such a brave man for going back there. He eats the lemons like they’re oranges and I wonder if his hands have any cuts on them.

When I land in the Denver airport, I don’t feel sad or tired or anything at all. I listen to the same song four times as I walk from my gate, to the train, to my parents. They’re standing with my cousin who is now almost as tall as I am even though he’s only eight years old. I say, “Hey kid, can I hold your hand?” and he lets me without complaining. I say nothing in the car for the hour and a half it takes us to get to the hospital.

My grandpa moves to Colorado to be with the rest of us (meaning his wife and children and me) when I am nine years old. He lives in an apartment separate from ours for a while and I don’t understand. I can’t remember if I ask any questions. We all get together at my aunt’s house where her husband lives in the basement for dinner once a week. While the women clean up, the men go downstairs to play poker and smoke cigarettes and drink. I’m allowed to go downstairs and play one hand with them. Sometimes I take their drink orders like a waitress before I go back upstairs. Eventually, I’m given an apron and a notepad. Once they’re all drunk, the men remember they don’t actually like each other at all and the alcohol makes them stop pretending. They yell and the women cry and yell to make them stop and I run to the front door and hide all of the car keys in my pockets. I want to be a part of it so I scream “Stop it!” to everyone.

In the hallway leading to my grandpa’s room I feel like I can’t breathe. I start crying and biting my lip hard and pressing my nails into my palms to stop. My mom has her arm around me. I’m thirteen again and my mom is walking me to my uncle’s hospital room after he drives too high and crashes his car on the way to our house. I know this isn’t true. I know that I am old enough to pay my own rent and forget to buy groceries. I know that I am walking to see the room where my grandpa’s body is dying. My grandma comes outside before we go in and gives me a hug, “Thank you for coming.” I don’t say anything. I walk into the room, my grandpa’s in the bathroom. In the corner is my uncle in his wheelchair. I haven’t spoken to him in two years. I give him a hug and he cries and cries and he is seventeen again and he is catching me peeking into his bedroom as he puts small plastic bags of drugs into his socks. I sit down and wait. I still don’t think I’ve said anything.

“Pull in here, this is the new library.” This is what my grandpa tells me when he teaches me to drive a car. He only ever directs me to the library or the grocery store. “They have lots of CDs here I can’t find anywhere else.” This summer he is educating me on Jim Croce and Crosby, Stills, and Nash though we both agree we prefer them with Young. I’m nervous to drive with anyone other than him. With my grandpa, we just listen to “Judy Blue Eyes” and talk about Steinbeck. “Learn to play this one” he tells me. He’s just bought me a new guitar. “Play it on tour. Let’s go on tour. I’ll be your manager.” He’s incredibly proud that I’m remotely talented in any way.

My grandpa asks the first night that I see him to bring my guitar when I come visit him next. I can’t stop crying so I just hold his hand and nod. “Okay.” He is so small and so pale and so thin. He looks like his body is already decaying which I guess it is because that’s what dying is. He tells me he loves me so much about twenty times. That night I go home and try to play my guitar, to practice some of his favorite songs, but my guitar won’t stop buzzing. I try for hours to fix it but I don’t know how. (I think that I haven’t learned anything, that he paid for all those music lessons when I was a kid but I still know nothing. I think about how the guitar is broken like I am broken and how that is a lazy metaphor so maybe I’m not even a good writer. I think about the medicine I left on my kitchen counter in Seattle. I think about how a depressive episode can get worse with stress.) I go to sleep.

When I am seven years old, I’m home alone in our apartment because my uncle told me he has errands to run, grandpa will be here soon. I get angry and throw a snow globe that everyone lies to me about against the wall (they tell me my father bought it for me; I think that my grandma did). As soon as it happens and all the shards of glass and bits of glitter are scattered on the ground, I panic. I hide under a pile of blankets on my bed. When my grandpa gets there he calls my name and I don’t answer. I stay very still. He gets to my room and sees the pile of blankets on the bed. He grabs the blanket right where my nose is and pinches hard. I start to cry, “Why did you do that?” He replies angrily, “I didn’t know where you were, you were scaring me! Where’s Joseph?” I shake my head back and forth quickly, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I don’t think that my ears move when I’m lying but I cover them with my hands just in case.

Five days into all of this in the kitchen I tell my mom, “I’m way down here” and point to the floor. I don’t say much else because I don’t want to scare her or have anyone worry about me. I hide in the bathroom of the apartment that my grandpa is dying in. I tell them it’s because my stomach hurts. No one believes me. (I think, great, my grandpa is going to die thinking that I’m crazy). He asks me to read for him and I try but I can’t get many words out. I hold his hand instead. The next day I am filling out a form to renew my passport and I mess up and yell at my mom, I keep yelling and yelling about everything. I can’t remember what I say. Hours into it I am on the floor screaming “I’m sorry” at the top of my lungs. My mom tells me to get off the floor, we have to be at grandpa’s in an hour. I can’t I can’t.

“Honey, grandpa’s in the hospital. You need to call him when you get the chance.” This is the voicemail I get from my mom as I’m walking to work in clothes too thin for the weather. It’s slow that night so I go out back and call him, shivering in my jean jacket. I know he can tell I’m crying but I say, “How are you?” He tells me, “Oh, I’m fine. I’m just tired of the food. I think I can go home next week.” I don’t believe him but I try to laugh for him. “I hear you’re doing better, mija. That’s good.”

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Despite saying that her only current goals are to skateboard more often and listen to records on the floor of her basement apartment, Ashlan Runyan is a Real Adult Writer living in Seattle. This is her first publication though she frequents open mics where she reads occasionally funny (though more often sad) essays to half-drunk Seattleites.