Nochebuena

Plumeria
Photo by Shelter on Unsplash

After her operation in August, they told us Abuela had two months. She’s had four already, and she’ll have four more—but we don’t know that yet.

—Cuida a tu mama, she says.

But how? At thirteen, I’m fighting the whole world. Even simple tasks defy me. When Abuela asked me to take in her dresses, my thread tangled under the seams in hopeless knots that sewists call bird’s nests.

We’re in Hialeah for the holidays, at Tio Miguel and Tia Mirta’s. I’ve stepped outside. As a breeze cools my sunburned shoulders, I catch the scent of plumeria. Voices float across the fence, where Abuela holds court among the backyard tíos. Grass tufts tickle my feet, leaving sandy grit between my toes.

Suddenly, Tia Mirta is there, holding a hot buñuelo in a paper towel. She might see I don’t want to talk from my expression in the moonlight, but she won’t go away.

Qué te pasa?

Nada.

Except she’s good at waiting, and I’m no match for her cocked eyebrow.

—It’s not fair!

I wish I’d kept my mouth shut, and not reduced myself to a cliché.

She fixes her eyes on me, eyes that glitter like the gold and tourmaline bracelet she’ll send for my fifteenth birthday, in two years. Her voice remains measured, though she’s furious.

Y a ti quien te dijo que la vida era fair? She spits out the final word, as if the English were a bite of fatty lechón. But I’m just as mad, and I can think fast.

Sabemos que no fue Tia Mirta, I reply.

Her crack of laughter could split the night sky; I’m a little surprised when it doesn’t. Placing her arm around me, Tia Mirta is careful to avoid my sunburn. Resting my cheek against her poplin blouse, I take her hand.

Forty long years away, I’ll stand here again at Christmas, about to knock on the door. My cousin will emerge to whisper a warning:

—Preparate. She’s in rare form.

That will be the last time I see Tia Mirta here. I’ll recognize the sweet sadness from this Nochebuena, a line of small, straight stitches across a quilt.

Pulsing in rhythm with the holiday lights, Celia Cruz’s alto booms Deje enteerrraaado mi corazon. Singing along, off-key, about hearts left behind seems to soothe the tías somehow, as if some cosmic lifeguard were rubbing meat tenderizer on a jellyfish sting.

I remember what Abuela said about avoiding those thread nests: to pull both threads, top and bottom, behind the presser foot before I start sewing. Just as I draw breath to tell Tia Mirta about it—how I’d rather untangle it all in one sharp tug—she moves away. The moment fades, like the hissing oil over a skillet of buñuelos, or the blanketing quiet when I turn off my sewing machine. I let it go. Raising my face to the stars, I blink away tears and thoughts of next year. Then I follow Tia Mirta inside.

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