Sugar and Water
She worked in the cafeteria of George Washington University, where she served ice cream to college students. Before that, she had served peas and mashed potatoes, and the promotion had enabled us to move from our one bedroom apartment into a bigger one. But the promotion had not been enough.
Her night breathing increased; she would wake me up with her snoring or sometimes I would wake her up because I couldn't sleep in the room we shared.
"Mami!" One loud yell usually did it but sometimes I had to nudge her with my knuckles, not painfully, but hard enough for her to wake up.
"I wasn't even sleeping," She'd say, while rubbing her nose.
Then I'd go back to my bed - she had kept her promise to buy me a bed and I even had an orange comforter. She would stop snoring.
But then her moaning started. At first, they were soft moans; trying to ignore her, I'd press myself hard up against the wall, where my bed was. I'd push myself up against it so fiercely that my forehead would end up with creases and indentations on it the next morning; I wanted the wall to inhale me. Then her moaning would become louder producing grunts and strange sounds. And when the wall didn't inhale me I would hear her voice.
"Honey, me estoy muriendo, I'm dying," she said one night in the dark, with the eyes of my stuffed animals watching her.
"I wasn't going to wake you up. I was going to let you find me in the morning. I didn't want to bother you." She sat up on her bed, head resting on a crackled headboard.
"I wasn't sleeping, I heard you." I touched her head and then I rubbed her arms, hairless soft arms.
"You're not dying, you're having another panic attack. Think about happy thoughts. Like purple rabbits. Do you see them? They're dancing. You have one on your head." I pretended to shoo the rabbit away from her and she laughed.
"You're crazy, mamita." She said. "Now you have one on your head."
We laughed together for a little while and I made up other dumb things to say to her. I didn't want her to stop laughing but I ran out of things to say.
"I'll bring you the bible. You can read me a passage if you want."
It was always in the same place, on top of the coffee table, surrounded by water stains, candles and books about religion. I picked it up, my fingers sticking to the cover as I was in the habit of decorating it with bible school stickers.
"Here mami, read something." I handed it to her. My brother was asleep in his room, only a foot away. I didn't see any need to wake him up, unless my mother grew worse. It would have been nice to have a man there to help, but there weren't really too many men around. I didn't know who my father is and neither did my brother.
"For God so loved the world," she said but not reading from the bible. She had a few verses memorized - John 3:16 was the one that she recited the most and it was also the one that I recited the most. Sometimes when she woke up panicky that would be all she needed to quiet herself but this night it wasn't enough. Her panic started again before I could get back to sleep.
"Don't worry mami, I'll be right back."
"Hurry up," she responded, not wanting to be left alone in the dark. We never turned on the lights, only if she was going to read from the bible, but mostly she just held it.
I went into the kitchen, not really knowing why I was there. I didn't know what else to do. I stood at its entrance, a wooden sign that read "Mami's Cocina" hanging over my head. I made her that sign, my brother had also helped, and we painted the words, " Mami's Kitchen" with markers, blue and green.
"My bible school teacher says that you should let me cook with you," I said to her one day as she stirred the contents of a tall and very round pot.
"Really, well do you know how to make soup?" She broke a carrot into several small pieces and dumped them into the pot.
"I've watched you do it a lot. You use cabbage, sweet potatoes and chicken. I can wash the chicken parts."
"Can you also stir the broth?" She brought a spoonful of it to her mouth, without even checking to see if it was hot first.
"I think so. But I can't reach it." I started walking towards the dining room to get a chair. But she stopped me.
"I don't have time for you to help me cook. Tell your bible schoolteacher that maybe you can help her cook sometime. Imajinate, imagine, you helping me cook, your brother and I would never eat."
"Then what can I do?" I liked the way the kitchen smelled, with the vegetable and chicken aroma escaping from the sides of the pot, the lid trying to keep it inside. And the messy counter soothed my round eyes, with the shredded remains of colorful vegetables, orange, yellow, green, and purple.
"You can go and watch cartoons with your brother. And you can also make one request of me. I'll make you something special, something just for you. What would you like?" Her bata, bathrobe dripped with a clear and watery stain, chicken broth, perhaps.
I thought about it and when I noticed the dried flour underneath my mother's fingernails I said,
"I would like a little tortilla. The ones you make are too big. I want a little one with butter on it in a bowl with some milk. And can I please eat it before my meal?"
"A little one." She made a small circle with her hands. I nodded and walked out of the kitchen. The next day in school, I made her the sign.
I stood underneath the sign for a few seconds; searching the kitchen for something that I thought would help to calm her. My mother had left an opened bag of sugar - she was going to pour the sugar into a plastic container but she had forgotten that, too. It rested on the kitchen table; parts of the table were covered in sugar snowflakes and I couldn't resist licking my fingers and then dipping all ten into the sugar. I licked my fingers one by one and for two hundred seconds forgot about my mother. After I had licked all of the sugar, I sucked my fingers until they developed squiggly wrinkles from the tips to the ends. The kitchen sink was full with chipped dishes and a drop of water fell on them every few seconds. I jumped onto the counter so that I could reach a glass from the cupboard; the sugar had made me thirsty. Standing on top of the counter, my eyes found the bag of sugar again. It was still resting on the table, but the table didn't have spilled sugar on it anymore and I didn't feel scared. I turned on the faucet and waited for the water to turn cold and then I placed the glass underneath it, water spilled over onto the dirty dishes. I poured some out and jumped off of the counter with glass in hand, causing a bit of turmoil, some of the water spilled on the floor and the glass hit my lower lip. I ignored the pain and walked over to the sugar table. I lifted the bag and dumped some sugar into the glass. Only until I was sure that it was sweet enough did I return to my mother.
"Drink this," I said and handed her the mixture.
She took the glass and then took one sip and then another.
"We used to give this to babies when there wasn't any milk. How did you know about this?" She finished the liquid and handed it back to me.
"I didn't, I just liked the sugar and thought that you might too."
"Well, thank you. I feel much better already. Will you sleep with me tonight?"
I jumped into the bed and stayed close to her.