The Boy from the Surface of the Moon
When my bisabuela first came to this country, the most valuable thing she carried with her was something only she could see. The rest was worth almost nothing. The varnished tin of her favorite necklace. The cloth full of the rose hips she seeded and then ate like hard candies. The shoes she wore nearly to dust getting to the house she would be paid to clean, and, eventually, cook in. Even her best dress—moths had eaten constellations of perfectly round holes that mirrored the desert stars they flew beneath.
Years later—when there had been a wedding ring, a new stove in a house of her own, a fine dress—the most valuable thing my great-grandmother ever owned was still her way of knowing what bread or sweet would leaven the heart of anyone she met. She could soothe lovesickness with polvorones de naranja, sweet as orange blossoms. She calmed frightened dreams with las nubes, sugared white as far-off stars.
It was a gift my great-grandmother had ever since she was a little girl. And when she died, she passed it to me, even though I was too small to remember her face.
I think of my bisabuela now, just for a second, because the first parking spot I find in the hospital lot is up against a rosebush, the hearty, scrub-like kind she ate rose hips off of.
Then I’m back to thinking about the boy slumped in my mother’s car.
I don’t know his name, or where he lives, or how to get him home, or why he was even at the party tonight. I heard he was visiting from Lancaster, but I also heard Bakersfield, and Ely, Nevada, so at this point he might as well be from the surface of the moon, because no one really knows.
I could check his pockets, but I’m counting on the hospital to do that for me.
Besides, nothing good ever came from a brown girl being seen taking a wallet off a white guy.
There was other talk about him at the party. Whispers not just about how he’s from the middle of nowhere, but about how he’s saving himself for marriage. Too bad for him, Victoria and her friends said. He’s cute, even with the acne.
Victoria’s compliments always come with qualifiers. She looks good, even with the slutty eyeliner. Or, he’s not as ugly as he was last year. Or, the one I’ve gotten more than once, she’s kind of pretty, even though she’s a little fat.
Victoria and her friends declaring this boy cute may be the worst luck he’s ever had.
I open the back passenger door. He’s not tall, but he’s taller than I am, which makes getting him out of my mother’s car and into the doors of the ER even harder. His limbs are slack, like they’re each trying to go a different direction. I have to hold on to him hard enough that my right boob is squished up against him. The curve of my hip shoves up against his leg, jeans fraying against jeans.
I wish I had help with him. I wish I had found Jess before I left the party.
But telling her would have meant having to explain.
The boy from Lancaster or the moon looks so bad that his face, washed-out as printer paper, and his lolling head pull two scrub-uniformed women out from behind the glass window.
“They drugged him,” I say, as though anyone here will know who they means. “We were at a party.”
As they take him—he doesn’t resist; he isn’t conscious enough to resist—one of the nurses tells me, “The police are going to want to talk to you. Do you want to call your mom or dad?”
“What?” I ask.
I wince at the panic in my voice.
Classic brown-girl error.
My mother says I have to stop acting so jumpy. It makes me look guilty even if I didn’t do anything, she says. It’s the reason that, in sixth grade, when Jamie Kappe and two girls who were always following her around draped paper towel streamers all over the bathroom, and they pointed at me, the teacher believed them. I was nervous enough to look like I did it.
“They’re just going to ask you some questions, okay?” the nurse says, apparently giving me and my panic the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t know who he is,” I say, blurting it because some part of me thinks it’ll get me out from under these fluorescents.
But it must sound like a confession, because the nurse gives me a bless-her-heart look.
“You’re a good girl,” she says. “For bringing him in.”
This nurse, who looks like one of my cousins but with about half an ounce less eyebrow pencil, thinks I’m some kind of buen samaritano. A good-hearted stranger rescuing strange boys from the moral cesspool that is an Astin School party.
But I’m not the kind of girl she thinks I am. I’m the kind of girl who will make sure I’m gone before anyone can ask me anything.
If I’m not, I’ll have to talk not just about what happened to this boy, but what happened to me. I will have to tell them everything I know about two awful things that happened at the same time, in two different rooms. Me in one, him in the other, the walls so thin I could hear him while I pressed my eyes shut and tried to pretend I was somewhere other than in my own body.
And if someone—especially this nurse who looks a little like my prima—asks me about it, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay quiet. And I need to. Because nothing good will ever come from telling the truth about tonight. I already know that. Even under the buzz of the fluorescents and the bucking of my stomach, I know that.
In the morning, this boy and his parents will be informed that there was no sign of penetration, to him or by him. The fact of the lipstick on him will hover, unspoken, in the disinfectant-tinged air. He will know what it means. They will all know what it means.
He will elect not to have a rape kit done, partly out of shame, partly because he knows how difficult it will be to prove he didn’t want it.
And because he has never heard of a girl forcing a boy.
His brain is not even sure it’s possible, even as his body feels the violation tingeing his blood.
Right now, I don’t know any of this. Later—much later—I will. And when I do, I will imagine this boy feeling like some specimen in a jar, a rare pinned moth, thinking it’s his fault the pin went into him in the first place.
Maybe, if I knew all of that now, I wouldn’t do what I’m about to do next. Maybe I wouldn’t make the decision that will ensure this boy wakes up alone. Maybe if I knew that his mother is hours away, crying at the white lines of the highway because the voice on the phone tells her that her son is in a hospital in San Juan Capistrano, but will not tell her why, I would do it differently.
I want to think that. But I know I’m wrong. Because even in this moment, as I make this decision, I can guess that when he wakes up, the air will be thick with the vague but heavy sense that something bad has happened to him. But he will not know exactly what or who did it to him or why. A little like the feeling I am already dreading waking up with tomorrow morning, the reverse of that relief you get when you realize a nightmare isn’t actually true, that you can let it go now.
I wrap my arms around myself, trying to hold my sobs in my throat until I get out to the parking lot. But they get so jammed in there I start choking on them.
The automatic doors slide shut behind me.
I do it without looking back. I leave this boy here, alone.
My abuela—my bisabuela’s daughter—used to caution me that gifts like mine were delicate. She warned that if I did not guard my heart, all the sharp edges in the world could kill my gift, like salt deadening the soft rise of yeast.
As I walk across the parking lot, I decide I can do it, I can guard my heart against tonight. I can seal it off like it never happened.
Just as I’m about to open the car door, a wink of silver catches the moon. It draws my attention to the rosebush past the cement bumper.
One rose sits heavier than the rest of them. Its petals have lost their red, and now look as shiny and silver as liquid mercury.
I draw closer, watching how this silver rose gathers the light toward its glossed center. Its petals look like glass.
No. Not glass. Mirrors.
I reach out to it, to test its weight under my palm. But just as my fingers reach the hard edge of one petal, the whole thing shudders out of its cradle of leaves. It falls, hitting the asphalt and shattering into silver dust.
A shard catches my eye. It’s small and coarse as sand, and I try to blink it out. But I feel it go deeper in. I don’t know if I’m imagining the glint of it or if I can actually see it, but as I’m trying to blink it out, it turns the night to silver.
I don’t know it yet. But that’s how it happens.
One shard of mirrored glass changes my whole world.
This Is How You Lose It
When I get home, I try blinking it out, but I don’t cry. I let my eye tear up as it tries to wash out that little speck of glass, but I don’t cry. If I start crying, I’ll start screaming.
The fleck of glass blurs my vision. It turns my bedspread and walls into a watercolor. It turns the two felted dolls my abuela made me into a wash of brown and pink. But I still can’t find it. I catch it as a flash of silver against the brown of my iris or white of my eye, and then it disappears again.
The next morning, my vision settles. Everything is sharp and clear, the dresser my dad and I painted the yellow of a grapefruit’s peel, the pictures of me and Jess in frames the color of candy buttons, the little felted dolls. The jeans and sweater I left on the floor last night. But I can still feel it, the scratch and prickle of glass crushed to sand.
I get to the pastelería a minute before my shift starts. On the way in the kitchen door, I cross my apron strings in the back and then loop them around to the front, using the extra to knot them. I steady myself with the things that have been here for years. The fluffy tissue paper flowers in sherbet orange and candy pink. The papel picado fluttering along the wall. The glass jars of rock candy decorating the back counter, in all the same colors as the pan dulce, that my tía put there because she liked how the light winked at them, and they winked back.
“Brace for the first rush.” Jess throws me a hairnet.
Jessamyn Beverly. My ex-girlfriend and now best friend. Connoisseur of office supplies. Absolutely no talent for pan dulce dough, but meticulous with a piping bag and a cash register. And an actual, by-the-numbers genius. Which is unfortunate for me, because we were already a year apart at Astin, and she got admitted to nearby Laurel College a year early, which means she’s graduating right after finals.
She’ll still pinch-hit at the pastelería, where she used to help out so much my tía hired her. If she weren’t my best friend, I might hate her a little for being the kind of person who can make change without thinking, and who can turn out a term paper in a night, provided she has a two-liter of Diet Coke and a Halloween-sized bag of gummy worms.
Jess pulls me toward the front counter.
I shudder at her grabbing hold of my elbow, but catch myself before she notices.
“Last crowd who came in was asking for the pastry witch of San Juan Capistrano,” she says.
My bisabuela’s gift has turned me into a reluctant and very obscure tourist attraction. La Bruja de los Pasteles, the girl who knows what kind of pan dulce you want before you do.
It’s a little more complicated than that. If you asked me on the street, it’d be hit or miss. I only know for sure in our family’s pastelería, surrounded by pan dulce made from recipes I know better than my cousins’ middle names. I’ve memorized las especias in our swallow bread, how the orange yolks from my primas’ grass-roaming chickens make our pan de yema seem like it has sun baked into it. I catch the invisible threads between our customers and the bakery case.
If I walk into another panadería, no guarantees; it’s like trying to speak a language you know, but a dialect you don’t. Your bisabuela could, my abuela used to tell me. Anyone in the world, any pastelería in the world, she could do it. So will you, mija, if you’re a good girl, if you care for tu don.
I don’t tell the gringos any of the details, no more than my tía would tell them her secrets for making concha sugar tops as smooth as dark velvet. Let them think whatever brings them in the front door.
“What happened to you last night?” Jess asks.
Jess gives me the look that reminds me why I avoided her before we started dating. It’s an appraising look that speaks of her tabbed binders and the fact that she keeps a sweater shaver in her purse. And the fact that I only know what a sweater shaver is because of her.
We tried each other on as amantes, then realized, with no hard feelings, that we did not fit that way, that we were, instead, hermanas, and would be hermanas for our whole lives. And when I think about how differently she’d look at me if she knew about last night, if she knew how much of it was my fault, I feel as brittle as stale pan dulce.
“Nothing,” I say, deciding as I say it, that it’s going to be true. My body is still screaming with every secret written into it, but I’m going to make this true. “Nothing happened.”
“So you just ditched me with the Kings and Queens of South Coast Plaza for no reason?” Jess sounds both annoyed and like she’s trying it play it off. “That’s cold, Cristales.”
“Sorry,” I say. “I felt sick and I went home.”
Almost not a lie.
The first woman to come up to the counter looks expectantly at me. She’s not ordering. She’s waiting for La Bruja de los Pasteles to tell her what she wants.
Sometimes me knowing is just a feeling, like the charge in the air before a storm. It tells me someone would delight at pan dulce in a particular shape, like puerquitos or pajaritos. Sometimes it’s like a flicker of light out of the corner of my vision, whispering something about cocoa powder or anís. Most of the time, it’s more like a coil of wire lighting up in me, and I just know.
But right now, I don’t.
Jess watches me, waits. I never take this long.
I wait for some flickering in my blood to tell me whether this woman will thrill at the flavor of a cream-filled cacahuate or the herb-laced dough of swallow bread.
My brain and blood and heart are quiet, all except for one syllable.
My abuela warned me that such gifts were easy to lose, through pride or carelessness. She had heard about a young woman whose tears turned to perlas, but who had boasted so ruthlessly about it, had bragged how much better it made her than ordinary girls, that the saints took back her gift. In my bisabuela’s own village, there had been a boy who inherited a sense for finding water from his grandfather, but had been so arrogant and so unwilling to listen to anything el viejo had to say, that he lost it forever.
Once lost, my grandmother said, such gifts were gone for good, like a wooden chest burning up, or a locket thrown into the sea.
No. My heart sings out the word no.
I try to catch some hint about this woman. Seed-flecked pan de cemita? The warmth of the coconut sugar in los ojos de buey?
Now I’m grasping for it, trying to read the air around her. The cinnamon-and-chile-spiced apple of empanadas de manzana? A sugared galleta?
There’s no way to guess, no matter how many times I’ve done this before. My bisabuela was born speaking the language of flour and sugar, a language unlearnable, because it changed from one person to the next. A puerquito might delight one woman, but sadden another. A paloma that made one man brave might remind another that he would rather cower like a pigeon than face the world.
My blood is still. The humming sense that tells me what pan dulce will light up someone’s heart is silent.
I go outside, not wanting to let the customers—or my tía—see my panic. I go to the back, not the front where the customers come in, but where everyone who works at the nail salon or the flower shop or the liquor store parks.
I wait for the brisk air to snap me into being La Bruja de los Pasteles.
The back kitchen door opens.
I hear my best friend’s voice.
Jess stops alongside me. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t do it.” I breathe out one word at a time.
“What?” she asks.
“Guessing what people want. Guessing if they need a palmera or a peineta. I can’t do it. I can always do it, but right now I can’t.”
“Maybe you’re just having an off day.”
“We don’t have off days. Not with this, not in my family. My bisabuela never had an off day. She was in labor and she told the partera what pan dulce would make her stop fighting with her husband.”
“Okay, that’s just showing off.”
Jess is trying to make me laugh. But there’s no laugh in me right now.
“Just give it a day,” Jess says. “It’ll come back.”
I make myself nod, even though I can feel how brittle and forced it must look.
“Breathe for a few minutes, okay?” Jess says. “I’ll tell your tía you went to the drugstore.”
“Why the drugstore?”
“I’ll tell her you needed lipstick, because…”
I chime in with her so we end up quoting in unison: “Whatever the question, red lipstick is the answer.”
We bob our heads, almost singsonging this phrase we’ve heard a dozen times from my mother and my tía, the shared motto of two sisters.
I still can’t laugh, but my smile is almost real.
“Just don’t stress yourself out,” Jess says.
“This from the girl who used to bring antacids to standardized tests.”
“Exactly.” Jess stops at the door before going in. “I know of what I speak.”
The kitchen door falls shut behind her, leaving me alone in the quiet back lot.
I didn’t know it, how right my grandmother had been, how easily it could happen. How even a single shard of mirrored glass could get into me and kill the gift my bisabuela left me.
But standing there, feeling the sliver of glass burrowing deeper into me, that’s the moment I know it’s gone.
The most precious thing my bisabuela could ever have left me, a thread of magic passed down through our blood, and I lost it.
If I didn’t know it from the feeling of that shard going in deeper, I would know it from the strange way the bushes are moving, a constellation of leaves hardening and turning to mirrored glass.
Copyright © 2021 by Anna-Marie McLemore