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I always bleed on the full moon.
Ma blames the lunar cycle for hijacking my menstrual cycle, so she calls my condition lunaritis—a made-up diagnosis that depending upon inflection can sound like English or Spanish.
“Comé bien que en una hora empieza lunaritis,” Ma reminds me as she shuts the oven door and places the seasoned carne al horno on the table to start carving.
My mouth waters with a whiff of the meat’s smoky aroma. “Obvio,” I say, agreeing to eat my fill. Even if this weren’t one of my favorite meals, I’d still need sustenance for my sixty-hour fast.
I feel a quiver of discomfort in my uterus, and I pry my sticky thighs from the plastic chair to readjust my legs. The apartment’s ancient air conditioner has a hard enough time battling the Miami sun, but it can’t compete with the heat of Ma’s cooking.
“Cuando te despertés seguimos con Cien Años de Soledad,” says Perla as I’m squeezing salsa golf over my roasted potato wedges. Ninety-year-old Perla has been homeschooling me since we moved in with her eight years ago, so she’s used to lesson-planning around lunaritis.
“Sí,” I say as I slice into the tender oven roast and spear my first bite of succulent pink meat. A delicious warmth fills my mouth and body as I chew, and I fleetingly feel sorry for Rebeca from One Hundred Years of Solitude who would only eat whitewash and dirt. Sucks that I won’t get to finish that book until lunaritis ends.
A tremor shoots up my belly, and my hand clenches around the red-and-white checkered tablecloth—a warning shot that soon I’ll be in excruciating agony. I stop chewing and close my eyes to focus on my breaths. When I open them again, three bright blue pills line the outer rim of my dinner plate.
I meet Ma’s concerned brown eyes.
The first few nights of my period are so painful that I can only endure them sedated. These chalky tablets plunge me so deep within my mind that it takes me nearly three nights to climb back out—long enough to miss my gut-contorting menstrual cramps.
I cup the pills in my palm, and for the first time I notice a faint Z etched into their center. Strange, since the blue bottle they come in says they’re called Septis. Maybe the Z stands for the zzz’s they provide.
I pop the meds in my mouth and chew them with the meat and potatoes.
“Maldita luna,” says Ma, glaring out the window. Damn moon. Perla follows up Ma’s declaration with a spitting sound, as if saying luna out loud could invite bad luck.
They think the moon cursed me, so they run through this ritual every month. Only, unlike them, I don’t dread lunaritis.
I count down to it.
I chase the food and pills with water and gaze out the window at the dusky violet sky. Any moment now, the shift will happen, and I’ll be transported to the only place where I don’t have to hide. The one world where it’s safe to be me.
I come alive on the full moon.
I awaken with a jolt.
It takes me a moment to register that I’ve been out for three days. I can tell by the well-rested feeling in my bones—I don’t sleep this well any other time of the month.
The first thing I’m aware of as I sit up is an urgent need to use the bathroom. My muscles are heavy from lack of use, and it takes some concentration to keep my steps light so I won’t wake Ma or Perla. I leave the lights off to avoid meeting my gaze in the mirror, and after tossing out my heavy-duty period pad and replacing it with a tampon, I tiptoe back to Ma’s and my room.
I’m always disoriented after lunaritis, so I feel separate from my waking life as I survey my teetering stacks of journals and used books, Ma’s yoga mat and collection of weights, and the posters on the wall of the planets and constellations I hope to visit one day.
After a moment, my shoulders slump in disappointment. This month has officially peaked.
I yank the bleach-stained blue sheets off the mattress and slide out the pillows from their cases, balling up the bedding to wash later. My body feels like a crumpled piece of paper that needs to be stretched, so I plant my feet together in the tiny area between the bed and the door, and I raise my hands and arch my back, lengthening my spine disc by disc. The pull on my tendons releases stored tension, and I exhale in relief.
Something tugs at my consciousness, an unresolved riddle that must have timed out when I surfaced … but the harder I focus, the quicker I forget. Swinging my head forward, I reach down to touch my toes and stretch my spine the other way—
My ears pop so hard, I gasp.
I stumble back to the mattress, and I cradle my head in my hands as a rush of noise invades my mind. The buzzing of a fly in the window blinds, the gunning of a car engine on the street below, the groaning of our building’s prehistoric elevator. Each sound is so crisp, it’s like a filter was just peeled back from my hearing.
My pulse picks up as I slide my hands away from my temples to trace the outlines of my ears. I think the top parts feel a little … pointier.
I ignore the tingling in my eardrums as I cut through the living room to the kitchen, and I fill a stained green bowl with cold water. Ma’s asleep on the turquoise couch because we don’t share our bed this time of the month. She says I thrash around too much in my drugged dreams.
I carefully shut the apartment door behind me as I step out into the building’s hallway, and I crack open our neighbor’s window to slide the bowl through. A black cat leaps over to lap up the drink.
“Hola, Mimitos,” I say, stroking his velvety head. Since we’re both confined to this building, I hear him meowing any time his owner, Fanny, forgets to feed him. I think she’s going senile.
“I’ll take you up with me later, after lunch. And I’ll bring you some turkey,” I add, shutting the window again quickly. I usually let him come with me, but I prefer to spend the mornings after lunaritis alone. Even if I’m no longer dreaming, I’m not awake either.
My heart is still beating unusually fast as I clamber up six flights of stairs. But I savor the burn of my sedentary muscles, and when at last I reach the highest point, I swing open the door to the rooftop.
It’s not quite morning yet, and the sky looks like blue-tinged steel. Surrounding me are balconies festooned with colorful clotheslines, broken-down properties with boarded-up windows, fuzzy-leaved palm trees reaching up from the pitted streets … and in the distance, the ground and sky blur where the Atlantic swallows the horizon.
El Retiro is a rundown apartment complex with all elderly residents—mostly Cuban, Colombian, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, and Argentine immigrants. There’s just one slow, loud elevator in the building, and since I’m the youngest person here, I never use it in case someone else needs it.
I came up here hoping for a breath of fresh air, but since it’s summertime, there’s no caress of a breeze to greet me. Just the suffocating embrace of Miami’s humidity.
I close my eyes and take in deep gulps of musty oxygen, trying to push the dread down to where it can’t touch me. The way Perla taught me to do whenever I get anxious.
My metamorphosis started this year. I first felt something was different four full moons ago, when I no longer needed to squint to study the ground from up here. I simply opened my eyes to perfect vision.
The following month, my hair thickened so much that I had to buy bigger clips to pin it back. Next menstrual cycle came the growth spurt that left my jeans three inches too short, and last lunaritis I awoke with such a heightened sense of smell that I could sniff out what Ma and Perla had for dinner all three nights I was out.
It’s bad enough to feel the outside world pressing in on me, but now even my insides are spinning out of my control.
As Perla’s breathing exercises relax my thoughts, I begin to feel the stirrings of my dreamworld calling me back. I slide onto the rooftop’s ledge and lie back along the warm cement, my body as stagnant as the stale air. A dragon-shaped cloud comes apart like cotton, and I let my gaze drift with Miami’s hypnotic sky, trying to call up the dream’s details before they fade …
What Ma and Perla don’t know about the Septis is they don’t simply sedate me for sixty hours—they transport me.
Every lunaritis, I visit the same nameless land of magic and mist and monsters. There’s the golden grass that ticks off time by turning silver as the day ages; the black-leafed trees that can cry up storms, their dewdrop tears rolling down their bark to form rivers; the colorful waterfalls that warn onlookers of oncoming danger; the hope-sucking Sombras that dwell in darkness and attach like parasitic shadows …
And the Citadel.
It’s a place I instinctively know I’m not allowed to go, yet I’m always trying to get to. Whenever I think I’m going to make it inside, I wake up with a start.
Picturing the black stone wall, I see the thorny ivy that twines across its surface like a nest of guardian snakes, slithering and bunching up wherever it senses a threat.
The sharper the image, the sleepier I feel, like I’m slowly sliding back into my dream, until I reach my hand out tentatively. If I could just move faster than the ivy, I could finally grip the opal doorknob before the thorns—
Howling breaks my reverie.
I blink, and the dream disappears as I spring to sitting and scour the battered buildings. For a moment, I’m sure I heard a wolf.
My spine locks at the sight of a far more dangerous threat: A cop car is careening in the distance, its lights flashing and siren wailing. Even though the black-and-white is still too far away to see me, I leap down from the ledge and take cover behind it, the old mantra running through my mind.
Don’t come here, don’t come here, don’t come here.
A familiar claustrophobia claws at my skin, an affliction forged of rage and shame and powerlessness that’s been my companion as long as I’ve been in this country. Ma tells me I should let her worry about this stuff and only concern myself with studying, so when our papers come through, I can take my GED and one day make it to NASA—but it’s impossible not to worry when I’m constantly having to hide.
My muscles don’t uncoil until the siren’s howling fades and the police are gone, but the morning’s spell of stillness has broken. A door slams, and I instinctively turn toward the pink building across the street that’s tattooed with territorial graffiti. Where the alternate version of me lives.
I call her Other Manu.
The first thing I ever noticed about her was her Argentine fútbol jersey: #10 Lionel Messi. Then I saw her face and realized we look a lot alike. I was reading Borges at the time, and it ocurred to me that she and I could be the same person in overlapping parallel universes.
Copyright © 2020 by Romina Garber