I am ten years old and I am pacing around the bathroom with every faucet running water.
The shirt I am wearing hangs over my right shoulder because I have just cut out the collar with the pair of scissors my mother uses to curl Christmas ribbon. My toes bend and grab the bathroom mat with each step. If my throat would just stop closing and my stomach would just stop boiling, I would lay my face on the green, soft mat because I am tired and I have not slept.
There are two sinks with four handles running hard water. I am in front of the mirror and I can see a small face, a grey shirt, a pink, braided friendship bracelet on my left wrist and yet, I am swimming.
I am in my bathroom trying to touch down, to use those same scissors to cut out this charcoaled hole in my chest but I leave the water that’s running and the reflection I see to swim in a world where these things that I am feeling, and these moments that are happening, become quiet.
I swim in phthalo blue. I swim like a small frog through shaded foliage. I kick out and spin around pink coral, turquoise plankton illuminates me, and I consider if these various waves and trenches could be what heaven is like. But I am not a frog and this is not heaven. My lungs will fill with forgotten blue water if I ever swim around pink coral. Bacteria and gas will mix around my hardening organs before I float. No one will know of me until it is too late. I will puddle.
I am ten years old and the United States Government has just indicted my father. I am ten years old and my father asks me to pray for him. I pray for air every night so he might stop sweating, and so that my mother will stop crying, and because my grandmother needs to wake up, now. I pray every night and I think about how my mother cries when she says my father will go away, and when she tells me my grandmother suffered an aneurism and how my father’s bus company is being charged for smuggling illegal aliens within the United States Border.
These are space words, space phrases that suspend and spark as they continue to push the boundaries of my imaginary page. I have no control over them, no understanding and so I pace around the bathroom every night. I pray for vibration so that I may breathe in this pink bathroom with the green mat and the locked brass doorknob, because my parents are in their room sleeping and the sinks have filled and begun to spill over.
I struggle between wanting and knowing how crucial it is to be aware of the world yet being extremely cynical about how individuals are portrayed in the news. I have difficulty trusting people and I question compulsively. I otherwise avoid politics, topics of immigration, equal opportunity, underemployment, The American Dream, because my grandmother is dead and nothing I say, write, or scream can bring her back. I suppose her aneurism could have exploded later in her life—instead of her head puzzling into the corner of the sidewalk weeks after the indictment, it could have happened to her in the shower, while she was gardening, maybe as she boiled water for tea. I suppose she could have died in February, when rain is plenty in California, when the San Bernardino Mountains glow with snow. But she died during fire season.
I spent my entire childhood learning of fault lines and tectonic plates, how to effectively duck and cover if ever a displacing earthquake split the Golden State, but none of that prepared me for this. What do you do as a child when your mother nearly strangles herself with a telephone cord as pages and pages of multiple counts and superseding indictments pour out of the fax machine? How else can you escape besides swimming at night in your bathroom? What sort of god do you pray to when you are asked to pray for justice?
He describes it like a love affair. He says the sky carried white lines that morning and the night blooming jasmine stretched itself until dawn. In a California December, there is a king shrub that blooms: bougainvillea with white and red and pink petals. He noticed that this king shrub seduced night blooming jasmine, and saw these two perennials, the jasmine and bougainvillea dance together, slide in and out between each other with lines of pink in the sky behind them. He never realized that the bougainvillea carried thorns on its branches. My father saw the ninety-one freeway and the seventy-one freeway alit with white and red when his hands were behind his back, when his Miranda Rights were read, when he admired the jasmine’s ferocity towards morning.
My father owned one hundred and fifty charter buses. Each bus was purchased at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. He employed six hundred employees and operated in six western states. My father’s buses traveled around nineteen million miles a year and brought in thirty-three million dollars in ticket sales. My father was born in Mexico. My father was born in a kitchen of an adobe house and my grandmother gave birth to my father in her kitchen. There were no numbers; there was only the earth and the rooted trees and deep ravines that cracked.
My father owned one hundred and fifty charter buses and was the owner of a business that was worth forty million dollars and he was indicted by the United States Government on December tenth, two thousand and one, and charged for transporting illegal aliens within the United States Border. How do you escape fire season in California?
You don’t. You let the fire take the fields.
I was twelve years old when I walked dogs for two months so that I could afford to buy a new sweater. There was a sixth grade camp field trip, and we would be going to the mountains, and we were promised that there would be snow. I went door to door, explained to my neighbors that I was providing a dog walking service. Those who agreed handed me various colorful leashes despite the fact I brought my own.
I walked dogs for two months so that I could afford my mountain clothes. It was a secret from my parents—dog walking required me to leave my cul-de-sac and wander to gated communities, but my father was with the lawyers, my mother back at work. I was twelve years old and I walked alone with colorful leashes gripped in my palms and I counted my steps up every driveway and along the sidewalks. Out of necessity, out of nervousness, I counted. I counted numbers, ones and twos and threes and then I would return the dogs and count the dollars in my pockets. I counted three dollars for every big dog, one dollar and fifty cents for every small dog and five dollars from the nice man, whose name I can’t remember, with a beagle named Thomas.
My father took me to the Lake Elsinore outlets when I asked him if we could buy a sweater for the mountains. And so he took me there, one afternoon, when he was not with his lawyers, when my mother was working, to buy a sweater. I walked around the outlet, attracted to the walls of waterproof coats, and bright, sequined boots, but found myself at the clearance rack. I held the yellow tags in my hands, and read the prices in my head. In my head I read the numbers, I thought about what twenty percent off meant and how the additional ten dollars off at the register would bring down the total of my sweater to thirty-four dollars. I had fifty.
My father reached in his pocket and I said, I got it, Dad.
Not always, but definitely in my case, the traditional Hispanic household, backed by Catholicism, does not believe in anxiety or mental illness. My father was battling the most powerful country in the world, my grandmother was unmoving in a bed, and still, we continued. My nights alone in the bathroom, my fear and visions of death, my questions of god and faith including the ulcer I had given myself were never discussed. Instead, I prayed. I crossed myself and lined up relics on my nightstand. I picked at their sad faces, I held them to my heart, and I gave them alternate names begging them to make things normal again. I wanted them to aid in the normalcy of life before my questions went unanswered, before my grandmother stopped painting her nails and dying her hair. It saddens me that my devotion to myth, faith, and family has been fueled by the same traditions that urged me to be shameful of my body—that prevented me from ever attempting to decode the inner workings of my brain.
She tasted the color green and heard the spots on a giraffe in the doctor’s office and there was no mention of her last good day, or her last good thought, or about how her hair appeared red in the reflection of the helicopter window when they moved her to another hospital. There was a delay in the airlift, and talk of a stroke, and no health insurance because the business had dissolved.
I saw my grandmother with a thick, white wrap around her head in a room that smelled like melted latex. It was an aneurism, a word I believed to sound like bees. I imagined my grandmother shoving her head into a beehive and swelling with honey behind her eyes. I hoped she would wake with a crown that smelled of cinnamon, and fingernails as sweet as candy, and her hair as red as the carnations she tucked behind her ear.
I learned how to do laundry during my father’s sweat spells, and I learned about false charges. I went with him to his meetings and I learned about racial profiling. I learned about money laundering and conspiracy, and I learned how a man who sweats is not necessarily guilty. My father was sweating because he was losing.
Mr. Rey was one of my father’s lawyers. I would listen to Mr. Rey talk about racial profiling, and money laundering and conspiracy, and pride. I learned that no matter how innocent my father was, no matter how absurd and inventive the allegations were against him, my father was Mexican. My father was fighting the most powerful country in the world. My father would not win. Mr. Rey told us about the gardener that trimmed his hedges, and his housekeeper that he drove to the bus stop some times. You see? Hiring and transporting. You see how easy it is to do this? Plead guilty. It was no big deal. If my father pled guilty, he would stop sweating. If my father pled guilty, the eight superseding indictments would dissolve like detergent.
Were you listening to that? My father asked. I hope you were listening to that. You don’t ever give up. If you do nothing wrong, you don’t ever give up, do you hear me?
Greyhound Bus Lines owned a subsidiary named SITA. SITA owned fifty percent of a bus company called Crucero that operated out of Mexico and crossed into the United States at the Tijuana boarder. My father was urged by his friends at Greyhound to trade in Golden State stock for Crucero stock. This would expand his business. This would give him more land. He would be powerful. It was never disclosed to my father that Crucero had avoided being indicted for transporting and harboring illegal aliens just before Greyhound proposed the arrangement. My father knew none of this until the United States Government had to disclose their evidence. There were field agent reports that showed how Greyhound distanced themselves from my father after asking him to step down as President, after bankrupting his company, after giving the government his bus terminals in exchange for asylum. My father could not win because he was living in a country that feared terrorism. My father could not win because everyone else had something to gain. Greyhound erased the competition, wiped their hands clean of the subsidiary and the government made beautiful, imagistic, outer space fiction of a family, of a business, to ensure the American people that the United States borders were safe.
What a strange, fictitious world we live in that dilutes our very real stories.
My father was indicted in the state of Arizona. He was arraigned eight times over four years. My father drove slow out in the desert, but I found some comfort in desert sunrises.
I asked him if he ever felt like bursting. I looked out the window and asked him if he ever noticed how the sky looked scratched.
He listened mostly. I thought of the car to be a shuttle and my father to be a stranger. I talked and talked in a way that was liberating. I thank the desert, the blueness of the mountains, and the vastness of the land that allowed me to purge. I told him how afraid I was to die—how certain I was that my grandmother plumped then sanded back into the earth. I told him that I thought he would leave us, and that my mother would lock herself in the bathroom forever and we would have to live off of spaghetti and peanut butter jelly sandwiches. And then I started to describe stars, space, and this color of blue that was neither dark nor light. I told him that I imagined this color blue to be a higher place in heaven. I wanted to float in it, to swim, kick out my legs, be a part of life without ever having to endure it.
My father said, You have to have faith that we will eventually see things from a different place. It’s not our time yet, and when it is, it will be.
And if we don’t, what difference will it make?
My father was shaded by shadows in the car. His hair was thinning. His arms were thin. The orange streetlights passed us and provided momentary sparks of gold. My father looked older to me. I looked down at my hands as they turned yellow, then black, yellow, then black. I thought about saying something, screaming out, but instead I imagined my hands melting under an Arizona sunrise.
Adriana Gonzalez lives, writes, and works in Seattle, Washington. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and her work has been featured in Hippocampus, Label me Latin, and Cactus Heart, among others. She hails from Corona, California.