Para mi Abuelita, who lives in Barranquilla where this story takes place.
My Abuela always said my hair was as black as the universe. She said that as soon as she saw me in the hospital, on the day I was born, she noticed the jet-black curls that had run in my family for so long: rizos negros azabache. So thick you would think it was yarn. I thought a lot about my Abuela before going back to Barranquilla for the first time in five years. First, because she died after we moved to the States, and second, because I had just lost one of the gold hoops she bought for me just before we left. My Abuela was a farmer, and she had bought me those earrings with the money she got from the eggs her hens laid. A year’s worth of eggs.
I was fifteen when my Abuela gave me the hoops. My dad had lost his job, and he knew there were better opportunities in the States. She didn’t like the idea; she was sick and had always said she wanted to live long enough to see her great-grandchildren. “If you’re not taking me, I don’t want to hear any more about it,” she said to my dad, who promised we would come back for her, but papeles, money, and her sickness all got in the way of our plans. My dad and my Abuela were the only family I knew about in the world; when they both died, I was alone.
Going back to Barranquilla was hard. It wasn’t only the heat, which was an unexpected slap as soon as I got off the plane, or even the Caribbean coast sun, so bright it made any skin two shades darker, or redder, than before. It was also all the things people told me before I went. “Girl, they are going to rob you blind if you give them a chance,” said Mariela, my best friend. Estela, Mariela’s mom, said she was going to pray an entire Rosario for me every night. “I won’t sleep, mijita! I’ll be too worried about you if I don’t pray. You pray too, hija.”
Daniel, a guy I barely knew from university, said that I should stay in a local house so I could experience the “real” Colombia. I told him I was from Barranquilla.
“But you don’t have an accent?” he asked, confused.
“I guess I’m just really smart.”
Smart for school; for the rest, not so much. I went back to the coast without having a family to greet me in the airport or even friends to have an arepa or an arroz de credo with. I couldn’t explain to anyone why I wanted—hell, needed—to go. In the plane, before the passengers started clapping after the landing, I remembered all the things my Abuela wanted to do before she died: get a hummingbird tattoo on her wrinkled ankle, get her palm read, kis a stranger, go to Miami to see if it really looks as much like Barranquilla as people say, visit us in the States. But she didn’t get to do any of those things.
The first thing I did in Barranquilla was put on a headpiece I’d bought at a thrift store in Brooklyn. I never wore it in the States because I thought it would bring too much attention. In the States, I always wore my hair in a tight bun I secured with too many bobby pins that would fall as the day went by. The second thing I did was look on TripAdvisor to see what the main attractions were. Museums, tiendas de arepas y fritos, restaurants, beaches, and discos. It felt good to know that I recognized most names.
On my third day, the waiter at the pool asked me in Spanish what I was doing all by myself in the hotel. I took a sip of my frozen margarita in a plastic cup and answered in Spanish. “I’m waiting for someone.”
“You shouldn’t spend so much time in the hotel,” he said in English, “You’re not going to be here forever.”
He was right. I acknowledged his comment with a nod, and I said in Spanish, “Dónde? What’s good around here?”
He recommended a place for having arepas de huevo and told me he could go with me if I wanted. I lied, and told him I already had an arepa today.
I finished my margarita in two long gulps. “Is there anywhere good to have my palm read?”.
I went to the palm reader first thing in the morning. Her name was Hípatia, which sounded dramatic and like it belonged to the villain of a Venezuelan soap opera. I called to make an appointment, but she said she only worked on a first-come, first served basis. I took a taxi, and realized it was my first time actually leaving the hotel.
I recognized the light blue color the sky had after dawn. I saw the women holding their purses tight at the bus stops just like they did years ago. I saw the children running to school in green plaid uniforms, and I saw the stray dogs, in almost every street, still sleeping and taking advantage of the last hour of coolness before the heat. I smiled, and I said to the driver: “Barranquilla doesn’t change, verdad?” He told me how safe it was now and how they were building skyscrapers by the dozen.
The purple house stood out in a block of white houses. It also seemed bigger and had a rosebush in front while the others had unkempt weeds. When I entered the house, she was already there. I talked to the palm reader in Spanish just to prove to someone I was still fluent, but she responded in English: “Let’s practice my English, muchacha. Sit, sit, sit.”
“Albertooooooooo,” she shouted. A lean, frightened boy with braces on his teeth appeared from behind a colorfully beaded rainbow curtain. “Si?”
“Una silla,” she said.
He left without answering and came back a couple of seconds later with a chair. He put it down for me in front of the woman and made this weird gesture that seemed like a reverence. “Pssssss” the lady said, “Vete.” Alberto obeyed and left the room.
“Hijos. You’ll know when you have them; they’re a pain in the ass.”
“Will I have kids?” I asked, surprised by the quick revelation.
“We haven’t started yet,” the lady said putting her hair behind her ears and rolling up her sleeves. She extended her palms and commanded, “Give me your hands.”
No “please” or “if you want.” I had forgotten the urgency we usually had on the Caribbean coast. We shorten words and speak in commands rather than in pretty words like they do in America. My Abuela said it was because Colombians are very family-oriented. “We talk fast because we want to save time so we arrive home quickly to see our families.” My dad, who wasn’t as sweet, said it was because people wanted to save time to sleep at least fifteen minutes for la siesta.
I gave her my hands.
“Is this your dominant hand?” she asked, holding my right hand. I nodded, not sure of what she meant. “You’ve lost something valuable, yes?”
“Sí…I mean, yes.”
“You need guidance,” the woman said,tracing her fingers down the longest line on my palm. “You are looking for guidance,” she repeated, “You have no family.” There was a pause, and I felt the hairs on my arms stand up. Did I have a sign on my forehead that said that I didn’t have a family? Did something in me scream loneliness?
I thought that to see if she really had powers, I should ask her something about my future.
“But you’re not stupid,” she continued, without letting me speak. “Life has hit you hard, but you’re not… cómo se dice…?” She stopped herself, searching for the word and looking at the ceiling for inspiration. “Cobarde. How do you say?”
“A coward,” I said.
“You are not a coward, but you sure are stubborn, and you are wasting time,” she said, her voice getting deeper.
“Love, mija. You have to let people in.”
I looked down at my palms, but all I saw was the dryness of my skin. She probably said that to all her clients.
“You know, you probably think you have it all figured out with your little life. But, mija, life is just starting for you, and if you don’t have people by your side, you’re going to suffer. ”
“But I do have people by my side,” I said thinking about Mariela and her mom and our Sunday night dinners of pork tamales and hot chocolate in the Colombian restaurant across from their corner store.
“If you say so,” she said half-smiling and dropping my hands. “Now, thirty dollars please.” As I counted the dollars, I felt my cheeks getting warm. I couldn’t think of anything to ask about my future that would make my money worthwhile, and another question felt more urgent.
“How did you know I had no family?”
“The answer is all in your hands.” She stood up violently. I thought that she was going to knock the chair down, but the chair stayed intact, as if it recognized she had the greater power. “Waiting for something?” Hípatía asked, as she counted the money.
“No, señora.” I said, leaving the room and hoping not to run into that poor son of hers.
As soon as I went outside, I realized I was getting used to the weather again; I felt the brisa, which only locals can feel, hit my face. In spite of the burning midday sun, that little bit of wind felt like a cold glass of water. I started walking and noticed the particular smell of burning cement in the streets of Barranquilla. I thought about the possibility of getting a tattoo after my appointment. If I did, I would probably get a hummingbird because it was what my Abuela wanted. She was always sure that a bird was the tattoo for her. Even in her old age she would tell my dad: “I’m getting my tattoo as soon as you leave.”
My dad, a deeply religious man, was always horrified when my Abuela talked about tattoos. “Then I’ll stay,” my dad would reply, calmly, because this was his mother he was talking to and not a rebellious child.
“No, mijo, I know you need to go.” My Abuela would say softly. She never did get the tattoo, and it was hard for me to muster the courage to get one, either. My dad’s horror about all things sinful was too ingrained and now that he was dead I could feel that horror under my skin and running through my veins like it was my own.
That night I dreamt about Abuela. She was younger and looked like the pictures of us when I was a baby. She had black curly hair and golden light brown skin. We were at the palm reader’s table, me as a twenty-five-year-old and she the age she’d been when I was born.
“Two generations of women,” Hípatía said in my dream. “What a treat.”
We both gave her our left hand and waited. Hípatía studied them for a second and then, suddenly, I was in my Abuela’s backyard, full of the roses that the enamorados used to cut for their girlfriends without her permissions.
Abuela was watering her roses and she didn’t seem to notice my presence, but when I said “Abuela?” unsure that I was dreaming, she turned to see me and said: “Siempre.”
I woke up with that word in my head in the middle of the night, my sheets heavy with sweat. I repeated that word out loud, the word that kept us all together: Papi, Abuela and me. “Siempre.”
I smelled lavender, the warm honey she used to use to spread on her toast, and the mint powder she used on her feet and chest. I remembered Abuela’s words about how we shouldn’t ask ghosts what they wanted, or ever sleep with our knees up because we were inviting them to come in and sleep with us.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I could still feel her with me. “Abuela?” I said out loud to no response. I closed my eyes and felt my muertos watching me in my sleep.
The next day, my last day, I walked in the center and looked for jewelry stores. The hoops that my Abuela had given me were medium-sized and, in spite of how old they were, they still shone when the light hit them. I thought that if I could find earrings like the ones my Abuela had given me, I could replace the one I had lost. But all the hoops I found were thick and big, or too thin and discreet. The hoops I tried on that day made my ears feel heavy, as if they were going to stretch and touch my shoulders.
After trying on pair after pair, a lady with a wet black bun and tatted brows said desperately, “So what is it that you want, miss?
I put the earrings I was trying on down and left the store quietly. Outside, I could feel the sun warming my face and my naked shoulders. I saw the people passing by with their families, their lovers, their friends, and I thought about how much they resembled me. How their dark skin, their full lips, and their curly hair looked like me. I thought about how alone I felt walking in Manhattan, in a sea of people where I was the different one.
That night I also kissed a stranger. He had perfect black skin that was so smooth and plump you would think he lived his entire life in the cold weather of Canada, away from the sun. But no, he was Caribbean-born, and his teeth were so white and straight I told him they looked like pearls. “Perlas,” I said remembering the “Collar de Perlas” song my Abuela used to sing to me when I was little. When I turned thirteen, she told me never to get a pearl necklace until I got married. “Pearl necklaces are for viejas.”
He told me we would meet again after giving me a kiss that tasted like berries with brown sugar sprinkled on them. We had just shared a rum and corozo drink.
I smiled and replied, “Quizás.”
I found the gold hoop under the bed on my second day back in New York. After my first cup of coffee, I felt an urge to look there. The light was hitting it, and it looked shinier than normal. I extended my hand to grab it and blew on it to remove the dust. I placed it on the nightstand next to the other one, and then I put them on, one after the other. I looked at myself in the mirror. You couldn’t really see the gold hoops under my hair, but I felt the familiar weight of the earrings in my ears. I thought about my Abuela and how happy she had seemed after giving the earrings to me, like she knew this was everything she could offer me. The product of her hard work and of all the hens she was so proud of was hanging from my ears, years after she had passed.
When I found the missing earring, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I would never see my Abuela again, but she had left a piece of her behind with me. Months before she died, she used to say the gold of the hoops made my hair look darker and bigger. She was the only person who liked my hair. Everyone else asked if I didn’t know about the existence of relaxers. They asked me if I knew most days my hair looked like cotton or string. But for my Abuela, my hair resembled the universe.
I wore the hoops in the house while I sipped my coffee. I thought that the hoops would look nice with the bright yellow headpiece I had worn in Colombia. Before leaving the house, I touched both earrings to make sure they were still there.
That day I decided I was taking my big hair, my headpiece, and my hoops out for a walk. While I passed a park in Manhattan, I smelled the wet trees and the mud. The palms of my hands were still dry, and the abrupt change of weather had made them flake. Here, it was winter, but still light out, and I thought about how the sun was probably brightening my gold earrings. As the hoops moved from side to side, caressing my neck, I thought about how Abuela was always with me.