December 26, 2018
“When I am a woman,” Silvia announced one Saturday morning, “I shall wear lipstick every day and fill my house with flowers.”
She appeared in the kitchen doorway in her mother’s yellow-and-white dress, tan slingback sandals, and unevenly applied fire-engine red lipstick. She looked like a girl in costume, playacting. The sight of her pinched Mara’s heart.
Mara hadn’t expected to love these kids. She’d come to San Francisco to be alone and anonymous, to ride the wave of wartime work, to answer no questions. Yet here she was, breakfasting with a thirteen-year-old and a four-year-old, again.
A month ago, Silvia had burned a pan of eggs and nearly set the apartment on fire. Mara was forced to intervene. After all, she lived next door, and the prospect of two children alone with a hot stove was a threat to her safety, too. Plus, it just didn’t seem right that they’d be left to fend for themselves with the mother away all summer and the father working all hours at the furniture shop.
There was a war going on, and, whether they liked it or not, the residents of 130 Bartlett Street needed each other. She’d vowed to keep an eye out and had told their father as much when she ran into him in the hallway that evening.
“And,” Silvia continued, her chin tilted upward, eyes twinkling, “I’ll have a handsome husband, and we’ll eat roast chicken and corn on the cob every night.”
Silvia’s little brother Toñito giggled, his mouth full of corn flakes. “A husband?” When he opened his mouth, milk dribbled onto his chin.
Silvia walked over to the table as if it were a production, swinging her non-existent hips. Mara stifled a laugh.
Over the last few weeks, Mara had observed Silvia with a mix of tenderness, pity, and bewilderment, a girl, like all girls her age, in a rush to grow up. It was both foreign and familiar to Mara, this antsiness. She’d wanted to tell Silvia that womanhood wouldn’t be all dresses, fresh flowers, and roast chicken. But when she looked around at the chipped plates and dirty walls, as she breathed in the apartment’s faintly moldy air, Mara softened. Let the girl have her dream.
“Papa left us money for the movies. He gave us enough for you and for burgers at Arnie’s,” Silvia said to Mara. “Please come. Pleeeeaaassee.” Her eyes latched onto Mara’s.
Mara smiled despite herself. Too much eye contact. It baffled her that a girl nearly a decade her junior could make her feel shy. “I can’t,” she said, glancing down at her watch. She’d picked up an extra shift at the shipyard. “But I’ll come pick you up at Arnie’s after.”
As Mara was leaving, Silvia called after her. “Do you want to borrow my lipstick?” She’d pulled the black tube out of her pocket and held it out.
For a moment, Mara saw herself as she must’ve looked in Silvia’s eyes, in her worn dungarees and work boots, black crescents under her fingernails. Dowdy and unwomanly. A flash of sadness passed through her. She wasn’t sure if it was for herself or Silvia or both of them.
“You taking your kid brother to Bambi, too?” a boy’s voice behind Silvia asked.
Silvia turned around and saw Mario with his little brother Sam standing behind them in the popcorn line.
Mario was in high school, tall with dark hair that grazed his eyes. He was a legend around the neighborhood. Kids whispered stories about him at slumber parties and in the hallways at school, stories of Saturdays after dark with pretty girls, of befriending police officers and riding with them on patrols, of swimming in the Bay naked and nearly getting bitten by sharks. No one knew what was true and what was invention, but everyone agreed that Mario was cool. Silvia had never talked to him nor stood this close to him. He smelled like the sun.
“You live on Bartlett, don’t you?” he asked.
Silvia blushed, surprised and flattered that he recognized her. “Yeah.” She paused, scanning her brain for something to fill the air between them. “I’m Silvia.”
“Mario.” Of course she knew who he was. She was relieved that he didn’t reach his hand out. She didn’t want him to feel how sweaty her palms were.
Mario turned his attention to Toñito, who was staring up at him, unabashedly curious. Toñito could be so embarrassing sometimes. “How’s it going, little man?”
The cashier returned with their popcorn and stood at the counter, watching Silvia watching Mario, an eyebrow raised in impatience. He tapped his fingernails on the counter, pulling Silvia’s attention back to the task at hand.
“Hold on,” Silvia said. She fished around the coin purse she’d borrowed from her mother’s sock drawer and handed a palmful of coins to the cashier with a flash of pride. Paying made her feel grown up, especially in front of Mario.
As they walked toward the theater, Mario called after her, “Nice dress!” Silvia’s face reddened. She was glad she had her back to him.
Normally, Silvia loved the movies. When the theater went dark, she lost all sense of time, all sense of anything except what was unfolding on the screen in front of her. She laughed, she cried, she clutched the armrest in anticipation. In the rich darkness of the theater, she felt free.
But today, she could barely keep her mind on the story. She kept thinking about Mario, about his hazel eyes and the dimple carved into his left cheek.
Halfway through the movie, an owl on-screen explained the strange springtime behavior of the animals, how they all get “twitterpated.”
“You’re walking along, minding your own business,” the owl told Bambi and the other animals gathered. “You’re looking neither to the left, nor to the right, when all of a sudden you run smack into a pretty face. Woo-woo! You begin to get weak in the knees. Your head’s in a whirl. And then you feel light as a feather, and before you know it, you’re walking on air.”
Twitterpated. Silvia whispered the word to herself and felt it vibrate on her lips. She turned around and saw Mario and Sam sitting two rows behind them. She thought she caught Mario looking at her, but she wasn’t sure. She sank back into her seat, willing herself to concentrate for the rest of the movie.
The plastic booths at Arnie’s were crammed with sailors in crisp uniforms, mothers with shopping bags and toddlers in tow, and men in work shirts with grease-stained palms. Silvia and Toñito took the two remaining spots at the counter. Toñito’s chin barely cleared the countertop. They ordered burgers and vanilla milkshakes and, giddy with sugar, swiveled in their seats and sang along to “Boogie Woogie” and “Goodbye Sue.”
Silvia heard someone calling her name from the other end of the diner. She turned around and saw Mario at a table full of high school kids. He was standing on a seat, hands cupped around his mouth. She waved. Mario winked.
A few minutes later, Mario came over carrying a large swirl lollipop. “This is for you, little man,” he said, handing it to Toñito. “Why don’t you go hang out with Sam at the jukebox? I need to talk to your sister.”
After Toñito left, Mario pulled another smaller lollipop out of his jacket pocket and began to suck on it. He scooted over to Silvia, their thighs nearly touching. “Do you like these?” he asked, holding out his lollipop.
His attention, suddenly so concentrated, made her skin feel prickly. She cast her gaze down to the half-empty cup in front of her and then back up to his face. She could barely stand to look at him so close, certainly not without a burning in her cheeks, which she was sure he would see. She nodded.
“What kind do you like?” Mario continued. He smiled a lopsided smile. There was that dimple again.
Silvia felt her heart beating in her ribcage with such force she worried Mario could hear it. Her mind sprinted forward, backward, and sideways. For a second, she couldn’t remember a single flavor. She looked at him and saw his tongue stained dark purple. “Grape?”
He held his lollipop out to her. Silvia hesitated. “Don’t worry. I don’t have cooties,” he said, winking. “At least not the bad kind.”
He thrust it further toward her so that the lollipop was a couple of inches from her mouth. She could feel him scanning her up and down, flushed cheeks, narrow shoulders, left knee with the sickle-shaped scar from when she’d crashed her bike into the neighbor’s parked car. Silvia shut her eyes, reached her tongue out, and licked.
When she opened them, she saw that Mario had a big smile on his face. “Good huh?” he said, popping the lollipop back in his mouth. “Listen,” he continued in a lowered voice. “My friend Pete’s brother’s having a party tonight. You should come.”
Silvia nodded just as Mara entered the diner.
Before they parted ways outside of Arnie’s, Mario leaned in toward Silvia and whispered, “Don’t forget!”
Standing behind them, Mara didn’t hear his words, but she saw the gesture, Mario’s lips brushing Silvia’s left ear, his hand pressed between her shoulder blades. He towered over her, nearly a full head taller.
On the walk home, Silvia was unusually quiet. Mara and Toñito sang and skipped ahead and waited for her on the front steps. When Silvia rounded the corner, she looked lost. Mara’s back and shoulders tensed as she pictured Mario standing over Silvia, an almost-man and a girl.
“Sylviiiiiii,” Toñito called from the stoop, giggling.
“You okay?” Mara asked as Silvia approached.
They climbed the four flights of stairs in silence—an itchy, antsy silence. Mara felt as if she were holding her breath, afraid of what might come out if she allowed herself to exhale.
“You should stay away from that guy,” she said when they were halfway down the hall. As soon as Mara had spoken the words, she sensed their futility.
“Why?” Silvia asked. She’d turned around to face Mara, one hip jutted out to the side, a perch for her right hand. Silvia stared at Mara, her head tilted to one side as if examining Mara for the first time. “How come you live alone?” she asked. “Aren’t you lonely?”
For a moment, neither of them said anything. It was Toñito who broke the silence, tugging on his sister’s arm. “C’mon, let’s go,” he whined.
Mara couldn’t be sure, but she thought she detected pity in Silvia’s eyes. She pushed the thought out of her mind, but once she was home alone, curled up in her recliner with a book, it lingered, like a strand of food lodged in her gums, stubbornly out of reach.
That evening, Silvia braced for a fight when she called “Bathtime!” in the honey-sweet voice she reserved for such occasions. She was prepared for Toñito’s groaning, his high-pitched “nooooo,” stretched like chewed gum caught between the pavement and the bottom of a shoe.
She made a bargain with him: they would take a bath together. Silvia was irritated with Toñito as the tub was filling, as she undressed him and put him in. But as she slid herself into the bath, her irritation dissolved. The water was warm and soothing. She told Toñito he could play for a few minutes and then she’d have to soap him. To her surprise, he agreed without protest.
Silvia closed her eyes and replayed the afternoon in her mind, tension and excitement mixing in her belly and tingling in her thighs. She imagined telling her friends that she’d been invited to a party by Mario. She knew she would go. How could she not? She’d sneak out after she put Toñito to bed, for a little while at least, before Papa came home.
“Sylvi.” Toñito’s voice pulled her back. He sounded frantic. “Sylvi, Sylvi, you’re bleeding.”
Silvia’s eyes jolted open. She looked at where her brother was pointing, at a stream of red coming from between her legs.
“Oh God,” she exclaimed, jumping up from her seat in the tub. She nearly slipped and fell on Toñito, who by then had started to wail. His eyes were glued to the dissolving trail of blood.
Mara was half-asleep, and the frantic, rhythmic knocking woke her up. She opened the door and saw Toñito, naked and dripping wet, standing in front of her.
“Sylvi was bleeding in the tub,” he said, hiccuping. Mara’s stomach dropped.
The artificial bounce in her voice surprised her. “It’s okay Toñito. We’ll take care of it!” She picked Toñito up and carried him back down the hall.
Mara pushed into the bedroom without knocking, bracing herself for whatever she might find — a dangling finger, a gash in the forehead, a broken limb. Instead she found Silvia sitting on the bed wrapped in a towel, visibly unharmed but dazed. A wave of relief washed over Mara. She looked at Silvia. Strands of wet hair stuck to her cheeks and forehead, her skin smooth and unblemished. Then it clicked. Mara’s stomach churned. “I’ll be right back,” she said, grabbing Toñito’s pyjamas from the bed, where Silvia had laid them earlier.
In the living room, she dressed Toñito, tickling the backs of his knees until he laughed and begged her to stop. She put on a record and told him to play for a bit. By then he seemed to have forgotten what had happened in the bath.
Mara returned to the bedroom and sat next to Silvia, awkwardly, inelegantly. She knew she ought to hug her, to offer reassurances, to explain. After all, who else would? But she couldn’t bring herself to put her arms around the girl. The last time Mara had submitted to a hug had been when she’d said goodbye to her mother before coming here, an act that had felt mechanical and obligatory, like kneeling in church.
In a flash, she saw shards from her childhood—the embroidered couch with the faded cushions, her stepfather unbuckling his belt, the lipstick stain on her mother’s tumbler. She remembered the way her own mother had explained to her that she was now a woman, the way her mother had eyed her with jealousy as Mara served herself a scoop of ice cream in the kitchen, the way her stepfather’s eyes had fallen to her legs, which had grown longer, leaner, and more tan that summer. There had been no one to protect her, just as there would be no one to protect Silvia now.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Mara asked. She searched for traces of the buoyant girl with the borrowed dress and painted lips. Mara suddenly missed her with a ferocity that made her insides ache.
Silvia shrugged, trying her hardest to seem unaffected and nonchalant. “It’s that thing that Mama gets sometimes. She bleeds down there. I guess I’m a woman,” Silvia said. “Finally.” There was a flatness in her voice that surprised and angered Mara.
For a moment, Mara had the urge to grab thin-boned Silvia, to clutch her shoulders and shake her, to feel the brittleness of her bones, how easily they could be snapped, to make sure that Silvia knew it too.
“You have to be careful now,” Mara said slowly. It was as if she were hovering at the edge of the room watching her shadow self take over. There was nothing she could do to stop it. “You’re not a child anymore.”
Silvia stared at her. Mara remembered the little girl with the lipstick and the swinging hips and the proclamations of a beautiful future. She was overwhelmed with the urge to crush, warn, and protect all at the same time.
The words and images and memories tumbled out like vomit. Her stepfather’s sour breath and bristly skin, the pain of being split open, the dirt that no soap or sponge could remove, the swell in her belly, the slap of her mother’s palm against her cheek, the cuts on her legs that gave her momentary relief, the baby born and left in Mexico.
When she was finished, she saw that Silvia was shaking. It gave her guilt and satisfaction to see the impact of her words.
That night, the image of the frightened girl-woman seized her chest, her back, her arms, and legs. She couldn’t imagine it ever letting go.