HOLD HER ONCE AGAIN
by Juanita Tovar
It’s Saturday. Sábado. In the AM. The sky is a solid shade of light blue, unclouded and pristine. Its pastel hues are reflected on Juanita’s red sunglasses as she stares out the window. She is headed to meet her grandparents for the weekend.
The door opens and Juanita runs through it. Cotton pink dress bounces side to side. She’s sprinting to reach Consuelo, her Tita, who’s sitting in her customary leather sofa chair. Eyebrows rise, lips curve upwards, filling a half-moon shape. She’s getting closer. Short brown hair swings to the sides, her feet push down on the ground, hardly, moving quickly, without hesitation. She’s been looking forward to this moment all week.
“My Adoration,” Consuelo softy yells in a deep, raspy voice. Her torso opens up, arms awaiting in anticipation to hold her once again.
Grandmother and granddaughter’s expression changes to reveal identical dents on their cheekbones. Both faces move in unison, to reveal the same emotion.
Juanita finally reaches Consuelo’s silk blouse, smooth velvet pants. She presses onto her tightly, finds comfort with her thin arms wrapped around her. She’s trapped in her warmth, encompassed by Tita’s aroma of cigarettes and patchouli.
As grandmother and granddaughter let go of each other, Consuelo runs her fingers down Juanita’s silky hair, slowly uncovering her almond shaped eyes, blush cheeks. She whispers into her ear “Go and say hello to your Tito.”
Juanita’s shoes touch the ground, quickly moving to close on the few inches that separate her from Tito, her grandfather, Guillermo. She sits on his lap. His hands approach her face. Fingertips move to map it out, to outline her sharp chin, the roundly shaped tip of her nose, to feel her soft skin. Juanita’s head approaches his chest, while he hugs her, quietly.
The door opens once more. Two dark haired kids, Rafael and Maria, burst through the heavy, white gate. Their feet tapping, moving briskly to meet Consuelo’s embrace.
“Can we play sailors, please Tito?” Juanita asks loudly enough for her cousins’ to cheer in response.
“Okay, okay, come here,” he says, his dry lips open to reveal a white smile.
Juanita’s hands shift to rest her weight on his upper torso. Legs straighten to stand on the sofa, then turn and twist to sit on his shoulders, to reach the top of this mythological boat as commander, as chief, looking down at her marines, saluting them, seeing fleeting dreams of childhood materializing into the real world.
Guillermo’s body rests colonized, with one child sitting on his shoulders, another resting on his left leg, and the other gripping onto the sofa chair’s right arm with his thighs, firmly. All of them tickling, pulling, pushing onto him.
Juanita steals Tito’s sunglasses and puts them on…..the black sunglasses Guillermo wore at all times, the ones that he used to veil his grey eyes, to conceal the silver circles that had slowly eaten away the pristine pupils he once used to have.
The following week was mundane, unremarkable. Every morning at 5am Juanita’s mother, Valentina, curved her back straight and pulled her daughter’s wool covers, so she could escape the land of dreams.
Every day she served cornflakes and milk to the table where she sat, watched, and waited until Juanita finished her breakfast.
Sleep, reality, daydreams, then sleep again. Everything perfectly choreographed, in sync with the schedule the world had designed for them.
Then came Thursday.
It all happened while Valentina was in the kitchen, while she was restlessly moving her hands, alternating between pots, making sure that dinner could be served on time. The telephone inside the kitchen rung suddenly, she had no time to pick it up. She heard Guillermo’s low voice speaking through the voicemail machine.
“Vale, pick up, there’s something I have to tell—”
Valentina moved swiftly to reach the phone.
The call was quick, the words enounced were concise. She waited until her wife, Lourdes, and Juanita were sitting at the table to lower her voice — so as to alleviate the meaning of what was about to be said.
“Honey, your grandma had an accident. She…she hurt her leg and was admitted to the hospital today.”
Time accelerated, Valentina’s attention solely focused on her daughter’s reaction, on her eyes widening, palms ascending from the table to cover those miniature pink lips.
Stoic under the warm light of the living room, Juanita remained silent. Daughter’s vigilant sight paid precise attention to Valentina’s body language, her words, her tone. They looked and searched for hidden meaning.
“I talked to your Tito and he told me….Ahem….that she fell down and broke her leg this morning. She went into surgery but she’s ok, she’s stable. I don’t think it’s possible for us to visit her today, but I’ll call the hospital first thing, so we can go and see your Tita tomorrow, ok? You can hug and kiss her soon, probably tomorrow. And….and we can bring her flowers, roses, her favorite…Your Tita is going to be fine, you don’t need to worry.”
Valentina sensed how her muscles tightened to reveal a smile. Juanita’s face relaxed after she placed her right hand on top of hers. She did this to calm her, to symbolically hold her.
As she focused on Juanita’s changing expressions, she felt the weight of what wasn’t being said all around, bruising her.
Friday morning’s routine moved mother and daughter as if nothing had been said the night before. Memories of nightmares passed evaporated into the hard cold reality. Valentina took Juanita to the school’s bus stop, waited until she was picked up, then went to work.
At around 5pm the school bus carried Juanita’s body backwards, towards her house.
In the afternoon a red sun descended. Bleeding down, it slowly approached the horizon.
Juanita’s feet couldn’t stop moving, they kept on silently tapping the rubber floor. Right palm ascended feeling her unsettled heart, pressing on her palpitating veins. Enclosing her was the noise of children’s restful breathing, of a man’s deep voice talking over the radio, of the city screaming outside the window.
Even though she was surrounded by relaxed bodies and by the beams of lucid dreams, she existed in absence of those emotions. Juanita made steady and quiet motions. In order not to disturb the classmates sitting beside her, she brought her legs up, folded them, and kneeled. She tried to balance her torso with her arms, the bus kept on stopping and accelerating at the pace of Bogota’s traffic. She struggled, lost stability, and straightened up once again.
Juanita sensed a twist in her stomach, a fire burning her guts. She held back the tears wanting to escape her eyes. She could not let them escape, couldn’t bare for it to be real.
She lifted the holy right hand, first grazing the top of her neck “In the name of the father”, lowering to reach her chest “In the name of the son,” then moving toward her heart “In the name of the holy spirit,” and finally touching her right shoulder “Amen.” Palms met, pushed against each other with a violent intensity, a force driven by the prayers being recited in whispers. Fingers became interlaced into each other, she kept them still and tight. Juanita could not let them separate, she needed these supplications to whatever figure existed up in the sky, earth or beyond not be interrupted.
Deep in contemplation she eloquently narrated every single promise she could imagine in return for Tita to leave the hospital today, tonight, tomorrow. She promised to pray every day, to go to church every Sunday, to be good, to be kind, to be loving. She became overwhelmed by all of Consuelo’s memories rushing in and flooding all of her with melancholy. Mind succumbed to hazy images of Tita’s intense laugh, of the clicking noise her gold wrist bangles would make whenever her hands flew up in the air with power, with passion, helping her to tell anecdotes and stories.
Juanita drowned in her remembrance, in feelings felt when she found herself trapped, enclosed in her arms, her touch, her scent, in the memory of how happy and safe she had been in Tita’s presence. Mind overwhelmed with flowing images of every single birthday, school presentation, christmas eve, of all the mundane afternoons they had spent together. The endless amount of hours shared side by side, in which Consuelo used her actions to color the outline, the heart, the edges of their bond. With thick lines and vibrant shades she painted, she filled in, she brought to life the deep affection she felt for Juanita.
Reminiscences that stabbed her heart, her lungs. Passing snapshots of a life without Consuelo that she could not fathom, she could not bare to imagine. Thoughts dissociated, mind wanted to sink into emptiness, to dissolve nothingness with Tita.
She stood there, with bent knees, balancing, trying to keep straight as the bus forced her body into motion. The pain suffocated her, bruised her, pushed her under water. She kneeled, she prayed, she focused, hard and long, hoping inner thoughts would give power to her powerlessness.
It was five. 5AM. In the morning. Tic toc tic. Valentina’s ears were stabbed by a sharp sound, by a noise that echoed inside this room’s walls, screaming, shrieking, not letting go. Dreams that were keeping her figure rigid, teeth clenching, and fists closed started to fade. The moment she opened her eyes, a rush of reality slapped her in the face, hard.
In the darkness Valentina quickly moved her left arm towards the edge of the bedside table to get a hold of the phone. The voice in the background, on the other side of the line, was Guillermo’s.
Heart was chasing, palpitating off her chest, wanting to escape, to rip open through Valentina’s rib cage. Hands ascended to sense her throat, to find a pulse. Liquid blackness started to be released from within, filling all of her. Dark terror began to be whispered in her ear quietly at first, then shouting, making Valentina unable to hear what was still being said from the other side of the line.
“Vale, are you still there?
And those words violently pulled Valentina back, away from the inner darkness and into the unlit room where she was laying down. Back into being aware of her legs grazing the silken sheets that encompassed her, into feeling Lourdes’ quiescent body approaching hers, back to her wife’s fingertips wanting to stroke Valentina’s smooth skin, torso closing in on any gap still left between them.
“Thank you for calling so early. I…I guess I’ll talk to you later.” Valentina said.
She put the phone back, heard it click. Valentina’s figure shifted, it moved steadily towards the edge of the matrimonial bed, beyond Lourdes’ reach, away from her warm touch, trying to find an escape.
Valentina stood up, silently, leaving her wife fastened to the world of dreams. The weight of gravity pulled her feet down, made the steps towards the kitchen heavy and difficult.
She sat down on the little stool in the back of the kitchen with her head falling down, back arching, eyes staring, fixated on the white porcelain floor.
And just like that it was back.
Waves pressing, thrusting, compressing Valentina’s chest. Hitting, slapping, unsettling her insides. Rest was an impossibility, she was in absence of it. She could feel them ebbing, massaging, tickling. Breathing stopped and started at the pace of her inner waters, controlling the air that was being sucked in and released.
Wet waves stopped Valentina from fully filling up her lungs, they forced her to keep her mouth open, looking, searching for air. Right fist closing tightly onto the wooden chair, left hand rising, quickly reaching, perceiving the accelerated pulse of her throat.
You have been here before. Relax lax ax
Small, fleeting gulps of air were first consumed, then were set free.
Valentina’s anxious thoughts were fully in control of her senses, her reality. Never fully compressing her lungs, never driving her over the edge of sanity.
It was eight. She had been pacing around the house. Sitting down, standing up. Rearranging papers, receipts, bills, postcards. Preparing coffee, sipping it. Going to Juanita’s room in quest of the peace that she knew couldn’t be found.
Eyelids fell down, they collapsed, Valentina pushed them closed, shut, wishing this motion would make her descend to the land of uninterrupted dreams, that it would take her back to those days in which she slept hard, all the time, for hours, for days.
It was time.
She used the intercom to tell Juanita to come down. Juanita had slept over at her friend’s place, who lived upstairs. She could sense the terror rising, creeping, colonizing her throat first, puncturing her chest second, pulsating through her head third.
Inside her house, inches from her wife, 2 floors of separation from her daughter, she recognized something familiar to her. A blue shadow became visible, gradually moving with its grey silhouette closer, approaching, awaiting the moment it could stand besides Valentina, turning once again into a constant companion.
She laid flat on Juanita’s bed, feeling, seeing, sensing the descent of that old friend, succumbing to his magnetic darkness.
Valentina opens the door. Juanita comes through it, smiling, unaware, serene.
The room is silent. Still and empty. Its deafening sound is broken the moment Valentina’s mouth opens to enunciate “Juani -a nickname she would often use to subtly express her love for her- I have to tell you something.”
Clearly enounced words accompanied with a low tone, with a harsh air of seriousness, one that makes Juanita look up to meet Valentina’s gaze, one that shocks and immobilizes her body.
Valentina takes her daughter’s small hands, replicas of her own, extremities with identical pale color and the exact same three pink curved lines running through their palms. She leads Juanita towards the bathroom, both walking together, feeling the silence of what was not being said shrieking, filling the empty soundscape, eating them raw from within.
Valentina kneels down to meet her face.
“Are you leaving me Mommy, are we not going to live together anymore?” Juanita asks, her voice breaks.
“Oh honey, no. I have to tell you something though. Remember how your grandma went to a hospital on Thursday, had surgery, and we were trying to go and visit? Well… it seems that she had a bad reaction to a drug they gave her… and there were complications…Ahem…My love, your Tita has made the decision to leave before we do.”
Valentina pauses for a moment. Her gaze locks into hers. It’s perplexed, confused. Juanita’s lips remain closed, her torso unmoved, sight pointing towards Valentina’s head, but her gaze drifting, sinking, descending unto her inner-world.
“My love, she’s always going to be with you, looking over you, watching over you, she will forever love you.”
Valentina’s emotions fall down her cheekbones. Mother pulls her daughter close, tightly against her body. Juanita’s head rests hidden in between Valentina’s chest and shoulders. Mother’s beige cashmere sweater dries up her tears, it conceals her wet eyes and dampened face. Her maternal embrace holds onto silent screams of pain, it shields Juanita from her own sadness.
About the Author:
Juanita Tovar is an emerging creative nonfiction writer with only a small scattering of published pieces. She currently writes for Spoiled NYC and acts as the creative director of their art department. Juanita is from Colombia and has lived in New York City since 2014.