By Amy Costales
Issue 133, November/December 2005
I watch my daughter. Siempre la he mirado. (I have always watched her.) Since the morning the nurse held a mirror between my splayed legs so I could get teasing, myopic glimpses of her fuzzy black hair, I have been straining to see her. For six weeks after her birth I held her to the light and stared into her black eyes, until I finally saw the emerging blue I had dreamt of my whole pregnancy. And then it just never stopped. I watched and waited for teeth, first steps, the darkening of skin, the disappearance of the black down on her lower back, the arrival of hips, the first hints of breasts. I still watch her. I see the mole on her inner thigh, black down that came back, shoulders broad with muscle, Aztec-pyramid breasts. I see tiny teeth, a swirl of hairs on her neck, and nervous eyes. I watch, and deep in my chest I ache with awe. The tender arch of her foot and her quiet hand alone are enough to make me weep.
I used to have company while I watched and waited. I close my eyes and smell the beans on the stove, feel the brown rug under my feet and the coolness of the Formica table where I sat by the hour, surrounded by women. Sometimes we laughed, watching the roller-coaster motion of Leti's belly and mine, and sometimes we talked. Elvira spoke in her sandpaper voice of the mother-in-law who found her too dark and the two lonely years she and baby Miguelito had to live with her when Miguel went north alone. And she stopped sometimes to feel the shape of my panza (belly) and predict a girl. Leti sat in her Fudrucker's uniform, exhausted, and cried. Antonio had left her for a gabacha (white woman) as soon as she got pregnant again, and Leti had to send two-year-old Tonito, all alone, on a plane to his abuelita (grandma) in Mexico. She stopped sometimes to tell me no more jalapeños or my baby would be born with a rash. My usual response was to stubbornly eat another jalapeño.
And then there was Sire. She talked about falling in love with Francisco at the age of 11, about her job in an office in Mexico City before she married him and followed him north. Sire, who soon would don a Pollo Loco uniform and join the ranks of undocumented workers, would toss back her long brown hair and laugh at how she used to match her lipstick and fingernail polish every morning before work. Sometimes she stopped her nostalgic thoughts to pat me reassuringly when I complained of heartburn, which she insisted meant that the baby had hair. I rolled my eyes. Cuentos de vieja (old wives' tales).
When Kelsey was born, a baby girl with a rash on her face and hair that already needed to be trimmed, I began to pay more attention to what these women had to say. I let Leti rub whole eggs on the baby and break them into water to take away the evil eye, which did indeed stop Kelsey's fussing. I let Sire treat rashes with lettuce poultice, and it worked. I put the baby's pee on my stretch marks for a week to quiet Elvira, and they did seem to lighten. Encouraged, I put my photo under Felipe's side of the mattress, but apparently I needed stronger magic to keep him home at night. Kelsey grew, surrounded by young women, teenagers like her mother, who knitted and cooked and talked and held babies, and cleaned and touched and danced and laughed and cried and talked some more, covering their mouths with an apologetic hand and giggling when the words were scandalous. And slowly, as it became obvious that the money their husbands made would not be enough, they got fake papers and went to work. But the cooking, the cleaning, the talking, the crying, the laughing—it never stopped. For my daughter, this meant applause at every milestone, eager hands to rock her, bits of tortilla on her tongue, baby sweaters, and homemade mashed beans. It meant candy behind my back.
There are women in my current life, but there is no circle of women. Sometimes I sit at my teak table, run my fingers along the carved elephants, and miss the old Formica table. I miss the joy of four good chairs scrounged from someone's trash. I have Kelsey, of course. We talk. We cook. We laugh and cry. We argue. She tries to teach me butt-wiggling MTV gyrations that make me squeal and close my eyes in horror, and I try to calm her hips into the subtle and intoxicating complexity of a cumbia. But sometimes, ya grandecita (so big now), she pulls away. Then I just watch. And because the women are gone and my husband is not a watcher, I do it quietly, by myself.
But late at night, when words are trapped in my head, when what I need to say must be said in Spanish, when the words require the ears of someone who needs no preamble, I lie in my bed in Delhi and speak to Sire. And she answers. All the way from California, her words come flying through the air.
Amy Costales has just moved from India to Eugene, Oregon, with her two children, husband, and dog. She is a high school Spanish teacher and author of a bilingual picture book. One of the high points of moving back is being able to sit around a kitchen table talking and playing cards with her children and Sire's.
Illustration by Tom Labaff.