Wake up, Sis! Wake up!
Published in Great South Shore Magazine November 2004
A bottle of opened Dom Perignon sat next to a huge vase of yellow roses. Maria took a sip from her flute. Too early to drink, she thought. But she needed it to calm her nerves. The sunshine sneaked in from the window and met the tiara on her black hair. It created brilliant colors from the Waterford crystals on the crown, a wedding gift from her father. Gazing at the reflection in the mirror, she removed it from her head.
“Another two hours before the church ceremony, I’ve time yet,” she told herself.
The satin wedding dress hugged her slender brown frame, the two-tier veil of delicate diamonte draped alongside her flawless neck; she looked like a princess, ready to be carried away by the prince on the white horse. It was her special day; she should feel whole, maybe a little excited, but not that knot in her stomach. Her hand applying the red lipstick trembled under her nose. She sighed, put down the lip brush, and lay down on the brocade chaise. She closed her eyes.
When she awoke minutes later she thought for a moment that she was a girl again, and that her adult life had been a dream. Someone was shaking her shoulder, saying, “Wake up, Sis! Wake up!” She opened her eyes to Nina, a young woman with long black hair, a light complexion, and sharp brown eyes. In that instant, the same confusion and anxiety that she experienced in her childhood returned to her.
That first time they were in the airport, she had felt totally lost. She was seven and Nina was three. In long braided hair, they wore their best embroidered blouses under the colorful ponchos. Their mother said, “Girls pretty in New York. Have good holiday.”
When they left the house, their two brothers were piling corn onto the wooden cart for the next day’s sale in the market while baby Mona on the straw mat sucking her pacifier. As they walked, Maria saw her mother clutch her father and move in small, laboring steps. Pain was evident on her face.
“Why that face? We’ll be back soon enough,” she muttered, confused.
They had traveled on a bus through the city from their home in Fort Worth. Her father, sitting by the window, facing the streets, wore dark sunglasses and held Nina on his lap. Her mother sat across the aisle with Maria. The city sights fascinated Maria, and she asked many questions. “Mama, what’s that tall building?” “What’s that tower?” “What do the six flags mean?” “The green, white, and red flag our flag?” “Why do they call it Dallas Love Field?”
To all of her questions, Maria did not get any answer. Throughout the whole trip, her mother was quiet with an occasional “No talk. No talk.” to her constant words.
At the airport, their mother had handed the children and a small traveling bag to the woman in yellow hair and the man with indigo eyes. They exchanged greetings. The yellow-haired woman held her mother’s hand between both of hers and said, “God bless you, Myra. Thank you for everything.”
Her mother, in misty eyes, said, “No thank you, Mrs. Nelson. Please keep touch.”
Maria had reacted instantly. She pursed her lips, yanked her mother’s sleeve and said, “In touch! Not touch! I have told you that many times before.”
With that, she grabbed Nina’s hand and ran forward. After twenty feet or so, Nina suddenly shook her hand off, turned around, and ran to her mother. She grabbed her legs and pulled her blouse until she bent down to kiss her… a long kiss. Maria had gazed at them from the distance, unmoved.
As the plane glided down the runway, Nina chewed the tortilla and played with the clay doll their mother gave her. Maria pressed her nose flat on the porthole, watched as the people and buildings got smaller and smaller. “Where are Mama and Papa?” she murmured. “Why do they send us on a holiday with two strangers?”
Nina thought her sister was talking in her sleep and poked her shoulder with her finger. In her tiny voice, she said, “Wake up, Sista! Wake up!” That was the last time they saw their birth mother and father.
The couple with the yellow hair and indigo eyes became their new parents. They had a warm home, an orderly life, and Princeton educations. Right from the start, Nina adapted to her new family without reservation, and her light skin and bubbly disposition blended in with the relatives effortlessly. But for Maria, it had been a strange journey, a life with a happy, carefree exterior and a ghost that lay dormant inside her belly, haunted its owner only from time to time. She remembered the envy she felt of her sister. She remembered the joy of seeing the doll-filled room with two canopied beds. She remembered the anxiety of meeting the pale grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, and wondered whether they would despise her brown skin and her wide face. Snatches of remembrances of her bronze-faced father carving small stone animal figurines and her petite mother weaving baskets had run through her head, mixed with the images of the dances she had with her new father while standing on his feet, and her new mother’s kisses on the day that her puppy was killed by a car. They were random memories that had been fogged by time.
Now all these thoughts struck Maria afresh as she glanced at the family portraits and diplomas lining the wall, twenty years later, with the words “Wake up, Sis! Wake up!” spoken by Nina.
She sat up abruptly, shaking her head. Nina asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Why? Richard? After six years of dating and studying germs together?”
“No! Not Richard,” Maria blurted out. “The guests from Texas.”
“Oh, Mama-sita,” Nina said. She had nicknamed their birth parents. Unlike Maria, she and her Tex-Mex family telephoned each other once in a while. The parents spoke only their native tongue, but the three siblings were fluent in English.
“Is she coming alone?”
“Most likely.” Nina nodded, pouring Maria a glass of champagne, followed by another one for herself. “Papa-sita left her many years ago. He went to get milk one evening and never returned.”
Maria was dumbfounded, a reaction that she had not expected of herself. Their tongues went numb. They sat quietly holding the glasses.
“Why is she coming to my wedding?” Maria suddenly said.
“Mom did ask your permission first before she invited them. You said ‘NO’ to all the other occasions.”
“What does she want from me?” Maria asked. “Forgiveness?”
A lull followed.
“Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” Nina said.
“Fine?” Maria exclaimed. “After not seeing each other in twenty years?”
“They are good people. Too bad you refused to speak to or hear anything about them all these years.”
“I couldn’t. You could because you were too young to remember anything.”
“Why so bitter?” Nina pouted. “Don’t we have a good life and the best parents?”
“Why did they give us away?” Maria asked.
“Who knows? It was an open adoption. Papa-sita and Mama-sita chose our new parents for us. A better life than what they could ever give us, I suppose.”
“Is that what they told you?”
“No need. I’d figured that out long ago.” Nina extended her hand out and admired her well-manicured fingers.
The door opened. A blond woman in a lilac-colored gown walked in. “How are my angels?” That was what she called them since the first time they met in the airport.
Armies of thoughts marched across Maria’s mind. Tears rolled off her cheeks. “Mom, I’m not sure I want to see her.”
“Don’t cry, Angel. It’s okay,” said the woman, reaching over to pull a few tissues from a box to blot her daughter’s face. She tilted her head in the direction of the pool patio. “Myra is here,” she said, shaking her head. “That woman has courage, never let us in on her pain. Maria, go talk to her for a few minutes before Nina joins you.”
Maria was hesitant, standing still, thinking, “What pain has she? What about my pain?” Her mother and sister gave her an encouraging look. In slow motion, she opened the French door and walked out to the patio.
Along the pathway a Mexican man stood facing her. Amidst the manicured lawn and the sculptured trees, his scrubby appearance presented a violent contrast. She nodded slightly to acknowledge him. He made a gesture with his hand, pointing at a round, brown-skinned woman in a wheelchair under the boughs of a huge sycamore. Maria inched forward.
Upon seeing her, the woman’s hands atop the coarse plaid blanket across her knees trembled. At that instant, the sun peeked through the thick branches and shone on her wide face. Maria flinched, stopped her steps, and studied the stranger in front of her. The ridges and furrows patterned like cobwebs on her face. “This can’t be Mama,” she cried inside. “She looked one hundred years old!” At the same time an inexplicable force pushed her closer to the wheelchair.
“Hola, Maria,” the woman slurred the syllables. “You beautiful. Hermoso!”
Maria froze. “That voice! I remember that voice!” Fragments of memories popped out like ghosts. It was that same voice that sang her to sleep. It was that same voice that taught her to walk.
“What happened to you?” said Maria. Her anger subsided momentarily.
“Maybe from a broken-heart?” said a male voice behind her.
She turned around abruptly. It was the Mexican, in his hand a four-inch red skateboard made with Popsicle sticks. “Oh, my goodness! My brother Manolo! That’s the gift I made for him on the eve of my New York holiday.” A rush of sadness hit her. She sank to her knees. She held onto the arm of the wheelchair and wept.
The woman reached out to touch her face. “No cry. No cry on lucky day,” she said tenderly.
“What happened to her?” Maria repeated her question to Manolo.
“MS. Mama has been in that wheelchair twenty years.”
MS? Twenty years? The scene of her mother limping, clutching her father; herself embarrassed by her mother’s English, and running away from her in the airport without saying goodbye returned to her vividly. The recollection shook her inside like an earthquake. In the back of her mind a voice said, “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.” But no words came out. The tears Maria had gated for two decades flooded her face in that instant. She could not stop.
“Why are you mad at Mama?” Manolo spoke from behind again. “She gave you two up for adoption after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She knew taking care of five of us in her condition was impossible. She planned a better future for you.”
Maria turned her head to him, frowning. “Who’s to decide which future is better?”
“Why don’t you?” Manolo was on the brink of tears; angry tears. He extended both of his hands to show Maria the calluses on his palm and the black u-rings on his fingernails. “See, I’m a farmhand, so is Antonio; Mona, a housemaid somewhere on a ranch in Dallas. Tell me again, Dr. Nelson, what do you do for a living?”
An odd hush filled the air. The old woman cried. Maria felt spent; she struggled to her feet. Glancing down, she said to the woman, “Why didn’t you tell me? I thought I was going on a vacation.”
The woman shook her head. No words. Her face was wet with tears, a mask of pain and regret. She looked up. The afternoon sky turned curiously dark with two big clouds blocking the sun.
“Mama and Papa,” Manolo said, “were so overwhelmed by the diagnosis, and then the loss of you and Nina. What could they say to a seven-year-old?”
Like a statue cemented to the ground, Maria stood there, wordless, motionless.
As they muted, the clouds burst. Rain started to fall. They rushed to seek shelter under the awning. The raindrops were fast and steady. They stood under the huge canopy and watched the shower in silence. Within minutes the rain ended and the sun came out behind them. The three of them looked straight in amazement.
A double rainbow stretched across the sky in two great bows of full, beautiful colors.
Mrs. Nelson walked out to the patio with Mr. Nelson and Nina. She waved to everyone. “It’s a sign,” she said, “of hope for tomorrow. The double rainbow holds a lot of promises.”
With a burst of speed, Maria bent down, enveloped Myra and kissed her. It started as a peck on the cheek, and turned into a long, loving embrace. She buried her face in Myra’s thick breasts, feeling content and whole the first time in her adult life. Everyone looked on, choked up. Eventually she lifted up her head and said, “I love you.”
Nina rushed over, held Myra’s hand and kissed it. “Me too,” she said.
Smiling, Myra said through her gaped teeth, “Me tres.”
Maria kissed her again.