Tia is coming over, so Mami picks the kind of dresses for my sister and I that scratch at our armpits with their pink lace trimmings on the short puffy sleeves, and keep our arms off our bodies with the fluff of fabric layers, floating on our chunky bodies. Mami pulls at our scalps with a brush, to roll the knotty hair on our heads into shiny tight braids and greasy hairlines. We sit at the couch, watching Mami move nervously between the bedroom and the kitchen with a new article of clothing added, then a new layer of makeup done, then her hair combed out of her duby wrap. The tension exhausts us and we fade into the dim light, letting our bare legs stick to the plastic stretched over the couch’s surface. We don’t budge when the doorbell brakes into a buzz, our stretched out lids squeezing against our eyes still coasting the mid-air. Mami and Tia exchange hugs, kisses, and compliments about disappearing body fat and new hair dyes. When Tia walks into the living room, she stops and looks at us, and then calls out to Mami in the kitchen who’s pouring black coffee, “Mira mana, tu tiene la dos ninas como muñecas, sentada con sus vestidos y todo, pero no hablan, no tienen vida. Que le pasan?” We smile politely and submit to hugs and kisses. Mami walks in with the same polite smile pasted on our faces. Muñecas. Tia turned a compliment into sour limes, and Mami has no come back for us.
My sister and I share the same imagination. Together we give birth to baby dolls, breast feed them, and create invisible electric shields to guard us, and our children, from el cuco, a character we draw together as some dirty boy with broken clothes and a bad attitude. We do this in the privacy of our and our parents’ bedrooms while our father is at work and Mami takes half days to cook dinner. One of our props consists of a dollhouse we found on the street, too small for our dolls, but we crunch the limbs of Barbie, Ken, and Theresa to fit the living room and kitchen at the first floor, and the two bedrooms at the top floor. Barbie doesn’t live with Ken. She lives with Theresa. Ken and another unnamed male character visit Barbie and Theresa in their dream home on several occasions to force their bodies over and rip their clothes off, after my sister and I excitedly agree, “Let’s play rape!”
I am 7. My sister is 5.
One breezy fall, Mami pulls me down the Upper West Side of Broadway by the hand like I’m in trouble. She stops us suddenly, inside the park island that cuts 106th street in three ways, hosting bread fed pigeons during the day and trash fed rats at night. “Has anyone touched you?” she asks, as she crouches down to my height. “No mami,” I answer. “You know if anyone touches here,” she points between my legs, “or anywhere underneath your clothes, you have to tell your mami, ok?” The sudden awareness of my private body parts charges me with fury, “No mami! Nobody touched me!” We walk.
I try to remember where my body has been each time I had been without clothes, to make sure I wasn’t lying. I remember how my father’s mother would comment on what great legs I would have as a woman. How she asked me if I had yet grown pubic hair. Her fascination always makes me feel like my clothes have fallen off, like I want to disappear. I try to remember my earlier years when my father would wash my popogina at the bathroom sink, when we were too much in a hurry to take whole baths. I’m not sure anymore of what Mami is asking me.
When we arrive at a grey waiting room, Mami sits down while an older, tall, blonde white woman shows me the way into a toy filled room, with boxes of Barbies and Kens, and a dollhouse that actually fits them. “You like Barbies?” she asks after reading the surprise in my face. I nod. “Go ahead, you can play with them.” I quickly kneel down and pick out a blonde Barbie. This one is not knotted up, and has pink heels on that mismatches her outfit. I try to be gentle with her. I pick up a Ken, that unlike the one I have at home, has an outfit meant to fit him, one he doesn’t need to share with an unnamed friend. Barbie explores her home, complete with kitchen appliances, a table, and even a couch. She does not need to crunch her limbs in order to feel at home. “What does Barbie like to do?” the lady asks with an open notebook neatly placed on her lap. “She likes to invite Ken over.” Ken comes over and their static, thin lips come together. The kiss is long. His body bends in half to bring his plastic palm underneath Barbie’s skirt. Barbie pushes back. Ken quickly forces her against the table, stretched out fingers scratching at her nippleless torso, shirt lifted. “Tell me what’s happening now,” the woman interrupts. “He’s raping her.” She writes in her notebook. Ken continues to succumb her.
“Rosa, do you have dreams?”
The question stops Barbie from shouting for help in my head. “Yea,” I answer. I look behind her and find a large, dark monument of ticking wood with a door above it. The swinging brass pendulum in it makes me ask an obvious question, “Is that a clock?” “It’s a coocoo clock, have you seen one before?” “Uh uh,” I respond, fascinated by the strange glory of the thing. She explains to me what comes out of the door at the hour, and I’m horrified and interested. “Tell me about your dreams, Rosa. What do you dream about?” My eyes follow the pendulum as I tell her about family members dancing without clothes on in the living room, the bedroom, and imaginary white space. I ask her when the clock will sing. I don’t want to be surprised, scared. “Soon, I’ll let you know when. Tell me more about your dreams, what happens between your family members?” she presses, gently. I tell her about body parts that rub against others and people that kiss. The clock is about twice my height, and it has a certain majesty to it that makes me stand back and feel like I need to brace myself for a big sound that might grab me. “And how do you feel about those dreams?” she asks. “I like them. I sometimes go to sleep so I can have those dreams.” The room suddenly fills with the cling clong of bells, and I stiffen. I want to giggle but I don’t want to interrupt the sound so I hold it in a tight smile. I can’t make out the twirling characters that circle and spin as they exit and enter the clock, but the parade keeps my eyes from blinking for the whole minute. “Great huh? Come now, your mother is waiting.”
Mami and I walk past our building and head down the block into the hospital.
“Mami, where are we going?” I ask her.
“We need to take you to the doctor.”
I don't feel sick. “Am I going to get a shot, mami?” I ask.
“No, mami. You won’t get a shot.”
Hearing her endearing term for me, mami, makes me forget the ache in my arm from her dragging me along with one hand while she burned cigarettes in silence with the other.
Inside the hospital room, Mami folds up my clothes in a neat pile on a chair while, in a hospital gown, I sit on the cold paper rolled out on the patient table. The cold air makes me want the doctor to get here quick to listen to my heart beating, lungs breathing, and look behind my tongue, and get it over with. When someone shows up, I’m surprised it’s a woman. She’s carrying unusually large cotton swabs, some plastic peepee containers, and a clutter of gadgets I’ve never seen. The room gets colder and I can feel each pore squeezing in on a hair on my skin. I don’t want to lye back. I don’t care if it will be fast. I don’t care if it doesn’t hurt. I don’t lie back. The woman talks to Mami. Soon, she is holding me down by the shoulders, and there are arms and hands forcing my legs open. Mami blocks the view of my legs, my tears block the view of Mami. I feel a stretching somewhere unfamiliar, and a sharp pinch inside my body. I let a wall shaking roar out with an open mouth. When it ends I’m curled up in a ball crying against the sore in my throat. Mami’s caressing hand against my head feels like a betrayal. “I’m sorry mami, I’m sorry,” Mami cries. I want to disappear, and never come back.