Mami came into my room in her dark blue evening dress and said, “The beans are done soaking. Do you still want to help me make dinner before I go?” I was sitting on the window sill, with a pillow, with a book; not reading the book, but rather, resting my head against the cool glass, trying to count all the buttercups growing from the roots of the trees that leaned over the sidewalk. Everyday I would walk down that street and there would be less, less buttercups, and they would disappear as if the ground had pulled just a couple more in before morning.
In the kitchen, Mami asked me to open the windows as she searched for the ingredients; even from inside the house we felt the sun in the air, in our skin, in everything. The black beans were already in the pot, waiting, waiting since ten o’clock that morning, and it was five already, and you never let them soak for more than eight hours or they’ll ferment. Mami turned on the stove and muttered that the beans would have to cook for twenty minutes. With the windows open the kitchen cooled down a bit; a faint breeze circulated occasionally, although not for long.
“Why are you crying? Are you sad?” I asked her. I was supposed to peel the garlic, the ten cloves of garlic, and press the big knife down on them so that they would be easier to mince.
“I’m not sad, mi cielo,” she said, smiling. “Don’t you remember that onion makes you cry?” She breathed in, wiped the tears with the hand she used to hold the knife. “You would think that I’d be used to cutting onions. Whenever people came over, back when we lived in Cuba, my mother — Abuela — she always made me cut the onion.”
I peeled the smashed garlic and listened.
“Yes, that’s good…put them onto a little plate as you smash them. Yes…that one. And so on New Years Eve, I always had to cut at least three or four onions, because so many people came that they would not only make black beans, but also pork, tostones, ensalada rusa; it was always such a feast…you have to press down on the garlic a little harder, mi cielo, yes…just like that… And so after cutting what always felt like seven thousand onions, well after that I would join my sisters on the porch and we would peel the corn, because they always made tamales on New Years Eve too. You see, everyone always went to our house that night, everyone on the block, and then some, and somehow there was always too much food, even before dinner, there was always too much and I ate all day so by the time we would sit down for dinner, I wouldn’t be hungry.”
I knew the stories. I watched as she slid the onion into a white bowl and then I said, “I wish I remembered more from when I was a little.” Every day I tried to recall the voice of my grandfather, the afternoons eating popsicles on my cousin’s porch beneath the insuferible Miami sun, the image of my parents dancing in the kitchen while my mother
cooked dinner; but everyday it became more and more like trying to hold water in my hand, and that innocent past just slipped away.
“You’re still little.” She laughed. “And don’t worry, I have your memory, mi cielo. Hand me the garlic.”
I rocked by the refrigerator as she minced the garlic, elegantly. She was sweating on her forehead, chest, and neck; her hair, short and frizzy, was tucked aggressively behind her ears. Mami shook her head. She said to herself: “I should have waited to put the dress on.” She turned to me, asked how the eczema on my elbow felt. The previous night it had been red and itchy but after applying some cream, the rash had started to disappear. She said we wouldn’t have to go to the doctor after all.
My stomach jumped. I asked if she was sure.
She said, “Are you trying to get out of going to school in the morning?” I said no, unconvincingly.
“Why don’t you want to go, mi cielo? What’s the matter?”
“Could you give me that dress when you don’t want it anymore?”
“Why wouldn’t I want it?”
“I don’t know. But when I’m old enough to wear it can you give it to me?” “We’ll see,” she said. The dress was indigo, open in the back, tied at the nape of the neck. I thought about myself wearing it, with black high heels and perfume, with the same elegance as Mami.
After slicing the green pepper she added it to a pan with olive oil, along with the garlic. Then she let me stir the sofrito; the classic smell made me hungry and so I asked her if I could eat something. She agreed and peeled a carrot for me.
Next, Mami added the sofrito to the beans, and as she sprinkled some salt and pepper in she asked me what my sister Monica and I would do with the babysitter that night. I said I didn’t know. I asked if she could you stay. She said no. I sighed. She fiddled with her necklace. I asked her why we coudn’t stay at Daddy’s instead.
“No mi amor, because you can’t. He’s busy tonight.”
“I don’t know. He’s busy tonight.”
I didn’t ask, “Why aren’t you still together?” because the last time I had asked her she had gotten very quiet, and her face had twisted into an uncomfortable frown, and she had said in a voice like stone, “You can’t ask me questions like that.”
Mami told me to look for the cumin. She couldn’t remember where she had left it. Finally we found it tipped over by the vase of tulips on the counter, and Mami added a few pinches of the spice to the beans. She never used measurements. “Will he be with Ana tonight?”
“I would assume so, mi amor. They practically live together.”
“Are you seeing Julian?”
“No, not tonight.”
“He went away, corazón.”
“Where did he go?”
“Can you pass me two bay leaves?”
Black clouds had blotched the sky; the sun was unsettled, we were relieved. A breeze whisked in, and then I missed the hotness. Mami stirred the beans. I asked what the bay leaves were for, since whoever got them in their bowl always picked them out anyway. She said the bay leaves were delicious, even if you couldn’t eat them. Then she served herself a glass of the whitish-yellowish wine with three small ice cubes. I connected the bluetooth on her cellphone to the speaker so that we could listen to music; the first song was Los aretes que le faltan a la luna, a favorite of ours.
Mami sang along. “Music is cold water on the lips,” she said, and had a sip of wine. “I used to write short stories.” Then she gazed at the cooking food. I finished my carrot and thought about seeing Mami’s book in the shop window, telling my friends that my mami had written it.
“I wish you were a writer instead of a TV person.”
She smiled sadly. “Me too!”
“Then why aren’t you?”
“Writing is a hard thing…I guess I gave up, mi cielo.”
“What is this, an interview?”
As we waited another twenty minutes for the beans to cook with the sofrito, Mami went into her room to put on some make-up. She told me to stay in the kitchen and keep an eye on the food. After a few minutes I went into her room anyway; she was painting her lips and talking on the phone with a friend. She told her friend that Julian had said they should see other people. A few weeks before he had started to show doubts; he’d kept saying that she spent too much time at home with the girls. I wondered if Monica and I were the “girls,” and my heart slipped away somewhere. Then she caught sight of me standing at the door and motioned for me to go. From the living room I heard Mami ask her friend if she should just stay home; she’d worked a lot that week and hadn’t spent that much time with the “girls.” I waited for her friend to agree, for Mami to come out and say, “Nevermind, mi amor. I’m staying here tonight.” She didn’t, and so I went back to the kitchen.
I stirred the beans and tried a small spoonful. They were tasty but unfinished. I sat down at the table again and set out my Social Studies project. Mami came out after a few minutes and sat with me.
“What’s the project about?”
“We have to make a collage of important women in history, and then pick one to do a presentation about her in class.”
I nodded and glued down an image of Marie Curie.
“Is that why you didn’t want to go to school in the morning?”
“Why not? Are your friends being mean? Should I stay here tonight instead?” “They’re not mean. But I don’t like to talk in front of so many people at once.” “You can’t just skip those kinds of things,” she said, eating a handful of peanuts
from the jar by the vase of tulips. Mami frowned and then I wanted to leave and play with the cuquita dolls. “You face them, mi amor. Those are the challenges that come with fourth grade, and that will come later on in life too.”
“Daddy would let me skip school.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but turned her head away instead, to the window over the sink, where you could see the great flamboyán as it shivered with the wind, shedding little red buds to the grass. I would’ve taken advantage of her wordlessness. I would’ve told her that she should be more like Daddy sometimes. But then I stopped to listen — the silence had paused in the air, and I heard it louder than I would have if she’d just yelled like she normally did when I compared her to Daddy.
By then the beans were almost ready; Mami poured a bit of balsamic vinegar into the pot. She had put on high-heels, a long silver necklace and the hoop earrings that I never got to wear. As she reached for the sugar in the cabinet, she asked if I wanted to add it into the beans. I wasn’t sure how much. A spoonful, she said, or two.
After another fifteen minutes the beans were finished. Mami turned the stove off and poured in some olive oil and more salt. Then she trimmed some cilantro into the pot and stirred. The babysitter had already arrived and was sitting on the sofa, talking to Monica.
Mami searched for her keys in her purse and I asked, “How late will you be out tonight?”
She said, “I’m not sure, mi cielo. Do you really want me to stay?”
I shook my head and ran to the coat hanger to fetch her jean jacket, just in case she got cold in the restaurant. “Will you be back to give me a goodnight kiss?” Mami smiled, the sad smile. “Of course.”
She gave me a kiss, leaving a red stain on my cheek. Then I walked her to the car, got on the swing that hung on the flamboyán in the yard, and waved her good bye. She waved too. The sky turned off and I went back inside; Monica and the babysitter were playing with the dolls in the living room. At seven we sat down for dinner.
About the Author: Tula Singer is a 17 year-old Cuban-American writer. She has been published on Reedsy, The Weight Journal, Indigo Literary Journal, Write the World, and The Teen Magazine, among others. Her blog “El Cuarto de Tula” revolves around the themes of femininity, biculturalism, and identity. She writes because she cannot let it go.