Tortillas de Rodillas
For my ‘Buela 12 years after her death, on the first morning of rain after 4 months of dry 100+ heat.
My knees in this hard seat are starting to hurt. Mami doesn’t see me wave my fingers at her though the small openings on the back of the chair. Her mind is on other things – the two dirty forks in the sink and the tamales Tía Chita brought to breakfast this morning that make mami feel guilty for lying that she liked them. Buela is making her tortillas and the tías are making arroz, some kinda carne picada for dinner, and a calabaza mix with cebollas y chile, all while brewing an entire pot of coffee past the measuring line. We spend a lot of time together, the mujeres of my family, cooking and preparing meals. Our brown kitchen-chairs are slippery, and every time I try to get a better look at Buela roll the creamy colored tortilla masa, I slip a little bit down into the dip of the chair where your butt is supposed to fit, deeper and deeper, until I end up against the brown rails of her back. And even though I want to get down, mami hasn’t given me permission yet. Even though I am barely two feet from Buela’s cooking space and the voice wall of the tías talking, they don’t hear me or notice me squirm in pain. I imagine this is what Tío Crisóforo feels in la pinta while he stands for hours against his cell bars, wondering when his date of escape will come. Las tías talk about him in whispers when Buela’s in the cupboard getting the flour out. Everyone would rather not talk aboutTío Crisóforo because his life sets a bad example, “for the hijos,” and because Tío’s story makes Buela cry and cry, and sometimes stop cooking.
While Buela cooks, my tías and primas circle around to smell the food but most importantly, they circle in and out of hundreds of conversations overlapping each other and creating sharp clapping sounds with their gasps of excitement and worry. ¡Bien exageradas!
Today mami’s chatter spills the frijoles of my sister’s menstrual thing she got for the first time. It sounds like a big deal.
“I sent my honey with an empty Maxi pad box to the store so he wouldn’t buy her the wrong kinds.”
Because my mami is the most güera, the oldest of the cuatas and the oldest of all her hermanas, the other tías listen to her like she’s the priest at church and ask her a million probing personal questions for advice and gossip.
“Oye, did you talk to her?” Tía Chita whispers.
Concerned, Buela asks, “Does little Palomita know what to expect when she starts her period?”
Making the sign of the cross, looking down, and in a straining voice that reminds me of a detective’s tone, Tía Chita who was in the convent for three months says, “¡Ay, dios mío, that means la Lili will be ready for sex very soon now que está menstruating!! ¿Tienes miedo?”
The youngest tía holds her hand over her mouth, trying not to laugh and spray beer on Buela’s masa while she crouches her vibrating body and laughs hysterically without sounds. The laughing Tía Toña has a pretty bad husband and just laughs at everything, always, anytime, regardless of how serious the chisme might be. Her sisters are her only sanity. Pobrecita Tía, she married too early and only because back then Tío Carlito looked like Elvis.
My older primas don’t huddle over Buela’s butcher block beside the stove with the tías; they sit at the table having a chisme exchange of their own, behind me.
“Hey girl, I heard you got your period? I didn’t get mine,” the cousin who lives in the Río Grande Valley whispers in a low hum, “Does that mean I’m pregnant?”
Secrets jump in and out of my ears. As the baby, I get to hear them all. Buela talks to herself while everyone’s stories fly aound, rolling and rolling our family version of pan and looking through me, kneeling on the chair in front of her. I am at her eye level. She swears once her height was five–foot-thee, and I don’t know how that could be possible especially because that would mean she stood higher than anyone in my family. I don’t doubt her or let her know that I question her height either. What Buela says is right; she’s lived much longer and knows what I know, times all those extra years she’s lived plus mine.
“When your Buelo died, I didn’t cry. I sat in my room at the edge of my bed. Didn’t cry.” She shook her head like the one leaf left dangling from the nogal after the fall wind blew through. In her raging tone, she makes sure I know that even without a man, a woman doesn’t cry. And before continuing her whispering rant no one but I heard, she throws a several pound masa ball onto the butcher block, over and over again until it becomes elastic enough for her to stretch the white dough towards her and watch it quickly return to its original shape. Her habitual addiction of making tortillas for every woman, child, man and friend in the family holds my attention even when she stops talking.
My Buela went from being, “la esposa de Concepción,” “mamá de las cuatas,” “de la Tienda Guadalupe,” to “la viuda,” the widow left alone with no one to care for or to be cared for. Between stories, Buela looks away from me, down toward the butcher block, spins the flatteningtortilla to six o’clock and pounds another time down onto its quickly thinning form. How yummy the tortillas will taste once tostadas, with butter y sal. They’re toasty and Buela will be wrapping them up one by one in a towel, right off the comal.
“The rich men from the other side of the railroad were all there, eating the little food we had left. Even the familias who never paid us back after their account receipts burnt up with the store, came to the house the day he died. Who knows if they were stealing from us? ¡Sinvergüenzas!”
Buela’s eyes tilted up while she told this part of the story and her voice became louder than all the echoing chisme slapping on the wall.
My bruises are already burning and the pain is so hot I pretend my knees are tortillas and lift them from the chair-seat rocking back and forth, up and down, again and again, and laughing to myself at the game I play alone. Buela’s tortillas de harina deserve to be tended to much more than my tortillas de rodillas.
The babbling of my tías and primas, monotone from its overflo, drowns under the flat hum of the ceiling fan and only my ears recognize the sounds of my Buela’s story. In her high-pitched, animated voice, Buela keeps on telling her stories.
“I didn’t have a job. Very little money was coming in. Only enough to pay things off like your Buelo’s burial. I paid for mine then too, ¡si acaso! You never know!”
In the pity-portion of the speech Buela’s slanted eyes reshape themselves into droplets.
“Everything was taken away from me. Mis hijos were already married off, except your Tía Toña, but she had to stay with me because she was still in secundaria. And I thought they were gonna take your Buelo’s last name from me.” Her eyes look down and get lost staring into space, the way mine do a lot of the times I’m in the kitchen. Mami added to my Buela’s story with an excited tone, “The first feminists I ever met in the early 50’s were you and dad. Ya’ll lectured us all the time, remember you would say, ‘¡Yo quiero que mis hijas se eduquen para que ningún cabrón diga que no puenden sobrevivir sin ellos!’ Ya’ll wanted each of us girls to get an education so that no asshole could come and say that we couldn’t survive without him! Remember, Amá?”
She blushed a little after saying the word asshole out loud. It doesn’t phase the tías or primas that Mami just rudely interrupted Buela’s story because they are so used to just running over their amá’s words with their hasty thoughts.
For the first time, I feel like Buela’s heart is inside of mine; like we are the same person, alone on our knees calling out for someone to notice us, to hear our stories or feel our pain, but there is no response. Truth is, the tías didn’t want to hear the rough parts of Buela’s story anymore because they hurt and reopen wounds bandaged after their dad, my grandpa, fell asleep and never woke up. Besides, the hitting of the rolling pin on the butcher block drowned out the rough stories.
Into my eyes, she pinned her stare and continued to talk only to me, “but then, when I thought I was all alone, your mami got pregnant with you, mijita, and you became my new mitad.”
From behind the bars of the kitchen chair I am kneeling on, I watch her. She flips the tortilla, turns it to twelve o’clock, rolls, flips it again, rolls, tosses it like a frisbee onto her black comal, and I stare through her.
Tortillas de Rodillas is an excerpt taken from Empanada: A Lesbiana Story en Probaditas.
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