By Michelle Marie Robles Wallace
Running. A girl—a woman?—running. Not in hurry, nor in fear, the only reasons Alba herself would ever run these days, but in joy, and with strength and ease. Alba shook her head to clear it and to bring her attention back to the chicken she was preparing. It happened more and more frequently these days that, as she fell into the easy rhythm of her tasks, her mind loosened and bits and pieces of a dream that she had woken up from worked away at the edges of her consciousness. As much as she tried to remember, the only impression she had was of a girl—a woman?—running with an evenness of movement that made Alba aware of her own body. A slight ache behind one knee that ran to the bottom of her foot, a tightness across her shoulders and up her neck, the efficiency of her hands and forearms, preparing a dinner.
The older her girls got, the more frequently she had this dream of a girl, nearly a woman, running. Whenever she had it, it would haunt her throughout the day. Sometimes she thought that there was something that she was trying to remember, something that she needed to know.
The sound of her daughter running up the three flights of wooden stairs to the back door of their apartment shook Alba’s reverie off.
“Hi Mamá! I’m home!”
Claudia came tearing in the back door, letting the bright September sun shaft through the laundry room into the kitchen. She didn’t slow down a bit as she ran through the kitchen where she knocked a bowl of fruit off its perch on the counter. “Ah! Mamá, I’ll be right back,” she shouted even before the fruit and bowl had clattered to the ground.
Alba shook her head at her daughter’s clumsiness. She was always telling her to slow down. She had the chicken in the pot to boil by the time Claudia skipped back into the kitchen and picked up the fallen fruit, piling it in the bowl. She had changed out of her school uniform.
Alba held her butcher knife mid-chop as she realized that Claudia was no longer her little girl. She usually changed into pants after school and now, without the pleated skirt of her school uniform and with her sky blue pants of thin cotton that were suddenly too short and too tight, Alba saw that the skinniness of childhood was gone: her daughter’s thighs and hips were a little bit softer, thicker; her bottom had filled and the seams were pulled taut as the thin fabric stretched over her roundness. Her nipples poked out at her blouse announcing that her breasts were getting ready to swell. The little girl skinniness was gone as quickly as it had come one day years ago when suddenly her little baby belly had disappeared overnight and she stood as straight and lean as a stick.
“M’jita, you can’t wear those pants anymore.”
Claudia looked down at them.
“But they’re my play clothes. I don’t wear them to school.”
“They’re for little girls. You’re not a little girl.”
Alba sighed at the confusion she had brought her daughter’s face. These were the dangerous years coming. Claudia had just started 6th grade and was suddenly imitating high school fashions even as she still played girlhood games. Only two weeks ago she’d caught Claudia with the waistband of her school uniform rolled and her skirt hem well above her knees. This daughter of hers, so very different from Dolores, who had retreated into herself and her books around this same time. Claudia was always ready to laugh and talk with anyone and her thick, rich hair already got her too much attention.
How to protect her girls in this city? It was like her husband had said at sometime during each of their daughter’s babyhood: so many more dangers for women than for men, even when constrained to a much tighter walk of life to keep them safe. The things he had seen in his life before coming here, the things his sisters had survived during La Revolución. Never, he had said, never for his daughters, this cruelty of men. Alba could only nod. They lived in San Francisco now and though the threat of war here seemed distant, the anti-war protests could grow into something else. Alba was aware that she could never promise the safety to her daughters that her husband prayed for. Still, she wished that her youngest, at least, had a few more years of childhood, that she could hold her daughters in her safe embrace for a little bit longer.
“You need a haircut,” she said to her daughter.
“No, Mamá, I want it longlonglong! Down to here,” Claudia said, jutting her hip out and tapping it, “like Ana Maria. Long and beautiful!”
Alba narrowed her eyes.
“Ana Maria, eh? No.” She pointed at Claudia with her butcher knife, “No daughter of mine is going to go around looking like Saturday night on a Monday morning. Go and wash your hair.”
“Stop, Mamá, stop,” Claudia cried when a cool breeze blew across the landing. “Please stop.”
Alba sat in a metal folding chair with Claudia on the floor between her thighs. She had piled and fastened most of Claudia’s damp hair on top of her head and was cutting through her hair in sections, from the bottom up, and her hair fell against yesterday’s newspaper. Alba’s metal shears made a satisfying snipping sound as she cut through her daughter’s hair. The nape of Claudia’s neck was bare beneath the short fringe of hair left on the back of her head. The sun glinted off Alba’s shears and shone on the long lengths of hair piled on the paper.
“Sit up, m’jita, I can’t cut straight when you sit like that.”
“You’re cutting too much off. You said that you’d only cut off a little bit.” Claudia’s spoke in a high-pitched whine, the most protest she could get away with. Thick lengths of hair fell to the ground, snaking around her legs.
“Hush, darling,” Alba said as she gently pulled her daughter back into her.
As she worked, a remembrance of running, of running and dancing came into her mind. Not sexy club dancing, but a simple dance of celebration. Something in her tugged at her to look up and across to the hills to where the fog had gathered into a thick bank that was beginning to spill over and roll down into the Mission. The sun cast soft gold and pink through the grey. There must be another way, she thought, and then wondered where that thought had come from. Another way than what?
Alba took down the hair from the top of Claudia’s head, sectioned off the bottom layer to hang down Claudia’s back then pinned the rest of her hair back up. Claudia whimpered as Alba kept cutting, lost in her work, thinking of an image that she’d seen in a magazine, of a teen with short, short hair who looked so sweet and pretty, not sexy. But that model had had thin straight hair and a narrow face. Claudia had a broad face with high cheekbones and thick, dark hair so thick and coarse that it seemed to absorb the sunlight instead of reflecting it back.
“Turn and face me now.”
“Stop scowling, you look darling.”
“Close your eyes, I need to even out your bangs.”
Alba leaned in close and cut a crooked line into the hair across Claudia’s forehead. She leaned back and studied her work then snipped a bit over her daughter’s left ear and a bit more that was poking out on by her right temple. Alba sighed as she tugged at a piece of hair by her left temple as if she could lengthen it as easily as she could cut it. It looked like what it was—a backyard haircut done with steel scissors. It looked like Claudia was wearing a helmet of hair that was on crooked.
“It’s done, go look.”
Claudia ran her hand through the short, coarse ruffles that ended along the nape of her neck. Her mouth dropped open and tears sprang into her eyes. Alba’s heart fell and she saw in the moment what she hadn’t been able to see when she was doing it: she had gone too far.
She reached out to her daughter but Claudia had already leapt to her feet to run down the hallway to the bathroom. Alba watched her run and saw that no haircut could disguise the ripening of her daughter’s body. She braced herself for the screaming and the crying, wishing too late that she could do more than tell Claudia it would grow back.
Alba picked up a lock of Claudia’s hair and stroked it. She remembered her own confusing time. She was the oldest of seven and no one had told her anything about anything. It had been a few days before they had left. Her papá had taken them all to visit her bisabuela in Nogales. Lucha — even they, her great grandchildren, called their bisabuela by her name — was stern and gentle and unyielding in her beliefs. Alba clutched Claudia’s hair in her hand as she remembered the encompassing warmth of Lucha’s arms and the softness of her body and how Lucha had made it seem like she held every bit of Alba when she hugged her.
On that last trip to Nogales, Alba’s mother had stayed home, as she always did when Papí had suggested a trip to visit his mother. She tightened her lips into a thin line whenever Lucha came up. Once, Alba had overheard her mother say that Lucha wasn’t even Mexican and then heard her papá’s fist came down hard on the table. Her mother hadn’t said anything after that but she sometimes tugged angrily on Alba’s hair and muttered, “Cabello de indio.” Alba’s hair didn’t fall lightly around her shoulders or shine like Ariadna’s and Lola’s. Hers was so thick and coarse that it hung straight down her back like a waterfall. It was so black that it absorbed the light, just exactly like Lucha’s did.
When Alba was a child, she had sat in Lucha’s lap and played with her straight, heavy hair that fell like rain. It soaked in the sun and generated its own heat even after the sun went down. It was white and gray with threads of black still through it. She had loved her own hair because it was Lucha’s hair.
When they arrived on that last trip, her papá had told them to wait in the living room while he talked with Lucha. Afterwards, she had asked Alba to come sit with her outside. There were things she needed to tell her, she had said, now that she wouldn’t see her anymore.
“Why not,” Alba had asked, and Lucha had shaken her head at her question. They had sat outside, facing the sun. Lucha talked for a long time. Alba wished that she could sit next to Lucha again and listen because she hadn’t understood what Lucha was saying then, and now, she couldn’t remember anything besides that she had never wanted to leave.
Lucha hadn’t finished talking when her papá had come back out to get her. He promised that they would be back but they never did return. They left. Left Lucha, then their home, then México. She had started her cycles a few days later, crouched along the side of the road, somewhere between Nogals and California and no one would tell her what was going on or why.
Claudia stared at herself in the mirror. Her face was huge. She tugged at the short, coarse ruffles of hair. She had hardly any hair left at all! She looked like a boy. Worse than a boy. Her eyes were swollen and her skin puffy and blotchy from crying. No one would ever look at her, except to laugh.
She ran into the living room where her mama kept all the framed photos of the family. She grabbed the one of her at her First Communion. She had beautiful long hair and a dress prettier than any other she had ever had, wedding dress pretty, all puffy and lacey and long and white. She had even had the tiniest little heels on her shoes and a wreath of flowers in her hair. She took that picture and threw it, hard, against the wall. The glass shattered on impact and shards flew all around the dark room. It felt good to hear the glass and frame break. She reached for another picture to throw.
“Claudia Dominquez Reyes! What are you doing?” Her mom came storming into the room, still holding a clump of hair that she had just cut off her daughter’s head.
“Look at you! Glass everywhere. Go get the broom,” her mama ordered. “And wash your face.”
Claudia stomped into the bathroom and stared at her hair again. Everyone was going to laugh at her tomorrow at school. Even Monica.
Monica was Claudia’s best friend. She had beautiful long hair that swung at her waist. Her dad wouldn’t let her cut it, not even a trim, but they were more traditional than Claudia’s family. Claudia’s parents mostly spoke English to her and her sister, but Monica’s family only spoke Spanish amongst themselves.
From the bathroom, she heard the front door slam. She could hear her mother talking to her father and sister, but not what she said. Claudia locked the door. She wasn’t going to come out tonight.
The next morning, Claudia woke up when she heard her papá leaving for work. It was late, but she didn’t care, and she closed her eyes again. Last night, she had come out of the bathroom only when her papá had finally taken the door off the hinges. She thought he was sorry that he had because when he saw her his eyes softened and he said that he thought she was beautiful and to go to bed now. She heard her parents yelling after that but she didn’t know what they said because she pretended to sleep when her sister, Dolores, had come in.
“You can borrow my record player if you want,” she had offered but Claudia just pulled her pillow over her head.
The door creaked open and a shaft of light came.
“You need to get up. Mamá is getting really mad.”
“Go away!” But Claudia got up when she heard the door close. At the table, she sulked into her cereal. She could feel Dolores staring at her, trying to get her attention, but Claudia was not interested in what she wanted to say. Mama had left her hair alone.
Dolores finally leaned over and put her hand on Claudia’s forearm, “I have a scarf you can borrow. You can tie it around your head.”
Claudia refused to look up at her. Dolores went to high school and still had her long hair. What was she thinking? Tie a scarf around her head? That would be even worse than having no hair. She’d look like an old lady.
Claudia shook her head no and got up to go to school.
“Have a good day, m’ijita,” her mama called to her but Claudia just slammed the door and stomped down the stairs.
Claudia’s head felt too light and her neck, exposed. She kept her head down as she walked to school and didn’t stop to talk with her friends on the steps as she normally did, but kept straight on to her first class and sat down in her seat. She kept her eyes on the scarred, wooden desk and tried not to cry when people came in.
She wanted to lean forward and put her head down and close her eyes but she was wearing her sister’s old plaid school uniform. Even though Dolores was taller than Claudia at the same age, Claudia was rounder and the skirt was too short in the back. Her thighs stuck to the seat where the skirt didn’t cover them and if she leaned forward, the skirt would pull up the back and more of her thigh would touch the seat. She hated that feeling.
“What happened to you?” Monica ran her fingers along the blunt, uneven edges of Claudia’s hair.
“My mama,” Claudia muttered to her desk.
“She did this? What did you do?”
“Do? I didn’t do anything,” Claudia said, “I hate it. I look like a boy.”
Monica started laughing and laughing.
“Do you know,” she said, “I tried to cut my hair off last night. Papí caught me before I was finished and burned mi meñique for doing it and here your Mama went and made you practically bald.”
“I hate it,” Claudia said again, and looked up at Monica. Her hair was crooked too. The sides were chopped into uneven fringes along her chin but most of it still hung long.
“I like it. I think it’s fab,” Monica said as she sat down.
“Why did you do that?” Claudia reached out and touched the rough edge of Monica’s half-bob. “You know that your papí would go loco.”
Monica’s papí wouldn’t let any of his girls ever have their hair cut. Her sisters were older than she was and had wavy dark hair that got progressively thinner and rough near the ends. They braided their hair and wrapped the braids around their heads or wore it down, sheets of hair hanging like ragged curtains, Monica always said.
“It’s ugly at the ends! I just wanted to trim it a few inches but then I kept going…” She started laughing again, “I would’ve cut the back too but I wouldn’t let Marina borrow my new dress and she saw me and went and told papí. He won’t even let mamí take me to a salon to get it fixed right. You know what he said? He said ‘She wanted ugly hair, she can have it!’ Monica put her arm around Claudia, “Well, Claudia, we can have ugly hair together.”
Claudia saw the bandage on Monica’s finger.
“Monica, how bad is your finger burned?”
“You know papí,” Monica said and shrugged. “I told him I’d rather he chop off my hand than have to follow his stupid rules about my hair. I’m so sick of him. I can’t believe that my sisters think he can tell them what to do with their hair. Just wait until I get to high school. I’m going to have your mom cut my hair.”
Sister Abercius Helena walked in, and Claudia and Monica sat up straight and faced the front of the room. Monica might challenge her papí, but she would never mess with Sister Abercius Helena.
Two minutes before the bell sounded, Sister Abercius Helena rapped the corner of her desk with a steel ruler.
A student came running in.
“You’re late, Nicolas.”
Nicky slid into his seat, looking bewildered.
“But the bell--”
Sister Abercius Helena stared Nicky down as the bell rang.
“The bell announces the beginning of class, Nicolas, not the time you should come running in the door. When the bell sounds, I expect you to be seated, as Monica and--”
Sister Abercius Helena broke off.
“Your hair is a mess, Monica. Please tidy up.”
“I can’t,” Monica said, “My dad won’t let me.”
“Tidy, Monica, for tomorrow.”
The bell rang. Sister Abercius Helena nodded at her class.
“Page 156,” she said, and turned toward the blackboard.
As soon as she turned, Claudia slumped over her desk. She could see Monica’s long legs with her knee-high socks just exactly even. She could never keep her socks up. Hers were slouched, one around the ankle and one around the calf. She bent forward to pull them up and felt a warm wetness between her legs in her chonies. She stopped, her right leg splayed out into the aisle and her arms half-way reaching to pull up her sock. Had she wet her pants? She couldn’t have, not without noticing.
She sat straight up, suddenly awake. She couldn’t smell anything but the harsh pine-scented cleaner and the dry smell of chalk dust. Maybe she was mistaken? But no, when she sat up, she could still feel it. Could everyone see what it was?
She turned her head slightly to look at the people sitting next to her, to see if they were looking at her but no one was, not even Monica.
Claudia looked back up at Sister Abercius Helena. She was still explaining something on the board. Sister never let them leave the room to go to the bathroom. Never. Not even when José turned white and then green and then puked on the floor. She just called the janitor and told José to visit the nurse after class.
Claudia’s thighs were wet and clammy against the seat. She couldn’t tell where the wet pool ended and the sweat began and was terrified of what she would see when she finally got up. She couldn’t even pretend to pay attention anymore. She needed to know what she was sitting in without letting anyone else see. Claudia shifted her weight to one leg, peeled the other off the seat and looked down. Nothing. She crossed her legs and shifted onto one hip and looked at the seat. Nothing.
Was this just one more strange thing that nobody talked about? First she got hairs and then she got plump and no one said anything, except when Alba told her not to wear those pants anymore. When Dolores got tetas, she started shutting herself up in the bathroom a lot more, but Mama didn’t say anything except to leave her a pile of bras once. Mama didn’t talk about anything that went on underneath clothes. Or maybe she had to Dolores and Dolores hadn’t bothered to tell her. But Dolores didn’t talk about things anyway. All she did was read.
Maybe she was imagining it?
Claudia leaned forward. Definitely not imagining it. But maybe, just maybe, no one could see?
She wriggled in her seat.
“Claudia Reyes,” Sister Abercius Helena snapped, “sit still.”
Now everybody was looking at her. Everybody.
Claudia froze, still sitting on one hip. She stared back at Sister Abercius Helena.
“Thank you,” Sister said, “now maybe you can solve the first problem for us?”
“Ah. Um. Ok. Well, it’s—”
“Page 156. The first one,” Billy pushed his book over to her.
“We’re waiting, Claudia,” Sister Abercius Helena said.
Claudia could feel everyone looking at her as she stared at page 156, trying to read it. She couldn’t stop wondering if anyone could see what it was that was leaking out of her—what was it that was leaking out of her?
“I-I don’t know, Sister,” Claudia looked up at Sister Abercius Helena finally.
“If you had been paying attention, maybe you would know how to figure it out. It’s really very simple. I suggest that you try again.”
Claudia looked down again but the page still seemed blank. She could smell the sweat in her armpits.
Sister Abercius Helena went to the board and wrote the equation across it in precise, even strokes.
“Claudia,” she said, holding the chalk out, “We will solve it together.”
Claudia stared at her and shook her head no. There was no way she could get up and stand at the board with her back turned to the whole class.
“I can’t,” she whispered. The whole class was staring at her. No one had ever said no to Sister Abercius Helena.
She would do anything but get out of her seat now.
“My-my belly hurts,” Claudia said, “I don’t think I can stand.”
Sister Abercius Helena’s face suddenly softened for a moment and she nodded, briefly.
“Billy, why don’t you tell us what it is?” she said, just as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Claudia slunk back in her seat and stayed like that for the remainder of class, hoping that the wetness wouldn’t spread. Sister Albercius Helena went through class as if Claudia wasn’t even there.
As soon as the bell rang, Monica turned around and stared at Claudia.
“I don’t feel well,” Claudia told Monica before she could say anything, “I’m going to the nurse. I’ll meet you in class.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
Claudia just shook her head.
She waited until everyone in the back of the room had left before she stood up. She tugged at the back of her skirt as if she could make it longer before she ran to the nearest bathroom, holding her books low across the back of her hips, hoping she could hide any wetness. She pushed the door open with her shoulder. There were two girls she didn’t know washing their hands and the three stalls were free. She ran straight into the nearest one and slammed the metal door closed. Claudia turned around, lifted her skirt and pulled her chonies down as she crouched over the seat. There was a brownish stain spreading on her underwear and thighs. It looked like a scab. Was it blood? But it looked nothing like the clean bright red of blood. Had it gone through her clothes?
Claudia pulled at the pleated wool skirt but couldn’t find any mark on it. It was a lot less than it had felt. The bell for the next class rang. Claudia bit her lip, trying not to cry. She was about to do something very bad. The hallway outside had gone completely silent. She pulled off a length of toilet paper and folded it up and put it on with her underwear. It felt like a pillow between her legs as she was walking out of the stall and she just knew that everyone would be able to see it and would laugh. She just wanted to get home before she started crying.
Claudia pulled her chonies up, tugged on the back of her skirt and put her backpack on. She stared at the scratches in the metal door announcing true loves and sworn vendettas and dirty words. Her heart pounded in her chest. What if someone caught her? It didn’t matter; she couldn’t go to class now. Claudia took a deep breath than pulled open the stall door. She paused at the bathroom door before pushing it open taking off down the hallway in a sprint. She ran to the main entrance and down the stairs and straight out the heavy metal doors.
Claudia sped up when she hit the sidewalk, running as fast as she could up the hill and then down again before she ran the level sidewalks all the way to Ames Ally and up the back stairs straight into the kitchen.
Her mama was sitting at the kitchen table having coffee with her sisters. She looked up as Claudia came in.
“Why are you home so early?”
“Something is wrong. I’m, I’m—” but Claudia didn’t know what to say. What was it that was happening?
“Something better be wrong for you to be home four hours early.”
“There’s something coming out of me.”
Claudia’s mama held her coffee cup still in the air.
“Coming out of you?”
“In my underwear,” Claudia whispered.
“Oh, honey!” She laughed, and said something in Spanish to her sisters. Claudia understood “mujer” and that it was about her. They all started laughing together about a joke as old as the world that Claudia didn’t get. Her Tía Lola got up, still laughing, and pulled her in and wrapped her arms arms around Claudia.
“Honey,” Tía Lola said, holding Claudia. “Alba,” Tía Lola addressed Claudia’s mama, “Alba, haven’t you taught her anything?”
“Claudia, you’re a woman now,” Tía Lola said, still holding Claudia.
“Lola,” Tía Ariadna said, “She never told Dolores anything either. Dolores had to come to me.”
“And did our mother tell me anything?” Alba asked. “I was your second mother before I was 7—what did I even learn to tell you?”
“But you learned!” Tía Ariadna said, letting go of Claudia, “You’re the oldest, you should have told us.”
Claudia ran into the bathroom. She didn’t understand what was so funny and didn’t want to be hugged. She wanted to know what was going on, but when her tías and mama started arguing about what her mama should have done as the eldest, they hardly noticed if anyone else was around. She locked the door and peeked at her chonies. The toilet paper had slipped to the side. It was blood, she knew it, but it wasn’t funny at all.
She sat on the toilet, wrapped her arms tight around herself, closed her eyes and wished with all her heart for something different. ♦