Mireya S. Vela
Mom was sick with God. Sitting there, on the steps of the elementary school, she threaded her fingers through her thin hair searching for evil.
She had shoulder length wavy hair that hid scars from a dog attack when she was four years old.
I sat next to her, waiting for my third-grade teacher to arrive.
Mom picked through her hair, feeling each strand.
“I found one,” she said. She yanked quickly on the hair as if it were fast and lithe with strength.
She piled it with the others on her thigh. She wore pants all the time. She was ashamed of her legs and didn’t like to show them.
“How do you know which ones to pull out?” I asked.
“Well, you look for the bad ones.”
I felt my own hair bound tight into braids. She was fastidious about the appearance of my long hair. In the morning, she furiously brushed all the tangles out. Then she’d part my hair once and again and another time. I could feel the tip of the comb digging a line down my head.
Having her brush my hair was an interesting compromise. For twenty or thirty minutes, I had her full attention. That attention came at a price. The entire time, she would pull and yank and criticize. That criticism was both for her and for me. But mostly, it was a measure of whether either of us was living up to her standards.
She wasn’t just fastidious about hair. At night, she looked out the windows and checked the latches. She rattled the doors to see if they were locked. Then she checked the stove, touching all the knobs. She did this repeatedly, until whatever was inside her settled.
“How do you know which ones are the bad ones?” I said.
“They are thicker than your other hairs.”
I thought deeply about her words. She was the wisest person I knew. She was thoughtful. She always tried to be kind. And she was gorgeous. Her skin was pink porcelain, her eyes were greenish grey. When she looked at me, when I thought she loved me, my entire being lit up.
We were alone on that campus. The occasional teacher went by, nodded, waved. Before the first bell rang, Mom gathered her hair, winding them round and round on her index finger until they were a tight wad.
I felt alone, sitting there with her, but I couldn’t explain why. I thought her presence was supposed to make me feel full. She stood up and walked me to class.
She was very devout; religion and insanity mixed in her head. Each hung on to the other as if they needed each other to stay afloat.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” she asked me a few days later.
She thought it was so important to be beautiful. She dissected beauty in a way that was first fascinating, then revolting.
“Yes, you are very beautiful. You are the most beautiful person in the world.”
“What if I got fat? Would you still love me?” she said.
I never asked her if she thought I was beautiful. I knew I didn’t qualify. I wasn’t even the right color.
“Liar,” she said, “You wouldn’t love me if I were fat.”
“I’m not lying. Yes, I would. I would still love you.”
“What if I was obese?”
“Yes,” I said tentatively. This was going somewhere bad and I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow.
“See. I knew it,” she said.
“I would still love you.”
And I could have sworn it. But she didn’t feel the same way about me. Her eyes landed on me like nervous birds.
Her gaze was hazy grey.
“I remember lying on the grass. It was one of those very hot days in Mexicali, where the air felt like you’d been shoved into an oven. My mother still owned the store, so I must have been around four. I was sick, so she’d taken me to the store with her. This was after the dog bit me. As I lay on the lawn, I could see that man who’d been stabbed. His intestines hung out. I watched him stumble into the channel. Then I saw him tumble again and again. Over and over,” Mom said.
“What happened to him?”
“He’d been stabbed. I saw his intestines hanging out of his body. I heard his body had been found down in the channel.”
“Did you see this happen?” I asked.
“No, I just heard the adults talking about it.”
I wondered if this is when her visions had started. Had God gifted her for seeing these such horrible images? Or did seeing an eviscerated man tumbling down the canal bring her closer to God? Perhaps the two things went together, like the saints she talked about.
Or possibly the spirits had entered her brain when the dogs split it open.
“Am I the most beautiful person you know?” she said.
“You used to think so.” She’s downcast. This is the first time we’ve had this conversation in a while. I’ve been thinking carefully about what to say when she tested me again.
“I know that you are not the most beautiful, but I love you. I think that matters more,” I said.
“You used to tell me differently.”
“I’m sorry. I know you aren’t the most beautiful and I love you. That’s important. I can see that you are not perfect and I love you anyway.”
Her silence told me she didn’t think so.
“What matters is that you think I’m perfect,” she said.
“What matters is that I love you.”
“Those bugs are getting in the house because of you,”
“Why do you say that?” I said.
“I think you are doing evil things. I think they are in the house because God is trying to scare you onto the right path. You need to pray more.”
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” I said.
She must have seen the fear in my eyes. Once she saw it, she came alive with it.
“You know I have prophetic dreams.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’ve seen what you do,” she said.
I started meditating at age 16. It wasn’t a serious practice yet. But it was the beginning of something. I would turn the lights off and light a candle, setting an intention.
“What is going on in your room?”
“If you weren’t doing anything, you wouldn’t need to close your bedroom door. You have to leave the door open a crack,” she said.
“I’m just meditating.”
“Candles remind me of Satan worshipping. And that music you play sounds Satanic and ritualistic.”
“It’s not Satanic.”
“It doesn’t matter if I can see what you are doing. God can see you. You are separating yourself from God. I don’t like it. You are heading down the wrong path,” she said.
But I wasn’t listening anymore. I knew she didn’t hear me. I saw her, but her gaze was hazy grey.
Sometimes loss is endless. I learned about the long span of death when my mentor died some years ago. When people would ask me how he was doing I would say, “He’s dying from cancer.”
But months later, I was still saying the same. It was then that I better understood that loss is a lifelong process. Sometimes loss is something that lasts for years, decades. Just when loss has depleted the pit of the soul, it continues.
I was married for the third time when I went to my mother’s home and saw that she had cardboard cutouts of people on the windows. I looked at my husband with alarm--our eyes locked.
“What’s going on?” I asked her, once inside the house.
“What do you mean?”
“The cardboard people. What’s going on?”
“Oh,” she said, suddenly animated, “Those took me such a long time to make.”
“I can imagine.”
“Now people who are passing by will think there are people in the house,” she said.
“I think they will know they aren’t real, mom.”
“No. They aren’t going to figure that out.”
I could tell that she wasn’t listening. She was excited and manically happy. Her eyes were hazy grey, and she had drifted away from reality.
I left a few minutes later. We never talked about the cutouts again.
In the car on the way home, I closed my eyes. I found the safe place inside of myself where I often went as a child when my mom couldn’t see me. I felt the relief of not having to live there anymore. I thought of the countless times I imagined death to be better than the life I lived with her. Now I am training my gaze; not to block out the people who don’t fit my expectations, but to see my own reality.
Mireya S. Vela
Mireya S. Vela is a creative non-fiction writer and researcher in Los Angeles. In her work, Ms. Vela addresses the needs of immigrant Mexican families and the disparities they face every day. She tackles issues of inequity and how ingrained societal systems support the (ongoing) injustice that contributes to continuing poverty and abuse. Ms. Vela received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Whitter College—and received her Master of Fine Arts from Antioch University in 2018. She is also a visual artist. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and see her visual work at mireyavela.com.