Abuela loves to dance. At roughly 5’2, she is a small woman con mucho fuerza, her dark hair cropped short above her shoulders, a happy mess of curls that spring when she moves. She wears a size 5 in shoes, or 5½, depending on the fit. When I am four or five, I search for this number in her soles and say, “Mamá has bigger feet.” Then I ask if she shops in the baby section. She says, “No, mijita” and pauses before adding, “but sometimes I find shoes in the girl’s section at DSW.” Abuela laughs, and the sound is round and robust like a gust of wind. Her laughter eventually tapers off into a sweet calm, a gentle breeze.
Her small feet circle the narrow dining room of her one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco or shift around the wooden planks of a gazebo floor in Huatulco or twirl across the linoleum of my mother’s kitchen in Raleigh. In my dreams, Abuela is always laughing, always dancing. She is at a wedding. I am nine, and Abuela is ageless. Some part of me believes she will live forever. Abuela is dancing to “De Reversa Mami” by some Latin Pop group neither of us recognize. She says, “Piojito, ven aquí.” She wants me to join her on the dance floor. Her piojito. Her little tick. She doesn’t mean this in a bad way, like I’m a blood-sucking demon, but rather as a term of endearment. She says piojito like one would say sweetheart. Abuela does this, calls people by seemingly insulting nicknames. Big Baldie. Ugly Handsome. Little Tick. I join her on the dance floor, and for years after we sing “De Reversa Mami”: when the silence grows too heavy between us on flights to Mexico; on car rides from San Francisco to San Diego to Sacramento; on lackluster afternoons at her apartment between the Haight-Ashbury and Fillmore districts. I sketch pictures of her plants while she makes tortillas and cooks carne en su jugo. Together, we whisper, “de reversa mami de reversa mami de reversa mami de reversa.”
Abuela tells me she wants me to be happy. That she would be la abuela más feliz del mundo if I were. She asks me this often—“Piojito, are you happy?”—and most times I say, “I’m trying, Abuela.” When I ask her the same question, she says, “I’m always happy.” And I almost believe her. Then come evening, there’s a heaviness to her. She drinks Merlot and thinks of her father. He was a matador in Mexico City, a ranch owner in Sierra de Tepotzotlán. “He was a kind man,” she says and tells me about the time Abuelo Genaro found water along the mountain range, then dug a well for the villagers nestled in the valley. Every night before bed, Abuela drinks and heats a tortilla on the stovetop. She lets the tortilla crisp on both sides and leaves it to harden on the pan. “Por mi papá,” she says.
Abuela recalls a story from my childhood. She tells the same one over. In this story, I am barely two and still living in San Francisco with my parents, near Abuela. I say, “Abuela, do you think?” She says, “Claro, mijita. Everyone thinks.” I sigh. “Because I think a lot,” I say. She laughs until she cries and tells everyone that will listen, “Mi pijioto thinks too much. Mi piojito lindo.” She puts a hand on my forehead and tells me she’s glad I think but not to think too hard.
In San Francisco, before the clock chimes 4 p.m., I sit on the windowsill in the living room of my parents’ apartment and wait. And at exactly 4 p.m., Abuela rings the doorbell and I rush to open the door for her. When she leaves for the night, I linger by the front door and cry. “I’m just around the corner,” she says, but she cries, too. Before I move to Philadelphia with my parents—before my brother and sister are born and we move to Raleigh, even further away from Abuela who sticks to the west coast for years—I tell her to follow me. “Please, Abuela. Come live next door.” She calls me bonita and kisses the top of my head, my nose, my cheeks. Her breath is warm across my face, and I want to hug her closer. She leaves me with red marks from her lipstick that I don’t wipe off.
Patricia Patterson is a Mexican-American writer based in Central North Carolina. Her work appears or is forthcoming in PANK, wildness, Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. She is also an assistant fiction editor for storySouth.