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Jennifer Lorene Ritenour Fiction

“The Language of Flowers”

by Jennifer Lorene Ritenour


When I think about Amá’s death it comes in pieces and the memories, they’re all out of order, as if someone took them and shook them around in my head. The first memory is always different, but the last memory is always the same, with her being in a box. Right now, I’m thinking about her hair. It was thick, wavy, and soft brown, and in the light it had a little red in it. She didn’t have much of a waist but she had great legs. Thick in the thighs without being like Jell-O. She wore tight mini-skirts to show them off. The men whistled and she would smile. She drove them loco. It always made me laugh because I know she did it to mess with them.

*

Nicole lived in the apartment next to us. I felt bad for her because one time I heard all this yelling coming from her house, and then the next thing I heard was crying outside my window. I pulled up the blinds and I saw Nicole sitting there in the dirt where a bush should be. I opened my window and talked to her through the screen and asked her what was wrong. She just kept crying. I told her that she couldn’t be crying all night underneath my window, so she had to tell me what was up. And she got real quiet. She said that her parents were fighting and she didn’t want to be there anymore, with them. I told her that I had to sleep. We have school tomorrow. She didn’t move and kept sniffling. I told her that I didn’t want to hear her sniffles all night. Eventually, I took off the screen door and let her crawl into my window. She slept on the floor.

*

Amá used to say that she had a tickle in her throat. It wasn’t a deep cough but more like a hacking sound. When she’d finished coughing she’d grab a Ricola and suck on it. She kept a bag of them in her purse. I got tired of seeing her reach for those medicine candies. I told her to go to the doctor. I have no insurance mija, she would say. I told her to go to the free clinic. Her eyes looked foggy, like an old dog or something.

*

Amá taught me the sign of the cross and The Lord’s Prayer when I was real little. She’d said I didn’t need anything else. One day when she was dropping me off at school and we were stopped at a red light she asked me if I remembered the prayer and the sign of the cross. So, I showed her. A black mascara tear rolled out from underneath her sunglasses and she said, Nothing can get in the way between you and God.

*

I used to go to the liquor store after school. This guy from Iran owned it. I know he was from Iran because I asked him. His store sold Mexican candy and it was close to my house so I would always get Lucas there. The chili powder kind. It comes in a little plastic salt shaker. You shake it into your hand and then lick it. I brought Nicole there after she slept on my floor for the first time. She said she didn’t like hot things. So, I bought her limón flavored. She held out her hand, and I remember thinking how it looked like a scared white bird. I shook the candy into her palm. And she looked at me and she looked at the stuff in her hand, and I knew she was thinking that I gave her salt, but I told her it was okay. I poured some in my hand up and I dipped my tongue into my palm and she smiled. Then she dipped her tongue into her palm and smacked her lips and said it was okay.

*

My abuelos came to visit us from San Pedro, we lived in Riverside, and they sat on the couch and talked to each other in Spanish. I didn’t know hardly anything they talked about. I knew only the simple things. ¿Hola, cómo estás? And some of the bad words. Pinche. What I knew was useless. Sometimes my Abuelo would smile at me and I would smile back all awkward. My Abuelita, well, she couldn’t even look at me without sadness at that time. I think it was because she was ashamed of the sin I was born from, because my parents weren’t married, and probably because my dad left us. I only saw them during the holidays up until that point. When Amá  got sick we just sat on the couch and looked at our hands when we heard her coughing in the bathroom.

*

I remember once when we went to visit my abuelos in San Pedro and stayed the night. Amá wanted to take me to my first bonfire. It was just me and her at Cabrillo Beach though. My abuelos didn’t feel like going. Amá had on an orange-colored bikini, a white cover-up, gold sandals and she looked like a freaking Goddess. It was night, and we were sitting in front of the fire. I wore my regular clothes. Three men sat at a bonfire next to us. One was Mexican like us. They drank beers and sang songs to Amá. She laughed but it wasn’t a real laugh, it was a fake one, because she whimpered a little at the end. She was scared. And I just stared into the fire because I didn’t want to be around that. Then I felt really uncomfortable, like something was on my back, and I looked to the side and one of the men was looking at me all nasty. You know, where their eyes become slits. And he quietly puckered his lips. That’s when Amá said it was time to go and when we got into the car she cursed in Spanish about men and then complained in English that she can’t even take her daughter to the damn beach.

*

I had woken up all scared and sweaty. But I couldn’t remember my nightmare. Something about losing teeth. Nicole was sleeping on my floor that night, and my sheets were too damp. So, I got out of bed and I lay down next to her on the cool floor.

*

I remember one doctor visit at the clinic. Me and my abuelos and Amá. She was gone inside one of those little rooms. The doctor came out and said a bunch of Spanish to my Abuelos. My Abuelita put her hand to her chest. My Abuelo squeezed her when she said mi dios, mi dios. I knew that. I got worried. Then the doctor went back to the room and my Abuelos sat down and they had wet faces. I heard a nurse behind the counter say to the other nurse, without whispering, that she couldn’t believe that woman tried to hide it for so long, and the other one said that she would probably go soon. They didn’t think I knew English.

*

Amá used to have a picture of my dad in her wallet. It was the only picture I ever saw of him. He had thick dark hair and tanned skin, a long nose and hazel eyes. He wore a blue flannel shirt and some jeans and some boots. I had his hair, that’s it. I looked nothing like him. Except for the eyes. Amá, her eyes were a deep brown. She used to say, I thought I had a prince but he ended up being a pendejo. I’d ask her why she kept this picture then. She’d put it away quick and then say, looking down, that it was for me. 

*

Nicole had asked me what was wrong. We were in my bed, underneath the covers. It was cold, but we both had our hoodies on so I didn’t mind it much. I was crying then. I remember I couldn’t open my eyes and look at Nicole. I told her my mom was gonna die and I didn’t know why this was gonna happen and that there was nothing I could do about it. And it hurt so bad. I think it was in that moment I really felt it, before it even happened. It was like there was this burning thing in my chest and I couldn’t cry it out because I didn’t want to wake my family, and I didn’t want them to find out about Nicole sleeping in my room. She touched my face. And I opened my eyes. Nicole’s eyes were watery too. She said she didn’t know why my mom had to die. She stroked my forehead when she said this. I asked what could we do with all of this? She didn’t know. Nothing, she said. I let her hold me that night, my face in her chest. Our hot breaths under the blanket. She ran her hands through my hair and shushed me to sleep. 

*

Amá wanted to keep her hair. I found her once in the bathroom in her robe. She used to lay all day in that robe. It was pink and always looked so soft. Like she was wrapped up in cotton candy or something. I found her in the bathroom; she was sitting on the floor. Her robe had green vomit stains on it. Her hands were moving slow. And I could see her scalp. All she had were these thin wires sticking out of her head. She moved her hands over the tile like she was looking for the rest of her hair.

*

Amá came home crying once. I was sitting on the floor in front of the TV. I think I was eating macaroni and cheese. She came in holding her high heels, and there was all this make-up running down her face. She sat on the couch and lit a cigarette. Her hair was curled and framed her face like a lion. I told her she looked like a dead clown. She put her cigarette out and laughed. She laughed really loud. She asked me to come to her and I did. She wrapped her arms around me and kissed the top of my head. Mija, mija, she said. She told me that it was better to come home to a daughter then to a stupid man. She must have really thought he was the one. Whoever he was.

*

I waited for Nicole one day at the liquor store. She didn’t show up. So, I put the chili Lucas and the Limón Lucas in my backpack. When I got home, I knocked on her door. But I didn’t hear nothing. I wanted to turn the doorknob, but I was scared of her parents, these white people that yelled all the damn time but I’d never seen. I had put my face up real close to their window. Through the cracks in the blinds and I saw that her living room had nothing in it but carpet.

*

Amá was in the recliner and I was sitting at her feet. They were just like ice. Her skin, which used to be smooth and soft brown, was grey and loose. Her eyes were rolled up and her teeth were chattering. Her hair and her eyebrows were gone. She was just a round head popping up from her robe. Abuelo was holding her hand. He was on his knees, and he was asking God to help her. He said his prayer over and over to where it didn’t sound like Spanish or even English, but another language that only he and God understood. His forehead was all tight. Abuelita lit all these candles with pictures of Mary and Jesus and Saints on them. I asked her what the hell were they good for, these candles. Don’t do nothing but make the room hot. But Abuelita wouldn’t understand me, and I didn’t have the energy to try and say it in Spanish.

*

Amá sold Avon for extra money. She kept the samples she liked and convinced our neighbors to buy lipstick and rouge and all kinds of creams for their faces. On New Year’s Eve there’d be a line of women waiting to have Amá make them pretty, like her, and even if they didn’t come out looking like Amá, they came out feeling like her. Their backs straight and smiles all big.

*

One time I was sitting on a bench near the basketball courts at school during lunch; all the kids circled me and asked me where my weird friend was. The white girl who wore the same clothes every day. I knew what clothes they were talking about. A black T-shirt and a pair of dirty jeans. I told them that I didn’t know and that I couldn’t worry about it right now. And one of the girls got real sassy and said that maybe Nicole was living in a box in an alley somewhere. I told that puta not to play like that. And my eyes, I knew they had lots of anger in them because she backed off and got this fear on her face. She said that I really was weird like Nicole. Everyone left me alone. And I thought about the night Nicole held me to sleep. Then, I felt real cold. 

*

Amá was put into the hospital after her fingernails and toenails fell off. I used to rub the raw area, where the nail used to be, real light, when she was sleeping. After school I would take the bus to the hospital. I would sit in a chair in the room that Amá was put in. I would do my homework while these ladies, sometimes men, would come in and fix her wires and that little bag of water they put in her and that little bag of liquid for the pain. Amá didn’t talk much and I didn’t talk much. When she could talk she would say mija, and I would say Amá. And she would roll back. 

*

Mija, she said in a daze in front of the TV. ¿Qué? I said. The movie she was watching was Cinderella from the 1960s. The actress had brown hair, wearing her cleaning clothes, and had a perfect smudge on her white cheek. Nothing, she said. Then the fairy godmother came on the screen and waved her wand and changed Cinderella’s life. Amá laughed and said Cinderella was stupid. It’s better to be the Fairy Godmother because she can do anything she wants with that star shaped wand. I laughed too.

*

I went to the liquor store the day after Nicole was gone. I bought myself a mango sucker. I wanted something fruity. I sat on the floor against the store’s wall. The concrete was hot from the sun, so I kept my sandals on. I wanted to hear someone say: Hey.  And I wanted to look up and it be Nicole. I’d ask her where she’d been. She’d sit down next to me. She’d have cut her blonde hair short. She’d say that her parents got better jobs and that they moved into a house. That she had her own room now and she had lots of different clothes. Dresses. A light blue dress, almost silver, would look nice with her yellow hair. I’d tell her that it was a nice area, and what was she doing down here? She’d say that she wanted to find me and eat candy and ask me to live with her once Amá died. Her parents became good, like parents on TV, but this was just my daydreams.

*

The day I stopped doing my homework, I knew I was running out of time. Her eyes, the whites, turned as yellow as banana skin. Amá would shake, and finally I just couldn’t take it, and I asked the doctor why she shook and why her eyes were yellow, and he took off his glasses and he sat down and he looked at the floor and he said that her pain was so big that her painkiller had to be bigger and that plugged up her liver, which made her eyes yellow. I asked, what about the shaking, could you make her stop doing that? And he looked at me and he told me that the morphine wasn’t touching her anymore.

*

Amá sang in the bathroom while she crimped her hair. Everything from Gloria Estefan to George Michael. She didn’t sound like a Disney Princess but she didn’t crack any glasses either. Sometimes when she was on the phone outside on the porch smoking and talking, I’d go into the bathroom, stare into the medicine cabinet mirror, put on her lipstick, and sing all dramatic. She’d come back in, my lipstick already wiped off, and tell me that was a good impression.

*

I went to the liquor store and I bought the chili Lucas. The owner asked if I was sure I didn’t want the limón flavor like I always get. I told him I used to buy that one for my friend but she moved away and that I really like the chili kind. He told me he would make sure to keep the chili kind in stock. I thanked him and walked out of the store crying. I knew this was my last trip to this store because Amá was going to die and I would have to leave Riverside and live with my Abuelos in San Pedro soon. I don’t even know the store owner but he was nice to me without even knowing what was happening.

*

I remember her stomach being swollen like Amá was going to give me a brother or a sister. But I knew that it was all the sickness swelling up inside of her. My Abuelos ate downstairs at the cafeteria. I never felt like eating anything then but candy. Amá kept saying, No pueden encontrarme. And I told her that I loved her, but I don’t think she heard. Everything she said at that point was in Spanish. She would giggle, and I would get scared because she didn’t even seem like Amá anymore, she seemed like a demon with her yellow eyes. And for the first time I told God. I closed my eyes tight and I told him he did this to her and now it’s enough, that he needs to take her because her gums are red with blood now. And I opened my eyes. And I remember I saw the sickness in Amá’s stomach move. It went up the side of her chest, where her once full breast used to be. And then to her throat, like a frog, and I was scared that she was going to choke, but I stayed in my seat. Then her mouth opened and out of it came this large ball of moving lights. So many lights, like tiny rainbows. And it went through the window like it wasn’t ever there. 

*

One time Amá painted my toenails. Black and orange for Halloween. I felt silly with them, so I asked her to do it too. She shook me lightly by the shoulders and said that she wasn’t a niñita like me.  But then I gave her my sad-girl face, and she sighed and said okay. That day we wore sandals together to the grocery store but no one noticed our feet and that was okay.

*

I dreamt about Nicole. We were standing in a dark room. I couldn’t see the floor, the walls, nothing. She poured the Lucas into my hand and instead of the candy, it was sparkling light that fell from the container like water. Thank you, she whispered.

*

The church was filled with flowers. White ones, yellow ones and red ones. All marigolds. We had a picture of her when she wasn’t sick blown up and put on an easel. Her coffin was closed. No one wanted to see her all shriveled up and bald. I couldn’t listen to the priest; I just kept staring from her picture to her coffin. She was really in there. That’s what I kept thinking. And her picture, it was so weird, it felt frozen in time. And the other thing about it, about pictures of dead people, is that even if you didn’t know that they were dead at the time, you could look at their picture and think, that person is dead. Or at least I could always tell. But the priest, he made us repeat the words about Jesus and Mary and mothers and sons and stuff, and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he kept singing it like a song, and I swear each prayer lasted like twenty minutes. The whole thing took forever. At one point he had us stand and sit back down a couple times too. And that’s all I remember about it, the picture, the closed coffin holding her sick dead body, and the little priest at the podium singing. Then after that we drove to the cemetery and they brought the coffin to the plot and they lowered Amá into the ground, and when I saw that, I thought, it’s over. Her friends were there and a few men that I didn’t know, though none of them had been there while she was in the hospital, none of them, even when she was alive they couldn’t see her soul. Pendejos. We all looked down on that box. I was never going to see her again. I was never going to feel her curls on my cheek when she hugged me, or smell her musky perfume. I was never going to hear her sing while she got ready for work. I was never going to listen to her cry about her boyfriends. My fat tears plopped on her casket. She deserved a nice man, a prince, to love her. There was so much never. 

*

I skipped the funeral party. I left everyone in my old house, neighbors, cousins, tios, eating their food. It was the middle of the day and our apartment was right by the orange groves. I walked through them and smelled the citrus while I kicked up dusty dirt and listened to my Walkman with Amá’s Santana mixtape on repeat. As the sun went down behind the mountain, I made sure to get back home before everyone would worry where I was at. I just wasn’t hungry.

*

My new life in San Pedro, those who were born here call it pee-drow, began with Abuelo’s voice echoing in the house when he left to go to work, construction. The smell of his coffee floated into my new room under the crack of the door. Abuelita warmed up his pan dulce, just for a couple seconds to make it warm. My stomach grumbled before the hum of the microwave started and filled the house with sugar. I heard him leave from the rattle of the security door.

*

I went to the kitchen, and there Abuelita stood, back turned to me, with her arms up to her elbows and soapy water. She stared out the open window at the wall of jasmine on a trellis, and I wondered what she thought but didn’t ask. She was in a trance. Stared at the jasmine but didn’t really see it. She inhaled the perfume from the flowers and it was like her mind went somewhere else, somewhere private and hers. She shook her head and scrubbed a dish like she never even stopped. A pink concha, on a plate, was left on the table for me. I sat down and ate it in torn-off pieces. She made me a cup of decaf to go with it, brewed with cinnamon and sugar.

*

Abuelita wore a bright-colored sundress. A striped pattern of green, fuchsia and turquoise. Her gold-hooped earrings dangled from her thick earlobes when she would put a dish in the rack to dry. When she was done, she took her earrings out. She sat at the table with me and ate with me even though she probably wasn’t that hungry.

*

In Abuelita’s room there’s a dresser mirror with prayer cards shoved in the corner. Doilies are sprawled across its surface with one small jewelry box in the center. I open it sometimes. The wood smells like mothballs. Inside are two of Abuelita’s small hoop earrings, a pearl drop necklace, an opal ring, and Amá’s turquoise bracelet that she strung herself. I put on the bracelet. It hung on my wrist, heavy. She could have had her own jewelry store. I opened the top dresser drawer to find large silk panties, nylon stockings to the knees, Abuelita’s underthings. Among them I found a photo in black and white and recognized Abuelita because the small mole above her right eyebrow was there. The ‘40s and ‘50s, those unfair decades, but everyone looked like movie stars. I liked the way Abuelita’s hair was curled tight and how her teeth peeked from behind her dark lipstick. She looked at the camera, over her bare shoulder, all flirty. The blurred outline of her body reminded me of the fuzziness in dreams.

*

In the nightstand drawer is a wooden box with La Santa Biblia in gold lettering. Once, I lifted the rusty latch and inside saw the portrait of Jesus; one hand was raised, one hand tapped his chest, a thin golden halo surrounded his head. His face looked feminine and soft. His beard was trimmed into two peaks and reminded me of something more devil-like than holy. A ring of thorns squeezed his exposed heart. When I saw the drops of blood, I couldn’t help but flinch and bring my own hand to my chest. I flipped the thin see-through pages of the Bible. It fanned a smell of its own like money. I pinched out a piece of the page from the Bible with the word sangre printed on it and placed it on my tongue. Bitter. I don’t know why I thought it would taste like cotton candy. Jesus’ eyes squinted at me, and I snapped the book shut in its case. 

*

In my room there’s a crack in the wall. Stretched up near the ceiling from the Northridge earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night and felt like our house was a new toy in a baby’s hands. I got up and yelled for Amá, reached in front of me in the dark. I felt clothes. Lost in the closet. Freaking out, I told myself I was going to die in the closet, suffocate by sweaters. Then Amá wrapped her cold hand around my forearm and pulled me into the doorway. She held on to me tight while the earth moved under our feet. Though she held her breath, her heart beat fast against my cheek. I looked up at her face, focused on the mole above her eyebrow, Abuelita, not Amá.

*

Abuelo came home and smelled like a wet sock, and his hair was plastered to his head from his yellow hard hat. He barely said hello as he put his empty coffee canister in the sink and then jumped straight into the shower. He met us when the food was placed on the table, wore a fresh white T-shirt, sweat pants, hair slicked back from being shampooed. His face was freshly scrubbed, but his puffy eyes and droopy cheeks showed how tired he was.

*

From the kitchen table, I noticed a hornet’s nest in the corner of the window near our front porch. It looked like a honeycomb. I stared at the slick wings of the hornet, its jittery body crawled up, in, and around its nest. I pointed to it and Abuelo stood from the table. He sighed, grabbed the broom, and then went out the front door. I sat inside the house, safe, while Abuelo took the stick end of the broom, held his breath, counted to three, and whacked the nest. It crumbled like graham crackers.

*

I watched Abuelita through the window water the plants. She stood on the balls of her feet and stretched herself taller to get at the tomatoes that hung over our porch. Her chapped and rough heels lifted from the bottoms of her yellow slippers covered in dirt. I worried when she got shaky, like I wouldn’t be able to catch her. She wiped her sweaty face with the back of her hand and came inside the house. 

*

Abuelo put the paper down in his lap and told her she looked sick. But she waved her hand and said she was fine, just a fever. We told her to rest, and for once she listened. I hummed a song to her while she slept in the recliner. Abuelita’s cheeks were sagged, her mouth randomly chewed, her snores got stuck in her nose, and then came out in squeaks. She woke up for a moment and then settled back into sleep. I hummed a song to her sweaty forehead, her faded red eyelids, and the soft hairs in her nostrils. 

*

I made Top Ramen for dinner. Me and Abuelo ate in silence, slurped our noodles; neither of us got full. Cooking isn’t so bad, I said. When we finished our meal, Abuelo took the plates away and filled them with hot water and soap. He scrubbed them with a sponge and then turned them upside down on the rack to dry. The next morning, I made us cereal in the same bowls we ate the ramen from. As soon as I poured the milk in the bowls, rainbow bubbles rose; Abuelo didn’t rinse them well enough. That afternoon, our new neighbor came over, an Italian lady. She heard about Amá and made us lasagna. This dish of mourning, she called it.

Abuelita told me my clothes were like a boy’s. That I wear too many T-shirts and jeans. I told her just because our family has changed doesn’t mean I have to wear dresses all the time. I have one ugly dress, lime green with white polka dots. I wore it to Amá’s funeral. I refused to wear black. Abuelita had ironed it and when she was done, I pictured her wedged shoes sinking into the carpet as she approached my door, hanging the dress on the door knob to my room, sighing before she turned away. Sometimes she still tries to get me to attend misa and hangs that ugly dress on my door.

 *

Abuelita wanted to keep the vanity table when I moved in with them. Round with a gold filigree frame. No one used it since Amá died. It was in my room with a sheet over it. I got up from the edge of my bed and locked the door. I turned off the light on my nightstand. The moonlight peeked through the blinds in the window, enough for me to see without bumping into things. I took the sheet off and stood in front of the mirror. I stared at the outline of me with my face in the shadows. Amá, I said her name, and then three times I said: Araceli, Araceli, Araceli. In time, I saw a jasmine flower unfold it’s petals in the mirror. Her face popped out of its center. Skin soft and brown again. And then I saw her eyes, just two tiny dots of light in them. Her mouth opened and all of these spiders crawled out all over her face like rippling black smoke. I couldn’t scream, stuck in place, the fear rushed through me in hot and cold sweaty waves. You gotta let me go, Amá said. Her voice sounded like when I talked into the floor fan as a kid, all shaky. You gotta get it all out and let me go, she said. I grabbed my stomach. I told her I saw her in the light already. She said, that was my soul and this is my spirit. And then her image flickered and dissolved. I fell to the floor. All of the sadness I carried inside of me, keeping her spirit here, so unnatural, it all came out of me in one glowing stream.

*

I agreed to go to the cliffs with Abuelo one Sunday. Just once. He said he was too tired to go to the cemetery. It was too much to watch Abuelita cry over the names and dates on the marker of her only daughter. To watch her tears hit the stone and then dry up from the sun. Abuelo was too tired to go to misa. It was too much to see the rest of the people sit in the pews and soak up all the light from the stained glass windows of the church. So, me and Abuelo went to the cliffs, he gripped my hand and spoke in a Spanish that lost me. We had walked to the edge of our city, carrying old plastic grocery bags filled with jasmine that we had picked from the trellis that morning. We had dropped the star-shaped flowers one at a time over the cliffs. Watched them catch the breeze, float, and then fade into the waters below.

*

I dreamt I was in the darkness and I could hear Amá crying. Her tears sparkled with the light of her soul. I saw her face cover my ceiling. The same face I saw in the mirror. But this time she was smiling and this time there was no darkness and this time her tears fell from heaven and turned into white jasmine flowers that looked like stars and pressed upon my chest and rippled throughout my body as she sang my name: Viviana, Viviana, Viviana.

BIO

Jennifer Lorene Ritenour is from San Pedro, California and has lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her writing is informed by place. Her style has been described as dirty fabulism. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness Magazine and Waxwing among other places. “The Language of Flowers” first appeared in two parts in the Santa Monica Review. For more information visit: jenniferloreneritenour.com

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