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I walked slowly through the sidewalk, my cheap jeans sloshing through the slushy ice and murky puddles. We can't even afford a car, I thought. Mama always said that cars weren't necessary in a city. I rolled my eyes. Neither were the gangs, nor the drug dealers who lurked around the school parking lots. The teal graffiti sprayed on dilapidating edifices wasn't of great need, nor were the traumatic gunshots that boomed through the town like fireworks on Independence Day.
“This place is affordable, the people here love Spanish food, and hija, this city has a lot more pros than cons. If you open your mind and remember that, then you wouldn't mind living here,” Mama once told me when I asked about moving.
I smirked, recalling that memory. Adjusting my glasses, I scanned my surroundings, to see if her point was valid. Suddenly, I felt a pull to the ground and fell forward, right on my face. “I hate ice,” I murmured, as I got up and carelessly wiped the caked mud and slush off my pants. I couldn't believe that at one point, I thought my world was the most dazzling realm in the entire universe. The world was a utopia, with Mama, me, and the sixty-pack box of Crayola crayons from the Dollar store across the street. Back then, the gunshots weren't actually gunshots to me. No, they were just fireworks that flew so fast into the air that you couldn't see the flashing crimson disperse in the sky. Oh, and the annoying streetlights that blared throughout the city and unfortunately through the very small window in my very small room every night until dawn? I thought they were gorgeous. When I went up to the rooftop of the tenement, the city would look like “a big, beautiful Christmas tree” adorned in yellow and orange lights, with moving ornaments of blue, black, and red zooming past them.
I scoffed loudly. Those days were way back when I was young and innocent, when I didn't realize just how screwed up my life really was. Again, I felt myself swing forward like a baseball bat, charging straight down to the pavement. “Why me?” I asked myself. As I got up and resumed my careful walking, I felt some weird object slapping against my socks. Looking down in dismay, I realized that the sole of my sneaker had torn. Cursing softly under my breath, I continued walking, hoping that nobody else around would notice the awkward flapping noise. Cheap sneakers...suddenly I remembered what happened this morning.
I had walked into my English class, my sneakers squeaking loudly from the water that had leaked into the front lobby, and had taken the vacant seat near the back of the room. As I had started writing down the task on the chalkboard, I heard giggles and snickering from behind me. Tactfully, I turned around and said, “Charlene, would you mind zipping it? You're really being a pain in the---”
“---Look guys,” she interrupted,”The kid's not mute.”
I sneered. “It would be kindly appreciated if you----”
“----Oh it would be kindly appreciated if you jumped off a cliff and died already for goodness sake, but hey,” Charlene had leaned in closer, her eyebrows raised and her blue stilettos clacking loudly on the floor, “We don't always get what we want, now do we?” She had pulled a strand of her straight brown hair back behind her diamond studded ear, and then slumped back into her seat with satisfaction, obnoxiously chewing her gum. I had quietly turned around and started to brainstorm ideas for the task. The second I started my thesis statement, I felt a cool, minty air breeze past my left shoulder.
“Now tell me, “ Charlene started again, “Is it really true that you ran into the druggies after school and then ran away like a wimp?”
Silence. Ignore, ignore, ignore, ignore....
“ Wow, you're a lot lower than I thought.” She laughed, “ Then again, who says you could afford that good stuff? I mean, c'mon, just look at you. You think we don't notice these things? Look at your feet. Look at that hair, and those clothes....” my blood began to boil. She had moved away from my shoulder, the Winterfresh mint still lingering. “Look at your poor mom.”
I stomped my feet harder as I went down the mired curve of slosh and entered my street. Charlene's mom didn't own a Spanish pastry shop. She ran an online shoe business and made ten times more money that we could make in one month. That's why Charlene had so many appealing outfits and beautiful heels. I loved heels. Sometimes, I used to window shop with Mama on the “rich side” of town. We would always enter Clickity Clacks, a shoe store on Pemington Avenue. While Mama looked at cheaper buys, I would silently walk into the Heels aisle and start mimicking the models I saw in a Fashion Show on TV, stylishly walking toward the mirror and then away from it. Pencil heels, silver stiletto heels, wedges, platforms....I tried them all, but they were too expensive, as was everything else.
I walked up the creaky steps of the tenement, opened my apartment door, kicked off my shoes, and stared at the disgusting wreck which I called “home.” The mismatched furniture that rested on the rough, dull floor always caught my eye, as did the peeling yellow walls which Mama desperately tried to hide with several decorations and cheap photo frames. Mama, who lacked many items, happened to have an old camera she bought years ago at a garage sale. “Memories are inestimable, hija. They are important, the good memories, of course. Hold on to them, remember them forever. They keep you going when nothing else does, and when you forget them, you...stop!” That was probably one of the few things Mama managed to tell me in her mediocre English.
As I dropped my backpack onto the sofa beside me, I began thinking about Kelly Rose, a girl who lived on the other side of town and went to the same elementary school as me before her parents decided to send her to private school. We had to work on a science project about magnets together, so she invited me over to her lovely home to work on it.
I had been paying more attention to the lavish apartment than the red and blue magnets she was waving in my face. Her living room had leather furniture with walls embroidered with maroon and blue roses, intertwined with evergreen vines. There was an entertainment center against the wall in front of the leather sofas, with a large television and DVD player. The kitchen was big, with a polished cherry wood dining table that seated four. She and her brother had separate bedrooms, each bigger than my own bedroom and bath combined. Her room was baby pink with a big, soft bed that had matching sheets and a headboard. Kelly Rose even had her own mirror, with a small table in front where she kept her assorted colored headbands and beaded bracelets. The stuffed animals and Barbie dolls were cuddled together on a shelf pilled to the wall. Her window had shades, so the streetlights never bothered her at night. Her life was, in my eyes, perfect. Why couldn't my life be the same?
The lights in the kitchen were on, and an exquisite aroma of tacos and cheese filled the air. All of a sudden, I was angry. I didn't care if tacos were my favorite food or not. I indignantly marched into the kitchen.
Mama's head was in a cabinet, searching for some sort of utensil. “What's all this?” I snapped.
She didn't seem to notice my edgy tone. She poked her head out, stood up, and smiled widely. Three of her front teeth were chipped and askew. I glared. We can't even afford a stupid dentist,I thought.
“I closed the shop for the evening. I wanted to spend some time with you! That's why I asked you to go to the store to get some sugar. I was making tacos, and it smells good, doesn't it? Hmm... now let's make some churros. You love those, don't you? C'mon, help me, it will be fun!” She smiled again and chortled, her eyes twinkling.
“I don't want tacos. I want to eat something normal.” I replied tersely.
“Normal?” Her eyes narrowed, and she shook her head. “Hija, what is normal?”She chuckled, moved to the counter, and opened a container of dough. “Hmm...we'll need some agua----”
“---No Mama,” Anger started to slowly rise to my temples. “I want to eat something that everyone eats.”
“Everyone eats churros! You know, I run out of churros everyday now, I can't make enough!” She laughed as she started to fill a cup with water.
“I want to eat pizza.”
“Pizza? Did you just say pizza?
“Yeah, why? What's wrong with pizza?” Too expensive, now is it?
“ Since when did you ever like Italian food? You hate pizza. You hate every sort of Italian food there is! The pasta, the ravioli----”
“Well, I'm not eating tacos or churros,” I retorted. I felt like a ticking bomb, ready to explode any second.
“Now, why is that?” Mama turned of the faucet and looked at me, her face trying to maintain some sort of calm.
“'Cause I want to be like everyone else.”
“What's everyone else like?”
“Everyone else eats pizza or some sort of junk food. They go to fancy restaurants every Friday and eat out. They wear silky dresses and high heels and makeup, and drive out of town with their friends----”
Mama shrieked in laughter, to the point where tears were about to spill out. “Oh my God!!! You...you've been watching too many films and shows, haven't you? Oy, you have to eat something, your hunger is causing a little malfunction in your mind!”
That's when I blew up. “I haven't been watching anything! My gosh, we can't even afford a TV, where did you get that idea from? In fact, we can't afford anything. I can't wear heels to school like everyone else. Everyone else has heels. Everyone else wears nice looking clothes. Why are we like this?”
Ma's eyes widened as she drew closer to me. “Is this the problem? Is this why---”
“---No, that's not the problem, okay? The problem is my entire, stupid, good for nothing life. I'm tired of it! It sucks. I hate it! I hate my hair, I hate my rotten clothes, I have no friends----”
“---You don't even try to make friends!”
“Why bother making friends when they all have better lives than me? It'd only make me more shallow than I already feel! Look at this place. This stupid, filthy dump! I can't stand it! I'm living in a doom!” I shrieked. “When will you ever fix this shack up?” Tears streamed from my eyes as I ran to my room, overwhelmed with anger, pain, grief, and confusion.
An hour or so later, I heard the door creak open and the dim lamp turn on. Mama sat on the edge of the bed, stroking my tangled hair softly. “Talk to me, Viveza.” My voice sounded muffled as I slowly spoke into my wet pillow, telling her what happened at school today, telling her about the things I see, telling her how all of my feelings have been stuffed inside me and suddenly popped open like an over-packed suitcase unable to carry anything more.
“ Why is life like this, Mama? What did we do? Whenever I go to Church, I always ask God, 'What have I ever done? What did I do to deserve an impoverished life like this?'” I felt a lump in my throat again.
“This isn't normal.”
“But what is normal, hija?”
“Well, normal isn't supposed to be this. Life isn't supposed to be this. It isn't supposed to be cheap clothes from the thrift store. It isn't supposed to be about a poor family making end's meet, living in this poor tenement with peeling walls and cheap garbage we call furniture. It isn't supposed to be men and women roaming around the streets without a place to stay. We should be living perfectly----”
“Hey, hey hey!! Nothing is perfect. Nobody is perfect.”
“Yeah, but, we're don't deserve all this burden. Life's supposed to be like----”
“How do you know what life's supposed to be like? Life isn't supposed to be anything.”
I turned over and stared ceiling, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Life isn't supposed be this and that. It isn't supposed to be like anything. Don't you understand? That's why we can play around with life. It's like a game. That's why everyone's view of life is distinct from everyone else's. It makes each of us unique. It makes us iridescent. We can be whatever we want to be, we can do whatever we want to do, as long as we're open-minded, positive and ready to take on some storms. In the end, we will shine.” Mama's voice was strong and resolute. She stopped stroking my hair. “You ever wonder why you have the name that you have?”
“ Viveza Tulio Duradera It means vivacious. One who endures, who perseveres. Your father gave you your name, right before he died.” There was a small silence. “ Can you live up to that name? ” She patted my leg, rose, and left the room, leaving me to answer her question.
I stared at the ceiling and thought about her words. This life is mine, and it doesn't have to be like this forever. Right then, the world seemed to have changed again, and I felt something magical, something which I hadn't felt in a long time...a glint of hope and a spark of ambition filling me up.
I can do this. I can shine...I will shine, I thought.
“Viveza, you still want pizza?” Mama called out loudly from the kitchen. “ Carmine's is still open---”
I scoffed, got up, and started moving toward the kitchen. “Of course not, Mama, since when did I ever like Italian food...”
Ithaca, New York
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