Palingeneisa: Part 2
In the window, Soledad can see her own ghostly reflection. There are bags under her eyes; the remnants of her mascara smudge a little. Her long black hair is unruly even though she spent thirty minutes this morning trying to flatten it. After all the times her mother yanked her hair back into a braid and plastered gel all over her baby curls, she’s probably disappointed in Soledad’s incompetence.
Soledad drums her free fingers as she stares at the churning clouds gathering. Rain always reminds her of tears, of an angel crying.
“I hope it doesn’t rain,” she tells her mother.
María raises an eyebrow at her and squeezes her hand tighter. “¿Por que? Rain is refreshing. It gives new life.”
“I don’t know why,” Soledad answers. “I just hate it.”
The worst part of those final months was that Soledad could barely remember them, but even when she wanted to, there was a part of her heart that resisted remembering.
That winter was the warmest in her eight years of life, so all the snow that would have fallen delicately had become wet and destructive, turning the roads into lanes of mud. For months, the trees looked like rusted lightning against the gray sky. In fact, the whole world was drab and gray and brown—the colors of decay. There wasn’t a single sunny day that she could remember, and it was suffocating her.
They visited the hospital everyday after school and didn’t return until nightfall. It was a sterile, multi-story labyrinth just off the side of the highway at the edge of the neighboring city.
During these long drives to the hospital, Soledad would sit in the truck with her bright pink backpack in her lap, and she would flip her braids while wishing that she and her mother didn’t have to visit all the time. She wanted to play with her friends instead of sitting in a stuffy room; she wanted to have a regular life. She didn’t want to be surrounded by death. But she never told her mother how she felt.
Worse, she hated seeing Abuela like that, shriveled and drowning in the immaculate white sheets of her bed. Most of the time, Abuela was asleep, but sometimes she would stir, her movements fractured as if she were decaying along with the rest of the world. Sometimes Soledad and her mother would have to help Abuela hobble to the bathroom—she insisted on no nurses during their visits. And sometimes, the doctors ushered Soledad out of the room, and she had to go back to the cramped waiting room and stare blankly at the cartoons blaring on the TV to keep herself from thinking too much.
During the final visit, when she and Abuela were alone for a moment, Soledad saw the streaks on the window, droplets of water splashing against the glass, and heard the beeping start. A few seconds later, her mother and a doctor came bursting into the room.
They’re nearing the town line because Soledad can see the sign for Hollow Road. She watches it grow from a reddish-brown speck nestled in the green to a corroded rectangle with fading letters.
She flinches and she feels herself spiral into a fresh memory, only a few days old. The longer she thinks, the deeper the spiral goes.
Out of the corner of her eye, Soledad sees her mother’s gaze flicker to her.
“I know you went there on Wednesday,” her mother says. “After I told you not to mess around with any boys.”
“Mom, it’s not—”
“I heard you crying that night. What happened?”
“Nothing happened. Why do you care so much?” Soledad snaps.
“Mija.” Her mother looks concerned. “I want you to be safe. Tell me.”
Soledad sucks in a breath as they approach the sign.
She and Jake sat in the truck in a shameful silence.
Soledad caught a glimpse of her reflection in the windshield.
She looked like she was trapped in a time between death and birth. Her face was dripping wet—like a newborn baby pulled out of its mother’s womb. Water streamed from her eyes. Her hair was matted against the raw, torn flesh of her face. Where there wasn’t water, there was blood, dashing her limbs and her grotesque face. It was enough blood for a thousand deaths; it stained her white clothes.
“Jake—” In a panic, Soledad reached for his arm but only felt the humidity of the truck.
Despite being in such a small space and just in the passenger’s seat, he was so far away that it seemed like he’d dissolved into the air.
It was only a reflection. It was only Soledad’s imagination. It was only her fear. La Llorona wasn’t real.
“I’m sorry,” she told Jake.
He didn’t answer; he shook his head and stared at his own reflection on the windshield. Soledad wiped away a few stray tears. She had never felt so wrong in her whole life.
Soledad lets the breath go as they pass the sign. It’s only a moment, nothing more. Nothing happens, just like nothing happened at First Communion, just like nothing happened at the dead end of Hollow Road. She reminds herself to stop expecting epiphanies.
“Soledad, estoy preocupada,” her mother continues. “For a long time, when you were a child, I saw that you were happy. You knew that I loved you.”
“You called me a brujita,” Soledad mutters.
“But something in you changed. You became so quiet, and since then, I’ve been worried. And then you started wearing those dresses and hanging out with that boy. And then the past few days…”
The sky has gotten so dark that it almost looks like night—Soledad almost expects to see stars dotting the sky. The whole stretch of land before the town line is drenched in the cover of the clouds. The rain is going to snuff out the life of this land.
Soledad wants to tell her; she’s on the precipice of doing so. Every muscle in her body is prepared for what she has been dying to say, but her mouth is numb and even if she has the words, she can’t find them.
It felt like the whole universe was holding its breath as Soledad prepared to have her sexual epiphany and set things right.
She parked the car at the dead end and quickly cut off the headlights because the woods looked sinister in the glow. She turned on the overhead light and took a deep breath as she stared at Jake in the soft orange flush of the truck.
“Jake, we’ve been hanging out a lot,” she whispered. “And I was thinking…”
He tilted his head and looked puzzled. “Soledad, what are you talkin’ about?”
“Here’s the thing,” she lied, “I… I like you.”
His eyes widened.
She reached out and interlaced her fingers with his. His hands were shaking. “And if you like me back, maybe…”
His melancholy expression was spectral in the muted light and his eyes dropped to their hands. “Yeah,” he said, his voice hoarse. “We can.”
Soledad felt her mouth go dry. She leaned over the cupholders and moved her face closer to his. She could see all of his freckles now, and she wondered what he saw through his stormy eyes.
She let her eyelids flutter shut and with her free hand, she reached down to the waistband of his jeans. Her heart began to pound in anticipation of the feelings as her fingers scraped the rough fabric. His fingers twitched in between hers, and he slid his other shaking hand under her blouse. His touch seared into her skin, and she almost drew away. But she didn’t—she couldn’t, not now—and instead pressed her lips to his in a fumbling kiss.
It was like she’d fallen into a void; she felt nothing more than she’d ever felt before. She squeezed her eyes tighter and pretended like she enjoyed the kiss. She wanted to do this, she told herself. But deeper inside, she didn’t want anything at all. What she wanted was to scream her lungs out. If her mother was always warning her about sex, if everybody was always talking about sex, then everybody must want it. And if she didn’t want sex, then she wasn’t like everybody else.
She was the void, empty of all feelings. She was broken.
“Why do you call me a brujita?” Soledad asks her mother.
She sits upright, and her back presses against the leather of the seat. She feels the heat and scratches through the fabric of her dress.
“Why did you call me that?”
“I have always wanted to protect you.”
Soledad wrenches her hand out of her mother’s and lays it on her bare knees. Her palm is cold; it feels like her Abuela’s did during the funeral. “You made me afraid of myself.”
Her mother clenches the steering wheel. “What you did on Wednesday—taking my truck and going down that road—that made me afraid for you.”
“Mom, none of that is real. There’s no ghost; there’s no monster.”
“Soledad, the monsters were just to scare you. It was never about them.”
“I thought I was the monster…”
A beat passes and a few drops of rain splash against the windshield.
“What happened to you?”
“Nothing happened—” She’s crying again. The tears soak into her skin and leave red blotches, like blood and like the flowers on the side of the road.
“Mija, why are you crying?”
“I didn’t choose to be a bruja.” She sniffles and wipes her nose with her sleeve. It’s disgusting: the tears, the snot. Her hands shake.
“Were you raped?” She says it so quietly that Soledad almost thinks she doesn’t hear it.
“No,” she says, stiffening. “Mom, I promise it’s not that.”
María’s hands are white on the steering wheel. “Soledad, be honest with me. If someone did that to you, I could never live with myself…”
“I promise I’m telling the truth.” Soledad remembers the image she’d seen that night. She’d seen her worst fear: that she was a monster. “You always told me what I would be, and when I wasn’t…”
“What happened on Wednesday?”
Almost immediately after the kiss started, Jake drew away. Soledad opened her eyes. At first, the surroundings were hazy, blurred but then they came into sharper focus, and she could see the disappointment on his face.
“I—I can’t do this. I’m sorry,” he muttered.
She let herself sink back into the driver’s seat and tried to conceal her relief. “Why?”
“I thought I could. But this… this ain’t me.” Jake’s gaze shifted away from her to the darkness, emptiness around them. He ran a hand through his hair, and Soledad couldn’t bear to look at him, so she stared at the rosary hanging from the rearview mirror.
“I don’t like you like that,” Jake told her.
“Jake, I’m sorry—”
He drew a frustrated breath. His whole body was shaking and he pressed himself against the passenger’s door. “I didn’t even want to! All I wanted was to be your friend. And you ruined it.”
“Then why did you say yes?” she snapped, equally frustrated. “I asked you and you said you wanted to—”
“I didn’t fuckin’ mean it. I was just goin’ along with what you said!”
“You could’ve said no!”
“You think it’s that easy, right? Maybe it’s easy for… people like you. But I—I didn’t— Don’t you see, I was supposed to say yes! I thought I could’ve changed—”
“Forget about it! I ain’t stayin’ here.” He reached for the handle on the car door.
“Jake, wait.” She grasped onto that one wrong word. “What do you mean, changed?”
“I said forget about it.”
“You wanted to change, too?”
He paused; the entire world paused. His hand dropped from the handle.
They allowed the question to hang in the air for a moment. Soledad’s heart rate slowed, and she pressed two fingers to her wrist to check if she was possibly dead. As the moment passed, Jake slid back into the passenger’s seat. They both stared at the end of the road.
“Soledad, do you think bein’ gay is a sin?”
It’s Judgement Day. The seat under Soledad is made of flames. Either the fire will consume her or the rain will drown her. Her thoughts reach for the saints and she recites the Hail Mary. Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia. El Señor es contigo. Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres…
“Mom, I don’t like boys.” When she says it, she feels like she’s drowning. She has thrown herself into the water. She’s dying and she’s never been so afraid as her last breaths slip away.
Her mother blinks. “Don’t tell me you like girls. You are probably just confused.”
“I’m not confused. And what would be so wrong with liking girls?”
“I don’t like anybody. I don’t have those feelings.”
There’s nothing but the erratic patter of rain and the truck’s groans.
“You’re just a late bloomer, mija,” her mother says. “You just don’t know— You haven’t— You’re confused—”
“I’m not, Mom. I am who I am.”
The rain begins to pour.
The glass separating Soledad and the world was finally gone. She felt as if she had rolled down the windows and could, for the first time, taste the fresh night air.
“How long have you known?” Soledad asked Jake.
“I kinda always knew in the back of my mind,” he said. “But last year, it hit me all at once. You?”
“I always felt like everyone had this inside joke that I wasn’t a part of. Everyone always talked about… sex. I wanted to, er, kiss you because I thought if I just tried, all of a sudden, something would change. But nothing did.”
He was calmer, and to Soledad’s relief, he didn’t seem shocked or angry. He was the first person that understood. “Have you told anybody?”
“You’re the only one who knows.” She drew a breath. “But I think I’m going to tell my mom.”
“It’s like dyin’,” he said. “Whoever everybody thought you were before is gone. Things change, even you haven’t. It’s the scariest thing ever, but at some point you stop being afraid…”
María had gone to talk to one of the doctors, leaving Soledad alone with Abuela.
Abuela gripped Soledad’s wrist, clawing at her like she was a skeleton trying to fight its way out of its earthy grave. “I’m not afraid,” she rasped.
“I’m not afraid of dying, Soledad.”
“Abuela, don’t— don’t say that. You’re okay…”
“I know you don’t like visiting me anymore, mija. I can see it in your eyes. You want to live your life.”
“No, Abuela. Te amo. I like to visit you.”
She laughed but it devolved into a fit of coughing. “It’s okay, mija. You don’t understand death now, but one day you will. That’s all life is: learning to understand death. That is the mystery that God gave us.”
“I’m sorry, Abuela…” Guilt, regret washed over Soledad. She wanted to kneel in front of the crucifix and repent for her selfishness, for her fear. “I promise that I love you.”
“I know where God is.”
“Where is He?”
“You find Him in death, mija,” Abuela whispered. “You can only be reborn if you die.”
The first raindrops splattered against the glass and the first beeps began. The door to the room burst open.
Soledad is new, and at the same time, she is the person she has always been.
Her mother pulls into the driveway; they’re at the end of the road. The trees around the house are lush and green, their colors stark under the dark sky, and roses are peeking out of the bushes. The short statues of angels in the front yard are drenched in rain.
“It’s okay to cry, Soledad,” her mother says, taking her hand again. “When you were born, you cried, and I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.”
The rain pummels the roof of the car in a repetitive beat, but even with all the noise, Soledad can still hear her mother’s voice.
“Te amo, Soledad.”
“Te amo también.”
Then they sit without speaking and listen to the water. Soledad knows that her mother is still confused—perhaps she always will be. There will be more explaining, more crying; that is inevitable. But now, Soledad knows who she is, who she has always been. That she’s not broken.
“You’re right, Mom,” she finally says. “The rain is beautiful.”
She takes off her shoes and opens the truck’s door. When she’s outside, she lets the rain drench her until her hair is plastered and her dress sticks to her like a second skin. The water spills over her head and onto the concrete under her bare feet. In the gray and black sky, she swears she can see strands of purple.
In front of her is her home; behind her, is their road. And as she stands under the rain, in between life and death, she is no longer afraid. She has finally found God.