The Smell of Spring

She passes my room first, bare feet padding almost silent down the flat brown carpet. My door is open, propped with the 87-cent doorstop that has proven to be one of the best investments of my college career. Opposite the door, I’ve pulled my window open too.

4pm, moving around room, gathering train pass, work clothes, snack, I stepped to the window, gazed out at the sudden spring warmth. On impulse, I reached up to flip the window locks open, my movement stirring the thin layer of dust that lined the top window sill, untouched since the last time the thermometer read 65 degrees. Window unlocked, I pushed the window open, the warm air slipping through the six-inch screened gap, blowing gently over papers on my desk, ruffling the miniature pot of dried flowers on my bookshelf.

9pm now, the sun has set behind the buildings that line the Chicago skyline, and even the orange glow of evening has left, leaving dark sky tinged to rain cloud grey as the first spring storm approaches. I’m sitting at my desk, between open door and open window. In front of me, over the white glow of my computer screen the hallway is empty, quiet on a Monday evening. Behind me, outside the window, the rain has begun to fall, and the cars in the street roll over wet pavement, the slick streets echoing their passing.

I’ve a textbook propped on my crossed legs and I’m alternately writing and reading when she passes the first time. I barely catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, but then she’s stepped backwards once and she’s leaning slightly backward, too, and I look up to see her standing just outside my doorway. Hi, she greets me enthusiastically. She moves, speaks, chooses, lives with the same enthusiasm. I’ve seen the same flash of white teeth, the same wide smile digging dimples into her tanned cheeks many times before.

I return her greeting, complete with smile, and watch her step into the room from my perch at the desk. She makes herself comfortable, makes the room comfortable, where she is, and it feels like some kind of honor to see her step casually into my room. Watching her lean against the tall bed- the extra bed- it occurs to me for a moment that I’ve done well to make this a welcoming place, to open my door, to invite in, and I take it as a compliment that she finds herself so at home in the room I call my own.

She’s effervescent, bubbling with energy for life, vaguely tinted with uncertainty, and she’s only stopped in for a moment, temporarily sidetracked on her way to The Neighbor’s room. But she pauses there in the middle of the room to talk, and we swap words, nods, affirmations for a moment before she interrupts herself mid-sentence.

It smells good in here! She exclaims, looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and commendation in her dark eyes. I nod, smiling. I’d noticed the smell, too.

It’s outside, I exclaim, nodding my head towards the window which she must already know is open. Ooh, she nods understanding, but I add more, excited as I am about the rich scent. It smells so good, I say. Like warmth and spring and happiness. And I sound, of course, like a cheesy greeting card with bunnies and exaggerated smile faces painted on the front, but the gentle spring rain is blowing that deep, happy, spring air through my window, and it smells like green in the ground and contentment in the air, and it’s making me want to work harder, do better, because spring is coming, almost here, and life keeps skipping, singing, running forward.

~Natalia

Mangonadas at the Market

I know, in the back of my mind, that we stand out.

It’s not really new to me, I suppose.

First a young girl roaming the streets of Paris with mother and brother, then the only pale one in a sea of dark Mexican faces, then part of a family comprised of two different ethnicities.

I might not always notice it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with standing out.

So we push through the foggy glass door, step inside the warm building, and I know we stand out.

The sign outside, huge letters floating above the chaotic parking lot, read Mall. But inside, these stalls and their wares, their vendors and customers are familiar to me, and I know what this is: it’s a market.

We’re six total. Three girls, three guys. We came with more, we were 22 strong on the El ride here, but 22 makes more noise, causes more scene than six, and we’ve split now.

Someone, one of the girls, holds a list. Seven items, typed in curling cursive font, suggestions for things to look for, ideas to try, items of interest to pay attention to.

The list is more guidelines than goals, but it’s warm, busy, loud, in this market, and we’ve been given money to buy treats, if we want.

We move along the aisles, weaving between stalls of bouncing, frilly Quinceañera dresses, and shelves lined with authentic cowboy boots.

I feel glances as we make our way slowly down the aisles of stalls. Under the high warehouse ceiling, the stalls are separated by metal racks, dresses, clothes, shoes, treats, and toys hung from the cold concrete floor to the ceiling.

We pass families, little boys slipping between the stalls, wandering restlessly while their mothers compare gold earrings at a long counter of gold jewelry. In a shoe stall, a woman and her daughter sit on green plastic stools, waiting for their shoes. A little girl, her black hair pulled back into short, curly braids, stands resolutely next to the older woman, and I catch her solemn gaze as we pass.

Around the corner, up an aisle, a small stall sells food. We’re looking for the bathroom, and I’m the leader of the group, I’ll ask, of course, but you cannot simply walk up and demand a baño.

And besides, we’re hungry.

We buy two tamarindo candies, a bottle of water, and a tub of Pond’s lotion. And I’m pocketing change, receipt, when I ask for the bathroom. She gives directions, we thank, and wander again.

I’m becoming comfortable in this place, this Mexican Chicago market. We find the bathrooms, and along with them, a stand selling mangonadas. We leave that stand sucking chamoy and chile off of heavy mango popsicles, and I’ve forgotten that we might not fit in here.

Or maybe it never mattered in the first place.

Later, texts from the mother come through in silver bubbles on my phone and we’re swapping Saturday stories. Did you use your mother tongue? She asks, when she hears about market and mango and all those familiar Latin scents taking me right back to downtown markets in the Mexican city we called home.

I like hearing it called the mother tongue, even thought it’s often a struggle to find time, places, people for speaking Spanish. But I smile, text her back. Yes, yes I did.

And she’s right, too. Because there will always be something about Spanish speaking, vendors in the market, dark little ones running between stalls as their parents shop, bargain, purchase, that reminds me of a place very important, a culture very close to my heart.

~Natalia

Cultural Bath

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“I feel so clean,” she said as we walked out of the Art Institute of Chicago and back into the September sun; “I feel like I just took a bath. A cultural bath.”

And today, on a rainy day in March, the mother, the littles, and even Stevy and I enjoyed just that: a cultural bath.

~ Natalia

Baseball in March

Years ago, March 2009, we flew to California. The whole family, little ones two and three years old; chubby little Latinas with round cheeks and wispy black ponytail sprouts. Stevy was not yet in high school, I was making my way through my junior year. We flew, family of six with just about that many suitcases, and we spent two weeks in the crisp, sunny air of Northern California in spring.

Not 24 hours after bumping to the ground, taxiing down the runway lined with palm trees and grass that would only be green until the summer sun had its withering way, we descended onto the baseball field. We arrived with the grandparents, piling out of the new minivan, rough towels lining tan seat cushions under the child carseats that belonged to me, years before. We arrive, and, moments later, done with work for the evening, an aunt arrives, too. She pulls into the parking lot behind us, ever-present turtle decal on her darkly tinted windshield. Then we’re there in the parking lot, exchanging greetings and hugs, her subtle French manicure clicking against her sunglasses as she slides them atop her head.

The cousins are already at the field. Three cousins, another aunt, the uncle. Two of the cousins run to the edge of the grass, wait to greet us. Mia is 10, Teo almost eight, and there’s a flurry of hugs again. We laugh, aww, as the little ones hug Teo; at five years older, he is the only cousin they have whose age is remotely close to theirs, and it’s sweet to see them together.

Moving across the grass, towards where aunt and uncle have arranged a blanket on the grass, Mia points across the field, the vibrant green grass waving in the evening wind under her fingers. We’ve come to watch her older brother, Marc, play baseball, and we lean around her, standing there in the grass, and we sift through fifteen pre-teens in matching uniforms until we find a familiar face. Then he’s seen us, and we’re waving to our cousin from across the field while he practices catching ground balls and pop flies.

The baseball diamond is small, but the field around it stretches far, and the girls, the cousins, run, spin, chase, crawl, laugh, while Marc’s team takes turns at bat, in the field, at bat once more. The grandparents alternately sit in the folding chairs we’ve brought along and stand on the grass, watching. They watch the cousins play, their amusement at piggy back rides gone wrong and the resulting harmless tumble mixing with faint sadness that this only happens once a year. The three sisters, the aunts and my mother, stand around the blanket, catching up. I’m the oldest cousin, the first to grow, and I’ve begun to walk the line between playing with the cousins and conversing with the adults, working to pull myself up to their level. But Mia, Teo, play with the girls, and Stevy wanders, snapping pictures of the game, the players, the chain-link that separates spectators from players. So I lie there on the blanket and watch.

Now, it’s March 2014. I’m a junior again, this time in college, working hard to finish even as I watch the days of my college career slip past me at breakneck speed. Once again, March found me in California. The same sleek van (minus the toweled seats) rolling through the airport pick-up line. The same eye-catching green grass, remarkable for its color, but also for it’s very existence. It’s been a cold, icy, white winter in Chicago. The same grandparents, aunts, uncle, and cousins. The same baseball league; Saturday evening games sending pop flies and the occasional foul ball soaring into the setting orange sun.

The same, but different. This March, there are no little sisters running around the field, no Stevy photographing blades of grass from artistic angles. No mother chatting with her sisters. These weeks are my trip alone, and what I vaguely imagined when I was younger has become my reality: I am the sole representative of my Little Family here, right now, and I’m richly heavy with connections with the adults- the aunts, uncle, grandparents- and those younger than me, my cousins. The baseball games are Teo’s now, and sitting in the stands, I’m between uncle and Mia, aunt and grandparents sitting in front me, perched on the lower levels of the cold metal bleachers.

But just as I grew up, so too did everyone else. Marc is a junior in high school now himself. He plays water polo and shows me pictures of the college tours he went on earlier in the year. He has plans and dreams and goals and earlier in the day, his father at home grilling, he drove Mia and me to Safeway in his jeep, where we hurried through the aisles, throwing ketchup, potato salad into a basket. Mia and Teo, are grown, too, and we’re friends and cousins, and sitting there on the bleachers, we pass sunflower seeds back and forth from aunt, Marc, Mia, myself, to uncle and back again. And we pass the conversation, the jokes, the laughter, too, while the floodlights above us take over for the setting sun and the umpire calls strikes as the bat whiffs through the air.

~Natalia

Scenes from Spring Break {Another Season Ends}

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Santa Cruz Boardwalk Giant Dipper roller coaster with the cousins, the aunt and uncle.

I flew across snowy mountain ranges

glowing graph-paper cities

and long rivers twisting along valley floors

and now I’m cross-legged at my school-issued desk,

the city, air cold and crisp, behind me.

Classes begin again tomorrow,

and there is no waiting, no hesitating, after break.

I’ve things to do.

But of course, they’re not life or death,

and I know life is bigger than paper, presentation, deadline,

and I wouldn’t be surprised if you heard more stories here

about two weeks in second grade,

grandhouse almost to the foothills,

and weekends with the cousins.

~Natalia

See You Later

Front row, far right. She can’t stay in her seat; can’t or won’t. Doesn’t. Elbows on desk, she leans forward, looping her feet over the back of her blue plastic chair. Completing a worksheet, she stands next to her desk, bouncing gently on her toes, swaying back and forth as if a breeze had somehow sprung up right there in the classroom. Her clip- the one with her number on it- is drawn from the bucket. She’s done her homework, she gets the spinning chair for the day.

She spins, spins, spins. It’s distracting, feels chaotic, but it’s her prize and she eared it, so she spins.

Back row, far left. 8am, the classrooms are open, she’s always the second. First him, on the dot, 8am. Then her, a minute, maybe two, later. She stretches growing legs under her desk, crosses her ankles as she practices cursive, solves problems, reads. She wear fake TOMS, cheetah print. Her sock- usually green, always bright- stand in contrast to the gold, brown, black rings of the animal print. Outside, at pick up, she crossed her legs, pulls a bag of Rainbow Loom into her lap, laces her fingers with all those little rubber bands. But under the mound of pink and purple, yellow, green, white, orange bits of rubber, her socks are bright in the afternoon sun, shining over the foothills.

Front row, left side, middle. Her pony tail sprouts from the top of her head, thick, heavy curls that swish on the back of her jacket when she moves her head. And move she does. In the classroom, on the schoolyard, they’re taking turns teaching one another. How To do a backbend. How to draw a muscleman. How to make tea. She teaches how to kick a ball high in the air, and they’re all sitting on the bench that lines the playground, watching, listening, taking turns demonstrating, and she kicks, runs, catches, chases; moves.

Three rows, thirteen desks. Front, middle, back. And tomorrow, I say see you later to all of them.

~Natalia

Scenes from Spring Break {Season Two}

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Sun coming up
over the school this morning;
early day beginning
to second week
in second grade.

~Natalia

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