With the Fire on High(11)

From my mom’s family I only keep in touch with her oldest sister, Aunt Sarah. She still lives in North Carolina and the only time I met her I was too young to remember: it was at my mom’s funeral. We used to only talk during random phone calls around the holidays, but ever since she got a smartphone a few years back we’ve begun emailing once or twice a month. She sends me family recipes when she has a moment to type them out, although she cooks the way I do: no actual measurements, only ingredients and partial directions. When I remix the recipes and make them my own, I send them back to her so she can see how her niece hooked it up. She’s invited me to come down south in the summer, but the summers are when Julio visits me, and after having Babygirl, I couldn’t imagine traveling so far with her or without her. But I hold this connection close, since Julio never talks about my mother, and ’Buela just didn’t know her well enough to tell me much. Sometimes Aunt Sarah’s recipes will include a tidbit about my mother trying that food for the first time.

My mother’s name was Nya, and I thought about making that Babygirl’s middle name, but it didn’t feel right, when I never knew her. I didn’t know what kind of future I would be handing down to my daughter by pressing a name on her from the past. ’Buela raised me pretty superstitious about things like that.

Can you miss someone you never met? Of course, the answer is yes. I’ve made up a story about who my mother was, and I miss that person whether it’s how my actual mom would have been or not. I imagine her patient, but strict. Someone who would paint her nails with me, and straighten my hair, and take me prom-dress shopping, but who would also demand good grades, and go to every parent-teacher conference, and wouldn’t just say my food was good, but give me tough criticism.

On my bedside is a picture of my mother and father holding hands. He’s wearing an Iverson jersey and she’s in straight-leg jeans and a bright-blue T-shirt with a smiley face over her large belly. I’m the lump under the smiley face. It’s the only picture I have of the three of us: my parents cheesin’ and in love and holding hands, and me fully formed inside her belly, knocking on the door of skin, impatient to get out before everyone left.

New Things

The next morning, even though it breaks my heart, I say goodbye to Babygirl and rush out the door as ’Buela gets her ready for school. It’s wild to miss someone so much, and yet in order to care for them you have to constantly say goodbye.

When I walk into Advisory Ms. Fuentes is passing out sheets of paper.

“Okay, on your desks you’ll see your revised schedules.”

Hmr—Advisory, Ms. Fuentes Engl—Advanced English, McCormack Math—Applied Math, Gaines Soc—US Government, Ulf

For Lang—Latin III, Gatlin Sci—Intermediate Physics, Ordway Elec—Culinary Arts: Spain Immersion, Ayden I was accepted into the class. The new boy, Malachi, stares out the window. I look back at the sheet. There’s my name at the top. My other classes are the same. I try to keep cool even though I’m so excited my hands shake.

“You’ll report for your first day of electives starting today. Let me know after class if you have any problems; now, take out the outline of your college essay. We still have fifteen minutes and we’ll use them to revise the themes of your essays.”

College Essay: First Draft

My father’s name is Julio. And like the warm-weather month he’s named after, he comes to visit once a year.

My grandmother says that my father couldn’t handle being a single parent after my mother died. That before that, my mother kept him in check, but he’d had an itch under his skin to return to his island. My grandmother and grandfather moved when he was only fourteen, and they say he didn’t adjust easily to the cold, the English, the way these streets were run so different from his own.

My grandmother chose to raise me when my father settled me onto her lap, asking her to watch me for a while, and then left the hospital. “A while” became seventeen years. It was in that exchange of my body from his hands to hers that the entire course of my life changed.

People say that you’re stuck with the family you’re born into. And for most people, that’s probably true. But we all make choices about people. Who we want to hold close, who we want to remain in our lives, and who we are just fine without. I choose not to dwell on my father’s rotating-door style of parenting, and instead reflect on my grandmother’s choice to not only bring me home from the hospital and raise me, but also to offer me a fighting chance.

The world is a turntable that never stops spinning; as humans we merely choose the tracks we want to sit out and the ones that inspire us to dance.

An Art Form

I try to keep myself from weeping when I first walk into the commercial-style kitchen. I’ve only ever seen a professional kitchen on TV and this one isn’t nearly as updated, but it’s still nicer than any kitchen I’ve ever been in. Against the far wall are two sets of double sinks and big metal cages full of mixing bowls, tongs, large wooden spoons, and serving utensils. Along the wall to my right are two full gas stoves and ovens. To my left, three massive fridges are framed by pantries that I assume hold dry ingredients. Pots and pans hang from the ceiling, hooked up like steel chandeliers. In the center of the room, five metal tables create a rectangle around a single table.

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