Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: Mask (a mini-story)

Ed note: Very very late first draft--Madam's been sick, I've been sick. Bleh.
We moved in with the Old Lady about a week after Halloween, with three medium sized suitcases and a small box. When she saw us, she smiled and nodded with approval. “That’s exactly what I expected, Carmen. Good work!”

That smile bounced and landed on Mami’s face, but uncertain, like it didn’t quite belong there.

It hadn’t been easy, packing up our whole lives like that. Mami had stood in the center of the room, hands on her hips, surveying the mountains of clothes and stuff while Sandra and I crawled up the mounds and slid down.

But she knew we couldn’t bring everything, or even most things. “We will get it ALL back.” She said, firm voiced. “This is only temporary.”

One of the things I did manage to bring was my Halloween mask. Cinderella’s face glowed and grinned at me. I had flaunted the plastic costume around the house until Papi asked me if I was Cinderella before or after the ball. That made me throw it out.

Sandra laughed at me, “Paola…please! Ain’t no little black Cinderellas running around here but you!” She always liked to rub it in, my big sister, that she looked like Mami, beautiful and pale, while I was darker, like Papi. I’d always run to Mami to ask her about it, but she’d shoo me off while she separated our lives into smaller and smaller piles. Maybe she didn’t have an answer for me, or one she thought I would have liked.

If I stared at myself in the mirror at just the right angle, Paola disappeared altogether, and only Cinderella remained, blondely, sweetly smiling.

The mask made me beautiful.

So I shoved it at the very top of the overflowing suitcase and it made the journey to the Old Lady’s house.

One thing that surprised me was that the house was so big, easily three times bigger than our old apartment.

“Why couldn’t we just keep everything, Mami?” I asked her when we got to the small area the Old Lady called “our rooms.”

“Shush, Paola. This is not our house. Don’t be fresh.”

“But if it's not our house, then why are we living here?” Sandra asked.

“Because…because. Because the Old Lady is doing us a kindness. Better schools, better everything. And…it’s only temporary. So don’t let me catch either of you making ANY trouble while we’re here.” Something about her voice, some little catch of fear, turned Sandra and I into allies. Solemnly wide-eyed, we both nodded.

Mami’s face, her beautiful face, was flat, like a shut door.

We got used to it, the way that kids always do. School kept us busy—it was all so much harder than we were used to. We didn’t know much about what our parents did during the day, and we were quiet and well-behaved around the Old Lady.

A few weeks in, the Old Lady decided to give a party. Sandra and I knew that some of the kids in our class, and their parents, would be there. We also knew, without asking, that we were not to invite anyone. We would be there, but on the sides. It wasn’t for us.

On the day of the party, I was surprised to see Mami and Papi dressed in formal black outfits, like nothing either of them had ever worn before. Mami always wore bright colors, flouncy girl clothes. Nothing this straight and plain. And Papi liked bright shirts, open at the chest. Nothing this strict.

“Maybe it’s a costume party?” I asked Sandra, real hope in my voice. I was always looking for an excuse to wear my Cinderella mask.

“Nah, don’t you get it yet?” Sandra was a worldly nine to my seven years. “Mami and Papi are servants here. That’s why they’re dressed like that!”

Servants? I pondered this knowledge.

“Does that mean that we’re like Cinderella?”

She snorted. “I told you, there ARE no black Latina Cinderellas!”

She sounded so sure; I decided not to argue the point.

So I wore the mask that night—Sandra and I were out of sight anyway, not being allowed to be up that late. But we were, and we watched Mami and Papi refilling drinks, cleaning up, serving food. Their faces were curved in gentle smiles that looked nothing like them, that made them invisible.

The people with kids left and the rest started getting a little drunk and kind of rowdy. It started to look a little bit more like the parties in the old neighborhood. Just whiter.

The DJ put on a salsa that my parents loved and after a breath, people started shuffling towards the dance floor. Once they got there, they kicked and jerked--ignoring the music like it wasn't there. Their bodies sagged, then stiffened and they laughed. They waved their hips back and forth like the music was turning them into animals. They made doing it wrong look like the right thing--like Mami and Papi and their friends were stupid for loving it, taking it seriously. And I could hear it, suddenly, like they did. Not beautiful, like the classical music we heard at school. But loud, blaring—ugly.

"How embarassing!" Sandra hissed, a blush darkening her face. But they didn't look embarassed. They looked happy they hadn't had to try.

I kept waiting for my parents to get on the dance floor, to make it beautiful again. But they never did. And I remembered what Sandra said—that they were servants. They were working at the ball.

Nothing much changed after the party, except that we all got even more busy—my parents with their work for the Old Lady, Sandra and I with school. So busy that our visits to the old neighborhood sort of…stopped. So busy we didn’t have time for the old food, for that old music. And so we lived in the Old Lady’s house, in her life, and Mami was wrong. It wasn’t temporary, after all. And even after the Old Lady helped us find a place of our own, we never got it all back.

I’m not sure what happened to the mask after the party. Probably I left it out and it got cleaned away.

Now I’m in college, where people call me Paula and I don’t mind. It’s just easier to say they say, and I agree.

And sometimes, I start remembering and almost feel the safety of the plastic edging of the mask scraping against my face, pulling against my brittle hair. I wish that they could see me in the smooth, pale Cinderella beauty.

But I know they can’t.
To look behind more masks, go here.



Blogger Jessie said...

oh m., you make me so hungry for something i've never even had. i love this story--in a thousand ways.

7:29 AM, May 22, 2007  
Anonymous frida said...

I'm left a little sad, and yet - as always - so glad I came by.


10:10 AM, May 22, 2007  
Blogger Melba said...

I want to read this when I can pay attention.
I will come back.
I just want to say sorry you and Madam are sick. feel better soon!

11:10 AM, May 22, 2007  
Blogger deirdre said...

I feel a little sad reading this, and curious too - what happened before, what happens next?

You've captured the feelings of a lost child, confused by the changes she can't understand.

3:00 PM, May 22, 2007  
Blogger DJPare said...

Great story!
I love the little touches like describing the fake smiles on the parents as they served and that the girl kept waiting for the parents to dance!

4:08 PM, May 22, 2007  
Blogger paris parfait said...

A beautiful and heartbreaking story. Truly, it stirred a lot of emotions about struggling as a single mother and having to leave things behind. Fantastic job with the prompt!

Hope you and Madam are both feeling much better! xo

3:44 AM, May 23, 2007  
Blogger Left-handed Trees... said...

Sigh...that was a beautiful and heartbreaking read. Hope you are all feeling better!

1:47 PM, May 23, 2007  
Blogger Becca said...

A touching and beautifully written story. You've perfectly captured Paola's confusion, followed by her her eventual understanding and acceptance of the changes in her family and her life.

A perfect take on this prompt :)

Hope you're both feeling better...

2:14 PM, May 23, 2007  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I cried. I admit it, I actually cried. The degrading facts of life in that era. May you always feel like Cinderella, beautiful and dancing, filled with grace! There are black Cinderellas, there are Cinderellas everywhere!
PS. I had one of those masks, loved it!

7:10 PM, May 23, 2007  
Blogger Jana B said...

omw... you made this story SO REAL! Unbelievable!!!

12:43 PM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger sundaycynce said...

A truly poignant and lovely story. Heartbreaking but ringing so true. You did a masterful job with your creating. So glad it wasn't too late to be posted. I would have hated to miss this one.

9:51 PM, May 24, 2007  

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