"I promise I wasn't trying to kill myself. I'm really just that stupid," I told my mom for the fuckteenth time.
"I just don't know how you managed to do it," she said, shaking her head as she drove the twenty soupy blocks from the ER to our house.
"I'll go over it again." I said, waving my numb arms. "The bottle of ibuprofen said to take one to two pills every four to six hours. So I took–"
"Four to six every one to two hours."
"For six consecutive hours," she said.
"Like an idiot?"
"Apparently, yes," I answered.
"Because you were freaking out over Decision Day?"
"Having a legitimate panic attack over Decision Day."
She rolled her eyes and pulled into our driveway. "Promise me again that you weren't trying to off yourself."
"You know if this was a cry for help or whatever, you could think of a lot cheaper methods, Augustina. At least we didn't take the ambulance."
I flipped down the visor mirror and absorbed the image of my drooping eyes, drool pooling at the corners of my mouth, and the overall pitifulness of my Quasimodo looking ass, then said, "Mom, I can assure you that I wouldn't do it like this."
My younger brother, Marcos, lifted the garage door open, looked at me and my mother, yelled back to my other siblings, "IT DIDN'T WORK," and let the door fall shut.
"Well I guess I'll go make dinner," I said, getting out of the car.
The experience of walking up to my house has always been a distinct and disappointing one. It's one of those old houses that looks nice from far away but the closer you get the more you wonder whether it's a crack house or a low-income family counseling place. It's one of those houses whose bathrooms always require some sort of explanation or caveat, you know, like a faucet handle that doesn't turn or a door that you have to manually hold closed while taking a shit, or a toilet that takes a little elbow grease and finessing to flush correctly. This last one got us in trouble last summer. One of the kids hadn't gotten the hang of it yet and the toilet kept running until it flooded the upstairs bathroom and started to rain toilet water on us through the ceiling downstairs. Rough.
That and the lady next door had taken it upon herself to become the fucking cat soup kitchen of the western Adrian, Michigan area and leaves mounds of wet cat food on her porch for cats who then leave mounds of wet cat shit on our yard. So we can't open the windows of our pre-air conditioning house in the summer.
But at least the cats are fed. Bless them and bless her.
My mom went straight to her room when we got inside, leaving me to figure out how to get everyone fed at 8:00 PM on a Friday night. But what's new. I started mashing and seasoning a jar of frijoles and soon realized that my arms still felt fucking insane.
Luckily, before I started rolling out tortillas, I remembered that I'd hid the last dozen from the previous night, so dinner was ready fast. My mom insisted on buying the masa harina instead of actual fucking tortillas because it was cheaper, but it also resulted in me having to spend at least an hour and a half making tortillas from scratch nearly every night.
"KIDS. DINNER." I paused and waited to hear footsteps. "KIDS. NOW. PLEASE?"
Olivia came down first. She picked up a plate and held it out for me to serve her. "Bean tacos. Awesome."
Fuck me, right?
Really, Olivia was okay. She was eight and very pretty and very bratty. She had always hung out with the girl scout/t-ball/cheer camp crowd and was coming to the age where she was realizing what separated her from them. This night, the focus of her bitterness was frijoles and tortillas. Apparently.
Marcos stood next in line. "Why do you look like that?" he asked me while I scooped beans onto his plate.
"Like what?" I asked and then sighed, to give him the opportunity to say what he needed to get out of his system.
But he just grimaced and walked away. He was eleven and on a tribal tattoo watchlist.
Soli came next, pressing her phone to her ear with her shoulder as I served her. She was soft, quiet, and light skinned. She was thirteen and tried to try.
"But what did he say? Did he sound like he knew?" she asked her friend, then looked at me to mouth 'thank you.' She started to walk away but turned around to kiss my cheek and ask, "Are you okay?"
I nodded. "Thanks."
Everyone took their plates to the living room and I waited a couple more minutes for my mom to come down. She didn't. So I plated her food and put it in the microwave.
"I heard you! I'm sorry!" Chucho came running up to me. "I was pooping. I tried to hurry."
"Food's still warm. No harm no foul, lil dude."
Chucho was by far my favorite and they all knew it. He was six and weird as fuck.
We sat down at the dining room table.
"How was your day, papas?" I asked.
"Chummy," he answered.
"Crummy?" I asked.
"Why was it crummy?"
"You were gone and I was scared you were gonna die," he said.
"I didn't though."
"Yeah, that's good. But also, Marcos sat on me."
I sighed, "I'll yell at him later."
"Okay thanks. What's the funniest vegetable?"
"No like a real one."
"What?" I asked. "Rutabaga is a real vegetable, papas."
"Sure, Stina." He ripped off a piece of tortilla and balanced it on his upper lip. "My choice was zucchini."
"There's nothing funny about zucchini."
After washing all the dishes, my mom still hadn't come down to eat. I retrieved her plate from the microwave and brought it to her room. Her door was open and she was lying on her back on her bed, arms spread out as if she was bound to some invisible cross, staring at her popcorn ceiling. I walked in and sat beside her on the edge of her bed, the plate in my lap.
"You know how hard I'm trying for you guys, don't you?" she asked, the words flat in the back of her throat.
"What happens when you move out? How am I supposed to feel knowing you're going to Ann Arbor when you're still acting like you can't take care of yourself? I need you to try harder. I have too much to worry about here to be worrying about you there. Do you get that?"
I looked at my name in cursive script tattooed on her wrist. My mom used to look just like me, but prettier. You could tell that she used to be thin and sweet and quick to say I love you. Now she had sun damage, a closed nose piercing, and was lying heavy and stony and cross-bearing.
"Yes," I said.
The tone of her voice shifted. High and breathy, she whimpered, "Do you think I'm going to be alone forever?" She melted right there in front of me.
"You're going away to college and I'm still single. That's pathetic. I'm disgusting."
"Mom, that's not true. I love you."
"Don't," she said, hardening again.
I sat there in silence waiting for her to say anything. She didn't. I got up and started to leave.
"Close the door behind you," she said.
I sat on my front porch, watching the neighbor's cats poke through our trash bags piled on the curb. Across the street a truck stopped, and a man got out to investigate a cracked leather recliner with a cardboard sign reading: PLEASE TAKE. The man tilted his head, turned, and started to get back in his truck. He turned around again and plunged his hand into the cushion, digging for a while, then opened the driver's side door and sat down in his truck, sorting through his findings, tossing gum wrappers onto the street and pocketing the change. Then he drove off.
"Hello, my angel," Nellie said as she walked up the sidewalk to my front step. Her wavy hair was braided. She wore a yellow pilly sweater and faded cuffed jeans. She sat down beside me, pulling out a pack of cigarettes, taking one for herself and handing one to me. "I am very glad to see you alive and well."
"How'd you know?" I asked her.
"Your mom asked for thoughts and prayers for you on Facebook and tagged you at Bixby hospital."
"Then all your tías shared it."
Nellie Ibarra is the sweetest person I've ever known. She has been my best friend since fifth grade when her parents separated and she and her mom moved in with her abuelos a block away from me. She graduated from my high school the year before and was studying English at Adrian College. Now she lives in the dorms there, which are three blocks away.
Nellie looks kind of like Jessica Alba if Jessica Alba became the spokeswoman for Goodwill sweaters and Newports. She has a voice like honey and her favorite word is gossamer. She is a world-renowned active listener and her catchphrase is "I get it." She always does.
"So, this whole Decision Day shit is really fuckin' you up, huh?" she asked.
"It's fuckin' me up, down, and sideways, my dude. I guess everything just feels real now. Like it's final. I mean it's been final, I decided a while ago that I'm going to U of M but tomorrow's the last day to send in my $300 enrollment deposit and I'm losing it. I should have sent it forever ago but when something makes me anxious—"
"You try not to think about it until it becomes even more anxiety-inducing, I get it."
"But then again maybe I just won't send the money in tomorrow and not go to college because it's a scam and I'm a phony and a fraud."
"Yeah except please turn in your fucking money, Stina."
"Uggghhh. I just wish I could take it all back."
"What?" she asked.
"Everything. Applying to Michigan. Applying to colleges at all."
"You don't mean that, dummy."
I groaned. "I wish I could just do my original plan. Get a job, get a car. Help take care of the kids until they're old enough to take care of themselves. Apprenticeship at my Uncle Beto's tattoo shop. Eventually get my own apartment. Maybe move to Toledo and do tattoos there."
"Stina. Look at me. You are so smart. You're third in your class. You're an insanely talented artist. It makes sense for you to go to college and it makes sense that you got accepted into Michigan."
I rolled my eyes. What did she know? I had never thought of myself as smart. I was not convinced that I ever had an original and intelligent thought in my life. I had just learned the tricks to get good grades and knew that the University of Michigan would eat my ass, and not in a good way.
So she asked, "But why did you even apply if you don't want to go this bad?"
"Because the guidance counselor said to and I got an application fee waiver and I didn't think I'd actually get in. And when I got in, I thought cool, but there's no way I'll go because I can't afford that shit, but at least now I can be poor and uneducated in Adrian with a superiority complex. But then the scholarship letter came and it was like I didn't have a choice anymore. The University of Michigan shit on my free will. Stole my life. Those kombucha guzzling bastards."
"I love you. You sound delusional."
"I got accepted to Adrian College too. With a full ride! And if I went there, I'd actually be able to be with you! And live at home! And stay with the kids! And my mom! Except I can't now! Because U of M is dangling upward mobility and success and major life changes in my face! Even though I'd be getting a degree in visual arts, so I don't even know what success would mean. They're fucking Pretty Woman-ing me and I'm ill-equipped. I. Do. Not. Have. Julia. Roberts'. Bone. Structure."
"But is that really what you want?" Nellie asked.
"Julia Roberts' bone structure? Am I a red-blooded female?"
"To live with your mom and the kids."
I sighed and lay down, my spine grinding hard against the cement of my front porch step. "Next question."
Nellie lay down beside me, "If I were a cheese what kind of cheese would I be?"
"Brie. Easily," I answered.
"You're sharp cheddar," she said.
"If you were a Cheetah Girl you'd be Chanel," I told her.
"You'd be Dorinda."
"Is that the white one?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"If you were a dog you'd be a red cocker spaniel."
The next morning, I took my time getting dressed. Turned on my "calm" playlist. I practiced my mindfulness, self-compassion, and breathing exercises that the YouTube therapists taught me. I glued on my eyelashes. Painted on my eyebrows. Straightened my hair. Did my positive affirmations in the mirror.
"You are going to get through today. This is the right choice. You are making the responsible decision. You are capable. You are going to be fine."
I had managed to save up about $350 from doing commission artwork over the past six months. Mostly pencil portraits of people's dead relatives or dogs or splashy and shitty watercolor paintings of owls or elephants or whatever animals are supposed to symbolize wisdom for the live-laugh-love types. I only got like two pieces worth putting in my portfolio out of the work but there is a very sharp divide between what makes money in Adrian and what gets you accepted into art school.
But when I opened my top drawer of my dresser and pulled out my money-sock only to find two dollars in change. Wrong sock? I texted my mom: hey did you take money from my room?
She replied: rent.
I ran upstairs and called Nellie, putting her on speakerphone as I pulled on my shoes.
"Hey, I'm so sorry, can you please please please watch the kids for me? I need to leave right now but I'll only be like an hour, tops."
"Aw man. All of them?"
"Not me," Chucho said, walking into the room, "I wanna go with you."
"Yeah, I'm sorry, Nellie," I said to her. I turned to Chucho and told him, "No, you have to stay."
"I wanna go!" Chucho stomped his foot.
Nellie sighed, "Okay I'm on my way."
"Thank you so much, I love you," I said to Nellie.
"If you don't let me go I'll throw up," Chucho said.
Nellie answered, "No problem, love you too."
Chucho put his finger in his mouth and gagged.
"Jesus, Chucho! Fine!" I yelled.
His cheeks ballooned.
"Swallow. It," I said.
He gulped and smiled.
So I held my six-year-old brother's hand as I knocked on one of our local drug dealer's door.
"Hey! She lives!" Blake Nolan cheered when he opened the door to his apartment.
Chucho and I walked in and I handed him my phone.
"Go sit in the kitchen and play a game or something, papas," I told him.
I followed Blake into the living room. Blake Nolan had graduated from my high school two years before. We had choir together my freshman year and he was a mediocre tenor with a chain wallet.
Blake's one bedroom with a full bath and kitchenette. Very much a nineteen-year-old boy's apartment. A keef-dusted corduroy couch strewn with a crumpled comforter insinuating that it was also used as a bed, Big Lebowski poster on one wall, a tapestry that he obviously got from searching "trippy mandala tapestry" on Amazon.
I pulled the little orange bottle of Xanax from my back pocket. "How much can you give me for these?"
"Jeez, where did you get these?"
"I got a nonrefillable prescription for them last year when I had a panic attack and my mom took me to the ER."
"Fuck that ain't right," he said.
"Yeah, the ER is probably the worst place to be when having a panic attack."
"No I mean I don't think they're allowed to just give you xans in the ER, dude."
"Oh. Yeah, probably not. But it's Bixby."
"Very true," Blake said, dumping the pills onto his plaid comforter and counting them out. "I can give you fifty dollars."
"Nah, bro. I mean, these go for like $5 a pill. At least around here. If you tried to sell these in Ann Arbor you could probably get twice as much. Those college kids, man. They're somethin' else."
"Yeah?" I asked.
I knew what he was talking about. I'd been to Ann Arbor a couple times for shows at the Blind Pig. I'd seen the U of M students, all honey-blonde and Birkenstock-clad and those clean faces that say minorities made it harder for me to get in here! and police officers are our friends!
"Yeah," he said. "I go up there on the weekends sometimes to sell at parties. Those kids don't know shit, man. They're so privileged and act so much above you but will just about give you fifty dollars of daddy's money and blow you for a gram. Hate those bitches. Like fuckin Dominic from Hidden River? Got accepted there a couple years ago and doesn't talk to any of us anymore. Went to U of M and acts like he's somebody now. Bullshit."
"Stina's gonna go to U of M," Chucho said, walking into the living room. "Phone died."
"Oh," Blake said. "I didn't mean. I'm sure that, like, you'll be different."
"Thanks," I said. "So, fifty?"
"Try bigtiddy instead of bigtitties," Nellie suggested.
I typed this into the 'create new email address' box on gmail. "It works!"
"But why can't you use your regular email?" she asked.
"You're asking why I wouldn't want craigslist dudes to contact me at email@example.com?" I asked her.
"Okay, fair. One more question: why the fuck are we doing this in the first place?"
"I'm fuckin poor, drugs are too cheap, and I don't want to die dumb. What section do I put this under?"
"Definitely activity partners."
I typed out my ad:
F, 18 looking to chat
Will send pics/videos. Open to fetish work. No in person contact.
We both stared at bigtiddy@gmail's shiny new inbox and waited for fifteen minutes.
"Let me try something," Nellie said, taking my laptop.
She typed out a new ad title:
Curvy Latina Teen with Spicy Pics/Vids
She looked at me apologetically. "Specificity sells," she said before clicking 'publish.'
I got an email within two minutes.
"Yay!" Nellie said, before opening the email and saying, "Oh hell no."
And that's how I ended up in a bikini and rubber gloves, on my hands and knees on the bathroom floor.
"This is definitely fucked up," I said, locking the bathroom door.
"Indisputably," Nellie said.
I looked up "La Tortura" by Shakira on YouTube and handed her my phone. She set my phone on the counter, pressed play, and aimed her phone at a low angle of me.
"Action," she said.
I snapped my rubber gloves, and shook the Comet bleach powder onto the floor, and scrubbed in little circles with a damp rag, forming a seafoam-colored paste spreading over the tiles.
After a while, I looked up at Nellie to see when I could stop.
She frowned and reluctantly mouthed, faster?
I grimaced. Then I scrubbed the floor violently, until I felt that I was sufficiently jiggling.
Nellie put down her phone, "Okay. Ew. I think that should do it."
"Honestly, Stina, your boobies are good but $500?" Nellie said through a mouthful of pizza.
Yes, the guy overpaid. But he titled the venmo transaction "sexy mamacita <3" so I think I earned it.
I took that money and bought two Hot-n-Ready's, two 2-liters, crazy bread, and cinnamon bread, which was being passed around the circle of my siblings, Nellie, and me who were all seated on my living room floor.
"Be quiet and be thankful," I said, "my boobies paid for all this pizza."
Marcos opened his mouth in disgust and let a chunk of half-chewed pizza fall into his lap.
"And that's the last we'll ever speak of it. If Mom asks, this was lawn-mowing pizza."
"Thank your sister," Nellie said to the kids, manually shutting Marcos' mouth.
After a chorus of "thank you, Stina's" and several greasy kisses from Olivia and Chucho, I stood and brushed the crumbs off myself. "Nellie and I are going outside. You guys better save some food for Mom, I'm serious."
Nellie and I sat on my porch smoking in silence.
"So the money's sent in," she said after a while.
"Yup. Soul: officially sold."
"Ask me a question," I said.
"If I were a pasta?"
"Rotini," I said.
"Elbow macaroni," she said. Then, "Were you trying to kill yourself?"
I thought about it. "I wasn't trying to die but I also wasn't trying to not die."
She looked down at her hands. "I get it."
"I don't know. I just wasn't all there. I was doing homework and paperwork and helping the kids with their homework and thinking about everything and you know how I get. Of course, my mom totally twisted it. When we got home, she gave me the talk again about how she's scared I'm not going to take care of myself at college. Which is code for, 'I'm scared about you not being able to take care of me anymore.' Which is part of the reason why making the official decision to leave feels so wrong."
"And you feel like she needs to be taken care of?" She asked me.
I thought of the weeks my mom wouldn't get out of bed. The weekends she'd disappear without telling anyone where she was going or when she'd be back. The nights she'd get too drunk or too high and say she had nobody to live for. The mornings I'd spend mopping up her vomit before the kids got up for school. How she would come home from work to her children being noisy, messy, childish, and tell us someday she was going to be driving home from work and decide to just keep driving and driving and driving.
"Yeah," I said.
"But you don't think she thinks she needs to be taken care of?"
"I think she knows she needs my help but doesn't want to know, you know? But I can't exactly say 'hey I'm afraid that if I go away to college things will go to shit even more than they already have and the kids are going to end up in jail, in foster care, or dead.'"
"I don't wanna die here, Nellie." I held out my hand for another cigarette. She gave me one and lit it behind her cupped hand.
I said, "You know, when we were in the ER and I was passing out, my mom told the doctor that this was inevitable, that I've always been so 'intense.' Intense is the kind of thing that they say about someone who dies young, in a place like Adrian, from a big family. Who painted or wrote poems. And the teachers from their high school get interviewed on the news and say she had so much potential and she was so vibrant. So 'intense.' Even if they weren't that smart but were just good at getting good grades."
"That doesn't have to be you," she said. "I know you said you want to go to Adrian College and be with me. But it was never my intention to stay here, Stina. I'm going there because that's the best scholarship I got. And that means I can save money to move somewhere else. I want to go somewhere I don't feel so scared, or small, or so fucking old. I want that for you too."
I nodded. "I think I want that. Did I ever tell you about the campus tour I took at Adrian last month?"
"No," she said, "I don't think so."
"Well after the whole look at all our pink geraniums and ooh mahogany bathroom stalls thing, the admissions guy sat me down and tried to sell me on choosing Adrian. He said that if I go to U of M I'll just be another face lost in a crowd. If I go to Adrian, I could be great. You know, because I have so much potential. So vibrant, so intense. He said that here, I can be a big fish in a little pond, and that there's nothing wrong with that. And I left thinking, yeah. There is definitely something wrong with that. Because I've had plenty of goldfish."
"Because when Soli was little, she kept killing them by pouring milk in their bowls because she said they were thirsty," Nellie answered.
"True. Anyway, a goldfish only grows as big as its container allows. You put it in a bigger bowl, it'll grow bigger. And I've always thought of myself as this pathetic tiny fish but maybe I just haven't been, like, given a big enough pond. I don't know. I sound dumb."
"You sound smart. I promise," Nellie said. "You could be a fucking whale shark."
"You'd be one of those cool glofish," I said. "and if you were a cookie—"
"You'd be a gingersnap," she said.
"Snickerdoodle," I said.
"If you were a character from Stand by Me you'd be Chris."
"You'd be Vern," I said.
"I would not be lame ass Vern," she said.
"Go on and cry about it, Vern."
The morning of move-in day, my mom's car gets repossessed and she gets a ride from a friend to go "deal with it." Nellie borrows her abuelo's truck and pulls into my driveway. She helps me toss my shit into the bed of the truck: two garbage bags stuffed with clothes, a cardboard box full of books, my backpack, and my Wal-Mart bag of shampoo and toothpaste and everything else I didn't realize I'd need to get for myself until last night.
The kids all hug me goodbye. Chucho starts to cry but I blow raspberries into his cheek and he smiles. Soli starts to cry and doesn't stop. Olivia and Marcos are fine.
I get in the truck and the kids wave from the front porch as Nellie backs out of my driveway.
My mom texts good luck, baby, i'm so proud of you.
I bring my legs up to my chest, pull the collar of my shirt over my face, and cry. Nellie turns the radio up and lets me finish. When I pull my shirt down, strands of hair clinging to my wet cheeks, we are in the McDonald's drive thru and Nellie is handing me an Oreo McFlurry.
Nellie helps me carry my stuff up to my room. My roommate, who I know as Kayleigh from Grosse Point, has already strung up her fairy lights and "but first, coffee" print above her bed and wrote on the whiteboard she hung on the door. Went out, can't wait to meet you when I get back, girlie :D
Nellie looks at the note and frowns. She turns around. "I'd stay if I didn't promise to have the truck back before dark."
"It's cool," I say. "I'll call you later."
"Yes," she says, "You will." Nellie hugs me, draws a dick cumming onto Kayleigh's smiley face, and leaves.
I sit on my crunchy vinyl-lined mattress and start to fold my clothes. Then I take out my phone and call home.
"Hey!" Soli answers. "How is it?"
"It's fine, is Mom home yet?"
"No, she's still gone."
"Really? It's getting late. Have you guys eaten? Do you need me to order food for the house?" I ask.
"No, I'm making dinner."
"By yourself?" I ask, my voice cracks.
"Yeah," Soli answers. "My tortillas all kinda look like Africa but I'm almost done. What's your room like? Have you met your roommate?"
I look at the polaroids of sunsets and three sandy blondes in various poses hung up on Kayleigh's wall. "Has Mom called you guys? Did she say when she's going to be home? I can call Nellie and ask her to take me back, Soli."
"Stina, we're fine. Don't come back. I'll see you next weekend, damn."
"Don't say damn," I say.
"Sorry. It's fine though, really. Okay?"
"Okay. I love you."
"I love you more," she says. "I'll talk to you later."
I hang up the phone and erase Nellie's dick. I go back to unpacking. I pull my t shirts from my bag, fold them, and stack them neatly on the top shelf of my closet. I pull my money sock out of my bag. I reach inside and pull out three ten-dollar bills. I start to shove them between my mattress and box spring, pause, and then put them in my pocket instead. I lie back onto my naked, squeaky mattress, watching the golden rays of sun stream in through the blinds. I watch how the beams of light don't even illuminate any dust. I breathe deep.